MMR Blog

My Word: TRUCKS ‘N TEXAS

Posted on May 8, 2014 Comments (1)

by Denise McCluggage

Once again the best selling cars in the US are trucks. That’s the norm, much to the surprise of city folk. For a while there, fuel uncertainty and price fluctuations put the Toyota Prius, a hybrid, in the top sales position. Now according to the report I read the Prius has dropped back to 20th. Sorry, P., you’ll simply have to carry more stuff, look more macho and use more fuel to maintain your standing with real Amurrican buyers.

Other news headlining pick-ups was the word Toyota is moving its national headquarters from California to Texas. A move I wonder about but I reckon it is economically appealing to Toyota. The announcement led “The Detroit Bureau”, an automotive news site, to wonder if maybe such a move would help boost the sales of Toyota pick-ups. “Not unless they return to building the T100,” said my young friend J.P. Gonzales. We were testing the Toyota Tundra that had darkened my driveway on a recent afternoon with its huge crewcabness. Several age-20-something guys I know, like J.P., have a deep fondness for early 4Runners and early Tacoma and T100 pick-ups. The ones that either now seem small or Just Right in size, depending on your druthers.

Toyota T100

The T100 was called full-sized thanks to its 8′ bed but the compact size V6 engine and a smallish cab appealed to only sensible folk in search of economy. Not the demographic naturally drawn to pick-ups in droves. The apparent failure of the T100 left Toyota puzzled and searching for the gen-u-wine secret of building a real pick-up. They are still doing that because it still eludes them.

Early on, like in the ‘70s, the Japanese car makers sent the US under-sized pick-ups with such names as the Chevy LUV. Later when Chevy offered its S10, Isuzu, maker of the LUV, just revealed its true identity and called their product the P’Up. Remember that?

The market was bubbling with these handy critters. I described them as “useful as elves.” Mazda had a lovely one and its Ford relative, the Ranger, kept on for a long time. Even appeared in an electric version a few years ago with lots of promise but mostly question marks from Ford dealers. Great fleet trucks for plumbing businesses, heating and cooling guys, electricians, I thought. They could roll out on the job all day then come back to snuggle up to pig-mama for the night and re-juice their batteries. Those batteries were spread out under the slightly shallower bed which put weight low enough to add neat handling tricks to this trucklet. I was right excited about that Ranger. But the idea took selling and apparently no one in a Ford shirt knew how so the whole line just faded away.

Now the demand for the elfin trucks is strong again but apparently not enough to make business sense to possible manufacturers. Instead potential buyers are having compact sedans converted to compact pick-ups. Surely someone will come up with the right size at the right time and price and grace the market with what it wants. But come to think of it, don’t count on it. Chevy has a smaller truck planned for 2015 but wanna bet it will be too big?

But let’s consider Texas for a moment. Or as I think of it—“Texas”. That means it is more myth than reality and more weird than sense-making. Having lived for so many years in New Mexico, which literally sits on the lap of “Texas”, I lean more to the less-than-favorable views many states have for their neighbors. That attitude began early enough when I encountered vacationers from “Texas”, or folks from there who had a New Mexico house as well (for escaping an essentially unlivable climate and partaking of pleasures nonexistent in “Texas” such as skiing.)

Too often such people begin to think that everyone in their second-home state worked for them and didn’t do a good job of it. They showed this in haughty demeanor and, worse, in voices louder than the norm and in an accent that really never traveled well. In those early days in New Mexico my mother might be visiting me from California. We might be shopping and a crowd, yes, crowd of two of these “Texas” visitors, pink cashmere cardigans over their shoulders, might sweep in. Mom would signal with a roll of her eyes and we’d amble out the door. My mother grew up on a farm in Kansas and felt superior to no one, and she preferred not to be near anyone who did.

All this made me particularly appreciative of a bumper sticker I saw early in my New Mexico residence: “If God had meant Texans to ski He would have made bullshit white.” I can make the usual disclaimer of having good friends who live in “Texas.” They might even think of themselves as Texans but I never could.

What has this to do with Toyota moving to Texas? (Dallas, generally. Plano, specifically.) Jim Lentz, the Toyota exec in charge, says exec things like the move is to do things like consolidate their leadership in one geographical spot, have direct flights to Japan near, etc. Business climate (read anti-union policies), tax incentives, and all those lollypops that “Gov. Rick Perry” (mythical like “Texas”) hands out to businesses have nothing to do with it. Lentz still hopes to sell Toyotas in California so he’s not going to badmouth the place. He didn’t say California has an anti-business attitude. But he wasn’t polite enough to give Torrance, where Toyota headquarters have been since 1957, any hint that the company was pulling out.

Though Toyota’s standing in vehicles sales has not been permanently damaged by all its recent recall experiences and public relation stumbles it has nonetheless taken a record blow in fines for the ham-fisted way it handled the recalls. And believe it—the company is enjoying a hearty welcome from “Texas” that benefits the company’s finances. Businesses are called businesses because their main business is benefitting financially. Toyota is a successful business.

But enough about all that courting and wooing and pretending. What about the people relocating to Texas. Or maybe simply losing their jobs. Actually when Nissan pulled the leave-California stunt several years ago relocating to Nashville far fewer of the people they wanted to take with them wanted to go. Wonder if Toyota will experience that?

And how will being a “Texas” company affect their quest to discover pick-upness and build a contender for the Ford-Chevy-Ram bouts? How much did joining the world of NASCAR racing help?

Totota Tundra 2014

J.P. sort of liked the Tundra and so did I. Sort of. The interior is better than it was but still not particularly appealing to me. We kept saying “It’s big.” Yeah. This is the CrewMAX which is like a full-size SUV with a shortened pick-up bed behind. It’s a challenge to get in and out but I rather like that in a pick-up. Clamber up—well-placed handles for pulling. Sliding out with a moment of free fall is easier. The optional running board is advisable.

The latest Tundra has a choice of two engines, one a 5.7 liter V8 that will get you and its ton-ship (5872 pounds) to 60 in 6.8 seconds. Is that important in a pick-up? A sense of adequate power and confidence. I like that. But I don’t need to know numbers. Anyway our Tundra had the 4.6 liter V8 which I found perfectly adequate and offered better mileage. (Not worth mentioning. If mileage matters to you get a truck with a diesel.)

Some big pick-ups manage to drive small. This Tundra did not let you forget “it’s big.” Unnecessarily I thought. As for the driving, I liked the steering. Probably because it is hydraulic which J.P. and I both (generally) prefer over electric. Good brakes, too. And it had a rather peaceful quiet while underway. I was told the big engine is not like that.

J.P. kept wishing it was a T100. I kept wishing it was, what? A Toyota Tundra has for me, even with this new one, left a question hanging in the air. What I said as I slipped to the ground. “Well, Toyota’s made a pretty good imitation of a pick-up truck.”

I don’t see how “Texas” is going to change that, but I’ll keep watching.


My Word:
Driving a dilemma, …or driven by one

Posted on April 24, 2014 Comments (0)

By Denise McCluggage

A new race car is a compendium of promise and problems. Only the real world can reveal which predominates and chart the hoped-for realization of the designers’ vision. That route is either complicated or simplified by the other element now introduced to the mix: the driver.

The driver may, while simply standing there in his billboard suit, have the sort of talent and driving style that meshes neatly with the chance characteristics of this race car. Out of the box the car may fit the driver remarkably well or the driver is the sort that can overwhelm mismatches. Anyway the 2014 Renault RB10 and R­­­­ed Bull’s rookie Australian are off to a dancing start that delights almost everyone wearing the same logo—the designer, the engineers, the tire-changers, the crew chief. All…

Unless. Unless standing nearby in matching gear is a four-time world champion, the obvious Number One of the team. But his face is clouded by a puzzled frown, his jaw works slightly. The dance he and his all-but identical car are experiencing involves misheard melodies, trod on toes and a hitch in the rhythm.

You might recognize an imagined sketch of the Red Bull Formula 1 team with Sebastian Vettel and his new teammate Daniel Ricciardo. You might even think you know what has happened in 2014, like those posting their certitude on the internet. “I knew Vettel wasn’t that good. It was the car all those years.” “Ricciardo is making Vettel look silly!” “It wasn’t Vettel, it was the car.” ”It was the car.” Echoing off in the distance—“itwasthecar.” Oh, how Vettel’s non-fans are gloating!

My observations: at the least these people are premature in their judgment. Oh, they could be right, but most likely for the wrong reasons. And only a scant few of them have any real understanding of racing.

Ah, I am claiming more understanding than these ardent folk? Yes, I am. Long ago before there was a known Internet and Formula 1 racing was accessible to the few journalists frequenting the scene I was there. Close up. Watching, listening and talking to the principals over dinner.

First, I’ll tell you one thing I learned from that experience and from my own time racing sports cars. It is never “the car” or “the driver.” It is both. And before you brush it off with a brusque “of course” let me add: it is the car and the driver in a more interwoven manner than many are likely to imagine.

As illustration let me relate a story about when Dan Gurney came to Europe to drive a factory Ferrari. The photograph alongside these words shows Dan at a practice session at the Nurburgring. Phil Hill is interpreting to him what Team Manager Tavoni—blocked from view by Phil—is saying. Dan has just taken a few laps of the ‘Ring—it was Dan so they were impressively fast laps. But Tavoni is frustrated. He has asked Dan what would he like done to the car, what would he like changed. Dan has said, in effect: “Nothing. I like it. It’s fine.”

Phil Hill and Dan Gurney at Nurburgring

Dan had come bursting out of California, loaded with as much native talent as anyone was ever likely to see. He could climb into anything with wheels and drive it as well or better than anyone else could dream of. He was beating internationally experienced drivers. He was making headlines and it was clear he was going places. I later wrote in my paper Competition Press that obviously he would be America’s next champion. (I got it right; it was history that goofed.)

But here he was brand new to Europe and was in some odd way disappointing Ferrari’s team manager because he liked the factory’s car. What was going on?

Phil later told me that Dan was in effect too good for his own good. ”He can adjust to work with a car’s quirks and get a great performance. “That’s fine for the level at which he has been racing, but not on the international scene.” At the top, drivers were expected to work with the mechanics and engineers to adjust the car to compliment the driver’s style, augment his strong points and thus reach a performance level of car and driver in synergy.

Phil had come quickly to that understanding but had made a different mistake, “I’d tell the mechanics what they needed to do to fix a problem.” He laughed. That had broken some code of each to his own specialty. “I learned to tell them exactly what the car would do when I did this or that and what I wished it would do instead. It was like playing charades, but they came to see in their own way what it was I wanted. They did it and we were all happy.” Especially after Phil learned to do that not only in Italian but in Modenese, the local patois. They loved that.

Dan soon realized that as good as he was he was even better getting his race cars tweaked to suit his better self rather than dealing with what the car presented to him. He became so good at that he built his own race cars with admirable successes. (He even learned to adapt champagne to his unique preferences. It was Dan that began the now universal habit for race winners to spray the world with bubbly instead of ingesting it.)

Sebastian Vettel

But back to Red Bull and this year’s trials of a champion. Sebastian Vettel perhaps is less inclined, or perhaps even less able than his competitors, to adapt to a car’s flukes and foibles. (Clearly Ricciardo has had a smoother time of it this year than Vettel.) Historically Vettel has been extremely sensitive to characteristics of his race cars. Some will recall the struggle he had when blown diffusers were banned for 2012. (Thus, in brief, decreasing the downforce.) Mark Webber, the then Aussie teammate, had an easier time adapting than did Seb. But then something else came along and once again the downforce was more to Vettel’s liking and he was driving happy again.

The new V6 turbo cars are as short on downforce as they are on ear-punishing sound. I was wondering which drivers would have trouble with that. I was surprised that Vettel was one of them because I had watched in awe a truly supernatural performance of his in the rain last season. But maybe a general absence of grip, a friction-free swim in effect, is a different coping problem than rather sudden changes in slip angle front and rear can be.

RB10

Whatever it is about the RB10 that makes Vettel uncomfortable and makes him drive in such a way that tire wear becomes a problem etc. it is something he is aware of, unhappy about and is trying hard to figure out. As is the entire team. (Except maybe a clam-happy Daniel Ricciardo.)

Does being so dependent on getting your car to match your driving style make you less a driver than one who can adapt easily to whatever he is driving? If that adaptability makes you collect more points then the answer is yes. But it’s the season-end point-count that matters. Let’s wait for that.

No doubt the process of reworking a car to mesh with the driver takes time, precise communication between the driver and engineers and real-world testing. At this point though testing is racing so time is tight. But the result in the long run is more dependable and more successful. Four championships mean something.

It will be exciting if the Red Bull team can tailor the RB10 to Vettel. It may be character-building for Vettel if they can’t. And he has to change his style or flounder. Can he do that? Either way it behooves us all to watch the process and not jump to judgments too soon.

In the meantime are you not enjoying Hamilton and Rosberg, those “star” teammates, as well? Formula 1 this year, in spite of its goofy green notions, is mighty entertaining though I will be glad when it gets back to a time zone more compatible to my Mountain Time. (I refuse to watch racing in anything but real time.)

Am I, after all, as intransigent as Vettel?


My Word: Fifty Years Ago Paddy Won

Posted on April 9, 2014 Comments (1)

But So Did We, With a Falcon!

By Denise McCluggage

The invitation read that fifty years ago Paddy Hopkirk won the Monte Carlo Rally in a Mini Cooper S. To honor that accomplishment there would be a gathering at one of my favorite places, the Candy Store in Burlingame, California. Alas, I sent regrets. Broke a bone the previous month and I’m still hobbling.

It was Paddy’s 80th birthday, too.

I'd been on the BMC (British Motor Corp) rally team along with the incredible Paddy in the early 1960s. Americans on British works teams were rare. Actually nonexistent except for me when it comes to that. Besides BMC I drove for Ford of England and for Rover. And for a couple of American factory teams too—General Motors and Ford. Didn't know they did that sort of thing, did you?

Which brings to mind the year that Paddy took the Mini to victory in the Monte—1964—I also had a bit of a success in that winter dash about the snow-bandaged Alps. In a Ford Falcon no less with Anne Hall, a.k.a. the Flying Yorkshirewoman. Outcome: we won the Lady's Cup and our class. Hey, Ford, remember that? Fifty years ago. The Monte Carlo!

Denise McCluggage and Anne Hall in the Ford Falcon -- Monte Carlo Rally

Well-l-l, never mind the roses. I got a lot of flowers when I broke that bone.

At that time rallies did exist in America but differed greatly from those in Europe. The European rallies were thinly-veiled road races lasting for days. American fans of today’s televised World Rally Championship would not recognize the sedate, intellectually-themed constructs that were American rallies then. Constrained by speed limits and no cultural history, American rallies were mathematical exercises. Time-distance events that depended less on high-performance driving skills and more on the ability for quick calculations, attention to detail, ability to follow instructions and not mess up.

In those contests check points were often unexpected, some even hidden, so adhering to the called-for speed—something like 22.7 mph changing for a few miles to 29.3 then to 30.6 and back—meant being at the correct speed always or risking penalties. Being early could cost even more than being late. Precision mattered and the navigator called the shots.

In Europe, on the other hand, we tried to be as early as possible to the next check point so we could have time for servicing the rally car from the support vehicles, usually station wagons that were driven shorter routes and/or driven as hard as competitors to stake out a spot near the approach to the check point to tend to our needs. Tire changes maybe, headlight aiming, etc. Arriving early was also the only way we could grab a few minutes of sleep or a quick bite of something.

In America the time-distance experts used what technology was available to aid their calculations. The latest thing was a dandy gadget called a Curta calculator. The Curta looked for all the world like a pepper mill right down to its little crank. It was a new twist on the slide rule and used by the brainiacs until computers—not long from being the size of the boy’s gym in junior high—shrank to passenger-seat use. The navigator adept with a Curta was in demand.

Still we scornful philistines who just wanted to drive as unrestrained as possible had figured out the secret to having fun in an American rally. Simply get gloriously lost early on and spend the rest of the event really hanging it out to more or less catch up.

Actually time-distance events are an art form of their own. And fun in their heady way. Some rally proponents, like Satch Carlson, are close to addiction in their devotion to them. I simply prefer the present WRC or the old European model. Didn’t a Harvard president take lots of heat for implying girls weren’t good at math? Sadly, he was right-on in my case. And I missed out on music, too. (I’ll blow a door off if you like.)

The Monte Carlo designated a number of European cities as starting points with all roads aimed for the Alpes-Maritimes, the favored neighborhood for most continental rallies. The teams I drove for seemed to favor Paris for a bon start. All entrants were doing the same transition routes and special stages as we got closer to Monte Carlo.

Studded tires were new about this time and were supposed to be the hot ticket. Studs were obviously best for traction on packed snow. Any further art had not developed to a fine state. The studs in the tires mounted on the Falcon were too long and on the hard ice and the frequent bare pavement they had nothing to dig into. It was like wearing golf shoes on a tile floor. Even worse because the studs were long enough to bend over. The car was all over the place with little rubber ever touching the road surface.

Anne was up to the task as weird as it was and good thing too. We had no time to change tires, even if we could find our support as we plunged down to the Mediterranean. Anne kept on top of the slithers and slides of the Falcon as we hair-pinned the last stretch into Monte Carlo.

The next day with new tires and the studs gone she might have had an easier time going for speed on the course of the Monte Carlo Grand Prix—solo in the car—but Anne’s forte was in the flying elbows of the rallyist of the day. She was a tiger on every turn. Looked fantastic.

So as Paddy and the Mini won the whole thing we took our little part of it, too.

Congratulations to all deserving. And, Happy Birthday Mr. Hopkirk.


My Word: “Brrr” and “Whew” Hard on Batteries

Posted on March 27, 2014 Comments (0)

By Denise McCluggage

Anyone who lived 13 winters on a northern Vermont hillside as I did looking across to ski trails cut on Lincoln Mountain (known to the world as Sugarbush) has experienced what deep cold can do to a car battery. Just the usual car battery that urges your engine into a welcome roar sending a steamy shawl of exhaust to wrap your salty Land Rover. Or. Or grinds in a string of decelerating AR-Ar-rrrrs into silence. Every morning is an unwrapped present. What will it be today?

Most Vermont cars had peeking out from under the hood the prongs of an electric cord ready for connection to something they are apt to call a charging station these days. Then I called it my house. I had a heavy-duty red extension cord which at 50 feet was twice as long as needed but I liked seeing the extra length coiled beneath the outdoor outlet. Safe from snow because my deck with the curving wrought iron stair was over it.

Of course the Land Rover was plugged in every night, but I didn’t have an engine heater – just a heated dipstick to keep the oil more like soup and less like Jello and easier for the starter to churn it up. In the darkness of midwinter the dipstick heat might not be enough as the temperature stayed sub-zero for weeks. Fifty below overnight was not uncommon at the mountain. And if I was trying to stretch the battery’s life expectancy – costly damn things – I might get the AR-Ar-rrrrs and not the roar.

So I give up. To Kingbury’s Shell station for a new one for sure when the day warms up to three or four degrees. Or I opt for a jump start. Some folks just removed their battery and took it inside every night. Some had more serious plug-in devices, some had – Lord blessed ‘em – heated garages. But all of us well knew that cold was cruel to the electrics.

Now we have a new study from the AAA telling us just how cruel to these things called plug-in electrics. And it’s worse than they expected.

Using the three most popular pure electrics in the country – a Nissan Leaf (2013), a Mitsubishi i-MIEV (2012) and a Ford Focus (2014) -- the AAA Automotive Research Center in Southern California ran simulations to determine what extreme temperatures did to battery performance. The test started with fully charged batteries to no charge in “city traffic” in a climate-controlled room. The temperature of 75 degrees F was dropped to 20 degrees F for cold (that’s cold?) and raised to 95 degrees F for hot (not in summertime Phoenix.)

The results: more degradation than expected, according to Greg Bannon, the director of automotive engineering for AAA. The cold temperature reduced the range by 57%; the heat by 33%. (In miles that would mean cold cutting an expected 105 mile range to 43 miles and heat from 105 to 69 miles. Did you make it home?)

Not part of the study was how rather necessary accessories – heating and cooling, for instance – might add to the reduction in range. But keeping the car’s occupants comfortable costs miles too. As do headlights and electronic gadgetry like a radio.

Nor did the test include any other temperatures. I wonder what one should expect from, say, another 10 degrees in either direction. Is the slide a steady one or does performance step off a cliff at true extremes?

In any case it is probably safe to warn any Tesla owners not to take their lovely car skiing in Vermont or summer sight-seeing in Death Valley. I know they didn’t test Tesla, but lithium-ion batteries are affected by temperature variations too.

Do I sound pleased by this bad news? I don’t mean to. Electric is an important part of the power mix in our rolling stock. But I think to make electric cars work you have to live where the following applies: places you drive are rather close together; you have a number of choices in cars you can use, and you can match the choice to the task at hand with ease and delight. And you don’t mind having a car dictate when and where you, say, have lunch while it charges enough to get you on your way again. Electric cars are as needful – and dictatorial – as children.

I think an electric car at this stage of development needs a dinghy. GM learned that with its first brush with electric cars when precious few people actually wanted to buy an EV1 but everyone wanted GM to make them anyway and said nasty things about the General when he collected them up and crushed them. That 1980s experience is why GM in its later experience with electric vehicles designed the Volt and the Caddy ELR using a right clever system that will get most people to There and Back on electric only. And in case it doesn’t – or minds get changed as to where There is – GM throws in a dinghy. It’s an onboard, gasoline-fueled generator. It makes There any place a road goes and gas can be found.

As cold as it got in Vermont I could fill the Land Rover with gasoline. The problem was keeping the battery capable enough to spark the engine and get me down the hill to Kingsbury’s where the gas pumps were.

Did I mention deep cold is really unkind to batteries?


My Word: Keys, Switches and Megabucks

Posted on March 27, 2014 Comments (0)

By Denise McCluggage

Must be a guy thing. I've seen more than a few toss this handful of jangle on a cafe table with a cool pleasure and a metallic clatter that delights something deep inside them.

What is it about keys? I suspect the bearers carry every key they ever use from one for the tool chest in the pick-up bed to another for an obscure drawer in the cellar. Certainly a key to the riding mower and every car they own and some they don’t any more. The key that opens access to the spare tire on the wife's SUV -- either the wife or the SUV before the current one. And probably at least one key that doesn't open anything.

All these, and maybe a piece of bone wrapped in copper wire that serves as a key fob, dangles from the ignition as they drive. It's a wonder any ignition switch survives the first month of its use.

And now General Motors is in deep trouble over failed switches in some of their cars. As someone most certainly should be. The problem was known about for far too long -- a bulletin about them might date back to 2001. Certainly 2004. And the risks are serious. An engine suddenly dead in fast-moving traffic, power steering gone, power brakes -- not circumstances intuitively dealt with. And airbags, meant to be protective in emergencies however created, rendered useless by the absence of power.

The figures usually mentioned are 31 crashes, 12 deaths in Chevrolets, Pontiacs and Saturns. Other estimates run far higher.

The thought crossed my mind. Did someone say; "That isn't our fault. It's those fools with the heavy keys." But abused parts aren't supposed to fail any more than properly used parts. How could GM have let the problem go on so long? Sometimes that outfit can be so obtuse.

Law suits are lining up, possibly criminal as well as civil. Stock holders have filed theirs claiming GM's inaction damaged the value of their holdings.

Now because of GM declaring bankruptcy midstream in the matter car owners who suffered problems before 2009 cannot sue the "new" GM. Their problem is with the old GM which means problems lining up with a bunch of others before the bankruptcy court. Possibly GM could all but choose to pay in chalk and cheese, if at all. It becomes a public relations dance. They must look benign and properly contrite doing more than they "have" to.

But then again they could be up the creek far farther than anyone suspected. After all, if the government decides GM knew about the troubled switches and the company's possible liability before the bankruptcy then fraud might be involved. That's not a good word in a law court especially if someone is pointing at you.

And then something more ominous appears in a Georgia case in which a pediatric nurse died in 2010 in her five-year-old Cobalt on her rainy 29th birthday. She had the day before retrieved the car from her dealer where she had taken it because the engine had inexplicably died on her in traffic a couple of times.

GM settled this case. This was not one of the 12 deaths mentioned above but an additional one.

A particularly savvy lawyer for the young women's family had discovered that the ignition was indeed not on. The power had shut down. But more than that he investigated a number of Cobalts and discovered something that could really bode Ill for the General. He found that some Cobalts had beefed up parts in their switching mechanism. A definitely different switch. Yet the parts number was the same. Odd.

And GM had not informed any of the complaining car owners -- nor the government -- about this apparent effort to fix the switch. Something required by law. Was it a shhh, we'll make it go away move just a few guys at the plant would know about? Is that a yellow-feathers-on-the-chops way of dealing with a problem or what?

Is that a smart lawyer who did deep research to uncover the switch switcheroo. That's one thing for sure in all this tangled web.

Everyone watching what they call "Switchgate" notes familiar faces on the government side that just extracted 1.2 billion bucks from Toyota for that company's awkward handling of the so-called unintended acceleration claims against Toyota brands. A record fine. Observers see something in that range for GM -- or even more. In Toyota’s case no electronic flaw was ever determined to have caused the "runaway" cars. Maybe a misplaced floor mat under the accelerator.

GM might be more vulnerable. Toyota is known for keeping lots of cash on hand. GM just emerged from bankruptcy. And this might be another record fine. Could this send them back into bankruptcy? Could it change the whoops culture at GM? The new CEO Mary Barra is a change in the gender of top management. She will have to mean a major change in the way management handles problems too. It's not the switches, it's the way their failure was dealt with -- or not -- that really matters. Try two really different approaches for a start: transparency and speed. Trying to save money by not facing up to a problem can cost much more in dollars and in hard-to-restore reputation.

But about those keys. Can't all be guys driving those cars. Particularly those cars. So what's the appeal of all those keys in one weighty mass? Must be a metaphor in there somewhere.