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Near a half century ago, back in the bad old days, big trucks had at least 10 forward gears. We weren’t just showing off our gear grindin’ skills, the common Cummins and Detroit engines of the 60s had such narrow powerbands that they could barely handle a 400 RPM drop from maximum governed speed before a downshift was required. Thus every stop sign and red light required going trough most of those 10 gears all over again… That got old fast!

The basic architecture of Mack’s diesel gave them a displacement disadvantage vs. Cummins, which they largely resolved by early adoption of turbocharging. That brought a bunch of other benefits like lower emmissions and better fuel economy as well as consistent performance regardlesss of altitude. Then misters May and Pellizoni, Mack engineers, saw another benefit… They could tune an engine’s power curve by careful matching of turbocharger and fuel pump settings. Thus from their test cells sprang the mighty Maxidyne, with peak torque moved clear down to 1200 RPM while the power peak was moved down to around 1800 RPM while the governor still shut down the party at 2100. The result was an engine that only needed a simple 5 speed transmission and with a 900 RPM wide powerband from 1200 to 2100 RPM, and could run from 36 to 63 MPH without needed a single stirring of the gearshift lever. And while that transmission may have seemed short on gears, it had no less than triple countershafts… The scrapyards are full of ’em, because they were so indestructable that hardly anybody ever broke one!

With this massive competitive advantage Mack was the go-to truck from the mid 60s through the eighties, filling fleet rosters everwhere. Then in the 80s fleet managers began to suspect that winding the Maxidyne up to 2100 was eatin’ up the fuel too fast. Mack responded with a Maxidyne governed at 1800 cutting the power band back to only 600 RPM, and pretty much created the prototype for all of today’s big truck diesels. Then Mack developed a low speed Maxidyne, with a power band from 1000 to 1800 RPM so drivers could still enjoy a 5 speed transmission.

Come the 90s and speed limits rose and truckers demanded more power, but with the exception of the rare 400 HP Maxidyne V8, the Maxidyne offerings topped out at only 300 HP. Thus Mack’s conventional 350 and 400 HP engines took over the highway market. But the Maxidyne had an even more loyal group of fans, truckers in the construction biz who appreciated the Maxidyne’s ability to pull up hills and through muck all the way through it’s broad power range when a gearshift would only bog you down worse… So while the Maxidyne may have been exiled from the highways, it lived on in construction trucks everywhere.

Comes the 21st century and Volvo buys Renault and Mack in a package deal and sets out to plant a bulldog on the hood of their Volvo trucks and pass it off as a Mack. While the six cylinder Maxidyne finally got a bump to 370 HP in 2004, by 2007 Mack engines had given way to Volvos in red paint with a few software tweaks. Then Volvo’s automated manual transmission was offered and the durable Maxitorque all but forgotten. But some Maxidyne high torque ratings were carried over to the new Volvo engines, and wide ratio 6 to 10 speed transmissions were still technicly available.

Couple months back I saw a near buried blurb from Mack noting that Maxitorque transmissions were still available, but didn’t seem to be as many models as before. Confirmed from an authoritive sounding source that the wide ratio transmissions are no longer available, took a look around dealer’s inventory and couldn’t find them in any new trucks in stock. Having made little mention of the simple Maxidyne option, Vovo has succeeded in making us forget about it in preference to their complex proprietary automated manual transmissions.

‘Cept some of us won’t forget the joy of driving a truck that shifted gears as easily as a car, only downshifting for the real hills instead of once or thrice for every little rise. Maxidynes, long may rule the roads!

If you’ve been following the greasy gearhead corners of the web lately, ┬ábig truck division, you’ve probably noticed a fair amount of doubt regarding Ford’s decision to boot Cummins and go it alone on powertrain options for their new F650 and F750 big trucks. Now the Cummins in question, the six cylinder B series, has become something of a legend for it’s durability- I drove one on occasion that was driven by everyone and put away wet, but still managed 15,000 hours without a rebuild before it was traded off. Heck, the B series probably put off Hostess’ bankruptcy for a few years, with still running two and three decade old examples with over half a million miles on the bankruptcy filing’s inventory lists. So it’s no wonder that almost every big truck maker offers the Cummins B series and sometimes only the B series in their medium trucks. So it comes as a surprise (some would call it treason) that Ford would evict Cummins from it’s home under the hood of their medium trucks.

Examined a bit more closely, Ford ain’t dumb- ┬áThe Cummins B series is a great linerless medium duty diesel, but it’s no big block where you press out the liners and press in new ones come rebuild time and truck on for another million miles. But the B series is no “throwaway” engine either, just send it to the machine shop for an overbore and fit the appropriate new pistons and rings. Same with Ford’s own diesel, and GM’s Duramax. But fact is, most users will never put on enough miles to rebuild these engines, which routinely come with hundred thousand mile warranties even in overblown pickup power ratings. And Ford is certainly no novice at building diesels, their own foundries and assembly plants having borne reliable diesels for over half a century now.

But is Ford’s own diesel a match for Cummins B series? I’ve found no publicly available data for medium trucks, and it would be nice if some of the big fleets like the GSA or the Postal Service’s that probably have some of each brand of medium truck powertrain in their fleets would turn loose their data. But our old friend and source of a treasure trove of big data, Consumer Reports, has been tabulating the totals for some of the big trucks little brothers, the half and three quarter ton pickups. This data is relevant because Ford’s new medium trucks are basicly the Super Duty pickups with bigger axles, brakes, tires, etc. stuck underneath and the engines derated a bit. Same thing over at Dodge, where the Cummins B series has taken up residence in their three quarter and one ton pickups.

So what does Consumer Reports report? First let’s look at the standard of the industry, the Cummins B series in those Dodges- While the Cummins engine itself has been “above average” or “much above average”, it’s fuel system has barely improved to “below average”. Looks like the Cummins durability is still there, but Cummins isn’t doing so well at producing a reliable injection system to meet current emmissions standards.

Over at Ford, their diesel engine has shown “much better than average” durability per CR’s survey, with the fuel system improving to “better than average”. That strongly suggests that Ford’s own diesel engine will work just as well and long as Cummins B series. As for service availability, one of the benefits of Cummins power is the availability of service in far more places than Daimler’s, Paccar’s, Volvo’s, and Navistar’s proprietary engines… Which explains why most of the above are offering the B series as an option or even sole offering in their trucks. However, Ford has more dealers in more places than Cummins, and almost all of them service Ford diesel engines. So if you’re in the market for a medium truck, don’t let Ford’s diesel put you off.

And the cons: The comments are coming in on the proposed 2027 fuel mileage standards for big trucks, and the aforementioned proprietary engine truck makers have voiced their disapproval that Cummins will be allowed to certify their engines seperate from the truck chassis they’re mounted in. I take this to mean they’d like to squeeze Cummins out of this market via protective regulations, thusly bring them closer to their dreams of a profitable near monopoly. Meanwhile, some of these same truck makers have made Cummins the standard and sometimes sole engine offering for their medium trucks, avoiding the hassle of certfying their own engines to U.S. standards. In the booming market for natural gas engines, Cummins is the only source for heavy duty trucks and is offered by Daimler, Paccar, and Volvo.

So the big truck makers romance Cummins when they need medium duty and alternate fuel engines, then spurn Cummins in the higher volume heavy duty diesel markets. Some guys treat girls like that, then wonder why they’re lonely…

Got a little too enthusiastic a couple week’s back unloading the latest 170 pound bargain of steel racking from Costco, followed by a couple days of sore right hip and lower back. Pretty much recovered, then yesterday I decided just puttin’ the R80ST on it’s centerstand wasn’t enough, I had to put it on the centerstand with a one by six board underneath… Back in pain and didn’t fall asleep ’til 2 am. Got up at 8 this mornin’, figured I may as well try to pull myself together, get on the Yamaha, and make the Butterfield Threshing Bee. Couple hours later I rode onto the grounds, took off my gear and unstrapped my cane, and was hobblin’ the grounds.

DSC_4522What’s not to like? I’m not sure what the heck it is, but I never seen or even heard of one before, looks to be an early four wheel drive tractor, so early that it’s on steel wheels! One of the ways I judge an event is by whether or not I see a machine I’ve never seen before, at this event I saw several. Besides this mystery Massey, there was a Gibson as well as several unheard of smaller tractors that may or may not have been series produced.

Despite the gimpyness, had a great time. I wasn’t the only one havin’ problems, this “locomotive” was keeping the mechanics busy…

DSC_4545This Minneapolis-Moline powered narrow guage “locomotive” would run a few feet and repeatedly die, frustrating it’s mechanics. The passngers didn’t really seem to mind though, being rather amused by the “locomotive”‘s tempermentalness. Good thing Minneaplis-Moline didn’t build real locomotives…

As always, gotta make the best of what life hands ya… Gonna check the weather in the morning and if it don’t look to severe I’ll head back to the threshing bee!

Harley Davidson, BMW, Moto Guzzi, Triumph, Honda… and us? Yup, pooling together our nest eggs, a home equity loan and max out a credit card here and there, and we could have been a motorcycle maker. For those who don’t inhabit the Buell corner of the interwebs, EBR, essentially the successor company to Buell, sold for a measly two million dollars and change yesterday.

So what would we have gotten for the contents of our piggy banks? For a start, all the rights to the opus of one of the world’s greatest motorcycle designers and the fellow travelers he attracted, a 450 pound motorcycle with knocking on 200 horses in race tune and an easy and well behaved 150 in street legal tune, packed in the best handling chassis in the history of motorcycling. The complete tooling to build that awesome motorcycle, including the line to turn castings from no less than Rotax into finished engines. And being that the line was shut down overnight, probably several unfinished bikes, maybe some finished bikes that GE Capital hadn’t floored yet, and probably enough parts to build a bunch more bikes at your leisure.

To say nothing of the “goodwill” which despite being worthless in the minds of the industry, still keeps several websites hopping five years after HOG(NYSE) axed Buell. With all that goodwill and an installed base of at least 10,000 EBRs and the earlier Rotax powered Buells built under HOG(NYSE)’s ownership, you could make a paying parts business out of EBR without ever having built another new bike. Do a Carroll Shelby and screw together a few new bikes every once and awhile and you’d profitably keep the market jacked up for decades. Or pay the rent on the factory space and fire the assembly line back up… EBR did manage to move at least ten million dollars in bikes in barely a year of production.

But we weren’t the only ones snoozin’ and losin’… HOG(NYSE) could have had a product to appeal to riders before they drew a Social Security check. Polaris could have had a real sportbike instead of just a “sport cruiser”. An established maker could have added EBR to their quiver of products, and an upstart 3rd world maker could have cheaply joined the “big boys” by buying EBR. Heck, any of a dozen motorcycle makers could have bought EBR just to keep a competitor off the market.

Sadly, none of the above happened, which is an indightment of just how “corporate” the motorcycle biz has become today. It thus fell on a minor player in the metals wholesaling biz and Buell enthusiast to save Buell, in fact he was the only bidder as two others failed to match his bid. Heck, barely a baker’s dozen potential buyers even did a walk through of the EBR plant. That is chilling for the motorcycle biz, which is chock full of literal mom and pop shops and makers that these hard working folks spent a lifetime building. A lot of these folks are reaching if not past retirement age, and are looking to sell, hopefully for enough to provide for a retirement above the poverty line. These are the folks who gave up the corporate jobs with the pension for their love of motorcycling, and they damn well deserve better!

If you live ‘long the track like me, you,ve noticed that the trains have thinned a bit. And if you follow the tracks much, you’ll find whole unit trains of those short hopper cars they use for frac sand parked, and even the recently unobtainium tank cars are looking abandonned and forlorn in spots. Same with the rortary dump coal cars, shunted into lonely sidings by the switch to natural gas and wind. And weren’t the railorads in the middle of spending billions to upgrade tracks to handle all that oil and related traffic?

That leaves the ralroads suddenly with surplus capacity and a few thousand train crews laid off that will be looking at other career paths if they ain’t called back soon. Meanwhile, trucking is hobbling along with it’s chronic low productivity and resulting driver shortage. It’s gotten so bad that a union carrier (hourly pay, health insurance, pension, etc.) is having trouble finding qualified drivers even in my rural area.

So I’m hearing gossip that theb rail empire is going to stike back with a parry to lure all that truck traffic back to the rails. No, they probably won’t cut rates on intermodal service… Rate cutting ain’t in the railroads playbook. The gossip is about unprecedented (in the last half century) levels of service, with premium intermodal trains running at near passenger train speeds… Think of intermodal trains almost drafting Amtrak’s legendary long distance trains.

That sort of upsets the business plan of even the most dedicated truckers…

A fellow Airhead shared that term with me a decade or so ago as we enjoyed the diverse plethora of bikes at the Blind Lizard Rally on Nicollet Island in Minneapolis. “Mechanical racism” is the irrational and fact free belief that one brand or type of vehicle is superior or inferior to others. It’s most common manifestation is seen in the intense brand loyalty Ford, Chevy, GMC, and Ram (Dodge) owners have for their pickups, despite their being similar designs with similar quality and performance. That mechanical racism is so profound that after a couple decades of trying automotive giants Toyota and Nissan are still stuck in single digit pickup market shares while Fiat jumped into 3rd place in sales simply by buying Chrysler Corporation and it’s Ram/Dodge brand. And while the financial pundits cited GM and Chrysler’s pension liabilities when both went bankrupt, they ignored the fact that hundreds of thousands of loyal customers a year would blindly buy there respective favored Ford, Chevy, GMC, or Dodge pickups even if they were made south of the border by slave labor and such lemons that they couldn’t even roll of the assembly line under their own power. The only downside to this palpable “goodwill’ asset is that it’s heart will cease to beat in a decade or three, but in the meantime it’s gravy for Ford, GM, and Fiat-Chrysler.

HOG(NYSE) is a somewhat smaller producer, cranking out a couple hundred thousand bikes a year versus the big three pickup makers millions. Half a century ago the fastest bike in America was the Sportster, and the Electra Glide was the weapon of choice for long distance tourers. But a few riders had found their way to the best touring bike of the time, the BMW /2, and the Japanese manufacturers were cranking out tiddlers by the shipload and even quarter liter touring bikes. By the close of the 60s BMW, Guzzi, and no less than four Japanese makers had bikes that totally eclipsed Harley’s, and they we’re just getting started.

Meanwhile, Harley was broke and soldiered on with the same designs, unable to find funding to retool. After near bankruptcy in the 80s a new management team with the support of labor breathed some life into Harley with some updates, but the basic design still belonged in a museum. Yet paradoxically Harley’s customer base grew while becoming more narrow ideologically, to the point that if you wanted to find the next anti-immigrant or tea party rally, just check the bulletin board at your local Harley dealer. And while management brought in Erik Buell and Porsche to produce more contemporary designs, the Harley bigots bad mouthed Buell, the V-Rod, and now the Street 500/750 to oblivion. To the Harley bigots, the world is a scary place of brown people, Hondas, gays, Victories, black people, Ducatis, the EPA, Yamahas, etc…. The Harley bigots response was simple, they put on the blinders, inventing “all Harley drags” when the upstart RD350s beat their Sportsters through the quarter mile. Today that isolation has spread to the point where the Harley bigots have their own websites, magazines, suppliers, and events. The loyal HOG(NYSE) customer is so loyal that he’ll ignore a whole showroom full of superior cruisers at lower prices from a half dozen makers and walk across the parking lot to the Harley showroom and beg for a Harley. No wonder the KKK and similar low life have been known to recruit at Sturgis and other Harley events…

Something similar seems to be happening amongst some more fanatical BMW owners, especially in the U.S.. Back that half century ago a BMW was the only bike you could ride cross country without wrenching on, and the airheads continued that tradition into the 70s and 80s after some debugging. But since then BMW has spread themselves thin with a plethora of models that beg the question: What is a BMW? Meanwhile, reliability has suffered, with BMWs needing over twice as many repairs as the Japanese bikes and thousands of BMWs recalled for numerous defects.

Thus the answer to the “what is a BMW” question has become “expensive and exclusive”. Much as happened with BMW’s cars, BMW motorcycles have become more a status symbol than a tool to reliably and economically tour the country or get to work. And at the most fanatical level, in clubs like BMWMOA, we can see the same mechanical racism and worse blooming, with working class campers made uncomfortable to discourage their attendance while wealthy BMW owners are courted with luxury tours. During last years BMWMOA rally in Saint Paul, BMWMOA loyalists told me they wanted the public access to the fairgrounds restricted because they feared the neighbors were criminals that would rob them… But fact is, that site is surrounded by a university campus and safe middle class neighborhoods. We saw economic and mechanical segregation again at the recent BMWMOA rally, where BMW was given prime position near the entrance while the Airheads were relegated to a far corner of the site. When an airhead owner showed up at the gate with a few surplus airhead parts to sell, he was told he couldn’t because he’d be competing with the paying vendors… Said vendors had almost nothing to sell that fit the old BMWs and airheads. The same censorship is being applied ideologically, with dissident members being banned from the BMWMOA forum and their posts on the BMWMOA facebook page “disappeared”.

Will the KKK be recruiting at future BMWMOA rallies? I doubt it, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a suit and tie group with the similar objectives renting a hall for fundraising dinners for a Donald Trump or David Duke, with BMWMOA security keeping any protesters far away. Much like expensive suburbs have become segregated wealthy whites-only enclaves in the south, expensive BMWs and expensive BMWMOA rallies will probably produce the same result…

Geography, the Northern Pacific Railroad, and the Interstates have made Billings the logistics hub of the upper plains and Rockies. Being situated a days round trip from a bunch of national parks hasn’t hurt Billing’s hospitality industry, either. Thus Billings is a layover stop for truckers, trains, and tourists bound for more more important places. But Billings as a destination? Only the BMWMOA would fall for that line!

One of the things I’ve noted as a rally rat is how much the host town can to contribute to or destroy a rally. On one hand we’ve got the lovely city of Elkader, Iowa which has embraced and grown with the Guzzi Rally there. On the other hand we’ve got Daytona, which has so gouged riders that the BMW riders have left and even the Harley lemmings are starting to stay away. Billings, you’ve in no danger of ever becoming a Sturgis or even a Daytona…

Lets start with the site, which is basically the old county fairgrounds. But unlike even the most impoverished county fair in Minnesota where you could eat your lunch off the floor of the swine barns after the fair’s over and they’ve cleaned up, the fairgrounds is a dump. And just to reinforce that image, Billings built the sewer treatment plant right next to the fairgrounds. On a couple other sides of the fairgrounds they built 6 lane highways to shuffle all the traffic from the Interstate to US87, which through the wonders of poor planning doesn’t have an Interstate exit of it’s own… Perhaps the oil refinery just across from the fairgrounds was in the way?

Now granted, the taxpayers have been fleeced for some recent improvements to try to place Billings on the map, namely a medium sized arena and a couple medium sized exhibit halls that should be just fine for the state high school tournaments and winter farm shows. But the rest of the place is sorely lacking in landscaping or even grass, and the racetrack and grandstands looks darn near abandoned. The only shaded and grassy area of any size is an acre or so at the apex of those six lane highways, with a series of stop lights thrown in so we can count how many times some poor trucker will shift gears pulling away from a red light only to have the next light turn red on ’em. That and watching the steady stream of creative solutions to Montana’s 131,000 pounds on 11 axles weight limits and green light for long doubles and triples was mildly amusing for this retired trucker during the daylight hours.

That same conspiracy of stoplights provided a wondrous opportunity for Billings rednecks, teabaggers, and other fans of the “loud pipes save lives” mantra to get even with all them “un’merican” BMW riders by keeping them awake ’til well past bar closing time while they circled the fairgrounds attempting to demonstrate their bikes, pickups, and even big trucks considerable noise if not horsepower production. When you’ve got a 700 mile ride home a good night’s sleep is a good thing beforehand, and the couple thousand of us sleep deprived by Billing’s lowlife that has somehow managed to acquire a vehicle and remove it’s mufflers was not appreciated.

Now I suspect a mere text from the Billings Chamber’s tourism staffers who were much in evidence at rally HQ to the mayor would have brought some police presence to the area with a sound meter and maybe even a “vehicle noise limits enforced” sign would have solved that problem. But apparently in Billings the local rednecks who could never make it as cowboys but make noise with their pickups and Harleys instead are more important than a couple thousand motorcycle riders that created no problems while dropping a few million in the economy. So no Billings, we won’t bother you again. But I do have an award for you…

Billings… America’s biggest cow town.

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