The sweetest sounds

Legendary Speed Shop passes on Nitto Tire’s video:

As you know, one of my weird interests is car starter sounds. A car’s starter motor (assuming it successfully starts the car) is a promise of a trip to a destination, the expression of transportation freedom found in no other mode of transportation.

The ultimate starter sound still is probably Brutus …

… powered by a BMW 48-liter V-12 engine which perfectly embodies the phrase “exploded into life.” Although Rolls–Royce might have a contrary argument:



The infrastructure deficit, and how to fix it

State Sen. Frank Lasee (R–De Pere):

The debate over Wisconsin Prevailing Wage law is reaching a fevered pitch. Many are still unclear about what prevailing wage is and how repealing it will save taxpayers millions and help local and state government reduce their building costs for years to come.

Prevailing wage is a mandatory, government-set price for wages on taxpayer funded projects based on the average of the highest paid workers doing the same type of work in that county (that’s right, when a road project crosses a county line the workers all have to paid a different rate for the work they do on each side of the county line). Prevailing wage artificially inflates the cost of construction by setting wages higher than other free market rates for the same work. Whenever government bureaucracy gets in the way of business, experience has shown us that it becomes less efficient and more costly.

The current prevailing wage law costs taxpayers and small businesses more in two different ways:

First, is the increased costs to taxpayers. The artificially high wages drive up the cost of public projects like school buildings, roads, and work on government buildings. Since the price is fixed at the highest union wage in the area, there are no bargains in the competitive bid process like there are on private sector projects that drive down prices. This lack of competition and government-set wages and benefits higher than private sector building projects results in higher costs for projects which use our tax dollars.

Second, the way the system is set up is confusing, complicated, and difficult for business and contractors doing the work. As I have talked with constituents who own contracting or trucking businesses, they always tell me that calculating prevailing wage is an “accounting nightmare”.

Here’s a story that illustrates how overlapping prevailing wage boundaries and rates makes work less efficient and more costly.

Imagine you’re at the grocery store buying milk. You get your gallon, make your way to the front of the store, but there’s an error message when the milk is scanned. The clerk tells you the price is different depending on how you’re going to use it. You pause because that just doesn’t make sense–it’s the same milk in the jug. How does the price change depending on where I pour it? The clerk asks you how much of the milk you plan to use for cereal. Baking? Mac n’ Cheese? Drinking? You end up paying four different prices for four different uses of milk based on the percentage of use in each category. By now your head is spinning, you’ve been at the register for 10 minutes, and you end up paying more money for the same milk. You leave the store angry and thinking about switching to *gasp* pressed soy drink to avoid the hassle over purchasing milk in the future.

Many Wisconsin contractors go through this same, unnecessary headache when calculating prevailing wage job costs. There is a prevailing wage set by the federal government in Washington, DC, and a county-specific wage rate and a job-specific wage rate. Then there is a state prevailing wage rate, different from the federal rate, for use on projects that don’t have federal tax dollars paying for them. The state and federal rates are different.

Workers on road building projects will often work on more than one project with different rates on the same day, with the multiple prevailing wage rates in the same week. The time worked on each project has to be tracked and the worker has to be paid the right government-set prevailing wage rate.

By eliminating prevailing wage mandates, Wisconsin taxpayers win and save hundreds of millions of dollars because smaller, qualified companies that previously couldn’t or didn’t want to handle the administrative burdens of prevailing wage will be able to bid for taxpayer funded construction projects. As with everything else – from TV’s to toasters – competition drives down costs, increases innovation, and allows our government tax dollars to be more wisely spent. We will get more building for our tax dollars.

Labor costs are the number one component of nearly everything we purchase. Reduce labor costs, and you reduce the costs of what you’re buying, including refurbished roads.

Interstate 41

I was born in the back seat of a Greyhound bus,
Rollin’ down Interstate 41 …

OK, the Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man” doesn’t particularly fit here. (For one thing, the narrator is the son of a Georgia gambler who wound up on the wrong end of a gun; nevertheless them Delta women thought the world of him.) It does, however, commemorate the news Gov. Scott Walker’s office released Thursday:

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker announced today that U.S. 41 in the eastern part of the state has been officially added to the Interstate System as I-41.

“The Interstate designation is the culmination of years of hard work by federal, state, and local officials that will stimulate economic opportunities from Milwaukee to Green Bay and beyond,” Governor Walker said. “Our Interstate system is a critical part of our infrastructure, which fuels commerce, helps grow the economy, and create jobs.”

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) officially approved the Interstate designation – the final step in a process that began nearly 10 years ago.  Installation of about 3,000 new signs will begin this summer with signing expected to be completed by November 2015.

“The official designation of I-41 is tremendous news that will support the safe, efficient movement of people and commerce for many years to come,” said Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb.  “Along with Governor Walker’s leadership, I want to thank former Congressman Tom Petri, our current Congressional delegation, state legislators, local government officials, and community leaders who helped make I-41 a reality.

Wisconsin’s newest Interstate route runs concurrently with US 41 for the entire route.  I-41 begins at the I-94/US 41 interchange located about one mile south of the Wisconsin/Illinois border.  It follows I-94 north to the Mitchell Interchange, I-894 and US 45 around Milwaukee and then joins US 41 north to Green Bay where it ends at the I-43 Interchange.

Existing US 41 in the Milwaukee area will be re-routed to follow I-41 along I-894 and US 45.  Current US 41 along Lisbon Avenue and Appleton Avenue from I-94 at the Stadium Interchange northwesterly to the interchange with US 45 will be re-numbered WIS 175.

Got all that?

This was one of the issues I watched in my previous life as a business magazine editor. The great (though apparently not currently updated) Wisconsin Highways website brings some history of Wisconsin’s efforts at Interstates from the state Department of Transportation:

The State Highway Engineer, in 1945, submitted tentative route designations that included the currently used I-94 in southeast Wisconsin plus the Highway 18 zone between Madison-Prairie du Chien; Highway 51 northerly from the present Interstate toward Hurley; Hwy. 53 between Eau Claire-Superior; a route between Milwaukee-Green Bay; and an east-west loop between Green Bay-Eau Claire where it would have linked with the present I-94.

The first Washington response was to substitute Tomah-La Crosse for Madison-Prairie du Chien. Other responses followed.

In the meantime, the Turnpike Commission, established by Wisconsin Laws of 1953, was looking over the situation.

Wisconsin had anticipated the Interstate, in a way, with studies of a possible toll road-turnpike. Consulting engineers from Baltimore, Md., and New York City in 1954 submitted, respectively, a preliminary engineering statement and traffic-revenue study.

The latter concluded that a toll road between Hudson and Hwy. 41, the Hwy. 29 loop, would be “cost beneficial” for motorists and profitable for the state.

The Maryland consultant’s study looked at routes in the present I-90/94 corridor, except Tomah-La Crosse, along with a loop between Madison-Wisconsin Dells through Sauk City and another connecting Hwy. 41 near Kenosha through Burlington and Fort Atkinson to Madison. This study inferred that parallel routes might reduce potential tolls and lead to unprofitability.

In June 1955, the Turnpike Commission reported to the Legislature that the Illinois-Wisconsin corridor was not feasible at the time and recommended delay “until future developments can be fully appraised.”

Another toll road study was conducted at the State Legislature’s request in 1982. Both a cursory Departmental analysis and a consultant’s subsequent assessment reached negative conclusions.7
Meanwhile, Washington-Madison negotiations continued. In 1955, assuming that there would be 2,400 miles of urban additions to the Interstate system, the Commission asked for four more sections in the city of Milwaukee. This included a loop around the central district, Howard Avenue-South 44th Street, a 2.3 mile extension toward Glendale, and a 7.3 mile extension toward Hwy. 100.

Letter exchanges continued in 1956 with requests for extensions into Madison, La Crosse, and Eau Claire—all denied.

Other decisions came in December. Washington denied the state’s request for a route between Genoa City-Beloit, opting instead for Madison-Janesville-Beloit. A Milwaukee-Green Bay (Hwy. 41) route was approved, but the state failed to get plans completed in time to meet a deadline and the effort failed, according to G. H. Bakke, a legislator at the time.

The Commission made another try in March 1958 for additional mileage between Marinette-Milwaukee. This was denied is less than a month.

In February 1963, a request was submitted for a route between Milwaukee and Superior by way of Green Bay, Wausau, Hurley and Ashland. The additions, the covering letter said, could be done in “increments, if necessary: Milwaukee-Green Bay, Green Bay urban extension, Green Bay-Wausau, Wausau-Superior.” Except for Milwaukee-Green Bay [in 1972] this, too, was denied.

Nearly a decade later, still another try was made. In separate booklets, emphasizing necessary connections, the Department of Transportation asked for approval of Interstates between Milwaukee-Beloit and Milwaukee-Janesville; for connections again via Hwys. 52[sic] and 53 to the northlands, for the east-west (Hwy. 29) freeway, for extensions southerly in the Milwaukee area, for Green Bay-Milwaukee, and the Airport Spur.

The Green Bay-Milwaukee (now I-43), the Lake Freeway (I-794), and Airport Spur extensions were subsequently approved. From what had been some 480 miles of Interstate, the Wisconsin system became 578 miles.

Immediately ahead lay controversy about the location and numbering of the Milwaukee-Green Bay route. The first proposal was a Hwy. 57 corridor about midway between Hwy. 141 along Lake Michigan on the east and Hwy. 41 through the Fox Valley to the west. The ultimate compromise was to use most of existing Hwy. 141 between Milwaukee-Sheboygan, then to angle mostly on new location between Sheboygan-Green Bay, and to call it I-43.

The final Wisconsin Interstate project was authorized in 1985 in the form of an I-43 ramp connection in Sheboygan.

In a concluding word about the Interstate discussion to this point, state statistics supported claims for more corridors. As a two percent state (population, vehicles, other common indicators) but with only a shade over one percent of the national Interstate mileage, Wisconsin authorities felt deprived.

They also felt Wisconsin met all of the criteria for Interstate corridors: serving national defense; integrating the national system by filling missing links; assisting industrial, recreational and commercial movement, and “providing direct access to, for, and from rural and urban areas.”

Apparently, being tucked away from major east-west and north-south routings, perhaps lacking enough aggressiveness, and being out of federal political favor at the wrong times, were handicaps too great to be overcome by logic.

At the same time, there was evidence of limited foresight and apathy, according to Bakke.

Bakke added that lack of state vision and local enthusiasm—especially in Madison—also contributed to the shortchanging of the state. He noted the Turnpike Commission estimated Beloit-Madison traffic would reach 4,000 by 1980. In reality, it was 16,000-plus.

(As I wrote here Saturday: Government incompetence is not a recent development.)

It is interesting to note that of the original proposed list of Interstates, the only one that didn’t become an Interstate was the Madison-to-Prairie du Chien route. There apparently also was a proposal at some point to make what now is U.S. 14 from La Crosse to Madison a freeway instead of the route that became Interstate 90 to Tomah. That would have eliminated the instant bottleneck that I-90/94 from Tomah to Madison became (particularly when you got to the Dells, thanks to Tommy Bartlett and his successors), and it certainly would have been an economic shot in the arm to southwest Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Highways also has an exhaustive history of 41 dating back to when it went through downtown Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, Appleton and Green Bay, beginning with:

While the State of Wisconsin is home to several US Highways and four Interstates, US-41 has always seemed to outshine them all for some reason. From its inception, it has not only served the state’s largest city, Milwaukee, but also serves or connects more of the state’s other large cities together than any other primary route. From Racine and Kenosha south of Milwaukee to Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, Appleton and the rest of the Fox Cities up to Green Bay and Marinette on the Michigan state line. US-41 was also the first highway to see major upgrades and realignments, even before the Interstate highway system was a glint in someone’s eye.

I look at 41 as the highway that builds things too. Go from Fond du Lac to Green Bay, and you find Mercury Marine, Oshkosh Corp., a huge number of other manufacturers, and major paper operations.

State transportation officials hoped that what now is I-41 could become an extension of Interstate 55, which runs from Chicago to New Orleans. WisDOT’s Illinois counterparts were uninterested. Other numbers then were considered, but it’s a good thing, absent extending I-55, that it will be known as I-41, even though it follows U.S. 41 and part of U.S. 45 along the way. It would be nice to extend I-41 to the Wisconsin/Michigan state line, but that would require the state of Michigan to care at all about its Upper Peninsula. (North of I-43 U.S. 41 is now four lanes into Marinette, but 41 is two lanes once you get into Michigan. The only Upper Peninsula Interstate is I-75 from the adventure that is the Mackinac Bridge up to Sault Ste. Marie.)

I last drove 41 a month ago when I got to cover the state girls basketball tournament. I am a little surprised the state is putting up Interstate shields; I thought WisDOT would just put up green flags, given that if you’re going the speed limit, you’re going to get passed.

One interesting fact about I-41 is that as an Interstate it is now subject to the Highway Beautification Act. All the billboards you see along 41 will be the only billboards you see on 41, because said Highway Beautification Act prohibits new or expanded billboards along Interstates. Given that it seems like half the state’s billboards are along 41, well, what you see is what you will get.

Interstate 41 is an example of one of the few actually worthwhile big-ticket government spending projects, because (1) Interstates get goods from manufacturer to seller, and (2) Interstates are the best current example of transportation freedom, where you go where you want to go when you want to go, unlike airplanes, trains or buses.

I-41 also is an example that political clout matters. The credit for pushing I-41 where it counts, since Interstates are federal highways, goes to former U.S. Rep. Tom Petri (R-Fond du Lac), who was in his third decade in Congress when he was able to successfully get the Interstate designation through Congress. Petri represented Wisconsin much better than the two U.S. senators who claimed to be representing Wisconsin but weren’t in the 1990s and 2000s, Herb “Nobody’s Senator But” Kohl and Rusty the Phony Maverick Feingold. Neither did one thing to promote 41 as an Interstate. Petri did, and Republicans thanked him by hounding him out of office.

At any rate, Interstate 41 is important for Wisconsin for the reasons Walker mentioned and others. Just make sure you keep up with the traffic.


The dead end of an era

There are supposedly no irreplaceable people in the work world.

There are, however, people in the media world who are so identified with their work that they really cannot be replaced. Paul Harvey was one. Heaven help the eventual replacement for the Dodgers’ Vin Scully.

And now there is Jeremy Clarkson, “sacked,” to use the British term, by the BBC (“the Beeb,” as it’s known across the pond) from “Top Gear”:

Jeremy Clarkson’s contract will not be renewed after an “unprovoked physical attack” on a Top Gear producer, the BBC’s director general has confirmed.

Tony Hall said he had “not taken this decision lightly” and recognised it would “divide opinion”.

However, he added “a line has been crossed” and he “cannot condone what has happened on this occasion”.

Clarkson was suspended on 10 March, following what was called a “fracas” with Top Gear producer Oisin Tymon.

The row, which took place in a Yorkshire hotel, was said to have occurred because no hot food was provided following a day’s filming.

An internal investigation began last week, led by Ken MacQuarrie, the director of BBC Scotland.

It found that Mr Tymon took himself to hospital after he was subject to an “unprovoked physical and verbal attack”.

“During the physical attack Oisin Tymon was struck, resulting in swelling and bleeding to his lip.”

It lasted “around 30 seconds and was halted by the intervention of a witness,” Mr MacQuarrie noted in his report.

“The verbal abuse was sustained over a longer period” and “contained the strongest expletives and threats to sack” Mr Tymon, who believed he had lost his job.

Mr Tymon did not file a formal complaint and it is understood Clarkson reported himself to BBC bosses following the incident.

After that, the BBC’s director of television, Danny Cohen, felt he had no choice but to suspend the presenter pending an investigation. …

Jeremy Clarkson took a slightly dull and failing car programme and turned it in to the biggest factual TV show in the world.

But this sacking has nothing to do with style, opinions, popularity – or even his language on the show.

It’s about what stars are allowed to get away with off screen, a topic that’s been top of the agenda for the BBC in recent months.

The corporation has had to overhaul all of its policies and attitudes towards bullying and harassment, and a long verbal tirade and a physical assault would have crossed the line for any member of staff.

Clarkson may be popular with the audience, and the BBC really did not want to lose him, but this was a star who admitted he was on his final warning and a corporation that was under intense scrutiny over what its top talent can and cannot get away with.

Top Gear, which is one of BBC Two’s most popular programmes, will continue without Clarkson, who will now become the subject of a bidding war by other broadcasters.

The magazine show is one of the BBC’s biggest properties, with overseas sales worth an estimated £50m a year for the corporation’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide. …

Whether Clarkson’s co-presenters James May and Richard Hammond will remain on the show has yet to be confirmed.

All three had their contracts up for renewal this year, with Clarkson’s due to expire at the end of March.

Hammond tweeted: “Gutted at such a sad end to an era. We’re all three of us idiots in our different ways but it’s been an incredible ride together.”

May also updated his Twitter profile to say: “Former TV presenter”.

This is most likely the end of the original Top Gear as we know it. (Though Clarkson and his colleagues may well end up on another British channel on another show, as a Facebook friend predicted Wednesday.)

The considerable irony here is that had Clarkson been an American media figure he probably would not have been fired. We Americans are the supposed prudes, and yet for decades people in the entertainment world have gotten away with actions far worse than this (see Polanski, Roman) and maintained their jobs. Notice that after “misremembering” his exploits in Iraq NBC hasn’t fired Brian Williams … yet. Keith Olbermann is, to use the name of one of his segments, apparently The Worst Person in the World to work with, and yet he moves from one employer to another.

On the other hand, some of the things Clarkson has said over the years probably would have gotten him fired here. Clarkson fits the British definition of “politically incorrect,” and once called former British prime minister Gordon Brown … a term that will certainly not be reprinted here. (No, it doesn’t start with the letter F. It’s worse.) That’s a bit ironic given that the U.S. has the First Amendment and Britain has no counterpart, but on this side of the Atlantic free speech is not unlimited, particularly when it offends the chronically offended.

Facebook Friend Larry L. Tebo compares Clarkson with the great American car writers:

Love him or otherwise, Jeremy Clarkson stands apart from every other living automotive journalist simply due to the fact that he has so much STYLE. I’ve loved great automotive journalists since I was a boy first reading Ken Purdy’s prose and even the pedestrian-but-informative output of Floyd Clymer. I loved Brock Yates gonzo style and incisiveness, and David E. Davis’ intelligence, wit, and again…..STYLE led an entire generation of car guys to the promised land of “no boring cars”, and indeed, no boring stories. Charles Fox wrote about cars with a feeling of beauty in his words. Jean Shepherd wrote about everything, but when he wrote about automobiles, as he did for quite some time as a monthly columnist in Car and Driver, he brought the human spirit of warmth along with his incomparable humor to the subject, making cars much more than just machines. That’s what all these writers did with cars, and that is what makes them so special. Clarkson is almost like a distillation of all of these greats, IMO, into one very cranky, very funny, very irritating, yet a very ingratiating person who commands attention because he is so damned GOOD at what he does.

Why is Clarkson so important in the car world? Jalopnik explains:

The third biggest loser in this sad saga of Top Gear is the wider car media, and the business that surrounds it. Of course the first is the vast fan base that has followed the show for many years. The second, assuming the brand struggles to survive, is the team who work on it – and I can’t imagine how they feel right now. But sitting here it strikes me that so many people also engaged in this business of writing or making films about cars haven’t stopped to understand just what Top Gear did for all us ordinary folk. Nor what it did for the car industry in general.

Top Gear has acted like some vast, entirely free marketing service for all of us. I have always viewed it as the primary sales funnel for my videos, and the analytics support the theory: 350 million people watch the three boys doing their thing on a Sunday night and a very small percentage think they might want to know a bit more about the car featured that week, and so they type the car’s name into YouTube and they might just happen across one of our low-budget productions. A very small percentage of 350 million is still a very large number.

I’m like that little, nagging fish constantly nibbling a whale shark’s barnacles. I’m a TG parasite, and it’s worked bloody well for me up to now.

More importantly Jeremy, James and Richard have not just maintained the public’s love affair with the motor car, they’ve grown it – a feat I’d have thought impossible ten years ago in the face of political and environmental pressures. The conventional car print media – the one I have always been a part of – has failed in many ways with dwindling circulations and diminished influence, but its biggest crime is a total failure to connect with a younger audience. Thankfully for all of us, Top Gear’s role as compulsory Sunday night family viewing has excited a whole new generation of youngsters to not only be interested in cars, but to love cars. And for that I think it has already shaped the car industry as we currently know it, and how it will be in the future.

I suspect Clarkson and his colleagues will reappear elsewhere. Clarkson is the indispensable man of “Top Gear.” (The lack of him is why the U.S. “Top Gear” is severely lacking.)

Is Top Gear running out of gas?

While (or perhaps I should say “whilst”) I have been in the midst of postseason basketball, a controversy has erupted across the pond, the London Evening Standard reports:

James May and Richard Hammond have turned down an offer to continue as presenters of Top Gear without their co-host Jeremy Clarkson.

The pair said they “didn’t want to do it without Jeremy” despite being given the chance to present the rest of the series while Clarkson is suspended, a BBC executive reportedly said.

Clarkson has been temporarily removed as presenter after allegedly punching producer Oisin Tymon during a row over a steak dinner on set.

It is believed both men have now both given their evidence to the BBC’s inquiry into the “fracas”.

A BBC spokesman refused to comment on any developments, saying: “As we said last week we have an investigation ongoing and we won’t comment further until that is concluded.”

The last episodes of the series have been postponed, causing the BBC to lose millions of viewers and receive thousands of complaints. Top Gear is estimated to earn the corporation about £300million annually. …

The trio are due to host four live Top Gear shows in Norway on March 27 and 28. Their BBC contracts are due to expire three days later, which could render any disciplinary hearings redundant.

A petition to reinstate Clarkson had today attracted about 970,000 supporters.

For those who haven’t seen the original: Clarkson is 6-foot-5 with a massive head, five years older than I am, not exactly photogenic, but opinionated, controversial and therefore funny. So was David E. Davis Jr., but he never did TV, and he seemed cultured enough to, for instance, not claim that truck drivers murder prostitutes as part of their daily schedule.

Imagine, if you will, a Wisconsin conservative saying this during the Act 10 debate:

The millionaire presenter caused outrage when he told shocked The One Show presenters striking public sector workers should be shot dead “in front of their families”.

He said: “I’d have them all shot. I would take them outside and execute them in front of their families. I mean how dare they go on strike when they’ve got these gilt-edged pensions that are going to be guaranteed while the rest of us have to work for a living.”

I would have a hard time finding anyone in American media that was really comparable to Clarkson. And the list of controversies in which he’s been involved (insult an entire country?) makes it hard to imagine an American channel would take the unfiltered Clarkson. (Even though we have the First Amendment and Britain does not, these days Americans look for reasons to be offended.)

The U.S. version of Top Gear pales in comparison to the original, because the U.S. version doesn’t have Clarkson …

… and therefore the American version isn’t nearly as funny as the original:

Among other things, Clarkson doesn’t like Corvettes despite their amazing performance …

… or Americans generally:

For many years, I’ve argued that the heart of the average American motorist beats approximately once every 15 minutes. Technically, they’re in a coma.

But, sadly, this is wrong. Nowadays, the American motorist drives at the same speed we do, 80 or 85. And he’s the most aggressive creature on earth.

If you wish to change lanes on the freeway, because, say, your turn-off is approaching, you can indicate all you like, but no one will slow down to let you in. They won’t speed up, either. They’ll just sit there until you remember you’re in a rental car and make the move anyway. Then you’ll get a selection of hand gestures that you never knew existed.

I know of no country in the world where motorists are so intolerant of one another. The slightest mistake causes at the very least a great deal of horn blowing and, at worst, a three-second burst from some kind of powerful automatic weapon.

On the other hand, he also hates environmentalists and mass transit, so he’s got that going for him.

Clarkson has been blamed, believe it or don’t, for causing the demise of a car company, Rover. The always-accurate Wikipedia explains:

One of Clarkson’s most infamous dislikes was of the British car brand Rover, the last major British owned and built car manufacturer. This view stretched back to the company’s time as part of British Leyland. Describing the history of the company up to its last flagship model, the Rover 75, he paraphrased Winston Churchill and stated “Never in the field of human endeavour has so much been done, so badly, by so many,” citing issues with the rack and pinion steering system. In the latter years of the company Clarkson blamed the “uncool” brand image as being more of a hindrance to sales than any faults with the cars. On its demise, Clarkson stated “I cannot even get teary and emotional about the demise of the company itself – though I do feel sorry for the workforce.” …

Clarkson’s comments about Rover prompted workers to hang an “Anti-Clarkson Campaign” banner outside the defunct Longbridge plant in its last days.

Clarkson’s colleagues want him to say, including the current mysterious (as in head covered by a full-face motorcycle helmet) Stig:

‘The Stig’ has delivered a petition with nearly one million signatures to the BBC in a bid to get Clarkson reinstated following his ‘fracas’ with a producer.

Someone dressed as Top Gear’s tame racing driver caused scenes in London today by posing on top of a moving tank, as it took to the streets of Central London.

At the time of writing, the petition, set up by political blogger Guido Fawkes, is just over 8,000 signatures short of the one million mark.

It comes after Clarkson reportedly alleged that he’d been sacked, and told his charity gala audience that Top Gear used to be great, but ‘bosses had f***** it up’.

When “new” doesn’t necessarily mean “better”

Eric Peters has a history lesson for those wanting the next innovation from their favorite carmaker:

It’s the “bells and whistles” that get the headlines – and grab your attention. But they might also grab your wallet once the warranty runs out. A classic example from long ago is the aluminum block four-cylinder engine GM trotted out back in the mid-1970s. It was a revolutionary design based on a high-silicon alloy that eliminated the need for pressed-in cylinder liners. It was also very lightweight, which promised to improve both the fuel economy and the handling of the car it was built for – the Chevy Vega. Stop me if you know where this is going…


Well, the problem wasn’t the alloy block. It was the cast iron cylinder head bolted to it. And the unbalanced pistons within, which shook like a shivery dog on deliberately loose motor mounts (a Band Aid for the shivery shaking, to mask it from the car’s owner) until either the head bolts loosened up or the block warped just enough to let coolant slip past the head gasket into the unsleeved cylinders.

Hello, ‘Frisco!

Few of these atrocities ever made it to 30,000 miles without a catastrophic engine failure.

Such epic debacles are less common today. But modern cars are far from foolproof. Here’s a roster of some designs – and features – you might want to think twice about:

* AC and audio controlled by touchscreen input –

The iPad Culture craves flat screens – including in their cars. Here’s the problem. When your touchscreen LCD croaks, your AC and audio system (as well as anything else controlled via the touchscreen) will no longer work. Or rather, you won’t be able to turn these accessories on (or perhaps, off). Mechanically speaking, there may be nothing wrong with your AC. The compressor, condenser and so on all working properly. But with a dead flat screen – or one no longer responsive to your touch – you’re looking at a big repair bill regardless. A replacement repair bill, actually. Because you don’t repair dead LCD displays. You pull them – and toss them. How much does a new iPad cost? Physical buttons and knobs, meanwhile, are pretty dependable and more important, individual. One knob or switch or button controls one thing. If the little knob you rotate to adjust the radio’s volume goes out, you won’t be able to adjust the volume… but your AC will still work. If the LCD touchscreen craps out, nothing works.

You’ve been warned.

* 20 inch (and larger) wheels –

This ghetto inspired trend has reached the apotheosis of stupidity. Everyone seems to want their car – or SUV – to look like a Suge Knight Special. Leaving aside the aesthetics, these oversized “rims” dramatically increase rolling resistance, which dramatically hurts gas mileage. They also dramatically increase wear and tear on front end components – which you’ll find out about around 30,000 miles down the road from new. They muck up ride quality – which the car industry crutches via elaborate (read: expensive) suspension systems in order to make the cars livable. “Twennies” mounted on 4WD SUVs are the absolute height (depth?) of idiocy. The last thing you want on a 4WD are short/stiff sidewall tires and a steamroller tread that rides up on rather than cuts through the snow.


*Cars with poor rearward visibility (due to sloped rooflines/small glass).

This is now a common problem in new cars. Caused – ironically – by the government’s “safety” edicts and crutched (rather than fixed) with Band Aid technologies such as back-up cameras and blind spot warning systems. Washington issued an edict requiring all new cars be fitted from the factory with “anti-whiplash” headrests, which are very tall. The car companies make the problem worse by steeply sloping the roofline as it descends to the ass end of the car – which (thanks to government’s bumper impact mandates) now sits way high in the air. In many new cars, the rear glass is both tiny and only a few degrees from being horizontal – which, along with those too-tall headrests – makes it damned hard to see anything behind you. You can reduce the danger – and the aggravation – by choosing a car with decent rear glass area that’s not mounted so flat that you can only see up. And by removing the backseat “anti-whiplash” headrests and laying the buggers on the floor. Most can be popped out (and back in) without tools. If no one’s riding back there, why not? You’ll be better able to see where you’re going – which is a helluva lot “safer” than depending on two-dimensional cameras – and blinking lights and buzzers.

* Auto-stop/start –

Gas (even when it was $4 a gallon) is comparatively inexpensive… compared with an engine replacement. Or even a starter/battery replacement. Which is why the automatic stop/start technology being fitted to a growing number of new cars is arguably a terrible idea. Roll to a stop at a red light and the car’s computer peremptorily shuts off the engine. When the light goes green, and you take your foot off the brake (and press the accelerator) it spins a super high-torque starter to kick it back to life, so you can move. The object is to save the minuscule quantity of fuel that would be burned while “idling.” But here’s the problem: When the engine’s off, the oil’s no longer circulating – and even though a film of oil will still be protecting your engine’s internals, it’s not the same as circulating oil under pressure. Instead of just one start cycle on your trip to work, your engine may endure a dozen start-stop cycles. And most engine wear occurs guess when? During start-up. The frequent starts (and the high torque starters required for near instantaneous re-starts) also require higher-performance batteries and these will inevitably live shorter lives due to the many-times-multiplied start/stop (and discharge-recharge) cycling. Also, engine-powered accessories such as your air conditioner will not work when the engine isn’t running. When your engine auto-stops at a light on a 95 degree day, so does the cool air.

Avoid auto-stop/start if possible – and don’t buy a car that has it if you can’t turn the damned thing off.

* A new car that doesn’t come with at least three “e” keys –

Gone are the days when – if you lost your spare set of car keys – you could take the one you still had down to the hardware store and have them cut you a duplicate set for $5. Somehow, the car industry has gulled the buying public into believing they just have to have electronic keys. Which just happen to cost many orders of magnitude more than a simple metal key (and which, unlike metal keys, are absolutely going to stop working at some point down the road). Which is why it’s so critically important to get as many of them as you possibly can if the new car you’re about to buy comes with them. Insist they be included as part of the deal – or there will be no deal. Remember: The one and only time you have any leverage is before you sign the paperwork. You are well-advised to demand at least three “e” keys be provided with the car before you do sign. Go for four, actually. The more the merrier.

Because you’ll be a lot merrier if you don’t find yourself having to fork over $300 for a new “e” key four years from now – after losing your only other set. Don’t forget: Your car will be 3,400 pounds of useless metal without that $300 “e” key.

Get as many of them as you can up front … for free.

I’m not sure I entirely agree with the point about headrests, having been rear-ended three times (the first time in a car with no rear headrests), though if no one ever rides in the back seat I suppose you don’t need them. The aforementioned rear-view cameras are useful (but not entirely useful) when backing up. As far as rear visibility is concerned, the side view mirrors are more useful if correctly adjusted. Most drivers have them angled too close to the car, so that they see an edge of the car, which is useless; they should be angled outward farther so that the driver can see the complete lane on either side of the car.

Peters could have mentioned many other examples of technology introduced before it was ready merely from General Motors. GM was the first to introduce a catalytic converter, which generally failed about a year after introduction. GM also introduced Computer Command Control, which featured an electronic carburetor and the infamous Check Engine light. I can personally attest that CCC was a bunch of CRAP in at least its first iteration, and possibly beyond that. GM’s first electronic fuel injected engines worked fine when in proper running condition, which wasn’t often. The entire design of the Chevy Citation and its X-body cousins was a rolling (sometimes) example of Not Ready for Prime Time.

For these and other reasons, car-buyers should be skeptical of such less-than-proven technology as certain hybrids and particularly the Chevy Volt. Wait until we know how long they last, and the replacement cost (and lifetime) of such key expenses as batteries, before you become another Detroit sucker.



From Pontiac to Dodge

Automotive News has an interesting observation:

General Motors CEO Mary Barra, at the recent Automotive News World Congress, said the company doesn’t miss any of the brands that were discontinued during the company’s 2008-09 bankruptcy and restructuring — Saturn, Saab, Hummer and Pontiac.

You can take that to mean that none will ever be revived by GM, at least while Barra is in power.

But that doesn’t mean displaced customers of two of the brands — Hummer and Pontiac — have nowhere to go.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is building a lineup that would be a natural home for displaced Hummer and Pontiac customers.

Looking at Jeep’s staggering global growth and the worldwide explosion in popularity of SUVs and crossovers, you have to think a Hummer customer’s first choice would be a Jeep. (Don’t forget the two brands shared the same basic seven-slot grille.) GM no longer has a dedicated brand of rugged off-road vehicles.

But I see the biggest migration of GM customers to coming from Pontiac — and going to Dodge.

“Dodge is the American performance brand,” Tim Kuniskis boasted during a presentation of Fiat Chrysler’s new five-year plan in May.

Kuniskis, CEO of Dodge, is trimming and recasting the brand’s lineup to focus on performance — putting its tires squarely on the turf that transformed Pontiac into a performance powerhouse in the 1960s.

Pontiac’s performance image, spawned by such cars as the GTO, Firebird, Super Duty Trans Am and others, lasted well into the 1980s. It was in the midst of being reborn when GM killed the brand in 2009.

Dodge’s Grand Caravan minivan is about to join the midsize Avenger sedan in automotive history books. And by 2018, Kuniskis says, Dodge will have seven performance-oriented nameplates. That plan is already in motion with the outrageous new 707-hp Challenger and Charger SRT Hellcat muscle cars, and the V-10 Viper sports car.

I asked Kuniskis if Dodge will actively pursue Pontiac fans with direct mail appeals, discounts and other tactics, since GM no longer has a brand dedicated to performance vehicles.

“The Dodge brand is open to any buyer who is looking for performance,” he said. “Every Dodge vehicle is designed to deliver that visceral feel that reminds buyers why they fell in love with driving in the first place, and we’re open to any buyer who is looking for that feeling, regardless of the brand they’ve previously driven.”

I don’t want to give you the impression that GM no longer cares about performance cars and Pontiac customers. Cadillac is largely about luxury and tire-shredding performance. At the North American International Auto Show, Cadillac showcased the new CTS-V, a 640-hp road rocket.

And Chevrolet has some interesting cars, such as the SS, which is a new version of the discontinued Pontiac G8 sports sedan, and the Corvette and Camaro. But GM has no mainstream brand purely devoted to performance or even with a strong performance image.

Even if Dodge does capture a good share of Pontiac buyers, success is not guaranteed, says AutoPacific analyst Dave Sullivan.

For one thing, GM won’t give up Pontiac customers easily.

GM spokeswoman Ryndee Carney says GM consistently communicates with Pontiac customers, alerting them of new GM models and offering loyalty incentives to stay with GM. The company won’t disclose or quantify how successful it has been at retaining Pontiac customers, Carney said.

U.S. buyers have many performance vehicles from which to choose.

“When you look at other performance models — the Ford Focus ST, the Raptor, BMW’s M series, Audi’s S and RS models — none of those automakers dedicate a whole brand to performance,” Sullivan says. “There is a limited market for go-fast stuff. Look how many Accords, Camrys and Altimas sold last year.”

Readers fired away immediately:

The U.S. has several performance cars, but it doesn’t have a “performance brand”, least of all Dodge which is best known for being the least expensive Chrysler. Ironically, Pontiac received one of the few true performance cars pre-failed GM produced, but GM never bothered to package G8 for North American success, so it languished into obscurity with the rest of Pontiac as merely not being the lowest rung on GM’s brand ladder.

Dodge is the least expensive Chrysler because Plymouth is no more.

Some of the problem with GM is. Is that it has abandoned the “average” American buyer who doesn’t have the income to buy a Camaro that doesn’t have a V6, which isn’t cheap to begin with anymore, or any of their other performance vehicles, which price wise escalate quite quickly from there on up. Where is the direct(quality mind you)competitor to the Fiesta ST, and the Focus ST in GM’s lineup? I’m sorry GM but a Sonic RS just isn’t it! Until then GM has a lot to do to keep customers in my mind.

that´s the point, fella. Congratulations .Oldsmobile could be what Cadillac no longer is: soft american upscale luxury, beside Buick. And Pontiac, one step down, a budget performance brand. That´s not the role of Chevy. You see? There is a clear gap betweven Mercedes and BMW and Lexus, Infiniti, Acura, for example. That gap could perfectly be filled by Olds and Pontiac. The same could be sad about Plymouth and Mercury. Where are the american automotive pride without all those brands?

Basically GM has “turned their back” on the performance enthusiast who: A. Doesn’t want a Camaro or B. Can’t afford $40K+ for a new ride. To me, it’s a total failure on the part of Barra, Reuss, etc… Once a you’ve lost a customer to Dodge, Ford or whomever, they most likely aren’t ever coming back.

Pontiac‘s problem was that too many of its cars were minimally upgraded Chevrolets. Pontiac had a similar problem to Mercury (upgraded Ford, or downgraded Lincoln?) and Oldsmobile (which was supposed to fit between Pontiac below and Buick above), in that GM and Ford didn’t sufficiently differentiate those brands, so they ultimately had little reason for existence. (Plymouth was a separate issue, basically Chrysler’s deciding it didn’t want a Chevrolet.)