Universal design is all the rage in building design these days; The idea is to design a building with features like handicap access and other features that allow it to be easily adapted for different uses throughout the buildings long life. I first heard the term a couple decades back when architects noted that when they included a wheelchair ramp in a new building, seemed like more delivery people with their two wheelers used it than folks in wheelchairs. Pretty quick they figured out that wide doors and ramps didn’t cost much more to build in the first place rather than add later, so much so that some towns even required such features in there building codes. But I suspect it was really the fast food biz that got universal design going- decades ago they standardized on  “pad” layouts for their resteraunts that would allow a Hardees to be easily reflagged as a Burger King, etc. The designs were standardized too- McDonalds quickly figured out that it was easier to design and erect a standard store that met code everywhere than to custom build to each code. The trend continues today- office buildings, warehouses, and strip malls are often built with extra doors and knock outs antcipating future uses, and walls are but temporary dividers.

Now it used to be that the the manufacturers gave us some pretty versatile vehicles. For example, my ’86 VW Golf diesel with it’s tall skinny tires worked great on dirt and snow. My ’84 BMW has adapted well to my needs over the years, tugging a sidecar as well as taking me to both coasts. And looking at the really big wheels, the locomotive makers quickly learned that the railroads didn’t care to pay for three locomotives- passenger, freight, and switcher- to do the job of one. So they invented the “road switcher”, and to this day that’s the standard American locomotive. Heck, the railroads even persuaded EMD to use the same cab windows as GE so they’d only have to stock one set of spares!

But smaller motor vehicles seem to be entering an age of increasing specialization. Take Volvo’s new fuel stingy XE option- a combination of long gearing, low RPM engine tune, and an automated mechanical transmission. It’s restricted to rural interstate cruising at a maximum of 80,000 pound GCW and usually equiped with a big sleeper and full aerodynamic plumage… And obsolete the day it’s built! With intermodal taking over hauls of over 500 miles, that big sleeper is just a thousand pounds or so of dead weight that could have been paying freight. By the time the first owner trades of the XE in five years or so, the sleeper will be full of cobwebs and worse small life forms as the truck’s home base becomes an intermodal railyard. And remember that 80K weight restriction? All over the midwest weight limits have gone up to 97K off the interstates, and in most western states there even higher. That’s just the beginning of an aging XE’s problems- truck second owners tend to be farmers and construction companies that need to get in and out of places that aren’t even roads, tearing up all that fancy aero plumage. Not that it’ll matter- a tall sleeper and fairing just waste fuel hauling a grain or dump trailer. Fortunately a few makers know better- Volvo could learn a few things from their Mack subsidiary, who offers a removable sleeper and the option of an on/off road chassis on their trucks. Or Kenworth’s versatile T800, available with steel bumpers and aero packages as well as a neat little sleeper that looks like a fairing.

The same affliction of specialization is afflicting four wheelers- Ford killed off the Ranger, it’s now the F150 or nuthin’. My newest VW diesel car came with s wide a tires as my pickup, probably to impress their “boy racer” target market. First time I drove on a gravel road I could feel the instability, and Ice and snow… Had to buy my first ever set of winter tires to keep it on the road. OK, manufacturers, I get the hint… I’m supposed to buy a car for paved roads, an SUV for dirt and wintry roads, and a pickup to haul anything. Take a look at the tow ratings for the new cars, if you can find any rated to tow at all- The manufacturers with rare exception expect you to buy an SUV or truck to tow even the smallest trailer.

Two wheelers have become just as specialized. Back in the days of peak sales in the 70s you bought a brit twin, a BMW airhead, a Harley, or a japanese twin and accessorized to suit. Touring? Just add bags and a windshield or fairing. Dirt? Pry on some knobbies! Commuting? A milk crate on the rear rack and you’re good to go! Well, nowdays even BMW with 2% market share has splintered their offerings into a half dozen platforms further split between dual sport, touring, sport, etc. variations. No wonder they can’t keep parts in stock! And accessories… I suspect when BMW was designing my F800S, they laid out a selection of aftermarket bags, rack, windshields and other assorted farkles, then designed the bike so none of them would fit. Sorry, BMW, it didn’t work- My F800S carries a Wolfman tankbag mounted backwards, throwover soft saddlebags, DIY power outlet, and not a single BMW accessory!

And bicycles? Don’t even get me started… Thank got REI still carries a “radioneer” touring bike and Bike Friday is still building there versatile folding bikes in Oregon. My Trek 7500, a great all rounder, ain’t built anymore, as I sadly found out when mine was totalled. No Trek, I’m not gonna wander over to your Trek Shop and buy a couple thousand dollar bicycle for every day of the week.

Gearheads, it’s time for a rebellion…

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