Archive for August, 2009

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.

Mooring Tower

Friday, August 14th, 2009


A mooring tower, quickly knocked together.  But for what?

What Wood is That?

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

As happens, I was nattering on to one of my co-workers about some woodworking enthusiasm or another.  This is itself not unusual (some might say it is “too usual”), but led to her, several days later, lending me a book.

What Wood is That?, by Herbert L. Edlin, is, as the name implies, a guide to identifying wood types.  It dates to 1969, and its most notable feature is that it contains a fold-out section containing small samples of most of the woods mentioned within.  Partially due to the age of the book, the wood samples now have a nice patina to them.

Some of WWiT is dedicated to a flowchart-like classification system, which is not of much immediate use to me since I am not at this time surrounded by padauk, mahogany, and teak furniture that needs classification preparatory to going on the block at Sotheby’s.  The rest of the book describes the general life cycle of a tree, and contains a brief history of the lumbering industry, noting which areas were most heavily worked at what time.  Further chapters give considerable detail about the 40 or so woods discussed; their preferred environs, leaf structure, size, and uses.

While these 40 woods are discussed in detail, the usefulness of this detail to me is more academic than practical, given how esoteric some of the materials are.  The author was a forester around the world, and knows his stuff firsthand, but one upshot of this is that the woods discussed are from all over, and some information is probably dated.  While I can believe that some teak is still lumbered with the help of trained elephants, some of the woods discussed aren’t even mentioned in more recent books that I have.

All in all, an interesting (if brief) read, and would be quite useful as a “first try” reference if I worked with antique pieces.  It was also quite nice to see examples of exotic woods such as zebrawood and purpleheart (which is, yes, purple).