You May Not Know…

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Everything’s so much the same now that many don’t know it was once different. And in some ways, the same – again. They also think they know about some things – because they’ve never been hip to contrary things.

For instance, what’s best in the snow?

Many people will say: all-wheel-drive!

How about skinny tires – and rear-wheel-drive?

If it sounds incongruous it’s probably because you’ve been told that the wider the tire, the more the traction – and that it is preferable to pull than push. There is some truth to both, but there is also something else. Wide tires do increase traction, when they have it. Which they don’t when they’re not in contact with the road. Which they’re not when they are riding on top of the snow that has covered the road. Then it won’t matter whether you’re being pulled (front-wheel-drive) or pushed (rear-wheel-drive) or even if both at the same time (AWD).

One of the most capable snow-day cars ever made was not FWD or AWD and did not have wide tires. In fact, it was because it had very skinny (and tall) tires and the weight of its engine mounted over the drive wheels (in the rear) that it was able to keep going in the snow when almost everything else was getting stuck.

That car was the old VW Beetle – as distinct from from the resurrected (and recently cancelled) new Beetle that was styled to look like the old one but that’s about all it had in common with it.

The old Beetle had a low-mounted “boxer” engine that drove the rear wheels and all four of its wheels were very skinny, very tall: 15×4.5 inches. These concentrated rather than spread out the weight of the Beetle, cutting through the snow to the pavement – and traction – below.

With snow tires mounted, a rear-engined Beetle was almost unstoppable.

And it was simple, which modern all-wheel-drive vehicles are not. The latter are also the victim of cross-purpose design in that on the one hand, they are designed to transmit the engine’s power (torque) to all four wheels, thereby increasing potential traction by using all four wheels to establish it. But – on the other hand – all four wheels are often very wide (8-9 inches is currently typical) and shod with tires chiefly meant to enhance traction on wet or dry pavement that are not particularly grippy in the snow and which often have little grip anyhow because they’re steamroller-wide and so ride on top of the snow.

Adding to the cross-purposes is that many modern AWD vehicles have not much ground clearance, a factor as important in the snow as being able to swim is in the water.

. . .

Here’s another one: Filling your car’s tires with nitrogen is a waste of gas (and money).

The idea – which has been sold to a lot of people – is that using pure nitrogen rather than just “air” to inflate a tire will keep the tire inflated at the correct pressure for longer because nitrogen molecules are larger than oxygen molecules and so the former gas is less likely to leak than the latter.

The non-reactive nitrogen is also said to enhance tire longevity.

But, the catch is that “air” is already nearly 80 percent . . . here it comes . . . nitrogen. So you’re paying extra for what you’ve already got, mostly. Secondly, while it is true that nitrogen is non-reactive, the oxygen the outside of your tires is exposed to isn’t. Besides which, most tires wear out long before they fall apart from oxidization. More here, if you’re interested.

So why do racers (real ones, on the track) and commercial airlines often use nitrogen to inflate tires? Because in those uses, minor variances in pressure (as little as half a pound per square inch) can mean a lot and nitrogen does have the potential to maintain air pressure more exactly and consistently. But your street car is not a race car – or a commercial airplane – and regularly checking the pressure is just as effective at maintaining the correct pressure.

It’s also free.

. . .

Electric cars are not “the future.” They are the past, rebooted.

The distant past.

The first rechargeable battery-powered cars were produced back in the 1880s, decades before the first Model T Ford appeared in 1908. Studebaker – which was a carriage-maker – went on to build electric cars before giving up on that to focus on making better cars, the same as Ransom E. Olds, the man whose name became a brand of car sold by GM. Most famously, there was the Baker Electric Car company and the Detroit Electric; both were still being offered as recently as the 1920s.

They stopped being offered for the same reason it is necessary to force electric cars onto the “market” today:

Better alternatives were available.

The Model T cost much less and it could go much farther because it was not tethered to an electrical cord. Even if there were no gas stations wherever you were headed, you could carry a can of gas with you to assure you got there – and could get back.  It is not easy to carry spare electricity with you, nor to walk a can of it back to your out-of-electricity car.

Today’s electric cars have lithium-ion rather than lead acid batteries and they can go farther than the electric cars of 100 years ago, but they are as “new” as vinyl LPs only no one is being pushed to buy vinyl LPs as the only way to listen to their favorite music.

. .

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36 COMMENTS

  1. We live in CA but we would fly to Detroit in the early 70’s to pick up Eldorados at the factory around Christmastime. I remember that the FWD and engine weight over the wheels was helpful as we passed by the other cars that had spun out on the interstates.

  2. As the only member of the Geo Metro fan club of EP Autos, I would like to chime in – the lightweight Metro with front wheel drive and skinny 80 aspect ratio tires did excellent in the snow. With studded tires it was near unstoppable.

    I have a story to tell, when I lived way back in the woods, in my little wood heated cabin in North Idaho, we liked to get up and go to the local coffee shop first thing in the morning, and have chats about conspiracies. As an end of the roader, I still liked some social interaction. So what could you do in those pre-internet days, go to the coffee shop and get lots of free refills.

    So during the winter, when the snow piled up, and the plow wouldn’t be by until late afternoon, I used tire chains, and even had a set of tires pre-chained in the back with a floor jack and carpet, and routinely I would lift the whole front of the car and change out both tires with these pre-chained tires. With a battery powered impact driver you can change them really fast.

    The idea was to uninflate the tires, installed chains on them as tight as possible, then reinflate them so the the chains would be super tight and not slap the wheel wheel and tear everything up. That way you could drive 35 mph with chains.

    That little Geo was like a rototiller digging through the snow to get to town.

    • Hi Jack,

      I’m not a Geo owner but I respect these excellent little cars; I was lucky enough to get to drive many of them when they were brand new press cars, too. I was on Gard Goldsmith’s podcast last night talking with him about the dearth of simple, affordable cars and how this has turned away so many young people from getting into cars. I am certain this is deliberate. And it is tragic.

    • I had a ’95 Geo Metro. a longtime ago. Front-wheel drive, and I would have been toast in a car accident. But, I drove through the Al-Can in that thing in the dead of Winter (I think I was crazy-ha ha), and it got 50-60 miles to the gallon, too. Put about 136,000 miles on that three-cylinder car before it finally died. I had heard a rumor that it had a Toyota engine in it. Not sure if that was true or not. Either way, people laughed at me when I drove it, but I was laughing at the gas pump, and it was a very reliable car, and never regret having one.

    • The 1 litre engine in them is 147 lb….they used them in airplanes….a toyota 4 cylinder is 340 lb.

      My friend had one he used to deliver food, he was one of the only people that made any money doing that job because he did all his own mechanical repairs, plus the great gas mileage. His cost per mile was very low, most people spend at least 50 cents a mile for transportation….some might spend 70 cents per mile or more…..uber eats drivers probably don’t make much money…they are being ripped off….

      One day it wasn’t running properly and he was asking me about it….he said it was getting gas and had spark, so he couldn’t figure out the issue….I told him the third thing you need is compression, he pulled the head off in a parking lot….he found some some valves weren’t seating properly, he got some new valves, all done in a parking lot…stuck them in and it ran fine again…

      He drove that car for years putting at least 30,000 miles per year on it, it saved him tons of money…

      When I sold cars we sold the Chevy sprint turbo…that was a fun car and preformed quite well, I considered buying one but ended up with a 1989 Civic SI another great small light 2100 lb car…that was back when hondas were good and only about $16,000….if honda could sell them today it could sell millions of them, they were so good…I looked at the 1989 GTI, which was better, but they were more expensive…… but the best of all the hot hatches…a 1989 GTI is now a collector car…very expensive….later on I bought a 1995 GTI with a 1.8 lt. 20vt engine swap…240 hp, 2300 lb…that is a fun car to drive…a sleeper…very quick…

      The 1989 civic SI replaced a 1984 300 ZX GLL turbo…it was a good car but they ruined it because it had tons of electronics and was overweight..3000 lb….and was expensive….$27,000 new, fully loaded….they turned it from a great sports car into a heavy GT car…

      a lot later I bought a 1980 924 Turbo, it is a far better car then the 300 zx turbo, simpler, lighter, more of a focused race car/track car, best handling car ever made (transaxle car), galvanized so no rust, better engineered (Porsche), better fuel economy, far cheaper maintenance, easier to work on, stronger, more fun to drive, lots of potential performance upgrades possible….I highly recommend these cars…and they are still cheap compared to air cooled Porsches….

      here is a 924 turbo rescue with the 2.0 liter. M31 engine upgraded to 429 hp…2700 lb….it is really quick….

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N6jtKgrvEu4

    • Oh, I am also a member of the Geo Metro fan club. My second car, after a 1985 Pontiac T1000 was a 1991 Geo Metro. I drove that thing until it was no longer cost effective to repair, for about 200,000 miles. That car only weighed about 1700 lb. One of my cars today is a Lotus Elise, known for being light, and it’s 1950lb. A Mazda Miata weighs 2400.

  3. I race cars, and tire pressures are indeed critical. The reason for nitrogen in tires isn’t the magic properties of nitrogen to change pressure less, it’s the absence of water. The main gases in the air (nitrogen, oxygen) all behave according to Boyle’s law, and their pressure changes in a very predictable way.

    If you have water vapor in your tire, such as from inflating it with a pump on a humid day, some of it will condense into water and sit around in your tires. When they get hot, it’ll evaporate and increase pressure unpredictably, because you don’t know how much there is. (same reason you’ve got to drain water from air compressors).

    Nitrogen is used because it’s readily available at high pressure, so you don’t need a pump, just a hose and pressure regulator, so you can throw a big tank of it in a truck and fill up many tires with dry air.

    You can also fill tires with dried air and have the same effect as pure nitrogen by running the air through an “air dryer”.

    Agreed, it’s pointless on passenger cars, but I just wanted to point out that there’s nothing special about nitrogen, only that pure nitrogen lacks water.

  4. In the off-road community this argument comes up frequently. Much like the .45 vs 9mm argument. I run Toyo’s that are tall and skinny, often referred to as ‘pizza cutters’. Those that wheel in sand or snow areas tend to go wider to float over the top rather than dig in.

  5. My 20″, Hemi-driven, factory tires have never given me the least bit of winter driving trouble.

    Mike Pizzo, Phoenix Region, Az

  6. I had a 1970 VW Beetle, and, yes, it was great in the snow. I wish you could still buy, new, a basic car like that. Cheap, simple transportation, easy to maintain, good on gas. No AC, air bags, or computers. OK, maybe I would update some things, like disc brakes instead of drums, and a better heater would be a blessing. Hitler was evil, but his “people’s car” was a winner.

    • I loved my air cooled V-dubs. But dont be too quick to trash computers just because of how they’ve been implemented and used by big biz/big gov. Putting a DIS and a port injection on a air cooled V Dub does really nice things for it. Power, mileage, and longevity all improve with a well done aftermarket EMS. Yes, you can’t set the points, and you can’t tune the jets, but you get better results with NOT having to set those points at your 8500 mile tune-up and you don’t have to re-jet when you go to the mountains.

  7. The best vehicle I ever had for driving in the snow was my 1978 Ford Fairmont station wagon. It had all-season 185 75R14 (or it could have been 70R14, I can’t remember exactly) tires, which were definitely skinny by today’s standards. Plus, it was a relatively light car with enough weight over the rear tires, proportionally. The engine did not accelerate fast (IIRC it had 90 horsepower; it was the 200 cubic inch inline six), which I suppose helped prevent slipping. I was quite surprised when I first drove it in the snow; I thought it would slip all over the place (I’d always assumed RWD would do terribly on icy roads) but it turns out I was able to actually help other people out of the snow by pushing them with my car. The padded chrome bumpers helped with that as well.

    • “it was a relatively light car”
      A big issue with any two wheel drive car. I drove a Miata as a daily driver for 20+ years, and as long as I had ground clearance in the snow, I could drive on it (I did have a 4WD truck in the shop for when I didn’t have clearance). I have no idea how many SUVS I passed in it that had run off in the ditch.

  8. My experience with short-sidewall tires in the winter has not been good. Even with the road mostly clear, the car twitches every time you hit an icy patch.
    My diesel ’78 Rabbit and ’83 Jetta were great in the snow. I drove the Rabbit to work through 12 inches+ in 1982. It was baffling that the little thing could claw its way through.
    Any opinions on the AWD Corolla? We’re on the waiting list, and there’s one with my name on it on the boat now. We’ll have to decide in a month or so whether we want it. I didn’t ask for AWD but this one has it.

    • I am not sure, Roland, if they are the same, as I have an AWD Camry, but it is still a Toyota. After having an AWD manual, it took some getting used to. I asked the one, Subaru Service Advisor today (on my old WRX) why the new Camry still (even with brand new blizzack tires) this first Winter, still felt like it slipped a bit more. He related that there was more weight in the front, than opposed to my old, WRX, which is more evenly weighted out. Which made sense. It was the getting used to the automatic trans that was the biggest change. It drives well (great road trip car), and for an automatic, I think it did okay on our long Winter up here. I liked the AWD, which is almost a necessity in these parts. I like that it sits higher off the ground than my semi-retired, more sporty WRX. Still wish it was a standard trans. Although it has “manual mode” on it, it is just not the same. Like trying to cook your grandma’s favourite recipe. But when I would pass someone on a snowy, two-lane road, it handled the roads nicely. I just pray-with the possibility of kill switches and AI’s coming to new vehicles, that this one will last me for a very, very long time.

      • Thanks, Shadow. Of course the Corolla has a CVT, which I’m not sure about either. It’s also a hybrid. We’re in our 70s, so I’m thinking that if we take it, this will be the last new car we’ll need. I’ve never even sat in a hybrid, and with no cars at all on the dealer’s lot, you have to put your name on the list, give them a deposit (refundable), and when anything comes in that sort of meets the description of what you want, they let you drive it. If you take too long to decide, they offer it to whoever is next in line.

        • I shied away from the hybrids, and told the dealer that. Who also wanted to buy my semi-retired, WRX, LOL. Living way up north, and having long, cold, dark Winters, I just did not want to take the risk of a hybrid getting me stranded somewhere in the middle of BFE. No one lives five minute from anything in these parts, so I surmise those 15-minute cities the globalists have planned for us, is not going to go over well up here. This Camry I bought was one of the few on the lot. I wanted to get another WRX (and saw a nice, STI buzz past me the other day-oooh), but there were none available at the time. On the bright side, my car insurance is way less for this Camry (full coverage), than when I made payments on the WRX. I surmise, ’cause it is not a “sports” type car. I see that the dealers are getting a few cars now, but if China overtakes Taiwan, we may be ultra screwed where gleaning new computer chips are concerned. I would like to think that this could be the last new car I buy for awhile, ’cause at the rate things are going: Kill switches, AI, I really do not want anything that the “new” ones are offering.

  9. good stuff Eric Re: tires.
    In my world, tires are everything. from my roadracing days to current dirt racing, tire type, style, etc… mean a lot. we change styles, pressure, etc… to the terrain we are riding on. Helps a lot to have spare wheels too.
    I laugh at the bike guys that put the largest tire on that they can fit. The problem is that bikes turn based on the profile of the tire. Our ‘skinnier’ tires might have less foot print when you’re straight up and down, but racing is won or lost in the corners, and our skinnier tires can double the speed because we have a lot more of the tire on the ground in the corner, while the huge tires can’t get on their sidewall at all, hence it doesn’t ‘turn’.
    A good example of this is if you see a street bike that has a huge rear tire. Keep an eye on them to see if they can go around a turn. They can’t.
    Which brings back a memory of us kids with our Schwinns back in the day and we thought we were so cool when we put a racing slick on the back, haha. They didn’t turn at all, but we didn’t know why.

  10. Vinyl LPs sold more than CDs this last year.

    https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/riaa-vinyl-units-surpass-cds-1234693223/

    Vinyl sounds much better than CD. Vinyl captures ALL the frequencies rather than snapshots and then filling in the gaps.

    Any skipping is the result of mishandling or the arm weight is incorrect or a junk turntable. Popping is the result of not prepping the record before playing to eliminate any electrostatic. Many do not realize this has to be done to the rubber on the platter as well. Also you can’t just throw the player up on any table. The table must be sturdy and solid. The player cannot be placed where a speaker is blasting right at it. Also the player should be well grounded. Also the speed should be regulated extremely well.

    And lastly the quality of the vinyl is of utmost importance. When CDs first came out vinyl discs were cheapened to the point where they were warped when brand new. That is how they accomplished the Vinyl to CD conversion.

    A good player will run you at least a grand today if you can find one. Most are cheapies, belt driven and have little weight. The platters are thin plastic and the arms are ill designed with poor needles. They will ruin a vinyl disc playing it once.

    If the disc is taken care of,,, played on a decent player,,, clean,,, anti static wiped and you have a good pre amp and amp nothing sounds better than vinyl.

    If you just want the music and not all the prep than CD is your best bet.

    Vinyl is the custom quality built 1930 Caddy with a V16.

    Cds are the Ford Pinto for those that aren’t into style and quality.

    jmo

    • A very disfavorable aspect of vinyl is what edition it is. First editions are fairly good. The more they are duplicated, the worse the sound. As in all recorded media. They are also very fragile. Easily damaged, and no means of repair. All of them have noise, due to the medium being used. I attribute much of my hearing loss to CDs, as I could play it as loud as I liked without hearing the noise. And it wasn’t because of my equipment. I never scrimped on it. However, with CDs very good equipment can be had at much lower pricing.

    • Each medium for music has its strengths and drawbacks. Vinyl, despite the potential for the best fidelity, is the fussiest, though. When I feel like listening to music, I don’t want to have to perform a bunch of kabuki rituals with the equipment only to find out last Summer’s humidity warped my records permanently. CDs aren’t a Pinto, more like a current day crossover SUV. Perhaps a little boring and common and have some issues occasionally but they start when you turn the key and are way more dependable than cars of yesteryear.

  11. Didn’t the early electric vehicles use nickel-iron batteries, not lead-acid?

    IIRC, some of the original batteries are still in use…just change the electrolyte once a decade.

    • Yep- Edison batteries. Also what was used in farmhouses with wind generators in the midwest back in the day. They can be almost completely discharged, take a very long time to wear out, and have a very flat output until they die. Also they are not as toxic as many other batteries.

      Much lower power to weight ratio though than modern exotic batteries.

  12. ‘all four wheels are often very wide (8-9 inches is currently typical) and … have little grip anyhow because they’re steamroller-wide and so ride on top of the snow.’ — eric

    Tire and wheels have evolved from ‘racer envy.’ If you’d time-transported teenaged me — when mag wheels were an aftermarket item and 70 aspect ratio tires were aggressive — to today, when nearly every vehicle has custom cast aluminum wheels, I’d have been gape-jawed in amazement.

    Perhaps the most ridiculous manifestation of ‘racer envy’ occurs on lumbering 3-ton Yukons and Expeditions, perched on giant stick-spoked chromed wheels with ludicrous 2-inch sidewalls — the equivalent of wearing shiny, thin-soled patent leather shoes to a rodeo where everyone else is clad in dusty cowboy boots.

    ‘CLOWN CAR!’ I holler, sneering and flashing the cuckold’s horns gesture at the clueless poseur.

  13. I had a 76 malibu that was surprisingly good in a few inches of snow. A lot of weight over comparatively skinny tires (nothing like the Beetle). It helps to understand how to drive in snow.

    A tire place once tried to sell me on the nitrogen thing, even had a brochure about it. Seemed odd to me since I had air pumps. Was it that difficult to check the tires? No sale.

  14. It used to be that passenger cars had steel bumpers and in a lot of cases, steel front end clips. Now everything is plastic and hitting a deer costs thousands in repairs instead of very little if you had the older design. So much for progress and long term quality as well as skyrocketing insurance costs!

  15. Back in the day VW had a commercial asking what the snow plow driver drove to get to his snow plow, a VW bug of course.

  16. Vinyl is coming back for the same reason as EVs — the manufacturers make more money by selling a product which is inherently fragile and doesn’t last as long.

    • Hi Roscoe,
      I don’t get the nostalgia for vinyl either, I had a large collection of LP’s (mostly classical) that I’ve replaced over the years with cd’s. No more hissing, pops, or groove jumping, just pure sound the way Beethoven intended.

  17. Back when the model T was built, a lot of roads were dirt roads. As in NOT gravel roads. They were workable because they were properly profiled to drain water to the ditches. Most of the time. When the drainage failed, or the maintenance of profile neglected, they often turned into a foot of muck. I’ve seen video footage of model Ts wading through that muck fairly well. Tall skinny tires.
    Traction in snow depends a good deal on the consistency of the snow. Ten degree snow is like driving on flour. Unless it gets salted and turns to slush, and then is NOT like driving on flour. Especially when it re-freezes. 33 degree snow is like driving on snot, and I’ve gotten stuck in it with 4WD. Once driving a car on it I was forced to stop on a hill by the driver in front, and immediately started sliding backward down the hill. Fortunately I was able to swing backward into a driveway before I hit anybody.

    • Not only were they dirt roads, they often WEREN’T roads. Another thing that made the model T such a success was that the whole thing was really flexible and conformed to whatever terrain it was launched through. The transverse leaf springs (no shocks) had a ton of travel, and the frame itself is easy to twist several degrees from front to back. It was a truly impressive design, even today for many purposes.

      It’s also a lot of fun learning to drive one- with spark advance and throttle levers, that pedal operated planetary trans, and that long wobbly sloppy steering column. If you’ve never tried it you’ve missed a really cool experience.

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