Minimalism in Cars

So I just got my 1995 Cavalier a couple weeks ago and am tuning it up, and preparing to teach myself to drive stick.  I’m going to take it out (yes, I’m driving) to a college parking lot this weekend and drive it around for a while, then take it up to the shop to have some more work done and an inspection.  I got the oil and filter changed so far, and the spark plugs and wires; I still need to change the radiator fluid, hoses, oxygen sensors, and brake fluid.

This whole endeavor has made me think of some things.  The car has a stick shift, not an automatic; an automatic transmission takes more maintenance, wears more, misbehaves if you actually care about the sort of thing it controls, and in general adds a ton of complexity to the car’s power train.  My car weighs less and gives me much greater control and better fuel efficiency due to a lack of loss in the transmission, plus it has much simpler maintenance needs.  This actually seems like a step up in every way unless you happen to be extremely lazy.

And that brings me to my current line of thinking:  minimalism.  How much stuff can I pull out of that car that I don’t care about, and expect an overall gain?  How much will reduce convenience slightly, but also improve performance or reduce maintenance needs?  I can think of a few things on there, and I think in the next year I might actually go after them.

First off, I don’t drive ABS.  The Cavalier has anti-lock brakes, and that’s okay; I am still more comfortable with standard power brakes.  I actually wouldn’t mind if the entire travel of the brake pedal was braking force, but it seems like brakes don’t actually do anything until you get them down about a third to a half of the way (even the relay to turn on your brake lights doesn’t kick in).  With that kind of leverage, I could possibly use standard brakes instead of power brakes, but maybe not.  That sort of conversion won’t happen, but I can still pull out the ABS stuff.

More interesting to me right now, however, is the steering system:  I want manual steering.  That car weighs 2600 pounds, and 5 ton UPS package trucks don’t have power steering.  Manual steering isn’t hard at high speeds, or even relatively slow speeds; parking speeds pose a problem.  For a manual conversion, I could eject every power steering support system– hydraulics, hoses, reservoirs, everything– and just change the rack and pinion.

A variable rack requiring more steering wheel travel would gear great for power steering, along with a bigger steering wheel, all for more leverage.  The rack would require more travel as you headed out from center, because you don’t do sharp turns at high speeds; on the highway you can put the extra effort into the center, but when parking you’re going to give a good shove and then turn it easy to get that full tilt on the wheels.  When you’re moving it’s easier to turn anyway, so that “extra effort” is a lot less effort than you use when parking.

Dumping both of these systems would remove a large amount of complexity from the car.  No ABS sensors, nothing messing with the braking hydraulics, no power steering hydraulics, no fluid, no pump, no reservoir.  The steering system would have an unassisted rack and pinion; brakes would have user-operated hydraulics assisted by power braking.  Much less stuff to break and fix on the car that way, and still decent for handling, better road feel, and just perfect for me.

Another consideration to make falls into the emissions system.  I have a catalytic converter and two oxygen sensors.  The oxygen sensors help the car adjust its fuel-air mix to stay at the stoic point, while the cat breaks down nitrogen oxides (NOx) and unburned hydrocarbons.  I also have Exhaust Gas Recirculation (EGR).  EGR was created for emissions when engines used carburetors, and simply sprayed gas through open air to evaporate it; this resulted in gas running rich, with some un-evaporated gas entering the cylinder and not getting burned.  With electronic fuel injection, the fuel gets atomized and direct-injected, and the mixture gets right to the stoic point.  This defeats the purpose of EGR.

Modern cars don’t have a distributor cap and rotor, they have electronic ignition modules that operate based on solid state timing.  This means no timing belts tied to distributors, and no distributors to wear down.  Yes, that’s two pieces of new technology now that help keep the amount of crud in the car minimal:  EFI and electronic ignition.  I never said new technology was bad, did I?  In fact I like this trend, we should start actively taking crap out of cars and minimizing the amount of shit under the hood.  Reduce complexity, weight, and maintenance nightmares!

A few other things we could do is have a heavy flywheel starter on the engine, with a high-mechanical-advantage pedal in the car to push down on to crank it.  No electric starter motor, just push the pedal down and release.  Turn the key, one, two, three, and the engine picks up; let off the starter pedal and it declutches from the engine.  At worst you now have bearings, a lever, gears, and a flywheel; you don’t have electronics and a motor to worry about overheating, shorting, or whatever.  Dead battery just annoys you resetting your radio.  Electric starter becomes an option.

So that’s my rant.  Engine, AC, fuel system, cooling system, exhaust.  Remove as much crap as you can and produce a minimal car.  Full 4 disc brakes, 4 wheel independent suspension, dual 3-stage catalytic converters and exhausts, oxygen sensors, okay.  30 systems just to control emissions?  No, re-engineer the emissions control to take as little shit as possible.  Power steering as a mandatory feature?  No, come on, AC is still an option on half this crap.  Automatic transmission?  Option.  Electric starter?  Option.  Anti-lock brakes, traction control, pre-crash systems, whatever?  Option.  I don’t need all that stuff.


~ by John Moser on March 23, 2009.

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