The price of driving

The Wisconsin State Journal reports:

A sweeping Republican proposal to fund transportation and cut taxes would flatten income tax rates, lower the gas tax and raise new funding for roads by applying the sales tax to gasoline.

The goal of the plan, which is subject to change, is to hold gas prices steady by lowering the state’s 9.18 percent minimum markup on gas prices, according to Rep. John Macco, R-Ledgeview, chairman of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee.

That means more money for the transportation fund could come from the bottom lines of companies that benefit from higher retail gas prices under the minimum markup law — both large national retailers and locally owned stores. Critics, however, say the money could also end up coming from consumers at the pump.

“If we do it right, the price at the pump will be exactly the same,” Macco said.

One of the goals of the proposal is to cut borrowing in Gov. Scott Walker’s 2017-19 budget plan from $500 million to $200 million.

In addition to the transportation funding changes, the plan also includes the first steps in eventually creating a 4 percent flat income tax over the next 11 years, Macco said. He declined to offer specifics.

Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, the architect of the plan, declined to comment before it is presented to the Assembly Republican caucus on Thursday.

Macco, who has been briefed on the plan, agreed to discuss some of the details after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an outline Tuesday citing unnamed sources.

Under the current thinking, the gas tax would be reduced by 4 to 7 cents per gallon, Macco said. It is currently 30.9 cents per gallon. Also the minimum markup on gasoline — currently 9.18 percent — would be reduced so as to bring gas prices down another 7 cents, Macco said.

The Depression-era Unfair Sales Act prohibits retailers from selling merchandise at less than cost and also sets a minimum price for tobacco, alcohol and gasoline.

The gas price reductions would be offset by applying the 5 percent state sales tax and any local sales tax to gasoline, which currently costs $2.26 in Madison.

Asked about Kooyenga’s proposal after Tuesday’s Assembly session, Rep. John Nygren, who co-chairs the Legislature’s budget-writing committee, said only that the plan will be “revenue-neutral,” a term that typically means a proposal’s net impact to state revenues is zero when accounting for all tax and fee changes.

Walker offered a similar proposal during the 2014 gubernatorial election. He has discussed the Assembly transportation proposal with Kooyenga, but didn’t want to divulge details Tuesday because it is in flux.

“If people are talking about cutting the gas tax as a way of reforming the system as opposed to raising revenue, I think that’s certainly something worth looking at if it’s a reduction in the gas tax,” Walker said.

Walker has sparred openly with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, about how to resolve a nearly $1 billion shortfall in the transportation fund in the upcoming biennium.

Walker has proposed borrowing, delaying projects and using general fund taxes to pay for transportation, but he has said he will veto a gas tax increase. Vos has called for leaving all options on the table, including raising the gas tax as a long-term solution.

Democrats have called for indexing the gas tax to inflation, a way of raising money to pay for road projects that was eliminated in the 2005-07 budget.

Macco noted by applying the sales tax to gasoline, the amount of revenue the state receives will increase as gas prices increase, though it would also decrease as gas prices decrease.

Part of the reason transportation funding has stagnated is cars are becoming more fuel-efficient and people are buying less gasoline.

Brandon Scholz, executive director of the Wisconsin Grocers Association, panned the proposal, saying the minimum markup law doesn’t increase prices as much as opponents say it does. The result will be retailers passing on the cost of the sales tax increase to consumers, he said.

“This is a tax increase. This is not a tax decrease,” Scholz said. “It’s kind of a smoke-and-mirrors gig.” …

Todd Berry, president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, said the proposal is a commentary on how far Assembly Republicans have to go to persuade Walker to support increased revenue for roads, especially when he previously said he would support a gas tax increase if there was an offsetting tax cut.

“It is truly amazing and amusing the number of hoops they have to jump through to effectively raise the gas tax and index it,” Berry said. “You can’t fault them for the creativity or the cleverness of it.”

It will be interesting to see where this proposal goes. Being revenue-neutral is good, because Wisconsin’s taxes should be cut, not increased.

One simple step that I’m surprised hasn’t come up before is to apportion sales taxes from motor vehicle purchases to road uses. That would mean that sales tax revenue couldn’t be used for something else, and government hates that.

The minimum markup on gasoline should be eliminated, not reduced.

Mark of eccentricity, or when did this seem like a good idea?

I am a member of several automobile-oriented groups on Facebook, including Cars Modified in Ways That Dumbfound.

While that group has whose vehicles were modified in ways that defy reason …

… this country’s automakers have occasionally sent out into the world vehicles with features, or sometimes lacking features, that make one wonder about the decision process that led up to that dubious judgment.

It seems as though most of those came from General Motors, which by the 1950s was the nation’s largest company in terms of revenues as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product, the largest private-sector employer in the world, and the first U.S. company to pay more than $1 billion in taxes.

 

For all of GM’s innovations — the first self-starter, the Cadillac V-8s, the Chevy small-block V-8, their current automatic transmission design — GM’s major sin has been sending vehicles and technology into the marketplace before they were really ready to be there. One example was the 1980s Pontiac Fiero, a mid-engine two-seater with not much engine until a V-6 was installed. The much more fun driving experience of a V-6 in a light car lasted until the Fiero was canceled three years after the V-6 was introduced. (Apparently publicity about engine fires, a hallmark of the original engine, has a negative effect on car sales.) A much wider example was GM’s 1981 Computer Command Control, which was supposed to improve performance and fuel economy. Instead, it introduced the car-buying world to the yellow Check Engine light.

In 1960, Chevrolet began selling the Corvair, its first rear-engine rear-wheel-drive vehicle after decades of selling cars with the engine in the front and the drive wheels in back. Yes, Volkswagen sold air-cooled rear-mounted flat-engine rear-drive Beetles. Yes, Nash, which became AMC, entered the compact market 10 years earlier with the Rambler. But, for instance, one has to question the utility of a station wagon …

… or a pickup truck …

… or a van …

… where loads have to be placed over the engine. (Each was gone by the Corvair’s redesign in 1965.)

The bigger issue was the Corvair’s handling; engine weight over the rear wheels made them oversteer, as opposed to the traditional understeer of front-engine rear-drive vehicles. The suspension design not only made oversteer worse, it helped make the rear wheels bounce off the road surface, which doesn’t help, you know, controlling the vehicle. A change in suspension design for the second-generation Corvair made them handle much better, but why didn’t GM introduce that design for the first generation? Did GM test the cars in (imitation) real-world use enough to figure out they had a suspension problem?

Shortly after the Corvair debuted, GM’s other divisions (except for Cadillac, which was 15 years away from introducing something that wasn’t the size of an aircraft carrier) introduced their own compact cars on the same unibody chassis — the Pontiac Tempest, whose base engine was half (literally) of a V-8, with a rear-mounted transaxle (later to be seen on the Corvette); the Oldsmobile F-85; and the Buick Special, each of which had as standard or optional an aluminum-block 215 V-8, the basic design of which can be found in, of all vehicles, the Land Rover Range Rover. (The Buick also offered a 198 V-6, the design of which was sold to Jeep a few years later, only to have GM get it back in the early 1970s and use it into the late 1980s.) Chevy, meanwhile, came up with its own compact, the Chevy II, though on a different platform after the Corvair was badly outsold by the Ford Falcon.

The Tempest, F-85 and Special at least were attempts at innovation, which went away by 1964, when the redesigned intermediates were all variations on the same basic design, in part because of a steady increase of buyer interest in horsepower. But GM, and other carmakers, noticed an interest in smaller import cars, smaller even than the Corvair. And so with uncommon (for GM) speed, the company introduced …

The car was styled by Bill Mitchell, so of course it looks good. Ed Cole, who brought the world the modern Chevy small-block V-8, was its designer; he became GM’s president. The lead designer had worked on the Nova and Camaro, the small-block V-8 with Cole, and the Turbo Hydramatic automatic transmission, which has been used by GM for more than 50 years.

And that’s where things started to go horribly wrong. CheatSheet Autos explains:

Nothing had ever been done like this before, and from the get go, it was apparent that GM simply wasn’t up to the task. Dubbed project XP-887, Cole tapped recently-appointed Chevy brand chief John DeLorean to be cheerleader for the new car in the press. Almost immediately, he didn’t like what he saw. In his book On A Clear Day You Can See General Motors, DeLorean recalled:

From the first day I stepped into Chevrolet, the Vega was in trouble. General Motors was basing its image and reputation on the car, and there was practically no interest in it in the division. We were to start building the car in about a year, and nobody wanted anything to do with it. Chevy’s engineering staff was only going through the motions of preparing the car for production, but nothing more. Engineers are a very proud group. They take interest and pride in their designs, but this was not their car and they did not want to work on it.

By late 1968, Chevy had a running prototype, but in a sign of things to come, the front end sheared off after just eight miles of testing.

Fixing the front end meant adding weight, so engineers looked to shed pounds elsewhere. Inner fenders were deleted, as were plastic fender lines to combat rust, saving a whopping $2.28 per car. And instead of an iron block, they used a new 2.3 liter die-cast aluminum block inline-four. GM had built aluminum engine blocks with no major issues before, but this mill was different. Its heavy cast-iron head outweighed the block, and on top of vibration issues that caused the carburetors to rattle them selves apart, high compression caused engine blocks to warp and fail should temperatures climb over 230 degrees.

Strike three for the Vega was the car’s construction. Contrary to popular belief, GM did rust proof the cars, but its design allowed for air pockets to develop between the front fenders, cowl, and firewall during the rustproofing process, leaving the steel in those areas dangerously unprotected. Yet while all these defects were known to company brass, the Vega debuted on September 10, 1970, and just like GM hoped, it was a huge success.

1970 was when Detroit got serious about import fighters. American Motors snagged a Newsweek cover in April with the release of its subcompact Gremlin, and Ford’s Pinto became ubiquitous overnight, famously being described as “the car nobody loved but everybody bought.” Chevy was late to the party, but it hardly made a difference. Two years overdue and well over-budget (GM spent $200 million on the XP-887 project, or around $1.2 billion today), the Vega instantly became the star of the American subcompact segment, with its good looking kamm-tail body and mini-Camaro front end. It was slightly more expensive than the Pinto and Gremlin, but looked better, handled better – and at first, was almost completely unavailable.

General Motors spent $75 million retooling its production facility in Lordstown, Ohio specifically for the Vega, going full speed ahead while labor relations hit an all-time low. The company boasted that the semi-automated assembly line could build 100 Vegas and hour, and fit 30 of them into specially-designed freight cars, a drastic improvement over the standard 18 vehicles per boxcar.

But these advances in automation came with waves of pay cuts and layoffs. Workers at Lordstown briefly went on strike in late 1970, and again for 22 days in 1972, with the plant becoming the focal point of national labor relations as workers intentionally slowed down production and sabotaged cars to retaliate against company policies. As Vega supplies ebbed and flowed, “Lordstown Syndrome” became shorthand for the troubling times in the automotive world. For GM, it was only going to get worse.

The Vega won Motor Trend’s Car of the Year award for 1971, with the magazine concluding, “…the Chevrolet Vega 2300 is Motor Trend’s 1971 Car of the Year by way of engineering excellence, packaging, styling, and timeliness. As such, we are saying that, for the money, no other American car can deliver more.”

But within a year, the car was already starting to lose its shine. By the end of 1972, GM would issue recalls for over 500,000 Vegas to cover defective axles, sticky throttles, and electrical issues that could cause a fire. And once that first winter hit, owners in the Northeast began complaining about their fenders rusting through; by ’73, Vegas in the arid Southwest began to rust too. Engines began to seize, and soon Chevy was swamped with angry customers. The American public had been conned; the Vega was a lemon, and it quickly became the poster child for everything that was wrong in Detroit. GM addressed the corrosion issues with galvanized bodies in ’73 and ’74, and completed an emergency redesign for the car and engine for ’75, but it was too little, too late. …

From 1971 to 1980, Chevy sold over 3.5 million Vegas and other H-body models. Despite their fantastic potential, a litany of recalls and atrocious build quality means that they’ve all but disappeared from American roads. The few that survive have become a symbol for all that went wrong in the American auto industry after 1970. There’s a direct line from the Vega to the Monza to the Cavalier to the Cobalt, and while each of them could be considered a fantastic sales success for the company, their reputations for being unreliable, unsafe, and embarrassing to be seen in ensure that none of them are remembered very fondly.

I have written about station wagons occasionally on this blog. This was another area for strange GM decisions. Before the early 1970s GM had a normal tailgate for its big …

… midsize …

… and compact wagons.

But someone thought it would be fun, or something, to mess with a successful, though conventional, design. And so GM introduced …

… the clamshell tailgate for its full-sized wagons, with the metal half folding into the floor and the glass half moving upward into the ceiling. (Except in cases of mechanical failures.)

For its midsize wagons …

… instead of the aforementioned conventional tailgate (being used by its competitors) GM thought a giant hatchback would be a good idea. (That was the completely opposite direction of the clamshell.)

Neither Ford nor Chrysler jumped on the clamshell bandwagon, nor did either jump on the monster hatchback trend. When GM redesigned its big cars, the clamshell did not survive:

The aforementioned wagon represented the first phase in GM’s three-phase downsizing of most of its cars in the late ’70s.

The full-size B-bodies and C-bodies were a home run in terms of design.

The intermediate A-bodies, well, less so.

Notice the rear door. The window did not roll down. (Nor on the wagon.) The reason was that the engineers removed the window mechanism in order to add elbow room through hollowing out the door. (I can speak from experience that extra elbow room was useless where it was located.)

The A-bodies were the second round of GM downsizing. The third round was the most radical, replacing the Chevy Nova …

… with the revolutionary (for GM, though Japanese manufacturers had them for years before) Chevy Citation, Pontiac Phoenix, Olds Omega and Buick Skylark:

(Side note: In 1977, the downsized Caprice was the same size as the last-year Malibu. In 1989, the downsized Malibu was the same size as the next-to-last-year Nova. One might think GM could have just called the 1977 Malibu a Caprice and the 1978 Nova a Malibu. GM did that with the Pontiac Bonneville a few years later. Bad, bad idea.)

Given that GM had started working on the Citation five years before introduction (in 1979 as a 1980 model), you’d think GM would have fixed its issues before Citations went to dealerships. Instead, the more than 800,000 first-model-year Citation buyers discovered an old-design and crude four-cylinder engine (previously seen in the Vega), a new concept called “torque steer” (front-wheel-drive oversteering upon applying foot to gas pedal), rear brakes that locked alarmingly often (antilock brakes were a few years away), and, by the way, poor build quality and worse reliability. The most radical design GM had attempted to date lasted six model years, though its inclusion on numerous Worst Car Ever Sold lists has lasted far longer.

On to pickup trucks. For the first half-century or so of their use, pickup trucks had one seat. While International offered a crew cab pickup in 1957 …

… followed by Dodge in 1963 …

… Ford in 1965 …

… and Chevrolet in 1973:

The crew cabs had fairly small customer bases — the military, government and railroads. You’ll note that the crew cabs are very long, longer than even the huge sedans of the day.

The same year Chevy and GMC got around to introducing their crew cabs Dodge introduced its Club Cab pickup, which was the first to have a (very small) back seat in a two-door pickup truck:

Two years later, in 1975 Ford introduced its SuperCab:

It only took Chevy and GMC 13 more years to build an extended-cab pickup:

One assumes based on the introduction dates — 1973 for the Crew Cab and 1988 for the extended cab, the first years of new-design pickups — that GM lazily waited until a new pickup design to get around to a new model already being offered by its competitors. (And when the extended-cab pickup came out, Chevy and GMC kept selling their old-design crew cab pickup; GM didn’t get around to a new-design crew cab until four years later.) No wonder Ford has outsold Chevy in pickups for years.

The same cannot be said about minivans, introduced by Chrysler in 1984, GM in 1985 and Ford in 1986. The difference between Chrysler’s minivans and GM and Ford’s is that the latter were based on their compact pickups, the S-10 and Ranger, respectively. (Each also developed a small SUV, the Blazer and Bronco II, respectively, based on the same small pickups.) Lee Iacocca came up with the idea for the minivan at Ford …

… but Henry Ford II wasn’t interested. Upon being fired at Ford, Iacocca took his idea with him to Chrysler, whose minivan was based on the K-car platform. The Chrysler minivans sold much better than their competition, and probably paved the way for more car-like vehicles such as the Honda Odyssey van and Pilot SUV, both based on the Accord sedan.

GM had multiple responses when it became apparent the Astro (and GMC Safari) were losing in the minivan sales race. Its first was the Lumina APV, based on the (by now midsize) Lumina sedan …

… immediately dubbed the “Dustbuster” (as were the Pontiac Trans Sport and Olds Silhouette) for their resemblance to the Black & Decker portable vacuum cleaner.

A few years after the Dustbuster went away, Pontiac came out with a concept vehicle, the Aztek …

… which proved popular enough on the car show circuit to make Pontiac decide to build them. But to prove the old saw about a camel being a horse designed by committee, and repeating its sin with the Trans Sport, which unlike the concept …

… was a warmed-over Dustbuster …

… Pontiac didn’t send that Aztek to market:

So what went wrong? Popular Mechanics explains:

Back in the bad old days at GM, the people in charge of vehicle manufacturing had huge control over how vehicles looked. Designers knew what they wanted GM’s first crossover to look like, but in the convoluted corporate world of the 1990s, GM’s own manufacturing team wouldn’t give it to them. The excuse? It would have cost too much.

That decision cost GM dearly … and not just in dollars.

The hideous slab-sided production horror that debuted in 2001 shares little with the 1999 concept. … Their proportions are completely different. The most visible alteration was to the angular roof of the concept that looked much like the production Chevrolet Equinox.

If the concept had made it to production, the fate of the Aztek would likely have been much different. Instead, the Aztek earned its title as the ugliest car in the world, and helped kill off the Pontiac brand.

Road & Track columnist Bob Lutz was hired from Chrysler to GM right as the production Aztek was introduced:

A bad car happens in stages. The Aztek concept car was a much leaner vehicle. Decent proportions. It got everybody excited. At the time, GM was criticized for never doing anything new, never taking a chance. So Wagoner and the automotive strategy board decreed that henceforth, 40 percent of all new GM products would be “innovative.” That started a trend toward setting internal goals that meant nothing to the customer. Everything that looked reasonably radical got green-lit.

These things require a culture of complete acquiescence and intimidation, led by a strong dictatorial individual who wants it that way.

The guy in charge of product development was Don Hackworth, an old-school guy from the tradition of shouts, browbeating, and by-God-I-want-it-done. He said, “Look. We’ve all made up our minds that the Aztek is gonna be a winner. It’s gonna astound the world. I don’t want any negative comments about this vehicle. None. Anybody who has bad opinions about it, I want them off the team.” As if the public is gonna give a sh** about team spirit. Obviously, the industry is trying to get away from that approach.

Early on, the Aztek obviously failed the market research. But in those days, GM went ahead with quite a few vehicles that failed product clinics. The Aztek didn’t just fail—it scored dead last. Rock bottom. Respondents said, “Can they possibly be serious with this thing? I wouldn’t take it as a gift.” And the GM machine was in such denial that it rejected the research and just said, “What do those a**holes know?”

The danger with the totalitarian management style is that people won’t speak up when there’s a problem. They’ll get their heads cut off or the messenger gets shot. …

One guy I informally interviewed about how the Aztek happened was one of the top guys on the project. And this guy, he looks at me and he says, “I’m proud of it.” Proud of the Aztek? “Yup. That was the best program we ever did at GM. We made all our internal goals, we made the timing, and I’m really proud of the part I played in it.” He had tears in his eyes. It was almost tragic. Everybody wanted to will this thing to succeed, and it didn’t work. All the emotional commitment and pride in the program was that it achieved all its internal objectives. And it was probably one of the great defeats in his life, or in his career.

For a company known for excess bureaucracy — which might explain the tardy introduction of extended-cab or crew-cab pickups, which cost GM lots of money given that pickups then and now are hugely profitable — one wonders how the Corvair and the other design oddities got to market. (“Totalitarian managment” is probably right on.) Every time a business debuts a poorly-thought-out product or service, or rebrands itself in a curious way (for instance, Wisconsin Electric renaming itself “We Energies”), one thinks there was a guy in a room who did not speak up when he (or she) should have about how dumb this idea was. Call him or her Mr. or Ms. Non-Groupthink.

 

Great moments in economics, motor vehicle division

GM Inside News reports:

General Motors has announced the leftist-led Venezuelan authorities have illegally seized its manufacturing plant and industrial hub in Valencia, reports Reuters.

The country of Venezuela, which remains in a deep economic crisis, did not respond to a request for comment on the situation when forwarded to the information ministry.

“Yesterday, GMV’s (General Motors Venezolana) plant was unexpectedly taken by the public authorities, preventing normal operations. In addition, other assets of the company, such as vehicles, have been illegally taken from its facilities,” the company said in a statement.

GM vowed to “take all legal actions” to defend its rights after the seizing halted operations in the country. GM estimates irreversible damage to take place and fears the worst for its 2,678 workers, 79 dealers and local suppliers.

The Venezuelan government isn’t a stranger to temporary taking things over. In 2014, the government seized two plants belonging to U.S. cleaning products maker Clorox Co which had left the country.

Many plants in the country are barely producing much of anything at all, thanks to dwindling raw materials and currency controls. In 2015, Ford wrote off its entire investment in the country by taking an $800 million pre-tax write-down.

If I were GM management I wouldn’t be holding my breath about those “legal actions.” I once erred on Wisconsin Public Radio when I mentioned that Hugo Chavez was president of Venezuela after he had died. Of course, the only discernible difference between Chavezuela and post-Chavez Venezuela is that the latter’s president is still breathing air.

GMI’s update:

Earlier, Venezuelan sources had reported the seizure stemmed from a 17-year-old lawsuit with a dealer group in Maracaibo, but it turns out the situation is much worse than first thought.

Enrique Tahan, head of corporate and government relations for General Motors in Venezuela, told the New York Times that the plant has effectively been occupied for the last 42 days after being taken over by one of the company’s unions.

GM did ask the government for help reclaiming the facility, but instead, in a stunning show of socialism, the government took over the Valencian plant for itself.

“In other words, we are twice out of control of our plant,” Mr. Tahan told The Grey Lady. Members of the union were still able to enter the plant after the takeover, but the government was still barring GMV’s managers from setting foot inside. …

This isn’t the first, nor the last time the Venezuelan government will take someone else’s stuff, since 1998 it has expropriated more than 1,400 private businesses.

Part of GM’s problem, according to CNN, is that it didn’t bail out of Venezuela fast enough:

A slew of global firms have pulled out of the country or been forced to halt operations as a result of government interference or moves to put key sectors of the economy under state control.

ExxonMobil (XOM) pulled the plug on its operations in Venezuela in 2007 after former President Hugo Chavez attempted to nationalize one of its projects. The oil producer then took the government to court.

In 2016, Kleenex maker Kimberly-Clark (KMB) suspended its operations in Venezuela, citing the country’s “rapidly escalating inflation” and the “continued deterioration of economic and business conditions.”

The government called the closure illegal. It took over operations at the facility days later, according to state-run media.

Coca-Cola (KO) was also forced to halt production of Coke and other sugar-sweetened beverages last year due to a sugar shortage.

The irony of Government Motors, bailed out by this country’s government (when it should not have been) almost a decade ago (losing the taxpayers $10.5 billion in the process), having its assets seized by another country’s government is certainly rich. Between GM’s illegal bailout (and associated unconscionable Cash for Clunkers) and its failure to figure out it needed to leave (even though GM had been in the country for seven decades because it wanted to sell cars in South America), I can’t say I have much sympathy for GM, though there is no case where nationalizing an industry is an appropriate government activity.

Jazz Shaw adds:

If nothing else, this incident will provide an enlightening, educational moment for the rest of the world. It’s a given that this is bad news for General Motors, for the workers there… let’s just say it. This is bad news for everyone except Maduro and his cronies. But it also serves to further pull away the mask, allowing the rest of the world to see what’s actually going on. So gather around, kids, because we’re not only seeing how socialism ends (and it always ends this way) but also how the socialist machinery operates through the various phases of its life cycle.

Originally, the government tolerates the presence of foreign manufacturing entities such as General Motors to fill needs they have which can’t be handled domestically. (GM has been there for roughly seven decades.) It’s not that the Venezuelan people are incapable of innovation or creation… there’s simply no motivation for them to strive for success. Anything they create simply becomes the property of the state anyway, so the hard working, innovative person doesn’t realize much more success than the guy who can barely keep his eyes open to show up for his job sweeping the sidewalk. There’s no point to being particularly innovative.

So companies such as GM are allowed to go to work. But once the system inevitably begins to implode, the tyrant in charge begins looking for new resources to grab. In the name of the socialist concept wherein everything “belongs to the people” he seizes the GM plant. They take the cars which are there to hand out to high ranking party officials and divide up the assets while demanding that the workers get back to producing automobiles. This is, of course, impossible because they don’t have the parts to do it and the people who actually know how to run things are fleeing.

These are the fruits of socialism. It’s a humanitarian disaster to be sure, but it’s also a teachable moment. Watch and learn.

Detectives on wheels

While looking for something else (Again?, readers ask), I hit upon the idea of combining two of my favorite subjects — fictional detectives and cars — though I’ve done that before here.

The imperative to create online lists of everything (i.e. top 10 reasons you should read The Presteblog, and by the way YOU WILL NOT BELIEVE NUMBER 7!) has created, to no surprise, several lists of top fictional detectives’ wheels, both here and abroad.

Remember the words “detective” (indicating non-marked police cars) and, most importantly, “fictional.” Along with Raymond Chandler’s The Simple Art of Murder and Ten Commandments for the Detective Novel, someone online created this less serious list of private-detective fiction requirements, from which number eight is appropriate for this blog:

  1. Jazzy or Rhythmic Theme Music (if vocalized, should include your name).
  2. At least four suits with assorted ties and one complete tux (for weddings and similar occasions).
  3. A smartass attitude, a smart deductive wit along with a smart mouth (optional depending on who’s holding the gun).
  4. An Admin Specialist who know where all information is stored (along with all hiding places of liquor supply)
  5. The ability to safely tuck and roll while jumping or leaping from a moving vehicle (VERY IMPORTANT!!)
  6. Cache of unlimited funds for informants, bribes and paying off shady gangland figures.
  7. Backup PI partner for real sticky cases or situations (or in case of your untimely demise, will feel obligated to “do something about it”).
  8. A jazzy looking sports car of any year, make or model (SUVs and trucks for emergencies only).
  9. Reliable contact within the Police Department (’cause when the $#!% goes down, SOMEONE’s gonna have to answer the real tough questions).
  10. A capable doctor and a smart, savvy lawyer (preferably of “Perry Mason” caliber).

One of the obvious cars on The Guardian‘s list, Starsky and Hutch’s Ford Torino (which, as with much of you will see herein, fits both rules 1 and 8, at least in the series’ first-season guise) …

… is about as likely to be used by real police detectives as, well, the Ferraris of “Miami Vice”:

Of course, Thomas Magnum can use a Ferrari — well, Robin Masters’ Ferrari (which was modified so Tom Selleck could sit in it):

So could San Francisco police Lt. Frank Bullitt own a Ford Mustang, because it was his personal car that he just happened to be driving on a Sunday morning while doing some work:

So could L.A. private detective Jim Rockford:

The lines got blurred with (one assumes) a Bullitt successor, the SFPD’s Nash Bridges:

To this list I add a detective who may not have made the list because he drove several cars, Joe Mannix …

This was an Oldsmobile Toronado customized into a convertible by George Barris. It was seen in the titles and few other places.

… and a car that doesn’t make nearly enough appearances on TV:

(Apparently the world is waiting for me to create a Corvette-based work of fiction.)

Toptenz contributed its own list of iconic British detective (well, with at least one stretch) cars:

Lotus 7, The Prisoner

Nothing was conventional in the surreal world of the 1960s series The Prisoner, including the choice of car for the lead character Number Six, played by Patrick McGoohan.  Eschewing the director’s suggestion that Number Six should drive a Lotus Elan, McGoohan himself picked out the Lotus 7 arguing that the lightweight two-seater sports car better reflected Number Six’s maverick and freedom-loving persona.

Ironically, said Lotus was driven only in the beginning of every episode pre-capture and in the final scene of the last episode. Motor vehicles apparently were prohibited in The Village.

Volvo P1800, The Saint

Roger Moore’s embodiment of the suave Samaritan Simon Templar meant that nothing less than an ultra-cool car would suffice. Initially a Jaguar was sought, but the company turned down The Saint’s producers fearing that the programme would be unsuccessful. Whoops. For the next seven years Moore drove instead a Volvo P1800: a stylish 2 litre sports car that symbolised Simon Templar’s virtuous, good-looking, sophisticated yet adventurous nature. Roger Moore was so impressed by the Volvo P1800 that he bought one for himself.

Mark III Ford Capri, The Professionals

Tough, reliable, responsive, fast and able to cope in a sticky situation. Are we talking about the car or Bodie and Doyle, mercenary crime-fighters a.k.a. ‘The Professionals’? With its menacing throaty growl, the souped-up 3 litre Mark III Capri stood out in a series that featured many other cars that are considered classics today. With demanding car chases a staple of this action-packed show, the Mark III Capri was a natural choice, not only for its speed but for its (then) sleek lines and agile handling.

1983 Audi Quattro, Ashes to Ashes

“Fire up the Quattro!” barks Detective Inspector Gene Hunt. This is the 1980s, and Hunt’s sporty, four-wheel drive, red Audi Quattro is perfect for throwing around corners and mowing down piles of cardboard boxes in the high-speed pursuit of villains. Getting from 0 to 60 mph in less than six seconds and a top speed of 140mph helps. And Gene Hunt would no doubt be delighted to know that thanks to his patronage of the classic Audi Quattro demand for 1980s models doubled. Proof, as if further proof was needed, of just how iconic the cars used in British TV shows can become even now.

Ford Granada (various), The Sweeney

Jack Regan, as played by John Thaw (again) was the hard-hitting no-nonsense guv’nor in this 1970s cop series based around the crime busting exploits of the Met’s flying squad. Only a tough-looking dependable brute of a car such as the Ford Granada would do for Jack. Swapping between the Granada S and the Granada Ghia at will, Regan and his sidekick George Carter would routinely chase the baddies at high speeds in these 3 litre beasts before leaping out and cuffing the miscreants with a cry of ‘You’re nicked, Sonny’! Luckily for the production team, not only was the Granada good looking, gruff and well suited to Regan’s character it was also light for its size making it a good choice for stunt work.

The aforementioned “Ashes to Ashes” was a spinoff of the series “Life on Mars,” described thusly by Honest John:

Detective Inspector Gene Hunt, star of Life On Mars, was a no-nonsense copper from the ‘70s, so what better car for him than a beige Ford Cortina? Despite famously trading up to an Audi Quattro in the Ashes To Ashes spinoff, set in the 1980s, the Hunt made his mark in a 1974 Mk III Cortina GXL.

That said, the car used for filming was actually made up of various Cortina parts, rendering it unfaithful to the model year it was supposed to be from: some viewers spotted that its spoiler, for example, wasn’t introduced until the 1975 Cortina, while the dashboard was from a later, facelifted car. Quite.

Away from the home islands, Australia brings us, of course, Mad Max:

A Danish–Swedish series called “The Bridge” apparently includes a Porsche …

… of which actor Sofia Hein tells The Guardian:

‘It’s horrible, I hate that car … I don’t hate it. I love-hate it. The thing is, it’s so hard to drive. The gears are very sensitive’

Speaking of TV series I can’t watch, there is “Alarm für Cobra 11,” a series that has run on German TV for 22 years about “Die Autobahnpolizei,” highway cops:

It remains hard for me to believe that this hasn’t become a U.S. TV series. Yes, we don’t have autobahns in the U.S., but you’d think it’d be ridiculously easy to translate the German setting (to be precise, North Rhine–Westphalia) to a state with a lot of freeways — say, California or, if you want more wide open spaces, Texas — and conjure up sufficient freeway-based crime as needed. (If you need a template, watch “CHiPs.” Like California Highway Patrol motor officers Ponch and Jon, “Die Autobahnpolizei” are state cops.)

I have to add one more series that faded away far too quickly — “Chase,” a little-known Jack Webb production about a special L.A.-ish investigative unit that has all the best vehicular toys, plus a police dog:

There are two episodes (and perhaps more that are hidden) on YouTube. Each of the episodes I’ve seen ends with, of course, a chase.

The Corvette of SUVs

The Detroit News decided to do a thought exercise:

What if Chevrolet made a Corvette SUV?

Maybe that’s not so far-fetched. Corvette is a singular car within Chevrolet, and in many ways is a performance brand unto itself. Almost every performance brand now has its own crossover; the most prominent of which is Porsche’s money-machine, the Cayenne.

If Corvette did make an SUV, what would it look like? Detroit News presentation editor Jamie Hollar drew his own concept car, shown here. And The Detroit News talked to ex-GM big wigs, auto analysts and car enthusiasts for their ideas on what the high-performance SUV should be.

Since the first Jeep sport utility appeared in 1984, the automotive landscape has been transformed by high-riding, five-door SUVs with visibility and utility to spare. Even legendary performance brands that once built only ground-hugging sports cars have jumped in. Beginning with Porsche in 2003, SUVs have become a performance-maker’s goldmine. Nearly every performance badge wants a piece of the lucrative ute market.

Notably absent is the Corvette, America’s V-8-powered workingman’s superhero.

Though technically a Chevrolet product, the Corvette long ago became an iconic nameplate that’s equal to Europe’s elite sports car names. It’s faster than the Porsche 911, Jaguar F-Type, Alfa Romeo 4C and Lamborghini Huracan. And while those brands have all exploited their athletic images to expand into sport utilities — the Jaguar F-Pace, Alfa Stelvio and Lamborghini Urus — the Corvette remains a one-off.

“There’s certainly precedent for non-traditional SUV makers to jump into the market,” says Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book. “Every time one of them has jumped in, it has worked.”

With nearly two-thirds of Porsche buyers opting for SUVs, Porsche makes up a whopping one-third of Volkswagen Group’s profits while generating only 2.3 percent of its sales, according to MotleyFool.com. “The idea of a Porsche SUV still rubs sports-car purists the wrong way, but it has been a spectacularly profitable product for the brand,” says John Rosevear, senior auto specialist for the website.

GM executives won’t talk about future vehicles — and even if they did, there’s no evidence a sport utility is in the works. But everywhere we went, car fans loved the idea. The consensus was if Corvette were to build it, it would be a home run.

The News story posits the Corvette XC7 or X06 as a five-door (four doors plus tailgate) all-wheel-drive SUV with one of the real Corvette’s 6.2-liter V-8s, the supercharged one going in the X06, and either an eight- or 10-speed automatic.

Right away you should be able to see the problems in that paragraph. The traditional truck engine was designed less for horsepower than for torque. (Of course, if your standard V-8 has 460 horsepower and 455 pound-feet of torque, with the upgrade adding 190 horsepower and 195 pound-feet, maybe that’s not an issue after all.) Corvettes have two doors, two seats and front-engine V-8s that power the rear wheels, along with a choice between manual and automatic transmissions.

Other details?

“XC7 and X06 (mirroring the high-performance version’s Z06 name) are great starters for naming,” says Tom Wallace, the retired GM engineer who ran Chevrolet’s Corvette program from 2006-08. “Stingray is off limits.”

It would be essential that any Corvette crossover share the sports car’s DNA.

“Front engine, rear drive, with AWD option. Lots of aluminum in the structure,” muses Wallace. “Aluminum is mandatory to support the theme that Corvette embraces to be the lightest vehicle in its class. The two V-8s from the Corvette stable are also a must.”

That means the 460-horse V-8 shared with the base C7 sports car — or for the Z06 version, the supercharged 650-horsepower V-8 for what might be the fastest SUV ever built. Considering the rear-wheel drive Z06 sports car is slightly slower from 0-60 than its all-wheel drive 540-horsepower Porsche Turbo rival, an all-wheel drive X06 crossover should be competitive with the all-wheel drive Cayenne Turbo’s 3.8-second, 0-60 romp.

“Maximum Bob” Lutz, the ex-vice president of GM product design who is revered for bringing back The General’s design mojo, agrees with Wallace’s assessment: “Like the Cayenne, the appeal of the ’Vette SUV would be RWD proportions. It should, in fact, have a silhouette not too different from a Cayenne.”

Start with the C7’s dramatic, sculpted lines created by Tom Peters and widely recognized as one of the best designs in Corvette’s 54 years. All performance SUVs are essentially vertically stretched, five-door versions of familiar sports coupes, giving them an inherently heavy look compared to low-slung two-seaters.

But angular designs like our mock XC7 or Lamborghini’s Urus show that it’s possible to break with the soap-bar shapes of the Porsche Cayenne and Maserati Levante. With Corvette’s trademark shark nose, scooped hood and quad exhaust pipes, it would drip with menace.

Inside, the XC7 would share the C7’s acclaimed interior: comfortable seats, stitched dash and quality trim materials. Naturally, the signature “oh, crap” passenger grab-handles from the sports car would carry over (for those times when dad is seized by the need for speed).

Other parts like transmissions and all-wheel drive systems could come from common GM parts bins, which has been key in keeping Corvette costs down over the years. “To engineer the vehicle, I would have to combine some of the Corvette team with some of the SUV team,” says Wallace.

Price? “More than the $40,000 Cadillac XT5, but about 10 grand below” a $60,000 base V-6 Cayenne, suggests Lutz.

But the chassis might be a deal breaker. “To be successful, this vehicle would require an all-new RWD/AWD architecture, which currently does not exist,” says Lutz. “That’s high investment for relatively low volume.”

Porsche was able to “lunch off” the VW Touareg chassis, which enabled Porsche to package its V-8 engine longitudinally. GM’s new C1XX platform is the backbone for the Cadillac XT5 and GMC Acadia utilities; it has been lauded for its stiffness and light weight. But its front-wheel drive, transverse engine layout appears ill-suited for our ambitious XC7.

“The Corvette ute probably would be a stand-alone architecture (or a major modification of an existing architecture), so volume would be critical to call it a business success,” Wallace believes.

Cost aside, Lutz says there is another obstacle to an XC7: “The reason a Corvette SUV won’t happen is the business case would be tough. Besides cannibalizing ‘normal’ Corvettes, it can also be expected to damage GMC and certainly the Cadillac XT5.”

And yet, Lutz acknowledges the unique draw of the Corvette: “Corvette is a powerful brand that should be developed. Go upmarket with a mid-engine sedan using big Cadillac CT6 architecture, and maybe eventually something like Cayenne. They would split it off from Chevrolet — nobody makes that connection anyway.”

Kelley Blue Book’s Brauer says financial analysts would grill GM on creating another brand so soon after it axed Pontiac, Hummer and Saturn in bankruptcy. “But history would suggest there is no downside to a performance brand expanding into SUVs,” he says. “Non-Corvette owners who couldn’t justify a two-seat sports car could finally put a Corvette badge in their garage.”

There are SUVs with similar performance numbers; besides the aforementioned Porsche Cayenne and its 570 horsepower in Turbo S guise for $161,600, Land Rover makes the Range Rover Sport SVR with 550 horsepower, for the bargain price of $111,350.

One of the problems with a Corvette SUV might be the price, weirdly. The real Corvette supposedly loses sales to Ferrari and Porsche because it’s not exclusive enough. (What kind of fool thinks a car is too inexpensive compared with its competition, particularly when its performance numbers are comparable?) That’s despite the fact the Corvette is one of the great performance bargains of all time. At $79,450, the Z06 costs $122.23 per horsepower. The standard Stingray costs $120.54 per horsepower. The top-of-the-line Porsche, the 911R, costs $369.80 per horsepower. The new Bugatti Chiron produces 1,500 horsepower (really) for a list price of $2.998 million (really), or $1,998.67 per horsepower.

The bigger issue, of course, is brand dilution. That’s what happened when Nissan added two back seats to the 260Z. (But when the Z was reintroduced in 2002, it lost the back seat.) That’s what happened when Porsche, the maker of 2+2 cars, added the Cayenne SUV and the Panamera sedan. Of course, buyers have sucked up Cayennes, and you’d think GM would have noticed that.

Corvette Online adds:

For some reason, the C7 has polarized more than a few folks on its looks. It seems that while a good majority of us love the latest generation Corvette, there are some who are steadfast in their disapproval. That said, we are doubtful that these images will do much to win them over.

Adding a shooting-brake style hatch to the lineup of Corvettes has been an on-and-off discussion for ages. The shooting brake style would seem to be pretty easy to pull off, given the expanse would cover the space already occupied by the large, curved-glass fastback hatch already in place. Just switch it out. The concept seems easy enough that we could see some developments on this in the near future.

Adding an extra pair of doors is a little bit more controversial. Ultra-luxury sedans are all the rage, but to us, it seems like a boxing ring more suited towards Cadillac, than Corvette. After all, the CTS-V is already there fighting. But four-door Corvettes aren’t entirely new, either. Concepts have been made in the past. Their downfall comes from trying to stretch the Corvette lines over a longer wheelbase. It’s close, but it never seems quite right.

Well, if GM would seriously consider an SUV, why wouldn’t GM consider a sedan too?

There is another major problem with this. The next Corvette reportedly will be rear/mid-engine — the engine will be ahead of the rear axle instead of in front — which, unless you’re talking about old Volkswagens …

… is incompatible with a sedan or a wagon. (As it is I have serious doubts about GM’s ability to pull off a mid-engine drivetrain given GM’s record of sending new technology into the world before it’s ready. Also, why GM, which makes money on every front-engine/rear-drive Corvette it has built for decades, wants to mess with success is a mystery to me.)

If a Corvette is going to happen (and there are numerous reasons already stated that it won’t), it might seem logical for GM to split off the Corvette brand into its own line. It’s one thing for a Chevrolet dealer to sell the current Corvette; it’s another thing entirely for a Chevy dealer to sell two-seat, 2+2, four-door and SUV Corvettes. That would also result in Corvettes being less geographically available, because the number of Corvette dealerships would surely be fewer than the number of Chevy dealerships. And given that GM is a decade removed from culling several of its historic brands — Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Saturn plus Saab and Hummer, which GM purchased — adding a brand seems less likely.

The News adds this:

What do you think a Corvette SUV should look like?

Create your own design and enter The Detroit News design contest. Our team of judges — ex-Corvette chief engineer Tom Wallace, Detroit News auto columnist Henry Payne and Detroit News presentation editor Jamie Hollar — will pick a winner. Top entries will be published in The Detroit News and at detroitnews.com.

Entries can be done in any medium: computer rendering, pencil sketch, watercolor, whatever you prefer. Send a high-resolution copy by email to Henry Payne at hpayne@detroitnews.com.

Deadline for entries is April 17.

If I only had drawing skills.

Truck yeah

This blog has to start with music …

… though it is neither about country music nor the subgenre called “bro-country.” Even though Tim McGraw’s “Truck Yeah” isn’t entirely about pickup trucks, this blog is about the country’s leading selling vehicles.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the year-to-date sales of new U.S. vehicles through September, the traditional (but not so much anymore) start of the new car season:

  1. Ford F-Series, 595,656.
  2. Chevrolet Silverado, 425,556.
  3. Ram pickup, 361,086.
  4. Toyota Camry, 297,453.

(By the way: For whatever reason most of my life I have tied popular music to events in my life, such as family vacations. The first year I was paid to cover sports Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock” was on top 40 radio, as was Waukesha’s Bodeans’ “Fadeaway,” while I was driving to Waukesha to cover my first state softball tournament. I think one of them was on while I tried to get a photo of the back of the softball team’s bus while driving on Interstate 94 with, of course, a manual-focus film camera. Don’t attempt that at home; I am a trained professional.)

Like almost everything else, truck ownership sets off, or perhaps more accurately exposes, a cultural divide in this country. I blogged previously about a question posed of Washington-area journalists — how many of them knew a truck owner — and how the questioner got his head practically bitten off by those who didn’t want to answer.

By now you’re probably wondering why I decided to bring this up this week. It has nothing to do with this:

This is a 1995 Chevrolet K-1500, now part of the Presteblog fleet. This style of truck was sold by Chevy and GMC for 13 years, following the previous design that was sold for 15 years.

This is a kind of truck I’ve always wanted for reasons revealed in the next paragraph, though perhaps there was some hypnotic suggestion involved from Max the copilot, because …

This truck includes several features on my list of proper things for vehicles in a combination you cannot buy new today. It has a 350 V-8, an engine that, speaking from past experience, is practically indestructible even if you take less care of it than you should. (The engine design dates back to the original Chevy small-block V-8, first produced in 1955. For a company known for sending technology into the world before it was really ready, GM got the small-block right.) It has real gauges instead of low-battery and low-oil-pressure idiot lights. It has four-wheel drive, though the kind the driver has to turn on and off through shifting a floor shifter. And speaking of shifting, it has the millennial anti-theft device, a five-speed manual transmission.

It is the first Chevrolet we’ve owned in 25 years, after I replaced my 1988 Beretta GT two years after purchase due to simultaneously making car payments and paying repair bills. (“Beretta” is Italian for “lemon” or the French word “merde,” I believe.) Our truck, built in Oshawa, Ont., is a pre-Government Motors Chevy, our first GM product since our blast-to-drive-but-too-small-for-a-baby-seat Pontiac Sunbird GT was retired for a minivan. But neither GM nor Ford nor Fiat Chrysler nor anyone else sells a new gas-V8-powered four-wheel-drive truck with a proper stick shift. (With a clutch that will give me a nice left-leg workout every time I drive it. Driving a truck with a stick is not like driving most cars with a stick.)

The previous owner said he did a lot of work on the truck, so while the outside looks like a 22-year-old truck, the mechanicals appear to have been upgraded (including a three-inch lift kit for previous larger tires), including a replacement transmission. (In our search for this truck, it amazed me how many vehicles were for sale with it-didn’t-come-with-the-vehicle engines and/or transmissions. Then again, I know someone who purchased a demonstrator Buick Regal that ended up with a replacement engine and transmission.) He used his for work; I plan on the same, though I do not intend to take it off road unless, well, you know.

I certainly hope it’s been mechanically improved, lest …

Readers will recall I once mused about what a journalist should drive due to a problem getting a particular photo. Well, here’s the answer to at least the issue of being able to get up high enough — to get on top of the truck’s topper, or stand in the bed, if the local authorities don’t want you getting a particular photo. Add to that a dashcam, public-service-band radio scanner, and 12-volt power inverter, and who needs an office?

Ansel Adams

According to a Facebook meme I saw yesterday, owning a Chevy means “I love America and may own guns.” That could apply to Ford as well, of course. It’s been said that you don’t actually need to own a pickup (or boat), you just need to know someone who has one. I guess we’ll

Our new-to-us truck shows off the emotional attachment some drivers have with their vehicles. The seller asked to start what he called “The Beast.” He had installed a MagnaFlow muffler and dual exhaust on it (thus most likely improving the engine from its 1995 listing of 210 horsepower and 310 foot-pounds of torque), and he wanted to hear the engine and exhaust sound one last time. Driving is a sensory experience.

 

The transportation “deficit”

Those who read Wisconsin newspapers have been reading all about the $1 billion transportation spending deficit.

But is there a deficit? The MacIver Institute does some math work, starting with …

A billion-dollar shortfall in the next transportation budget started the debate about raising Wisconsin’s gas tax, which was so explosive, no one seemingly had the time to confirm there is a billion-dollar shortfall. If they had, the current debate might not be centered on the gas tax, but instead on how we fund roads in the first place, because there’s only a shortfall if you change the way Wisconsin funds transportation.

The current 2015-2017 state budget spends $2.8 billion on highways, and $855 million of that comes from bonding. That means about 30 percent of everything Wisconsin spends on roads is borrowed, and there are those who believe the state should not be borrowing at all to pay for roads. That was the cover story for a peculiar request the Legislative Fiscal Bureau received last summer.

Even though the DOT was about to submit a new budget request in less than two months, Fiscal Bureau was asked to project what the DOT’s budget would look like under an unlikely set of circumstances. The request wanted the Fiscal Bureau to omit all bonding under a cost-to-continue scenario. The result was a $939 million difference between the current budget and the next.

The billion-dollar transportation deficit was born.

That number started the narrative that Wisconsin has a transportation funding crisis. It didn’t matter that two months later the DOT presented its actual budget request that included spending projections, revenue estimates, current federal funding commitments, and existing bonding. That request also indicated there would be a shortfall, but at $449 million, it was less than half of the previous projection. When Governor Walker presented his budget proposal, he included $500 million in new transportation bonding to fill that gap, which would be the lowest amount since the 2001-2003 budget. It would also mean no delays on major projects currently underway.

Still, the fabricated billion-dollar deficit dominates coverage of the transportation budget, and it continues to frame the debate over the gas tax. Framing the transportation debate this benefits those who want to raise the gas tax. However, they will still readily point to bonding as an underlying concern.

“It is more conservative to pay for projects today than it is to borrow the money and make our children pay the price. But for far too long under Democratic and Republican leadership, the state has relied too heavily on bonding.  According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, Wisconsin will spend roughly 20 cents on every transportation dollar on debt service for this fiscal year,” Vos said in a September 15, 2016 press release.

The Walker Administration, on the other hand, argues that transportation bonding is no different than taking out a mortgage for your house. The idea is you spread out the expense over the amount time you plan to use it.

Bonding is the one of the most common ways states fund transportation projects. There are only five states that don’t use transportation bonds at all. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) released a report in November that found bonding to be one of the most successful approaches to transportation funding and finance.

Meanwhile, heavy reliance on fuel taxes is considered one of the least successful approaches to transportation funding according to AASHTO. In fact, many experts say fuel taxes are becoming obsolete as people drive less and cars become more fuel efficient. Even the supporters of raising the gas tax in Wisconsin admit it’s not a perfect solution.

“Even though a lot of conversations have been about the gas tax being a declining revenue source or a dying revenue source long term, there are limitations to every different option that’s out there,” Representative John Nygren, Co-chair of the Joint Committee on Finance, told the Milwaukee Press Club at a luncheon on January 11th.

When it comes to options, Wisconsin has 19 different sources of revenue for its Transportation Fund. That’s more than any other state in the country, according to AASHTO. These include aircraft registration fees, airline property tax, drivers and vehicle records fees, driver’s license and state ID card fees, fines for truck size and weight violations, fuel tax, general funds, interest income, outdoor advertising revenues, oversize/overweight truck permit fees, passenger rail station sponsorship, passenger vehicle fees, petroleum inspection fund revenues, property sales, railroad property taxes, state rental vehicles fees, taxes on alternative fuels, taxes on aviation fuels, and truck registration fees. This is expected to bring in a total of $3.5 billion over the next biennium. When it comes to user fees specifically, Wisconsin’s collections of user fees per lane mile are comparable to its neighbors.

However, when we compare total highway spending (including administrative and debt service costs) per mile to road quality, we see that Wisconsin spends more for poorer quality roads. The state is clearly not getting a good deal on its roadwork, and it begs the question why? Fortunately, lawmakers sensed something was not right at DOT and ordered an audit last year.

That audit came back in January 2017, and it was, in a word, devastating. The auditors found the DOT regularly breaks state law in budgeting, negotiating, communicating, and managing contracts. Among these statutory violations: the department does not always solicit bids from more than one vendor, it does not spread out solicitations throughout the year, it does not post required information on its website, its cost estimates to the governor are incomplete, and it skips steps in the evaluation process for selecting projects. These practices manifest themselves through an inescapable reality: the cost of major projects tends to double after the DOT gets approval from the governor and legislature to proceed. The auditors looked at 16 current highway projects and found they are over-budget by $3.1 billion. …

The side arguing for more highway spending hasn’t provided a solid figure. We often hear about that fabricated billion-dollar deficit, but now there are some, like Rep. Nygren, who say even that might not be enough. On the other hand, Rep. Vos has suggested $300 million might be a realistic amount given the governor’s budget criteria.

The governor has been firm and public in his opposition to raising taxes or fees for transportation. However, in December he made a comment that the only reason he might reconsider is if there were tax cuts in other parts of the budget to offset it. Vos took that comment and ran with it. He announced the $300 million target a month later, and Walker quickly clarified there was no deal to begin with.

Hypothetically, if Wisconsin were to boost highway funding by $300 million and it all came from a gas tax increase, the state’s gas tax would have to go from 32.9 cents to 37.7 cents a gallon. That would give Wisconsin the eighth highest gas tax in the country. Of course, Vos’ plan could spread that $300 million out across various taxes and fees in order to soften the blow. No one’s really talked about that $300 million for over a month now, but then again, Vos and his allies are playing this very close to the vest. …

Yet, the only option we continue to hear is raise the gas tax, and the best evidence to support that option is the fabricated billion-dollar shortfall. And nobody has definitively promised if we raise the gas tax, there will be no transportation bonding – which supposedly initiated this debate in the first place.

The next Chevy, or Cadillac, Corvette?

Automotive News reports:

There’s another round of midengine Chevrolet Corvette spy photos, and they’re perhaps the best look at the long-rumored sports car yet.

Spy photographers spotted what appears to be a midengine Corvette at one of General Motors’ winter-testing facilities.

The photos indicate that the vehicle will have a lower hood line, a longer rear deck and a much shorter dash-to-axle ratio.

The midengine mule was spotted, at times, next to a pair of other Corvette prototypes that are likely next-gen ZR1 mules.

Despite being heavily camouflaged, some key design features such as taillights and the vehicle’s exhaust layout were visible.

The latest photos illustrate just how much of a departure, in terms of design and engineering, a midengine Corvette would be for GM.

It remains unclear where a midengine Corvette would stand in the Chevrolet performance lineup and whether it will replace the C7 Corvette outright or coexist with the current generation.

In August, The Detroit News, citing multiple sources, reported that GM plans to begin selling a midengine Corvette in early 2019.

The Corvette, one of GM’s oldest nameplates, continues to attract mostly older buyers, and the automaker is eager to switch to a midengine layout to attract younger consumers, the paper said.

There have been several reports in Car and Driver and other media outlets over the past three years speculating about revived plans for a midengine Corvette.

While the Corvette has been GM’s premier performance vehicle for decades, a switch to a midengine layout would entail a major overhaul of the current car, the C7.

Almost no parts could be carried over because nearly all of the major components on a midengine car would be in different locations.

Switching from a front to midengine layout would entail engineering a new chassis, creating a new transaxle — the transmission and axle — to drive the rear wheels, developing new cooling, air-conditioning and suspension systems, and designing an all-new body.

A midengine Corvette would give GM a true competitor to Ford’s GT supercar, which is midengined, as well as supercars from Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche.

In June 2016, GM disclosed plans to spend $290 million to retool the Bowling Green, Ky., assembly plant where the Corvette is assembled.

The factory’s assembly operations are set to be upgraded and modified for “technology upgrades and manufacturing process improvements.”

In 2015, GM said it would spend $439 million on a new paint shop at the Corvette-only plant. Work on the paint shop began in 2015 that year and will run until mid-2017.

Motor1 suggests that the mid-engine car will be in addition to, not in place of, the current Corvette:

Two of the most anticipated American sports cars are under development side by side.

The engineers in charge of the Chevrolet Corvette are keeping very busy this winter by developing several versions of the sports car at once, and these spy photos offer a fantastic look of the mid-engine model and future ZR1 testing together. This is our first opportunity to compare them next to each other.

With its short, sloping nose and long rear section, Chevy is taking a familiar supercar design approach for its mid-engine Corvette. The undulating camouflage on the bulging hood suggests there might be an intake there or the designers are going for a highly sculpted shape. Two bubbles in the roof give the driver and passenger more headroom while keeping the center section low.

Openings in the concealment along the rear fenders hint that there might be intakes there for feeding air to the engine. The camouflage at the tail hides the lights but keeps the taillights relatively unhidden. The quad exhausts and exposed muffler look good, but it’s surprising not to see a big diffuser or wing back there. These aerodynamic devices are largely the norm at the rear of many super cars today.

When not on the test track, these spy shots show that Chevy is keeping the mid-engine Corvette highly camouflaged. Not only does a massive covering completely hide the shape of the body, but the company also has a pair of pickups flanking the much-anticipated vehicle.

In comparison, the ZR1 appears to sit slightly higher than the mid-engine ‘Vette but still looks mean. These shots show it with two separate wings – an incredibly tall one with large end plates and a smaller example. The ZR1s here feature bulging hoods and aggressive front fascia designs.

We expect the ZR1 to arrive late in 2017 as a 2018 model year vehicle, and it might use Chevy’s new LT5 6.2-liter dual-overhead cam V8. The different wings hint that there might be an even hotter performance package.

The first question that comes to mind is: Is this actually a Corvette, or is this perhaps the next Cadillac XLR, which was based on the Corvette but with the NorthStar V-8 engine and more luxury accouterments.

There remains a certain illogic in replacing the rear-wheel-drive Corvette, of which Chevrolet sells every one it makes, with a mid-engine replacement using unproven technology (of which GM has a bad habit of sending into the marketplace before it’s really ready) and a list price likely to be far beyond $100,000.

CarGurus presents GM’s supposed rationale:

The average ‘Vette buyer is a 59-year-old male, but Chevrolet would love to start sending Corvettes home with guys and gals a decade or two younger. Certainly the C7 appeals to a younger crowd, but the Corvette brand has become associated with being a mid-life crisis purchase. When was the last time you saw someone driving a Corvette who didn’t have white hair?

Younger folks tend to buy the Camaro or Mustang.

Part of the reason is because older buyers are usually better-equipped to buy such an expensive car than their younger counterparts. In fact, more than 40 percent of Corvettes are purchased with cash.

There’s a new Corvette on the horizon, though, that might be enough to persuade younger folks with extra cash to jump on the Corvette train. …

It would also, GM hopes, make the car appeal to a younger crowd. Ferrari’s average buyer is 47, and Lamborghini’s is 48, while the average Porsche 911 buyer is 52.

The biggest problem, in my humble opinion, is that the Corvette was coolest when older people were young. The other brands require a deeper appreciation for quality cars, while the Corvette is a feel-good purchase that makes people reminiscent of when they were younger.

Happily, even at my advanced age I am younger than the average Corvette buyer. Does that explain why I don’t own one, or is it the manifest unfairness of life>

That rationale lacks logic. Comments on the Car Gurus post point out that you can spend $90,000 on the current Corvette. A mid-engined Corvette would be far more expensive than that. If younger buyers don’t buy Corvettes due to their price now, a more expensive Corvette won’t change that. And if you’re, say, 35 to 45 and rich, you seem more likely to buy a Ferrari or Porsche.

The current Corvette is a performance bargain for the price. I’m not certain why Chevy wants to screw that up, but it is GM we’re talking about.

 

Starbucks vs. Silverados

Kevin D. Williamson picked up on last week’s kerfuffle over how many Washington media types know pickup truck owners:

Living in Texas, I have a rarefied point of view on this. Because I have decided today to be an unbearable cliché, I am writing this column at a Starbucks (America’s leading psych ward and homeless shelter, with pretty good coffee), about five feet from a Ford F-150 and with seven other pick-ups in my immediate field of vision.

But there are pick-ups and there are pick-ups. In the nothing-but-mansions Houston neighborhood of River Oaks (Molly Ivins grew up there after her family moved to Texas from California; her salt-of-the-earth act was developed at the yacht club), the residential streets are clogged during the day with white pick-ups bearing largely Mexican work crews who keep the sprawling faux-Tudor country houses and Rococo palaces spruce and spiffy; inside the garages are more pick-ups, $60,000 and $70,000 specimens that are never used to haul anything other than grass-fed steaks from Whole Foods and never go farther off road than the gravel trail leading to the weekend “ranch,” which is what rich Texas oil guys call their country homes. …

Pick-ups are taken as an emblem of American life outside the coastal metropolises, an indicator of heartland authenticity. In reality, a pick-up truck indicates about as much connection to the farming and laboring life as the plaid flannel shirt on a Seattle barista does to the world of lumberjacks. Perhaps it is in some part aspirational or affiliation-oriented, in the same sense that most people wearing North Face gear don’t climb mountains on the weekends but would very much like to be the sort of people who do, if life weren’t so full already.

Which is to say, this is about that most mythical of places: “The Real America.”

A few years ago, Glenn Beck announced on his radio program that he was in search of a scenic barn. (I feel okay about picking on Glenn Beck: I am a big Glenn Beck fan, and my few personal encounters with him suggest that he is an extraordinary man.) He was working on a book to be called The Real America, and he wanted to take a picture of himself in front of a pretty, virtuous farmscape for the book cover. I assume this was good marketing (it would be easier to measure his book sales in tons than in units), and I get the emotional place this comes from. Farming America is, indeed, part of the real America.

But so is Broadway. So is Wall Street. So is Hollywood and Malibu and glorious Big Sur, and Chicago and Detroit and Miami and all the weird old places in America that don’t even feel like America at all, like New Orleans and Aroostook County, Maine. So is Muleshoe, Texas, and the campus of Harvard. America is a big, splendid place.

My parents and grandparents worked on farms, and I’ve done a (very) little bit of that myself. We have pick-up trucks and live in places where the economic indicators are corn and cotton prices — and, increasingly, oil and gas prices. We may be tied more directly into the physical world than are people who live and work in different environments: In the Texas Panhandle, a drought is a great deal more than an occasion to think about the nuances of climate-change rhetoric.

Russell Kirk, describing his “canons of conservative thought,” argued that to be a conservative is to appreciate genuine diversity, “the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.” The Left is living up to Kirk’s expectations: The increasingly sneering attitude of coastal elites toward the more conservative interior, particularly for the poor communities there, is as undeniable as it is distasteful. But conservatives are not immune to these Kulturkampf tendencies, either. No, the whole country does not need to be Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It doesn’t need to be Lubbock, Texas, either.
We instinctively understand that an economically healthy community has lots of different kinds of productive activities going on, that one-horse economies, whether in our state capitals or in Arab oil emirates, are almost always stunted in some way. And sneer all you like at Wall Street, nobody appreciates the value of effective financial services (especially commercial banking and insurance) more than an American farmer. The loan on his F-150 is hardly his most important financial obligation. But our diversity indicates more than economic health. It indicates a culture and a society that are genuinely alive and genuinely vital.

Our politics is less and less about using the clumsy machinery of the state to try to mitigate the effects of this or that problem, and more and more about what kind of people we are, what kind of people we aspire to be, and — not least, never least — what kind of people we hate: effete Santa Monica liberals who don’t know where their food comes from, small-minded prairie bigots who shop at Walmart and have never visited Europe. We have a keen understanding for the vices of those who are unlike us. Their virtues, less so. But the farmers and the bankers need each other.

It is a big country, and there is room for both.

A few years ago, there was a controversial Republican political figure who spoke to this under rather more intense circumstances: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” The election of 2016 was divisive, to be sure. It wasn’t Appomattox. The Real America has been through worse.

The four-wheeled culture war

This may have started with a New York Times story:

Tim Spell has noticed a peculiar condition that affects Texans’ mental, physical and automotive well-being.

“I call it ‘truck-itis,’” said Mr. Spell, the former automotive editor for The Houston Chronicle. “People in Texas will buy trucks even if they’re not going to haul anything heavier than raindrops. I was interviewing one guy. He had a 4-by-4. I said: ‘You live in Houston. Why do you have this 4-by-4?’ He said, ‘Well, I own a bar, and 4-by-4s are higher, and I can climb up on the cab and change out the letters of my marquee.’”

Whether for high-up urban letter-switching or more rural and rugged purposes, pickup trucks are to Texas what cowboy boots and oil derricks are to the state — a potent part of the brand. No other state has a bigger influence on the marketing of American pickup trucks.

Texas is No. 1 in the country for full-size pickup trucks. More of them were sold in 2015 in the Dallas and Houston areas than in the entire state of California, according to the research firm IHS Markit. There is the Ford F-150 King Ranch, named for the iconic Texas ranch. And the Nissan Texas Titan, the floor mats and tailgate of which are emblazoned with the shape of Texas. And the Toyota Tundra 1794 Edition, featuring leather seats that mimic the look and feel of Western saddles, was named for the year that the JLC Ranch in San Antonio was established.

The Texas-edition truck is a product of the state’s pull on the truck world. Some truck styles are sold and marketed only in the state as Texas editions, ensuring that pickup trucks, like a lot of things in Texas, are different here than elsewhere.

The F-150 may be the truck of Texas, but as of the 2014 model year (the latest year I could find) the most popular new vehicle in Wisconsin is …

… a Chevrolet Silverado, the F-150’s main competitor. Notice it’s easier to find states where the top selling vehicle is a pickup truck than states where a car is the best-seller.

That makes what Sean Davis reports rather mystifying:

Even after a presidential election in which scores of media personalities were shown to be entirely disconnected from the country and people they report on, the liberal media bubble is alive and well. All it took to reveal the durability of that bubble was a simple question about pickup trucks.

For those who might not be aware, trucks are really popular in America and have been for decades. The Ford F-series, for example, has been the most popular line of vehicles in America for 34 years in a row. Ford F-150’s are basically the jeans of vehicles: it’s nearly impossible to find a person in America who either doesn’t own one or doesn’t know someone who owns one. The top three best-selling vehicles in America are not cars, but trucks: the Ford F-series, Chevy Silverado, and Dodge Ram. The top-selling sedan is but a distant fourth. According to a 2014 survey conducted by IHS automotive, trucks were the most popular vehicles in a whopping 34 states. A separate 2015 study found that the F-150 was the most popular used vehicle in 36 states.
Why is this important? Because research has shown that vehicle preferences and political preferences are linked. According to a 2016 survey of 170,000 vehicle buyers conducted by market research firm Strategic Vision, what you drive can reveal a great deal about which political candidates you prefer.

The five most popular vehicle models among Republicans, for example, are all trucks, with the ubiquitous Ford F-150 leading the way. Among Democrats, the Subaru Outback is the most popular choice. If you drive a truck, you’re probably a Republican. If you drive a Subaru, you’re probably a Democrat. Donald Trump won every single state in which the Ford F-150 is the most popular vehicle (even Pennsylvania). He won all but four of the states in which the Chevy Silverado is the most popular vehicle, including Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Hillary Clinton handily won the states where people prefer Subarus.

Which brings us to the simple question about truck ownership from John Ekdahl that drove Acela corridor progressive political journalists into a frenzy on Tuesday night: “The top 3 best selling vehicles in America are pick-ups. Question to reporters: do you personally know someone that owns one?”

Rather than answer with a simple “no,” the esteemed members of the most cloistered and provincial class in America–political journalists who live in New York City or Washington, D.C.–reacted by doing their best impersonation of a vampire who had just been dragged into the sunshine and presented with a garlic-adorned crucifix.

There were basically three types of hysterical response to a simple question about truck owners: 1) shut up, 2) you’re stupid and/or sexist and/or racist, and 3) whatever, liar, trucks aren’t popular (far and away my favorite delusional response to a simple question from a group of people who want you to believe they’re extremely concerned about “fake news”). It turns out that people who are paid large sums of money to opine on what Americans outside the Acela province think get very upset if you demonstrate that they don’t actually know any of the people about whom they pretend to be experts.

Click here to see the Twitter responses to which Davis refers.

The Right Scoop adds:

Like, seriously, it’s not even combative or anything. But it doesn’t matter because journalists and liberals could sniff out that if they answered honestly they’d expose themselves and their safe space echo chambers, so they lashed out at Ekdahl in smug, self-righteous, condescending anger.
Which kinda proves his point, doesn’t it? …

The automotive editor for Ars Technica compares truck owning to BEING A HEROIN ADDICT BECAUSE HE’S NOT SENSITIVE ABOUT IT AT ALL:

.@JohnEkdahl plenty of heartlanders are opioid addicts. Does that mean to report on real Amerikkka you need an oxy habit?

… For as little as I know Ekdahl personally, I have no doubt he didn’t mean his question in a malicious way, but snowflake libs are terribly sensitive about their safe spaces. …

Ekdahl closed out the night with this explosive retweet: