The Spechtacle

A site for sharing information, dropping dimes and plotting overthrows...

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New Years rant on new cars

Cars are better than they’ve ever been. They can go thousands of miles with little or no maintenance and are marvels of engineering science. The littlest economy car is safer to crash than the biggest 10 year old sedan. Gas mileage keeps going up and pollution levels keep going down. What’s not to like?

Kia Space Shuttle, picture from NRMA Motoring and Services

Cars are designed to be easy to manufacture. Nowhere in the manual does it say anything about ease of repair. The first time you want to remove a hose clamp, you notice that it was obviously installed when the motor was out of the car. You can only hope to get a tool on it. Then you want to remove an electrical connector. Good Luck. Every one is double and triple locked, and each one is unique. By the time you figure out how it comes off, you’ve already broken it because, after all, it is only plastic. And getting a new one from a parts guy is difficult also, as there are thousands of them on a car, and he’ll be searching forever to get the right one, which he won’t have, and it you order it, it is guaranteed to be the wrong one when it comes in.

Parts are subassemblies. To decrease the burden of stocking thousands of parts, subassemblies have become popular. To buy a fuel pump for a pre-millenium car, you bought a fuel pump. Now you get a giant box that is almost as big as the fuel tank, with numerous plastic hoses, valves, sensors and what not. Buried deep in all this mess is the tiny fuel pump, now just a miniature version of it’s previous self. Granted things are more complex now, but still….

Cars are getting lighter, but tires are getting heavier. Tires have been growing in size every year, till now it’s almost common to see 18 and 19 inch tires on cars. The aluminum rims used to be lighter, but now are so big that you need to be the Incredible Hulk to change one. When I started working on cars, tires were usually 6.00 by 15 inch, and you didn’t even need a power machine to put a new tire on a rim. And those rims were steel also, but still lighter by a long way than modern tires.

picture of modern engine

This looks easy to work on…

Cars are incredibly sophisticated. The only modern machines that are more complex than cars are jet fighters. Mechanics are starting to need college educations to understand them. People that work on their own cars are increasingly fighting an uphill battle, not the least of which is access to information. Car Manufacturers consider any and all information that isn’t in the owner’s manual to be a state secret. Even the amount of money it takes for special tools and electronic scan tools can bankrupt a dealer, ,much less an individual that tries to figure out his own car.

I’m at a loss to think what you’ll be giving your kid to drive when he’s 16, a few years from now. Everyone can’t afford to put them in something brand new, and almost every 10 year old car will be as sophisticated as the space shuttle, will cost thousands of dollars to fix when it needs it, and you won’t be able to do it yourself to save a few bucks, even it you are handy. Cars from the 60’s were a lot easier to understand, and could be fixed by the average Joe. Older MG’s and Chevy’s have quite a following as parts are cheap and available, and the cars are simple to understand and repair. Car makers need to meet us in the middle somewhere.

picture of old MG

Anyone can fix this car…

Life after Saab

In 1994 GM had 1/2 interest in Saab, and soon owned the whole automotive division. They pushed the car upscale and eventually killed it, and now the corpse has now been hacked up, dismembered and parted out to a Swedish/Chinese/Japanese consortium with dreams of making an electric car. I’m not really sure, and I’m believe they aren’t sure either, but they might not get the name as Saab in Sweden is still a military-industrial complex and don’t want to dilute their good name.

As far as US Saab dealers go, they have gone out of business, or are in the process of reinventing themselves. For all the hoopla from Saab owners how they are going to bring the car back by demonstrations and such, they haven’t really supported the dealer network much, and have stayed away as long as they possibly could, not really wanting to spend any money on a dead horse. Parts have been really tough to get, and keys for Saab Sports Sedams have become a hot black market item. A late model 9-3 involved in a small fender bender was recently totaled because there were no front fenders in the country, and no prospects of any soon.

Empty Saab Shop

The shops generally remain empty. Some cars have to come back since they have bizarre German GM electrical systems, and no one else seems able to understand them, much less fix them. Mechanics have been pretty creative repairing parts instead of replacing them, something done routinely in the thirties, but not even done today. Other makes of cars are drifting in, but bringing in customers that are already going somewhere else is tough. Getting a different franchise is out of the question also. All the car makers have recently thinned out their dealer networks, and aren’t interested in any more.

As far as myself, I’m getting close to retirement anyway. So this whole thing doesn’t affect me as much as it could. But I’ve been working on Saabs since 1985, and will miss them, although they will still show up as orphaned cars at the shows, much like Edsels, Hudsons and the millions of other makes that have been abandoned.

I have been spoiled by Saab. They got good gas mileage, better than average performance, looked good and if you got them into the air on a bump in the road, they could land on all fours and still be in control. I tried that with an Oldsmobile once and almost got killed.

Update Nov 13, 2012
Well, life goes on. The cars are trickling back, I’m still working here, and we have 3 mechanics working. Wages for flat rate guys are still depressed, and the mechanics are struggling to pay their bills, but they have work. We’re not over the hump yet, but getting there.

picture of the shop

The Bank Street Pfeiffers

In 1900, William Pfeiffer and his family rented rooms at 902 Bank Street. 20 years earlier, William and his family lived down on Main Street where he kept a tavern close by. That didn’t work out and was now working at a Brewery on Liberty Street.

Picture of William and Elizabeth

William and Elizabeth

Times were hard, his wife Elizabeth was slowly going blind and even his oldest son had to quit school for work after the 3rd grade. William never got the hang of english, which didn’t really matter much in the Bank Street neighborhood, as everyone around was German. This heritage was to get stomped on in 17 years with the coming of World War One, even the German street names were to be changed, but for now, the whole town seemed to be imported from Bavaria.
Bank Street map 1920

Bank Street neighborhood in 1920

Most of the girls were working in laundry and tailor shops. Young Will Pius was 18 years old and working as a varnisher, learning his trade to one day own and run ‘Will Pfeiffer and Sons, Painters’. But for now, he supplemented his education by devouring an encyclopedia. Valentine would follow Will into the house painting business in the future, but in 1900 he stayed in school along with Mary. Painting would bite Valentine in the future when he was slowly poisoned by the lead he and Will had to mix their paints with. Elizabeth’s nephew, Carl Gaertner, had just recently immigrated to the US and was staying with them. Through one of William’s friends, he got a job as a porter.

The 900 block of Bank Street was filled with tenements, meat packing plants, and other businesses. One thing the elder William liked about the neighborhood was St. Augustine Church, which was just past the Sacred Heart Convent down towards Ailanthus Street.

Picture of St. Augustine Church on Bank Street

St. Augustine's church on Bank Street

Past that were more houses, packing plants, cemetery monument makers, carpenters and furniture makers, saloons and blacksmiths. News about the new horseless carriages were around, but no one had seen one yet. Electric streetcars were brand new, and young Will was already trying to derail them by wedging scrap metal on the tracks. Soon he would look for more adventure and join the Ohio National Guard in 1901.
Picture of a Cincinnati streetcar

Streetcars were a target for unruly youth

The entire neighborhood along Bank Street, from Freeman to Baymiller and including Ailanthum Street, was bulldozed around 1970, and the ballfields of Dyer Park sit there now, quietly covering the basements and foundations of a unique German community.
Picture of Bank Street today.

Bank Street neighborhood today. 902 Bank Street would have been close to this corner.

William would soon be dead, a result of an accident at the brewery. Young Will would be married in another five years to Rose Beiting. Elizabeth’s eyesight was fading, but got along with the help of her daughters and son Val, who were still living with her in 1930, across the street from Roger Bacon High School, and her other son, Will. Will’s family would spread out from Cincinnati, and settle from one end of the country to the other, and pride in German heritage would return to Cincinnati.
Picture of William Pius Pfeiffer's wedding

Wedding of William Pfeiffer and Rose Beiting

Colgate engineering gets it right

I struggle with the output of engineers every day. Our marvelous technological world is due to engineering mainly, and it is impressive. As an auto mechanic by trade, though, it seems that the manufacturer, and consumer get the better part of the deal, as all the engineering money is spent on making cars easy to manufacture, and appealing for the consumer to sit in, not so much in ease of repair.

Nonetheless, I simply can’t say good enough things about the modern toothpaste tube. Not just any toothpaste tube, but Colgate Total. It’s alright for toothpaste I guess, (I haven’t had any cavities for a long time), but it’s the engineering in the toothpaste tube that’s impressive.

I’ve grown up with toothpaste tubes since the 50’s, and they weren’t a pretty sight. Not only was it impossible to get most of the product out of them, but squeezing and rolling them up caused them to crimp, tear and eventually leak. Squeezing the tube by that time meant toothpaste coming out in at least 3 places. (That would be fine if 3 kids needed their teeth brushed at the same time,) And the tube would rust. Rust and toothpaste don’t belong on the same brush.

Toothpaste tube

Along came the 21st Century and Colgate Total. The tube doesn’t rust. and you don’t have to do any rolling of the tube to get the toothpaste out, just squeeze. When it’s used up, the tube is empty, with no rolling or anything, it just all comes out! I have no idea how they accomplish that, but it is one of life’s little joys. And the tube can stand on end, taking little space in the medicine cabinet, full or empty. The humble toothpaste tube has reached perfection.

Osprey shortcomings?

A few weeks ago, in one of my rants, I mentioned the fact that I thought the Osprey was a craft conceived by a crazy person. This article is about a patent for a new tilt wing to replace Osprey type aircraft. It is presented as a better idea, in light of the fact that the Osprey has no backup if one engine is fails (or more accurately, if it loses a rotor).

Osprey replacement article

These ideas make my head hurt.

You build airframes based on requirements (one would hope). But which requirement is a priority? How about survivability?

So you put many motors around a circular frame, like a bicycle wheel. You sling the payload underneath. Motors can pivot independently outwards slightly for forward thrust. Their rpm can be regulated. If you lose one or two. the remaining adjust their position on the wheel, to redistribute the load equally. This cannot be any more complicated than a tilt rotor, right?

I’m just saying…

Time to think

Recently, I joined the ranks of the unemployed. I still own a small company, but my day job has finally ended. it is kind of a bummer and kind of a relief. When you work states away from your boss, you don’t get a farewell lunch or plaque. You get a mailing address for returning all your stuff.

I do have more time to think now. Lots of time to ponder my situation, the past, the future, and everything in between.

I hear many people give their opinion of the Wall Street protests. “They want a handout” is a common phrase. If student loans are too high, it doesn’t matter. The students are the ones who accepted them. They have a choice. I hear this over and over. But it skips over the real issues of tuition costs skyrocketing, back breaking loans, and the real possibility of no job at graduation. There are so many issues like this wrapped up in the protests: Tax system unfair – lobbyists have all the power – congress is ineffectual – education costs are out of control – wall street killed our economy, but it did not kill wall street. I could go on and on.

Man, many Americans are just not sympathetic. And if they get their news from FOX, they leave their brain at the door. I just don’t think it is as simple as that.

People in these protests are mad, because they have seen too much in terms of not being fair and a lack of transparency. They have seen their vote amount to nothing. The rich wall street elite have more of a vote. The situation is not fair, and this gets to the hart of the matter. If you can afford a lobbyist, you can buy votes. It’s just that simple. If you are rich, you are insulated, perhaps. But you should at least pay a share of the taxes. A fair share. Of course, we idolize those who beat the system. Well, we did…

If Saddam would have had effective lobbyists, we would be up to our ears in cheap oil. Same with Gadaffi. We’d be swimming in it. Global warming be be damned. But no, we had to go to war. Let’s get physical.

We certainly did not need to invade Iraq. If you still cling to this idea, get help. We had two no fly zones over Iraq, so dangerous we engaged and destroyed our own helicopters on several occasions as a result of mistaken identity. We had every clandestine agency of world wide capability in there looking everywhere. Yet Saddam was creating a delivery vehicle that would hit Europe? Really? So what. Ever hear of the Tokyo fire raids in WWII? The Dresden fire raids? We now have weapons that make these bonfires look like Boy Scouts learning to make fire. We could have gone down this road instead of an invasion.

We did not need to invade Afghanistan either. Make a statement there? Yes, definitely. Something insanely ugly. But we certainly did not need to stay. Now, as soon as we leave, Afghanistan will fold like a house of cards. You heard it here first.

Anyone anywhere who understands our political system, our love of money, our self absorbed character, and our self imposed image of grandeur understands the leverage and power of effective lobbyists.

Unfortunately, you and I cannot afford lobbyists. It is beyond interplanetary for us. And we are invisible to them.

“But who will do all the research and brief our representatives?”. Gosh, maybe they could do that themselves with a staff?

Our political friends in Congress get a pretty good pension for not too much time served. Also, a majority are millionaires. If you are not a millionaire when you enter the Congress, you are almost assured you will be by the time you leave. Inside deals, with information we are not privy to, are made by our representatives daily. Ouch. How about a crumb for the little people?

Or maybe just some intelligent legislation?

Air Force jet flies again…

The Enquirer had a story on the Northwest Homecoming Parade today, featuring a photo of the Air Force’s recruiting tool, a self powered one man jet float. That jet brought back some memories.

20 years ago that same jet participated in a parade in Amelia, Ohio. My brother Jim and I were watching from his front yard as the jet slowly idled by, then disaster struck! The jet suddenly swerved to the left, out of control, right into my brothers driveway. We leaped into action. The impulse to just see how the jet was built was enough of a draw to get our attention. The problem was a link on the left wheel that had broken, and after rifling through Jim’s garage we found enough supplies to fix it on the spot. The jet was soon back in action and the parade was a success. We were glad to do our part to keep the Air Force flying.

Hey Circus Lady…

When I was a little boy, I stayed with my Aunt Marcy in Amelia, Ohio. She had a great big family, a cool home and big yard that went into the woods behind the house. But she wasn’t around much. She had to work away from home, leaving early, and returning home very late. I never know exactly what she was doing working so hard. A few days ago, going through old albums of my Mom’s, I discovered what she was doing. She was apparently the original Horse Whisperer for the local circus.

Just look at the eyes on that stallion. I sure would like to know what mental messages she was sending that horse…

Memorial Day in the present

Here we are at another Memorial Day. Pretty much everywhere you will see celebrations of gratitude. Churches will ask veterans to stand for a moment during the service. Parades will be packed with vehicles and veterans of previous conflicts.

I always think of the people who never made it home. Some of them were volunteers. Many were draftees fulfilling their obligation. A few were running from trouble. What they all had in common is that they all thought they would return home. These were young men and women who for the most part imagined their deployment would be a brief interlude in what would surely be a long life. Some believed in the cause of the time, while others just believed in service to the nation, or to go along with their friends and get their obligation over safely. We can all identify with them in some respect. They are all gone. They will not return home alive. Some will not return home at all.

Then I think of current events. I think of all the people deployed to our two fronts. I think about it too long, and I get irritated.

Our nation is good at many things. One of those things is apathy. It is an apathy about the services and their hardships. People are even tired of hearing about the hardships. After all, we are talking about volunteers. “We didn’t make them join the service.” That is true. But we elect our government, and that government influences what happens to our military. And frankly, those we elect don’t get it most of the time. They never served or deployed.

Life in the service is a voluntary life of sacrifice. Even in the best non-conflict circumstances, it can be a difficult life for the service member and the family. You experience dangerous training deployments, high stress situations, and personal strife from long deployments. I know everyone experiences stress in their lives. I am just saying the average service member’s fun meter is usually pegged a little bit more than a civilian.

When you send a person into a shooting war, and they spend some time there, they change. Most of the time, they change a great deal. Don’t take my word for it, do some research. I was never in a shooting war, but I have been around more than a few folks who have. Men and women. They change.

Our manpower numbers are so thin that we are putting our military through an out of control machine of deployments. The same people deploy over and over. You go for months deployed, then a year or so home, then back, then home, and on and on. Change upon change upon change. Over time we have accrued all these professional warriors who like being deployed more than being home. But then we sweep them out like so much dust and dirt. They get therapy in bucket loads, but they are out. Their identity is gone. Sorry, we need the money.

We reduce costs by reducing manpower. It is the quickest way a corporation can raise cash in house. Our Military is no different. “The missions have changed” or “our strategic threats have changed” etc. Sure they have. But while we reduce manpower, we continue to buy unnecessary vehicles, systems, doctrine, and support. I will cite the V-22 Osprey as one example. What madman dreamed that aircraft up? “We need speed, more lift, etc, due to our threats”. Is it cheaper than two helicopters? One Osprey’s fly away cost is 67 million dollars today. The workhorse in Afghanistan is still the Chinook. Fly away cost 37 Million. The Chinook seats more troops, can lift 50,000 lbs which is only 10K less than the Osprey, and is definitely slower. As for the speed issue, the latest Sikorsky experimental helicopter is in the 400 mph range, comparable to the Osprey. My point in droning about all this is we are paying twice as much for more complexity, an unproven over time design, and less troop capacity. Ouch.

Which leads me to the point of all this. Our military is stretched too thin. In 2009, the Army had 548,000 active duty. With a mission to bring in over 80,000 new soldiers per year, the force is 1/7 untrained and unprepared to fight. Since a percentage is always leaving, meaning they don’t fight all the way up until the day they muster out, there is another hefty number not able to fight. Ouch. And since not everyone in the Army is a shooter, but may be a supporter at home in an office, this cuts the availability of a fighting force even more.

Is the answer more brigades? This is the structure the Army is adopting, the modular brigade concept. Brigades cost big money by any estimate. The GAO estimates 3 to 4 brigades and 3 headquarters of approximately 20,000 soldiers (brigades and headquarters combined) would cost about 2 billion annually. There is no free lunch, unfortunately. The Osprey’s cost is at 27 BILLION as of 2008. Think about that. That’s more than a few brigades.

A soldier can be trained to do many many things. They are cheaper, more flexible, and the rate of return is greater for your money. The more you have, the easier it is to do things. A soldier can run, climb, swim, think, and sacrifice. It’s all about boots, especially in today’s up close and personal combat situations. That is the one lesson we haven’t learned from previous conflicts.

So when you see all the nice and impressive vehicles and aircraft at the parade, look close. You will see a soldier somewhere. He or she will look tired, and bored. They have changed permanently, and they are waiting to go back. Because they know it’s coming, and there’s no one else to go.

Push it on the stack

Medium size metropolitan Saab dealer… 8:00 a. m. 2 waiters on the counter already. Been waiting since 7:30, I thought we opened at 8. First one is an oil change… get the oil draining. Second one has a window that won’t go down, push the oil change on the stack, off with the door panel… motor shorted… price motor. Car already in shop needs to get to bodyshop asap, but needs alignment first. Push window car on the stack. Almost finished with alignment, customer needs to go for a test drive for some noise she hears. Push alignment on the stack.

We don’t hear the noise, but she insists on driving till we hear it. A lot of people are getting antzy back at the dealership. I suggest letting me drive, and she agrees. Big mistake for her, as I drive straight back to the dealership, and tell her we just have to keep the car till we hear the noise. (Later that story has a happy ending, just a bent heat shield.) Pop the alignment off the stack, completed and off to the body shop. The window motor sold, and installed and out the door and popped the oil change off the stack. LIFO. Done.

9:15. Ready for a new round.

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