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.
A few years ago, I wandered into a Guitar Center location in Colonie, New York, where I used to live. I had my Amex gold car in my wallet. I was all ready to slap the plastic on the counter for a new Fender American Original Telecaster, with a lacquered ash body just like Bruce Springsteen’s axe, and a matching Fender amplifier. The bill would have come to something like $2,500. It almost did it, until my rush of enthusiasm was tempered by the realization that I hadn’t played a note since I stepped away from the piano, a misadventure commanded by my parents, back around 1969 or 1970. I’ll probably never get that Telecaster but that’s not to say that I, and you, can’t enjoy Fender-juiced sound, especially when driving. Volkswagen has now taken care of that.
Volkswagen has partnered with both Fender and Panasonic since 2011 on developing premium audio systems for its vehicles, starting first with the Beetle and advancing across the Golf, Jetta, Passat and Tiguan lines. The wizards from Wolfsburg (and lately, Chattanooga) have now adapted Fender and Panasonic sound to the 2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport. That involved some engineering challenges, since the Atlas is Volkswagen’s largest vehicle, a large SUV with five seats across two rows, as opposed to the normal three rows of seats in the basic Atlas. The Cross Sport package combines a dozen Fender speakers, like the one depicted above in the front passenger door panel, ranging in dimension from 60 to 200mm. The system can produce 480 watts’ worth of aurally tuned power, enough to keep anyone humming, both literally and figuratively. What, then, is an Atlas Cross Sport? Besides having five seats, it stands as the Atlas line’s price leader, with a flexible cargo layout, and your choice of 2.0-liter TSI inline-four producing 235hp or a 3.6-liter VR6 that’s rated at 276hp. It’s visually distinguished by its lowered roofline and sloped rear liftgate. A sunroof measuring 4.5 feet by 3 feet is optionally available.
Memorial Day weekend has been welded to the history of the Indianapolis 500 since the race’s inception in 1911. It quickly became obvious that the coronavirus crisis, when juxtaposed against the massive logistical effort to the present the world’s biggest one-day sporting event, was probably going to claim the race. just like the Tokyo Olympics. That became a reality last week when the 104th running of the Indianapolis 500 was pushed back to August 23, pushing the race out of the month of May for the first time ever. Initially, at least, it was like learning that the Super Bowl was going to be played in October. The whole thing seemed seriously off kilter until you did some close examination of several racing schedules that have been unceremoniously upended by COVID-19. Then things get much more interesting.
Take heart by observing this Team Penske photo that shows three-time winner Helio Castroneves about to reef his Dallara IR18-Chevrolet into Turn One during last year’s 500. The glorious scene will be repeated this summer, only with some major twists. The schedule change has pushed IndyCar’s GMR Grand Prix, run on the IMS road course, to July 4th, the same day as the NASCAR Xfinity Series’ Pennzoil 150, which is also being run on the road course for the first time. This will create the IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheader that a lot of motorsports observers, including yours truly, have encouraged as a strategy to help the gate of both series’ events, which could clearly use a boost. Not only that, but the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard – the erstwhile Brickyard 400 – runs the very next day, July 5th. It’s difficult to imaging that the lead-in crowd for the July 4th twinbill won’t help both the box office and TV ratings for the Brickyard, whose audience numbers have flagged significantly in recent years. From there, IMS segues into preparations for the Indianapolis 500 by Gainbridge, the first to be presented by Roger Penske, who now owns both the track and the series. If the virus is finally mitigated by then and everything comes off as planned, this could prove to be a huge, historic happening. Want a piece of it? Head for the IMS website to start your planning and ticket purchases. I might be in the house myself for this one.
If your intention is to practice journalism, one of the things you need to learn quickly is that there are two sides to every story, no matter what the story is. In that spirit, we’re going to attempt to present the most significant automotive news to appear in the last couple of days. On Friday, General Motors announced that it will partner with Ventec Life Systems of Bothell, Washington, to mass-produce Ventec’s line of VOCSYN critical-care ventilators at its parts plant in Kokomo, Indiana, and a body-stamping facility in Marion, Indiana. At the same time, GM also disclosed its intention to make up to 100,000 Level 1 surgical masks at its famed manufacturing operation in Warren, Michigan. Initial production is set to get underway this week.
The announcement followed criticism from White House officials that GM, one of the world’s largest manufacturing concerns, was “dragging its feet” in adapting its production assets to making health-care goods. The criticism singled out GM chairwoman and CEO Mary T. Barra for special scrutiny. So, while not deviating from the fact that this site focuses on cars, we present what happened, in sequence of the occurrences last week. You can decide on your own whether the amplified criticism was warranted. For its part, GM answered the criticism by releasing a statement reading, in its entirety, “Ventec, GM and our supply base have been working around the clock for over a week to meet this urgent need. Our commitment to build Ventec’s high-quality critical care ventilator, VOCSN, has never wavered. The partnership between Ventec and GM combines global expertise in manufacturing quality and a joint commitment to safety to give medical professionals and patients access to life-saving technology as rapidly as possible. The entire GM team is proud to support this initiative.” What’s arguably more relevant than the who-struck-John from the body politic is that the GM-Ventec agreement marks one of the American auto industry’s first efforts to mobilize production against the COVID-19 outbreak, the first such massed shift in automotive production capacity since World War II, and the first ever to involve medical equipment, as opposed to war or aerospace materiel. And the momentum is building across the industry: Hyundai last week dedicated $2.2 million to set up 11 drive-through testing centers at children’s hospitals across the country, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles will produce and donate up to a million face masks each month from a converted plant, and Toyota Motor North America will immediately begin production of protective face shields and masks immediately while negotiating to form a GM-like partnership to build desperately needed ventilators.
We like this. In between new product announcements, and dealing with disease-driven interruptions in the global auto market, Audi has taken to issuing a series of technical bulletins on component advances associated with its newer offerings. Think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Fireside Chats he employed to great effect when it came to soothing the masses during the Great Depression. The same sort of mindset is in effect here. The subject matter is Audi’s electric-powered compressor, as used to boost the incoming intake charge on its 2020 S6 and S7.
First off, in this context, “compressor” stands for a blower augmenting the turbocharger, the beloved magic pinwheel spun by exhaust gases that rams a dense mixture through the intake ports and into the combustion chambers. Audi’s system, here seen on its 2.9-liter, twin-turbocharged TFSI V-6, utilizes a third, smaller turbine powered by an electric motor that gets its current from the hybrid vehicles’ lithium-ion batteries. Unlike the actual turbos, which require significant throttle input to function, the Electric-Powered Compressor, or EPC, is constantly turning and delivering a boosted charge to the engine. The EPC is mounted on the lower left side of the engine block, below the left-side exhaust manifold, and essentially between the actual turbochargers and their air-to-water intercooler. Even at idle, the engine is always getting some level of immediate boost, minimizing the acceleration lag associated with many turbocharged engines. The 2.9 V-6 in the S6 and S7 rates at 444hp, better than both models’ foregoing V-8, while at the same time boosting, pardon the pun, EPA estimated fuel economy by 22 percent. And the whole EPC system adds only 10 pounds to the Audi’s overall weight.
With COVID-19 interrupting all kinds of motorsports from Formula 1 to the World of Outlaws and scores of weekly race tracks, fans of automotive competition are going to varying lengths to remedy this yawning chasm in their lives. NASCAR has been making a very big thing about its e-racing initiative, including last weekend’s “victory” by Denny Hamlin over Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a virtual race from Homestead, Florida. That’s nice, but not close enough to the real thing for some of us. That’s why it felt good to hear from the United States Auto Club, and learn that a video channel will offer wall-to-wall action involving USAC’s open-wheel divisions for the duration of the microbe march.
The image, by Hall of Fame shooter John Mahoney of Indianapolis, shows seven-time USAC National Sprint Car champion Levi Jones turning clods into shrapnel at Gas City I-69 Speedway in northeastern Indiana. A lot of us absolutely live for this kind of knife-fight action. The new channel at the online FloRacing 24/7 website will feature non-stop USAC action like this from all its national series, around the clock, including vintage action via the USAC Thunder Relived service. Other channels offer historic action from central Pennsylvania and the dirt Late Model wars. Click on the link to learn more; monthly subscriptions start at $12.50.
They say we’ll never experience the kind of national sacrifice that our society endured while mobilizing against tyranny during World War II. Perhaps that’s true, but the greatest asset the United States has enjoyed in the national travails that have marked its history are its people. They are resourceful, determined, compassionate, and as a group, they’ve got this thing about backing down from a fight. Americans just don’t do that, and here’s proof. Once again, the U.S. auto industry is devoting its technical expertise and can-do mindset to take on a daunting enemy. Today, the Ford Motor Company announced a partnership with 3M and General Electric to produce critically needed medical supplies that are in dangerously low supply during the exploding coronavirus outbreak.
The Ford image above reminds me of the scene in Apollo 13 where NASA and the spacecraft crew had to jerry-rig an oxygen-filtration system using sweat socks and various junk on board the flight. Or maybe the time my friend Don Miller at Team Penske sketched the first design for NASCAR roof flaps on the back of an envelope. It’s the same kind of entrepreneurial attitude that will see Ford helping to produce powered air-purifying respirators like the one sketched out above. It’s wonderfully simple, the prototype combining a battery pack, a 3M filter, and the blower motor that’s ordinarily part of the 2020 F-150’s seat cooling system. Volume production will take place at a to-be-identified Ford facility. Another Ford site is being earmarked for a joint effort with the UAW to make more than 100,000 protective face shields per week that are desperately needed by health professionals. Another initiative has Ford joining forces with GE Healthcare to rush-produced a simplified version of GE’s existing ventilator design, which can assist COVID-19 patients with breathing while undergoing hospital treatment. Ford has earmarked its Advanced Manufacturing Center in Redford Township, Michigan, which has 3D printing capability, to manufacture disposable ventilators at the starting rate of 1,000 per month. The first Ford-made face masks will be tested this week at Detroit Mercy, Henry Ford Health Systems and Detroit Medical Center Sinai-Grace hospitals. Meanwhile, Ford of China and joint-venture partner Jiangling Motors have donated 10 fully equipped Transit ambulances for use in the province of Wuhan, where the virus was first detected and identified. Speaking of COVID-19, Ford also announced late this morning that its North American assembly plants will remain closed past March 30, when the original self-distancing recommendations were due to expire.
You gotta like this one. Amid all the microbe-driven histrionics, Volkswagen got to cement a memorable chunk of its design history into a modern concept vehicle and have some serious fun in the process. This week in Hannover, German, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles showed of the E-BULLI, a concept that combines one of Wolfsburg’s most instantly recognizable vehicles with a modern all-electric powertrain, a technology that has powered to the fore of Volkswagen’s global campaign of late. The vehicle is based on a Hannover-assembled 1966 T1 Samba bus, known affectionately in its home market as the Bulli, and here largely as the Microbus. This 21-window Samba – a vehicle that attracts huge sums in factory condition at auctions today – was exported to the United States, where it spent more than 50 years in California before returning to Germany for conversion.
The E-BULLI is a zero-emissions vehicle whose 36hp air-cooled, horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine was yanked and replaced by a single electric motor rated at 61 kW, motivating the bus through a one-speed transmission that includes a setting for regenerative braking. The gearbox and electric motor provide power to the rear wheels, just like the old flat-four did. A lithium-ion battery is also positioned at the rear of the vehicle. The E-BULLI will allegedly make just under 81 electronically governed MPH at full chat, which is considerably better than its gasoline-fueled forebear could manage. Do we like it? As Stone Cold Steve Austin would put it, hell yeah. And if you desire an E-BULLI, the firm eClassics in Germany will build you one for 64,000 Euros; drop them a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Just the ticket for silently slipping up on a foaming pipeline along your favorite hang-ten beach.