Friday, May 26, 2006

Y#26: Small, Light and Fun

It seems I’m not the only one interested in small, lightweight, fun cars. Evo recently hosted a letter of the month from a chap proposing just such a thing, while in the same issue (091) Gordon Murray complained in his column about all the new generation vehicles at this year’s Geneva Motorshow being bigger and heavier than their predecessors.

Hywel Thomas, the Evo reader in question, would ideally love G Murray to step up and design a 650kg car, with 120bhp and uncomplicated maintenance. The tricky bit is getting it to cost less than £10,000 – but if John Jostins can produced a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle for that amount of money, then I guess anything’s possible!

The “Evo Car Co” is an interesting concept. Having said that, I don’t know whether it’s my age – I’m only 26! – or my over-active imagination, but at the moment I don’t even feel the need to be that exotic. What with the evermore draconian enforcement of the speed limit becoming increasingly a process of psychological warfare (a tired and tested tactic; speed practically is a social faux par now), my driving priorities are currently more concerned with maximising enjoyment within the speed limit rather than exceeding it.

Many of my coursemates will probably find this anathema. For some of them, driving as fast as they can is a particular thrill of choice – they’re fine drivers, and I’m not making any judgement over that; in fact, I find it a little weird – in that I used to be absolutely the same, and at the moment I’m…not that bothered about absolute speed and progress. Perhaps it’s just that life has a habit of catching up with you, regardless of how quickly you’re travelling.

Maybe I’ll get like that again once I’m out of Coventry – who knows? But for now I’m more or less content within the law, be that in the city, on the motorway, or out “thrashing” the country lanes…

Sugar. I can see people taking this the wrong way. I had better explain myself before I get accused of degenerating into some kind of safer roads campaign miasma…

The thing is – and I’m entirely serious about this, although there are other factors – I’ve been driving someone’s Citroen Saxo rather a lot lately. An R-plate, 1.1 litre SX, with nearly 90,000 miles on the clock and quite a few battlescars to prove it. Might fetch 800 quid if it was cleaned up – er, if you’re optimistic. But this is motoring in a very pure form – power-assisted steering, electric windows, and a set of wheeltrims from Halfords are about its only luxuries. Nothing you don’t need – but realistically enough.

You’re still not getting it, are you? Well, you probably haven’t driven one. But you probably have noticed how popular the Saxo is with the baseball-hatted set. Ok, so we’re talking microwaved versions, warmed-over performance, alloys and a bodyit, but it isn’t just the looks making these small Citroen’s popular – if the level of enjoyment I’m getting from the smallest engine in the range is anything to go by, the VTR and VTS must be seriously entertaining.

Driving the 1.1 feels to me almost like sampling another era, when tyres were skinny, power levels modest, and brakes were crap. It does have all the build integrity of a biscuit tin, but you can feel exactly what’s going on and it’s properly entertaining – in a modest sort of way. No doubt it helps that the exhaust is blowing, giving the Saxo a slightly rorty engine note. It doesn’t seem to matter that overtaking the vehicle in front is less a way of life than a lottery win. The little Citroen just makes me content.

But perhaps I’m spoilt. The roads in this part of the word are not only sufficiently twisty, they’re also remarkably traffic-free as well – I suppose that’s also like other-era motoring. It helps that in the direction of Leicester most of the traffic uses the M69 – leaving all the little stuff to me and the one other guy caning along in his little white van. Overtaking thrust stops being an issue, and I can just concentrate on not losing speed on the corners. It’s an entirely different kind of driving experience, as instead of ten-tenths aggression (the Saxo is, after all, only really capable of about six…) the trick is to be as smooth and friction free as possible. I don’t get stressed when I’m driving it, and I don’t care what other people think.

That’s a pretty neat trick. The other thing that’s great about it – of course – is the fuel economy. I swear this is at least partial psychological, though, as there is just something horribly wrong with a car that swallows 60 quid’s worth of petrol without getting heartburn. The Citroen is brimmed on 35 – a far more pleasing number, I seem to find!

So, should the BMW have bitten the dust, will I be looking to replace it with something small and French? Erm, not likely, no – the Saxo is an entirely adequate and fun little car. But it just isn’t special enough. And paradoxically, may well end up being too expensive, or not quite expensive enough…

Tune in again for more irreverent small car nonsense. Coming soon!


R#23: The Simple Life [internal]

Picture is of a 1.1 SX...from the Euro Ncap site.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

More on the Microcab

There's been much progress on my Microcab mini-site since last week.

This includes an improvement to the colour scheme...but also various draft and subbed versions of the article(s) that are going to come out of it.

To take a look, click here.


Coventry University Autojournal

An Update: Microcab Project

Thursday, May 18, 2006

R#24: Professor Tom Donnelly on Lean Production

Getting to hear the opinion of industry experts is one of the main reasons that I chose to do this automotive journalism MA. Coventry University has pretty decent links to the car industry – especially on the design side, something that will probably be relatively well known to anyone interested in this subject area. Less well know – certainly I wasn’t aware of this before I got here – is that the university has a large automotive engineering department, and a business school that runs specialised courses on the motor industry.

So, it’s worth mentioning that us lowly journalism students do occasional get to benefit from sage advice in this area of the Coventry academic sphere. The particularly character in question is Professor Tom Donnelly, and he knows a vast amount about the business side of car manufacturing. It’s not a topic I’m massively well versed on, so it was interesting to hear Donnelly’s expert opinion last week, focusing particularly on the principles of lean production.

Lean production, as I understand it, is where quality and cost meet – striving for the best possible product at the best possible price through the best possible production methods. This means eliminating waste and aiming for a “Just In Time” delivery process. I shall attempt to explain.

Donnelly stresses that this is a ‘philosophy and a logistics system’, much practiced by the Japanese manufacturers, and especially Toyota. Its importance is based on the superior nature of Japanese production, as seen in the management of quality and output, and it’s relevant in all manufacturing, not just the car industry.

Toyota’s position as the world’s most profitable car maker comes from two main things – its successful imposition of the long game and its mastery of lean production. In many ways the two are related; Toyota is prepared to work at things a long time, and under this system improvements are incremental, not radical. This suits the lean production philosophy, which suggests there is no point in something you can’t actually implement; production schedules should be ‘coherent’, and you ‘don’t bring in changes at the last minute.’

Key is the elimination of waste. If a product is made right in the first place you don’t have to spend time and money rectifying faults before it even gets to the customer. Donnelly claims that in the early 90s Mercedes had 40% of its workforce in repair bays, performing remedial work on cars after they came off the production line; contra to this, on a visit to a Toyota factory in Japan he asked his guide what the fault tolerance was for a particular section – and she replied that there wasn’t one, they expected everything to be 100%.

Avoiding waste also means cutting costs, no matter how marginal the savings. But, it’s important that this is only done if it doesn’t detract from existing levels of quality. Waste is found in inefficient work areas – badly designed, untidy, all these things are wasteful. So Toyota engages in continual product improvement, and makes sure that its working environments are optimised. And it avoids any kind of blame culture – if something goes wrong learn from the mistakes and make sure they don’t happen again.

But waste works in other ways, too. There is waste in keeping excessive inventories of parts. While obviously it’s sensible to have a certain margin of safety should a delivery of otherwise essential nuts and bolts get delayed, stock piling grommets when know exactly how many are required to assemble a set number of cars ties up money unnecessarily. I noted recently that TVR instructed TVR Power in Coventry – the company’s tuning division [and exactly who needs a tuned TVR?] – to arrange the sale of stockpiled spares for discontinued models in an effort to free up some capital. Care to consider the relevance to their current predicament…

This ties into “Just In Time”. The ultimate solution to a waste free production process is a build to order system; a customer orders a car, that car is built – the product is ‘pulled’ by the order, not ‘pushed’ from an existing stockpile. Building nothing more than what’s needed can eliminating all waste. While virtually impossible to achieve in practice, the Just In Time principle gets pretty close, as it’s based on the notion of only holding the parts you need to build the cars you currently have planned, without forecasting too far into the future. Since absolute pull is unachievable, some forecasting is inevitable – the important issue is to be able to react to drops in demand, rather than being geared up to carrying on producing vehicles that nobody wants. That would be a waste.

The actual manufacturing practice does play a part in this, but lean production does not mean super complicated robots and no workforce. The idea is to find the point of greatest efficiency, where humans and machines work in balanced ‘harmony’ – people are often more adaptable than robots, especially complex ones. Simple robots and well trained workers make a formidable team. Beyond this preventative maintenance to minimise downtime is vital; if the robots and other tools never break there’s no wasted production capacity. And engage the workforce – train them well, and make them accountable on the basis of this training.

Much of this is risky – particularly any serious application of the Just In Time principle, which requires the cooperation of all suppliers, and all of their suppliers…and so on. But as Tom Donnelly points out, if you’re in any doubt about the money to be made when it works, just ask Toyota.

Professor Tom Donnelly was lecturing on Lean Production at Coventry University on 8th May 2006.


Cov Uni - CBS - Professor Tom Donnelly @ Coventry University

#3: Badge Engineering [internal]

Picture is from this page. Guess they got it from Google Images, too!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

An Update: Microcab Project

Wondering what's been keeping me busy these past weeks?

Well, if you click the link here you'll get some kind of an idea; I've been working on an article about a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle named the Microcab. Expect the full text of an interview and even some initial drafts soon.

(You might want to shade your eyes from the colour...corporate upgrade is coming, along with the redesign of this main site!)


Coventry University Autojournal

Friday, May 12, 2006

Costing the Earth on Transport Planning

Not something I've done before, but I thought I'd flag up a Radio Four programme for your attention.

I've written on public transport quite a bit lately, and Costing the Earth dealt with a car verses train scenario this week.

You can listen again here. Well, until they take the link away next week.


Costing the Earth: Transport Planning @ BBC Radio 4

Y#24: When it sucks to not have a car

#20: Public Transport [internal]

Image from here, where you can read a mini-history of the transistor radio.

Site Update

Hello Folks.

The sidebar still reads with old format - why?

Because I'm working on a total site redesign. More on this when I've got it.

Ta-tah for now...

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Y#25: When it sucks to not have a car

Ah, public transport.

As I have remarked before, public transport is all well and good – in the right situation. Like London, where a proper integrated transportation system exists. However, as I have also remarked, not having a car when you’re used to one is a bit like losing a limb.

But when you’re in an environment where the public transport infrastructure isn’t at its optimum as a means of getting about ­and you don’t have a car – well, then day to day life starts to get a little tricky. And when life develops complications over and above the day to day, then you really have got problems.

Central Coventry isn’t ordinarily too bad a place to be in a car free situation. I live in university accommodation just slightly outside the loop of the ring road (a five minute circumference by car in reasonable traffic). Very nearly everything essential is five or 10 minutes walk away from my hall of residence. Except the train station…

The train station is on the opposite side of town. Not normally a problem. A 25 minute trek at a reasonable pace – which is perhaps 10 minutes less time than it would take the average driver to make it from my door to Leicester, using the M69.

You’re wondering, what’s the squabble? Well, what happens if I’m car-less in Coventry when my girlfriend calls me from a doctor’s surgery in a village near Leicester – and she’s telling me that the doctor, rather than giving her a few pills for her headache, is sending her for a brain scan instead?


She’s not supposed to drive, so I gallantly volunteer to come out and meet her. How will I get there? No problem, I say, I’ll take the train.

Now this village – hey, maybe it’s a small town, but it’d be a close call – does actually have a train station, making it about a million times more possible to do this than you were otherwise expecting. So, I take the trek across Coventry.

Gladly, I’ve been to the station before. Because the signposting is optimistic in the way that only townplanners know how.

It’s not until I get to the station that I discover there’s no direct link between Coventry and Leicester. The woman behind the counter explains that the fastest way to get where I want to go involves changing trains…in Birmingham.

My geography isn’t exactly hot, but I’m fairly sure that’s not the right direction. Oh, well – onwards. It can’t be too bad of a detour, and Coventry to Birmingham takes only a few minutes on the tracks...

Correction, Coventry to Birmingham NEC takes only a few minutes. Birmingham New Street is twice as far – or at least, it takes twice as long.

A 40 minute journey by car has so far taken me 50 minutes (including the time spent waiting for the train to arrive in the station) without one. And not only am I nowhere near getting where I want to go, I’ve been forced to travel in the wrong direction.

Birmingham to Leicester on a train? That’s five stops. One whole hour. Add in the time waiting around at New Street, too – and I was one of the lucky ones: my train wasn’t cancelled – and my trip tops out at over two hours. With me taking so long, my girlfriend has to make her own way to the hospital, and a further few minutes is spent on a taxi ride.

The journey has taken three times as long as it would have by car. And it’s also cost at least twice as much – over £12 on one-way train fare plus six quid on the taxi is not a cheap means of getting about.

I guess I’m lucky I had the money. And that this wasn’t an emergency.


#20: Public Transport [internal]

Spot the obvious "mistake" [internal]

Image is from here, where you can also access the knitting pattern...!

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Technical Theft

Technology and cars...somehow it's good - even when it's bad...

Leftlane News
has a short article on the use of laptop computers to circumnavigate the increasingly sophisticated anti-theft mechanisms now being installed in motor vehicles.

Reckoning this technique is how David Beckham lost two BMW X5s, Leftlane makes some good observations about the proliferation of electronic-only protection. Maybe time for a re-think on the good old-fashioned mechanical lock...

Read it here.


Gone in 20 Minutes: using laptops to steal cars @ Leftlane News

Picture is a Siemens' publicity shot.

Another service announcement!

Right, simple post to explain the new naming guide for the main posts.

Really very easy:

R# = Red Posts, 800 word limit (previously the Sunday Post)

Y# = Yellow Posts, flexible word limit (previously the Thursday Post)

These will now alternate weekly, with a Thursday for Friday schedule.

Got that?! Will update the sidebar shortly!

R#23: The Simple Life

The idea of running a small, simple car often appeals to me.
It’s common for this to occur when I’m standing next to a petrol pump, watching the digits tick over and the 520’s seriously enormous fuel tank swallow 60 quid without even needing a complete refill. I really start day-dreaming, however, when something goes wrong with it, and the BMW starts nuzzling me with repair bills.

To be fair, I’ve owned the big white whale since two Christmas Eves ago. It cost £800, and hardly anything has gone wrong. The servicing costs aren’t too bad, and the novelty of driving a (reliable) “premium” segment vehicle for so little certainly has its appeal… But it’s not perfect. The drinking problem is an issue – especially given that most of my journeys are innercity-centric at the moment – and intermittent faults in the electrics are a little draining; not knowing for sure if the dashboard is going to work whenever you turn over the ignition gets somewhat tiring after a while.

Still, I don’t want to complain (though others might suggest this is my one true calling in life – Hello, Dad). The BM is generally great fun to drive – so long as you ignore the creaks in the suspension – eager enough at motorway speeds, zipping along the country lanes very nicely. They know how to make a rear wheel drive chassis, those Germans. But it is just so big. It’s not so much fun zipping about in the urban jungle – even if the body size does offer a fair degree of protection in the event of a mishap – especially when I don’t really need four seats, let alone four doors.

I love this car. It’s probably the best car I’ll ever own. It cost practically nothing, goes well, is built solidly, and isn’t too bad to look at (it bests the majority of the current BMW line up, that’s for sure). The boot’s huge, too – something I’ll probably miss if I downsize, even if I don’t fully appreciate it at the moment. And yet, I can’t help thinking that driving this car is so terribly wasteful; I could get by with so much less than I’ve got.

Currently it’s broken. It’s not even in Coventry with me. Instead, it’s sitting in a garage work area, having various bits of it appraised for flakiness and general no-good don’t go performance; time, perhaps, to find another motoring companion, something a little more lightweight and frugal – but still fun.

There’s a problem. You see, the reason I ended up with the BMW in the first place is because when we went looking, there just wasn’t anything else available for similar money that was actually any good. We’re always being told – by industry experts and so on – that the second hand car market is in crisis, that there are bargains to be had on every street corner. And maybe it’s true – if not on the street corner then if you take the time and risk to go looking at an auction. Whenever I’ve been looking, however, all the cheap stuff consists of rust buckets you wouldn’t jeopardise your worst enemy in, or, conversely, perversely, whatever you like, over-complicated ex-high end motors that scream high maintenance and hefty fuel bills.

I’d be happy with a Mini – an old one. Or even a well look after early Fiesta – something along those lines. The trouble is, good small cars are so expensive. Everybody wants them – usually to put their dearly beloved, recently passed teenager into, never mind that safety isn’t exactly a strong point. Where’s the crumple zone in an original Mini? Between the front bumper and the rear window… I looked at a nice red one, fake minilites and a recent re-spray: the simplicity is so appealing, but £1300 for a 1.0 litre?

I guess it wasn’t too bad – so long as you didn’t count the wonky doors, ill-fitting bonnet and the lack of MOT. The trouble is it’s kind of hard to justify to yourself after you’ve spent the last couple of years tooling around in Teutonic…well, I was about to say Teutonic efficiency, but I’ve already complained about an absence of that. See how unfortunate this situation is? Either way – it cost £500 less.

So, at the moment I’m carless. Situation unresolved. Facial designation: bemused. And I’m not the only one – for my situation may well serve as a metaphor for the motor industry as a whole. Over-weight, over-complicated, and under-efficient is the status quo; lightweight solutions that aren’t over-expensive – too often seem like a distant dream.


Spot the obvious "mistake" [internal]