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Last weekend, the MSOE Supermileage Vehicle team had some big, important work to do: laying out the carbon fiber for the lower half of the body and the car frame (the piece the driver half sits/half lays on).  I know there are some pretty complex steps involved, so I’ll leave the explaining to the rest of the team (you can expect a video of the process soon!).  But essentially, three layers of carbon fiber are glued together and put in a giant vacuum sealer to cure for about four or five days.  And then, voila!  A gorgeous carbon fiber body!

Bottom body

There it is - the bottom of the body.

Not everyone was helping out with the body, though.  About half of the team was in the machine shop, working hard on the steering and other mechanical components of the vehicle.  I got a chance to speak with most of the team members; you can look forward to a video about the team in the future, too.


Everything is moving right along.


Not your typical driver's seat, huh?

But as the team was sitting around answering all my questions, something interesting came up.  One of the guys said he hoped people realize just how much time was put into this project.  Sven, team president, disagreed.

“Our time doesn’t matter to anyone except us,” Sven said.  “We know how much time we put in, but everyone else will just care about the finished product.”

His comment got me thinking.  Sven’s probably right; no one will care about the thousands of collective hours he and his teammates have put into this car (even though I definitely think they shoul).  But I don’t think that problem is singular to the MSOE SMV.  I think people tend to care more about the finished product and its attributes or flaws without realizing the labor and brainpower behind it.  Whether the product is a new car or a new computer or an innovative piece of technology, everything takes work.  Even the poor ideas or inventions often require copious amounts of effort.

I think if we can understand this, not just about SMVs but about everything new and different, we might be a little more accepting, a little more understanding.  Nothing happens overnight.  So if you want better cars, better computers, better anythings, acknowledge the work.  Acknowledge that people are trying and probably doing the best they can.  Do the best you can.  And put in the work, whatever else you do.

Maybe we can have it all.  That’s what Ford is telling consumers with the release of its 2011 Mustang, the first car introduced to the public at large that has over 300 horsepower and gets over 30 miles per gallon (19 city, 31 highway).

Ford Mustang

All new for 2011: better gas mileage than the VW Beetle

Considering the struggle Ford and other Detroit auto makers have had recently, I’m betting that Ford is hoping to show up other luxury car makers like Lexus.  The Mustang has some stiff competition from the Chevy Camaro and Dodge Challenger, but Ford is working hard to come out on top.  They’ve made the Mustang body more aerodynamic, slapped on a dual exhaust, and developed a new six-speed transmission, in addition to a new electronic steering system.

The new Mustang is expected to hit showroom floors this summer with a base price of about $23,000.  Is this a new era for the sports car, with manufacturers focusing on fuel economy in addition to performance?  To be honest, I don’t think that people buying these sporty cars have gas mileage on the brain when they’re picking out new rides.  But one thing is clear: in the sports car market, the competition is getting stiffer, and fuel efficiency is now a part of the game.  Let’s hope other automakers rise to the challenge.

It was one of the most successful microcars ever made.  It was made in France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Brazil, and the United Kingdom, although it originated in Italy.  This car was the original “bubble car.”  Yup, I’m talking about none other than the Isetta.


The BMW Isetta.

The Isetta started with the now-bankrupt company Iso Rivolta, which was then known as Iso SpA and owned by an Italian named Renzo Rivolta.  Iso SPA made the logical predecessor to the microcar: the refrigerator.  Well, to be fair, they also made scooters and three-wheeled trucks, and it’s been said that an Isetta is basically a couple of scooters with a fridge plopped in between them.

Iso SpA brought their Isetta prototype to Turin in 1953 and people were enthralled.  Even then, an Isetta was something to behold.  It stood 7.5 feet long, 4.5 feet wide on 10-inch wheels placed 19 inches apart in back.  The first Isettas had one lone back wheel, but Iso thought these cars were too unstable, hence the fourth wheel.  The engine was a 236cc motorbike two stroke engine that could go from zero to thirty mph in a blazing 36 seconds and reached a top speed of 47 mph.  Naturally, the Isetta’s gas mileage was stellar, with an average mpg of 50 to 70 depending on the driving.  The car had four gears (plus reverse!) and a unique body design, with a front-opening door, a canvas top, and space for two and a half people, or a couple and a suitcase.

The diminutive auto became popular throughout Europe and other countries began to assemble Isettas using parts from Italy.  Meanwhile, Iso began experimenting with different models, including a flat bed and a fire truck.

Iso entered some of his cars in the Economy class of the Mille Miglia in 1954 (which is soon to be run with electric vehicles!), where the Isettas took the top three spots and averaged 43 mph over the thousand-mile race.  Despite this success, Iso was on to other things.  Rivolto sold the entire Isetta to BMW this same year.  And so the Isetta came of age.


Hey there gorgeous...hop in on. After all, insanity isn't the only thing that gallops in my family.

BMW gave the micro a new engine (13hp, 247cc, four stroke) and a whole body full of new parts.  BMW started with the Isetta 250, which featured headlights affixed to the sides of the car, aluminum cylinder head, cast iron crankcase and cylinder, and an elaborate power train that involved two Hardy cases, an oil bath, and some shafts of various, mysterious kinds.  Germans loved the bubble car; Isettas proved to be an affordable mode of transportation that could even be operated on motorcycle licenses.


Could life get any better than this? Well, maybe if I were allowed to actually drive the car.

In 1956 the Isetta 300 was introduced, which had a nifty sliding window and a larger 298cc engine.  BMW also produced the Isetta 600 from 1957 to 1959, which was more similar to normal cars than other Isetta models.  On this car, BMW brought out its semi-trailing arm independent suspension system.  They would use that suspension for the next forty years.  Although the 600 had a 582cc motor, it wasn’t one of the more popular models.  Its lack of appeal was partly due to the competing VW Beetle and partly due to the fact that you couldn’t tell the front of the car from the back.  Or at least that’s my explanation.

BMW stopped producing Isettas in 1962 after putting out over 160,000 microcars.  Some people say that the Isetta microcar made BMW into what it is today.

Of course, the Isetta’s story doesn’t end there.  It is still one of the more popular microcars for collectors worldwide.  And it made a frequent appearance (along with trusty navigator Steve Urkel) on the show Family Matters.  So the next time you’re out driving on a nice summer day, keep an eye out for the original bubble car, shaped like a “teardrop in the wind.”

When I nearly got mowed down by a silent Prius the other day, I just had to think of this.  Sorry the quality’s not so great, but maybe it will give you some ideas for any street fights/duels you happen to get into over the weekend.

In all seriousness, the Prius and other EVs and hybrids do pose a concern to those with vision problems, the blind, and children, like this boy who biked into a hybrid a few years ago.  While several solutions to this downfall have been proposed, none seem to have been adopted.  Of course, Toyota has bigger fish to fry with the Prius.

For those of us who have the ability to do so, let’s try to remember: look both ways before bopping across the street, especially in Prius-saturated areas.

So let’s take a look at an idea that has gotten…less than favorable feedback.  It’s a big idea, and it’s out there, but let’s keep this in mind: at this point in the green revolution, it’s not all or nothing.  This concept doesn’t specifically have to do with cars, but rather the roads cars drive on.

Scott Brusaw of Solar Roadways has a vision for America: replace existing roadways not with oil-based asphalt, but solar panels.  Well, solar panels covered by high-tech, non-slip, self-cleaning glass.  The idea is: use the infrastructure already in place as a convenient space to capture, store, and transport solar energy.  Take a look at this video for a better explanation.

Gotta admit, it sounds a little wild.  It’s expensive (about $7,000 for a 12′ by 12′ panel or about $35 trillion to replace all of the roads in America), it has that “too good to be true” feel about it, but more importantly, it’s never been done before.  That’s the scary part.  We’re talking about solar energy (still in its infancy here in the States), glass panels to cover them that have never been made before, and a way to electrify our country that hasn’t really been considered. There’s a lot of fodder for the naysayers right there.

No one likes to fail.  Unfortunately, that’s a part of being successful.  If the numbers are right, if the projections are right, Scott might actually be on to something here.  I think it’s at least worth trying out in some sunny place, and Scott did get a $100k grant for his work, so hopefully a trial is in the future.  The US is beginning to lose the clean energy race, and if I know anything, we don’t like to lose.  Remember: failing and losing aren’t the same thing.  Which one are we going to choose?

It heats the planet, tans our skin, and makes us squint when there’s too much of it.  Yup, I’m talking about the sun, and when it comes to turning it to fuel, there is no easily reachable conclusion.  Can solar energy be used to power cars?  Sure thing.  Is it extremely practical?  Not so much, but that doesn’t mean we can rule out solar-powered vehicles yet.  Take a look at these videos to get a feel for what I’m talking about.

This gives a brief overview of a solar car from ETS in Montreal.  If you thought your car was expensive, think again; this car has a price tag of $700k.

Here’s a car from the University of New South Wales, Australia that competed in the Global Green Challenge down under.

And if you thought you were living sustainably, you might want to think again after seeing this guy!

So what have these videos shown?  Solar powered cars are definitely a possibility.  However, their expensive price tags and limited capabilities mean that such technology maybe isn’t very practical for the roadways.

Of course, there are ways of incorporating the use of solar energy into cars.  There’s been talk of Toyota introducing a Prius with solar panels to give the hybrid a 15km energy boost.  Some Prius models already have a solar panel on the sunroof, which helps out the car’s ventilation system.  And students around the world work hard to compete in various solar car competitions, hopeful to develop new technologies that will make commercial solar cars more than a pipe dream.

And solar power itself seems to have great potential.  After all, it’s renewable energy that’s already shining down on everything anyways.  While it might not make sense at this point to cruise around in a solar-powered car, it certainly might not be a bad idea to put up some solar panels on your house or garage.

It’s pretty easy to be pessimistic about the way things are right now.  Looking ahead to the future, there doesn’t seem to be any major issue facing our country that has an easy solution.  Think about it: the economy, foreign affairs, the health of our citizens, the environment, politics.  We’ve got some big problems, and it’s pretty easy to get disheartened.

But there’s an upside (or at least I have to think there’s an upside – life would be way too depressing otherwise).    Now is an exciting time to be working on this stuff.  There is no clear answer, which means there is hopefully room for innovative, off-the-wall ideas.  I mean, you’ve seen those SMVs.  None of them will be heading out on the roadways anytime soon!  But they can help us change the rulebook we play by.

Early computer

Look familiar? As one of the first computers, probably not. But look where the computer is today!

(Speaking of those hardworking SMVers, the fiberglass molds came out beautifully and they’ll be working on laying out the carbon fiber this weekend.  I should be heading down there to get a full report, so stay tuned!)

It’s really easy to shoot down new ideas when we first hear them.  I do it myself all the time, even if I try not to.  Believing in something, trusting in something means you have to put yourself out there.  You’re opening yourself up to failure and disappointment and probably to mockery if you put your faith in something that didn’t work.  Yet this is the way forward.  It’s murky and messy with no guarantees, but think about how far we’ve come in the last hundred years and what might be possible in the next century if we can ignore the chips on our shoulders and take a chance on something that seems insane.  You’ll probably get burned and lord knows there will be a ton of people ready to pick your bones, but do it anyways, because even if you never see something tangible, even if it seems impossible, one day you’ll cross the line from unimaginable to reality.

And then it will all have been worth it.

Don’t take the simple path.  We all you’re better than that.

Keeping that in mind, we’re going to delve into some pretty unorthodox technologies in the next few days.  Don’t shut it out right away.  Just because things have been done one way for as long as you’ve known them doesn’t mean anything.Hope quote

When I was a freshman in college, I took a chemistry class with Dr. Majestic (awesome name, I know).  He was shy, soft-spoken, but definitely knew what he was talking about.  One of the things he taught us was information about the energy that fuels cars: hydrocarbons, ethanol, biofuels, and so forth.  In that class, I first learned that ethanol may not be the cure-all for our oil dependency.  I also learned that Dr. Majestic tended to piss off other drivers with his fuel-efficient driving techniques.  He might have taken it to the extreme (as in hardly ever braking), but his driving tips have stuck with me through the years.

  1. Brake as little as possible. When you brake, you’re taking away forward energy that you’ve already made (ie. gas you’ve already burned).  So don’t be a nervous soccer mom; try to avoid that lurchy, stop-start method of driving and make sure you’re not following so close that you’ll need to stand on the brake to avoid an accident.
  2. Accelerate smoothly with low RPMs.  Generally, the lower the RPMs, the better the mileage.  So try to avoid the street racer mindset. Yes, other cars will “beat” you.  But guess what?  You’ll catch up to that hotshot at the next red light, and you’ll have more money left in your pocket because you didn’t waste a bunch of gas getting there.
  3. Lighten up.  One reason microcars are so efficient is because they’re light, often weighing under a thousand pounds.  The more extra weight you haul around, the more fuel your car will guzzle.  So don’t be a pack rat; if you don’t need those power tools, leave ’em in the garage.  It’s just you driving around this week?  Ditch the extra seats.
  4. Plan ahead.  It sounds a little Type A, but it’s a simple idea: if you drive fewer miles, you will use less gas.  So don’t run around like a chicken with your head cut off driving all over town.  Besides, you’ll get everything done more quickly if you choose the shortest route!
  5. Take care of your car.  Like Andy told us, ensuring your tires are properly inflated can increase fuel efficiency up to three percent.  So don’t be a slacker mom/dad to your car.  Changing spark plugs, replacing gunky air filters, and changing your oil can help your car run its best, which will help out your mileage.

I don’t know for certain, but I’m pretty sure Dr. Majestic is cruising around in some SMV prototype or a car that runs off switchgrass.  While we aren’t all as ultra-attentive to our gas mileage, following a few simple guidelines can help us be a little better.

Want more advice?  Here, here, and here are some more thorough gas-saving tips.

Talking about Crosley cars brings me again to the idea of specifying exactly what a microcar is.  Generally, the agreed upon definition is a three or four-wheeled that has two doors and an engine size of 1000cc or less.  And for those of you who are still wondering why I care about microcars, remember: they were some of the first really fuel efficient vehicles.

On to the Crosleys.  Really, these cars were the dream of one man: Powel Crosley, Jr., a man born in Ohio in the late nineteenth century.  Like so many people, he was obsessed with cars.  After dropping out of the University of Cincinnati, he tried to make his first automobile at the age of 21.  Crosley didn’t get anywhere with those first attempts, but he never lost his love for vehicles.

After holding down a few odd jobs, marrying a girl named Gwendolyn, and fathering some kids, Crosley found a niche market: auto accessories.  He helped to found the American Automobile Accessory Company and, with the help of his business-smart brother, Lewis, sold over a million dollars in parts through World War I.

Crosley, a creative inventor, continued to innovate and sell new products, like tire re-liners.  He was the first producer to offer a “money back guarantee” and tried to offer quality, affordable items to his customers.  This mindset led Crosley to begin manufacturing radios after expressing dismay at the exorbitant prices of radios in stores.  In the 1920s, Crosley became the largest radio manufacturer in the world and soon developed a car radio.

Crosley Pup

Powel Crosley, Jr. and his radio brand "mascot" listen to a Crosley Pup receiver

Once he’d figured out the radio manufacturing business, Crosley jumped on to the radio broadcasting scene.  His station, WLW, eventually became the most powerful station in America; during World War II, WLW could be heard throughout most of the world.  Crosley helped develop some of the first soap operas (with the sponsorship of Ivory Soap, of course).

But Crosley didn’t stop with radios; he kept expanding into other markets.  He made refrigerators, creating the first fridge with shelves to hold food.  Crosley also developed the first non-electric refrigerator, too.

Pre-war Crosley

Made in 1941, this simple car exemplified Crosley's dream for domestic autos.

By the end of the 1930s, Crosley finally returned to his dream of making automobiles.  “I believe that every American who can afford any car should have an opportunity to buy a brand new, truly fine car,” Crosley said.  The first Crosley cars, built from 1939 to 1942, came in three colors and had a mere 80 inch wheelbase.  You could buy a brand new Crosley for $250 to $350, depending on the model.  Crosleys were pretty basic cars; they featured six gallon gas tanks, a hand-powered windshield wiper, three interior gauges (speedometer, water gauge, and fuel gauge), and a prominent hood with freestanding headlights.  While Crosley stopped its production during the Second World War, people still liked driving the microcars because they regularly got 50 miles per gallon.

Of course, Crosley didn’t sit idle during the war.  He became the largest manufacturer of the proximity fuze, which “won the Battle of the Bulge for us,” according to George S. Patton.

Crosley Hotshot

A 1949 Crosley Hotshot - America's first sports car

After the war, Crosley continued producing cars with the same pre-war goals.  He made some larger cars, but still focused on fuel efficiency and affordability, with price tags of most cars below $1,000.  Crosley kept up his innovative spirit (can you see a pattern in his life?) and introduced the following “firsts” into the auto market:

  • Disc brakes
  • Mass marketed overhead camshaft
  • All steel-bodied wagon
  • American sports car

While Crosley sold about 25,000 cars altogether, Americans were moving into an era of “bigger is better” which I think we are only now coming out of.  Gas rationing didn’t matter anymore and Crosleys began diminishing in popularity, despite some impressive enthusiasts like Dwight D. Eisenhower, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Humphrey Bogart.  In 1952, Crosley closed his car operations and sold them to General Tire and Rubber Company.  Crosley sold off the rest of his businesses and his name ceased to be its own brand in 1956.  Crosley passed away in 1961 from a heart attack; he is remembered for his many inventions and entrepreneurship.  Both he and his cars are remembered for embodying the American dream.

I’m going to be honest here.  I don’t drive the greenest car at this moment in time.  It’s a ’94 Toyota 4Runner that gets about 20 miles to the gallon.  It’s not terrible, but it’s not great, and will likely meet its death soon due to various health problems.

For anyone who’s not quite sure what a 4Runner is like, just picture the kinds of SUVs that cruise around the African desert, the kind that can go through monsoons and still look all right, or even the kind that can sit on top of an exploding building and drive away from the wreckage (at least I’ve been told they can do that).  My car’s pretty sturdy, which has let to numerous people believing they should bomb around in it as a rally car.  Because I do indeed like my car and need it to get around, I have politely declined all these years.  Perhaps I’ll let someone take it on one last hurrah before it’s retired.

Electric car

Rally car? I guess! This guy's all set for e-Miglia.

One rally my car won’t be participating in is the new e-Miglia rally, slated to happen August 3-6.  The rally is open to four different kinds of electric vehicles, including two, three, and four-wheelers, as well as hybrids.  The rally is organized by the same people who put on the Transsyberia Rally, but e-Miglia will run over paved roads between Germany and Italy, focusing on how well the electric vehicles run and their overall consistency.  There’s 10,000 Euros in prize money to be had, which should give some incentive to fill the 50 open slots for drivers.

Rally car

Electric rally car? Not so much.

The original Miglia rally, the Mille Miglia, ran almost 25 times between 1927 and 1957 and helped to showcase some of the nicest car companies in the world (Porsche or Ferrari, anyone?).  The goal of the e-Miglia rally is to do the same for electric cars: put them in the spotlight and show off their sportiness, reliability, and versatility.  These electric cars probably won’t be cruising through the bogs like other rally cars, but hopefully the event will raise awareness to everything that electric cars can do.

Wanna join the rally?  Check out their website (speaking German is a plus there) and book your plane tickets.  Apparently all you need is a driver’s license and an EV!

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March 2010