Wrecking yards are better than ever!

Posted on August 8th, 2014 in Engine Management,Materials,Opinion,Suspension,Turbocharging by Julian Edgar

I’ve always loved going to car wreckers, looking at the bits and pieces available so cheaply and wondering how I can integrate them into my car.

I started visiting wreckers when I had my first car – a 1973 Honda Z. That was way back in the early Eighties. I remember looking through the field of dismembered wrecks, finding dash parts from Honda Civics that I could shoehorn into the Z. I even integrated the high beam flash stalk from a Datsun 260Z into the little Honda.

Time passed, and I was then looking at wreckers importing Japanese engines and transmissions…. That led to a turbo 660cc 3-cylinder engine going into my Daihatsu Handi, and later an RB20DET turbo six going into a C210 Skyline.

I have been musing over this because in the last month I’ve been spending a lot of time back in wrecking yards.

I’m lucky enough to have discovered a wrecker of the old school, one that lets you wander around the yard of cars, spanner and pliers in hand, able to take off whatever parts you want and then take them to the front counter to have them priced.

But the big difference now is this: with modern hi-tech cars having been around for literally decades, the sheer variety of the parts that you can buy is amazing.

Need an idle speed control valve (as I did the other day)? Well, at this yard you can chose between Bosch (three types), Nissan, Toyota, Holden, Ford, Mazda – basically, every car in the yard has an idle speed control valve!

After half an hour of browsing, I walked out with a Bosch idle speed control valve from a BMW, complete with plug and a short section of loom. Cost? AUD$33.

Need a factory bracket on which to mount a GM MAP sensor? Sure – look under the bonnets of not only GM cars but also Daewoos. Cost? In this case, I was charged nothing!

Want some direct fire ignition coils? Would you like those coil-on-plug or remote-mounted? After a long look, I decided instead to go brand new with some Bosch coils – but the browse through the yard showed some very interesting approaches.

Need some 19mm hoses, preformed with bends to plumb a turbo blow-off valve? An hour later I walked out with no less than nine of them – all different lengths and bend radii. Cost? AUD$11. Oh yes, and that also included a rubber mount for the idle speed control valve that I’d forgotten to get earlier!

If you’ve not been to a wrecking yard for a long time, find a good one and have a long look around. You might be as surprised as I was.


Water/air intercooling

Posted on July 1st, 2014 in Intercooling,testing,Turbocharging by Julian Edgar

We will be covering in a later issue of AutoSpeed what I am about to write about – so this is just a quick heads-up.

If you are developing a custom water/air intercooling system, here are some critical questions for you.

1. How can you bleed all air out of the system? Nearly all commercially available aftermarket water/air heat exchangers don’t have bleed fittings. If you are mounting these heat exchangers conventionally, eg horizontally, about one-third of the internal volume will stay full of air – not water!

2. How are you measuring pump flow? If your answer is to pull off a hose and direct it into a bucket, then almost certainly the amount you measure will not be correct. Why? Because pumps will often work differently when they are part of a closed system versus an open system.

3. Finally, is the pump flowing effectively – or is it cavitating? Of the three pumps I tried in my system, only one was effective in circulating water without any apparent cavitation.

Looking around the web at pics of custom water/air intercooling systems, I’d guess that many (most?) of these systems are operating below par because of these issues.


Getting enough clearance

Posted on May 30th, 2014 in Driving Emotion,Safety,Suspension,testing by Julian Edgar

When is enough clearance sufficient?

If you’ve modified a lot on cars, you’ll have come across this question. It might be the clearance between the exhaust the bodywork, clearance of a driveshaft at full suspension bump with a chassis member or subframe, or even clearance between a large turbo and bodywork.

Years ago I read an excellent book written by an automotive suspension engineer working in the 1950s. In it he made the (almost throwaway) line that there’s no need to provide tyre clearance at full suspension bump AND full steering lock – the idea being that this situation almost never occurs, and if contact did in fact occur in that situation, the car would be moving so slowly that it wouldn’t matter much anyway.

These thoughts are intruding because at the moment I am massaging a turbo dump pipe so that it clears a steering tie-rod, with the greatest potential conflict occurring at full suspension droop and with full right-hand steering lock.

At full droop but with the wheels pointing straightahead – no problem. And at full steering lock and with the wheels at normal ride height – again no problem.

It’s just at that particular combination – one that again is very unlikely to ever occur – that I have the issue.

I am concerned because if the car has to undergo full engineering approval, I can just imagine an engineer saying something along the lines that conflict should not be able to occur at ANY combination of lock and suspension movement….

And even if clearance is achieved, how much clearance is enough? If I were ornery enough to throw in maximum engine torque reaction movement at just that moment, perhaps another 10mm of clearance would be needed.

But hold on! How could the engine be developing maximum torque if the suspension is at full droop? After all, in that situation there’s very little – next to none in fact – of the car’s weight on the tyre… so how could it transmit the torque anyway? No torque transmission means no transverse engine rocking!

Hmm, what about if the car has an LSD, and a very stiff front anti-roll bar, and is cornering hard enough (at full lock!) to lift a wheel? Then I suppose one could imagine a situation where something like contact could occur.


Picking gauges

Posted on April 2nd, 2014 in Economy,Honda,Hybrid Power,testing by Julian Edgar

It’s not often that you get a clean slate in terms of designing an instrument panel.

With my Honda Insight project, where the standard instrument panel is being ditched and replaced with (primarily) a MoTeC CDL3 digital dash, to some extent the type of display becomes obvious – it’ll be dominated by the MoTeC unit.

But what about the factory-fitted warning lights – things like ABS, EPS (electric power steering) and airbag malfunction indicators? And how will high beam, low beam and the action of the indicators be shown? And will there be data that I will want to be able to see but the MoTeC dash won’t easily show?

Despite the dash not likely to be installed for many months, I’ve been mulling over these ideas.

At this stage – and things may well change – this is what I am thinking I’ll need:

Warning lights for:

 – high beam

 – low beam

 – left indicator

 – right indicator

 – EPS

 – ABS

 – airbag

 – handbrake / braking system fail


Small backlit numerical LCDs for:

 – high voltage battery voltage

 – electric motor current flow


MoTeC dash display of:

 – engine rpm

 – coolant temp

 – fuel level

 – road speed

 – manifold pressure

 – intake air temp

 – gear

 – oil pressure

 – oil temperature

 – turbo exhaust back-pressure

 – water/air intercooler pump drive voltage

 – 12V battery voltage

Some of these MoTeC-displayed parameters (eg intake air temp and rpm) will be communicated via the CAN bus from the M400 ECU.

One parameter (selected gear) will be internally calculated in the dash, while other parameters (like oil temp and pressure) will require dedicated sensors.

Note that the MoTec dash allows different data to be displayed depending on the mode selected – so not all of these things will be available all at once!

On the list above there are a couple of unusual ones.

I want to be able to see turbo exhaust back-pressure because, in order to provide low rpm torque, the turbo that is being used is small. However, if as a result of its small size, the exhaust back-pressure is overly high, then fuel economy will suffer. It’ll be good to be able to see this figure.

So why show the water/air intercooler pump drive voltage? The pump will be varied in speed by the ECU. This is needed because I want to control the intake air temp, rather than just keep it as low as possible. For much of the time, I would expect that the pump will be operating at less than full speed. Displaying pump drive voltage will allow me to see at what speed the pump is being driven. Not only will this be interesting in itself, it will also allow me to assess how effective the control strategies are that are being used to operate the pump.

As I said, all still a long way off, but I need to start sourcing bits and installing sensors right now.

Hybrid taxis

Posted on March 30th, 2014 in Hybrid Power,testing,Toyota by Julian Edgar

I recently spent some days in Darwin teaching people in government how to write clearly. It’s a long time since I’ve been in Darwin, and the growth and increasing affluence of the city was plain to see.

But the thing that fascinated me more than anything else in Darwin was the proliferation of Toyota hybrid taxis. The Prius, Prius V and Camry hybrid just dominate the taxi fleet.

Watching the few non-hybrid taxis sit there in ranks, waiting for customers with the car engines running to keep the air-conditioned cabins cool, it struck me how Toyota hybrids have a clear fuel economy advantage in these conditions.

And what’s that? Well, they can have the air con compressors and cabin fans operating with the engine switched off – until the HV battery gets low in charge, anyway.

One Prius taxi I went in had a dash displayed fuel economy of 7.5 litres/100km (horrendous for a Prius) but with the car being driven abysmally, and with all that time stopped with the air on, that was probably a pretty good figure compared with a conventional drivetrain.

(Yes the HV juice that runs the air con still needs to come from the petrol, but an engine is less efficient at idle than when driving the car, so overall, the fuel economy would benefit with the hybrid approach. Not to mention the battery juice achieved through braking regen.)

When I was in Germany a few months ago, there were many Prius taxis in the ranks – oftentimes, as many of the hybrid Toyotas as there were Mercedes and Volkswagens. I don’t think that fuel economy in those cool German cities would be a stellar advantage to the hybrids over diesels, so that brings up another taxi advantage. The Prius driveline is basically bulletproof – the engine, power split converter and electronics give extraordinarily little trouble. (That’s not just lucky – Toyota went to enormous pains to ensure that hybrids wouldn’t get a bad reputation through poor reliability.)

Taxi operators are among the hardest economic heads operating vehicles – they will use a car only if there is an overall economic benefit. So compared with other manufacturers, the taxi purchase / maintenance cost equation must be highly competitive for the Prius.

Wouldn’t it be funny if one of the greatest advances in car technology in the last 80 years – hybrids – ended up entering the mainstream through the back door of taxi use?

Bloody brackets….

Posted on March 18th, 2014 in Hybrid Power,Materials,tools by Julian Edgar

I hate making brackets that hold things driven by belts.

The last, most horrible job that I performed in this area was installing a supercharger on a Toyota Prius. I wanted to get the little blower mounted in a position where it could be driven by a longer version of the standard serpentine belt. This required painstakingly accurate building of a heavy duty and rigid bracket. The only place to put the bracket was where the engine mount sat – so the new bracket also became a new engine mount.

In itself that wasn’t so difficult, but getting the pulley mounted in exactly the right plane was just so time consuming.

However, in the end, the belt drive system (including a new idler pulley) worked perfectly – pity the supercharger was so noisy that it all had to come off again.

Right now I am building the bracket to place an alternator on a 2001 Honda Insight. (The Insight doesn’t normally use an alternator.) I don’t know if it’s just me, but this darn bracket is taking me forever.

The alternator is being located between the engine and the firewall, with access possible from both top and bottom. But the bolts on which the mount can ‘pick up’ are few and far between, meaning the bracket has to be a complex, odd shape.

Furthermore, it needs to provide the mounts for two idler pulleys. Why two? Well, they are needed so that firstly, there’s enough belt wrap around the crank pulley; and secondly, so that the belt misses the engine mount.

The resulting alternator bracket needs to be stiff, able to be installed (more difficult than it sounds when the fastening bolts for the bracket are on the side of the block, the end of the block, and under the block), and of course needs to be able to be built.

So how long is this taking me?

Including making a mount on which the alternator can sit temporarily as it’s juggled into the correct position, positioning the two idlers, clearing the torsional vibration damper on the driveshaft at full suspension bump, nestling the alternator as close as possible to the engine block, moving things around so an off-the-shelf belt will fit – and then cutting and welding 8mm plate, positioning the alternator drive pulley and the two idler pulleys in exactly the right plane, straightening bracket distortion after welding… well I’m still going on the bracket, and I reckon so far it’s taken me three full days.

I know I am a pretty slow worker, but three bloody days!

Anyway, the good news is that the top part of the bracket is now in position, the alloy engine mount has been milled to allow the plate to be sandwiched between the engine mount and the block without then causing a host of clearance problems, and as I write this, I am waiting for a belt that I think is the right size – better to have a belt on hand before I drill the hole for the second idler pulley….

Turning over a new leaf

Posted on March 14th, 2014 in Intercooling,tools,Turbocharging by Julian Edgar

Over the last few weeks I have been working on my little Honda Insight. I’ve been installing a turbo, water/air intercooler system and a new airbox, the latter fabricated from scratch.

It’s a complex job in that there’s not much space – especially when I am deliberating oversizing everything (but the turbo) to improve volumetric efficiency.

I am also doing things in a significantly different way to the approach I’ve used previously.

So what’s different then?

Specifically, I am being very careful that each newly-placed nut or bolt can be easily accessed by a tool. This means that instead of just looking at aspects like strength, weight and functionality, I am adding another criterion – can I get a spanner (easily) on that bolt?

It might seem a kinda obvious thing to do but I must admit I have never much done this in the past. In fact, I remember working on my little Daihatsu Handi turbo, way back around 20 years ago. The water/air intercooler I first installed on that car was so tight for space that the nuts had to be placed on bolts using long-handled, long-nose pliers. Yes, both long-nose and long-handled!

It was like performing surgery.

I got so jack of it that in the end I removed that intercooler heat exchanger and fitted another that sat on top of the engine rocker cover, in clear view – and with clear access.

The trickiest job so far on the Honda has also involved a water/air heat exchanger core, the one that sits on a fabricated steel frame bolted to the top of the gearbox, next to the engine.

The intercooler bolts to the frame via three rubber mounts. I need to (1) gain access to the frame’s mounts to bolt it to the gearbox, and then (2) gain access to both ends of the rubber feet, and (3) gain access to the bolts that hold little (extra) brackets to the intercooler core itself.

So far I am JUST successful: the rear bolts for the intercooler rubber mounts, positioned partly under the windscreen in the deeply indented firewall, can be accessed by using a short 12mm spanner – not a ratchet spanner as it looks may be needed, but a conventional spanner. The other fasteners are all easily accessible.

Another tricky job were the mounts for the airbox. A long cylindrical design mounted at an angle to the horizontal, it also sits on the gearbox. By manipulating the bracket design until it was all ‘just so’, I am able to access all three mounting bolts using a long extension on my small socket set.

Importantly, making a design that allowed access to these points was almost the first step in the process – I didn’t position the airbox solely for plumbing access to the turbo. Had I done this, the bolts holding the airbox in position would have been ‘blind’, and furthermore, would have needed tiny hands to even get to them.

And I have to say, positioning the fasteners for good access has made it so much easier to work on the car. That’s especially noticeable when some items, like the airbox, have been on and off perhaps 50 times while the intercooler water hoses have been routed and then fastened into place, and then the intercooler-to-throttle-body tube has been fabricated (twice!).

So for me no more the bad habits of the past: now everything I install has to be easy to work on, no matter how small the space into which it must fit.

AutoSpeed in 2014

Posted on October 4th, 2013 in AutoSpeed,Driving Emotion,Hybrid Power by Julian Edgar

Well, it’s an exciting automotive time for me.

I’ve been working hard on a project – turbocharging my little Honda Insight – that’s going to result in a whole bunch of interesting DIY AutoSpeed stories in 2014.

Yes, even if you’ve no particular interest in turbo’ing a hybrid!

So what sort of stories then?

Well, first off the rank, I’ve bought a TIG welder and have been learning how to drive it. I must say that it’s been a very steep learning curve: despite having experience in both MIG and gas welding, TIG’ing aluminium is a dramatic step up. I’d expect some time in 2014 to write a story about learning how to TIG weld – in the mean time, I’ve done a story for AutoSpeed on making a welding trolley to hold the unit and its gas cylinder.

One of the things I’ve been welding is a water/air intercooler heat exchanger. The Honda will use the intercooler to maintain a constant inlet air temp (eg 35 degrees C ) – not just to cool the air when on boost. This is likely to require passing engine coolant through the heat exchanger following start-up on cold days, transitioning to working as a standalone heat sink, then in hot ambient conditions to working as a conventional cooler with pump and front-radiator. The aim is to achieve best fuel economy, as well as avoid detonation caused by high intake air temps.

I’ve also made a new airbox, taking an unusual approach that is easy to build and uses a widely available, paper filter element. The result flows well, is compact and can be adapted in size and configuration as required for the particular application.

To connect the turbo to the intercooler and then the throttle body I need new intake plumbing – and I’ve been making that as well. I chose to use mild steel mandrel bends – and I’ve made a simple tool to place a bead on the ends of the tubes to stop the hoses blowing off. We’ll be covering the tool, that uses a hydraulic press to power it, in a story in 2014.

Not yet made as I write this, but on the list of things to do, is a new exhaust system. I want to incorporate something I’ve long admired – a variable flow exhaust valve. I’ve got one sitting on the shelf (taken, from all things, a Ferrari rear muffler!) and I’d like to be able to integrate it near the rear of the car.

Driving the engine will be a MoTeC M400 – initially I’ll be controlling fuel, spark, EGR, VTEC changeover and turbo boost. Sitting in the same box near my desk as I type is also a MoTeC CDL3 dash – it will be displaying as many bits of information as I can configure into it.

I’d like to later integrate electronic throttle control – but one step at a time.

And what of the ‘hybridness’ of the car? Longer term, I’d like to use a new li-ion battery pack and controller, potentially over-rating the 10kW electric motor for short term bursts. But initially at least, the car will run as just a turbo three cylinder without the hybrid system operating.

My ultimate aim is to maintain the car’s  unbelievably good fuel economy and have up to 40 per cent more power.

On a different topic, over Christmas and New Year I expect to be in Germany for a month – as we did this year for the UK, I believe that will result in some very interesting tech stories.

2014 is AutoSpeed’s 16th year of publication – it looks like there will be plenty of interesting content!

A poor way of looking at technological history

Posted on February 4th, 2013 in Driving Emotion,Opinion,Technologies by Julian Edgar

Recently I thought it might be good to do some further tertiary study.

The topic? Transport history.

I like trains, cars, ships, hovercraft, airships and the like, and I read a lot about them, especially their technological development.

So I looked for a tertiary institution that offers a course in this area. I found one too, offered by distance education at a university in the UK.

I wrote to them, giving a little of my background (diploma and degree in education with majors in geography and sociology, graduate diploma in journalism, author of a tech book on cars, and longstanding journalist in the field of electronics and technology), and asked if their course would be suitable.

They were positive but pointed out that the course, a certificate, was taught at a level that may be overly simple for me. However, when I looked at the content, it actually looked really interesting.

The first year of the two-year course was based around content that traced the development of transport within Britain over the last few hundred years, and in the second year, students were able to write a dissertation on, the university said, any transport-related topic they liked.

The course was not cheap (around AUD$5000 a year) but as I say, it looked good – especially with the freedom in the second year. In fact, I mused, what sort of topic would I pick for that long second-year paper? I came up with three possibles: automotive front suspension design 1920 – 1950, aerodynamics of passenger cars 1970 – 1990, and development of the SR.N4 commercial hovercraft. Each I thought would be a worthy area of major study: I became quite excited at the prospect of the course on which I was to embark.

I wrote to the university, nominating these topics and asking if they’d be suitable.

But then things started going downhill.

Back came the reply:

“Technical subjects are, of course, very acceptable so long as the study contains analysis in the historical context. A straight story of changes in design with no linkage to social/economic/historical influences would not be acceptable.

The course convenor went on:

“In other words, we would not be interested in precise details of nuts and bolts but we would be interested in how and why it developed that way.”

Further, the lecturer nominated a link that, she said, showed the approach the university liked. The most interesting part of that link was at http://www.historyoftechnology.org/booklets_intro.html. Here is an excerpt:

Scholarly specialists now largely agree about what is called social construction: the idea that technologies succeed or fail (or emerge at all) partly because of the political strategies employed by “actors”— individuals, groups, and organizations—that have conflicting or complementary interests in particular outcomes. [….]  …there is no doubt that technological designs are shaped by ambient social and cultural factors…. the shaping of technology is integral to the shaping of society and culture.

In other words, the development of technology should be examined through a sociological rather than technical prism.

Now as I wrote above, I have a degree-level major in sociology: I am completely happy that a historical analysis of technological developments should occur in part within a sociological frame of reference. And  clearly, the success or otherwise of the technology, if assessed by the change it brings to society, is well measured and described by an analysis that takes into account the contemporaneous (and subsequent)  economic, political and cultural environments.

But to suggest that those responsible for the development of the technology are mere actors, implicitly of no great consequence – well!

The development of hovercraft technology very much reflected the economic, political and cultural environment of 1960s Britain – but crucially, without the ideas of one man, Christopher Cockerell, there would have been no hovercraft in the first place! Further, without the intellectual capital expended by engineers within Saunders Roe, bent on overcoming specific technical issues, there would have been no giant SR.N4 hovercraft – even if all this occurred in exactly the same sociological and historical environment.

You simply cannot exclude from the story the people who came up with – and refined – the ideas: they are integral to the technological development, as are the discrete steps they took in that process.

Furthermore, the suggested approach ignores the idea that there are objective measurable outcomes in technological achievement itself – it is not only within a social context that any worthwhile judgements can be made of technology.

Would Issigonis’s Mini have been less of a technological achievement if the car had been unsuccessful within broader society – something that, soon after its release, looked quite likely? If analysis includes objective automotive design criteria such as packaging efficiency, fuel economy, performance and handling – then no, it would have been just as great a technological advance, even if it had been a commercial flop with little overt societal impact.

So while I certainly understand the critical importance of a social context in terms of genesis, adoption and impact of a technological advance, to pay only lip-service to the nitty-gritty of the technology itself, and its process of development, seems to me to be missing a helluva lot of the wood for the trees.

It’s easy to be uncharitable: perhaps this approach is the one endorsed because people don’t want to be bothered understanding the technology – better to just accept that it would have come about anyway….so who cares how they actually did it?

But what an incredible belittlement of engineers….

Footnote: I’ve decided not to do the course.

Heavy cars

Posted on August 22nd, 2012 in Driving Emotion,Honda,Materials by Julian Edgar

My Honda Legend is the heaviest car I have ever owned. As a fan of light cars, the Honda’s mass is not something that fills me with joy – but as described elsewhere, it was my best choice based on a variety of factors.

So does it feel unwieldy – even lumpy? No it doesn’t. Particularly because of the yawing ability of its all-wheel drive system, it turns-in readily and feels poised and amenable to directional change.

Driving the car, especially over bumpy roads, you can feel its favourably high mass / unsprung mass ratio: the body tends to float over the bumps rather than drop into them, and there’s never the feeling of the car being ‘shaken by the wheels’ that occurs in vehicles with a low sprung / unsprung mass relationship.

So is it all sweetness and light – the 1855-odd kg doesn’t matter?


The Legend, despite its big brakes, is a car that requires clear effort to slow. Part of that effort can be seen in how quickly it blackens its front rims – even in gentle driving.

It also cannot get away from the disadvantages of its mass in fuel consumption. Particularly noticeable in open-road undulating terrain, the fuel burn when hauling its lard-arse up hills is high.

However, with lots of kg, a low Cd and relatively small frontal area, the Legend is a car that will roll a long way. Time and time again in the first month of ownership I have found myself committing that cardinal driver sin of going straight from the accelerator to the brake, rather than getting off the power sufficiently early that there can be a roll-down time in between.

I think it’s a good car… but I think it would be a better one at (say) 200kg lighter. That would have required all-alloy construction, something that another Honda I own (a first gen Insight) already has. (The – much smaller – Insight has a mass of just 827kg!) An all-alloy Legend I would guess at around 1600kg – still no light-weight, but more appropriate for its size and equipment level. I wonder why Honda didn’t do this? In the Australian market (at least) the car was underpriced compared to its Euro and Japanese opposition, so you’d have thought they could have worn the extra cost.

But whichever way you analyse it, the disadvantages of high car mass well outweigh(!) the advantages.