Archive for the ‘Automotive’ Category

We Were the Ramchargers

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

Let’s have a book review.

I was recently given a copy of We Were the Ramchargers , a history of, well, the Ramchargers, the usually factory-backed Dodge drag racing team during perhaps the most exciting years (thus far) of the sport.  The book has recently come out, and garnered some attention; I’ve seen at least two articles in magazines giving an overview of the book.  We may take this as an indication of the influence of the team on the world of motorsports (he said, burnishing his ficticious pipe and adjusting his equally ficticious tweed cap).

Beginning in 1959, a group of young Chrysler employees pooled their money to build a drag car as the embodiment of their ideas on performance, and incidentally to beat up on the recently ascendant small-block Chevrolets that were ruling much of drag racing.  By 1969, they had won innumerable races, helped reestablish Chrysler performance as a very credible street threat, and worked on gas, nitro, hydrazine, alcohol, supercharging, fuel injection, suspension development, tuned ram and exhaust development, and raced super stock, dragsters, and funny cars.  Interestingly, most of these technologies were coming of age at the time, often pioneered by the Ramchargers and their competition.

The book is a broken up by year, with paragraphs of narration interspersed with frequent paragraphs of  explanation, anecdote, and reflection, taken from numerous interviews with the surviving group members.  This format keeps things moving along, and the author has happily chosen to allow the interview segments to cover a bit of the technical side of things.  Numerous pictures are provided.

Historically, Ramchargers is inspirational.  These fellows started a team with no factory backing, and won.  They got some factory backing, and won a lot more.  There is little personal conflict mentioned in the book, and one gets the sense that this is because there was little, rather than that the story has been airbrushed.  It is a testament to what skilled, organized individuals can do when they work together and decide to produce a whole lot of awesome.

The technical side of the book is interesting because much of the team’s success was due to engineering prowess in an era during which simulation was used much less than it is now, and the theoretical knowledge available was advancing rapidly.  Adjusting the engine in a particular way might have resulted in more speed, and it might have simply burnt a piston or tossed a rod.  More hydrazine might have helped smooth out power delivery, or it might have blown the engine.  In a field that is advancing rapidly, you need to field test new ideas commensurately rapidly.  More spark lead on the Hemi?  More dynamic weight transfer on the High and Mighty car?  Try it out.  While the Ramchargers were largely very skilled engineers and technicians, they were not at all recalcitrant about “going for it” with a new idea, putting it onto the track as soon as possible.  After all, the competition might have figured the same thing out yesterday.  Reading about the rapid evolution of the technology and its deployment in anger is the heart of the book, and it is fortunately presented in a way that allows the reader to understand (much) of what is being discussed.

I have a few quibbles with the book; it sort of tapers off as the group members went their different ways, which is understandable, but lacks punch.  There are also a few repeated spelling errors that grated – most notably, “bonsai” rather than “banzai”.  (You can see the problem with this one.)

When a book has a chapter entitled “dropping the atom bomb” about the arrival of the 426 Hemi, though, I’m willing to forgive the minor editorial quibbles in deference to the larger successful choices.

LED brake lights

Monday, August 31st, 2009

As long as I’m mentioning the magazine Mopar Action, I should highlight another suggestion made by their tech department.  I hadn’t  previously thought about this, but incandescent brake lights take time to turn on, due to the filament needing to come up to temperature.  I am told that this takes up to half a second.  While this does not sound like much, at 65 mph, this is the time required to go ~48 feet.  That is a goodly amount of space between the fellow behind me and my fragile car.  LEDs, on the other hand, illuminate much more quickly, essentially putting more time/space between you and the maniac tailgater back there.



At $15, cheap peace of mind for your bumper.  Don’t forget to drop another $1 on electrical grease to forestall corrosion.

As always, there are caveats.  First, make sure that they look right from behind the car.  You don’t want a narrow spot projected onto the forehead of the driver behind you, and since LEDs can be more directional than bulbs, it’s worth checking.  Second, your car’s electrical system may need a regulator across the wires leading to your brake lights.  I haven’t had this problem.  Third, some municipalities may have issues with nonstandard lights, no matter their benefits.

Lastly, the young fellow behind the parts counter may be disappointed when your response to his question “What are you putting these in?” is “A Saturn.”  LED taillights aren’t just for the boy racer crowd anymore.


Monday, August 24th, 2009

In an effort to become more respectable, I have purchased a reasonable car.  By respectable, I specifically mean “not spending stupid amounts of time, money, and emotional frustration on the result of poor automotive decisions”.

After looking around my area for some time, I ended up getting a 2004 Saturn On.


Er.  Ion.


My purchase of this vehicle was motivated more by needing a vehicle than coming to a carefully reasoned decision that this vehicle is the automotive equivalent of a helpmeet.  It does, however, meet several of my automotive purchase rules (some of which are mentioned here), and several others not mentioned at the link.

For practical vehicles:

1) Get a car that people know how to work on.  Oddball chassis design specific to the model will bite you when the shop jacks up your car on its own cooling lines, or somesuch.

2) Get a car that is common enough to have a ready supply of parts.  You don’t want to end up having to source the last transmission cover in the U.S. for your car.

3) Don’t get the first model year.  Obvious.

4) Getting the best engine package available can be really cool, and safer (better suspension tuning, more power).  It can, however, imply that the manufacturer is stretching what the car can do, and what can fit in the car.  It will cost more money down the line.

The Ion fits rules 1-3, and that’s about it.  It is a stripper model, with the basic engine, a rental-like interior, and a previous owner who was evidently indifferent to body scratches.  I don’t believe, however, that it was a rental.  Firstly, it lacks the tell-tale pen marks by the ignition, where the renter has to turn the car back on to check the mileage and marks the console with their pen.  (Every rental I’ve been in over the last few years has this.)  Secondly, and far more important, it’s a manual car.  This latter accounts for much of the difficulty I found in getting a used car.

In the used car market, you have to take what you can get, and if you are in a region that is not fond of what you want, you’re done.  In my area, stick cars seem to be common only for cheap, efficient cars, and performance cars.  The Saturn is one of the former.  Manual transmissions are simpler and (I believe) more mechanically efficient.  One does have to worry about clutch wear, but, as I was reminded yesterday, a manual trans makes up for a multitude of sins, even if coupled to a 2.2 liter NA four.  Every shift is the chance for that little frisson of happiness at a mechanical task done well.

I also kind of like the front end of the car; it has a sort of “robotish” look.


When I get a car, I budget $100 for a few things.  I get the Haynes manual, which is usually not great but better than nothing, and cheap at $20.  I get the best headlight (bulbs) the store has, because, as previously mentioned, I can’t stand bad visibility, and I’m willing to pay the $50 required for a maybe 50% improvement in that area*.  I’ll get wiper blades if needed, and a bottle of this stuff:


As recommended by none other than Mopar Action‘s tech editor Richard Ehrenberg, this stuff, unlike many additives, works.

Despite looking like some sort of XTreme mixer for vodka or cognac, it behaves somewhat disturbingly, since it’s raison d’etre is its low surface tension.  It has no “legs” as the wine folks would say.  It sloshes quickly and leaves no drops on the bottle wall.  You add it to your coolant, and it reduces bubble size at the point where the coolant flow meets the hot metal of the engine.  Typically, the coolant boils a bit there, and the resultant bubbles reduce heat transfer.  Smaller bubbles = better cooling = better thermodynamic efficiency = less entropy = staving off heat death of the universe.  Also your engine bay runs cooler, extending the life of non-metallic parts.  (I’ve had a $3 plastic fixture failure cause months and $100s of damage).  It drops the temp by a claimed 8 degrees or so in a 50/50 antifreeze/water mix.  I figure it is cheap insurance.

I’ve got a few quibbles with the car so far:

The tires are harder than most.  I keep sounding like a boy racer accelerating from a stop.

The shifter is a bit notchy, especially going between 2 and 3.  It’s not terrible, but it’s not the Hurst in my other car.

The headlights are held in by a rediculous pin arrangement that no doubt works well in California or wherever it was designed, but is already corroded here.  I shouldn’t need to use PB Blaster on my headlight retention mechanism.

It has a shift light that is permanently set to “granny mode”, nagging me to upshift in the name of efficiency at 2200 rpm, in 4th gear, going 40 mph uphill.  I can’t turn it off.  I feel guilty not shifting, and angry at it glaring at me like the Eye of Sauron every time I leave the car in low gear a second longer than some sort of EPA guideline indicates.

All in all, though, if the Ion is reliable for 5 years, I’ll be happy.  And driving manual.

*update: please note that the better parts store headlights also have considerably reduced lifetime as compared with standard lights.  As is often the case, the better burns a quarter as long.


Sunday, August 16th, 2009




The “stance” of a car is a subtle but very important part of the overall look.  Show cars absolutely have to nail this to do well; if you don’t get the overall rake of the car right, nothing else will look right either.

My car is not a show car; it is more like the Mickey Rourke of the local vehicles.  The stance was wrong, though, and it was bothering me.  There are a few other reasons to get this right.  Weight distribution obviously depends on the angle of the car, there are aerodynamic benefits (sometimes)*, and you can muck up the rest of the suspension geometry if you do it really wrong.

Ordinarily, you should adjust this as per your factory service manual, which was of course the first thing you bought when you got your car.  However… as with everything else on my car, the history matters.  The suspension was shot when I got the car, so I had the shocks, springs, and torsion bars replaced over the last few years as money allowed.  I had the rear done first, as it looked to be worse off than the front.  Replacement of the sagging leaf springs with 1″ lift heavy duty springs promptly turned the car into an (even) more exciting drive, since the combination of a) stiff rear springs, b) soft, old front suspension, c) rear wheel drive, and d) torque resulted in a pronounced tendency toward oversteer.  The rear wheels wanted to hook better than the front.  Oversteer is when the back of the car wants to come around when cornering hot.  It is rare in passenger cars since they are tuned decisively toward understeer; this is why your car wants to go straight when you come into a corner going too fast.  Understeer is the safer of the two dynamics since it is more predictable and less potentially catastrophic.  This situation was remedied this year by the fitment of new front shocks and heavier .890″ torsion bars.  Unfortunately, I didn’t communicate my desires correctly to my mechanic, and he levelled the suspension at the higher 1″ level demanded by the rear springs.  This wasn’t a big deal, but bothered me a bit, since I wanted the front to be a bit lower.  Doing a bit of reading indicated that minor adjustments of the suspension would not require other suspension adjustments, which is good since I lack an alighnment jig and a garage to put it in.

Fortunately, front torsion bars are the easiest suspension to adjust height on.  Frankly, I think the only reason that they aren’t used much now is because they impinge more on the engine compartment, which is a problem for front- and all- wheel drive vehicles, and likely also a problem when trying to make smaller vehicles.  The are adjustable, provide a lower center of gravity and a lower polar moment of inertia, and may reduce weight due to needing less superstructure.  All you need to do is turn an adjusting bolt.  The bolt is easy to get to, uses a standard size socket, and does not require an enormous amount of  force.  You may ask, what could possibly go wrong?


Don't do this.

Don’t go the wrong way.  I used the wrong plane of reference and turned the bolts clockwise instead of counterclockwise.  Oops.  Shades of the “High and Mighty“, but my car is a driver, not a drag car (anymore – the previous owner had other ideas).

In any event, make sure you adjust both sides by the same amount, and don’t go crazy with this.  Go too far and you can get bump steer and other unwholesome maladies.  Get an alignment if you’re not sure or if the car starts handling oddly.  Don’t forget to adjust your headlights, too, since they won’t be pointing the right way.  This lesson brought to you by a large buck standing on a local country road.  In the middle of an inconvenient corner.  At night.  In the rain.

I think the car looks a little more businesslike.

* If you have a vehicle with significant downforce considerations, lowering the nose (or mounting an air dam) can create a partial vacuum as the air rushes through the resulting venturi, thus giving front downforce.

Signal Cam 1

Monday, July 27th, 2009

So, what *have* I been doing?

The actual answer, “experiencing defeat on several project fronts”, is a bit pessimistic sounding.  Let’s replace that with: “learning more than I thought I would about widely variant fields.”

First up:

The right-hand turn signal in my (old) car has never held itself in place when I move the signal stalk, requiring me to hold the signal stalk firmly upward preparatory to making the turn.  While not a terrible problem unto itself, the car has manual steering, requiring several turns of the wheel to make said turn.  As my right hand is not equipped with a 360 degree rotator cuff, I need to take my left hand off of the signal as I begin the turn, possibly confusing those behind me.  (Bonus points for needing to downshift at the same time.)

Let’s find out what is causing the problem.

All together now: first, disconnect the battery.

This is the much-weathered horn cover on the steering column.  Note: extremely fake woodgrain dash (factory!) and the extreme absence of airbag.  This latter is important, as I lack the gumption to muck about with airbag-equipped steering columns, preferring to keep my screwdrivers on the outside of my sinuses.

steering wheel trim ring

A bit of prying, and the cover’s spring clips give.

horn ring

Horn Ring

This is minimal corrosion for those of us in the land of salt and snow.   Any work you can do without a propane torch or extractors is almost blessed.

The protruding ring is the “horn ring”.  It moves in and out, and when it moves in, it makes contact and the horn sounds.  It is important to have disconnected the battery at this point, else you irritate the neighbors sounding the horn at intervals.  Disconnect the cable at center, and undo the three bolts that hold the steering wheel on.

Steering Column "Can"

Steering Column "Can"

The “can” is mostly a spacer, but is held on quite tightly.  Undo the nut (lots of force – it is a single point of failure for the steering wheel).  You will note that the can doesn’t come off.  This is because it is held on the column by a splined shaft under the nut.  This, too, is difficult to remove, without…

Steering Wheel Puller

Steering Wheel Puller

… this facehugger-looking implement.  It is basically a gear puller; the threaded shaft at middle pushes against the splined shaft that the nut was on, and it pulls the can off using the splined shaft as a hardpoint to push against.

Oops.  The threaded shaft is pointed and harder than the car.  Note divot in steering shaft.  Evidence of sloppy work, though not as sloppy as that done by whoever put all of the screwdriver gauges around the edge in the picture below.

Signal Cam

Signal Cam

Aaand there’s the problem.  The nylon assembly at left is in the “right turn” position.  The barbed bit in the red circle is supposed to catch on the greasy part behind it, but doesn’t.  The green arrow points at a crack in the nylon, about 1/32″ deep.  That’s all it takes.

I now need to find a replacement, and to figure out how to remove the original.