A few random thoughts on Putney Piddleboms and other classic British cars

I have never understood how it was that, back in the 1930s, Americans built proper cars with decent motors and cool names like Packard Super 8, or Lincoln LeBaron v12 convertible. Whereas the British insisted on constructing vehicles out of Meccano and four-cylinder biscuit tins, with brand names like the Chumley Chinless Mk I or the Dribley Allegretto.

All of which then pootled about the countryside at half the speed of an asthmatic ant, trailing loose bolts and breaking down, which meant the hapless driver was usually stranded with only the Times crossword to while away the hours.

A couple of pre-war Brit cars in action. Well, things with wheels on them anyway...

Photo I took of a couple of immaculately restored pre-war Brit cars.

Honestly, it was enough to make the average Self Respecting Englishman want to write a Letter to the Editor. I did hear it was something to do with tax laws that meant no vehicle could have an engine larger than 142 cc and a chassis width of 32.2 cm. But it might have been something else.

Apart from the SS Mk IV Jaguar my father used to own (which also used to break down a lot) the Brits didn’t produce anything decent car-wise, as far as I am concerned, until the 1961 PA Vauxhall Velox. This looked like the Adam West-era Batmobile, apparently because the styling was based on the same 1955 Lincoln Futura concept car. It also had an uber-cool ‘magic ribbon’ strip speedometer that changed colour from green to orange to red as you accelerated.

As a teenager, around 1980, I occasionally drove the 1964 PB model with 2.6 litre motor, which had the same speedo and was a good car as long as you could do your own mechanical repairs and didn’t want to stop in a hurry or turn a corner. You can see a Vauxhall above, in cream, but it’s not quite the same.

And yes, I know about Sir Alec Issigonis’ 1959 Mini, which certainly helped define the ‘look’ of swinging 1960s Britain. But it also introduced the worst idea anybody ever had for a car. Why? Ask me.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Why I think Mars One is a really stupid notion

I posted last week about the silliness of trying to colonise Mars on a one-way basis, unless you’re sending Justin Bieber.

Sure, most colonists here on Earth made the trip one-way. But Earth’s way more hospitable. Even Roanoke. You can breathe the air, for a start.

Artists' impression of the Orion EFT-1 mission. NASA, public domain.

Artists’ impression of the Orion EFT-1 mission. NASA, public domain. Eventually, Orion may be part of the system that takes us to Mars – and brings us back.

Mars – that’s another planet. It has red skies and blue sunsets, temperatures that make Antarctica look summery, and surface air pressure about 0.6% that of Earth, though that’s academic because it’s mostly carbon dioxide anyway. Mars also has no magnetic field, which means the surface is irradiated from space. Then there’s the dirt, which the Phoenix lander found was saturated with naturally-formed perchlorates. Know what perchlorate is? Rocket fuel. It’s nasty stuff, it’s toxic, and the chances of keeping the habitat clear of it after a few EVA’s seems low.

The biggest problem is that nobody’s been there yet. There’s bound to be a curve ball we don’t know about. It’ll be discovered the hard way.

That was the Apollo experience forty years ago. It turned out lunar dust is abrasive and insidious. As early as Apollo 12, astronauts found dust in the seals when they re-donned their suits for a second EVA – moon-walker Pete Conrad reported that ‘there’s no doubt in my mind that with a couple more EVA’s something could have ground to a halt’. All the later Apollo astronauts hit it; leak rates soared in the suits as dust worked its way into the sealing rings.

I think it’s safe to say something of equal practical difficulty will be discovered about Mars, one way or another. Not good if you’ve just arrived – permanently. Besides, what happens if someone gets needs a hospital now? Or is injured? Well, that’s a no-brainer. You can imagine the colony consisting of a cluster of grounded Dragons with a row of graves next to it.

Cut-away of the modified Apollo/SIVB 'wet lab' configuration for the 1973-74 Venus flyby. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Cut-away of the modified Apollo/SIVB ‘wet lab’ configuration for the 1973-74 Venus flyby. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Mars One plan to send more missions every two years, each with four colonists to join the happy bunch. If they’re alive. My money says they won’t be. This is Scott of the Antarctic territory – high-tech for the day (Scott even had motorised tractors) but still gimcrack.

The main reason we’ve not gone there yet, despite space agencies making serious plans since the 1960s, is cost. Manned interplanetary fly-bys were (just) within reach of the hardware built for the Moon landings – and until the Apollo Applications Programme was slashed to just Skylab, NASA was looking at a manned Venus flyby for 1973-74, using Apollo hardware.

Composite panorama of Mars. Not going to be seen by the 2018 expedition, as they'll fly past the night side. NASA, public domain.

Composite panorama of Mars. NASA, public domain.

Unfortunately, stopping at the destination, landing on it, and all the rest was another matter. It was easy to accelerate an Apollo CSM and habitat module into a free-return Venus or Mars trajectory; no further fuel was needed, it’d whip past the target at interplanetary velocities, and the CM could aerobrake to a safe landing on Earth. But stopping at the destination, landing and then returning home? In rocketry – whether chemical or nuclear-thermal (NERVA), the two technologies available until recently, mass-ratios are critical.

Mass ratio is the difference in mass between an empty and fuelled rocket at all times, and fuel takes fuel to accelerate it. It’s a calculation of sharply diminishing returns, and the upshot for NASA and other Mars mission planners in the twentieth century was that a practical manned landing mission was going to (a) require a colossal amount of fuel, and (b) would still transit by low-energy Hohmann orbit requiring a 256 day flight each way, meaning more life support, which meant more fuel (see what I mean?).

Some plans looked to refuel the system from Martian resources, but that had challenges of its own. Either way, the biggest challenge in all Mars mission schemes was the first step, lifting the Mars ship off Earth into a parking orbit. No single rocket could do that in one go, meaning multiple launches and assembly in orbit, raising cost and complexity still further. With figures in tens and hundreds of billions of dollars being bandied about, and no real public enthusiasm for space after Apollo, it’s small wonder governments were daunted.

ROMBUS in Mars orbit: Mars Excursion Module backs away ready for landing. Public domain, NASA.

Conceptual art of Philip Bono’s colossal ROMBUS booster in Mars orbit: Mars Excursion Module backs away ready for landing. Public domain, NASA.

My take – which is far from original to me – is don’t try going to Mars now. Focus on building a space-to-space propulsion system that offers better impulse than chemical or nuclear-thermal motors. Do that and the 256-day trans-Mars cruise – which is what drives the scale and risk of the mission, including problems with radiation doses in deep space – goes away. One promising option is the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMIR), a high-powered ion drive that might do the trick if it works as envisaged. Another is the FDR (Fusion Driven Rocket). Current projections suggest Earth-Mars transit times as low as 30 days.

Of course, if your drive won’t light when you need it to slow down, you’re on a one-way trip out of the solar system. But hey…

Maybe we should send Justin Bieber on that first VASIMIR mission, just in case…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Yes – a Kiwi might go to Mars, but I still wish it was Justin Bieber

A New Zealander’s reached the short-list of 100 possible candidates for the one-way Mars One mission proposed for 2025-26 by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, co-founder of the project.

Personally I’d have preferred they despatched Justin Bieber and left it at that. But the presence of a Kiwi isn’t bad given that the original long-list ran to 202,586 individuals.

Conceptual artwork by Pat Rawlings of a Mars mission rendezvous from 1995. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Conceptual artwork by Pat Rawlings of a Mars mission rendezvous from 1995. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Still, I can’t quite believe the plan. Settlers will be lobbed to Mars in batches of four, inside modified Space-X Dragon capsules. They’ll land, build a habitat based on inflatable modules and several Dragons, and remain there for the rest of their lives. Kind of like Robinson Crusoe, but with all of it beamed back to us for our – well, I hesitate to use the word under these circumstance. Entertainment.

I doubt that the show will run for many seasons. The development timing for the mission seems optimistic – a point I am not alone in observing. There have been a wide range of practical objections raised by engineers at MIT. But apart from that, nobody’s been to Mars before. Sure, we’ve despatched over 50 robots, 7 of which are still operational. But that doesn’t reduce the challenges involved in keeping humans alive in a hostile environment for their natural lives, and I figure from the Apollo experience that there’ll be curve balls along the way.

Those challenges will begin as soon as the colonists are cruising to Mars, a 256 day journey jammed into a 10-cubic metre metal can along – eventually – with 256 days worth of their wastes. Think about it. Popeye lived in a garbage can. The first Mars colonists? Well, they’re going to live in a commode. Hazards (apart from launch-day waste bags bursting on Day 255) include staying fit in micro-gravity and radiation flux. That last is the killer. The trans-Mars radiation environment was measured by the Curiosity rover, en route, and turned out to be – on that trip anyway – 300 millisieverts, the equivalent of 15 years’ worth of the exposure allowed to nuclear power plant workers. A typical airport X-ray scan, for comparison, delivers 0.25 millisieverts.

I suppose the heightened risk of cancer isn’t really an issue, given their life expectancy on Mars (68 days, according to MIT). Though if the sun flares – well, that’ll be too bad. (‘My goodness, what a lovely blue glow. Nice tan.’)

A large solar flare observed on 8 September 2010 by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Public Domain, NASA.

A large solar flare observed on 8 September 2010 by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Public Domain, NASA.

Unfortunately the radiation problem continues on the surface of Mars. The planet lacks a magnetic field like Earth’s and its atmosphere is thin, meaning radiation is a threat even after you’ve landed. The answer is to bury yourself under Martian dirt, but Space One’s plans don’t seem to include that. There also a possible problem – which we’ll look at next time – with the nature of that dirt.

Whether the intrepid colonists will get away is entirely another matter. Apart from the hilariously optimistic timetable, the project relies on a modified version of Space-X’s Dragon, which has yet to be human-rated. And then there’s funding, which I understand will come from media coverage. But I suspect the likely barrier will be regulatory. These people will be flying inexorably and certainly to their deaths, and odds are on it will be before the natural end of their lives. Will the nation that hosts the launch permit that?

Still, let’s suppose there are no legislative barriers. And let’s say the colonists get to Mars without their hair falling out or the waste bags bursting and filling the cabin with – well, let’s not go there. Let’s say they land safely. Suddenly they’re on Mars. Forever. What now? And what about those curve-balls?

More next week.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

What is it about ‘boy racer’ thrill-seekers?

A ‘boy racer’ car jammed with kids bra-a-a-atted past a while back, in apparent disregard of traffic rules, speed limits or other motorists, giving me pause to think about what happens inside the minds of teenage drivers, other than the dull buzzing sound some gadgets make when not under load.

Put one of these inexperienced kids behind the wheel, give them less driving experience than a gnat, and they’re off like rockets with all their friends in the back. Slow is for morons, hur hur… See a pedestrian crossing the road safely by normal traffic standards? Accelerate at them, while your friends in the back jeer at your target because you made them run for their life off the road, what a wimp! See another ‘boy racer’ and – well, you know who’s best, hur hur, time for a drag.

Artwork by Plognark http://www.plognark.com/ Creative Commons license

Artwork by Plognark http://www.plognark.com/ Creative Commons license

Which probably makes me sound like one of those grumpy old men. But the fact is that most weekends in New Zealand, our hard-working and long-suffering police have to scrape the remains of one or more of those over-powered, under-handling cars, and all its occupants, off the building or power pole  they’ve managed to slide into at 180 km/h. And then the police have to take the awful news to the parents.

A year or two ago, a teenage driver tried to take his car-full of friends on a thrilling jump between on and off ramps on a motorway in New Plymouth. He missed, naturally, and the car ended up embedded in the wall of a nearby building.

My answer? (1) Car makers spend hundreds of millions on high-tech research to optimise the handling of their vehicles. Teen ‘boy racers’ are NOT going to improve on that with a $1500 ‘performance kit’, still less their own ideas about suspension dynamics. Similarly, advancing the ignition timing until the carefully designed engine won’t idle doesn’t actually maximise the torque. (2) Teen ‘boy racer’ drivers probably won’t stop thrill-seeking, but why not find some way of convincing them to do this in controlled conditions on a racetrack. Finally, (3) also make them do the math of movement physics – momentum, kinetic energy and so on – as part of the driving test. (Hur hur, math is for morons…)

As far as I can tell, this phenomenon is historically new, not least because it’s built on the back of historically recent tech – the car. But by historical standards the idea of a ‘teenager’ – somebody not a child, but also not an adult – is also recent in western society. The term itself emerged via the US during the years after the Second World War. Before then – and certainly during the nineteenth century – there was no such thing. Boys went to school; and when they left – they were considered adults. No choice. We forget that a lot of the more heroic acts of derring-do in the British Empire were by young men we might call teenagers today – kids in their late teens who’d left school and gone forth into the world to see what they could find. In part this was the equivalent of boy-racer thrillseeking. But in other ways it wasn’t, and when push came to shove, most could step up to the plate.

That was made clear enough here in New Zealand when the Brunner coal mine exploded in 1896 – New Zealand’s worst mine disaster. I published the full story in my book Coal: the rise and fall of King Coal in New Zealand. The manager, James Bishop, rushed into the mine to rescue his workers. He was swiftly overcome by carbon monoxide and hauled out, semi-conscious. Whereupon his son – a 17 year old ‘teenager’ – stepped into the breach and worked without pause organising the rescuers and keeping tally to make sure they came back. Young Bishop did not sleep until he went home at 4.00 am on the morning after the disaster – but even then only snatched two hours rest before returning to the mine. ‘I shall never forget the sight of those bodies as long as I live.’

Times change; society changes; expectations change. If Bishop were about today, would he have gone hurtling around public roads in a ‘boy racer’ car, jeering at the pedestrians he was scattering? I wonder.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

My problem, as a bloke, with Top Gear, number plates and laddish silliness

I can’t see what the fuss is over Top Gear’s provocative Porsche number plate – you know, the one that got Jeremy Clarkson and the rest hustled out of Argentina before the wrath of a mob.

Aha - Clarkson's book on display in Whitcoulls, Wellington. My book directly behind his...

Aha – Clarkson’s book on display in Whitcoulls, Wellington. My book directly behind his (and in front of Julia Gillard’s).

Allegedly it was an off-colour reference to the British victory in the Falklands War of 1982. Personally I figure Clarkson’s protestations of innocence are correct. I mean, apart from anything else, wringing the meaning out of those letters demanded a fair amount of subtle thinking, and Top Gear isn’t exactly subtle. It’s a show about ‘Brit lads’ being ‘laddish’ with lad’s toys on a big budget with the help of a slick production team, some very fast sports cars and a good deal of British public school potty humour. This is the show, after all, who claim their engineering workshop is in Penistone. And who did have an intended ‘substitute’ plate for the Porsche reading ‘Be11end’.

Surprisingly, Top Gear didn’t make a point of visiting Urenui when the show came here. Depending how you translate it, the name is Te Reo Maori for ‘Great Courage’ or ‘Big Penis’. Instead Clarkson damaged one Toyota Corolla on a narrow bridge and drove another up Ninety Mile Beach. Not uber-fast, either. Once, the beach was the racing track where Norman ‘Wizard’ Smith went for 300 mph in an aero-engined streamliner in 1931, just in case anybody thought the Land Speed Record was exclusive to people named Campbell (Smith missed). But today it’s legally a public road, with a speed limit. (OK, so Clarkson’s Corolla wasn’t thrashed, it just got salt and sand sprayed through engine and running gear. I hope I never end up owning that one.)

You laugh at the British silliness. You think, ‘gee, I wish I had the chance to drive that’, that you could drive like The Stig, and that you too could play conkers with caravans. Or turn a Robin Reliant into a space shuttle. But to me, these days, Top Gear seems rather tired. Formula. There are, I suspect, limits as to how long a band of middle-aged men can cavort through our Sunday evening TV being big-budget yobbos.

Still, I can’t complain. My latest book ended up stacked, cover out, behind Clarkson’s the other day – and one can but hope that the reflected fame was, well, reflected in the sales…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Buy print edition from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

Click to buy from Fishpond.

Buy from Fishpond.

Click to buy from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

The art of deco hood ornaments

It must be at least seventy years since car radiator caps disappeared inside bonnets. Followed, soon after, by the ornaments that once bedecked them.

Safety regulations seem to have done for the last of them these days. But you can still find a few, if you loiter around a vintage car parade, camera in hand, looking for the art of deco. Enjoy. I did.

The Spirit of Ecstasy, 1920 style.

The Spirit of Ecstasy, 1920 style.

Classic, classic art...

Classic, classic art…

Like something out of Flash Gordon - the radiator 'bullet' on a 1937 Hudson Teraplane.

Like something out of Flash Gordon – the radiator ‘bullet’ on a 1937 Hudson Teraplane.

So cool!

So cool!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

An ‘operational incident’ to them. Total train wreck to me.

The other week the Wellington, New Zealand commuter rail network was rolling along doing what commuter lines do. And then this happened.

Wrecked train with nose still jammed skywards on the buffer at Melling station, central Hutt, 14 hours after the accident. And no, I wasn't standing in the motorway - I was on the other side. It's what zoom lenses are for. This was hand held, incidentally.

Wrecked train at Melling station, central Hutt, 14 hours after the accident. And no, I wasn’t standing in the motorway – I was on the other side. It’s what zoom lenses are for. This was hand held, incidentally.

A friend of a friend saw it happen. Wham! Mercifully, only two people were slightly injured. I was out of town, but came by that night on my way home and saw the after-match action. It’s the second time in 13 months a train has rammed this buffer.

Look! All fixed.

There! Fixed!.

Personally I’d call this an accident. Would you? I ask because the railway operator didn’t call it that. No. To them it was an ‘operational incident’.

I love English. It’s such a loose language.

We happened to drive past on the weekend. They now seem to have hit on the idea of stopping the train hitting the buffer by putting a power pole splat in the middle of the line. Train can’t fail to ram that first. I can’t help thinking there’s something rather missing in the calculation here – I mean, if you want to stop your train hitting a power pole, wouldn’t it be better to put the power pole somewhere other than the middle of where the train must, inevitably, go? I suppose it’s temporary…but…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014