America’s cop car is going green

You’ve seen them, possibly right in your rear-view mirror. Since the demise of the legendary Crown Victoria, and the lukewarm law enforcement response to the police-package Ford Taurus (which is due to be discontinued in any case), North America’s favorite police vehicle has become the Ford Explorer SUV, with 3.7 liters of displacement and all-wheel drive. I’ve talked to some cops who drive Explorers on patrol and they uniformly love it. Come next year, the Explorer Police Interceptor Utility will become the first North American vehicle designed specifically for law enforcement duty to carry a standard hybrid powertrain.

Is it going to succeed? Put it this way: The police hybrid isn’t even out yet – it’s undergoing evaluation by the Los Angeles Police Department – but U.S. police agencies have already placed some 2,600 orders for it. The patrol hybrid has already earned an EPA fuel economy rating of 23 MPG city and 24 MPG highway, which Ford says represents a 41 percent improvement over the conventionally powered police Explorer. Hybrid orders from cities including San Diego and Columbus, Ohio, already account for 17 percent of all police Explorer sales even though the hybrid has yet to be rolled out. Its powertrain consists of a 3.3-liter V-6 and a lithium-ion battery pack. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which conducts comprehensive vehicle testing, reported that the hybrid Explorer Interceptor bettered the gasoline-only version from 0-60 MPH by more than a full second. To address officer safety, the hybrid Explorer can withstand a 75 MPH rear impact, and a series of cameras and monitors continuously assesses a 270-degree zone, locking the doors, raising the windows and alerting the officer if an intruder approaches the vehicle.

Say “ciao” to the Cinquecento

Honestly, this doesn’t come as that much of a surprise. The rush to embrace SUVs and crossovers was already gaining momentum when Fiat introduced the revived 500 subcompact to the North American market in 2007. Yes, it made a splash, because Fiat would go on to take over Chrysler, and the brand was making its return to these shores after a decades-long absence. Dealers lined up to acquire Fiat franchises and the bulk of them built new showrooms in which to sell and service the tiny cars. But Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ announcement that it will cease North American production of the 500 underscores that anchoring a car company with a tiny, quirky, and admittedly cute automobile isn’t a long-term formula for success. FCA acknowledged as much by declaring that 500 production will cease at its Toluca, Mexico, assembly plant and discontinue the model once the 2019 inventory is sold out, probably sometime next year.

The dropping of the axe means we can say goodbye to interesting, if still small, goodies like the 500 Abarth pictured above and the cabriolet version, as well. FCA has endeavored to put a good spin on this by assuring that Fiat dealers will remain active, selling the Cinquecento-based 500L and 500X crossovers, plus the 124 Spider, which is built in Japan alongside the Mazda MX-5 Miata, upon which it’s largely based.

When the Midwest’s short tracks were ruled by brawny knights

There are unforgettable numbers in sport, like 42 for the number that Jackie Robinson wore, or 100 for the number of points Wilt Chamberlain scored in a single game for the Philadelphia Warriors, or seven for the number of NASCAR Cup titles won by Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson. Here’s a couple of other immortal numbers: 67, an astonishing number of single-season victories in short-track Late Model racing on asphalt, and two, for the number of drivers who reached that stunning milestone in separate seasons just a few years apart. This is the story about how a couple of heartland heroes accomplished such an achievement.

67: Trickle and Reffner tells how an impossible goal was reached not just once, but twice, by a couple of guys who grew up in small Wisconsin towns. With something around 1,000 feature wins, the late Dick Trickle ramrodded his way from the Midwest bullrings all the way to NASCAR’s Winston Cup Series, and in 1972, he scored 67 Late Model victories at a time when stock cars ran literally seven nights a week across Wisconsin. Seemingly, it was an impossible mark to duplicate. It also led to Trickle being known as The White Knight. Yet just three years later, his Wisconsin rival, Tom Reffner, matched that number of victories driving, of all things, an AMC Javelin. Reffner therefore became known as The Blue Knight. This story is a huge (484 pages) effort to capture both men’s scintillating seasons in the most minute detail possible. It’s the work of a Roman Catholic priest, Wisconsin racing historian and New York City Marathon veteran named Father Dale Grubba, who wrote for Stock Car Racing magazine before penning a definitive biography of Alan Kulwicki and a history of Modified racing around Milwaukee. The author catalogues the dizzying level of competition that trademarked Wisconsin short-track competition in the 1970s, a fact that makes the win streaks of Trickle and Reffner all the more amazing. Trickle and Reffner were two of the very, very best ever, and their accomplishments deserved this intensive study. Any serious student of short-track stock cars will want to read it. It retails for $32.00 from Coastal 181 in Newburyport, Massachusetts, where you can also find a biography on another legend of the Wisconsin bullrings, Rich Bickle.

Ferdinand Piech, 1937-2019

He was among the last of a breed, a lifelong car guy for whom the word “auto” was short for “autocratic” as much as “automotive.” Ferdinand Piech, the grandson of the fabled Dr. Ing. Ferdinand Porsche who ran Volkswagen with an iron fist for close to 20 years, died this week at the age of 82. According to news reports in Germany, Piech collapsed and died while visiting a restaurant.

Piech was literally bred from birth to be a car executive. He was rivaled only by his grandfather when it came to being influential in the global auto industry. While he ran Volkswagen – the company his grandfather had created by designing the first Beetle at the behest of Adolf Hitler – it became the largest builder of cars in Europe, and banged elbows with Toyota for a time for the status of the world’s largest automaker. His father, a German attorney, ran the main Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg during World War II. After the war, Piech earned an engineering degree in Switzerland and went to work for Porsche’s new company, where he ran the racing program during the glory days of the 908, 917 and early 911 competition. In a harbinger of things to come, Piech quarreled bitterly with members of the Porsche family and was sent packing, In 1972, he landed at Audi, a subsidiary of Volkswagen, where he rose to the board of directors in just three years. His efforts were the impetus that got Audi to adopt the quattro all-wheel-drive system in the late 1970s, a technology that still defines its cars to this day. Still in its post-Beetle doldrums and largely starved of fresh products, Volkswagen took Piech aboard in 1992 with carte blanche to transform the company. He started out by replacing almost the entire Volkswagen board and set about revamping its lineup, with an emphasis on diesel power that later went badly awry in the emissions cheating scandal. Besides that contretemps, Volkswagen executives were also accused of stealing corporate secrets from General Motors. Piech had long since acquired a reputation as a tyrant, treating Volkswagen as his personal property, firing employees he deemed disloyal or incompetent at will, and having an often adversarial relationship with the press. He retired from Volkswagen in 2002, before the diesel scandal erupted and cost the company tens of billions of dollars in fines and litigation, but still remained active on Volkswagen’s supervisory board, to which he named his wife. He sold his shares in Volkwagen in 2017. The Audi photo came to me courtesy of my friend Mark McCourt at Hemmings Motor News.

Hyundai pushes its own boundaries of transportation

In the dialect of Korean, Hyundai is what they call a chaebol, which roughly translates to a business conglomerate. If you study business administration in a United States college, your professor would describe Hyundai as a vertically integrated company. Put simply, that means raw materials go in one end at Hyundai and all kind of products – automobiles, petrochemicals, ships, and even department stores – come out the other end. A firm whose purview is this big and broad can produce virtually anything. And recently, Hyundai announced an expansion of its transportation products.

It’s a new, foldable, electric-powered scooter with a one-charge range of 20 kilometers, which translates to around 12 miles. A prototype of the new vehicle was first shown at CES 2017. It uses rear-wheel drive, has lighting front and rear, and as you can see, it’s highly portable at a total weight of 7.7 kilograms, a little more than 15 1/2 pounds. The scooter’s power comes from a small, 10.5 Ah lithium battery. Hyundai envisions this scooter eventually being offered as an option on its Hyundai and Kia passenger vehicles. You know, pull your Sonata or Santa Fe into a parking slot, open it up, lift out the scooter, unfold it and whir away in a downtown area. Not sure how much places like Los Angeles and Paris will appreciate the continued proliferation of these things, but hey, this is indeed progress. Hyundai predicts that in the coming decade, this kind of “last mile” transportation will blossom into a $500 billion annual business.

When auto racing was the pastime of insanely brave men

If you like to read about cars (and other transportation subjects), you’d do well to familiarize yourself with the books created by McFarland Publishing of Jefferson, North Carolina. Most of their titles are paperbacks, but they’re uniformly thick and crammed with information from authors who intimately know their subject matter. One of McFarland’s recent automotive releases is an unusual motorsports history that looks at American auto racing in the crazy years that paralleled World War I. It was an era of crudely overpowered race cars, dust-blinded fairgrounds horse tracks, a new breed of wooden speedways, and drivers in cloth helmets and glass goggles who risked death every time the engines fired.

Look at the driver in the book’s cover image, peering defiantly around the nose of a beastly, straight-axle competition machine. Auto Racing in the Shadow of the Great War is an exhaustive, 440-page recounting of American racing from 1915 to 1922, years when the sport was marked by booming publicity and constant technical innovation spurred by advances on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s a tale of how race cars and drivers (including the great Roscoe Sarles, shown in the cover photo of his Frontenac-Monroe) evolved in an environment of growing horsepower, dizzying speeds and an enthusiastic national audience looking for diversion from wartime travails. The advances made during these years would endure as cars grew sleeker, more powerful and even more dangerous as the 1920s continued. The author, Robert Dick, is based in Germany and is an authority on the technological history of this era. The book is crammed with period action and portrait photos, technical illustrations, engineering drawings, and the greats of early racing stride proudly through its pages. Anyone fascinated by early racing technology and its development will find this book beneficial. The price is $49.95.

Audi weighs in with – yes! – a performance station wagon

Let’s face it, we’ve all got stuff we need to carry around from time to time. Snowboards, boxes of old car magazines, flats of flowers for the garden from the nursery. But not everybody out there likes SUVs, despite what the automakers certainly seem to believe. Even though many of them are now built on car platforms, they don’t always drive like cars. They’re tall, regardless of the commanding driver position. They necessarily have a higher center of gravity. You can’t attack corners with them like you would in a sedan. Some people would prefer a different way to haul their goods. Then, along comes Audi.

The wizards from Ingolstadt, Germany, made an announcement this week that ought to give pause to any would-be buyer of a high-end SUV. Audi makes SUVs, too, but it said this week that its all-new RS 6 Avant station wagon will be coming to the U.S. in 2020. It will become the eighth model in Audi Sport’s lineup of U.S. models. This is something that we need some more of here, an honest station wagon, one that accelerates rapidly, is good in all weather and can slice and dice curves with just about any performance car. The RS 6 Avant’s U.S.-spec performance numbers haven’t been compiled as yet, but its home-market variant is capable of 0-100 km/hr in 3.6 seconds, thanks to its standard 4.0-liter twin-turbocharged V-8. The engine is mated to an eight-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission, which feeds power to all four wheels via Audi’s quattro all-wheel-drive system. Audi has fitted adaptive air suspension that’s specifically tuned for the Avant, with dual modes and leveling control. Dynamic Ride Control with variable dampers will also be available. Six power and efficiency modes will be selectable via a button on the steering wheel. The exterior body panels are all RS-specific. Orders from U.S. buyers will be accepted in the future.