Entrepreneurial Leadership and Management . . . and Other Stuff

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21
Mar

The Real Challenge for American Car Manufacturers

It seems that most people have yet to notice, but American car companies are back. Well, not necessarily back financially, but for the most part, they’re back to building world class vehicles. Certainly, there are few cars waiting for their refresh or to be dumped and many cars and even brands have simply been removed from the scene. The new stuff coming out of Detroit, though, is really very good and, for the most part, cheaper than anything shipped to US shores.

As it turns out, though, building new world class cars was the easy part for the American manufacturers. Projecting that reality to the buying public, however, is going to take a very long time. And long-term thinking is just not an American business strength.

A couple of weeks ago, I was meeting with a couple of young entrepreneurs who were both planning new car purchases to accommodate their expanding families. I asked what cars they were looking at. Their answers . . . Honda, Toyota and Nissan SUVs with a BMW or Audi as a long shot. I asked if they had considered an American car. I got blank stares. I said that there were some really nice new small SUVs offered by Chevrolet and Ford. More blank stares. I told them that I had purchased one earlier in the year. Polite, but uninterested body language. I said that the gas mileage was great, it had more interior room than its competition, the safety ratings were the same as the cars they mentioned and after 11,000 hard city miles, the car was tight and solid. Maybe some slight interest, but I may have been imagining it. I then said that the car cost about $5,000 less than its direct Japanese competition and was $10,000 to $15,000 less than its German competition. They responded, “yeah, I’ll have to look into that,” and went to discussing the Japanese and German cars.

I have to assume that if the American companies continue to produce great cars at lower prices, eventually, the buyers will come. Clearly, the companies are going to have to be patient, though. When Lexus entered the US market, no one thought that anyone would buy a high-priced, “luxury” Toyota. At first, few did. Toyota knew this – they knew that it would take a very long time to be considered an equal with the worlds’ best vehicles in that class.  The costs must have been tremendous, but they stuck with their plan and we all know the outcome. The American auto manufacturers will need similar planning, patience and stick-to-itiveness.

Keep pumping out great cars at good prices, Detroit. Eventually, the buyers will come.

Note: there is some indication that the tide is already turning. According to the cars.com blog, KickingTires, Buick is currently outselling all luxury brands in the US except BMW (they are forecasted to beat BMW too by year’s end) with only four cars in their lineup and 73% year-over-year unit sales growth in February.

 March 21st, 2011  
 Will  
 Stuff with a Motor  
   
 17 Comments
06
Mar

The Science Behind Traffic Jams

 March 6th, 2011  
 Will  
 Stuff with a Motor  
   
 4 Comments
30
Oct

Dual Bolt Pattern Wheels

Until my new wheels and tires for my truck arrived from Tire Rack yesterday, I didn’t even know that dual bolt pattern wheels were made. The bolt pattern for a wheel is the layout of the lugs (the bolts) that protrude from the car’s hub and are used to attach the wheel to the car. For a variety of reasons, there are no standard bolt patterns. In fact, there are a huge number of different bolt patterns for wheels. When buying aftermarket wheels, it’s very important to get the correct bolt pattern, or else the wheel won’t fit on the hub.

IMG_2019-800x600To make a wheel fit on more vehicles, aftermarket wheel manufacturers sometimes, apparently, drill two sets of bolt patterns in their wheels (cheaper wheels, like I purchased). See the picture on the left (click to enlarge). After seeing this dual bolt pattern on my new wheels, my first thought was that there must be a structural issue with having that much open space next to the bolts. So I hit the web, but couldn’t find anything on failing wheels as a result of having 2X the number of bolt holes.

While trying to mount the wheels, though, I discovered the real problem with dual bolt patterns – tolerances are tight (there’s no play in the bolt hole and the inside edge isn’t beveled to make threading the bolt through the hole easier) and aligning the wheel to the bolt pattern is significantly harder. The difficulty factor is almost assuredly amplified by the number of lugs that your car has per hub. My truck has 6, making 12 bolt holes in each wheel. Aligning six lugs all at the same time without any play is a challenge. Even further, the tire/wheel combination is about 30 pounds – just not an easy one person job while trying to fine tune the placement of the wheel.

IMG_2016-800x600All this made an hour-long job take about 4 hours (Bower Factor of 4). Some of that was learning the process, for sure, but it still took a long time and that was in my garage with pneumatic and electric tools. I can’t even begin to think how miserable a job this would be on the side of the road in the rain. I think I’m going to keep a factory wheel as my spare.

 October 30th, 2010  
 Will  
 Stuff with a Motor  
   
 4 Comments
04
May

Another Possible Reason for Toyota’s Problems – The Rest of Us

In the June issue of Car and Driver magazine, Aaron Robinson has a different cut on the Toyota unintended acceleration problem (can’t find it online yet). He states that in the great scheme of things, maybe it’s not a problem at all; maybe faster-moving Toyotas will keep them from blocking the left lane so the rest of us non-Toyota driving public can get somewhere at a reasonable speed.

While I would normally be thinking about Subarus in this regard, Robinson certainly has a point. He states of the stereotypical Toyota driver:

“. . . that they’re generally the slowest, most nervous drivers and that they were sent here to act as human restrictor plates on the speed of society’s activity.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah, this is a gross generalization which is unfair, as all generalizations are, blah, blah, blah. Keep in mind, while I might share this perspective, I’m just quotin’ here.

Robinson does have some remorse for his point of view and he worries that bad wishes toward a line of Camrys and Priuses blocking the express lane (aka, the left lane) on major roads in the US might actually be the cause of the problem.

“After all, nobody has yet proven that the amalgamated desire of everybody else on the road to rid the left lane of lumbering Toyotas and Lexuses isn’t having some kind of telekinetic effect on their throttles.”

Although, if this were true, I would have increased the speed of half the car brands on the planet by now . . .

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 May 4th, 2010  
 Will  
 Stuff with a Motor  
   
 6 Comments
23
Jun

Modeling a “Jamiton” – The Mathematics of a Traffic Jam

My good friend Dave just sent me an article from Wired magazine, “MIT Hopes to Exorcise ‘Phantom’ Traffic Jams,” about research going on at MIT in mathematically modeling randomly occurring traffic jams to discover their source as well as potential remedies.  Since I’m not a mathematician, I developed a somewhat less scientific theory as to why such traffic jams happen – morons and ignorant motorists who shouldn’t have licenses.  If people paid more attention, the chance of randomly occurring traffic jams taking place would be greatly eliminated.  Read the signs: Slower Traffic Keep Right.”  But, if you’re interested in a more rational theory, check out the article.

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 June 23rd, 2009  
 Will  
 Stuff with a Motor  
   
 4 Comments
15
Jun

Mercedes ESF 2009 Worthy of Speed Racer

Mercedes has always been a leading innovator of safety gizmos that help pull your vehicular ass out of the frying pan when things go terribly, terribly wrong.  Every once in a while, they show off what’s next in preventing your insides from becoming your outsides in an auto accident with a marketing-oriented test vehicle.  They are parading the ESF (experimental Safety Vehicle – yeah, it’s German) 2009 around the world to show off their engineering talent right now.

One of the things you’ll see in the video below is a “braking bag.”  This is the modern equivalent of Fred Flintstone ramming his heels into the ground to slow down his car or Speed Racer pushing one of those buttons on his steering wheel.  An airbag forces a plate into the ground as a last ditch effort to prevent you from careening off the edge of the paved universe.  Hope I never need one.  The other stuff is pretty neat too.

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 June 15th, 2009  
 Will  
 Stuff with a Motor  
   
 4 Comments
06
May

Wrong Direction Parking

Parking Ticket_Page_2

So, I was in Cambridge, MA last week and parked in a public lot while attending the TechStars Boston Mentor Dinner (really great group, BTW).  I searched the 10,000 little signs around the lot to find out if I needed to fill a meter somewhere and felt fairly secure that I didn’t when I found an obscured sign that stated that sacrifices to the parking lot gods were not required after 6pm – it was 5:58.

Imagine my dismay then, when I came back to my car later that evening to find this parking ticket on the car.  Not because I neglected to fill a meter, but because I backed into a parking space (see arrows).  I suppose I can dream of reasons why this is a rule, most of them having to do with bad drivers, but I can’t think of any logical reason why this should be a problem (Massachusetts requires front license plates, so that’s not it).

I had to hunt around the parking lot to find the small sign that told parkers that they had to park “head on” only.  It was there, but it wasn’t obvious.  It was posted and I was, therefore, wrong.  I just think it’s absurd – both the rule and the poor posting of it.

Anyone know why this type of parking restriction is mandated?

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 May 6th, 2009  
 Will  
 Misc Thoughts, Stuff with a Motor  
   
 25 Comments
04
May

The Coming of the V-6 Muscle Car

I’m a car guy.  I’ve owned many cars and have driven dozens that I haven’t had the opportunity to own (yet).  Hands down, my all time favorite car was my new, at the time, 1984 Camaro Z28 HO (High Output).  An 80s example of the classic American muscle car.  It had a clutch pedal that took Schwarzeneggerian strength to depress and a shifter with a softball-size shift knob and a throw worthy of a shot-putter or, as it was aptly often nicknamed, a rock-crusher.  It could leave rubber in third gear and could get going from a dead stop in fifth.  It didn’t actually require a steering wheel – there was so much oversteer that one’s right foot did the job in most cases.  Man, I loved that car.

If you’re a car-as-transportation kinda person or believe that automobiles are all about getting from point A to point B, you may not understand this, but the sheer enjoyment of driving any vehicle is greatly about time and place.  Much of what I cherished about that car had to do with the fact that I was in my early twenties, unattached (other than to work) and relatively reckless – on the road, anyway.  Did I mention how much I loved that car?

At the time, the Z28 HO carried a Chevy small block – a classic, smallish 305 cubic inch one, although referred to as a 5.0 liter motor so Chevy could seem more European – that generated an anemic 190 horsepower with torque in the low 200 ft-lb range I’d expect, although I don’t recall precisely.  It drank fuel faster than the Exxon Valdez leaked oil.  I recall getting about 13 mpg.  Of course, it’s not like I drove with conservation in mind.  Oh, BTW, I paid about $19K for the car when new.

Unless you’ve had your head in the sand, you know that a new generation of muscle cars has arrived from the Big 3 Detroit-based auto companies [note: if you’re reading this long after it was written, there may be a smaller number].  Ford has its Mustang, Dodge has its Challenger and Chevrolet once again has its Camaro.  Of course, each of these vehicles comes in a V-8 version that, to quote Car and Driver Magazine, “reduce tires to a gray haze that hangs on the horizon like a thousand dirty sweatpants.”  They are, after all, American muscle cars.  Unlike the original muscle car days, though, these cars are also all available outfitted with V-6s.  Lest you scoff at the idea of dropping only six cylinders into the engine bay of a muscle car, read on.  There is interesting news here.  At least from The General.

2010 Chevrolet Camaro RS The Camaro LS/LT sports a 3.6L (I guess the metric system won out after all) V-6 that generates 304 hp and 273 ft-lb of torque.  It goes from 0-60 in 5.9 seconds, pulls 0.87 g on the skidpad and is rated by the EPA to frugally travel 29 highway and 23 combined city/highway miles on a single gallon of refined dinosaur remains.  This not only kicks the ass of my favorite vehicle of all time using two fewer cylinders, it beats the original 1960s era Camaro SS with its huge 396 cu in engine to 60 mph by 0.7 seconds while riding in more comfort and safety.  The icing on this automotive cake is that the car starts at less than $23K.  In 25 years, that not much of a bump.

While the bashing of American car companies is certainly in vogue and pissing on GM, in particular, is the stuff of headlines, it’s great to see cars like this fighting back in showrooms and on the streets.  There are many who will say that the Prius is now rated at 50 mpg and that any car that gets lower mileage than that should be banned from the streets.  Those people are welcome to buy all the Priuses that Toyota can produce.  I look at the advent of cars like this – cars that address our emotional desires as well as our economical ones – as a huge advance for the auto industry and a monster opportunity for the auto buying public.  Who knows, maybe my new favorite car is coming soon.

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 May 4th, 2009  
 Will  
 Stuff with a Motor  
   
 8 Comments
14
Apr

The 2009 New York International Auto Show

My son and I once again visited the Big Apple to see what the remaining industrial might of the automotive world has to offer.  Since between the two of us, we read almost every English language car magazine published and cruise virtually all the automotive blogs that Google can dig up, there are hardly any surprises at the the show.  Seeing real sheet metal, though, is an experience hard to match in two dimensions.  The touch of seat fabric or dashboard material can tell you more about a car than 2,000 words of text any day.

The first thing that hit us as we entered the show was its size – in terms of manufacturers, vehicles and show visitors.  Maybe slightly smaller than previous years, but pretty close – at least the day we were there.  Almost all manufacturers that sell cars in the US were represented, with the notable exception of Ferrari, Maserati and Tesla (I only mention Tesla because Fisker was there – more on that later).

Themes are easy to spot at any of these shows.  Obviously, these are derived from the perception that the auto manufacturers have of what will sell.  This year, unsurprisingly, green was big, but so were muscle cars, some strange looks and performance cars.

In the green space, almost everyone was touting the higher mileage of their cars.  The usual suspects were involved, of course, and the big hybrid smackdown between the Honda Insight and Toyota’s updated Prius were on full display.

New York - 4-11-2009 New York - 4-11-2009

I think they’re both hideous, but it’s great to see Honda seriously entering the fray and keeping Toyota in line when it comes to prices and style – well, just forget I mentioned style.

Fisker Automotive was at the show as well showing off its fabulous Karma in sedan and convertible versions.  Both are plug-in hybrids that cruise for their first 50 miles or so on electricity only.  I don’t know if they’re gonna work, but they are gorgeous.

New York - 4-11-2009 New York - 4-11-2009

As usual, the American manufacturers seem virtually ignored in this space, even though they have loads of hybrids and high mileage cars.  The Ford Fusion, for example, is much bigger than the Honda and Toyota and gets 41mpg.

New York - 4-11-2009GM’s Chevrolet Volt was not getting as much attention as it has in the past.  Perhaps because GM has been announcing it since the end of WWII.  It’s still a terrific car, though, and will be a tremendous breakthrough when it is finally delivered next year. 

New York - 4-11-2009

 

Even more interesting to me is the Volt’s cousin, the Cadillac Converj.  While still a concept car, it certainly is a looker.  I think it could be a real attention-getter for GM if they can afford to build it.

Another trend that is emerging quickly is boxy cars.  As far as I can tell, Honda was way out in front of everyone when it started selling the Element a few years ago.  Now, there are loads of these boxes cruising the streets and many more to come.  Here are a few new ones.  All relatively low price, highly customizable and surprisingly large inside.

New York - 4-11-2009 New York - 4-11-2009
New York - 4-11-2009

I came away from last year’s show thinking that the Hyundai Genesis sedan was the star of the show.  A real breakthrough for the company and the segment.  A lower-cost, high-quality sedan with enough luxury and performance to compete against cars costing quite a bit more from Japan and Germany.  This year, I give a tip-o-me-hat to Hyundai again.  I think the Equus, below, which is aimed squarly at the big German sedans (yup, including the Mercedes S-Class) looks fantastic.  If they do the same thing in the cruise-o-matic segment as they did with the smaller car – low price with great luxury and performance – they’ll have a huge winner.  Interestingly, the Equus is missing the typical Hyundai badging, replaced with some winged thingy on the hood.

New York - 4-11-2009 New York - 4-11-2009

Finally, the big American muscle car showdown continued with the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Challenger in their glory.  Not only do I love the emergence of muscle cars, I love the competition that is making these cars more refined, fuel efficient and higher performing than their original versions.  They’re all a little plasticy inside, but the sacrifices to reduce cost are far less than I would have expected.

New York - 4-11-2009 New York - 4-11-2009
New York - 4-11-2009

New York - 4-11-2009As always, there are a few cars on the show floor that make us scratch our heads.  To this [these] vehicles, my son and I award the Pontiac Aztek medal of honor.  My son and I both agree that the GMC Terrain was a top vote-getter for the prize this year.  I can’t imagine what GM was thinking when they applied the fender flares and bumpers to this thing.

New York - 4-11-2009 My son disagrees with me, but I believe that the BMW X6 is a close runner up.  Chris Bangle is gone.  Can we blame him for this any more?

The full gallery of pictures can be found here, if you’re interested.

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 April 14th, 2009  
 Will  
 Stuff with a Motor  
   
 1 Comment
10
Feb

Gotta Love Low Rent Advertising

The back pages of auto magazines are famous for being loaded with advertisements for somewhat . . . let’s say, questionable, goods and services.  Pheromone supplements for your aftershave, slinky outfits for your [in]significant other, a variety of tools and chemicals to increase the length of certain body parts or the amount of time you put them to good use.  There are even some ads for crap for your car.

I used to skip the whole section, but the magazines have become wise to that and now put real content after the ads, forcing you to skim through them.  Very smart.  In any event, I enjoy scanning them.  Some of them are innovative and, for the car guy, merge all wants and needs together nicely.  Like this one . . .

Hard Brake Pedal Ad

I wish I were that creative.

 February 10th, 2009  
 Will  
 Advertising, Marketing, Stuff with a Motor  
   
 Comments Off on Gotta Love Low Rent Advertising