MMR Blog

In Praise of Older Cars!

Posted on July 8, 2010 Comments (0)

Two weeks ago, on a very cool New England evening, I had dinner with a new friend who has a collection of sixties era sports cars. Which, I asked him, did you drive tonight?

Amelia Island Christian Delbert Photography

He told me had his older Ferrari coupe parked in the lot. Nice, I said, don’t you have a modern car? No, he said, I have a modern truck for winter transportation.

I know him to be a collector of Fifties and Sixties sport cars but I was curious. Why not a modern sports car? Because, he replied, they are very complex and when you begin to have problems, they are very expensive to repair. Besides, he said, I don’t think they have an upside. In twenty years time the cars I now have will still be repairable. And I can do much of the work myself with the tools I currently own.

Manufacturers are obligated by law to supply parts for ten years from the date of manufacture. In order to protect their dealer service network, some manufacturers are known to make computer diagnostic programs difficult for the aftermarket to access. But after ten years, the dealer who can no longer get factory components, even with access to the computer diagnostics, is also shut out of the business. Where does that leave the car owner? Manufacturers will not let their customers down simply because the law says they can. That’s not good business and it is reasonable to expect that they will supply parts for a longer period. That is good business as anyone, with an old Ferrari can testify. But the parts won’t be inexpensive and at some point they could run out. When that happens, the traditional secondary source, the aftermarket, may not be able to supply.

My friend’s point here is not that computer equipped cars are bad, quite the contrary. We could never enjoy the power or convenience and safety features we have in our cars today without them. But for the most part, electronic components are not repairable. The factories fight to make their parts proprietary; that allows them to control price and availability. Aftermarket manufactures are loathe to reverse engineer and hi-end car computer for a comparatively low volume application. So, if your are considering the purchase of an eleven year old supercar you must ask yourself a few basic questions about who will repair it and where they will find electronic parts.

What are your thoughts?

Peter


An Electric Car in Your Futureā€¦ Now

Posted on June 7, 2010 Comments (0)

2010 Tesla Roadster Sport at Larz Anderson Auto Museum (photo credit: Greg PC)

It’s no longer a question of whether or not you’ll have an electric car.  The question now is:  When? and what color will it be?

A small company in California has made the strongest effort yet to end your recurring nightmare about battery operated cars:  It’s a dark rainy night and you’re muttering bleakly to yourself as you guide the slowing little electric “econobox” to the side of a dimly lit highway.  The battery is dying, the lights are dimming, and the wipers are slowing. And your heart is sinking because you know there are no electrical outlets or clean bathrooms for miles.  Not a pretty picture.

Tesla Motors, maker of a new breed of high performance electric cars, has addressed your three major concerns. One, Tesla calms I'll-never-make-it-home fears with a mileage range of between 240 and 300 miles per charge.  Far beyond the mileage required for the average daily commute. Two, Teslas perform exceptionally well against what are considered current standards of comfort, safety and speed. And three, rather than looking like mobile meat lockers, both sport and sedan Teslas are unquestionably among the most handsome of cars.

So how does this happen?  Well, for one thing the evolution of the current modern car has laid the groundwork for Tesla’s acceptance.  Cars have changed dramatically from the finned behemoths of the ‘50’s. But our continued demand for greater efficiency in transportation, combined with the volatile politics of fossil fuels and the myriad finicky computers that control every aspect of the modern car, have created a huge opportunity for a simple and innovative solution. Mass transit systems, high speed rail, even bicycles, hold little appeal in this huge country as they are often deemed transport for students, the poor, or the environmentally awestruck.

Enter the Tesla. Forgetting for a moment that coal fired generators supply the electrical charge, this car is attractive, comfortable and environmentally friendly. Surprisingly, the Tesla Roadster Sport model, the only flavor available at this point, can trace its roots to the innovative Lotus Car Company of the Sixties and their popular Elan model. When the Lotus Elan first hit the roads and tracks of America, it had as disruptive an impact on the dinosaurs of its day as the Tesla is having on accepted technology today. At that time, the Elan’s nimble handling, great brakes and Ford Cosworth 1.55 liter twin cam engine pitted it against the likes of Corvettes, M-B 300Sl's, Porsche Carreras, anf Ferrari 250Gt's in SCCA B-Production racing.  It proved to be a very competitive car, setting a standard for small car speed and agility for years to come.

Today, the Tesla’s rolling chassis is built in the original Lotus Cars plant in Hethel, England.  The body is 4” longer than today’s Lotus Elise model, successor in spirit to the Elan. The Tesla is styled after the Elise but its body is made of carbon fiber rather than fiberglass. This adds great structural rigidity and lightens the car by 200 lbs. The “glider”, as it is called at that point, is then shipped to California where battery power components are added and the car is finished to the customer’s specifications.  Customers spec their car on the Tesla website.

That’s right, no local dealerships. This transaction is all done online and you are always a single keystroke from canceling the whole deal. But if you don’t, your local UPS delivery truck will bring your brand new Tesla to your doorstep in somewhere between 90 and 120 days. And your neighbors will all deem you to be either an eco-weenie or a visionary.  Comfort yourself, at some point, whether in reality or in their dreams, you will silently glide by them all at the local Mobil, a spot you wont have visited in months.

While Tesla is currently assembled in the United States from parts made elsewhere, a government subsidy to encourage further electric vehicle development will change all that.  But Tesla Motors’ fate will not be determined by politics and environmental demands alone. This company will also need to succeed on the merits of its products, and its first offerings bode very well indeed for that to happen.