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.

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.

Driving something different

Posted on November 30th, 2011 in Driving Emotion,Opinion,tools by Julian Edgar

Back here  I raved about how much fun I had driving a Bobcat (or, more correctly a skid-steer Cat 226 B2).

I’d hired it to clear the site for my new home workshop, a step I’d taken as a result of getting crazily high quotes for others to do the work. Before hiring the Cat, I’d thought it might be rather fun to drive such a machine, but after only a few minutes of driving the Cat around my block, I knew it was much better than that – it was just an absolute blast.

So when I needed an absorption trench dug, I didn’t bother getting quotes for others to do it – instead, I went off and hired a small excavator.

As with the skid-steer machine, the hire company was happy to deliver the excavator to my place, and – again as with the skid steer – they gave me just a short tuition in operating the machine before heading off.

So what did I have this time?

The machine was a Cat 301.8, a 1.8 tonne machine boasting only 14kW from its little naturally aspirated diesel. It had a grader blade at one end and an excavator arm at the other, complete with three different buckets to choose from. It ran on rubber tracks.

Compared with the skid-steer, it was harder to drive – more levers sprouted within the cabin and their use seemed less intuitive.

So it was harder – but was it fun? Well, no, not really. And definitely not in the same way as the Bobcat.

Look, if I get a chance to drive a little excavator again I’ll take it – but I won’t be wildly excited. To me the machine felt like a workhorse, a slow plodder that dug my trench, put the spoil to one side, carried the rocks to fill the excavation, and then pushed the soil back over the top.

But its movement from place to place was akin to a snail, tree roots required tedious successive bites with the bucket, and when you tried to do multiple operations simultaneously, you could feel the engine slow. I even stalled it a few times – interesting, when there’s no clutch!

Good aspects were its ability to rotate while keeping the tracks still (and it didn’t make me feel sick as I thought it might) and, as with the skid steer, the subtlety of control was impressive.

Now a much bigger, more powerful excavator? Now I reckon that would be a heap of fun…

Better bike lights

Posted on November 13th, 2011 in Opinion,pedal power by Julian Edgar

We’ve previously covered in AutoSpeed building your own high quality bike head- and tail-lights. For my money the best design of DIY headlight was the one covered here  – it’s super-bright, has a broad beam that has excellent penetration, and is durable.

However, there have been two problems will all the light systems we’ve covered: the control electronics, and the battery.

To efficiently run high intensity LEDs you need a DC/DC converter that maintains LED current as battery voltage falls. Furthermore, an indication of battery level is important. Finally, it is best if flashing and steady modes are available. Doing these things with DIY electronics is of course possible (and we’ve previously covered some techniques for making your own) but the end result adds up in cost and size.

And batteries? To build your own pack that’s waterproof and compact is a harder ask than it first sounds – and then, what about a charger? In fact, I’ve tended for my own systems to go back to heavy and relatively inefficient sealed lead-acid (SLA) batteries – despite their size and weight, they’re easy to charge and come pre-packaged.

But things are rapidly changing. The other day I bought from Aldi (and unfortunately they’ll almost certainly all be gone by the time you read this) a bike headlight system.

It comprises a 3W LED headlight, 2 amp-hour lithium battery pack, mains-powered charger and assorted brackets for mounting the lights and pack. The system has switchable full power, half power and flashing modes. A battery level indicating LED is also fitted.

I have been watching bike lighting systems very closely for years, and I can say with some confidence that a year ago, a system just like this would have cost well over AUD$100.

The Aldi price? Originally $30 and on special at $20!

I bought one set and tested it. Then, on the basis of those tests, I went back and bought another four sets!

The real beauty of the systems is that the headlight can be easily pulled apart. Doing this reveals the use of a standard ‘star’ (eg Luxeon or Cree style) LED. In turn that means the LED can be changed to whatever colour you want – so in one system I have swapped-in a red tail light LED. (Bright? You’d better believe it!)

The smart LED control electronics can also be easily wired to a non-standard light. So I use one system to power the original glass-and-stainless steel 3W headlight I built in the story referenced at the beginning of this piece.

Are the results good?

Especially with some modifications, for the price I think they’re unbeatable.

Of mental grit and determination

Posted on September 29th, 2011 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

In my day-job as a trainer in business writing, I am often asked by people within my audience to comment on Gen Y employees.

Frequently the question comes after I have talked about different learning styles, or about writing for different audiences. Invariably, the question (usually being asked by a middle-aged person of their middle-aged trainer – that’s me) is said with a knowing grin and a slightly curled lip.

“So what do you think of the learning style of Gen Ys?”

There is an obvious expectation that I will say something like: “Oh Gen Y? Yep, they’re hard to please, have poor attention skills and want everything presented to them on a plate.”

Trouble is, I don’t say anything like that at all.

Instead I say something like: “Isn’t it just fantastic how Gens Ys are so quick to absorb information, and are so effective at isolating – and then asking – the key questions?”

At this point the questioner assumes a rather sour question and you can see them thinking: I thought he’d be one of us!

In fact, I think you can point to a deficiency that limits practical outcomes – but I don’t think it has anything to do with age.

And nor do I think it has a great deal to do with intelligence.

Instead, I think the most important point is intellectual rigor.

But what does this mean?

In the way I am using it, it means a willingness to do the hard mental yards. That doesn’t necessarily involve high level or incredibly abstract thought; instead it’s about not being mentally lazy.

Yes it sounds so very conservative, traditional – school-teacherish, even. (I was once a school teacher.)

But it explains so much.

Take the development of a business case.

In my job I see many written business cases. These normally suggest that a certain path should be followed, one that typically involves the expenditure of lots of money. Obviously, such a business case needs clearly enunciated justifications.

When training in writing, I describe to the group the requirements for mounting a strong business case – aspects like using effective proofs that support the key premise, for example.  No one suggests this approach isn’t effective.

But do they do this in their own business cases? Nope, too much mental effort to carefully and rigorously follow such criteria.

Of course, people don’t say: “That’s too hard.”

Instead they rationalise the lack of effort in another way – oh, they say, we don’t need that much detail in this business case anyway.

At a completely different level, I can – and do – talk about effective proofreading techniques, those you can implement after you have finished writing. People nod their heads as I carefully explain why each of three different proofreading techniques works, and why it is important to have error-free documents. (Or as error-free as humanly possible, anyway.)

Their documents? Often full of the most basic errors. “There’s no time to do any proof-reading,” they say.

Nope, I think: you just don’t want to go to the mental effort.

And of course this idea applies in spades to the hobby we share. Especially if you’re going your own way in car modifications, developing and testing those modifications requires major amounts of intellectual rigour.  Of mental grit and determination.

Right now, I am playing with the rear aerodynamics on one of my cars. I have a spoiler stuck together from plastic Corflute and I am up to – I think – my eighth different design iteration. So far, I have spent perhaps 20 hours reading background material, making different designs and testing them. This amount of time doesn’t include the fuel economy runs – they’re up to several weeks of measurement.

Am I getting sick of it?

You bet.

Would I like to take some mental shortcuts?


Am I going to do so? No.

And at this type of stuff, I’m just a veritable mental lightweight.

Talk to anyone – anyone – who has invented a commercially successful product.

Learn about the years and years of demanding work, fighting battles against those who disbelieved, thinking hard for hour after hour after hour, week after week, and sometimes year after year, about how the product, the idea, could be improved.

Immense mental determination – immense intellectual rigor.

Over the years I have met plenty of people with absolute mental stamina. As it happens, Brendan Taylor, one of the directors of Web Publications (the company that owns this publication), is one of them. When I first met him, he would work a normal 8 hour day, then work a second half-day from 10 or 11pm until well into the early hours of the morning.

All the while thinking hard.

And I have met others who also drive their brains hard, pushing and pushing. To reiterate a point: they’re not necessarily intellectually brilliant. They just won’t let themselves take mental shortcuts.

But there are plenty who instead choose to park their brains in neutral, slumping down in front of the idiot box or sitting on the couch, laptop in hand while they contribute drivel to some discussion group full of like-folk.

Instead they could be out in the shed, bullying their brains to fit a turbo exhaust manifold into that space that looks way too small…

Intellectual rigor.

It’s not something you get from a training session, or likely even inherited with your genes.

It’s just something you make yourself do.

Your living choice to make

Posted on May 23rd, 2011 in Driving Emotion,Opinion by Julian Edgar

Back in early 2009 I wrote a blog post that created a lot of rancorous feedback. On the basis of objectively measurable criteria like air pollution, house prices and traffic congestion, I said I was amazed that Sydney continued to grow when pretty everyone who lives there could move somewhere else and so enjoy a potentially better quality of life.

The yells of outrage were massive. People variably stated that:

– they had to remain in Sydney because of their job (must be an incredible job if it is available nowhere else)

– they had to remain in Sydney for medical care (what level of care is needed that is available in Sydney and nowhere else?)

– my suggesting that people would have a better quality of life in places with less pollution, less traffic congestion AND at a lower living cost was somehow elitist (the logic escaped me)

– my sampling of Sydney suburbs was too small (but in fact in the 10 years prior to writing the blog, I had stayed in many different areas of Sydney and had visited dozens upon dozens of Sydney suburbs)

– moving was impossible as people wanted to stay near families (I guess that’s so for many, but on that basis no one would ever have moved anywhere!)

There was also a strong suggestion that it was all very well for me to talk about living elsewhere: my editing and writing job for AutoSpeed could be done electronically, and I lived at Tamborine Mountain in the Gold Coast hinterland – as someone said, an almost idyllic location.

“Ah the joys of writing [for a living]!” said one correspondent. “Delivering the work only an email away, researching only a click away and angry car companies media departments a comfortable distance away.”

So my views were apparently framed within the reference of my unique job, one that allowed me to live anywhere. OK for you, went the implication, but what about the rest of us?

Well, today my job primarily consists in the face-to-face training of people in business writing and reading. (Something , incidentally, I am very happy with: I enjoyed being a teacher before I became an automotive journalist.)

With the change in my vocation, we chose to move from Tamborine Mountain.  And to where did we move? I’ll tell you in a moment.

I see that at the time of writing, the median house price in Sydney has just clicked over AUD$650,000 – a house in Sydney is one of the most expensive of any city in the world.

As a Sydney resident, aged in his early thirties and living in a small unit, said to me the other day:  “I am now realising that, in terms of housing, I will never achieve the quality of life that my parents had.”

And it’s not just Sydney.

In Melbourne the average house price is over $550,000. Australia-wide, the average mortgage is just under $350,000.

My mind boggles at the monthly repayments on houses so expensive.

But there is a different world….and it’s accessible to nearly anyone who lives in Australia.

The location to which we chose to move is in a hamlet in the countryside near Canberra.  The house that we’ve bought cost us vastly less than a typical Sydney home.

And as it happens, it’s a house that’s on a little over an acre of land – so how big a shed do you want for your work on cars?

It’s not a brand new house; neither is it one that is immaculate. Sometime in the next year or so, we’ll probably redo the kitchen, toilets and bathroom.  Right now, we’re doing fencing and painting and floor coverings.

But compared to the average house in a major Australian city, the mortgage repayments are so low that a couple on average incomes could work part-time and still meet living costs. Or one person could choose not to work at all. (Are you old enough to remember those days when typically only one person in a couple had to work?)

From the location it’s a drive of a couple of hours to some great beaches; in winter it’s about the same distance to the snowfields. That makes weekends at the beach or snow dead-easy. It’s about an hour to work – 60 minutes of driving in which I typically pass through just two or three sets of traffic lights and the rest is an enjoyable free-flow on empty country roads. Sometimes, I see only three cars in the first 50 kilometres.

And it’s not just this location that has cleaner air, no traffic congestion, lower house prices, demonstrably lower crime rates, and access to a job. There are literally hundreds of such places around Australia that have those benefits.

Look, if you live in a major Australian city and like it – great. Wonderful. I am genuinely happy for you – it’s good to be happy in your life.

And you’re also in a majority: most Australians live in a handful of relatively large cities.

But 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.

Some great products to buy

Posted on March 22nd, 2011 in Opinion,tools by Julian Edgar


I’ve recently bought three products that I think might interest you.

The first is an OBD reader and display.

Over the years, I’ve experimented with a variety of OBD readers, including:

  • Using a data cable that links the OBD port to a smart phone
  • Using a commercial module that acts as an interface between the OBD port and the USB port of a PC and lets you read and reset trouble codes
  • Trialling a commercial unit with a colour screen and ‘live’ dial gauge readout of engine parameters
  • Using a small unit that is left plugged into the OBD port on a continuous basis, logging driving behaviour

(The last one, CarChip, I think is an excellent tool for this sort of continuous logging. To view and graph the data, you just unplug it from the car and connect it to a PC cable. See here for more on this device.)

However, the other OBD units have all been problematic to a greater or lesser degree. The one that looked most promising needed multiple firmware upgrades from the seller before it would work at all, and in the end never operated satisfactorily.

Then I bought a ScanGauge (pictured above). At the time of writing, with the Australian dollar so strong against the US dollar, the ScanGauge can be bought for around AUD$170.

And at that price it’s just a helluva bargain.

I bought it online. It arrived by post the next day: I plugged it into the OBD port, configured it without even glancing at the instructions, and have never had to touch it since.

The parameters I have chosen to select are: coolant temp, manifold pressure, throttle position and intake air temp. (Metric or imperial units are available and all OBD parameters can be displayed.)

Buying and installing dedicated gauges to show me those four parameters would have cost vastly more and taken hours, rather than seconds, to install!

The device can also be configured to show fuel consumption and also some unique, manufacturer-specific data. It’s a favourite in the hybrid community (especially with the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius owners) and I can see why.

I give it 10/10 for value and functionality.


Changing gears completely, I recently bought a new pair of sunglasses, primarily for driving. I last wrote here about sunglasses back in 2002 and now I think things have changed.

This time, the sunglasses were bought from an outdoor store – they’re sold not only for general use but also for snow and mountaineering. I won’t be climbing too many mountains, but behind the steering wheel I find them quite incredible.

They’re Julbo Colorado with polycarbonate Spectron lenses having an anti-reflective coating.

The lenses are claimed to provide 100 per cent UV protection and to reduce visible light transmission by 95 per cent. I don’t really know what those figures mean, but what I find is that they’re just fantastic in reducing glare.

The lenses have a brown tinge (that I don’t like all that much) but the clarity they give driving vision is amazing. The highlights seemed to be reduced in intensity but vision is still possible in the shadows.

And they’re not that expensive – say about AUD$75 here in Australia.


Finally (and don’t say I never give you an eclectic mix!), I recently bought some hammers.

The Australian eBay seller – Pacific Agriculture Forge General – directly imports the hammers and, to coin a phrase, passes on the savings.

The hammers are cross-pein designs and for your money you get a set of three hammers: 2 pound, 3 pound and 4 pound. The heads are drop-forged and hardened and the handles are hickory.

The cost? Just AUD$43 for the lot! (I picked mine up from the Canberra seller, so if you live elsewhere you’ll also need to factor-in postage.)

If you can’t find the vendor on eBay, you can directly email Greg Greet at greetingsurthling (at)

  • » Comments Comments Off on Some great products to buy

Manipulating your modification choices

Posted on February 25th, 2011 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

It’s taken a long time but I think that finally the web is now the main source of information for people modifying their cars. I say ‘a long time’ because I honestly expected that state of affairs to be current in perhaps 1995 – rather than six years later.

The benefit of the web being the main info source of car modifiers is that there has never been so much good material available – from enthusiasts’ groups, from manufacturers’ websites and from car modification company websites.

The bad news is now web marketing has become big business in car modification circles – and I am not talking banner ad spots.

Instead I am talking about deliberate and concerted manipulation of opinion through the ownership and infiltration of manufacturer-specific enthusiasts’ sites. 

I heard of one engine management modification company that has a paid team of people (was it seven of them?) who spend all their time posting positive messages about that company’s products to different discussion groups. I heard of another example where a major tuning company – let’s say it was a Volkswagen tuning company – owns a major Volkswagen-specific tuning forum – and of course, ensures that no negative messages about that company stay published. (And that no positives about the opposition appear, too.)

At the time of writing I’ve been on holidays and a bit bored; I have joined a few car modification discussion groups and have been contributing.

Now long-term readers will know I have a love/hate relationship with discussion groups: they can be extremely useful, and they can also be extremely misleading. But in the past I would have said ‘misleading’ because of the general lack of knowledge in what people are talking about – that is, through ignorance they say stuff that is wrong or misleading. But now I’d say ‘misleading’ because, from my position as a very experienced car modifier, I can see specific barrows being pushed.

For example… when selecting a new modified exhaust for your car, you can either buy an off the shelf performance exhaust developed for your model, or you can go along to your local exhaust shop and have them build something for you. There are pluses and minuses of each approach: an off the shelf exhaust is likely to be quiet, to fit well and be typically a low headache purchase. However, it will cost a lot. An exhaust made by a local exhaust workshop can achieve exactly what you want from it (eg retaining the factory cat – or upgrading it, as you wish) and will be cheaper. However, some experimentation might be needed to get the desired outcome. 

That seems a fair enough summary – there will be some other interpretations but this is largely in the ballpark.

But in the discussion forum I was reading, there was a clear and detailed attempt to say that anyone who bought an exhaust from a local exhaust shop was doomed to frustration and by far the best approach was to buy a specific, named, pre-built exhaust. For a post or two I thought the person just didn’t have any idea, but when I realised the length of the posts being written, and how they were so emphatic, I realised a different agenda was being pushed.

I realised it…but many people new to car modification wouldn’t have seen the reason behind the posts. Multiply that by hundreds of posts a day to thousands of discussion groups, and you can see that, at minimum, you should be extremely wary of anyone saying that a specific product is by far the best, or a specific way of doing things (a much more subtle approach) is the only way anyone sane would do it…