Featured Post

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Takata Air Bag Disaster: Passive-Aggressive Safety

We interrupt our regular programming to bring you a public service announcement.  If your car or truck was built in this century and is one of the following makes, it may have an air bag made by Takata that is the subject of an urgent recall.  These bags may explode in low-speed collisions or even in a sudden stop, spraying the occupants of the car with shrapnel.  The June 6, 2016 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek characterized the recalled air bags as "60 million car bombs."  That was in June; the recall has now encompassed some 70 million cars.  The following makes have been involved:  Acura, Audi, BMW, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Dodge, Fisker, Ferrari, Ford, GMC, Honda, Infiniti, Jaguar, Jeep, Land Rover, Lexus, Lincoln, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Pontiac, Saab, Saturn, Subaru, Tesla, Toyota and Volkswagen.  As the recall has expanded and the scandal surrounding it deepened, the NHTSA website has updated their list of makes, models and years affected.  You can go to "NHTSA / Recalls Spotlight:  Takata Air Bags Recalls" to see if your car is on the list

The feature unique to Takata air bags, and to their failure, is the use of ammonium nitrate (the explosive used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing) as a propellant.  Prior to releasing air bag inflators in 2001 using this propellant, Takata used a tetrazole-based propellant called Envirosure. But tetrazole was expensive, and Takata apparently switched to ammonium nitrate for cost reasons.  Takata was the only air bag maker to take this path*.  Takata's own engineers warned about the instability of this material, especially as it takes on moisture and deteriorates over time, but engineers who left the company claim they were ignored.  Bloomberg Businessweek reported that when an engineer wanted to investigate the cause of a test rupture in 2000, he was "reassigned."  In late 2000, a Takata engineer complained that a report on Honda airbags was based on incorrect or invalid data, and in some cases nonexistent data.  The first U.S. case of injury caused by an explosive rupture was in Alabama in 2004.  In 2005, a Takata engineer in the U.S. complained that devices sold to Honda were being supported by data from nonexistent tests. In 2006, the Takata assembly plant in Mexico was rocked by 3 large explosions, which the company blamed on improper disposal practices.  The polite term "air bag rupture" does not hint at the kinds of injuries explosive-driven metal shards can cause.  Victims of air bag ruptures have suffered, and not always survived, severed arteries and in at least one case a severed spinal column. 

Air bags have been required on all cars sold in the U.S since 1989.  Long before the first airbags appeared on cars in the 1980s, there was a spirited debate about the virtues of passive versus active safety in car design.  The deepening disaster of the Takata air bag scandal has revived some of that discussion.  Fans of active safety features argued for across-the-board adoption of disc brakes, for example.  When antilock brakes came along  (earlier than you think, on the Jensen FF in 1966) we wanted those too.  We suggested that cars could adapt better to severe weather with wider adoption of front-wheel drive or torque-sensing all-wheel drive (another feature of the Jensen FF and later on the Audi Quattro, even before air bags were required). Perhaps even more important as part of the active approach, we suggested that adopting mandatory and comprehensive driver education programs in public schools would result in a bigger reduction in the accident injury and fatality rate than adopting air bags.   It made more sense, we thought, to design our driver education and also our vehicles around the idea of avoiding accidents, rather than to simply assume that drivers couldn't help passively blundering into mishaps, and mandating the provision of cars which were massive, inefficient, overweight crash tanks…complete with air bags which, it turns out, can act like grenades. 

The air bag industry claims that its products save around 2,500 lives in an average year.  But there were around 10,000 drunk driving deaths in the U.S. in each of the past two years, and there were roughly 3,300 fatalities caused by texting or cell phone use last year.  Law enforcement figures quoted on the Huffington Post indicate that cell phone use is a factor in 25% of accidents. It would seem that spending more money on driver education and law enforcement, as well as stiffening the penalties for drunk or distracted driving in the justice system, might still be a better investment than perfecting kinder and gentler explosive devices for our car interiors.

Epilogue:    As of this writing, 13 people have died as a result of exploding Takata air bags.  In mid-June, Honda had confirmed over 100 injuries due to these air bags in its own cars.  There is no Federal test procedure for air bags.  I ordered a new passenger air bag for my Subaru in April; the Boulder dealership is just getting around to installing air bags ordered in February.  The dealer turned the passenger bag off, but stated that they could not remove it, as this action was illegal and might result in a lawsuit.  And of course, I wonder about the air bag in my steering wheel. Like the passenger one, it uses ammonium nitrate as a propellant, and I'm guessing it takes on moisture and degrades at the same rate.  Subaru claims that there's no problem with the driver's air bag.  Maybe they're taking Takata's word for it.  They're the same people who, 13 lives and a hundred plus injuries ago, were saying there were no problems with any of their products.

*Footnote:  TRW tried ammonium nitrate, but applied a freeze-drying technique to deal with the moisture threat, and special welding protocols to strengthen the inflator mechanism.  Takata took none of these precautions; owing their high cost, TRW abandoned ammonium nitrate for more stable propellants in 2006.

Photo credit:  cargurus.com

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Worst Car Designs Ever, Part 4: Final Finalists, 1970s to Present

The latest selections include my own favorite disasters, as well as some reader suggestions. We've limited choices to cars that at least had reasonably competent drivetrains and chassis designs, but were let down by packaging and visual presentation; that is, bad industrial design. And to head off those questions about why no Pontiac Aztek and no Hummer H2, I've decided that SUVs and trucks are not cars.  One would think that the advent of computer-aided design tools during this period would have improved the overall level of design so that there would be few egregious offenders.  But competition was fierce; runners-up are listed for some finalists.

Ford Mustang II Cobra, 1974-78
It's hard to remember that the Pinto-based Mustang II won the Motor Trend Car of the Year award for 1974; Ford's timing was good if its choice of base chassis was not, as the car came right after the first Fuel Crisis.  At least one reason this car was such a disappointment was that Mercury dealers got the German-built Capri with a more competent chassis and cleaner body design.  The "Cobra" Mustang II was a cynical attempt to trade on the glory of the Shelby Mustangs from 1965-70, though it offered no special performance or handling features. Possibly the decals, fake vents and Tupperware spoilers made you feel you were going faster. To measure how far the mighty had fallen, you might want to have a look at the 1962 Mustang prototype, "Ford's Forgotten Mustang I", in these posts for August 26, 2015.

Runners-up, Bricklin SV-1 (1974-76) & Triumph TR-7 (1975-81)

Mosler Consulier, 1985-93
Apparently Warren Mosler's transit from Wall Street financier to sports car builder did not involve a stop at anyone's industrial design studio. His lightweight, street-legal racer was intended (one avoids the word "designed') to be competitive in the SCCA, and it was definitely that.  The body, however, was relentlessly hideous, with slab sides, tacked-on bumpers, an abruptly vertical windshield, and openings for lights and vents which looked like they'd been hacked into the study model (if there was one) with a pocket knife. Probably the first carbon fiber bodied car sold to the public.  Race driver John Fitch had one; his verdict, "ugly, but fast as hell", has stood the test of time

Nissan Autech Stelvio Zagato, 1989-90

If you looked at the name first, you're likely wondering how Nissan and Zagato wound up together. On the other hand, if you looked at the photo first, you're asking, "What is that thing in front?  Did somebody leave the hood up and then whack it with a hammer?"  The short answers are that during the last days of the Japanese economic boom of the 1980s, Nissan hatched a program with Zagato to build limited runs of Nissan-powered exotica, and what appears to be a badly bent hood is actually two huge tunnels housing the rear-view mirrors.  Other Zagato Nissan prototypes were better looking than this Stelvio (we'll cover them in a future essay), but that's a fairly low bar to clear.  Note the odd wheel design with a single asymmetrical NACA duct, possibly intended to enhance the avant garde sense of off-center weirdness.  Note also the wide horizontal ledge running from the base of the mirror tunnel to the rear of the car, where it wraps under the tail lights. Perhaps this shelf, like the mirror tunnels, was intended as a place for birds to nest while the cars were gathering dust in dealer's back lots (the Japanese are, after all, nature lovers).  Amazingly, among the Zagato concept cars only the Stelvio was cleared by Nissan for production.  Not so amazingly, of the 200 cars planned, only 104 found buyers.

Runner-up:  Alfa-Romeo ES-30 Zagato, a good enough car, and a significant enough trend-setter, to deserve its own essay.  See below….

Alfa Romeo ES-30 Zagato, 1989-94
The ES-30 series, whose basic form was created by Robert Opron, who had designed the more organic and curvy GS, SM and CX while at Citroen, was produced in two models, the SZ coupe above (1989-91) and the RZ roadster below (1992-94).  The cars were the first truly new sports / GT cars to emerge from Alfa since the Montreal in 1970.  Emerging at the same time as Zagato's Nissan Stelvio, the ES-30 seemed, unlike unlike earlier Alfas, to be designed with the goal of stopping the eye rather than seducing it.  Like that Stelvio, the ES-30 adopted the strategy of exaggerating one or two features with cartoonish emphasis.  In this case, the wedge profile and short front and rear overhangs were emphasized with nearly vertical, flat front and rear faces. These matched the almost vertical flat sides.  From the rear, the cars looked nearly as high as they were wide… At the time some thought the designers had done a disservice to a great chassis, as the ES-30 had power and balance thanks to Alfa's 3.0 liter V6 married to the transaxle layout which first appeared in the GTV-6.  As the 70s wedge trend was finally giving way to ellipsoidal curves in the late 80s, many had hoped for something more along the lines of the last great Alfa Zagato front-engine road racer, the TZ-2 from 1965 (below).  But the ES-30 sold over 1,300 copies counting SZ and RZ together, while Alfa had only sold around a dozen TZ-2s, a low number even for a focused road racer.  Sometimes there is no accounting for public taste...

Morgan Aero 8, 2001-2010
Apparently designed without any awareness of the notion that form and detail should reinforce each other , the Aero 8 emerged from the factory with its headlights staring at each other across a concave gulf as though the car had tried to wrap itself around a tree.  Once you got past the fairly modern chassis with its BMW V8, the car was a mashup of miscues born of the attempt to marry 1930s swoop to 21st century technology.  The mid-1930s classics the Aero 8 attempted to evoke never had fenders with flush vertical sides, or ruler-straight sill lines.  They did sometimes have doors with external hinges, but nowadays, especially on anything this expensive, external hinges are just bad detailing.  The cross-eyed look stayed until 2007.

Runners-up: BMW Z-4 (E-85 series, 2002-08) and Nissan Cube (3rd series, 2008-present).
Like the Zagato Stelvio, Anders Warming's Z-4 makes a fetish of details which most designers try to hide, though here they are shut lines for doors, emphasized with concave "flame surfacing". The diagonal slash across the front fender bisects the BMW logo and continues the windshield angle, apparently to call attention to the upward curving line of what looks like a hinged unitized fender / hood assembly (like early Sprites which also have this curving line) but is not. The US-mandated center safety light is accentuated with a gawky bump in the trunk surface, with what looks like a combo spoiler / handle.  

The Nissan Cube is notable for having, for no discernible reason, different right and left side elevations.  On Nissan projects like the Cube and the earlier S-Cargo, the cartoonish quality they'd achieved inadvertently on the Stelvio became the whole point. A sight gag on four wheels, it would've suited Homer Simpson and family as a daily driver.

BMW i3, 2014 to present
Richard Kim's design for the i3 pushed the revival fad for black-out graphics to a new level; he used graphics not to enhance form, but to subvert it.  Note the way the black shapes crawling up the front bumper make the silver shapes look unsupported.   The famous twin-kidney grille is just graphics with a bright metal frame; it's blank and admits no air.  Similarly, graphic black-outs are used to erode the deep sill line, either in an attempt to make the car look low and sleek (not so much luck there) or to increase the impression of ground clearance.  This photo helped me understand the reasoning behind the spasmodic drop in the rear window sill line; it allows leftover space for side vision if you leave the dealer price sticker in the window.  Otherwise, your neighbors will never suspect that you actually paid $43,000 for this thing.

Runner-up:  Several readers strongly dislike the 2016 Toyota Prius, apparently because it finds new ways to torture innocent lighting fixtures into threatening shapes…

Photo credits:
Nissan Autech Stelvio:  japanesenostalgiccar.com
Toyota Prius:  Toyota USA, reproduced on pumptalk.ca
All others:  wikimedia

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Worst Car Designs Ever, Part 3: Finalists from 1940s through 1960s

When we last visited Worst Car Designs we'd highlighted 3 comprehensively awful designs, and made a few comparisons with better designs from contemporary designers.  This approach offered a chance for the reader to take a rest from the relentless onslaught of bad taste, and offered your scribe a chance to avoid making decisions on other finalists for the Bad Car Design Hall of Fame. But the time of reckoning approaches.  Here, in rough chronological order, are selections made by your scribe with the help of a few readers.  We're starting with the early Postwar period and running through the Seventies, violating the  promise of a 3-part series, but permitting all candidates their hard-earned moment in the spotlight.  

Citroen 2 CV, 1948:

Homely it may be, but the cheap and cheerful Deux Chevaux (2 fiscal horses, and 9 real ones at first) was ruthlessly focused on the program for a minimum cost transport for farmers to get their produce to market.  The ingenious suspension with its horizontal springs parallel to the  car's  long axis allowed those farmers to drive over rutted fields without breaking eggs, and the headlights pivoted on stalks for easy adjustment when heavy loads like goats and pigs tilted the floor. Tubular seats could be easily removed to hose down the interior.  Like other Citroens, it offered front wheel drive and a comfy ride, the latter a good thing, as it took awhile to get where you were going.

Buick (all lines), 1958:

In the midst of Late Fifties Wretched Excess, GM design chief Harley Earl was seized by an obsessive, prematurely nostalgic longing for…Late Fifties Wretched Excess.  Manufacturing costs might've been reduced if they'd just chromed the entire car and then painted over the chrome for the few interstices of color...

Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty Special, 1959:

Harley Earl flailing away again in a panicky over-reaction to the success of Virgil Exner's Forward Look from 1957.  But where most Chrysler products were pretty clean once you got past the big tail fins (okay, maybe not the Imperial), the GM crew decided on a policy of "some's good, so more's better."  The Sixty Special shown was the most overdecorated of that year's Caddies, but the attitude affected GM's bread and butter Chevy line as well…

Chevrolet Impala, 1959:

…so much that Chevy gave up first place in the sales race to Ford that year.  The rain catcher trunks leaked, by the way.

Citroen Ami 6, 1961:

Here's a graphic demonstration of how the Ami's compliant suspension worked at speed…well, anyway, how it worked when you were pushing the 24 horsepower air-cooled twin as hard as you could.  The engine was an enlarged version of the 2 CV; with twice the power and almost 200cc added, it likely seemed a muscle car to Deux Chevaux owners. But it wasn't enough the lift the car into the middle ground between the range-topping DS and the 13-year old flivver.  And while the 2 CV looked the part of minimum transport, the Ami 6 was odd and pretentious all at once. The drooping tongue of the hood's leading edge related to the grille not at all, and the flanks were cluttered with odd embossed flutes and indentations.  The sliding windows had long been replaced with winding ones on Citroen's competition at Simca and Peugeot, and on early cars the rear door windows were fixed.  The oblong headlights were an innovation shared with the German Ford Taunus.

The rear featured the briefly fashionable  reverse slant rear window seen in the late 50s on Mercury, Lincoln Contintental and the 1960s Ford Anglia.  On the Ami it featured an odd crease in the vertical support, and just reinforced the overall lack of a theme.

Dodge Dart, 1962:

Some Dodge dealers hated this Exner-designed Dart even more than the '61 we featured in Part 1 of this series, because it had been hurriedly downsized in response to a story that Chevy would be downsizing the Impala.  As it turned out, this didn't happen, and the new smaller Chevy was the Chevy II (Nova), intended to compete more directly with Ford's Falcon than the Corvair was doing. The '62 Dart was a version of that year's Plymouth, which, like many cars of this period, seemed inspired by the Corvair, with chrome-edge horizontal planes and minimal (for Detroit) decoration.* The Plymouth (below) was cleaner than the Dodge, which managed to look like the offspring of the compact Valiant / Lancer (the white car above) and an electric shaver.

The Chrysler team may have done the right thing for the wrong reasons (shaving length, width and 350 pounds) with their big car lines, but when the first fuel crisis hit a dozen years later it looked wise in retrospect.  At the time though, sales dropped, and Dodge and Plymouth dealers had to content themselves with watching the light, powerful cars clean up on Nascar ovals and at the drag strip.  

Lancia Flavia Sport Zagato, 1962:

By the early 1960s, Zagato, always an innovator, was moving under designer Ercole Spada toward a more experimental approach.  This resulted in some immortal classics like the Aston DB4 GT Zagato and the Alfa TZ, as well as some appealing oddities like the BMC Mini Zagato and the one-off prototype coupes for Rover and Volvo.  The Lancia Flavia Sport Zagato, produced in hundreds of copies from 1962 to 1967, falls into the latter category and is an acquired taste. Features like the beveled grille, deliberately misaligned top window line, and bulky rear massing with concave trunk and backlight do not relate well either to the expected Lancia themes or to the overall form.  From some angles the car looks a bit like some kind of prototype Saab assembled under poor lighting from carjacked Citroen parts…

*Footnote:  For more on the Corvair and the cars it influenced, see "Getting Over the Corvair" in these posts, a 2-part series from 3-16-16 and 3-18-16.

Photo credits:
Citroen 2CV:  citroenet.org.uk
Buick Super '58:  rdclassics.com
Cadillac '59:  stlouiscarmuseum.com
Citroen Ami 6 front:  kinja.com
Citroen Ami 6 rear:  wikimedia.com
Dodge Dart '62:  Chrysler Corporation, reprinted in oldcarbrochures.com
Plymouth Sport Fury '62:  wikimedia.com
Lancia Flavia front 3/4:  wikimedia.com
Lancia Flavia rear 3/4:  bringatrailer.com