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By on July 7, 2009

Rumors surrounding a possible Buick Theta-based CUV are being amplified by rumors that the Saturn VUE plug-in hybrid will make it to market under a different brand. GM’s Tom Stephens confirms to Reuters that a plug-in ute will be available in 2011 (as planned), just under a different brand name. With rumors of a hybrid powertrain in the works for the forthcoming LaCrosse, green may be yet another new attribute for the brand confusion that is Buick. “We’ve got a strategy that says there are no silver bullets,” as Stephens says, curiously ignoring the Volt. “We need all of this.” Which, in a nutshell, is the attitude that is destroying Buick…

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By on July 7, 2009

Last week, the city of Thornton, Colorado decided to drop the idea of installing red light cameras—after spending more than a year attempting to make the idea work. In the end, the city council was unable to arrive at an acceptable guarantee that, no matter what, the program would make money. A directive handed down by city leaders last year explained the primary objective. “Council’s explicit expectation was that the total costs to operate a Photo Red Light Enforcement system, including service, equipment and city staff costs, were to be equal to or less than the fines received from operating the system, thus resulting in no cost for the city to implement,” a November 2008 memo from the city manager explained.

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By on July 7, 2009

I remember when I was 16 years old, one of my friend’s dad had a near-new Toyota Celica All-Trac. It was gorgeous. The black paint was svelte and flawless. The leather pristine. It was a true work of art. Except it had one tiny little flaw on the vehicle. The VIN was not ‘authentic.’ It had been taken off another vehicle from ‘far far away.’ This was in the bad old days where odometer rollbacks (which still happen) and washed titles (ditto) were still common. Today? Well, I’ll put it to you this way, even a finance company with as many computers as NASA was screwed seven ways from Sunday by a bunch of Nigerians using an old lady’s information. The clunker auditors are going to have to keep their eyes REAL open in this ‘information age’ to catch these snakes . . . and it won’t be easy. Here’s just a small slither of stealth that can happen just on the trade-in side of the equation.

What can happen once a vehicle is traded in? An awful lot. For starters it can be sent abroad. Really. Really. Cheap. It got so bad that the Mexican government (one of many destinations) decided to allow only ten-year-old cars to be registered that came from Yankeeland. It didn’t matter in the end though what the government’s ‘official’ position was. The business of bribery continues to this day on both sides of the fence, and cars found their way into the system regardless of what the laws were. By the way, Mexico is just one place where a ‘clunker’ won’t be missed.

What does this mean for cash for clunkers? It means there isn’t much stopping a recycling center from stripping off the VIN’s. Giving the requisite pictures and evidence to whoever needs it, and making private arrangements to send the vehicle outside the US. The percentage profit would be somewhere between a title pawn and meth distribution, and the governments ability to track it down through paperwork alone would be zero. So long as the VINs match, the people are genuine buyers, and the people involved keep their yaps shut, it will just be a nice four figured profit per vehicle. No questions asked. But this is just really a very small slice of ‘trade-in’ paradise. A far bigger one?

Open up your local newspaper and look under the ‘auction’ or ‘impound’ section. You’ll see hundreds of vehicles with their VIN numbers displayed in all their glory. Most of these cars come from folks who don’t want or need their clunker anymore. They may be as poor as dirt, taking drugs, out of work, or in jail, but they still technically own it. The price to buy one of their clunkers at a public auction? If it’s fit for the crusher, the cost today is about $100 due to cheap commodity prices. The prior owner has to be notified before the sale and this information is often in turn given to the new owner of the vehicle.

Many of these vehicles are never put into a new name. If it’s got even a breath of light, it can be ‘flipped’ and sold with the paperwork intact. No questions asked and no profits traced. There is absolutely no auditing for the transfer of ownership in most states. Just the proceeds from the sale. With a very small level of computer knowledge (or bribery) you can also find out practically everything about the person.

Since ‘Cash for Clunkers’ doesn’t require that the person have insurance for the vehicle before trade-in, there’s no stoppage that can occur there. Big mistake. A lot of folks who get their vehicles sent to the impound/tow lots usually move, involuntarily, without a forwarding address. In turn a lot of apartment complexes will request the towing of a vehicle from their property if the vehicle has anything from an expired tag to an eviction.

You can get these car for almost nothing if you’re a professional, develop a Fake ID with a little help and monetary dispensation, buy the car using their identity, and simply have the government paperwork forwarded to a PO Box which can then secure the taxpayer largesse. It’s easy. Unless those who audit this operation can track the VIN’s status online, which is hard since a lot of the local papers aren’t given an online edition, everything will seem picture perfect to an auditor.

But there are ways to find this information out. One would be to target the audits based on income. If a person is only earning $15,000 a year and they’re buying a car for the same price, that would be a red flag. So would contacting the county government and finding out whether the vehicle was impounded at a certain point. Court orders and impounds require paper trails and most of them can be found in a minute’s time. There is also one very strong impediment to sending these cars out of the US. That would be to have the clunker sent ‘on-site’ to a salvage auction where it could be crushed in exchange for receiving the rebate.

If the auditors are positioned there and literally see the crushing of the car, it eliminates the possibility of the car being recycled somewhere else. The system would hardly be a fail-safe at this point. But it would be a start. In the next installment I’ll focus on the dealer.

By on July 7, 2009

Past, present and future come together for the latest TTAC daily podcast.

By on July 7, 2009

But will it be accepted? As reported yesterday, China’s BAIC has handed in a better offer for Opel. This gave everybody a reason to pause. Magna called off a board meeting that had been scheduled to give the go-ahead for Opel. GM and the German government are reading intently what BAIC proposes. BAIC proposes export of Opels to China. For a while, at least.
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By on July 7, 2009

Everyone knows that automobiles are changing. The more curmudgeonly of us might even suspect that the glamor and freedom that once defined cars is fading fast. Heightening this paranoia is a design studio (via Core77) by Google smartphone designers Maaike Eversand and Mike Simonian depicting their vision for the future of cars: the Autonomobile. At this year’s Detroit Auto Show, Mike and Maaike came to the realization that “today’s car industry is brainwashed by its own car culture, with its obsession for speed, styling and fantasy. The car business has become one of repackaging, steering people’s focus towards style and a narrow definition of performance, not on our true needs.” And what, pray tell, are our true needs? “Most cars on the road today can go 120 mph. Why? The reality is that cars are mostly used at moderate speeds and for sitting in traffic. It’s time to look at performance in a new way.”

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By on July 7, 2009

Curbside Classics takes you back to 1971 for a virtual comparison test of six small cars, based (and partly borrowed) from a C/D test.

If you were going to a speed-dating event, and were thirty-three years older than all the “competition”, you might be forgiven for wanting some quick cosmetic surgery. But if the result was a reverse Michael Jackson, you’d damn well better hope that your “experience” and “build,” and other timeless qualities are still in demand. Otherwise, your days finding willing partners/buyers are numbered, like this 1971 VW Super Beetle.

By 1970 or so, the Beetle was in terminal decline in Europe and the US. In the Old Country, modern FWD cars like the Fiat 128, the Simca 1100, and the Austin 1100 were light years ahead of the VW in terms of space efficiency, driving dynamics, visibility, and fuel economy.

In the US, the Corolla, Datsun 1200, and the Opel Kadett were nipping at the Beetle’s heels, despite their conventional RWD.  But Americans always placed more emphasis on reliability than innovation; the Austin 1100/America had already struck out, and the Simca and Fiat 128 were as yet unproven but highly suspect in that department.

In addition to the new FWD competition in Europe, GM and Ford were known to be developing all-new “killer” small cars for 1971. VW was under the gun. But this was during Wolfsburg’s long performance anxiety period. They’d known for years, even decades that eventually they’d have to replace the Beetle. And despite endless home-brew and Porsche-designed prototypes, all they could come up with was this 1971 Super Beetle, sporting a new front end. Well, Viagra hadn’t been invented yet.

A new front end, period. I guess you could call it one-third of a new car, but then it looks so much like the old one, most people can’t tell the difference. Why bother?

The new MacPherson front suspension and bulbous hood doubled the size of the front luggage compartment from ridiculously small to only somewhat ridiculously small. But hey, the turning circle got a hair smaller. That’s about the extent of it. But for VW purists, the timeless balance and symmetry of Edwin Kommenda’s timeless 1938 design was ruined by the collagen-injected nose. Fortunately, the big noses were only a temporary fad; after 1975, the old one came back until the Beetle’s ultimate if protracted demise.

In terms of dynamic qualities, the Beetle reached a zenith in 1971. Power was up to sixty (gross) horsepower from the 1600cc air cooled boxer thanks to new dual port heads. Zero to sixty now came in sixteen seconds, almost unheard of for a Beetle. That still made it the slowest in this comparison, but only just slightly so, against most of the competition. Economy was down to a disappointing 24 mpg.

The first time I drove one of these and got on the freeway, I was almost a mile down the road before I realized I was still in third gear! The gearing was so much lower with the larger engines; my 40hp Beetle topped out at about forty-five in third gear. Made for quieter cruising too, but the drop in mileage was unacceptable. The 40hp Beetle was the Prius of its time, and a 25% drop in efficiency was a stain on the Beetle’s economy car rep.

The rear suspension had lost its swing axles a couple years earlier. In fact, the Super Beetle now had the same suspension design front and rear as the Porsche 911. As per C/D: “the transients are very quick and the tail wags like a loaded station wagon, but the Beetle no longer feels like it will roll over and play dead if you corner a bit too hard…”

Europeans even got the front disc treatment. But even with the US-spec drum brakes, it had the second best 70-0 panic stop, at 200 feet, one of the benefits of the rear engine. Not to mention the unparalleled traction.

But the interior was as narrow and cramped as 1938, and the heater . . . oh wait, it now had a two-speed electric fan to push the tepid air somewhat faster. Why did you think VW got away with making the Beetle for thirty more years only in balmy Brazil and Mexico?

The Beetle’s decline started earlier and was more rapid in Europe. In the US, VW still moved some 350k units in 1970. The Beetle was (still barely) riding the momentum of its major assets: tank-like build quality, reliability, excellent dealer network and service, and popular sentiment. It was the flower Bug, an icon of a whole generation. But like for lots of sacred cows in 1971, change was in the air, blowing straight-on from the (far) east. Volkswagens don’t like headwinds.

Unsurprisingly, the VW’s build quality is what most impressed the C/D editors too: “The whole car feels as solid as a Supreme Court decision, first-rate materials are used throughout and it is all fastened together as if it was meant to stay that way for several dozen years”. How about three dozen and two, and still going strong?

It didn’t take an oracle to come up with that prophecy. But the outcome is all too obvious to me in the hunt for photographic stand-ins for our six competitors. While I was lucky to find one example of most of them, there are more old Beetles in Eugene than I can shake a camera at. In fact, I’m well on my way to having a complete year-by-year collection, starting with about 1959 or so.

This Super Beetle caught my eye with its fetching red rims and dull-black re-spray. When I think 1971, all I can see in my mind’s eye are bright yellow, green and orange VW’s, and those are not just flashbacks. This oxidized black almost looks like primer, and I like it, in a grudging sort of way. That’s because I’m a purist when it comes to VW’s. Give me an oval-window ’57 with a vintage Oskra twin-carb set up, Porsche slotted wheels, and a little negative camber dialed into the rear wheels, and I’m good to go. And hold the cosmetic surgery. Read More >

By on July 7, 2009

You may not be familiar with H.R. 2743. The Automobile Dealer Economic Rights Restoration Act of 2009 tells New Chrysler and New GM that they “may not deprive an automobile dealer of its economic rights and shall honor those rights as they existed, for Chrysler LLC dealers, prior to the commencement of the bankruptcy case by Chrysler LLC on April 30, 2009, and for General Motors Corp. dealers, prior to the commencement of the bankruptcy case by General Motors Corp. on June 1, 2009, including the dealer’s rights to recourse under State law.” In other words, it would reverse New ChryCo’s and New GM’s dealer cutbacks—or at least force Uncle Sam to spend taxpayer billions to dump them. The bill is doomed. But that’s not stopping GM from asking its post-cull dealers to show their fealty and help twist the knife into their former colleagues. Text of the “loyalty oath” after the jump. [thanks to you-know-who-you-are]

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By on July 7, 2009

There are many great reasons to be happy to be a Baby Boomer. We may be getting old but we misspent our youth in some great decades. We had the iconic cars and lots of drive-ins for a custom fit with an increasingly relaxed moral code. We only had AM radio, but it played some of the best music ever heard in a car. But mostly we (or at least I) had Tom McCahill.

Tom McCahill was a god to me; the guy who made me glad that I’d learned how to read. Tom appeared in my home every month as a feature writer and test pilot for Mechanix Illustrated. He drove every car like he just stole Don Corleone’s personal ride. Very little was off limits to Uncle Tom. He put test cars through a hellacious torture sessions, proving the engineering mettle of over 600 vehicles, over the course of several decades. And he lived to talk about it.

A lot of his test vehicles were only a few decades removed from Model T technology. A Tom McCahill hell-drive put these dinosaurs at the very edge of extinction. Or, in some Uncle Tom tests, over the abyss.

One of the funnier McCahill tests involved a 1966 Dodge Coronet 426 Hemi convertible. Uncle Tom coaxed the beast to 144 mph on an oval track. He pinned the car despite a promise to keep his foot out of the test. At the “pedal meets floorboard” pinnacle of his test flight, the Dodge’s fabric roof looked like a pup tent during prime time Katrina. McCahill’s only regret: the roof kept him from achieving even more insane speeds. The man had brass and balls in no particular order.

McCahill’s prose sparkled. In fact, he never met a metaphor or simile he didn’t like. The AC Cobra was “hairier than a Borneo gorilla in a raccoon suit.” The 1957 Pontiac’s ride quality was as “smooth as a prom queen’s thighs.” The ’59 Chrysler Imperial was ”as loaded as an opium peddler during a tong war.” The ’57 Buicks handled “like a fat matron trying to get out of a slippery bathtub.” His writing style made him famous, but testing cars made him a decent living, and McCahill liked to live large.

One of my favorite McCahillisms: “idiot lights.” He used the term for Detroit’s cheap-ass replacement for gauges to show high water temperature and low oil pressure. A lot of them had plenty of both problems, and idiot lights usually came on shortly before the patient died.

The zero to sixty sprint was the most famous Tom McCahill automobile test feature. Some of the dogs he tested (not including his beloved Labrador) required an hourglass. We still measure performance by the McCahill meter.

Tom wrote during an era of big cars which became even bigger cars. I always liked his measurements for roominess, which included sticking his large hunting dogs or his trusty photographer in the trunk for a photo shoot.

His November 1959 MI preview of the 1960 cars illustrated his belief in the big boys, despite the birth of Big Three compacts in that model year. Uncle Tom felt that “America is basically a big car country with big car needs.” His personal favorites included a series of late 50s and early 60s Chrysler Imperials which presumably provided a few acres of room for Uncle Tom and the mutts.

Uncle Tom had an obvious affinity for Mopar, particularly in the torsion bar period, where Chrysler’s legendary letter cars moved muscle and mass with surprising agility for the era.

As a journalist, McCahill was a force to be reckoned with. After testing the first post-war Oldsmobile (the 1948 Futuramic 98), Uncle Tom said that hitting the gas pedal “was like stepping on a wet sponge.” Olds dealers were livid. History has it that McCahill’s review “inspired” Olds to fit the 88 with the legendary Rocket V-8 .

Eventually every Mechanix Illustrated came equipped with an added feature called “Mail for McCahill.” It was an information Q and A hosted by the always quotable Uncle Tom. Every now and then some bozo would poke the lion with a sharp stick with a cheap shot. The net result was always the same: Tom would take the guy apart, immortalizing his antagonist as another idiot run over by a fast moving McCahill one-liner.

As a car guy, Tom McCahill will always be my favorite non-related Uncle Tom. Detroit didn’t really love the guy, but they had to listen to him when he complained about handling and performance issues. Why? Because the man preached from a very big pulpit in car world. And we loved the sermons.

[Note: TTAC is now the only car site with both father and son writers (Paul and Edward Niedermeyer) and identical twin writers (Jim and Jerry Sutherland). For more of the latter's work please visit mystarcollectorcar.com.]

By on July 7, 2009

[Tragically frequent] Piston Slapper Theodore writes:

OK, you talked me out of putting any more money and effort into the Thunderbird. But that’s no reason not to own another old Ford, is it?

Today’s discovery: a double-black 1992 Lincoln Mark VII with just 73,000 miles. It’s not perfect—some of the electrical gadgets don’t work any more, there’s some rust on the front fenders, the clearcoat has burned through in places and the paint underneath is fading. The biggest concern is a broken front passenger seat; the power part is fine, but the seatback is lying flat and will not stand up. I am unsure how to fix this, or even if it can be done in a way that will make it safe for passengers. And for reasons that will be readily apparent to anyone who read about my Thunderbird, I am leery of Ford automatics of this vintage.  Is the one in the Lincoln any better than the one in the ‘Bird?

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By on July 6, 2009

So how long before New GM fires Uncle Fritz? In the most pragmatic of all possible worlds, where the Presidential Task Force on Automobiles (PTFOA) looked out for the taxpayers’ $50 billion as if it were their own—Fritz wouldn’t even BE GM’s CEO. Henderson would have been defenestrated along with Rick Wagoner. You know: the ex-CEO who groomed Henderson as his replacement. (How hard is it to connect those dots?) Henderson has assured his place in The Peter Principle Hall of Fame, capping his career as the PTFOA’s toady. And now, best case, he should follow Old GM onto the scrap heap of history. Not a chance.

The fact that Henderson wasn’t terminated with extreme prejudice the moment the United States government assumed complete control of General Motors tells us that Uncle Fritz is no Richard Nixon; the PTFOA will have Henderson to kick around some more. I repeat: the man’s a patsy.

Fritz didn’t decide to kill thousands of GM dealers. Fritz didn’t decide which GM brands to keep. Why would he? They’re family. White collar cull? Heaven forfend! We’ll use attrition. Mr. Henderson, it’s Congressman Barney Frank on the other line, asking for a stay of execution for a GM parts distribution facility in his constituency. Mary, why didn’t you forward this to the PTFOA? If I told you once—Barney! Hi! What’s that? I’ll check. Rest assured, I feel your pain. [Joke deleted].

Anyone harboring illusions that Uncle Fritz is large and in charge should note: Henderson didn’t take the stand and tell federal bankruptcy court that New GM had to be created by July 10—or die. It was Harry J. Wilson, a heretofore unknown member of the PTFOA. “We have no intention to further fund this company if the sale order is not entered by July 10,” Mr. Wilson told Judge Gerber. “It’s better to cut one’s losses.”

One’s losses? Hey Bub, those are MY losses you’re talking about. Anyway, who talks like that? Not Uncle Fritz. In fact, let’s pay a little attention to the man behind the curtain  . . .

“Prior to joining Silver Point in 2003, Mr. Wilson was a principal in the private equity business at The Blackstone Group, where he completed a number of private equity investments and leveraged buyouts,”youthinc-usa.org reports. “Mr. Wilson began his career in the Investment Banking Division at Goldman, Sachs & Co., where he worked in the Energy & Power group on a range of merger and corporate finance transactions.”

Hang on; the same Blackstone Group that competed with Cerberus to buy Chrysler? Yup. Although my wife destroyed my tin foil hat whilst heating-up some chicken nuggets, it’s clear that’s a cabal of investment bankers—led by Steve Rattner and Ron Bloom—are deciding the fate of the artist known as the world’s largest automaker. While Barack Obama has publicly stated his intention to “let GM run GM” [presidential paraphrasing], nothing could be further from the truth. Uncle Fritz is so not The Man.

So why keep him around? First, remember that the general public couldn’t give a damn who’s running GM. In fact, they’ve never heard of Uncle Fritz. If they see him on the tube, well, he looks nice. Avuncular. Credible. Non-threatening. So why not?

Second, as GM’s former CFO, Henderson is an excellent pencil pusher. If you were a member of the PTFOA and wanted to grab some numbers upon which to base your otherwise uninformed decisions about the automaker’s fate, Henderson’s the go-to guy. He couldn’t save GM if his life depended on it, but Uncle Fritz knows his onions.

Most importantly of all, Fritz is a terrific fall guy. If/when GM’s NA sales fall [further] into the trash, the PTFOA can throw Henderson on the pyre. The President has taken new steps to put General Motors on the path to profitability; a management shake-up is on its way!

The PTFOA should, of course, dump Henderson now. What better way to celebrate New GM’s birth, to draw a line under Old Skanky GM, than offing the bureaucratic bumbler who helped bring The General to the brink in the first place? Passing the torch PR, and all that.

Yes, well, who would replace Uncle Fritz?

As TTAC’s Ken Elias has pointed out, there are only a handful of auto executives capable of running GM, even in its truncated form. The number who could turn the ailing American automaker around is even smaller. And none of these talents is likely to do so for $500,000: the salary cap dictated by Congress for TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) recipients. Also, any CEO who’d take on the job (for real) would want independence from the PTFOA. And the PTFOA can’t have that, now can they?

So Uncle Fritz will soldier on. Or not. Either way, GM is unlikely to receive the one thing it needs to survive: leadership.

By on July 6, 2009

TTAC’s Best & Brightest strike again! GM’s monthly sales since 2004 only went up today, and already the rich bounty of raw data is yielding fruit. Like this graph of GM’s sales by brand since 2004 by commenter j_slez. Some pictures are worth thousands of words.

By on July 6, 2009

TTAC Commentator bumpy ii is nothing if not persistent. When the member of TTAC’s Best and Brightest bumped into the most recent U.S. new car sales figures (June), he was determined to get all trendy on us. And so . . . Click here for a look back at the sales stats for every Toyota model back to January ’04. If another one of our OCD, I mean, B&B wants to share some statistical analysis, or put this into a more visual form, bring it on. As always, your editorial support is most appreciated. [farago@ttac.com] Next up: same thing, Old GM.

By on July 6, 2009

TTAC commentator bumpy ii now blesses us with Old GM new car sales data bounteousness. Click here for the Best and Brightest’s data dump. There’s lots to be gleaned from this raw data, but the one thing we know for sure: no matter how many of what GM sold over the last five years, they didn’t take in more money than they spent. Will New GM reverse the curse? If I was a gambling man unencumbered by my journalistic oath of independence, I’d short the stock. Oh wait . . .

By on July 6, 2009

“I think it’ll go very quickly, and Congress may have to revisit it in the fall… 250,000 vehicles isn’t enough… We think there’ll be additional phases of this… It’ll probably evolve.”

Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers Prez Dave McCurdy on the CARS scheme in Automotive News [sub]. McCurdy acknowledged that greater improvements in fuel efficiency might be required for a future Senate compromise. Apparently McCurdy believes Senate won’t play ball “if it’s just a truck program for people buying F-150s“. What could have given him that impression?

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