Crucial Cars: The Mini Cooper


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

For this installment, the Mechanic Next Door has some fun peeking under the bonnet of the iconic MINI Cooper and looking at how it’s evolved over the decades.

As the MINI Cooper approaches its 60th anniversary in 2019, its creator – Sir Alex Issigonis – would be equally proud and astonished at the iconic model’s longevity and steadily increasing popularity, and perhaps even a little taken aback that some of today’s MINIs aren’t so mini after all.

The first Mini Mark I rolled off the assembly line in 1959 and went on to become the best-selling British car in history with more than five million Mini’s produced until 2000. That was the year that production under the English Rover Group ended after BMW sold the Rover Group – which it had acquired in 1994 – but retained the MINI brand.

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Fueling the 1960’s Mini craze was its innovative design – despite being small, it offered plenty of interior space for passengers and luggage. That early design included a transverse engine, front-wheel drive, compact dimensions, and a unibody that reduced weight and increased interior space. Mini’s first generation – called the Mark I but better known as the Austin 850 or Morris 850 outside the UK and as the Austin Seven or Morris Mini-Minor in the UK – encompasses the 1959 to 1966 model years.

The Cooper name became synonymous with Mini in the 60s when John Cooper, owner of the Cooper Car Company, added muscle to the Mini by giving it a larger engine and other enhancements. Cooper was already making a name for his company by leading the revolution toward building and winning with rear-engine race cars. His success carried over to the Mini when his versions won the 1964, ’65 and ’67 Monte Carlo Rallies, with a four-year sweep being thwarted only by the Mini Cooper’s disqualification in the ’66 Rally after taking the top three spots.

Mini’s popularity was helped further by the car’s appearance in chase scenes in the 1969 hit film “The Italian Job.” Those Minis represented generation two – Mini Mark II – and featured a larger rear window and redesigned grill, as compared to the first Minis.

Generation three Mini began with the 1969-70 model and the most noticeable change from the previous generation being larger doors with concealed hinges and larger windows that wound up and down, instead of sliding left or ride. Mini Mark IV through Mark VII followed until BMW’s change in 2000.

Throughout the years, Mini continued to rack up the awards, including Autocar magazine’s Car of the Century in 1995, the Number One Classic Car of All Time by Classic & Sports Car magazine in 1996, European Car of the Century by the Global Automotive Elections Foundation in 1999, and 2003 North American Car of the Year, among others.

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Depending on which Mini you’re looking at today, it either looks much like its first ancestor, or only bears a faint resemblance to those early models. As Mini’s popularity grew, so too have the Mini models offered. Today, there are nine Mini models available.

  • Hardtop Two-Door – bears the closest resemblance to the original Mini
  • Hardtop Four-Door – a larger Mini with four doors and more space
  • Countryman – the “Big Mini” features four doors, seating for five, and all-wheel drive
  • Clubman – four doors, a split rear door, and the largest Mini available
  • Convertible – looks like the original, minus the hard top
  • Paceman – two-door hatch seats four and features all-wheel drive
  • Coupe – powerful, sporty two-seater
  • Roadster – similar to the Coupe, but more fun thanks to the soft top
  • John Cooper Works – race-ready Minis that look like they could be a lot of fun, and get you in a lot of trouble

With a $20,700 price tag, zero-to-60 stats that are 2.3 seconds faster than its predecessor thanks to a TwinPower turbo engine, tons of dashboard technology, and world-famous, go-kart like handling, today’s entry-level, two-door Mini’s all grown up, but still a serious toy for thrill-seeking drivers of all ages.

Editor’s note: If you want to keep your Mini looking and running great, count on Advance Auto Parts for all your vehicle needs. Buy online, pick up in store, and get back to the garage.

Top Five DIY Annoyances When Working on Your Vehicle

hood up fixing carMany DIYers relish the opportunity to work on their vehicle, whether it’s performing routine maintenance or installing the latest performance upgrade. Sometimes, however, what should be a relaxing and satisfying few hours spent under the hood on a weekend afternoon with the game on in the background turns instead into a knuckle-busting, tool-throwing lesson in DIY frustration.

We’ve all been there – victims of Murphy’s Law. Whatever can go wrong, will, and the chances of it happening rise in tandem with the degree to which you’re feeling rushed or under pressure to get the job done.

Here’s my Top Five List of DIY Annoyances. This isn’t an all-inclusive list, so let’s hear what your biggest frustrations are under the hood.

Plastic engine and under-car covers. Lift the hood or crawl underneath most modern vehicles and you’ll see plastic – a lot of it. Plastic shrouds cover the engine, the battery, and pretty much everything else you might have a need to access under the hood. It’s no better down on the ground with plastic blocking precisely the spot you need to place a wrench. Depending on whom you believe, all that plastic serves a purpose – according to vehicle manufacturers – or it’s been placed there to thwart DIYers. Regardless, its presence makes your job that much more difficult and time-consuming. And, more often than not, the plastic screws or clips holding the shrouds in place break when they’re removed. I prefer a plastic-cover free, roomy engine compartment, circa 1973, in which to perform my best work.

Lost – or as I tell my wife – “temporarily misplaced” tools. It’s a simple job – one that shouldn’t take more than 45 minutes and one for which you have all the necessary tools close at hand. Or so you think. The one tool that you must have for the job, and that you know you do have, isn’t where it should be. In fact, it isn’t anywhere. Did you loan it to someone? Leave it in the shed? Mistakenly throw it away? You now wind up spending more time searching for that tool than it would have taken you to complete the job. Put the tools away where they belong every time.

Fixing that which is not broken, or, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Sometimes you’re unsure exactly what the problem is so you start fixing things that you think may be the culprit, only to find out they’re not. On the other hand, you might be overconfident that you know exactly what the vehicle maintenance problem is so you fix it, and quickly learn it wasn’t the problem. Case in point – the Honda engine on my wood splitter suffered from an intermittent failure to start. I was sure it was the rust build up on the flywheel magnet. It wasn’t. Then it had to be the spark plug. Nope. Followed by the low-oil switch. Wrong again. Finally, I struck gold by cleaning some water and junk out of the carb bowl. Finding the right fix can be time-consuming, costly, and frustrating, but it’s important.

Doing more harm than good. When does a routine carb adjustment turn into a head removal? After you drop something down the intake. In the blink of an eye, what should have been an easy, inexpensive task just turned into an expensive vehicle maintenance nightmare because you deposited a screw, nut, washer or some loose change down there. Sure, you can tell yourself that it fell in the gravel driveway and that’s why you can’t find it. You’ll soon learn the truth when you start the engine. It’s happened to the best of us – good intentions of fixing one part are punished with the realization that you just broke something else, and it’s going to be a lot more difficult and time-consuming to repair.

Other people. Even if you’re living by yourself in a cabin in the woods you still have to deal with other people, and their mistakes, when it comes to servicing your vehicle. Don’t think so? Have you ever been under the hood of a vehicle someone owned before you and found yourself shaking your head in amazement, wondering how and why the previous owner made a repair the way they did? Ever pull up to a self-service car wash or air pump, deposit some coins and only then find out that someone before you broke the equipment? Ever get some bad advice from a well-meaning friend or brother-in-law who “had that exact same model and knows exactly what the problem is.” We’re all human and we all make mistakes. Be ready for it.

Working on vehicles can be a tricky business or hobby and one that’s full of surprises. Expect the annoyances, learn to roll with them, appreciate the time you get to spend under the hood, and share your pet peeves with us. You’ll feel better after you do.

Editor’s note: Whether it’s tools, parts, or knowledge, if you don’t have what you need under the hood, turn to Advance Auto Parts. Buy online, pick up in store, and get back to the garage.

How a Vehicle Alignment Saves Your Tires and Your Money


Proper vehicle alignment saves money and improves handling.

A four-wheel alignment is an important maintenance item that needs to be performed regularly, saves drivers a significant amount of money over a vehicle’s lifetime, and affects vehicle handling and performance.

Too often, however, this maintenance item gets lumped into the category of “recommended vehicle services that just never seem to get done.” You know the ones I’m talking about – shock and strut replacement, washing and waxing, and the list goes on. These maintenance items are often neglected because of cost or drivers’ time constraints, but mainly because some drivers feel they just don’t need to be done. Their philosophy is that the car’s still going to get them from point a to point b regardless of whether it’s aligned.

Before explaining why ignoring the alignment issue is an expensive and potentially unsafe mindset, it helps to understand what alignment is, and isn’t.

Have you ever driven down a straight highway and felt the vehicle pulling to one side or another? Are your tires wearing unevenly with more wear on the outside or inside edge or across the tread face? These are signs that the vehicle is out of alignment.

While a vehicle’s wheels may be out of alignment, it isn’t the wheels themselves where the adjustments are being made during an alignment, simply because there’s nothing there to really adjust. Wheels are bolted on the vehicle, tightened down, and that’s pretty much that. What is being adjusted during a realignment is the vehicle’s suspension.

The three essential, technical elements of vehicle alignment are camber, caster and toe. Camber is the way the tire is angled in or out from the vehicle. If you look at the tires from the front of the vehicle, imagine that the tire’s top or bottom is angled in or out at an extreme angle. That’s camber. To understand toe, imagine you’re floating above the vehicle and looking down on the wheels. The degree to which the wheels turn in or out is toe. Caster or caster angle is more difficult to envision and explain. It refers to the angle of the steering axis and plays an important role in steering and handling.

Modern vehicles in particular have specific camber, toe, and caster specs that need to be maintained in order for the vehicle to handle properly, and so that tires don’t wear out prematurely because of uneven wear patterns. Unfortunately, vehicle alignment can be thrown out of whack easily by the simple act of hitting a big pothole or the curb. Even in the absence of any adverse events, alignment still changes over time. That’s why it’s important to have the vehicle realigned on a regular basis. Many experts recommend an alignment every 5,000 to 7,000 miles. An easy way to remember this is to have an alignment done every other oil change, along with a tire rotation. Some shops offer “lifetime alignments.” This doesn’t mean that the alignment is guaranteed to last forever, because it can’t, but rather that they will realign the vehicle at no cost in the future if it ever needs it. It will.

Alignments, particularly on today’s vehicles, can’t be performed just anywhere, nor can someone tell if a vehicle is aligned properly simply by eyeballing it. What’s required is a specialized alignment machine or rack that measures wheel angles precisely using lasers, and access to the vehicle manufacturer’s alignment specs for the vehicle being aligned. Based on those results, technicians make adjustments to the suspension to properly align the wheels. Most tire shops or mechanics that sell a lot of tires will have the equipment needed to perform alignments. A good time to have a vehicle alignment is when new tires are being installed. Doing so helps protect the sizable investment that a set of tires represents today.

And finally, there’s the option of having a two- or four-wheel alignment performed. Talk with your technician or tire professional to about what’s the best option for your particular vehicle and situation.

Alignments aren’t free, but in the long run, they more than pay for themselves because they increase tire life and improve fuel efficiency.

Editor’s note: When you need tire-care products or anything vehicle-related, turn to Advance Auto Parts  first. Buy online, pick up in store, and get back to the garage.

Wired Up: The Fundamentals of Spark Plug Wiring

Accel plug wires pictureNot all spark plug wires are created equal. And because moving electricity to the plug to produce a spark is so critically important, using the wrong wires for your vehicle, damaged wires, or poor-quality wires will undoubtedly lead to problems down the road.

As electricity travels along the plug wires toward the plug so it can generate a spark, it’s also looking to do something else – escape. The electricity is looking for any opportunity to jump from the wire and instead head down the path of least resistance. When it finds the escape route it’s been searching for – usually in the form of missing or damaged wire insulation – the results can include engine misfire, poor fuel mileage, hard starts, rough idles and lack of power. Electricity also generates radios waves and if it escapes from the plug wires can interfere with a vehicle’s radio and other electronics.

The plug wires’ insulation is what keeps the electricity from escaping, and high-quality wires will have more insulation that’s made from durable components that are better able to resist wear from vibration and heat. Over time, the engine’s heat cycling takes its toll on even the best spark plug wires, which is why replacement is recommended by many manufacturers at 100,000 miles.

There are primarily three types of spark plug wires:

1. Distributed resistance wires are constructed of fiberglass-impregnated carbon. Also known as carbon core wires, they were the standard on about 95 percent of vehicles before 1980.

2. A shift to inductance or mag (magnetic resistance) wires accompanied the rising popularity of Asian vehicles. Featuring a spiral wound core of a copper nickel alloy, the material presents less resistance to the electricity flow, meaning less current is needed to generate the spark, and at the same time the winding pattern and materials help prevent any Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) from escaping.

3. Lastly, there are fixed resistor wires. These are often found on European vehicles and feature steel or copper wire and a resistor inside the plug boot to control interference.

If you think your vehicle might be having some issues caused by faulty plug wires, begin the diagnosis with a close inspection of the wires’ condition. Examine them for heat-induced cracks or abrasions caused by rubbing against other parts. Look for areas where they’ve been burned through because of contact with an exhaust manifold. Also try examining the engine in the dark, looking for visible sparks where the electricity is escaping along the wires, and also listen for an electrical ticking sound, similar to what you hear when you receive a big static electricity shock. Also measure the wire’s resistance with an ohmmeter. One plug wire with a resistance that’s significantly different than the other wires could indicate that’s the problem wire.spark plug wire set photo

When installing new wires, make sure you’re using wires specified for your vehicle. Characteristics such as the wire length or a boot that attaches using clips as compared to a thread-on boot matter when it comes to performance. Also avoid problems by routing new wires in the same manner that the previous wires were, and removing and replacing the wires one at a time.

Using the best spark plug in the world won’t make any difference to your engine if that plug can’t get the electricity it needs, so choose and install plug wires wisely.

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

The Triumph of Technology: 3 Ways Computers Make Cars Better


Knight Rider’s KITT interior. Photo by Tabercil.

Think about the muscle-car era, back in the ’60s and early ’70s. If you know anyone who grew up during that era, chances are that his or her father taught them how to wrench on engines from a young age (just like this ol’ wrencher). And you’ve probably heard them lament the fact that fathers just don’t teach their kids how to fix cars anymore.

But there’s a good reason for that: modern cars are as much about computers as they are about carburetors. Maybe more so.

To fix cars today, you often need a special computer just to diagnose the problem, and you may need advanced electrical knowledge to do the job. How about rebuilding a problematic part? If it’s connected to the car’s computer network, you better be an actual electrical engineer, or else you might just make things worse.

So that’s why kids don’t grow up with grease on their fingers anymore.

But they do grow up driving some truly incredible machines.

In this installment, I don’t want to bemoan the fact that times have changed. Even as a weathered, ahem, older car fan, I want to celebrate it. Because the truth is, technology has taken the automobile to heights that were scarcely imaginable 50 years ago.

Let’s look at three specific ways that the triumph of technology has changed cars for the better.

Better Handling

You may not think of suspensions as having much to do with computers, but when you take a closer look, you realize that they’ve got a lot to do with ones and zeros. Consider electric power steering, for example — back in the hydraulic days, we used to talk about the steering of a car as being “heavy” or “light,” but today you can buy a Hyundai or Kia for less than $20,000 that provides electronically adjustable steering effort. Want to move up the price ladder a little? Adaptive suspension dampers with selectable modes are proliferating across the industry, allowing drivers to choose a firm or compliant ride as conditions dictate. And then there are roll-resistant systems like Mercedes-Benz’s Active Body Control that keep the car eerily flat through fast corners. It’s hard to see these technologies as anything but a win for most drivers.

Better Powertrains

We could devote a whole feature to this category alone. Seemingly every aspect of automotive power generation and delivery has been revolutionized. On the engine front, perhaps the biggest news is the rise of advanced computer-controlled turbocharging, enabling small-displacement engines to deliver strong, lag-free acceleration with little if any penalty at the pump. Transmissions have benefited, too, with advancements ranging from automatic rev-matched downshifts for manuals to launch control and adaptive shift programs for automatics. And then there’s the way the power gets to the pavement — increasingly, differentials are equipped with torque-vectoring technology that transfers power laterally to ensure that the tires with the best traction are getting the most oomph. There were certainly fast and capable cars back in the day, but the computer-enabled precision and efficiency we see today is simply unprecedented.

Better Interiors

This one’s really night-and-day. Cars used to be transportation devices with radios thrown in for your driving pleasure, but now they’re like rolling entertainment chambers. What’s interesting is that mass-market personal computers go back to the late ’70s, but it took another few decades for dashboard computer systems — or “infotainment systems,” in current parlance — to become commonplace. But in 2015, you can get an infotainment system with a high-resolution color display in virtually every economy car on the market. Who would argue that cars used to be better when all you had was AM and FM? Now you can enjoy satellite radio, USB connectivity, Bluetooth phone and audio, home theater-quality sound reproduction, mobile-app integration and even Wi-Fi hotspot capability. Nostalgia dies hard, but even hardcore classic-car devotees know the truth: there’s never been a better time to hang out in an automotive interior.

The Power of Change

As a longtime DIY’er and car enthusiast, I’ve done my share of grumbling about the effects of technology on the character and feel of modern cars. Still, I have to admit that cars today are astonishingly capable machines thanks to their computerized components. What are some of your favorite developments in automotive technology? Shout it out for us in the comments

Editor’s note: High tech or no tech, count on Advance Auto Parts for a large selection of parts, tools and accessories to get your projects done 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.


Recap: Detroit Auto Show 2015

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

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

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

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

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

1. Ford F-150 Raptor

Ford F-150 Raptor 2017 photo


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

2. Ford GT

Ford GT picture

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

3. Acura NSX

Acura NSX picture

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

Let’s Talk

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

Top Tailgating Essentials

Tailgate Party PhotosWhen it’s time to tailgate at the big game, I know as well as anyone that you’ve got to have the right gear. We’re huge sports fans in my house, and nothing will take the wind out of your sails like showing up without the proper tailgating accessories.

Now, you might think that you’ve already got all the gear you need, but let me tell you, times have changed. I remember when a tailgate party just meant some cans of your favorite beverage, but these days, folks have taken tailgating to a whole new level. My family always wants to have the coolest tailgate party in the parking lot, and that means keeping up with the latest innovations. If you do it right, trust me, you’ll end up having more fun at the party than ever before.

What I want to do today is share with you what I’ve learned over the years, because I think our household has figured out all the vital pieces of the modern tailgate-party puzzle. Here are my top tailgating essentials that make every game a win for your crew.


Need I say more? Cold beverages are the foundation of any great tailgate party, and you’ve got to keep them cold for the whole game. Plus, you need to bring more than enough for everyone involved. So get a big old cooler, fill it with ice, and keep it stocked with your favorite libations. That’s Job No. 1.


Arguably just as important as the cooler — well, let’s go with “almost” — is the portable grill. You can get all sorts of newfangled grills nowdays, but if you ask me, why mess with success? Just pick up a standard portable grill and a bag of charcoal, and you’ll get great taste and reliable performance, time after time.


This one’s for when you’re ready to take your tailgating game to the highest level. Anyone can bring a cooler and a grill, but it takes true dedication to bring your own portable generator, too. With a generator, you can power all sorts of handy appliances (including the final two items on this list), and some of the newer ones even have USB connectivity for recharging electronics. You’re in the tailgating big leagues when you show up with one of these.


If you don’t want to go with a full-blown generator, consider an inverter, which (if you haven’t heard) is a nifty device that uses your car’s battery power to provide auxiliary power with household-style three-prong outlets. The downside is that if you don’t turn your engine on, you’ll drain your battery after a while — and if you do turn your engine on, the tailgaters might take a bit too much exhaust smoke to the face. But if you think you’ll only need electrical current occasionally at your tailgate parties, an inverter could be a perfect solution. It’s tiny relative to a generator, and it’s just the thing if partiers may need to plug in for short periods.


The bottles and cans in your cooler are all well and good, but imagine the possibilities if you had a blender, too. You’ve already got ice in the cooler, after all; how about some margaritas for the adults and smoothies for the kids? Plug it into your generator/inverter and you’re good to go. Warning: you might get some unwanted attention from neighboring parties wishing they had a blender of their own.

Wi-Fi Hotspot

Can you imagine a tailgate party without the Internet? I can, of course, because that’s the only kind we used to have! But I know we’re all spoiled today with our phones and iPads and what-have-you, and the best way to ensure that everyone can connect is to bring along a portable wi-fi hotspot. You can find a nice selection at Best Buy, for example, and they’re more or less giving them away if you sign up for a monthly plan. Of course, if you’re lucky enough to have a smartphone that doubles as a hotspot (check with your provider), you’ve already got a solution in your pocket.


You’re potentially solving two problems with this generator/inverter-powered machine. First, the games aren’t always exciting from start to finish, so napping partygoers can be a common sight. A cup of joe could be just the thing to help them stay alert. Second, tailgating season stretches through the winter months, and not everyone comes prepared with their subzero jackets and gloves. If you’re not already the most popular tailgater in town, you’re going to be when your friends find out you’re serving piping hot coffee on demand.

Your Turn

I know I’m not the only seasoned tailgater around these parts. What are your top tailgating essentials that I didn’t mention? Let’s hear about them in the comments.

Editor’s note: Visit Advance Auto Parts for a top selection of generators and inverters, plus the essential parts to help get you to the game.

Top 10 Winter Prep Tips for Your Vehicle

Windshield WipersUse this checklist to avoid getting left out in the cold.

Don’t make winter any harder than it has to be – on yourself or your vehicle. To keep your car running reliably this winter, spend a little time on preventive maintenance before that chill in the air turns into a polar vortex.

Here’s a checklist of 10 important maintenance items to take care of now, so your vehicle can take care of you later. While you may be familiar with several, there may be some surprises on the list.

1. Radiator cap – while it’s a simple and inexpensive part, the radiator cap plays a critically important role in your heating and cooling system – not the least of which is keeping the antifreeze in your vehicle, where it should be. A leaking radiator cap can cause the engine to overheat and allow antifreeze to leak, neither of which are good scenarios for winter-weather driving. Take a close look around the radiator cap for signs of leaking fluid. To be on the safe side, if the vehicle radiator cap is several years old, replace it with a new one. The five or six bucks you may invest are well worth the peace of mind and performance you get in return. There is a lot more information available about a radiator cap’s importance.

2. Thermostat – another inexpensive, yet critically important component of your vehicle heating and cooling system is the thermostat. If it’s not functioning properly, you might find yourself without heat. That’s because thermostats can fail, particularly if the coolant hasn’t been changed regularly and corrosion has appeared. Change the thermostat, and change your odds having a warm interior all winter long.

3. Undercar – your vehicle ground clearance could decrease this winter, but only because the road surface might be rising up to meet you in the form of snow drifts or boulder-like chunks of snow and ice. Take a quick look under your car and search for any loose plastic panels related to aerodynamics that might have come loose and are dangling, as well as any exhaust system parts that look like they’re hanging particularly low.

4. Tire Pressure – temperatures aren’t the only thing going down in winter. For every 10-degree drop in air pressure, it’s estimated that tire pressure decreases by one pound. In a tire that’s only supposed to hold 35 pounds of pressure, colder temperatures can translate to a significant tire-pressure deficit. Underinflated tires wear faster, hurt fuel economy, and can reduce handling and traction. Check them with a tire pressure gauge.

5. Headlights – even if they haven’t burned out, it may be time to replace them. Did you know that headlight bulbs dim over time? Couple that with the haze that may have developed on your plastic headlight covers and you could be driving with significantly less light, and reduced down road vision. Change your headlights and restore your headlight covers, and see further.

6. Oil – if you’re not using synthetic oil, consider switching. It flows more freely at lower temperatures, making for easier starts and less engine wear.

7. Tire Tread Depth – tires that are showing their age with the telltale sign of little to no remaining tread depth aren’t a good way to head into winter. Tires are your first line of defense when it comes to gaining traction in snow and ice, and worn tires make that job harder. Take a minute to measure your tire tread depth.

8. Windshield deicer – decrease the amount of time you’re out in the cold, trying to scrape your windshield, and increase your visibility with windshield deicer. To see clearly, you need an ice-free windshield, and this is the quickest way to get it.

9. Antifreeze – not only will it help prevent heating and cooling system corrosion in every season, antifreeze also protects your engine in frigid temperatures, if it’s at the proper level and strength. And that’s not all. Having the proper level of antifreeze is a must have if you want the level of heat you’ve come to expect.

10. Emergency Kit – even a new or well-maintained vehicle can experience trouble, and if it does let you down, you should be prepared with an emergency kit to help see you through in case you’re stranded for a few minutes or even a few hours.

As an experienced driver and quite possibly someone who’s pretty seasoned at working on their own vehicle, you’re probably already familiar with the usual suspects that can cause winter driving problems. Even so, it doesn’t hurt for a quick review of your battery and  windshield wipers as the final step in your winter driving preparation checklist.

Chances are, you and your vehicle will get through winter just fine. All it takes is a little time and commitment in the garage now, instead of wishing you had later on.

Editor’s note: Drive safe and warm this winter with parts and accessories from Advance Auto Parts. Buy online, pick up in store, in 30 minutes.

The End of the Honda VTEC Era

2001 red Honda PreludeI gotta admit, I’m biased when it comes to DOHC VTEC Hondas, because I’ve owned two of the best. I got my first taste with a 1995 Acura Integra GS-R, and I still can’t get the sound of that little 1.8-liter motor with the 8,100-rpm redline out of my head. Then I moved on to the “luxury coupe,” a 2001 Honda Prelude, which redlined at a comparatively meek 7,400 rpm but had other stuff going for it that the Integra lacked. These were great, great cars — stylish, fun and relentlessly reliable.

And we’ll never see the likes of them again, because Honda has turned its back on that whole scene. The Prelude was quietly put out to pasture in 2001, having become too refined and expensive for its own good. The Integra kept kicking for a while as the Acura RSX (it was still called “Integra” in other markets), but 2006 marked the end of the line. For a few more years, the Honda Civic Si carried the torch with its sweet 2.0-liter motor, a high-revving marvel that reminded me very much of the Integra GS-R’s 1.8. But these days the Civic Si uses a warmed-over Accord engine. FAIL.

The Honda VTEC era is gone, and it’s not coming back.

But we can still remember the good times, right?

Ride along with me as I reflect on what made my DOHC VTEC cars so special.

1994 Acura Integra GS-R

1994 Acura Integra GS-RFirst of all, as soon as the second-generation GS-R came out in ’94, I remember lusting after those shiny five-spoke wheels. Man, Honda knew how to do alloy wheels back in the day, didn’t they? Admittedly, the rest of the car’s looking a bit dated. It’s got that bubbly 1990s look going on from some angles. But I actually dig the four round headlights, even though a lot of owners swapped them out for the JDM lenses. And from the back, the GS-R still looks pretty purposeful with its standard spoiler and wide taillights.

Inside, my GS-R had flawless leather buckets, but let’s face it: this car wasn’t about creature comforts. The road noise at speed was literally deafening, at least temporarily — I’d be a little hard of hearing when I got out after a long trip. As for the ride quality, a friend of mine once called it “skateboard-like.” Really, the best thing about the interior was the hatchback trunk; you could fold those rear seatbacks down and fit your whole life in there if you had to.

VTEC Acura IntegraBottom line, the Integra GS-R was all about what was under the hood. The dual-overhead cam (“DOHC”) 1.8-liter inline-4 was rated at 170 horsepower, falling just short of the magical 100 hp/L threshold. Torque was a paltry 127 pound-feet, and that was always the knock against the DOHC VTEC motors, but let me tell you, it didn’t matter in this car. The power ramped up steadily all the way to 8,100 rpm, with the VTEC crossover at 4,400 rpm producing a growl that gave way to a motorcycle-like scream toward to the end. Known to fans by the internal code “B18C1,” the GS-R’s engine was only offered with an incredibly precise five-speed manual transmission, and they were a perfect pairing — the short gears helped keep the revs high, and the pedals were ideally placed for heel-toe downshifts.

Nowadays, turbocharged fours are all the rage because of their supposed fuel-economy benefits, but did I mention that I got 37 mpg on the highway in my GS-R?

Throw in legendary reliability and low maintenance costs, and you’ve got an all-time great. There’ll never be another car like it.

2001 Honda Prelude

2001 Honda PreludeThe angular, understated Prelude was a different beast — a gentleman’s  sport compact. With its long nose and short deck, the 2001 ‘Lude could almost pass for rear-wheel-drive, its extended front overhang being the only real giveaway. It was a classy car, especially with the beautiful alloy wheels shown here. With the Integra, you expected a kid to be driving it, and it was normal to see an enormous spoiler tacked on the back. But the ‘Lude appealed to everyone. I’ve seen a handful of white-haired old guys driving bone-stock models, and that doesn’t surprise me one bit.

Inside, the fifth-gen Prelude served up an inviting mix of quality materials and subtle, ergonomic design. You had all the controls you needed, and no more. People used to say Honda was the Japanese BMW (hard to believe today, right?), and this dashboard is a case in point. Everything was right where it needed to be, and the simple layout aged really well — I never felt like I was driving an old car, even when it was an old car.

VTEC Honda PreludeOn the road, the Prelude was significantly quieter than the GS-R, though I wouldn’t exactly call it quiet per se. The general comfort level was a lot higher. Really good stereo, too — so much better than the Integra’s clock-radio-quality sound. But it still handled great, albeit with slightly slower reflexes. I wish I’d been able to find a suitable Type SH with its torque-transfer system, because my base car understeered a lot if I entered a corner too hot. But I always had a blast on twisty roads nonetheless.

The fifth-gen Prelude’s engine was a torque monster by DOHC VTEC standards, cranking out 156 lb-ft along with a healthy 200 hp. To be honest, I liked the GS-R’s engine better. The ‘Lude’s 2.2-liter four-cylinder, a.k.a. “H22A4,” had a Jekyll and Hyde character, coming on real strong all of a sudden at 5,200 rpm. I preferred the way the GS-R’s motor smoothed the VTEC transition out. But the H22 made a great snarl, and the five-speed shifter was lighter than the GS-R’s, gliding friction-free from gate to gate.

If you wanted genuine Honda performance without the boy-racer looks, the fifth-gen Prelude was the ultimate solution.


Honda VTECs used to rule the street, and for good reason. It’s sad to me that those days are never coming back. Did you ever have a DOHC VTEC car? I know we’d all love to hear your story in the comments.

Editor’s note: If you’ve got a street import in your driveway, hit up Advance Auto Parts for the best values and selection. Buy online, pick up in-store in 30 minutes.