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

EuroTripper 10

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.

EuroTripper 15 car

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.

EuroTripper 14 car

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.

EuroTripper 13 picture

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.

EuroTripper 12 picture

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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Cars of the World: Ireland

St Patricks Day car picture

In this new blog series, our trusty Gearhead explores the cars of his heritage, just in time for St. Patrick’s Day.

 

Everyone knows about the illustrious history of British motorcars — emphasis on the history part, since it’s all foreign ownership now — but what about Ireland? You know, the Emerald Isle? It’s where my people are from. I understand that my dear old uncle Gearhead O’Malley is still roaming the countryside with his trusty pint glass in hand. They must have some homegrown cars over there, right?

Well, technically, yes. But only in that sense. Turns out there’s virtually nothing to be proud of if you’re a car-loving Irishman like me. But in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, let’s do a little historical review anyway, shall we? No doubt these automotive misadventures have given the self-deprecating Irish plenty of laughs over the years.

Alesbury

Starting the Irish auto industry off with a bang — of the self-destructing variety — the Alesbury hit the cobblestone streets in 1907, featuring a Stevens-Duryea engine built in Massachusetts. Not much is known about the Alesbury other than the fact that production ceased shortly thereafter in 1908.

DeLorean Motor Company

The DeLorean DMC-12, on the other hand, is famous the world over thanks to its Hollywood turn as Marty McFly’s time machine in the Back to the Future trilogy. But did you know the stainless-steel sports car with gullwing doors was built in Ireland? Northern Ireland, to be exact, in a 660,000-square-foot facility near Belfast. Alas, the factory was plagued by delays and ballooning costs from the get-go. Then founder John DeLorean got ensnared in a drug controversy, and DMC folded in 1982.

Ford Motor Company

Henry Ford’s father was born in County Cork, Ireland, and Ford paid homage to his ancestral homeland with the Ford Cork plant, which opened in 1917 and kept on cranking till 1984. Best known for producing popular cars like the Cortina and Sierra, the plant was a landmark in Cork’s center of industry for the better part of a century. Of course, the company itself was Detroit-based, but we’ll take what we can get.

Heinkel Kabine

Inspired by the uber-cute Iso (later BMW) Isetta “bubble car,” the Heinkel Kabine was designed in Germany and built for a spell by the Dundalk Engineering Company in Ireland. Like Alesbury before it, Dundalk had quality-control issues and was forced to cease production mere months after starting.

Shamrock

With a name like that, how could you lose? Sadly, the fiberglass-bodied Shamrock is yet another Irish car with a comically brief production history. Designed to be a luxury car that would compete with America’s finest, the Shamrock was confusingly equipped with a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine rated at a pathetic 50 horsepower. The car was a colossal failure, with barely 10 examples being produced before the factory was closed.

TMC Costin

Best for last? Quite possibly, though that’s no great honor in this bunch. Built from 1983-’87, the Costin was a lightweight, elemental roadster with two seats, rear-wheel drive and a 1.6-liter four-cylinder that made 82 horsepower. Even though the car weighed just 1,450 pounds, those 82 horses could only pull it to a top speed of 112 mph. Although the company met a familiar Irish end — production ceased after the 39th car rolled off the line — the Costin’s spirit lives on in the high-performance, American-built Panoz Roadster, as Panoz bought the rights to the Costin’s chassis design and used it for inspiration.

DeLorean DMC-12 picture

DeLorean DMC-12

Happy St. Paddy’s Day!

There may not be much to celebrate in the history of Irish automobiles, but that’s never stopped Irish folks from celebrating anyway. Cheers, my friends!

Editor’s note: Stay tuned for more installments of Cars of the World, right here on the DIY Garage Blog. In the meantime, hit up Advance Auto Parts for the best in savings and selection. Buy online, pick up in-store—in 30 minutes.

Crucial Cars: Honda Accord EX

2014 Honda Accord EX

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

In this installment, Street Talk heads down memory lane to appreciate the remarkably practical, but fun-to-drive Honda Accord EX.

Back in the 1990s, there were only a few midsize sedans that really appealed to driving enthusiasts, and the Honda Accord EX always stood apart. Man, I can remember going on a test-drive with my dad in a ’94 Accord EX sedan, five-speed manual of course, and I’d never known the old man to have an inner Earnhardt until he redlined that VTEC four-cylinder through first and second gear, cackling all the while.

Tell me something: What other volume-selling family car could bring a grown man that kind of joy?

Any mass-produced product that’s this good deserves its own retrospective, doesn’t it? Let’s hop in the time machine and give the various Accord EX models their due.

1990-’93

The Accord EX first appeared on our shores as a high-end version of the fourth-generation Accord, which is still a great-looking car, by the way. This was back when Honda was light-years ahead of just about everyone on the design and engineering fronts. You got a standard sunroof, upgraded interior trim and extra speakers for the stereo, which would become the basic formula for most EX Accords to follow. Oh, and you got a little extra under the hood, too, culminating with the 140-horsepower engine fitted in ’92 and ’93. It was a tantalizing taste of things to come, and even today, I wouldn’t mind picking up a well-cared-for EX from this generation. Goodness, Hondas were gems back in the day, were they not?

1994-’97

The Accord went all futuristic with its styling for the fifth-generation model, and the EX continued to lead the way. The ’94 and ’95 Accord EX shared a particularly attractive set of alloy wheels, and all EX Accords from this generation boasted the first application of dual-overhead-cam four-cylinder with variable valve timing technology, or DOHC VTEC for short. The sharp triangular taillights got a bit generic with the ’96 refresh, but the engine — same one that put that silly grin on my dad’s face — was still a highlight, and the EX’s six-speaker stereo was amplified by Alpine for crisp, clear sound. Let me tell you something, driving a fifth-gen Accord EX with the sunroof open, the stereo cranking and the VTEC on boil might be the best time you’ll ever have in a top-selling family car.

1998-2002

The Accord got bigger for ’98, but not too big, with the four-cylinder engine swelling to 2.3 liters but carrying over that DOHC VTEC technology. In fact, all four-cylinder Accords shared in the VTEC love this time around, but the EX continued to offer its exclusive sunroof, trim and stereo upgrades. If you ask me, this was the last time that the Accord’s dimensions were just right. It had plenty of room in the backseat, but it wasn’t that big on the outside, and it maintained Honda’s traditional low cowl for superior outward visibility. Throw in a five-speed manual that positively glided from gate to gate, and you had an all-around package that was still tough to beat.

2003-Present

This period includes three Accord generations, and I’m lumping them together because in my humble opinion, they’re all too big and boring to be considered in the same league as the EX Accords that came before. When the seventh-generation Accord appeared in ’03, it lacked that low cowl and tidy styling that had always set the Accord apart, and the eighth-gen model was just plain overgrown — the EPA even classified it as a large car! The current Accord (2013) is the best since ’03, no doubt, but it’s still a relatively tubby, ungainly thing that’s nothing like the sophisticated, visceral, light-on-their-feet EX Accords from 1990-’02.

Honda had something special going there for quite a while, and talking about it makes me nostalgic for those days. If I could turn back the clock and buy any of those first three Accord EX models brand-new, I’d do it in a heartbeat — wouldn’t even think twice about other family sedans on the market today.

Let’s Talk Accords

1991 Honda Accord EX picture

Have you ever owned a 1990-’02 Accord EX? Have a different take on how Honda’s been doing since then? I love talking about these cars. Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments.

Editor’s note: Got projects on the horizon? Visit Advance Auto Parts for the best in selection and values. Buy online, pick up in-store in 30 minutes.

Top Rally Racing Cars You Can Drive Every Day

Rally Racing pictureOur resident Gearhead reminisces on the timeless art of Rally Car Racing and shares his wisdom on three vehicles that fit the bill today—on or off the track.

 

If you know me, you know I’m all about American muscle. But I do occasionally make an exception, and rally cars are one overseas product that can definitely get my blood pumping. Growing up in rural America, I first learned to drift a car on all those local dirt roads to nowhere, and that’s what rally racing is — getting sideways on slippery tracks through the wilderness, as fast as your sense of self-preservation will permit. So naturally I’ve always been drawn to the World Rally Championship (WRC), which started as a mainly European thing but has since risen to prominence almost everywhere except the U.S.

To be honest with you, I’m not sure why there’s not more professional rallying on our shores. We’ve got more land than just about anyone, after all, and that includes countless mountain and desert tracks that would be perfect for rally stages. But for whatever reason, it’s never really been an American thing to do, so the only way most of us can experience the thrill of a rally car is by driving one of the few rally-derived models available in U.S. dealerships. Today I want to tell you about the three such models that I’d most like to have in my garage.

Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution

Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution photo
Popularly known as the “Evo,” Mitsubishi’s turbocharged, all-wheel-drive compact sedan is actually on its last legs with an uncertain future, I’m sad to report. Mitsubishi has officially announced that there will be no Evo after 2015, though a lot of diehard fans refuse to believe that the company would just kill off its most iconic nameplate. Whatever happens, the current Evo will go down in history as one of the most capable four-door cars ever built, and not only because of its deep roots in rally-racing history. The boosted 291-horsepower engine under the hood is just the beginning; this Mitsu also comes with a telepathic all-wheel-drive system that shifts all that power side-to-side during hard cornering, effectively eliminating understeer. Additionally, its dual-clutch automated manual transmission is one of the best, ripping off instantaneous upshifts and flawless rev-matched downshifts that no human could ever match. Bottom line? Mitsubishi nailed everything with this car, and I feel like a WRC champion every time I drive it. It’ll be a damn shame if they let the transcendent Evo go out with a whimper.

Subaru WRX STI

Subaru WRX STI photo
The top-of-the-line WRX is known as the STI, and it’s the closest you can get to Subaru’s legendary WRC race cars. It’s also all-new for 2015, and I was lucky enough to get the keys for a full day recently. As ever, the six-speed manual gearbox — no automated manual here — is a work of art, with short, precise throws and perfectly placed pedals for heel-toe downshifts. The steering feels heavier than before, in a good way, and it’s razor-sharp, with none of the on-center slop you expect in an all-wheel-drive car. Another thing Subaru has improved is the STI’s body control: the previous generation heeled over in corners like a sailboat, but the new model stays nice and flat, as a performance car should. If I had one of these bad boys, the only thing I’d modify the hell out of is the engine, because it basically hasn’t changed in 10 years. Sure, 305 horsepower from a turbocharged 2.5-liter four is nothing to sneeze at, but I expect progress after all that time. Crank up the boost and give me 400 horses, now we’re talking. Otherwise, I would gladly drive one of these Subies every day. It would be an honor to be just a few production tweaks removed from Subaru’s WRC glory.

Ford Fiesta ST

2015 Ford Fiesta ST photo
The subcompact Fiesta comes only with front-wheel drive, so you might not make the rally-car connection right away. But there’s a rich history of Fiesta rally cars dating back at least to the 1979 Monte Carlo Rally, when a couple extensively modified Fiestas braved the icy conditions and achieved respectable results. Since then, numerous Ford rally cars have worn the Fiesta badge, most recently the Fiesta R5 with its all-wheel-drive layout and turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder motor. Swap out the AWD system for front-wheel drive, add a few creature comforts and voila – you’ve got the showroom-ready Ford Fiesta ST. Rated at 197 horsepower, the flyweight Fiesta ST has plenty of punch, and it’s also an ace in tight corners thanks to a brake-based electronic limited slip differential. You can even get a pair of Recaro sport seats that are more or less full-on racing seats in disguise. Throw in the MyFord Touch infotainment system and you’ve got a fully equipped daily driver that just so happens to be a terror on the racetrack, too. For the price — the 2015 model starts at just over $22,000 — the Fiesta ST might be the ultimate road-going rally car, absent AWD system notwithstanding.

What’s Your Practical Rally Car?

Tell me about your daily-driver rally ride in the comments, won’t you? As long as it’s got a sporting chassis and some kind of racing heritage, it’s fair game in my book.

Editor’s note: Rally racing or not, treat your ride right with parts and accessories from Advance Auto Parts. Buy online, pick up in-store, in 30 minutes.

A Tribute to the BMW M3

BMW logo pictureYeah, we know what you’re thinking. Tributes typically come toward the end of a career, but the BMW M3’s still in its prime. After all, the brand-new 2015 M3 sedan (joined by its coupe/convertible siblings, now known as the M4) is out right now, code-named F80. It looks great, it’s got 425 horsepower, and the steering and suspension systems are purpose-built for people who love to drive. You could even argue that it’s a decent value at $62,950 including fees, especially when you consider that the M5 starts at $94,550.

So what’s this business about a “tribute”?

That’s simple. We’re here today to pay tribute to what the M3 used to be, what made it truly great. Because the new M3 is not a great car. It’s merely a great numbers car, the kind that’ll get armchair jockeys all excited about its 0-60 time, its cornering g-forces, that sort of thing. Look, at the end of the day, it’s got a turbocharged inline-6 under the hood, just like the lesser 335i/435i. If you test-drive one, it’s not going to feel like some wholly different beast; it’s just going to be a 335i/435i cranked to 11. Previous M3s, on the other hand, had race-inspired, naturally aspirated engines that were unlike anything else in BMW’s lineup, and that’s what made them so special.

They were undeniably a breed apart, and sadly, now they’re gone.

Let’s take a minute and give them their proper due.

E30 (1985-’91)

Photo credit: Rudolf Stricker

Photo credit: Rudolf Stricker

The M3 that got it all started was powered by a four-cylinder engine making a humble 194 horsepower, give or take, and it remains the only four-cylinder M3 ever built. But in terms of character, it’s an M3 through and through, unlike the current 425-hp turbocharged model. You had to cane the little 2.3-liter four to get much action out of it, but once the tach needle swept past about 5,500 rpm, a whole new personality emerged. The E30 M3 rewarded drivers who were adept enough with three pedals (no automatic was offered) to keep the engine on boil through the turns. Driving one was a skill to be mastered, and that’s what whetted everyone’s appetite for the genuinely fast M3s to follow. Kids these days might laugh at the goofy rear wing and some other “period-correct” details, but the E30 got the M3 dynasty off on the right foot.

E36 (1992-’99)

BMW E36 1992-99 picture

The E36 M3 was the first to get its power from an inline-6, which had long been BMW’s trademark engine type (the four-cylinder E30 was an outlier). For M duty, the engineers whipped up a doozy — a 3.0-liter mill that pumped out 282 hp. By the time the E36 M3 made it to American shores in 1995, however, BMW had elected to give us a tamer 3.0-liter straight six that dipped to 240 hp, but it still got the M3 to 60 mph in under 6 seconds, an impressive feat for the day. BMW rubbed a little salt in our wounds for ’96, when the displacement of both motors increased to 3.2 liters, yet the US-spec version held firm at 240 hp while the Euro version improved to a formidable 316. Nonetheless, even the defanged American E36 M3 was a sublime car, with a slightly feral roar at full throttle that would turn into a full-on yowl in the E46.

E46 (2000-’06)

BMW E46 M3

Ah, the E46 M3. Some say it’s the greatest all-around car ever built, and we wouldn’t disagree. It had luxury, style, space for four adults (though it wasn’t offered as a sedan) — and most importantly, it had the same engine around the globe, a 3.2-liter inline-6 cranking out 333 hp. That’s a number that enthusiasts will always remember, and for those lucky enough to have driven this M3, the distinctive velvet-chainsaw wail near its 8,000-rpm redline is equally unforgettable. It’s not that this engine lacked torque down low; on the contrary, it was a tiger at all operating speeds. But taking it to redline unlocked something extra, and once you experienced it, there was no turning back. You just had to keep doing it again and again.

E9X (2008-’13)

BMW E9X 2008-13 picture

The “X” signifies that the fourth-generation M3’s three available body styles (the sedan returned from its E46-era exile) had individual codes: E90 for the sedan, E92 for the coupe and E93 for the new folding-hardtop convertible. Another departure from tradition was the 4.0-liter, 414-hp V8 under the hood. There was actually some grumbling at the time that this M3 wasn’t a suitable heir to the throne. Too heavy, too insulated, too much technology — the naysayers were initially out in droves. But as with its predecessors, the engine made the difference, and it would not be denied. Running the V8 through the gears, shifting at its 8,400-rpm redline, you could be forgiven for thinking BMW must have borrowed the engine from Ferrari. The E9X was faster than its forebears, yes, but that wasn’t really the point. What mattered was that it had the spirit of those previous models, that insistent growl from under the hood constantly egging you on. Where would BMW go from here? Would we see a V10 M3? A return to a naturally aspirated inline-6? Whatever the answer, it seemed that the M division could be trusted to do the iconic M3 brand justice.

Epilogue

But then fuel-economy regulations got tighter, and automakers started realizing that they could achieve alluring economies of scale by tweaking existing engines for use in high-performance machines, and the F80 M3 happened. Turbocharging both dulls the new car’s throttle response and strangles its exhaust note, which is why BMW has seen fit to pipe fake engine noises through the speakers during acceleration. A turbo inline-6 plays perfectly well in the 335i with its civilized sportiness, but the M3 had always been about authentic performance-car spirit, an exercise in joy rather than jadedness. The joy, alas, is gone.

Ah, but what a car it used to be.

Editor’s note: Count on Advance Auto Parts to keep your ride running right and looking smooth all year long. Buy online, pick up in-store in 30 minutes.

Crucial Cars: Ford Ranger

Ford Ranger 1 photoFrom timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without.

In this installment, our Mechanic Next Door tackles the mighty mid-sizer, the Ford Ranger.

If you’re in the market for a brand-new 2015 Ford Ranger, your choices are limited – very limited – as in you have one choice. You can buy one by visiting a Ford dealer in another country.

If the idea of traveling outside the U.S. just to purchase a vehicle doesn’t sound convenient or economical, you can set your sights on a compact truck from another manufacturer. Reason being? Ford stopped offering the Ranger to the U.S. market after the 2011 model year. (Before you diehard Ranger fans point out my perceived error, I know Ford did produce a limited number of 2012 models exclusively for the domestic fleet market.)

If you’re a long-time Ranger owner and this is new news to you, I’m sorry. If you want to see what you’re missing in the Ford Ranger 2014 or Ford Ranger 2015 that drivers in other countries are enjoying, feast your eyes on these models. Take comfort in the fact, however, that the decision to discontinue a model that at one time owned 25 percent of the compact truck market was strictly a business one. Two numbers tell the story behind that decision – 330,125 and 55,364. The former is the number of Rangers sold in the U.S. in 2000, the latter the number sold in 2010 – a stunning sales decline of nearly 275,000 Rangers or 83 percent annually over a decade.

Clearly the writing was on the wall, and what it read was that American truck buyers were shifting away from compact trucks, like the Ford Ranger, to full-size ones, like the F-150 or Chevy Silverado. Bolstering Ford’s belief that its decision to discontinue Ranger sales in the U.S. was a sound one, were industry sales figures that showed U.S. compact pickup sales declining from 1.2 million units in 1994 to just 264,000 units in 2012.Ford Ranger photo

Ford, understandably so, believed that discontinuing the Ranger wouldn’t have a significant impact on its bottom line, in part because they figured Ranger owners would simply upgrade to newer fuel-efficient F150s with a V-6. That reasoning looked good on paper, but in reality, many Ranger owners may have simply shifted loyalties as Toyota Tacoma’s market share in the compact truck segment jumped from 38% in 2011 to 54% in 2012 – the same time the Ranger was discontinued. Coincidence? Probably not. What it may indicate instead is that compact truck owners love their COMPACT trucks, and with good reason.

Fuel efficiency, maneuverability, parking ease, and lower cost all factor into the equation as to why drivers choose a compact over a full-size truck. Their reasoning seems sound – if you’re not towing or carrying big payloads, and you don’t need a big truck to make your ego happy, why not go compact? Since 1982, when the first 1983 model year Ranger rolled off the assembly line, that’s exactly what many truck owners did – chose compact. Planning for that first Ranger began in 1976 with Ford’s intention to build a compact pickup that was somewhat similar to its full-size offering, only more economical.

Those early Rangers came with a variety of engine choices, including a four cylinder 72 hp, 2.0 liter version or an 82 hp, 2.3 liter. It would be six years before the Ford Ranger received a facelift with the 1989 model’s modern-looking dash and steering column, new front fenders, grille and hood, and flush front lights.

Ford logo pictureContinued changes with the second-generation Ford Ranger – 1992 through 1997 models – saw some new styling elements, including redesigned seats and door panels, along with the discontinuation of the 2.9-liter engine, replaced by engine choices in the 2.3, 3.0 or 4.0 liter size.

The third, and final generation Ranger (at least in the U.S.), was from 1997 through 2012, with the 1998 model debuting a longer wheelbase and cab. As part of the Ford Ranger’s evolution, the later models had engines cranking out 143 hp from a 2.3-liter four-cylinder or 207 hp from the four-liter V-6 – a far cry from that first Ranger’s measly 72 hp.

The Ford Ranger is a trendsetter in more ways than one. Long before anyone heard of a Volt, Leaf, or Tesla, there was the Ford Ranger EV – yes, an electric Ranger. Produced from 1998 to 2002, this battery-powered electric vehicle looked just like its fossil-fuel powered brethren, with the exception of a small door covering a charging port on the front grille.

The Ford Ranger, it seems, is everywhere on the road today, thanks to its strong sales over several decades and the ready availability of parts to keep them on the road for decades to come. Further proof of the Ranger’s enduring popularity – it was featured on MTV’s hit series “Pimp My Ride” when they took a 1985 Ranger – featuring a broken grille and back window and paint scheme whose dominant color was primer gray – and tricked it out for its 18-year-old owner.

With a new Ford Ranger 2015 available outside the U.S., Ranger lovers still hold out hope that Ford one day will make the Ranger available again stateside. Until they do, what’s your reason for loving the Ford Ranger?

 

Editor’s note: Until Ford makes the Ranger available in the U.S. again, visit Advance Auto Parts for the parts you need to keep your older Ranger running. Buy online, pick up in-store, in 30 minutes.

Rolex 24 at Daytona: Advance covers the event

Rolex 1 photoRead our review and check out this amazing photo essay from the recent Rolex 24 event at Daytona.

Ten years is a long time to keep a tradition going for any family these days – and yet, 2015 marks our tenth year attending the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Have you heard of it? If you watch motorsports, you’ve probably seen the 24.

This race is a yearly pilgrimage for enthusiasts around the United States, representing 24 uncut hours of everything they eagerly wait to see.

Rolex 24: 2015 coverage

This year’s Rolex 24 saw the DeltaWing Racing car set records for its own performance, the Ford Ecoboost prototype cars coming out on top, and American manufacturers taking top spots in every class.Rolex 2 picture

BMW in the GT Le Mans (GTLM) class and Chevrolet Le Mans Prototypes, 1 (LMP1) were very close to winning their classes, but a questionable pit strategy and the slightest mishap in the final hours took those teams out of the top spots.

Ambiguity, unpredictability, chance, and suspense.

Those terms cover what spectators and racers love about this race. One spin, one lock-up, or one bad flywheel sensor is all it takes to pick off a team from the lineup.Rolex 3 picture

Watching from the sidelines, we all feel for the teams that make it almost all the way, through, a little more so than the teams that got knocked out early. That’s because the early teams pack up, go home, and start getting ready for Sebring. Meanwhile, the teams that make it all the way have the unique pleasure of sitting in the pits and watching their rivals cross the finish line after them.Rolex 4 pictureFrom the sidelines, though, you’d give anything to be in the race for just five minutes.

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Congrats and a prediction

Congrats are in order for the number 02 team of Chip Ganassi Racing – definitely not an unfamiliar group of faces in the Rolex 24 victory lane. It was great to see at least half of the dynamic 01 / 02 duo back again this year.Rolex 6 picture

Maybe next year we’ll be graced with the sight of a Nissan Nismo Le Mans front-wheel-driver in the ranks. One thing, for sure: a variation of this Rolex 24-winning twin-turbo EcoBoost V6 will end up roaming the streets in the new Ford GT and that has us thinking positively for future of American horsepower.

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Editor’s note: Whether you drive a race car or a beater, visit Advance Auto Parts for the best in savings and selection. 

Stick shift cars: a dying breed – or can we save the manuals?

stick shift 1 photoIn August 2013, only 3.9 percent of new cars sold to date that year came with manual transmission. Were those the last gasping breaths of an archaic technology? Maybe. Or, maybe not.

The reality is, the death of the stick shift has been predicted for a long time, at least as far back as September 1965 when Playboy published an article with a two-page picture of a Corvette covered in cobwebs and this text: Bye-Bye Stick Shift. The prediction made by the well-respected automotive journalist Ken Purdy was that the stick shift was going to become nothing more than a “purist’s plaything.”

Nearly 50 years later, of course, the stick shift is still here, although many experts agree that it’s on its death rattle. According to the Business Insider in December 2014, manual transmission is finally on its way out (but they nevertheless offer driving tips for those who want to get in on the tail end).

Meanwhile, an article in U.S. News called stick shift fans a “dying breed,” citing that, 20 years ago, a full quarter of cars sold had manual transmission. They predict the complete demise of manual transmission in 15 to 20 years, with perhaps a few models hanging on for nostalgia purposes.

Other signs pointing to stick shift transmission going away include revolutionary new options such as TC-SST, CVT and more, described in more detail later on. Plus, as hybrid and electric cars increase in popularity, that automatically creates less of a market share for the stick since, according to an Edmunds.com expert, only one hybrid – the Honda CR-Z – comes with a shift stick option.

Cut and dried case for the end of manual transmission?

Not necessarily. In an article published in January 2013, the New York Daily News says that 6.5% of the cars in the United States sold (presumably in 2012) were manual, adding that “stick shifts are making a comeback thanks to their inherent fuel efficiency and performance advantages.”

USA Today echoes the sentiment, saying that “Americans have a growing crush on manual transmission,” with 2012 seeing the most stick shift sales since 2006.stick shift picture

So, what’s the story? Is the stick shift going the way of the dinosaur? Or will nostalgia and the demands of diehard fans keep them alive? We at Advance Auto Parts decided to take a deeper look.

Invention of the modern manual transmission

Credit is typically given to French inventors Louis-Rene Panhard and Emile Levassor who demonstrated their three-speed transmission product in 1894. These men owned a woodworking machinery business and they became intrigued with automobiles. They built their first car in 1890, those with a “pedal-operated clutch, a chain transmission leading to a change-speed gear box, and a front radiator.”

They were the first to move the engine to the front of the car and, in 1895, their transmission was used in their automobiles. In 1898, Louis Renault “substituted a drive shaft for the drive chain and added a differential axle for the rear wheels to improve performance of the manual transmission.”

The next change of significance was in 1928 when Cadillac introduced the synchronized system that made shifting smoother and easier. Although car manufacturers had been experimenting with automatic transmission since 1904, a clutch-less system wasn’t available until 1938 (the Hydra-Matic) and the first modern automatic transmission wasn’t available until 1948: Buick’s Dynaflow.

Advantages and disadvantages

We have gathered wisdom from numerous sources and experts:

stick shift graph
Alex Glenn suspects that fewer manual transmission drivers text and drive, because the stick shift demands your full attention. Although we’ve never seen data on that, it sure makes sense.

Meanwhile, Jalopnik believes that stick shift drivers:

  • have a better understanding of their cars (We agree.)
  • don’t have to loan their car out (Sorry! It’s stick!)
  • can become a better car thief (It’s a joke, people!)
  • can more easily escape if “chased by terrifying aliens that want to abduct and probe you” and when the only escape route is a stick shift car (Boy. That’s scary. We sure hope it’s a joke.)

 

Stick shift myths

Edmunds.com lists five myths associated with stick shifts and we’d like to focus on the first one: that cars with manual transmissions ALWAYS get better fuel economy than automatics.

In the past, that was largely true. But, it’s definitely not 100% true anymore. An example provided was the 2014 Ford Focus, where the six-speed automatic gets 31 mpg (27 city/37 highway), which can be raised to 33 mpg (28 city/40 highway) if you purchase the Super Fuel Economy option package. Meanwhile, the manual version gets 30 mpg (26 city/36 highway). Read the article for more examples where automatics are making significant inroads on fuel economy, sometimes surpassing the manual standbys.

In the article, you can also discover how manual = cheaper isn’t always true any longer. And, we’d like to highlight one advantage of stick shifts that may be true – or may be a myth. The jury is still out. And that’s whether or not stick shift cars are stolen less often. Of course, in sheer numbers, fewer are, because fewer of them exist – and fewer car thieves know how to drive them.

And, here’s what Frank Scafidi, director of public affairs for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, says. “Some thieves might be thwarted in their attempt to steal a car with a manual transmission, since many thieves possess varying levels of intellect. That very personal element is also a factor in the degree of expertise necessary to overcome some of the more sophisticated security systems. Most car thieves are just not that swift and therefore resort to stealing older, easier targets. But there are those in the car thief ranks who are quite capable of making off with anything that they intend to steal.”

Now let’s see what Consumer Reports has to say about saving money by going manual. In their testing, published in October 2014, they’ve discovered that – in some cars – manual transmission can improve gas mileage by 2 to 5 mpg and the cars themselves can be $800 to $1,200 cheaper. Plus, manual transmission can improve acceleration, a real boon for small engines.

They also acknowledge, though, that some six-speed automatics are now surpassing the manual models, such as the Chevrolet Sonic. Most importantly, here is their “Bottom line: Most manual transmissions can deliver better fuel economy and acceleration. But shift quality and fuel economy vary, so check our ratings and try before you buy.”

Finally, here are some more modern developments.

Twin Clutch Sportronic Shift Transmission (TC-SST)

This is the brand name of a six-speed dual clutch transmission system that first appeared in the 2007 Lancer Evolution X. TC-SST allows a driver to go through the clutch/gear shifts more quickly than what’s possible in traditional manual transmission, an automatic transmission with a torque converter or a single clutch automated manual transmission.

There is no drop off in engine power, which equals increased performance AND better fuel economy. This offers a smoother ride than automatics and the system can select two gears simultaneously, putting the odd and even gears on separate shafts both using the same clutch.

Here is what one TC-SST convert has to say about the options available with the new system, one that “feels like a manual” but can shift gears for you when you’re feeling “too lazy” to do it yourself.

Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT)

At its core, the CVT is a flexible system that has an “infinite number of effect gear ratios between maximum and minimum values.” This is in direct contract with traditional transmissions that have a fixed/limited number of gear ratios. Find more in-depth information about CVTs here.

We want to know what you think!

Are you a fan of the stick? Do you think it will ever really go away? Share your thoughts below!

Editor’s note: Advance Auto Parts has your car transmission needs covered. Buy online, pick up in-store in 30 minutes.