Today our new unelected president was sworn in, rather boring event. I was more interested in his inauguration speech, and Trump went full nationalist. Hitler and Mussolini would have been proud, and both managed to leave their country’s industry, auto and otherwise, in ruins. In the worst tradition of those fascist dictators Trump promised “America First”, with “Hire American” and “Buy American” policies. I’ll put aside the “Hire American” threat for now, suffice to say with our ‘Merican economy at full employment, we’ll need some new americans to hire if Trump’s Tariffs actually work.

Trump has been ranting threats of 35% tariffs for months against Mexican, German, and now even Canadian built cars. Yet the automakers haven’t announced a single new American auto plant as a result. For good reason- An auto plant is a multi-billion dollar investment that will take at least a presidential term to build and bring online, and decades to pay off. And while you’d think the companies with the most plants and production capacity here would welcome Trump’s offer to disadvantage their more foreign made competitors, none have welcomed Trump’s tariffs.

Why?

Well for a start, there’s no such thing as an “American” car, or even truck. Ford is building pickups in Kansas City and Kentucky with engines made in Canada, Mexico, and the U.S.. Same with hundreds and even thousands of other parts. GM and FIAT-Chrysler build many of their pickups in Mexico with engines from the U.S.. I’m currently in the market for a new vehicle and choosing between the Ford Fusion built in Mexico, the Escape built in Michigan, and the Transit Connect built in Spain… And depending which model and drivetrain I choose, those parts make come from Great Britain, Spain, or the U.S.. The automakers decisions of what to build where are driven by economics- It costs a billion dollars or more to develop and tool up for a new model, and they need a volume of 200,000 units a year to make a popular priced vehicle profitably. Thus Ford builds models that sell in low volumes here like the Transit Connect in Spain where the added volume of the Euro market makes it profitable, while building high volume models like the big Transit and F150 in the U.S.. The Fiesta, probably Ford’s lowest margin car, is built in Mexico while the the slightly more profitable Focus is built in Michigan. Conversely, the pickups are largely a North American market only product, with the exception of small but profitable export markets like the mideast oil producing countries, while an older model Super Duty is produced in Brazil in response to tariffs there. GM, FIAT-Chrysler, Toyota etc. follow similar strategies.

So despite most of our auto plants here running at capacity, Trump turns loose his threatened 35% tariffs. BMW, Mercedes, and the other luxury brands privately laugh, using the tariffs as an excuse to further inflate prices and profits on cars that in some cases are already built here anyways. Ford, for example, is in a pickle though- Without a huge profit margin, they’ll have to increase prices on U.S. built vehicles to cover the tariffs on imported parts going into those vehicles. Sales on the U.S. built pickups, Transit, Focus, Taurus, and SUVs fall. Once prices rise to cover Trump’s 35% tariffs, not enough low volume models like the Transit Connect sell to be worth the bother, and a Mexican built Fiesta costs more than a bigger Focus. Ford drops the Fiesta from the U.S. lineup and maybe the Focus too, and imported powertrain options like the PowerStroke diesel are dropped after 35% tariffs make them unmarketable. The more profitable Bronco and Ranger that were going to keep autoworkers employed in Michigan are cancelled because they require a lot of imported parts that are too low volume to build here, and with Focus sales falling Ford is forced to close that very same Michigan plant he made such a fuss about “saving”. Same at GM, FIAT-Chrysler, Toyota, Honda, etc… prices rise as imported content is hit by Trump’s tariffs, sales drop, and plants are closed.

The process is repeated in most every industry like construction equipment, machinery, aircraft, etc. that the U.S. is still competitive in thanks to international parts sourcing. And that’s just the first order consequences of Trump’s tariffs… Next we’ll see retaliatory tariffs destroy family farming in a way we haven’t seen since the depression. But I’ll save that discussion for a future post…

 

dsc_5558I’ve made something of a career of postmortems of rallies that didn’t go well, especially BMWMOA’s. But the North East Florida BMW riders have made my job near impossible… I can’t find much to complain about. Sure, the traffic between south and north Florida makes for a long grueling day of riding through the 700 mile long suburb better known as Florida. The winter rally makes up for it by letting us arrive thursday, so we miss none of the friday events and get two full days in GearHead heaven before we face Florida traffic again. This is the Winter Rally, and even in north Florida it can get below freezing. Not to worry, highs in the 70s and lows in the 50s. The site is a military base in the middle of nowhere, but the club provides ample sustenance, supplemented by a couple on base restaurants and a well stocked PX, just in case you lost some required uniform bits on leave. The campgrounds are huge, or join the club and get cheap “billeting” on base. The only down side I see is that unless your active duty or a vet, you have to leave when the rally ends on sunday…

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‘Course, every self respecting BMW rally has an airhead encampment, and we did the Winter Rally proud. My hack’d R65LS needed but a sip of oil, but the electricals of the bike on the left allowed some essential electrons to turn to smoke, and we made repairs at least as good as the already disreputable wiring harness. Got the bike running, and haven’t heard of it breaking down on the way home to Tampa. Oh, and see that substantial woodpile behind the Prius? The airheads also build an impressive bonfire as well as keep the campers cafinated via the airhead cafe’ under the canopy.

So BMW  clubs and especially the MOA, kindly follow the Northeast Florida Club’s example and put on a great rally!

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OK, while attendance did rise into the double digits (most had left by the time we remembered to take a picture) we’re, as they say in sports, in a “rebuilding year”. Veteran “coach” Roger, after a legendary string of successful tech daze, has finally taken a well deserved retirement. We also lost a couple star performers to heaven’s airhead team. But new “coach” Jeff is growing into the job, and us old players will still make the plays and score some points while our draft picks hone their skills. Didn’t help either that we had an 80% chance of rain that became 100%, followed by gusty winds bringing in a cold front. Heck, they even had wind chill warnings out for South Florida!

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None the less, we muddled through pretty well- This /2 received a new U-joint boot. Also did some general maintenance on Louis’ R100, new steering bearings on I think it was a /6, and assembled another /6 from the crankshaft back. Got everything back together by mid afternoon and kicked back with the usual airhead libations… We usually don’t reach that point until after dark sunday!

So like the Cubs, hope springs eternal, and we’ll win the series next year… See you in Naples again, first weekend after new years!

Read the book “Hidden Figures”, see the movie too. This is the story of the women, many of them African American, who made 30+ MPG cars powered by 200+ HP engines that do 150 MPH possible. Back in 1935 NASA, then known as NACA, began hiring “computers” to do the maths to determine the best way for cars and planes to carve through the air and air to get through engines better. Only one year before Chrysler has introduced the radical for it’s time Airflow, the first car that was more aerodynamic going forward than in reverse. These were the dark days of aerodynamics, and these women did the heavy lifting to bring us the fast and efficient vehicles, aircraft, and spacecraft of today.

Noting that GM was trying hard to pump up the 2016 sales stats and probably their stock price too, GM and Costco are offering supplier price, a $700 cash card, and probably a cheesy toaster too if you’ll buy a new GM car by end of business year. “Vettes and Volts included. So on the off chance a good deal on a Colorado diesel pickup was in the offing, I queried Costco’s auto website and made the mistake of giving them my e-mail and phone number…

What followed was a deluge of e-mails, phone calls, and even a text from Hendrick Chevy here in Naples. Would I like to make an appointment for a test drive? Even two calls from allegedly my home area code to verify that I’d been contacted. I actually stopped by the dealership to measure the bed of the pickup and quietly parked by the used car office… I’d hardly gotten out of the car before a salesperson was being paged there over the PA. I ducked out before he arrived, by which time an actual paying customer had arrived for him to “help”. Did a quick visual inventory check, and nary a long bed crew cab on the lot, and the diesel is only available with the crew cab. Wandered through the show room and not a brochure in sight… God forbid a customer actually help themselves!

Having no luck with the Chevy store, I tried Costco’s local GMC dealer, Devoe. They at least had the wisdom to surrender after only one phone call, and shared that GM only builds long box diesel Colorados to order. Meanwhile, a day after I told Hendrick Chevy they didn’t have a truck to suit me, they just sent me another e-mail…

Maybe I should have shopped for a ‘Vette… Searched some online forums and with the GM/Costco deal 20% off list is common. ‘Vettes list for $55K and it’s near impossible to option one over $100k, despite the fact that on the tracks the ‘Vettes routinely beat imported exotics with $200k and up price tags. And Hendricks Chevy has a whole row of ‘Vettes, and whole rows of dorky pickups with similarly lofty price tags… Easy choice! Heck, even the loaded Colorados are pushing $50k.

The ‘Vettes are darn tempting, problem is, anything that looks that fast is a “rolling probable cause”, which means you’d best not be speeding in one. Better a plain sedan with muscular powertrain and suspension, for my purposes…

Up here on the tundra we keep our big jackets with the big pockets on all winter, never know when a blizzard gonna come up. We keep them big pockets full of gloves and survival  supplies, and with the rather loose open bar beforehand I’d loaded up on some vintages far beyond my normal budget. Microsoft apparently wanted to impress us with their “convertible” laptops and software, so I grabbed a lifetime supply of each too. Rumor had also spread that the containers of Santa’s toys contained a few “extras”, just in case…

When it had become rapidly obvious that our self-driving truck had mistaken the frozen Red River for I-29 and a low bridge was imminent, I pulled the big red knob and hoped for the best. This of course sets the emergency brakes on both trailers to full locked wheels, but all that commotion set the ice into full failure mode, sinking the whole rig a couple feet as we sat parked on the shallow bottom of the river under a county road bridge a few miles south of Fargo. With satellite and cell reception blocked by the bridge and valley, the truck’s computers went nuts. Spotting what looked to be a fire tanker access ramp easing up the riverbank I saw an exit, and the mucky river bottom probably gave better traction than the ice. But the Freightliner and it’s electronics would have none of it, and responded to my engaging gear with a total system shutdown.

So I climbed out and reconnoitered, county road signs orienting me… I-29 being terminally boring, I usual travel US-75 or old US-81 between Fargo and points south. Wasn’t there a taller than usual Mack MH cabover sleeping in a farmyard a hundred yards west? Never mind the cold and snow, I quickly walked that hundred yards and was greeted by a little ol’ house with a roaring wood stove and an already inebriated trio of bachelor farmers. Gave the bachelor farmers a few bottles of the cheaper booze as “icebreakers”, then made small talk ’til they were drunk enough to make an offer for the Mack. We settled on new laptops for each of them, more booze, and a hunting rifle apiece. Inspected the Mack and found it matched my suspicions- limited production all wheel drive UPS tractor built for the Colorado Rockies, even the chain box was full of enough iron for every wheel. Started right up with a jump, and while it warmed up we opened the containers to see what firearms were available. By Canadian regulation the ammunition was far separate from the firearms, and I offered them some oddball rifles they were unlikely to have ammo for, being I still had to get the dead Freightliner aside and the trailers outa the river…

The deal was done and I chained up the Mack, proceeding down that ramp into the river. Tire chains ain’t supposed to be used for towing but they did the job, though Freightliner should really get all their “tupperware” outa the way of solid tow chain attachment points.  Even with the dead Freightliner’s brakes locked it was no contest, the Mack quickly moving it aside. The real challenge was the loaded trailers, but they were already half jackknifed by the panic stop so I could get a running start before the “train” stretched out and their load was felt. Finally made it up the ramp and outa the river, then consulted the old reliable paper map and found my way to I-29 south.

The storm delivered everything advertised- snow, thunder, freezing rain, fog, whatever. Ended up hanging all the chains to get over the Buffalo Ridge, finally ran outa the ice and made tracks to Sioux Falls. Learned a few new tricks… When everything is covered with ice, if the wind gusts blow your back trailer into a guardrail it just slides on the ice and does no damage. Backed the trailers into the dock by midnight and let the elves deal with it.

And Freightliner, you might want to get your piece of junk outa the river before the spring floods. And when the weather clears, I promised the bachelor farmers I’d come back and show them how to use the computers… Then again, they may have found ammo for their new guns by then!

If you’ve followed this irregular blog regularly for a few years, you’ve noted that I seem to end up in the service of Santa every xmas. Ever short staffed, Santa seems to send out an invite to a North Pole or thereabouts “media event” to every writer with a CDL or Locomotive Engineer’s license every December, and I sucker for it every time.

With global warming, the logistics are shifting- While the North Pole is still officially Santa’s “home office”, the actual workshops where the elves toil have been moving to terra firma ringing the increasingly navigable arctic sea lanes. And thanks to the activism of Humane Societies everywhere, the reindeer have been retired to ceremonial duties while a fleet of now obsolete Panamax container ships have taken their place. On land,  Santa’s traditional fleet of steam locomotives is now supplemented with early diesel streamliners, which produce damn near as much smoke but little steam.

This makes the logistics path for the coasts fairly simple- Just sail in to the empty for the  holiday weekend ports and cross dock to the waiting sleights and horseless carriages. But for the middle of the continent, it’s a little more complicated, what with the rocky Canadian Shield being a bit more of a bar to navigation than mere ice. But thanks to the dissolution of the legendary Canadian Wheat Pool, there’s an underused port and railroad running south available at Churchill, Manitoba at the south end of Hudson Bay… And Santa is all over it!. Get the container ships of toys into the harbor before freeze up, transfer to the waiting trains, then fleet them south down the single track. But if you’ve looked at a North American rail map, you’ve noted that most railroads go east-west and Santa’s toys need to go south. Fortunately there’s a little used intermodal lift facility in the giant BNSF yard near Fargo just before the tracks from the north turn east and west, and it’s right by Interstates 29 and 94…

So it was that I was summoned on xmas eve to a familiar sounding address in the boom town that is Fargo. Expecting the usual industrial digs or worse, arriving by the failing light of late afternoon what should appear out of the fog but a fancy new glass and steel modern office building, and stranger yet was a suspicious “Windows” logos all over the place. Hadn’t even walked up to the guard’s desk and my $200 Windoze laptop was overheating, and it was supposed to be off. Inside, instead of a vast warehouse or garage with abundant sweets, cider, and hot cocoa was a buffet of skimpy organic vegies and lettuces and an open bar stocked with expensive beverages far beyond my usual experience. I thought they wanted us to drive tonight?

I’d noticed a lot of Mercedes in the lot, but Microsoft does pay above market for Fargo, but still low by Seattle standards, which probably explains why they’re there. After an hour or so of alcohol availability, Freightliner’s finest “spin doctors” went to work, attempting to impress us with their latest “autonomous” trucks. And as some of the press collapsed from the libations, a Freightliner VP of something or other took the stage and detailed our xmas eve assignment. In the back parking lot were dozens of new self-driving Freightliner trucks, and we were to bobtail the couple miles over to the intermodal rail yard, hook to our trailers, and make our deliveries. I’d made the mistake of letting slip that I had a doubles endorsement, and was rewarded with a route south on Interstate 29 and not one but two trailers.

Introduced to our Freightliner, I was greeted by a massive dashboard display full of Windows 10. Tried to just start the truck and drive, but the truck/computer insisted I enter our destination, and it didn’t know what or where BNSF Dilworth Yard was. Looked up the address on my cheapie ‘droid phone and manually entered it and Windows was happy. Fog wasn’t too thick yet and plenty of streetlights to navigate by, so after a couple hours I’d rolled two containers on trailers across the line to North Dakota where the pair could legally be married and hitched the whole mess together.

I’d become increasingly confident in the trucks ability to drive itself, and after I’d taught it the route on the first trip I could pretty much let it take over on the second trip… No doubt the truck’s computer was recording GPS waypoints and learning that route. After a couple turns on the main streets it seemed to learn how wide to take the corners with two trailers in tow, so as we got close to the freeway I punched in “follow route”, should be easy for the truck’s computer to find I-29 to Sioux Falls. I clicked on the web browser to check out the weather and road conditions…

The fog was getting thicker, thick enough that the usual landmarks had disappeared. Don’t remember the onramp to 1-29 being that steep a downhill, nor the actual freeway near as crooked as the parallel Red River of the North. In the absence of visual clues, I cracked the window a bit… Is that cracking thunder? But we needed to get south before the freezing rain and blizzard caught us, and I don’t remember 1-29 ever being this smooth… Dang Freightliner at least rides good, lean the seat back and I could fall asleep…

Dang, that’s a low bridge ahead!