Posts By: Stephan Wilkinson

By on March 21, 2008

01_battery_lg.jpgOur ’06 Volvo V50’s battery crapped-out three days ago. I jumped it, got 100 yards down the driveway… The dash panel turned into a Christmas tree. POWER SYSTEM FAILURE! SERVICE IMMEDIATELY! The engine, brakes and steering died; the car had to be flat-bedded to the dealer. And then the 2004 Porsche Boxster’s battery lunched. It exhibited so many odd symptoms— power windows flopping up and down, radio mysteriously turning on, baffling warning lights— that I never thought instant battery failure. Independent techs who work on Eurolux cars tell me that Audi and Porsche and Volvo (and the like) batteries are so under-sized (in the interest of economy) and overstressed (thanks to electronic-toys overload) that they’re failing prematurely. If this is the state of the 19th century lead-acid art, what are we to expect when millions of cars are powered by batteries? 

By on March 7, 2008

TTAC commentator Winklovic recently posted a link to an interesting website that introduced me to aftermarket air horns. I don't mean the pissant little Marchel and Hella beepers. Go to and you can hear them; by God they're straight out of a Johnny Cash train song. I drive an ambulance with an air horn– the kind where you reach up and pull a chain when the kids on the sidewalk pump their elbows– and I'm here to tell you, those things can evoke miscarriages, soiled pants, split colostomy bags and pacemaker misfires. I was never aware that it's legal to put them on a car. A search of FMVSS, ISO and DOT standards turns-up nothing about maximum-horn-noise regulation. There are, however, numerous local noise regs that can get you ticketed for blowing one (apparently silent ownership is perfectly legal). Unfortunately, people who actually have these things seem to use them solely to cruise city streets at 15 mph and get close enough behind pedestrians to literally blow them into the weeds. That ain't right.

By on March 4, 2008

bad_car_wrecklarge.jpgI live in a hilly area of high-crowned, barely two-lane back roads. There are no center lines, lots of blind corners, hills and crests; and not much traffic. You could say it’s an enthusiast's paradise. But then… stupid drivers. It happened to me last week, for the third time in a year. A driver without the slightest situational awareness put me into a ditch, leaving me yelping moronically and bleating my horn while they sped off. This has got to stop.

By on March 1, 2008

520594_83703259-748499.jpg Futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil is smart enough to have predicted the ascendancy of the Internet, the common availability of wireless (at a time when the great Bill Gates was busy hard-wiring his $40m mansion so that it could be "run by a computer") and the fall of the Soviet Union. reports that the inventor and futurist now predicts that solar power will be a viable crude oil alternative within the next five years. And then… "[Use] is doubling now every two years. Doubling every two years means multiplying by 1,000 in 20 years. At that rate we'll meet 100 percent of our energy needs in 20 years." Kurzweil  says you can thank nanotechnology, which will make solar panels light, inexpensive and more efficient. This could be a big deal. The sunlight falling on earth contains 10k times more energy than we use annually. If Kurzweil is right, we'll soon be energy-rich. (Rich, I tell you, rich!) Automotively speaking, a large source of cheap energy would immediately put zero emissions hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars back on the front burner. 

By on February 29, 2008

school_bus_exhaust.jpg I live in a town of around 8,000 people. Yesterday afternoon, I happened to be driving to the gym at the same time as middle school let out. Some shop teacher stopped traffic while four dozen hulking Bluebirds (company owned by Cerberus BTW) poured out of the school's driveway, each of them carrying perhaps FIVE KIDS. The noise and pollution and tsuris was the equivalent of a thousand-plane raid on Hamburg. Meanwhile, the same thing was happening at the high school and elementary school. Our town must put 150 dieseling buses out onto the road every afternoon, assuring that no tyke will have to spend more than 15 minutes en route. To say nothing of the traffic backup behind each yellow monster while they disgorge their cute little backpackers. I'm the treasurer of our local volunteer ambulance corps. I'm always amused by how municipal-supplier vendors work everything out to round numbers. "You want some EMS unifoms? How's $10k sound?" "You want a fleet of school buses to pick up your kids? That'll be $10m a year." (If you want to get rich quick, contract with municipalities: nobody gives a shit what you charge.) I'm going to take this up with the school board, but the spectacle of this Eighth Air Force-size fleet of big yellow smoke-spewers thundering north, south, east and west just stunned me.

By on February 28, 2008

2009_gt-r049.jpgIn early April, Nissan is blessing me with a GT-R for five days for my Conde Nast Traveler “Great Drive” articles, and a review on this website. My hotshoe daughter (also a Traveler editor) and I will be departing Lake Tahoe after the car's press introduction, bound for Lost Wages and, if possible, some empty desert roads. The press event will include some serious track time. In their initial e-mail invitation, Nissan said– politely enough– that they realized writers like me weren’t buff-book semipros. Yet they're so confident that the GT-R is the world's safest and most controllable supercar that they're letting us loose on a closed ciruit. (I immediately got on my high horse and told them Brook and I run a well-modified 911SC track car, so there.) I asked the Nissan press rep if we should bring our helmets. She said no, not needed. Porsche is the only other automaker I know that allows the press to tackle a track sans helmet. The German automaker believe that helmets bring on "the red haze;" that drivers are safer without them. Anyway, it'll be interesting to see if the GT-R's electronics make travel-magazine editors, beauty-and-fashion writers, movie reviewers and other can’t-drive-a-stick scribes from the non-automotive press into track demons…

By on February 12, 2008

w043.jpgJust opened the February 18 issue of Fortune and came across a full-page ad for— I’m guessing here— the new Lincoln MXZ. (That’s the sedan, for those of us who don’t memorize alphanumeric codes for a living.) It’s a lazy photo. The f-stop parked the car on the first clean grass he came to, in front of an ugly, anonymous suspension bridge. A young blonde in a sports bra and shorts stands in front of the car. She’s plain-faced and athletic. The shorts make it obvious that her left leg is gone, replaced by a prosthesis and one of those boomerang-shaped carbon-fiber “feet” recently outlawed by the Olympics. Huh? The copy’s no help. “Don’t ever give up on what you believe in,” it reads. “Not once. Not ever. My dream is to do extraordinary things every day. Life’s calling. Where to next?” I’m supposed to buy a Lincoln because she’s tough? I admire Sarah Reinertsen's guts and beauty. But at the risk of being labeled a unreconstructed bipedalist (literally), I'm afraid it's not an image I’m tough enough to look at for a long period of time. And anyway, the car is half-obscured. You have to wonder who conceived this ad, what kind of websites they frequent and which Ford exec approved it. Message to same: it's about the car, stupid.   

By on February 8, 2008

amd_empiremap.JPGMy pal Brock Yates single-handedly introduced CB radios to non-truckers by using one in a big Mercedes 300S for a precedent-setting Car and Driver article. So I installed a CB in my Saab 99. Whenever I’d put my ears on and key the mike to good-buddy, the Swede’s unshielded electronic fuel injection would die. (Good thing the ugly little hatchback could coast.) Today, something similar is supposedly happening in Manhattan. Rumors abound of an electronic Bermuda Triangle surrounding the Empire State Building. According to that bastion of reportorial excellence, The New York Daily News, "something" keeps certain vehicles' engines from re-starting. Wild-ass theories range from electronic emissions from the huge antennas atop the skyscrapers, to the increasing profusion of cell phone jammers, to juju from anti-terrorist devices protecting the building from attack. My favorite from one blog commenter: “Megaliths [such as a skyscraper] are electrical coils. Imagine a coil so powerful it can suck the magnetic force out of a car’s power system.”  (You’re right: Manhattanites don’t know how a car works.) The hysterics point out that 10 to 15 cars a day die near the Empire State Building. Considering the fact that 10 to 15 cars a day probably die near the Fulton Fish Market, once again, Occam's razor slices a crazy ass conspiracy theory to pieces. 

By on February 6, 2008

cadillacctsv01.jpg When I was at Car and Driver and for a long time thereafter, the label 'Preview' was applied solely to quasi-road tests that involved driving a preproduction car, driving a car that we weren't allowed to instrument and test, sneaking into a mule, or some other actual experience in an existing vehicle. (The "You can drive it but you can't instrument it" situation was probably the most common one. The last Preview I ever wrote described the original Maybach; I put 400 miles on the beast.) And now, only a few paragraphs into C/D's current cover story on the new Cadillac CTS-V ("Cadillac's 550-hp M5 Beater") we learn that the buff book's "months away from a first drive" of the supposed Bimmer beater. It's a blatant admission that the piece is a rewritten press release. The CTS-V, they say, "should be worth the price of admission." How on earth does Tony Swan know that? And then there's Steve Smith's column on Carroll Shelby's legal hysteria. Who owns a computer, even a TRS-80, and didn't already know all that shit two months ago? I'm stunned by how far C/D has sunk.

By on January 25, 2008

winterseat.jpgWhen I spied an ad for a Nocord heated seat cover in The Atlantic magazine, I remembered my wife's complaints about her bare bones Boxsters' chilling effect on her buns and signed up. The $60 seat cover arrived covered with K-Mart Hallowe'en costume-quality fabric, and, need I say, a cord. The device was [vaguely] held in place by shoddy straps; sitting on the rig was like trying to perch on a loose beach towel. Ergonomics aside, it worked. But I doubt for long, since it is truly dreadful made-in-China dreck. It's amusing that Nocord sells both full-price new products and "reconditioned" half-price versions of the exact same wares. Since nobody would bother to actually remanufacture any of this junk, they're obviously flogging the flood of returned-for-refund stuff that Nocord doubtless gets hourly. Chinese-made aftermarket parts. You have been warned.

[TTAC now does product reviews. Check 'em out.] 

By on November 27, 2007

china.jpgAs a Conde Nast Traveler writer, I drive all over the world. After reading Peter Hessler’s article in the November 26 issue of The New Yorker, I think I’ll give China a miss. Hessler’s adventure began at a Chinese driving school, where instructors teach drivers to start in second gear (first is too easy). The preferred clutch technique? Set the parking brake hard, shift into first, and let out the clutch whilst gunning the engine. “By the end of the day, you could have fried an egg on the hood,” Hessler reports. The writer passed his Chinese driving test by slowly driving 50 yards down a deserted street. Later, a Chinese friend banged-up Hessler's Jetta because he didn’t realize that the vehicle extended beyond the windshield. A Chinese passenger usurped the rear view mirror. “I’ll tell you what’s behind you,” he assured. On the road, headlights, windshield wipers and turn signals are almost never used; they’re considered a “distraction.” There’s lots more, but we now know why China accounts for three percent of the world’s cars– yet racks-up 21 percent of its traffic fatalities. They can’t drive.

By on October 30, 2007

pursangside.jpgThe VW/Audi Group, owners of both the Lamborghini and Bugatti boutique brands, have invented a lucrative niche market that could awkwardly but accurately be called, “I’m Rich but Not Stupid… Come to Think of It, I Am Stupid.” Exhibit A: the Lamborghini Reventón, a limited edition, moderately rebodied Murcielago LP640 that stickers for $1,440,000 (exactly 4.5 times a Mercy’s $320k Monroney). Exhibit B: the Bugatti Veyron Pur Sang. For $560k more than the $1,440,000 "base" Bug, you can get an unpainted body. I asked the best high-end bodyshop guy I know how much he’d charge if a Veyron owner on a budget asked him to strip their ride right down to the aluminum and carbon-fiber skin, polish the metal and shoot it with a layer of clearcoat.  "Fifty grand," Mickey Bigg of Vails Gate, New York, estimated.  “But I don’t wanna do it. Too much trouble.”

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