I’m Jim Donnelly, and thanks for stopping by my new website, Jim Donnelly On Wheels. Some of you already know who I am. I was previously the senior editor of Hemmings Motor News in Bennington, Vermont, and before that, I held a bunch of positions at a daily newspaper in the Philadelphia area, including automotive and motorsport writer. I hold more than 50 journalism awards and have been in this life for more than 35 years. I’ve written books about my friend Don Miller, the former president of Penske Racing and a mega car guy; and one on the history of automotive advertising. What I hope to accomplish here is to share some of the stuff that I consider so worthy, inspiring and, really, life-changing. The automobile unhitched us all from the pieces of dirt we once called home. Going fast brought us thrills. Watching others compete in cars made us marvel at people with such limitless skills, determination and fortitude. Cars upended our whole existence totally and irreversibly, the same way that computers are doing today, so it’s entirely appropriate to marry the two of them here. What you’re going to find here is fresh info on what’s going on in the world of cars, what’s innovative, history that’s worth remembering, roads worth driving, races worth attending, books worth reading, cars worth buying, and maybe even some places to dine that are worth a stop when you’re out on the highways. No politics. I’ll leave that sordid topic to those who claim to know it. Let’s get rolling, because this is going to be a hell of a ride we’re going on together.
Kokomo, Indiana, is the seat of Howard County, located about an hour north of Indianapolis along U.S. 31 about halfway to South Bend. It’s been a landmark in the automotive world going back more than a century to when Elwood Haynes built his first internal-combustion carriage there in 1894, the first year that the first pneumatic tire produced in the United States was tested nearby. Haynes’ carriage eventually became the pioneering Haynes-Apperson automobile. Delco, as the General Motors electronic subsidiary was then known, had a major factory in Kokomo. More recently, Kokomo is home to a terrific eponymous speedway that sells a really good grilled pork chop sandwich while also serving up non-wing 410 Sprint cars. The city has long been a Chrysler stronghold. Today, its parent company, Stellantis, operates three major powertrain plants in Kokomo that employ more than 7,000 workers.
That pentastar presence – sorry, couldn’t resist – got a significant boost last week when Stellantis announced a $229 investment in all three of its existing Kokomo plants, where a fourth-generation version of its eight-speed automatic transmission will be produced for Dodge- and Ram-badged Stellantis vehicles with mild or plug-in hybrid powertrains. The electrified eight-speed will be directly adaptable to existing Stellantis internal-combustion engines as part of the firm’s goal to have low-emissions vehicles account for 40 percent of its U.S. sales by 2030. The guy on the left of the Stellantis photo is Eric J. Holcomb, the governor of Indiana, who joined with Stellantis powertrain chief Brad Clark is autographing another Kokomo automotive benchmark, the 5 millionth eight-speed automatic, which the Kokomo Transmission Plant assembled last week.
Driving a Ford Expedition, one of whose claimed attributes when it first arrived was its greater overall length than the Chevrolet Suburban, is all about making your footprint plain to the world. Coming up with an activity-modified version of the Expedition was an obvious natural, given the ample room for accessories that its sheer size makes feasible. That’s why the newly unveiled Expedition Timberline Off-Grid concept vehicle, which Ford rolled out last week at the Overland Expo East trade show in Arrington, Virginia, is entirely intelligent. It features a whole raft of back-country lifestyle accessories from all the right providers as part of the concept package. But it’s still only one vehicle, and to Ford, at least, that looked a little inadequate.
Looking at the Expedition’s accessorization by aftermarket biggies such as Rigid, FOX Performance, DeeZee and Thule, Ford opted to take the next step by adding a trailer, specifically a Turtleback Expedition Series custom unit, the largest such tag-along in Turtleback’s catalog. It matches the Expedition’s Method wheel and General Grabber tire package, while adding a propane two-burner stove, a sink, two drop-down tables and a 42-gallon water tank with heater, with an external shower hookup and optional 100-watt solar panel. It’s still not the Hampton Inn but it definitely beats sleeping on the bare ground, and a lot of this should eventually land in Ford showrooms in some form.
Next time somebody carps to you about how electric vehicles are a gigantic government conspiracy to steal your freedom to spew hydrocarbons, or that climate change is a made-up lie to enslave the masses, or something equally stupid, here’s a factoid you can toss back at the accuser. Volkswagen’s all-electric ID.3 is just completing its first full year in the marketplace, having been placed on sale here earlier this year, a bit later after it went on sale in the EU. Since then, ID.4s have been delivered for fleet use in the United Kingdom, and the first deliveries to retail customers have begun in China. So people are buying these cars.
Volkswagen has just disclosed its first market research into ID.4 sales in conjunction with the EV’s appearance at the Chengdu Motor Show in China. Globally, more than 144,000 orders have been placed for the ID.4 – fully half of them from new customers who have never owned a Volkswagen in the past. The research shows buyers are attracted for three reasons: climate-friendly, innovative, strong dealer network. In August, the ID.4 was the top-selling EV in markets including Germany, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Austria and Switzerland. The ID.4-dedicated assembly line at the Volkswagen plant in Zwickau, Germany, is now running three shifts to keep up with demand.
No question, the Ford Mustang GT, with its ripping 5.0-liter V-8, is an almost obscenely good bargain when it comes to unalloyed American horsepower. It’s so desirable that the base Mustang – always identifiable by the galloping chrome pony on its tail panel – sometimes gets neglected by the masses, inappropriately so given the fact that it offers 310 turbocharged horsepower as standard outfitting. Specifically, the model we’re discussing is the Mustang EcoBoost Premium, which is about to become more – and less – noticeable through Ford’s new Stealth Appearance Package.
To achieve its measure of Stealth, the turbo V-6 Mustang gets 19-inch aluminum wheels finished in Ebony Black and pony insignias to match. Also included is a rear wing, black-finished mirror housings and clear lenses for the taillamps, which incorporate the Mustang’s sequential rear turn indicators. Inside is a matte and gloss black instrument panel badge and lighted sill plate. The Stealth Edition will be available in Atlas Blue, Carbonized Gray, Dark Matter and Shadow Black, with deliveries commencing in the first quarter of 2022.
If you get into road-less-traveled kind of reminiscing, try this: Back in the early 1970s, the father of a high school classmate was the owner of a Mazda dealership, a rare commodity in those days. And I was sponging up prose from Motor Trend, et al, that was gushing about what Mazda was accomplishing by sticking something very radical, the rotary-cycle engine designed by Dr. Ing. Felix Wankel, into a host of relatively cheap cars. All of a sudden, you could honestly buy a car you could zing past 8,000 rpm on every upshift for comparatively short money. The story of what happened next is told in the 192 softcover pages of Mazda Rotary Engine Cars, a definitive look at this entertaining and highly individualistic cars, which has never been told in this much detail before.
The author, Marc Cranswick, is a British engineer and author with a special grounding in postwar American cars, a market in which Mazda made an outwardly loud impact out of all proportion to its sales numbers in an effort that culminated with Le Mans triumph in 1991, which erased the competition so thoroughly that the Wankel-powered sports prototype was summarily banned. This work focuses on basic Wankel technology and its applications in road Mazdas from the Cosmo – priced one of those at auction lately? – to the shrieking RX-8. In my adolescence, the Mazda cars that everyone got jazzed over were the little rear-drive RX-2 and RX-3 sedans – the RX-7 came later – cars that you’re unlikely to spot anywhere today other than an all-Japanese car show in Southern California or just maybe, the show field at Hershey. Cranswick’s book is the only Mazda, or Wankel, history that addresses these memorable cars at all, to say nothing of the RX-4 station wagon (the Luce, to the rest of the world), or the outrageous Rotary Power pickup, which just might have convinced Dodge a few years later that a high-performance truck wasn’t a nutty idea after all. Just pointing it out. As of yesterday, you could order this intriguing book for $37.31 from the website of Veloce Publishing Ltd., as above, which does the currency conversion for you.
While schlubs like you and me were worrying about more mundane stuff, like the second half of my dental bill, the people who breathe the rarified air of really big money have been doing their thing this weekend in rarified air indeed, the kind that envelops Lake Como in the reaches of the Italian Alps. That’s the backdrop selected by Rolls-Royce – specifically, this weekend’s Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este on Lake Como, one of the Continent’s most exclusive automotive salons – to introduce the Boat Tail, the hyper-personalized custom coachbuilt open tourer, to a small group of meticulously selected – meaning very rich – potential buyers admiring the elegant display.
As the dual side-opening deck lids clearly imply, this is an automobile where nautical styling themes exist in abundance. The invitation-only rollout was administered by none other than Rolls-Royce CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös, and held on the Mosaic Lawn at the Grand Hotel Villa d’Este overlooking Lake Como, where the concours, which dates to 1929, concluded today. The Boat Tail was exhibited four years after the first edition in Rolls-Royce’s current coachbuilding history, the Sweptail, was introduced at the same location in 2017. What a Boat Tail cost? Are you kidding?
In a little bit of shameless self-promotion, we’ve recently been the topic of an extensive video interview by fellow Floridian Jeff Sterns, who is the founder and host of Jeff Sterns Connected Through Cars, a globally connected podcast with streaming capability that’s updated every Wednesday with in-depth conversations involving interesting personages from worlds of cars and racing. Among the guests Jeff has introduced to the wider world are Malcolm Bricklin, who not only created his eponymous safety sports car but also gets credit for introducing the United States to Subaru; publishing and public relations icon Marty Schorr, and Derek Bell, who won the 24 Hours of Le Mans five times. Pretty good company.
You can visit Jeff’s website to stream the long-form interview, which is also posted in an abbreviated, introductory form on YouTube, and can be found by clicking here. Jeff’s also ordered the conversation into YouTube snippets that discuss the wild competition years at departed Flemington Fair Speedway and a great PR outing that Marty organized to commemorate one of the great modern American performance engines, the turbocharged Buick V-6. We also touch on recent doings at Hemmings Motor News, Speed Sport and Crankshaft. Tune in and crank it up.
Gasoline has been Jeep’s blood since the American Bantam days back in Butler, Pennsylvania, a historical fixed point that’s just shifted a bit. That’s because the fifth-generation Jeep Grand Cherokee, a hugely important profit center for the North America operations of Stellantis, is being offered with the first plug-in hybrid powertrain in the model’s history. The 2022 Grand Cherokee 4xe, as it’s being called, combines two electric motors and a 400-watt plug-in battery pack with the turbocharged 2.0-liter four that’s part of the Global Medium Engine family from Stellantis.
This is a significantly big vehicle, yet the hybrid powertrain is reported to deliver the equivalent of 52 MPG while allowing for up to 25 continuous miles of all-electric operation. The powertrain produces a combined 375 horsepower. The Grand Cherokee 4xe encompasses the Quadra Trac II all-wheel drive system, with a two-speed transfer case. With an eye toward fuel efficiency and emissions, electronic power steering and an electrically powered climate control compressor help reduce parasitic loads on the engine. Three driveline modes, including full electric and full ICE, will be offered.
Henry Ford started building cars on his own, and eventually became so good at it that he was able to achieve what your Production Management 102 textbook might have called vertical integration, which essentially means controlling the entire manufacturing process from raw materials to finished product. The Old Man controlled iron mines in Minnesota, forests for his auto body components in upper Michigan and rubber plantations in South America. He pioneered the widespread use of vanadium steel in auto manufacturing and was making a serious stab at developing car components from vegetable products when he slid into dementia. Before then, he envisioned and erected the sprawling Rouge Complex in Dearborn, where ore and coal were loaded into one end of the plant and completed Model Ts drove out the other. It’s still hammering out new Fords today.
Capital investment on a scale massive enough to build something like the Rouge from scratch seldom happens anymore, because the risk is too daunting for most investors to easily handle, but a century later, Ford intends to remake the business of building cars on a level unseen in our lifetimes. Ford and its technology partner, SK Innovation of South Korea, will invest up to $11.8 billion to build a Rouge-proportion assembly center dedicated to electric vehicles in Stanton, Tennessee, not far from Memphis, and two new factories in Kentucky where SK Innovation energy-storage hardware for use in Ford vehicles will be produced. The Blue Oval City complex in Tennessee, and the Kentucky operations, are expected to employ 11,000, including 6,000 entirely new jobs, and to roll out its first vehicle – the electric F-150 – by 2025. The artist’s rendering shows the scope of Blue Oval City, which will rise on six square miles and represent the largest and most efficient factory Ford has opened in its 118 years. It’s tough not to be impressed.
If you’re of a certain vintage, as vintners like to put it, you may recall that back in the 1970s, Chevrolet offered an option package that turned its newly introduced hatchback version of the Nova coupe into a rolling campsite, with a tent that folded out from the open hatch. It was a revival of a periodic concept that likely dates back to the Kaiser Traveler of the 1940s, if not earlier. With the help of its aftermarket accessory partner NISMO, Nissan just debuted a raft of off-road components for its midsize Frontier pickup at the 2021 Overland Expo West, which just took place in Flagstaff, Arizona. In addition to auxiliary lighting and a rack for the cargo bed, NISMO has come up with an accommodation offering that nicely recalls the camping packages of yore.
The NISMO Off Road Rooftop Tent package shown here provides reasonable room for two travelers with a fold-out tent that mounts above the aforementioned NISMO bed rack. Made of polyester canvas, the tent is adaptable to other rack system, includes a wall-to-wall mattress and access extension ladder, and has a weight capacity of 600 pounds. Availability is projected for early calendar year 2022.