February 11, 2009

What Lies Beneath: Porsche Sportomatic

Porsche’s Tiptronic system has become quite familiar to the automotive community by now. However, the Tiptronic system was not the first time Porsche offered a clutch-less manual transmission. In 1968, the Sportomatic semi-automatic 4-speed was introduced as an optional transmission to the standard 5-speed manual on the 911T and E. (though there were approximately 5 Sportomatic 914s made) It was quite an interesting design indeed. Porsche took their type 905 transmission and modified it to contain a torque converter along with a vacuum operated clutch.

When a driver changes gear, he simply grabs the shift knob and selects a different ratio. Beneath the shift knob, there is a micro switch that is triggered when the knob is depressed slightly. The switch then activates a vacuum valve that in turn operates a vacuum diaphragm. This diaphragm then operates the clutch and thus allowing the changing of gears and therefore eliminating the need for a clutch pedal. Before power from the engine reaches the clutch, it flows through a torque converter. This allows the driver to stop without putting the transmission in neutral. A feature that is particularly helpful in stop-and-go driving. Though the Sportomatic is a ‘clutch-less manual’, the ratios in the transmission are not shown as 1,2,3,4 and so on. Instead, Sportomatic ratios include L, D, D3, and D4. Furthermore there is a Park feature, as on an automatic, and naturally reverse.

Porsche’s period brochures indicate how to chose the correct gear:

L (Low): For ascending and descending steep grades or for slush, mud and snow.

D (Drive): Normal driving from 0-60 miles per hour. For rapid acceleration, the transmission can be shifted through all ratios like a typical manual transmission.

D3 & D4: For highway cruising. D4 is essentially overdrive, while D3 can be used for passing and downshifting under braking.

P (Park): This is necessary since due to the torque converter there is no mechanical link between the engine and transmission.

R (Reverse): Acts as it would in an automatic. It can only be selected if the car is at a complete stop. Slight increase in engine speed may be necessary to actually move the car.

Later, as 911 engines increased in power, a stronger Sportomatic was necessary. In 1972 the type 925 Sportomatic was introduced using the same casing as the type 915 manual. By 1975, engine capacity and power in such cars as the 911S had increased to the point where once again the Sportomatic transmission was too weak. Since the system incorporates a torque converter, only three speeds were necessary. This allowed for larger and stronger gears without increasing the size of the transmission case.

By 1979, Sportomatic had ceased development and was dropped from the line-up. Porsche released the 928 in 1977, which was available with a fully automatic transmission sourced from Mercedes-Benz, and later the 944 also had an optional 3-speed automatic. Porsche didn’t come out with another ‘clutch-less manual’ until 1992 with the introduction of Tiptronic.

February 9, 2009

Great Automotive Failures: The DeLorean DMC-12.

In 1973, 48 year old John Z. DeLorean had “a better than even-odds change of one day being president” of General Motors. With a yearly income of $650,000, he was one of the highest paid executives in the world. But on April 1st, 1973, he threw all of that out of the Fourteenth Floor window and quit his post at GM. He had grown disenchanted with GM, a company that did little to encourage individual thought and that he no longer felt part of.

Soon after that he set about designing his own, so-called ethical sports car. DeLorean was a proven engineer and knew the ins and outs of the car industry. To take his car from the prototype stage to the production stage, he assembled a team that included well-known names such as Colin Chapman of Lotus and he hired Giorgetto Giugiario to design the car.

Next came the issue of where to build the car. After talking with several governments (including France), DeLorean settled on an area called Dunmurry in Northern Ireland, right outside of Belfast. The political situation in Northern Ireland at the time was unstable at best. Despite a ceasefire by the Provisional IRA and another one by the Official IRA (the former was broken in 1976, the latter stuck), the merciless confrontations between Catholics and Protestants were still happening on a regular basis. Unemployment was quite high and the government liked the idea of a car factory because they figured if people were at work, they wouldn’t be planting homemade bombs on boats and the like. While DeLorean fronted some of his own money and had private investors, a large chunk of the money came from the British government who saw it as a worthwhile venture.

With an insightful team and a brand new factory, production was ready to begin by 1981. This was promising and on paper it was a splendid car: it had original, sporty looks, it was safe and with its stainless steel body it was considered to be pretty modern in the late 1970s.

But the real car was deceiving. Under its stainless steel and rust proof skin was a rear mounted Peugeot-Renault-Volvo 2.8 V6 mated to either a 5-speed manual gearbox or a 3-speed automatic. DeLorean initially planned to have the car powered by a rotary Wankel engine but it was dropped in favor of the PRV because the Wankel was proving to be problematic to develop. As an added bonus, the all-aluminum, fuel-injected V6 was used in various Volvos, AMCs and even in the Dodge Monaco so it was already certified for use in the U.S. However, U.S. emissions requirements strangled the PRV until it churned out about 130hp, hardly a respectable amount for a car that was marketed as a sports car. As if being cursed by an underpowered and somewhat obscure engine wasn’t bad enough, the DMC-12 had a reputation for being roughly as fire proof as lighter fluid if it overheated.

The car was originally meant to be sold for $12,000, hence the “12” in the name. However, by the time all was said and done, MSRP was around $25,000. By comparison, a 1981 Mercedes-Benz 300TD cost $23,900 and a 1981 Chevrolet Corvette cost $16,259. After its launch, customers were willing to pay a small fortune above MSRP to get their hands on one but despite that, sales were never quite what the factory had expected and they consequently didn’t the money they had planned on making.

The factory wasn’t spared from problems either- the workforce was largely inexperienced and working at DMC was sometimes a worker’s first job; the quality suffered accordingly. Early series cars were plagued with trim issues including poor panel alignment and loose doors. That meant more money had to come out of DeLorean’s pocket to correct these flaws after the cars left the factory.

It got to the point where DeLorean was quickly running out of funds. He repeatedly asked the British government for money but he was turned down. In late 1982 he was arrested on drug charges amongst others and the company shut down, a real shame considering the automotive genius that lurked in John DeLorean’s head. A private company continued to build a small number of DMC-12s in 1983 and production was halted after that. While DeLorean was later acquitted of all charges, DeLorean Motor Company was ruined and they did not build another car under John DeLorean’s supervision. A Texas company acquired the inventory of spare parts and will build you a new DeLorean to suit your fancy for roughly the price of a Porsche Cayman, sans options/accessories.

In our garage.

The 4-door GS was introduced in 1970 to fill a market segment that Citroen was absent in- midsize cars. They had the high-end DS and the economy 2CV and 2CV based cars (Ami8, Ami Super, etc) but nothing in between. The GS was a well engineered and successful remedy to that. It was awarded the European Car of The Year award in 1971, a testament to the technology (for its time) that went behind this car. Citroen introduced a wagon version in 1972, making an already versatile car more versatile. The air cooled flat four under the hood was originally a Panhard design and was available in either 1015cc, 1129cc, 1222cc or 1299cc. Worth mentioning that Citroen also experimented with a rotary powered GS that sported a Wankel engine. Production of that was very short and few remain today.

It was finally replaced in 1979 by the 5-door GSA. The styling was essentially the same with minor differences, the biggest one of them being the addition of a hatchback. The GSA was also better put together inside and better rust-proofed, though you can still hear it rust if you listen.

By 1986, this once futuristic design was seriously dated and it was replaced by the BX, a boxier looking GS that wasn't as successful as Citroen had hoped.

I got this 1983 model from the grandson of the original owner. The grandpa took great care of it and the grandson never drove it so it only has 76,000 kilometers. Except for some dings and dents that are standard on a car that's spent its whole life in Marseille, it's pretty flawless inside and out.

It has the 1129cc engine and being a base model, it has a 4-speed manual transmission. More expensive models had a 5-speed and they even offered a pointless 3-speed automatic transmission that often had a mind of its own. The best way to describe it is that it drives like a faster 2CV and rides like a smaller DS, the reason being its Hydropneumatic suspension, a system introduced by Citroen in 1955 on the original DS to create a smoother ride.

Like many cars of this segment and era, most of them have rotted into oblivion or have been junked and good examples like this one are fairly cheap but also fairly hard to find.

The interior is unmistakably Citroen and unmistakably French- the speedometer is a rotary drum, the single spoke steering wheel is inspired by the DS, the handbrake is where the radio should be and the radio is in between the front seats, right by the control for the suspension. There is no turn signal stalk and no horn on the wheel, those functions (and more) are found on the two pods visible behind the steering wheel. The tach above the instrument panel is aftermarket (not my addition), base cars didn't come with one originally. The seats feel like something you'd find at RC Willey with a triple digit price tag; add the all-absorbing Hydropneumatic suspension and it's more comfortable than a lot of new cars:

Outside, it takes some design cues from the DS including an unpronounced rear wheel arch. Compared with the GS, the GSA has less chrome on the outside. While its small engine meant acceleration wasn't brisk, its aerodynamic shape meant it could reach high speeds if you spend enough time with your foot on the gas:

Under the hood, you'll find the familiar green suspension pheres found in the DS and the SM and being a flat engine, there is room for the spare, too. Fuel finds its way into the combustion chamber via a single downdraft carburetor:

February 8, 2009

The Golden Age of Automotive Advertising

Ok, it's winter and to be honest, there's a bit of a lack of things to post on here lately. As a result, we've come up with the "Great Automotive Failures" editorials and other such things for your enjoyment. But now for something completely different (sort of)...

The 1960s and 1970s had some truly 'great' automotive advertising. Many of them unashamedly grabbed males' attention from a gut level (or maybe lower) without the use of too many things like words or information. Let's have a look, shall we?

British Leyland had a pretty good grasp on this concept:

The TR-7 was a little scary. I don't blame her for hiding.

Ah, the 1970s was a colorful time indeed. Driving a boxy European economy car, combined with loud apparel is sure to get you some girls...

I'm assuming this girl's RO-80 had a major rotor seal failure right where it's parked. Might as well get a tan while waiting for the tow truck.

Before Volvo's became boxy:

And perhaps best of all, are these fine examples here...

Beautiful landscape in this Zastava ad. 
... and then they just stopped trying. I believe they taped a photo of the car to a page out of an Eastern Bloc adult magazine and went to press...

Not a car ad, but still, same concept. 

February 6, 2009

Great Automotive Failures: The Aston Martin Lagonda

Like many small-scale auto manufacturers during the 1970s, Aston Martin’s finances were looking drearier than a late winter afternoon in London. On the verge of bankruptcy, A-M embarked on a radical plan to make some fast cash and thus, the Lagonda was born. The Lagonda was the company’s attempt at an ultra-exclusive, ultra-expensive, and ultimately ultra hideous, luxury sedan.

The car was designed by William Towns. His primary design experience prior to penning the Lagonda’s laser-straight lines, had been such prestigious components as door handles and seats for various British firms. He later went on to dream up some of the UK’s more horrid looking econo-box concepts after he fell in love with the 180° angle while working with Aston Martin.

The aside from its controversial looks, the Lagonda had some very appealing characteristics on paper. A hand-built 5.4 liter V8 producing 280hp was respectable for the day, and highly innovative electronic LED instrumentation gave it a proper dose of 1970s futuristic flair. The first of these cars were sold before they were even built as orders for the door-stop sedan came in after its conceptual unveiling in 1976. Aston Martin was happy to have the funding of course.

One thing to keep in mind however is that the Lagonda was a hand-built car made in England in the 1970s with electronics that were more complex than even the finest Soviet space craft. Need I say more? Furthermore, while Aston Martin spent unfathomable sums of money developing the electronics for the interior, they neglected to figure out how to fuel inject that carefully constructed V8 engine (which was fitted to a Chrysler 3-speed automatic). Weber supplied the four carburetors needed per engine. Also interestingly, it wasn’t until after its release that the car received opening rear windows.

The finally rolling off the assembly line in 1978, first batch of these sedans were known as the Series 2 and the Series 1 was actually a later designed coupe. Aston Martin realized themselves that the complex LED instrumentation was more or less a flop. But not giving up on complexity, in 1984 (with the Series 3) they introduced instrumentation via Cathode Ray Tubes that would make anyone familiar with early black and green Apple computer screens feel right at home. Later, on the Series 4, some styling changes were made also, such as doing away with pop-up headlights, rounding off of some hard edges, and yet another set of instruments - this time in the form of vacuum fluorescent gauges. Power was increased later on as well to 289hp for this car, which now weighed about two and a half tons.

By 1989, Aston Martin ended production of the Lagonda. While quite out-of-this-world, less than 650 were produced in its lifetime. Many of them have suffered from extensive electrical issues as one might expect, significant rust problems, and even heavily worn engines. The opulently appointed interiors have also been known to wear considerably as well, and all of these things are, of course, very expensive. Perhaps the only logical reason to purchase one of these cars today, would be if the vehicle’s once fabulously rich owner from the early ‘80s had neglected to remove all the cocaine hidden in the rocker panels before getting rid of the damned thing. At least that stash might be enough to pay for some new wiring.