Wednesday, May 23, 2018

5 reasons why it's roughly impossible to effectively replace the Volkswagen Beetle

It's no surprise the Volkswagen Beetle was quite revolutionary at its time, and became an effective contender to the sidecar rigs which used to be the mainstream "people's car" of Germany. But its success was not confined to its native country, to the point that it's still a fairly common sight in Brazil. Be it a "Baja Bug" or something closer to stock, the "Fusca" is an important part of the modern history of the country. Its local production, originally phased out in '86, had even been resumed from '93 to '96 at the request of former president Itamar Franco. Well, it was not so successful at this reintroduction, basically because most urban buyers tended to prefer the then-modern "people's cars" which were nothing but impoverished versions of random compacts such as the Fiat Uno and the Opel Corsa. However, there are at least 5 reasons why the Beetle is effectively irreplaceable.
1. - Ease of maintenance: the simple mechanicals requires fewer servicing than a water-cooled counterpart, plus it's one of the easiest engines for novice mechanics to learn the basic concepts of internal-combustion engines. Its perceived lack of sophistication then becomes somewhat advantageous.
2. - Ruggedness: this is still a desirable feature for many owners who may not be so mechanically-inclined, or who may go through harsh riding conditions. The air-cooled engine, which also has a gear-driven valvetrain instead of chain-driven or belt-driven like most modern cars, was developed for the Beetle exactly due to its resilience to harsh environmental conditions such as the extreme cold while parked outside when no heated garage (or no garage at all) were available to prevent ice damage to a radiator or even to the engine block due to the lack of antifreezing radiator fluid back in the day...

3. - Off-road capability: maybe one of the most noticeable reasons why the Beetle remains popular, with the "Baja bugs" as one evidence. The rear-engine rear-wheel drive layout enhances the traction in loose surfaces, plus it's quite easy to adapt selective rear-wheel braking to emulate the effect of a locker differential. Gurgel has done it with its Beetle-based mini-SUVs...

4. - Suitability to alternate fuels such as ethanol and CNG: it may seem not that easy at first, but the Beetle is effectively a gasoline/ethanol flexfuel vehicle. There were some versions labelled as dedicated-ethanol in the '80s, but due to the rough idling (most noticeably in cold weather) most owners simply used gasoline instead of ethanol with no harm to the engine reliability. It was also not uncommon to hear people talking about driving a Beetle on kerosene when it was still easily available at fuel stations all across the country.

5. - Ease to modify its body without major harm to structural integrity: its chassis separated from the body allows not just repairs but also some more extensive works such as turning it into some sort of convertible or into a station-wagon, rendering the Beetle easier to upfit to different users' needs compared to modern "people's cars" with an unibody layout.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Would a 125cc motorcycle make sense in the American market?

One matter that has been more frequent when I get into motorcycle talks with Americans is the lack of options in the 125cc class for the United States, even though it sounds quite unlikely that models like the Honda NXR 125 Bros currently made in Brazil nowadays only for export due to its outdated emissions certification (and frequently rebadged as XR 125L in the markets where it's still available) could be easily made compliant to EPA and DOT standards. Their road system, famous for the long straight-line stretches meant to also serve as improvised emergency runways for aircraft, is also more appealing to a random Harley-Davidson than to a present-day Honda CG 125i Fan (which got rid of the OHV engine still deeply beloved by some of my fellow Brazilians due to its ruggedness and ease of maintenance), while other factors such as the "there is no replacement for displacement" culture may be harder to overcome. However, other motivations such as purchase and maintenance costs, or seasonal increases in the fuel prices, are highlighted quite often by those who want a real motorcycle in this displacement class instead of some scooter or something else which becomes quite excessively optimized for a strict inner-city use. Well, even though a 125 feels more at home in the city than in a highway, it's not impossible at all to have some occasional road trips with a Honda CG for example...

Sure there are cultural differences in the usage of a motorcycle in the United States and in Brazil, and the perception of a small motorcycle as a working tool or an "urban mobility" option is more widely accepted year-round in Brazil instead of the recreational and more seasonal approach in the United States. Unfortunately both these situations may lead to the perception of a motorcycle as somewhat "inferior" to cars, even though it doesn't prevent small-displacement ones to remain popular in Brazil to the point of a '94-'99 square-headlight Honda CG 125 Cargo remaining used for urban deliveries despite the newest model-year approaching the 20-year milestone and harsh operating conditions. It's also worth to consider the ease of maintenance, which may become appealing not only for couriers and urban comutters who ride them year-round in a 3rd-world country, rendering them eventually more justifiable as a leisure vehicle for those summertime errands instead of something heavier and more expensive. Another matter of extreme controversy is the notoriously more effective cooling of a single-cylinder engine compared to the stereotypical air-cooled V-Twin still favored by most of the Americans who grew up surrounded by Harley-Davidson motorcycles which are anedoctally refered to burn all the hair in the leg of their riders. In the end, for those who want to ride only in the summer, even a modest 125cc utilitarian motorcycle may be somewhat pleasurable.

Performance-wise, even though a 125cc motorcycle may seem restricted to an urban environment, it's also worth to consider other aspects that may affect their aptitude to road operation. A smaller engine may need to be taken to a higher RPM band in order to reach a certain speed, which may bring not only the downsizing vs. downspeeding argument back to the table but also raise some controversies about an eventual lack of some power reserve which may become useful in situations such as overtakes. Operating at a higher RPM for extended periods may be pointed out to increase wear and tear compared to a larger and lower-revving engine, and the perceived fuel-efficiency advantage of a smaller displacement may also negate itself to the point of being either just marginally better or nearly identical to a bigger engine when these conditions are reminded, but it's still far from being an irrefutable truth. Even though the top speed also tends to be lower in a 125cc motorcycle, it might not be absolutely disadvantageous once we consider it may remain within the speed limits set for highway traffic. Sure it would sound more appealing to some random penny-pincher or to the folks at who are more focused on hypermiling and fuel-savings instead of the average Joe, but it's definitely not out of question. There is an opportunity to sell 125cc motorcycles in the United States, even though they might not retain the same degree of popularity they enjoy nearly everywhere else.
Different approaches to the motorcycling culture, politics such as tiered licensing, and operating costs might be easily pointed out as the main reasons for the popularity of 125cc motorcycles throughout the world, but it doesn't seem to justify their absence in the United States. Be it some basic utilitarian model or something more stylish such as those Hyosung and Daelim cruisers from the '90s, there is a potential demand for a simpler approach to the motorcycling that may be better represented by an affordable small-displacement motorcycle catering not just to novice riders but also to some older folks who may consider their Harleys too heavy and not willing to converting them into tricycles or to add a reverse gear to improve the handling. Sure it may seem confusing at first, but an increased availability of street-legal 125cc motorcycles in the United States would be actually a smart move.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

5 reasons why sidecars are often seen as a taboo in some 3rd-world countries

Sidecars have been around for a long time, serving for many different purposes since the early days of motoring. The world has changed a lot in the meantime, with conventional cars taking over some of the market-share that used to be captive for sidecars due to their technical simplicity and perceived lower cost since the early postwar when affordable cars with air-cooled engines suitable to be parked outside even in the European winter such as the Citroën 2CV and the Volkswagen Beetle got their days of glory. Even though the market-share for sidecars in developed markets have now been more restricted to recreational/enthusiast uses, mostly for passenger transport, they still have plenty of potential to address the needs of affordable light transport in emerging and underdeveloped countries. Cargo applications have become quite popular in Brazil in the last two decades but, like other 3rd-world countries, its use for passenger hauling became quite a taboo. Among the reasons that led to this awkward situation, at least 5 are more relevant.

Exposure to the elements: this might be more critical for passenger transport, while some enclosures are more easily available (though not always effectively implemented) for cargo. Be it due to weather conditions, unpleasant smells on the way and fumes out of poorly-mantained vehicles, or fearing that some loose objects falling from other vehicles and debris could harm the physical integrity of the rider and passengers, it's not a negligible concern.
Lack of a perceived "prestige": even though this matter is not so relevant for commercial operators, who value functionality and lower operating cost overall, it's known that a car may be regarded more aspirational for private users. So, even though a sidecar may be easily achievable in a shorter term, is not usually the first choice.
Nazi stereotypes: this seems to be more prevalent in Brazil. Whenever the possibility of getting a passenger-hauling sidecar rig is mentioned, its usage by Nazi German troops during World War II is always reminded. Surprisingly, all the people who expressed me their objections toward sidecars due to some reminiscence of Nazi military motorcycles were non-Jewish.
Requirement of a motorcycle endorsement for the driver license: sidecars rigs actually don't have a handling so close to the one of a motorcycle not fitted with this device, and are also not so identical to a car in this regard. However, since they occupy roughly the same space of a car over the roadway, most noticeably width-wise, the usage of sidecars could become more widespread among low-income customers in third-world countries if they were entitled to ride them without the requirement of a motorcycle endorsement on their driver licenses. Considering the lower purchase price compared to an average subcompact car and the higher maintenance cost of older jalopies which could be replaced by a sidecar rig, a legal provision enabling their riding by holders of a standard car driving license may become an effective way to decrease fuel consumption and emissions.
Perception as a makeshift approach: despite having its cost-effectiveness and suitability to many different tasks already proven, sidecars are still often pointed out as a mere makeshift. It's worth to notice that sidecars and trailers have a similar function, which is basically to expand the capabilities of the vehicles they're fitted to, so since trailers have already had their utility recognised maybe it's time to also consider giving sidecars a try.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Why is it pointless to ban older Diesel cars like it's been proposed in Germany?

The recent decision of a federal administrative court in Leipzig, recognising the legality of proposed restrictions to the circulation of Diesel-powered cars certified according to emission standards other than the current Euro-6, is one of those initiatives that may initially sound reasonable, but in fact are not so effective in regard to the "sustainability". Let's consider some aspects that render it pointless...

Relatively ease of retrofits to make 2000 and newer model-years compliant to current standards when their engines get due to an overhaul instead of simply getting rid of them: taking as example the Alfa Romeo 146 when fitted with the 1.9 JTD engine, fitted with a 1st-generation common-rail injection, much of its basic engine design is shared with newer models such as the Jeep Renegade, which in its Diesel-powered versions rely on engines from the Pratola Serra modular engine series that also originated the 1.9 JTD. Well, even though an eventual need to fit an AdBlue tank could become an issue, I can relate that to the usage of an auxiliary gasoline/petrol reservoir in older Brazilian dedicated-ethanol and flexfuel vehicles as a cold-start aid. Quite bothersome, but not impossible at all.

Cost and energy consumption of the manufacturing of replacement vehicles: an overwhelming majority of the 15 million Diesel-powered vehicles in Germany is now deemed "outdated" according to the proposed restrictions to be implemented initially in cities like Stuttgart and Dusseldorf, with only around 2.6 million or 8.6% of all Diesel vehicles in Germany already being certified in accordance to the Euro-6 standards. Even though the recycling of end-of-life vehicles is taken more seriously in Europe than in other regions, an extension to the operating useful life of an earlier model that is still roadworthy makes more sense than scrapping it from a sustainability standpoint. Well, just a few mechanical parts that might require a replacement and eventual updates to the engine management software require a lower energy input and fewer raw materials.

Impact on the resale value of used vehicles: this is another possible matter of concern, not just for the German domestic market but also for used car exports to African, Middle Eastern and Latin American countries where the import of used cars is allowed. Well, even though some older models still fitted with mechanically-governed indirect-injection engines such as the Citroën AX 1.5D or the Ford Fiesta Mk.4-based Courier Kombi 1.8D might not have an expressive resale value nowadays, others such as the 2nd-generation Fiat Doblò and the Hyundai Matrix which had been available with common-rail injection and forced induction since day one would be more heavily impaired in this aspect. Well, even though it may be arguable that North African used car dealers would try to stockpile as many cheap older Diesel cars as they could, it's not clear to which point the current owners of vehicles with a more advanced engine would receive a fair compensation to either replace them with a newer spark-ignited equivalent (eventually hybrid) or to retrofit them to become compliant to Euro-6. In a worst-case scenario, should we expect some Germans to resort to motorcycles with sidecars like their ancestors used to do before the introduction of the Beetle???

Higher suitability of most "jalopies" to alternate fuels: most noticeably the ones fitted with old-school indirect injection such as pre-2000 versions of the Opel Combo still fitted with the Euro-2 Isuzu 4EE1 engine or the Peugeot Partner/Citroën Berlingo with the Euro-3 DW8 engine, older Diesel-powered vehicles not fitted with some devices such as the Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF) are easier to adapt to run on pure vegetable oils, either fresh or reclaimed from culinary applications, plus the slower combustion process makes it have an even better fuel economy due to the slower burn of those oils with their natural glycerin content. Other models and versions already resorting to direct injection may not have issues associated with the evaporation of the fuel at the DPF core during its self-cleaning (also called "regeneration") process when running on biodiesel.
Ignoring the impact on commercial operators and prices of goods and services: even though the proposal of "blue corridors" with a steady supply of natural gas (Erdgas) in the most important motorway routes throughout the European Union is already meant to address an eventual need for replacement of Diesel fuel in the commercial transport, plus the German expertise on biogas/biomethane leading to a rather easy transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, there is a high cost involved and it may affect either the profitability of businesses and individual entrepreneurs or increase the price of goods and services in order to rebate the expenses of either a fleet renewal or the retrofit of newer engines with their associate fuel systems and emission-control devices.

There might be many other aspects to consider, but these 5 might already highlight why a Diesel ban goes against the best interests of German people, and also represents a dangerous precedent for the eventual loss of many other individual freedoms in Europe...

Friday, November 24, 2017

Suzuki GN250 bobber

Spotted this Suzuki GN250, known in my home country as Suzuki Intruder 250, some days ago while walking the dog. This is a 2001 model-year, the last for it in Brazil before being indirectly replaced by the GN 125. Even though the 125 outsold the 250, not just due to the cost but also benefitted by a longer local production run (actually CKD assembly, since Suzuki has turned to its Chinese partner HaoJue for the development and manufacturing of most of its small-displacement range).
Nowadays it's not so easy to spot a GN250 in stock condition, with most either beaten out in various states of disrepair, and others modified. This one is actually not the first modded one that I spotted, but I see it quite often. Even though its owner didn't really got rid of some features such as the turn indicators, rearview mirrors, front fender and front brake in order to make it look more old-school, and had even managed a quite smart solution to keep the speedometer by relocating it to the fork, it does resemble more a bobber than any other motorcycle type.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Jeep Willys CJ6 with 4 doors and a metal top

Took these pictures 9 years ago in my neighborhood, and never saw this one again or any other Jeep CJ from that vintage with a metal top. Similar adaptations used to be quite popular in Argentina, but are uncommon in Brazil. This top and doors were made by Carraço, a company that got specialized in those accessories not just for the Jeep Willys but also for other 4WD utility vehicles such as the DKW-Vemag Candango (a local variant of the West German DKW Munga).
When that enclosure was introduced in the '60s, it became perceived to be more refined than the more usual canvas tops, rendering the Jeep more suitable to match the aspirations of a then-emerging urban middle class with the need for a vehicle rugged enough to cope with the harsh road conditions.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Brazilian Volkswagen Transporter T2 Pritschenwagen (pick-up) with a regional high-volume van conversion and a graffiti paintjob

It's no surprise the Volkswagen Transporter T1 and T2 became so popular in Brazil, and remain to this day as one of the most iconic utility vehicles ever. This one, specifically, had been originally a pick-up, but had been converted into a high-cube van. Probably its first duty was delivery of cigarettes, or Elma Chips (local branch of Frito-Lay) snacks, until it finally found a new life hauling handicraft products to be sold at open-air exhibits that happen quite frequently in Porto Alegre. Spotted this one yesterday in the afternoon at the Farroupilha Park, just a few blocks away from downtown Porto Alegre.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

1996-2000 Dodge Grand Caravan with Opel Astra H headlamps

Spotted this Dodge Caravan in one of the parking lots of the Salgado Filho International Airport, in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. At a first sight from distance, while going by the Aeromóvel (a pneumatic-propelled monorail) from a nearby train station to the main terminal, this appeared to be something more exotic, such as the facelifted 1st generation of the Chinese-market Buick GL8.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Why do internal-combustion engines still seem viable in the foreseeable future?

The internal-combustion engine has been a reliable source of power for more than a century, and the basic operating principles are pretty much unchanged in this meantime. Compared to external-combustion machinery, such as the Watt's steam engine, the safety has been a noticeable advantage, even though it's limited to run on liquid or gaseous fuels. However, the predominance of petroleum-based fuels became a matter of concern in recent decades, not just due to environmental motivations but also because of the petroleum being a finite resource. This, and the advances in electric engines and batteries, is leading to some questionings about the viability of internal-combustion engines in the foreseeable future. However, it doesn't seem accurate to single-out engine technology as the main problem, while a better selection of renewable fuels could actually improve their environmental record.

While there has been some expectations around electric drive as a "cleaner" alternative to internal-combustion engines, especially in the automobile industry which still relies heavily on them, it's not so accurate to neglect some issues surrounding the reliability of battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) under certain operating conditions. Even though it may fare well in stop-and-go traffic, and the footprint of electric power generation is expected to go down as much as solar, tidal and wind power get widespread, there are still many concerns about the current status-quo with either a dependence on coal which is highly pollutant or hydroelectric which capacity is often compromised by unfavorable weather conditions such as longer dry periods. However, the effects of subtle weather changes on those alternative power sources is also far from negligible, and when it comes to wind power there had been some concerns about its effect on wind directions and how it would affect the migrating birds. The chemical compounds used in batteries, and the availability of raw materiais suitable to their manufacturing, had also been a subject of uncertainties due to the political allignment of certain countries with large reserves of lithium such as Bolivia.

The frequent usage of internal-combustion engines for electric power generation, either continuously or as a standby emergency setup, is another critical aspect to take in account. It's also important to remind the ease of handling inherent to most of the traditional liquid fuels, with Diesel fuel being still prevalent for that application, and the availability of gaseous fuels that could also be used, quickly turning a genset into a valuable asset in areas prone to weather-related power shortages at a higher rate. Despite it being possible to store electric power supplied by the grid during low-demand hours to use later in peak hours, and even the battery of an electric car such as the Nissan Leaf may fare as a limited power supply to the household during a shortage, gensets powered by an internal-combustion engine are still likely to remain quite common, while electric vehicles are going to keep relying heavily on government incentives as an attempt to increase their acceptance among the general public.

Other application for which the internal-combustion engine has been unbeatable is on utility boats, for which the harsh environmental conditions such as the salt mist are a matter of concern. After the Diesel engines successfully replaced the failure-prone and labor-intensive coal-fired steam engines about a century ago, there has been virtually no competition other than gas turbines. It could sound quite simple to harvest solar and wind power for a boat, not just for motion but also to supply power for communication and navigation devices such as a radio and a GPS, or comfort features, but it would still be subject to eventual weather changes and compromise the power supply. The energy density of an internal-combustion powerplant with all the fuel, lube oil and eventually other fluids required is usually still more favorable than what could be achieved with an all-electric setup (excluding on-board generation from solar or wind power in order to keep it more predictable), which is more suitable for such a weight-sensitive application.

Another aspect that should be always taken into account instead of pushing electric drive as the one-size-fits-all solution is the closure of the carbon cycle, which is actually way more effective with the internal-combustion engines. Their suitability to operate with renewable hydrocarbons is a valuable asset, considering that post-combustion CO² has a shorter half-life than methane which is the main component of Natural Gas and is methabolised more easily by vegetable stocks, either agricultural crops and pastures or forests. We must consider that organic matter is always going to rot away, so it would be better to keep it under control and take benefit from any energy that could be harvested, which includes ethanol that can be brewed out of virtually any starch, sugar, molasses or even cellulose, and the biomethane that is released by a wider range of feedstocks. Due to the technology required to make a spark-ignited engine run on those fuels being already commercially-available, sure there is some hope for internal combustion even in this post-Dieselgate world...

With operating principles remaining nearly unaltered for more than 100 years, internal-combustion engines have been a reliable power supply not just for mobility but also for many other activities of the mankind. Addressing issues concerning to the quality of fuels and lube oils supplied to those amazing machines seems to be actually more effective in order to claim a better environmental record for them, in order to ensure the best balance of sustainability and economic viability Even though it might seem like we're desperately attempting to stick with the past, it becomes hard to deny how suitable the internal-combustion engine is going to remain in a foreseeable future.