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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Automotive Coelacanths

Human beings have been on this planet for a very small part of its existence.  As a result, there are still millions if not billions of species that have come and gone without man having ever seen it living.  Once in awhile, nature throws a curveball and creatures who have no right to still exist are found in the oddest places.  Like a the lobe-finned coelacanth fish that was found in a fisherman's net in 1938, there are still automotive technologies out there that are being served up way past their due date.

Rotary Engines

Rotary, or Wankel, engines have been around for less than a hundred years but have garnered the attention of almost every major manufacturer.  Used in many types of cars, motorcycles, boats, and even airplanes, the incredibly smooth power unit built a reputation for its compact size, simplicity of design, few moving parts, and high power to size ratio.  Unfortunately, the Wankel never won any popularity contests in the US, a country that prides itself on copious amounts of torque and happens to be the biggest consumer of the car until recent years.  However, Mazda, a company that never made anything that resembles a muscle car, stuck with the Rotary first in its Cosmos then RX series of sports cars.  It also won the 1991 24 Hours of Le Mans. 

Like anything that doesn't have a large gene pool to choose from, the Wankel is a shadow of its former self.  With CAFE laws constantly increasing the efficiency of motors, there's no place for this relic which uses oil as a seal.  Hopefully, Mazda can evolve the design and show everyone the second Loch Ness monster.

Four-Wheel Steering

Back in the 90s, money was flowing, turbos were spooling, and the Japanese R&D machine was churning out cars with four-wheel steering.  Nissan had its 300ZX twin turbo.  Mitsubishi countered with its 3000GT VR4.  And Honda said,"Sure, why not" with its Prelude.  In theory, these systems were glorious inventions.  Low speed maneuverability and high speed handling were both enhanced with the penalty of a little added weight for the system.  However, these steering systems were not consistently used by all manufacturers.  Additionally, some systems only aided in low speed maneuvers while others catered to high speed driving.  These inconsistencies would leave drivers wondering how they ended up rolling down a mountainside instead of sticking to the apex as if it were a tar pit.  Some manufacturers like BMW and Nissan still offer this technology as an option but it will most likely end up on the endangered species list.

Continuously Variable Transmissions

Invented by Leonardo da Vinci in the 1400s, patented by Mercedes Benz in the 1800s, driven by the apathetic in the 2000s.  At inception, the continuously variable transmission seemed to be the perfect transmission for the foreseeable, miserly, fuel starved future.  Its variable gear ratios allow a motor to work at its optimum rpm for max torque and therefore max mpg.  It's just too bad that an engine operating in one part of the rpm range sounds AWFUL!  Oh yeah, it wasn't mainstream until the 90s and everyone is accustomed to the feeling of normal cogs.  Yet, Nissan has kept with this technology and it would seem that CAFE laws and the need for ever increasing fuel efficiency are helping this rare transmission survive.  It may end up being the cockroach of the automotive world.  It's not the sexiest thing but may outlive us all.

Rear Engines

Nothing really needs to be said about this.  Porsche has been the most stubborn car company and kept the motor aft of the rear axle since primordial times.  That being said, the 911 has been around for over 50 years and has won races that whole time.  Yes, it's bizarre and doesn't make sense but the same can be said about the platypus and it's still around.

Live Rear Axles

When thinking of live rear axles, two really sweet rides come to mind.  No, one of them is not a Conestoga wagon.  In no particular order, they are the Roman chariot and the Ford Mustang.  While the chariot helped the all conquering military defeat barbarian hordes all over Europe, the live rear axled Mustang is proving a worthy adversary for the best European muscle including the M3.  Tuned to perfection over the course of a few millennium, the solid axle can duel at the dragstrip as well as the road course barring any alligator-like ripples in the pavement.


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