Fourteen years of innovation

Posted on October 16th, 2012 in Driving Emotion by Julian Edgar

Today marks the launch of the 14th anniversary issue of AutoSpeed – we began in October 1998.

Over those 14 years we have covered many unique approaches to DIY car modification – and DIY tech in general.  I am proud of that history of innovation and lateral thought:  it’s also something I think undervalued by many. (To put this another way, if we stop publishing tomorrow, I am sure that in five years’ time many people would trumpet about the ‘good old days of AutoSpeed’ and ‘wasn’t the stuff they did fantastic’!).

Those innovative and unique stories include:

DIY aerodynamic testing and development – including measuring the effectiveness of bonnet vents, front spoilers and undertrays; and visualising airflow over cars by use of tufting and on-road testing.

Low cost DIY electronic modules – including interceptors, rpm and voltage switches, temperature alarms and displays, current pulsers, air conditioner controllers, intelligent intercooler spray controllers and air/fuel ratio monitoring.

Ground-breaking modifications – including electronically altering power steering weight, modifying regenerative braking on a hybrid, supercharging and then turbocharging a hybrid, switching off stability control without affecting traction control, and electronically modifying EGR for better fuel economy.

Down-to-earth and straightforward coverage of topics that many people find difficult – including aerodynamics, suspension design, electronics and current car technology.

The design and building of lightweight and sophisticated pedal-powered recumbent vehicles – including one with arguably the best suspension design (and so best ride/handling compromise) of any such vehicle in the world.

I could go on – simple modelling of spaceframe structures, all the good bits you can find in discarded goods like photocopiers and printers and VCRs, innovative intercooling approaches, how to use hand tools, measuring on-road acceleration using a boat clinometer, finding intake system restrictions…

And so to this issue’s main story: designing and building your own tuned mass vibration dampers to stop driving light vibration.

It’s another ground-breaking story of the sort I have seen nowhere else.

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.

Doing only half the job

Posted on August 2nd, 2012 in Opinion,Suspension by Julian Edgar

The function of the suspension is to allow tyres to follow the ups and downs of the roads, while at the same time the car’s body movement doesn’t replicate those ups and downs.

However, if that was all that was needed, a very soft suspension would achieve these aims very well – but the car would handle poorly. So the first two points subsequently need to be modified to achieve competent handling.

And for decades – perhaps eight or nine of them – this was the way in which suspension development in cars occurred. Cushioning occupants was primarily about spring rates; maintaining tyre contact was about damping; and achieving good handling was about dynamic wheel location, roll centre height and roll stiffness.

The trouble is, to my way of thinking, in the last decade or so that whole approach has gone out the window. The approach is now:

(1) gain best handling

(2) refine system to provide acceptable ride comfort

Now let me say loud and clear: in sporting cars that’s fine.

But in all cars?

How stupid.

Let’s put all this a different way. Pick a car from 30 years ago and pitch it in a handling contest against the current equivalent. Yep, the current car will win. Now fit the old car with low profile and wide rubber, massively stiffen its springs and damping and anti-roll bars – and I’d suggest that the old and new will now be very close in handling….as measured on real roads.

I’d argue those designers of that 1980s car could have had similar handling if they’d chosen to degrade ride comfort in the way of current cars.

But this is not a blanket condemnation of modern car technology. Electronic stability control is a fantastic handling innovation. All-wheel drive with variable torque direction is a fantastic handling innovation. Electronically-controlled power steering is a fantastic handling innovation (“handling”, because it allows higher degrees of castor, and so greater negative dynamic camber addition). Multi-link suspension systems and variable direction suspension compliance are fantastic handling innovations.

It’s not the current technology: it’s the current philosophy.

The outcome is rather bizarre. There are now many people who have never been in a car that rides well. They have no knowledge of what is possible: they simply believe that all cars ride in a manner in which in the past only trucks rode.

Recently I drove a diesel sedan from a car yard. The ride, factory standard, was so harsh I could hear my wife’s voice changing as air was forced out of her lungs by the bumps. Just in a normal suburban area of an Australian city. I took the car back.

“I won’t buy this,” I said, “the ride is so harsh.”

The young salesman’s face contorted in genuine disbelief. “How do you figure that?” he asked incredulously.

Clearly, he had never been in a car with a good ride.

It’s a bit like people who have listened to only MP3s played through tiny speakers. They have literally no idea of what good sound is like.

So what would be logical reasons that current car designers have chosen to degrade ride comfort at the expense of handling?

Oh, well speed limits have gone up hugely over the last 20 years, so better handling is needed to cope.

And another: the enforcement of driving behaviour is so much less rigorous than it once was, so everyone can now punt their cars hard on the road.

And a final: all roads are now so well surfaced that the poor roads of 20 or 30 years ago are now gone.

But not one of these is true!

Cars with suspension set up for smooth race tracks (or to put this another way, set up so that they get good media reviews from young, single, performance car drivers) are silly for general road use.

These days, the vast majority of new cars have tyre profiles that are too low, bump and rebound damping too stiff (especially at high damper shaft speeds), and springs that are too high in rate. For car occupants, roads are a procession of jolts, where they could be a smoothed and relaxing surface.

And all for what purpose? Very little that’s justifiable.

Life is not a rehearsal

Posted on July 14th, 2012 in Driving Emotion,Opinion by Julian Edgar

It is with a little reluctance that I write this column. I am sure that many will suggest I type it just to argue how wonderful I am; others will dislike it on the more fundamental (and justifiable) level that my values are different to theirs.

But here goes.

As I have mentioned in the past, my job has dramatically changed over the last few years. I now work primarily as a trainer, teaching Federal Government public servants the skills and arts of business writing. As such, two or three days a week I find myself in a government department meeting room, wearing a suit and pointing a remote control at a laptop screening a PowerPoint presentation.

That change in vocation is in some respects so radical that at times I feel slightly surreal.

Before the age of about 45 I wore a suit only twice (once in court defending a driving charge and the other time when I got married!); now I wear a suit many times a month.  Previously, I knew only vaguely of many government departments and their processes; now I find myself accompanying people into buildings so tight in security that my staff contact person has to stare into a retina recognition camera to gain admittance to their own building.

It’s all very weird.

The other day, when training in Sydney, I found myself working in a room equipped with a large wall mirror. Every now and again, mid-breath about using the active voice or writing in short sentences or using mind maps to organise formal documents, I’d catch sight of myself in the mirror and wonder who the geezer was, bearded and balding and greying – and spouting all this stuff.

In my groups are typically 15 public servants, people aged from their early Twenties to their mid-Sixties. The courses are pretty full-on, so there’s not much lackadaisical chat during content times, but during the breaks I frequently get talking to people. Since I might be training in Canberra or Brisbane or Sydney or Melbourne or Adelaide, I am often asked where I live.

“Eighty kays north of Canberra,” I say. After a pause, I add:  “I live in a town of 100 people.”

At this statement people typically blink, then ask more questions. The conversation often then turns to lifestyle, and then to work/life balance. 

It seems strange to tell people that there exist lifestyle choices that are very different to the ones they have (apparently) chosen.

(In fact, I think most don’t actively ‘choose’ a lifestyle at all – they fall into it and then spend a lot of time justifying it.)

What choices then?

With the cost of real estate around where I live, you can choose to have a small mortgage.

With a low mortgage, and plenty of land to grow fruit and vegetables and have chooks, you can choose to work only two or three or four days a week.

In fact, if you work more days, you can choose to have one person in a couple stay at home to look after children.

Or study externally.

Or volunteer and work in the community.


You can choose to have your children attend a tiny primary school with unheard-of parent/student ratios.

You can choose to live in a place where people smile friendly (and genuine) greetings when you meet in the street; you can choose to live in a place where crime is vastly lower than any large city in Australia.

(See why at the beginning I talked about values?)

Sometimes people have asked about a social life – surely it must be deadly-boring living in such a place? But I can state that, if it weren’t for fact that we prefer a rather hermit-like existence, we could have a stronger social life here than anywhere I’ve ever lived. Telling no lies at all, as a family we could go to something like 15 local social events a month.

Commuting time in a car? My main work is in Canberra, and so that adds up to maybe six hours of commuting a week. But I like driving, and with the vast majority of that travel on empty country roads, it’s no hardship. (Especially now that podcasts can be seamlessly recorded and then dialled-up as required. In fact, just today, I was listening to a fascinating series on human consciousness – full of philosophy and thought-provoking ideas. Not for everyone I agree, but for me the travel time just flew past.)

One of the interesting things is that since moving here, we have discovered other like-minded couples who have done just the same thing. People who, through their qualifications and abilities, could be earning a lot of money (try two science PhDs in a town of 100) but who, deliberately and carefully, have chosen to earn much less – and to devote far more time to recreation and/or time with their children, to spend less on the latest large-screen TV or pool or huge house, and to relish perhaps a simpler but more down to earth existence.

I guess that’s nothing new – people have been choosing an ‘alternative’ lifestyle for decades. But the ability to remain completely connected, and to work in a major city or town – but on what is effectively only a part-time basis… I wonder if that isn’t new.

And it’s not just this location. For fun, I just looked up real estate prices and commuting times for places located outside of Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide. I could almost immediately find houses and land just like where I live – and at similar prices.

The last time I wrote a blog post like this I finished: if you don’t like how much you pay each month for your mortgage (or rent), or how long you spend each day stuck in traffic breathing fumes, look more widely. It’s not your job or money that is preventing a move: it’s you.

Now I’d say this.

Life is not a rehearsal: this is the only one you have.

Through my work I constantly meet people who seem deeply unhappy: caught in a mad rush through an unfulfilling life. Often they’ll confide to me that they hate their job – but gotta pay that monthly mortgage, y’know.  Or they’ll ruefully talk about some office minutiae that is today’s crisis – in full understanding that next week it will all be forgotten.

If you live in a large Australian city, you’re someone who is open to change, and you’ve similar life values to me, look in rural Australia. Adjacent to major centres are places where you can live a lifestyle that is simply wonderful.

To put that in bluntly honest terms: if I lived in a major Australian city, I couldn’t afford to work only three days a week and spend the rest of the time playing with my car projects in my new, purpose-built home workshop. 

But that’s what is available when you nearly halve your non-digressional living costs….

The Prius C is indicative of Toyota having lost its hybrid way

Posted on May 26th, 2012 in diesel,Economy,Global Warming,Hybrid Power,Opinion,Toyota by Julian Edgar

I think the new Prius C is indicative of Toyota having lost its hybrid way.

I write that with a rather heavy heart: anyone who has read my stuff over a long period will know that I previously embraced and relished hybrid technology.

The first hybrid I ever experienced, around the year 2000, was an NHW10 grey-market Japanese import Prius – it blew me away with its refinement, quality and fuel economy.

Back in 2003 I new-car-tested a hybrid Honda Insight – we did 3,500 kilometres in four days. The fuel economy? Just 3.6 litres/100km. The original Insight is the most fuel-efficient car ever sold in Australia.

In 2004 I tested an NHW20 Prius over 5,400 kilometres in seven days; I then called it one of the most fascinating cars you can buy.

As a magazine tester of new cars (a role I no longer play) I also drove two models of the Honda Civic Hybrid, and the hybrid Lexus GS450H, Lexus RX400h and Lexus 600hL.

I own a first gen Honda Insight, and for years I owned an NHW10 Prius that I first supercharged, and then turbocharged.

But I’m not wedded to hybrid technology.

My current main car is a mildly-modified 2008 Skoda Roomster 1.9 turbo diesel. It gets fuel economy in my use that varies from the high-fours (in litres/100km) to about 6 litres/100km. And that from a relatively old and low-tech diesel design.

I haven’t driven the current model Prius, but I’ve experienced a Camry Hybrid- and wasn’t much impressed. The fuel economy wasn’t outstanding, and the car drove with an uninspiring feel.

But with the release of the Prius C, I thought that things might be very different.

The lightest (1120kg) and cheapest (AUD$23,990) hybrid Toyota sold in Australia, the Prius C has an official fuel economy rating of 3.9 litres/100km. That’s the same as its big brother Prius – but surely that must be a quirk of the testing system… with the C’s smaller size and mass, and lower total power, surely there’d be a benefit to real-world fuel economy?

And boasting a host of advanced technologies – including a new inverter, motor and battery – you’d expect that this to be as good in fuel economy as a hybrid Toyota gets.

Well that might be the case – but unfortunately, these days, it just isn’t good enough.

Today I visited a Toyota dealership. It wasn’t with just prurient intent: if the car did what it was supposed to, I was quite prepared to buy one.

The presented i-Tech model (a higher trim level that costs $26,990) was OK inside, although definitely nothing outstanding. The interior room was alright (a tall adult could sit [j-u-s-t] behind a tall driver); the digital instruments were clear; the seats comfortable; the load area pretty small (and the rear seats fold to give a pronounced step in the floor); and the double-DIN upgrade nav looks like it should cost only about $400 through eBay.

But hey, it’s a small car that isn’t priced at luxury levels.

On the road, with three adults and a seven-year-old in the car, the transmission refinement was good, the steering welcomingly much heavier in feel than previous Toyota (and Lexus) hybrids, and the power was – well, a bit disappointing. The last Prius I drove, now an old-model NHW20, could on green lights wheelspin its way across intersections – the current Prius C had not remotely enough low-down torque to do that. But, again, it was OK – but definitely not scintillating.

But the fuel economy? Oh dear.

In a gentle drive, about a third through urban conditions and the rest on 80 and 100 km/h freeways, the car massively disappointed. It started off at about 6 – 7 litres/100 (not a problem; it was a cold start) and then gradually dropped to about the mid-Fives. With the ultra-economy mode then engaged, it continued to drop – reaching a low of 4.6 litres/100 and then rising finally for a trip average of 4.7 litres/100 for the 20-odd kilometres.

Well, isn’t 4.7 litres/100 really good?

Only if you have no better comparisons…

My 1999 (read that again – 1999, that’s 13-year-old technology!) Honda Insight in similar conditions would, I’d guess, be in the mid-Threes – but that’s in a car that is much smaller (only two seats) and is also much lighter. So in many respects it’s not a fair comparison.

But what about my Skoda Roomster? It weighs about 200kg more than the Prius C, has much better performance, vastly more interior space – and like the Prius C, has 5-star crash test safety.

Since we’d taken the Roomster to the dealer, I immediately drove exactly the same road loop just undertaken in the Prius C. We didn’t have the salesman aboard, but apart from that, the conditions were as identical as it was possible to make them – same speeds, same roads, same traffic.

And the fuel economy of the Roomster? It came in at 4.9 litres/100km.

Seeing those figures: 4.7 for the cutting edge, small, 2012-model hybrid Prius C, and 4.9 for the much larger, old fashioned 2008-model diesel Roomster, suggests to me that in the real world, plenty of current small diesels will match the fuel economy of the Prius C.

For me, the Prius C could not be justified in any way as a replacement for my existing car – the Roomster.

And so then you wonder – for whom would the Prius C be justifiable over other fuel-efficient cars? After all, why buy a car that is demonstrably far more complex, and has a battery pack that will one day fail, when the raison d’etre of the hybrid – fuel economy – is no longer stunningly better than the others?

The above statement really indicates that Toyota has lost its way: that the hugely innovative and technologically incredibly brave step that occurred with the release of the NHW10 Prius at the end of 1997, the move that saw car makers the world-over stare in disbelief and then turn towards hybrids – well, that technology is now more about selling cars on a gimmick rather than through demonstrable real-world advantage.

What a bloody shame.

Beware black snot

Posted on April 22nd, 2012 in Driving Emotion,Safety,tools by Julian Edgar

If you’ve been sawing, grinding or filing metal, it’s likely that you’ve ended-up with a nose full of it. Not just snot – but black snot.

For years I thought it a just curiosity that resulted from that pursuit.

But now I am rather wary of it.

Recently, after spending a full day cutting and grinding, I started feeling a bit ill. The next day, going back to doing some more cutting and grinding, I wore a light dust mask.

But that night I still had black snot – and a hacking cough.

After a few days of feeling crap, I went to the doctor. I hate going to the doctor, but this one had the advantage of being the most beautiful doctor I’ve ever been to. And what did she say? You’ve got a virus – harden up.

But despite that opinion, I really do wonder if the metal dust that I’d been getting into my lungs didn’t have something to do with it.

Now when cutting and grinding, I wear a half-face respirator that has two double filters, one to catch particulate matter and the other for fumes. The result? No black snot – and filters that after only a few days of work, have changed from white to black.

Better caught in the filter media than in my lungs – or in my snot.

Beware that black snot….

The Underwhelming Mercedes

Posted on April 2nd, 2012 in Driving Emotion,Reviews by Julian Edgar

While I don’t write new car tests any more, whenever I am interstate and have the opportunity to hire a car, I drive it with rather more than usual interest.

So the Camry Hybrid (by now the previous model) was a great disappointment (surely a 10 year old Prius is better in every real-world respect?); and a Hyundai i45 was scarcely any better (what happened to the great Hyundai promise exemplified by the i30?).

And what about the BlueEFFICIENCY C200 Mercedes?

Perhaps I am getting old, with all the implications in both perspective and experience, but I thought the car had a direction that was at times bizarrely stupid.

I have to start with the tyres. Here is a small – not compact, small – car that has simply enormously wide, low profile tyres. Is that good? Nope – not in 99.9 per cent of road driving conditions… in this country, anyway.

So what was the tyre size?

Try 225/40 on 18 inch rims – and that’s crap for ride, crap for fuel economy… and oh yes, great for absolute grip. Just what you need on lousy roads and in a country with heavily-policed, low speed limits – not!

So what’s this BlueEFFICIENCY tag? A hybrid electric/diesel maybe?

Er, no.

It’s a turbocharged 1.8 litre with heaps of torque down low (270Nm at 1800 – 4600 rpm – excellent) and a reasonable amount of power at 135kW. And all connected to a 7 speed auto trans – one that has such terrible gear-changing logic that a five-year-old Honda craps all over it from a great height.

Reads well on the spec sheet; performs poorly on the road.

But what about fuel economy?



Ten years out of date.

On my gentle country drives, I got between 7 and 8 litres/100km. And that’s just what the official government test specs say I should be getting. But isn’t that good? Nope, not if you’re driven anything with similar room that’s powered by a diesel, or by a hybrid.

Or, and this is where it gets ridiculous, even a 20 year-old small/medium car.

Cos the Mercedes had just Godawful interior space. I banged my head against the roof rail above the door several times (there wasn’t room to turn to look around) and at all times I felt myself to be in this little, squashed car.

More room in a 1980s Holden Camira? I’d think so.

More room in a 1960s Austin 1800? Without a doubt, vastly more so.

And then we go from the sublime to the ridiculous. This squashed little car weighs-in at 1470kg. Yep, just under 1.5 tonnes. No wonder the fuel economy is nothing to write home about…

Good aspects? Build quality, the sound system and….hmmm, I’d imagine safety. And I loved the self-tightening seatbelts.

More bad points? Yep, can think of lots of those – the steering vague around centre, the hard seats, the rebound damping that was so overdone it’s ridiculous, the lack of space… oh did I mention that last one already?

At AUD$65,000, why would you bother?

The Pitch Machine

Posted on February 21st, 2012 in Opinion,Suspension by Julian Edgar

In the story on suspension design that was published in AutoSpeed today, I said:

One standard model of car that I often see has a clear pitch problem: once you recognise its behaviour, you can see these cars porpoising along on all sorts of road surfaces! (No wonder I felt ill when I rode in the back of one.)

For those of you who live in Australia, that car is the current VE Commodore.

When you are driving in a lane adjacent to a VE Commodore, and especially when you can see it from the rear three-quarters perspective, carefully watch its body behaviour.

What you will see is dramatic pitching over bumps.

Rather than the car as a whole moving up and downwards on its suspension as the bump is met and absorbed, the back rises and falls, and the front rises and falls – and when the back is up, the front is down, and when the back is down, the front is up!

It is fascinating watching a VE pitch, and then watch another car pass over just the same bump and barely pitch at all.

I reckon that Holden suspension designers have completely forgotten this aspect of suspension design – if of course they even knew of it in the first place.

Pledge $10 and (perhaps) create a new suspension system

Posted on January 28th, 2012 in Suspension by Julian Edgar

It’s not every day that you can be part of a new suspension system development.

And wouldn’t you give five or ten bucks to make it happen?

Video on the development


Low sheen acrylic – with added photocopier toner

Posted on January 15th, 2012 in tools by Julian Edgar

When I hung my collection of jack-stands and ramps on the workshop wall, it was obvious they needed a repaint.

I didn’t much care what type of paint was used, so long as it stayed on for 10 or so years. But I didn’t have any suitable paint on my shelves. And when I looked at the local hardware store I couldn’t believe how expensive decent paint is – even those cans they were selling off at a discount because they’d mixed the wrong colour.

So next time I was at the local rubbish tip (the following day, as it happened) I looked around to see if anyone had thrown away a half-full can of paint. And there it was – a 4-litre can of Dulux Weathershield self-priming low sheen acrylic with More Sun Protection and a 10 year guarantee. Sounded good – and felt it, too – at a heft, the can seemed about two-thirds full.

But when I got it home an opened it I found the colour was bright white. Very bright, too. White’s not a great colour to paint axle stands and ramps… so what could I do to change the colour? A grey, for example, would be better than bright white.

I looked to see if I had any water-based black paint on my shelf to mix with it, but found nothing. So what did I have that’s dark and finely powdered? How about photocopy toner from an old toner cartridge? Yep, had one of those…

I opened the cartridge and poured some of the toner into the paint can. Then I stirred and stirred and stirred – and the paint returned to its original bright white! To cut the story short, I added the whole contents of the cartridge before the paint turned grey. But grey it was.

So what did it paint like? Beautifully, as it happens. The coverage was excellent and it just glided on!

And the paint has an odd characteristic: it deadens sound. The ramps and stands no longer ‘clang’ when dropped from a small height onto the concrete – instead they go ‘thunk’.