Saturday, November 17, 2018

Ancient bus with matching trailer in my hometown

Before articulated buses became mainstream in Brazil, there were some unusual approaches, such as this trailer meant to be pulled behind a regular bus on peak hours. Made by Marcopolo and matching the design of its Veneza series of city buses, these trailers had their frames supplied by the Randon company which is well known for its semi-trailers and other truck implements. These were common in cities near my hometown Porto Alegre, at the intercity routes connecting Canoas, Alvorada and Cachoeirinha with Porto Alegre.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Brazilian Beetle with a rear wiper and possibly a water-cooled engine swap

Spotted this red Beetle last Friday night. It's a '76, and it was originally fitted with the 1300 air-cooled boxer engine. However, taking a look behind it, the engine lid had a bump that may suggest it to have been swapped with some water-cooled straight-4 such as Volkswagen's EA827, and so it would need clearance to fit the longer cylinder head which also sits taller. The slots on the lid itself and the ones between it and the rear window were shut, so it's uncertain how the air intake gets on its way to the carburettor. The radiator might have been mounted sideways between the engine and one of the rear wheels, which is not an unusual approach for Beetle-based vehicles converted to some water-cooled engine in Brazil.

However, the feature that has caught my attention more than any other was the rear wiper, which I was aware of some Beetles that had one adapted but never seen one personally before. Didn't really expect it to hang above the rear window instead of below, which is a more usual position for it on vehicles originally fitted with one. Apart from this Beetle, the only vehicle I can recall having the rear wiper hanging from above is the Range Rover Evoque.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

'07 Honda CG 150 Job with a car-type receiver hitch

At a first glance, this Honda CG 150 Job may look like any other which still roams around Brazil, but it had been fitted with a rather unusual feature. It has been fitted with a car-type receiver hitch to tow a small trailer, requiring a supporting structure to be added to its chassis. I have been used to see similar setups for a while during my childhood, but haven't seen so many of those for the last 16 years due to the increasing popularity of cargo sidecars and the lack of a regulation for towing with motorcycles until some years ago. Nowadays the most usual receiver hitch setup for motorcycles is bolted to the rear suspension swing-arm. Spotted this one yesterday in my hometown Porto Alegre.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Are tricycles more prone to become a viable replacement for commercial vehicles than they would for private cars?

Tricycles are often treated as somewhat "inferior" to a conventional car, much like the motorcycles they might be based upon, and unfortunately the status plays a crucial role when it comes to private vehicle ownership. On the other hand, when it comes to commercial vehicles, the functionality and a low operating cost become more relevant to the point that some compromises become less relevant. So, even though there might be some fierce resistence to proposals of resorting to tricycles as a way to increase the pace of fleet renewal in 3rd-world countries, it would be pointless to exclude them at all from such process.
Resale value is still a matter of concern too, and sometimes even a passenger car such as a Fiat Uno or a commercial derivative might be prefered because of this factor alone, considering they're more of an off-the-shelf solution, and that would lead to an easier search for replacement parts when needed. Other than that, the fact that a more conventional vehicle is not so restricted when it comes to speed in comparison to some motorcycle-based trike with an engine considerably smaller also often sounds attractive in case the operator needs to perform some service in different places which would be more easily accessible through a highway.

Sure there will be a wider acceptance for private tricycles among certain users, not only recreational ones who frequently resorted to Volkswagen-based mechanicals, but it becomes somewhat specific. A segment of the market that could be served quite right with motorcycle-based models is represented by disabled drivers/riders who look out for private vehicle ownership more as a matter of necessity than luxury. Even though some amenities could be missing, there are users who put more value on an ease to find parking spots and maneuver on tight spaces, and then both a more affordable price and a lower fuel consumption compared to a car become a much valuable asset.

The increasing popularity of the use of commercial vehicles for private purposes, which may embrace even older ones such as an early Fiat Fiorino and also resembles to some extention the obsession for pick-up trucks in the United States, could also sound like a cultural barrier against the move toward tricycles as an effective replacement to ancient (and often not in their best shape) 4-wheeled vehicles in general. It may not prevent strictly commercial operators to be more open-minded for a shift in the middle of their struggle to retain or increase profitability. Another point to consider is the influence of China in some export markets, which may deem a Chinese tricycle with a fully-enclosed cabin and a flatbed as a good alternative to something else more complex.
Roadworthy certification and licensing requirements for motor vehicles may eventually turn into an obstacle too. The dual-airbag mandate for new 2WD vehicles (or single-range 4WD/AWD) with a payload lower than one metric ton in Brazil, enforced since 2014 when ABS brakes also became mandatory for every new car, LCV, truck and bus, rendered it nearly impossible to certify tricycles such as those electric ones imported by Hedesa (and their motorcycle-engined counterparts for those who wouldn't get rid of an internal-combustion engine so soon) with a car-like cockpit and side-by-side seating locally. Another approach that could be taken would be certifying such vehicles as agricultural machinery, which was the strategy used by the businessman Paulo Emílio Freire Lemos to circumvent safety requirements and allow the conditional registration of some Diesel-powered Chinese tricycles which he imported and sold as Gurgel TA-01. However, since in Brazil a commercial driver's license is required to operate tractors on public roads, it would become impossible for the average Joe to legally roam around in one of those...

In the end, no matter if it's as fancy as a Can-Am Spyder RT-S or as bare-bones as those Bajaj-made Indian derivatives of the Piaggio Ape, tricycles are most often considering too "specialized" to meet the versatility requirements of the entry-level car market. It becomes crucial to address the needs of a family that may afford to own only one vehicle, and this is where most of the options on the market still fail. So, despite eventually having some advantages that could be better explored on passenger transport duties, it's still more likely for tricycles to succeed on cargo duties.

Monday, October 15, 2018

What could be done for ethanol-capable "flexfuel" cars to become less mediocre?

It is undeniably quite challenging to make a "flexfuel" car retain some reasonable mileage figures on gasoline while it also features ethanol capability, especially when it's fitted with a random outdated engine such as the one which my mother's former Chevrolet Celta resorted to. Apart from an increase to the compression ratio and switching from throttle-body injection to sequential port-injection, that was roughly the same old Family 1-based introduced to Brazil in local variants of the Opel Corsa B which were rebadged as Chevrolet. Its ancient layout, praised for reliability and ease of maintenance, has some inherent drawbacks when it comes to overall efficiency.
Since 3-cylinder engines didn't have the same appeal in the Brazilian market as they do have now, the engine was basically a downgrade from the 1.2L to 1.0L because of lower taxes, and presumably also the economics of scale since it would still share some key design features with the 1.4L, instead of the 3-cyl 1.0L fitted to its European counterpart. The very same basic engine layout remains in use as the only powerplants available for the Onix, present-day entry-level Chevrolet in Brazil, in both 1.0L and 1.4L featuring flexfuel ability in the domestic market and also on regional export markets even though ethanol didn't really catch up as effectively anywhere else as it used to do in Brazil.
Maybe the competition with compressed natural gas in neighboring countries such as Argentina, Colombia and Bolivia has its effect on the seemingly lack of market opportunities for ethanol, plus the fact that it seems easier to compensate the inefficiencies inherent to the engine design on the fuel trim while resorting to CNG without side-effects while operating on gasoline, but an ancient engine layout also seems discouraging to take "flexfuel" capability so seriously. Despite being easy to work on this engine and even perform makeshift fixes, and most likely that's the reason why it wasn't phased out yet, there are some compromises that a handful of simple improvements can't effectively overcome.

It may sound kinda surprising, but GM has resorted to the bumped-up compression before it started to feature the "flexfuel" ability, at least to the 1.0L version, when local variants of the Opel Corsa C (guess what, rebadged as a Chevy once again) had it as a cheaper way to improve performance while the 4 valve-per-cylinder layout was prevalent among the competition. Since its fuel chambers were in fact kinda small, it seemed easier to overcome the risk of knock simply adjusting the ignition timing on demand. In the end, it led to a rough operation when the mandatory ethanol content on gasoline enforced in Brazil decreased due to sugar prices oscillations leading to a decrease in the ethanol offer for the domestic market. Corn-based ethanol, which could overcome this issue, is a taboo in Brazil...

Sure the initial interest on "flexfuel" capability in American vehicles such as the Chevrolet Lumina APV and the usage of methanol as an option mostly for the fleet market, for which the effects of the fuel availability limitations would've been somewhat more critic, has also led the intereset to a greater parts interchangeability with regular gasoline-only and pulled the plug on an eventual implementation of more advanced features in order to increase the efficiency while operating with alcohol fuels. Even though such conservative approach was not so pointless at all, there were possible ways to achieve similar goals without too much hassle to the maintenance, such as resorting to forced-induction as a way to emulate a variable compression ratio.
Sure a turbocharger could've been pointed out as a technical nightmare back in the day because of the thermal management which becomes somewhat more critical, plus there is a lot more pipes under the hood to limit access to other components, but the possibility of replacing the standard blow-off valve for an adjustable one to provide an over-boosting on demand. Maybe a belt-driven supercharger looks like a simpler option, since it wouldn't require too much mods to the exhaust system, but it requires some more mechanically-intensive mods to reach the same (or eventually superior) level of variation to the dynamic compression. No wonder it took a while for forced-induction to be taken really seriously on "flexfuel" vehicles...

At least in Brazil, the first "turboflex" available was the BMW 320i ActiveFlex, which also resorts to direct injection and therefore doesn't require any specific cold-start aid such as fuel pre-heating or the obsolete auxiliary gasoline tank which used to be available in dedicated-ethanol and earlier "flexfuel" cars in Brazil and decreases the risk of knocks even while resorting to a leaner air/fuel ratio on gasoline under some compression ratio which would otherwise remain more suitable to ethanol only. Turbo and direct injection became also available in smaller models too, such as the Volkswagen Virtus which features the 1.0L TSI 200 engine, alongside a naturally-aspirated 1.6L with port-injection more favorable by commercial operators such as taxi drivers simply because it's still easier to convert to CNG and the fear of turbochargers being prone to some catastrophic failure.

And even for those who fear the maintenance of a turbocharged engine or a direct-injection system, it could seem a good idea to give variable valve timing a chance. Fiat has fitted its Firefly engines with that technology, even though it's mostly aimed to improve performance in models such as the Mobi and the Argo, but it could eventually serve as another option to emulate a variable compression ratio.
Hadn't it been for the 1.0L limit for lower taxes, maybe that approach could be tried with the 1.3L version of that engine series in order to do so while retaining some acceptable performance on gasoline despite the decrease on volumetric efficiency while running a longer intake valve phasing overlapping the compression stroke, in a similar way to what Toyota did with the 8AR-FTS currently fitted to the Lexus IS and NX despite it not featuring "flexfuel" ability on them.

Sure the technical mediocrity has led to the lack of confidence on "flexfuel" vehicles as an approach to improve the marketing perspectives for ethanol, but the advances on engine design now available could overcome that issue. Countries such as Brazil where a higher tax bracket is enforced for bigger engines also have a political challenge in case the interest to take ethanol seriously becomes real, but the cards are on the desk. It's now basically a matter of which configuration to choose, but it's effectively possible to overcome the mediocrity and make "flexfuel" cars really desirable...

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Is air cooling so outdated at all?

Air cooling has been an usual feature for "popular" cars, even though some models such as the first generation of the Volkswagen Gol would've switched to liquid cooling throughout its production run. When it comes specifically to the Gol, despite its modest performance with the "1300" and lately the "1600" boxer engines shared with the Beetle, the lower weight of the engine which was also shorter improved its handling due to the weight bias compared to water-cooled ones fitted with the MD-270, EA-827 and the Renault-designed CHT engine supplied by Ford when the AutoLatina joint-venture was active. But in the end, is an air-cooled engine so outdated at all???
When the Gol was released in Brazil in '80, antifreeze coolant fluids were more easily available, so the fear of blowing up a radiator or even the engine block due to ice expansion when parked outside in the winter were not a matter of concern anymore as it used to be in Germany when the Beetle was originally designed. Even though extreme cold temperatures are not so commonly reported in Brazil as they are in the Northern Hemisphere, another point that favored air cooling was the idea that such engines would be less prone to overheating because "the air doesn't boil", and so even the traditional Beetle soldiered on until '86 before its controversial reintroduction from '93 to '96. There were some customers who still enjoyed the Beetle by then and were willing to buy a brand-new one, even though the engine could've been not the main reason for such desire anymore.
Its ability to withstand to unimproved pathways, perceived as superior to the generations of compact cars released through the '80s and '90s in the Brazilian market, remained a strong sales argument for the Beetle. The air-cooled engine on the other hand, now much criticized for its noise, became mostly seen as a compromise that urban customers were not willing do deal with anymore, not to mention a lower thermal conductivity of air compared to water leading most air-cooled engines to require some richer air/fuel ratio in order to assist cooling down the combustion chambers at the expense of a slight increase to the fuel consumption and a noticeably higher emission of unburnt fuel as "hydrocarbons".
The ease of servicing the engine on the other hand, not only due to the absence of coolant pathways through the block and heads but also due to the gear-driven valvetrain, has also favored the Beetle in the eyes of a more conservative public for a long while. Sometimes it's also pointed out to be a reason for the mediocrity that still prevails among many independent mechanics in Brazil, who didn't seem to care about updating their skills in order to service more sophisticated vehicles that were starting to appear in the '60s and '70s. A somewhat surprising trend was to rebuild old French cars such as the front-engined Simca 8 around a VW rolling chassis starting in '76 when the availability of spare parts became more critical due to import restrictions.

Despite being relegated to the obsolescence in the car market, air cooling still finds its way across a wide variety of motorcycles, including the no-frills Honda CG 125i and the fancy Harley-Davidson Electra Glide. Naturally, the fact that motorcycles have been less regulated with regard to emissions than cars help the survival of air-cooled engines, either due to cost and ease of maintenance when it comes to the Honda CG or to keep an old-school theme to which an overwhelming majority of the Harley-Davidson owners remain loyal. Well, in a single-cylinder engine such as the one fitted to the CG it may seem easier to justify air cooling, not just due to the lower cost and complexity but also the more accurate cooling, while the V-Twin found in the Harley-Davidson has a poorer cooling on the rearmost cylinder.

Engine exposure to the air flow and the heat-exchanging surfaces increased by those fins cast into the cylinder heads and barrels, and sometimes the cranckcase too in order to improve oil cooling without having to resort to a dedicated oil cooler, are vital to allow an effective cooling. Horizontal-single engines, such as the ones used in small Honda motorcycles with some Cub-derived powertrain, are favored by having the cylinder head more directly exposed to the impact air flow en route, since it's where most of the heat is generated during the combustion process. Other noticeable case is the flat-twin BMW R-Series range, with the cylinder barrels exposed to the incoming air while the heads are now water-cooled.
Just to raise the controversy, it's worth to notice that not the entire R-Series range is now featuring the water-cooled cylinder heads, even though Euro-4 compliance remains in effect for all. So, while the R 1200RT does feature the new design, the R-nine-T which follows a more classic design still resorts to the oil-cooled heads. It may sound more critical to rely on the oil to assist with the engine cooling, since any restriction to its flow in a way similar to the effect of a thermostatic valve in a water-cooled engine would lead to some very dangerous oil starvation, but as a mid-term solution it could still be a cost-effective approach when the oil cooler bypass is operating properly. Since spark-ignited car and motorcycle engines basically operate within the very same principle, and both cooling systems seem to be able to meet similar emission standards, it may be a sign that air cooling is not so outdated at all.