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.
Right now, it’s focused on trucks and other purposeful driving, but Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles, a Volkswagen Group subsidiary, is relying on a reimagined street icon as it prepares to implement autonomous driving in actual traffic use by 2025. The platform for this advancement is Volkswagen’s ID. BUZZ, a prototype for a coming all-electric takeoff on the legendary Samba van, which is expected to make its premiere sometime next year. Field testing is beginning in Germany on the self-driving system created by Argo AI, into which Volkswagen invested a billion dollars last year to develop self-driving logic.
If you found the original Samba as appealing a piece as we do, you’ll likely welcome its revival, no matter who or what is doing the driving. The overarching strategy behind the ID. BUZZ is for the van to incorporate ride-hailing and -pooling capabilities in urban areas. Meanwhile, Volkswagen has further applied billions of euros to its in-house Car Software Organization, which will be creating autonomous programs for non-commercial vehicles – the rest of us, in other words – while the commercial group gears its work toward eventual use by such providers as robo-taxis and van services.
If you grew up long enough ago to remember when Volvo’s product lineup was anchored by the venerable 122, known affectionately as the Amazon, you appreciate that the nameplate’s reputation in this country was forged via a message of staid-but-competent conservatism, The flip side of all this is that the Amazon was denuded a long time ago, Volvo isn’t a Swedish automaker any longer and in the world as a whole, societies are trying to keep the ozone layer from being fried into nothingness, with calamitous consequences. For all these reasons and more, Volvo, now a holding of the Geely automotive conglomerate in China, confirmed what’s been rumored for months: It will abandon the production of all cars using internal combustion engines – including hybrids – by 2030.
Auto manufacturers tend to view the process of going non-ICE as an effort to meaningfully reduce the firms’ life-cycle carbon footprint per individual vehicle. We have essentially reached the point where it’s no longer economically feasible for some automakers, especially those with non-Big Three sales volumes such as Volvo, to produce and federally certify gasoline-fueled powertrains that a diminishing number of customers are interested in buying in the first place. With doleful apologies to the naysayers, this is a textbook case of market forces driving management decision-making. It’s a big part of why Volvo introduced the above-depicted vehicle, the XC40 Recharge, in global markets late last year as its initial fully electric offering. Volvo’s plan envisions that by 2025, half of its global production will be fully electric, with the remainder hybrids. That means Volvo’s departure from pure ICE power is imminent, a reality that may be wistful for anybody who’s ever felt an overhead-valve B18B shake its way out of slumber.
It was good to get a communication this week from longtime associate Tim McGrane, a genuine mover in the world of collector cars whose personal CV boasts stints at the helm of the Blackhawk Collection in California and as head of the famed road circuit, Laguna Seca, on the Monterey Peninsula. Tim’s moved east for a new position as CEO of M1 Concourse, a motoring country club for enthusiasts who really like to use fast cars as properly intended, located in Pontiac, Michigan. Cognoscenti from the Wolverine State will immediately get that the facility’s name is a takeoff on a famous local highway designation, namely the immortal Woodward Avenue. M1 Concourse, under Tim’s leadership, has a cool array of forthcoming events that includes a matter of personal significance.
This Motown country club for car people includes 250 private garage condominiums, related amenities and Champion Motor Speedway, the 1.5-mile driving circuit that’s the centerpiece of the complex, opened in 2016 on the former site of General Motors’ Pontiac West assembly plant. M1 Concourse has three major weekends slated for its 2021 schedule, post-pandemic. The Woodward Dream Show, August 19th-21st, is an adjunct to the famed Woodward Dream Cruise. The facility’s signature 2021 event will be the inaugural American Speed Festival, set for September 30th-October 3rd, a combination of vintage races on the course with a limited car show honoring the Chaparral race cars of Jim Hall. The American Speed Festival will also host the induction ceremonies for both the 2020 and 2021 classes of inductees to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, which was located for a long time in nearby Novi, Michigan, before moving to Daytona International Speedway. Full disclosure, I’m an elector to the hall, which was forced to postpone both programs due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Think about it: Those two great American icons of the automobile, Mickey Thompson and Carroll Shelby, never cooperated on a vehicle together, in large part because each man’s road map through the industry and racing took such very different courses. Shelby was a Le Mans winner and a folk hero of international sports cars. Thompson was a hardcore hot rodder and drag racer who attacked Bonneville, Indianapolis and later largely invented stadium off-road competition. If both these guys had sidled up to each other in life and decided to cooperate on a vehicle design, we have a reasonable idea of what might have resulted. Here it is.
You notice they even got the color right? This is the 2021 Ford Shelby F-250 Super Baja, a traditionist off-road that happily rumbles its way right on by current considerations about carbon neutrality and the like. That ain’t no game for this arena, hoss: To be produced in a limited run of just 250 units, the F-250 Super Baja mates the Navistar-built Ford 6.7-liter Power Stroke turbocharged diesel V-8 with a Shelby American-scienced suspension created in collaboration with FOX Performance, of off-road shock absorber fame. The Super Baja struts on 18-inch alloy wheels shod with 37-inch BFGoodrich mudder tires, including a pair of spares riding the custom steel chase rack in the cargo bed. Vents, steps, lights and powder-coated trim abound. The stance and vibe speak for themselves. All this and 475 Navistar horsepower. Click to get on line, and if you’re picked, the tariff will be $125,805.
Elsewhere in the industrial powerhouse of South Korea, Kia’s sibling, Hyundai, has had its own newbie to roll out. And more than a vehicle, it’s actually a whole new brand. IONIQ, all upper case as per Hyundai style, is its nameplate for in-house EVs, which it marked this week by introducing the IONIQ 5, using the corporation’s BEV platform that’s exclusively earmarked for electric vehicles. The BEV derivative it rides on is known internally as E-GMP, standing for Electric-Global Modular Platform, an architecture that allowed the vehicle’s wheelbase to be extended as you can see in the photo, which comes to the round number of 3,000 millimeters. That treatment is intended to remind buyers of the humble vehicle that led Hyundai to its present station in global industrialization.
Look analytically at the interplay between the front fascia – there’s no grille, obviously – the rounded wheel arches, and the angle of the rear backlight. The IONIQ 5 is intended to be reminiscent of the Hyundai Pony, which debuted in 1975, a good decade before Hyundai first arrived to do battle in the U.S. market. So let’s say here that the first Pony was a thoroughly conventional compact sedan with a longitudinal layout and rear-wheel drive. It used engines and transmission supplied by Mitsubishi (the Hyundai Excel that succeeded the Pony, the first car Hyundai actually brought to the U.S., was a knockoff of the Mitsubishi Precis and Hyundai’s first front-drive car), and rode on a chassis designed by the British icon John Crosthwaite, the same guy who created the Lotus Eleven sports racer and later, the Intermeccanica Italia, the handsome, Ford-powered Italian-American collaboration.
We ought to start out by declaring what the new Kia Carnival isn’t before we disclose what it actually is. Initial reaction aside, this is not a rebadged or repurposed Telluride SUV. Instead, the Carnival is a completely new vehicle, probing a segment of the market that’s still early in its evolution. The Carnival is Kia’s entry that replaces the longstanding Sedona minivan, About the only thing the Carnival shares with its predecessor is three rows of seats. The Carnival is described by Kia as a “multi-purpose vehicle,” and despite its decided SUV-ish two-box profile, we need to make clear that by the conventionally accepted defnitions, this is not an SUV.
First, the seven- or eight-passenger Carnival is front-drive only; the standard engine is a best-in-class 3.5-liter V-6 producing 290 horsepower, linked to an eight-speed automatic transmission, and with a standard towing capacity of 3,500 pounds. Styled at Kia’s design complex in California and sharing its new N3 platform with the Sorrento SUV and the K5 sedan, the Carnival boasts a lower-than-normal step-in height, removable bucket seats, and available reclining VIP seats throughout the interior. The center seat can be folded down to create a table inside the cabin. The dashboard incorporates a matched pair of 12.3-inch LCD screens; one for vehicle information, one for infotainment purposes, with the most comprehensive ADAS suite in its segment. Due in the second quarter, the Carnival will be offered in four trim levels.
General Motors has a long, rich and decidedly uneven history in Trumbull County, Ohio. The massive assembly plant it opened in 1966 in Lordstown was one of the domestic auto industry’s first geared solely to producing compact cars. It was tasked with building the crucially important Chevrolet Vega subcompact, but an assembly line speedup led to a bitter national strike against GM in 1972. We all know how the Vega turned out. I have a good friend whose father was then a GM worker and who described his family being forced to live on grilled Spam during the yearlong walkout. Skidding sales of compacts led GM to shut down Lordstown Assembly in 2019 after its final vehicle, a Chevrolet Cruze LS, came down the line. The main plant has been taken over by Lordstown Motors, a startup that plans to build EVs. Elsewhere on the property, GM is making its own moves in that orbit.
This past week, ironworkers at the Lordstown site bolted in the final beam during a “topping out” ceremony for the new plant that’s going up, in which GM and LG Chem will team up to produce battery cells under their joint venture, Ultium Cells LLC. The partners are investing $2.3 billion to build what will ultimately be a 2.8 million-square-foot assembly and shipping operation.When completed next year, the plant will cover the equivalent area of 30 football fields and will have the capacity to produce batteries with the combined capacity of 30 gigawatt hours, with room to expand. Given the Youngstown region’s recent economic history, it’s encouraging to know that GM and LG Chem envision that the Lordstown project will create 1,100 new green-technology jobs in northeastern Ohio.
When it comes to technology that bespeaks uncompromising powertrain sophistication, few concepts get it done as forcefully as a 12-cylinder engine. There’s a guy across the street from here who vintage races an E-Type and an XJS, both with unmuffled Jaguar V-12 power. It’s very enjoyable when he stretches the cats’ legs by blasting up and down the road. You get it. Twelve-cylinder engines have commonly used the vee configuration, meaning that to accommodate one, you usually need a long hood: Think about a 1934 Packard, or a Ferrari 275 GTB/4. Packing twelve cylinders hasn’t always been practical, but there are ways to get it done. Here’s a technically delicious solution from Bentley,
The delightful image from Bentley shows what we’re talking about. A relatively recent strategy for packaging 12 cylinders in compact confines, largely as defined by Bentley, involves adding a third cylinder bank. It’s not easy to pick out visually, but this new 12, earmarked for Bentley’s forthcoming ultra-exclusive Mulliner Bacalar, has a middle cylinder bank rising vertically from the crankshaft bore. Bentley has been doing this for a considerable while, having introduced its first twin-turbocharged W-12 in 2003, and refining the process ever since. So far, the world’s only W-12 to see volume production has been produced by the Volkswagen Group, which happens to own Bentley, and was the source of that 2003 powerplant. It resided in the short-lived luxury Volkswagen Phaeton sedan before being making its way to the Bentley Continental Flying Spur and then back to Volkswagen, where it was offered in the Tourareg. The Mulliner Bacalar engine displaces 6.0 liters and produces 650 horsepower, while also reducing emissions by 28 percent over previous W-12s. Bentley has produced some 100,000 engines of this configuration for Volkswagen Group use at its base in Crewe, England.
Porsche has been so dominant in world motorsport for so long, in so many categories, using so many cars, that its performance hegemony is a given to many of us. Head to any round of the World Endurance Championship and you’ll see how numerous Porsche is, particularly in the non-prototype GT categories. A big part of the reason why is that when the green is unfurled, Porsche is always ready to play. Its most prominent race offerings recently have been the 911 RSR and the 911 GT3, a car so popular that it’s inspired its own racing series. It’s inspired a truly ultra version of the 911, one that proves that you still can buy a genuine race-bred automobile for the road, with that level of capability, for your very own if you choose your manufacturer appropriately.
The 2021 911 GT3 is directly derived from Porsche’s production-themed racing cars. Its double-wishbone front suspension is lifted directly from the 911 RSR, and its aerodynamics, including the swan tail, as it’s now called – “ducktail” is relic of the 1970s RS and Carrera – is similarly sourced. The engine is, again, decisively race-bred. It’s a water-cooled 4.0-liter flat six with dry-sump lubrication and 510 horsepower, running off a compression ratio of 13.3:1 that ought to get your track day positively crackling. Porsche refers to this engine as “acoustically impressive.” Sounds good in our book. The standard transaxle is a six-speed manual. Deliveries, for those with the fortitude to accept them, commence in May.
For the record, it’s not our goal to engage in social commentary, at least of the serious variety. So you can make all the gags you want about people whose motorsport involves both left and right turns preferring fermented grapes to beer. True story: I was under the grandstands at the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse one time, looking at the concession offerings for Super DIRT Week. One of the stands offered frozen upstate New York wine – a rose blush, as I recall – molded into a adult popsicle. Perhaps fittingly, given that the race was for Modifieds on a dirt mile, the frozen wine concession wasn’t open. Just saying. Other places, other things: Just now, the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association, an organization that warmly embraces racing cars of the past, has selected Adobe Road wines as the The Official Wine of SVRA, effectively immediately.
This ain’t no exercise for dilettantes, we’ll have you know. That’s because the owner and founder of Adobe Road Winery in Sonoma County, California, is Kevin Buckler, who happens to be a real race driver, not just a vintner (winemaker? winesmith?). Buckler is also founder of The Racers Group, motivating in a series of trick Porsche 911 GT3 cars, and winning the Rolex 24 up the street at Daytona International Speedway back in 2003. Since its founding, Adobe Road Winery has produced more than 90 handcrafted wines that have been peer-reviewed in influential industry publications such as Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. Very impressive, especially for those among us who grew up with an affinity for wines that came in screw-cap bottles and are now broadening our horizons.