Monday, July 28, 2014

The First annual pony car shootout!

This isn't Motor Trend, Car and Driver or Automobile Magazine....

Nobody is sending me the latest cars to thrash and hurl around the slalom course.  The closest I can do is a rental and with limited exception you're not going to get to experience the best of the breed.  

However, when it comes to pony cars I've got a good deal of experience.  Which means, at least for the purposes of this blog, that I have some degree of authority about comparing them.

For the uninitiated, a pony car follows a basic formula.  It's a  2 door coupe with sporty styling consisting of a long hood and a short deck (or trunk) and rear wheel drive.  That's right, you'll never see a front wheel drive pony car.  The only torque steer you'll experience is the rear of the car sliding sideways when you tromp on the go pedal.

While not as practical as your average minivan they aren't the gas slurping monsters they once were.  Modern engine technology has actually allowed pony cars to be more fuel efficient than their more pedestrian competition with their V6 (and some cases V8) engine options.  And yes, most of them can accommodate a child seat easily.

The term comes from the namesake of one of our competitors, the Ford Mustang.  First available in 1964 the basic design set the ground rules for all that came after.  The iconic silver Mustang emblem is where the "Pony" in Pony car comes from.

This comparison will have a few basic ground rules. Those being...
  • They must follow the Pony Car formula
  • They must have the same basic equipment (meaning no performance upgrades or extra options)
  • They must have a V8 engine
  • They must have a manual transmission.
  • They have to be available at a dealer, no special orders

So this year's competitors come from Ford, Chevy and Dodge in the form of:
  • Ford Mustang GT
  • Dodge Challenger R/T
  • Chevrolet Camaro SS (1SS package)

They all come in around the $32000 mark when equipped according to our rules.  Comparisons are primarily based on purchase and not leasing although lease options are still available on one of our contenders.  It's late in the model year so we're primarily looking at dealer inventories as automakers have moved on to their 2015 models.  

This is a bang for the buck shootout meaning we'll look at what a base model pony car with a V8 gets you at similar equipment levels for the same money.

In other words, we're looking for more Go than Show for as little money as possible.

Even with a basic level of equipment it's important to note that all our competitors are still considered "premium" options for their respective manufacturers .  Nobody would ever put a Camaro in the same class as an Aveo or a Focus as a contemporary of any Mustang.  Features like power windows, locks, and other creature comforts are a given.  

Upgrades above our base configuration usually consist of leather seating, performance upgrades, convenience electronic packages and special body kits and paint.  

So sit back and enjoy the video below while I walk you through the magical land of new pony car performance on the cheap.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Optispark distributor, the best and worst idea GM ever had

Ever get that sinking feeling? 

Gearheads do, all the time.  For many it's almost like ESP.  We just know something's off even if we can't quite put or finger on it.  Maybe it's subtle.  The occasional misfiring ignition, a hard start condition or maybe the not so subtle hint that's something gone wrong when your car just stops.
Any of those symptoms can indicate a problem with the ignition system but when it's a car equipped with the GM Optispark optical distributor you're going to be questioning the "excellence" in the "GM mark of excellence"

What's an Optispark?

The Optispark is a unique ignition system found primarily on GM's venerated LT1, LT4 and L99 V8's from 1992 to 1997.  This was the second generation of the GM small block V8 motor and the first major design change since 1955.  Unlike its predecessors, the Optispark distributor is an optically triggered ignition system much like those seen in high performance and race vehicles. 

Optisparks showed up in everything from Corvettes to Cadlillac Fleetwoods and they all have the same design flaw.  That being, putting it in the absolute worst place you could possibly locate a component sensitive to heat, moisture and oil contamination.

Put yourself in the following scenario.  Imagine having a job where you were forced to work next to a blast furnace every day with the threat of a huge water pipe bursting over your head.

That's pretty much the life of an Optispark distributor.  Buried deep under belts, hoses, pulleys and a water pump, the unit can be barely seen and hard to service. Replacement is always a major undertaking involving the removal of the aforementioned bits and pieces as well as assorted brackets, wiring harnesses and other assemblies depending on the vehicle being serviced.

So just what's different about an Optispark?

Other than the look of it, not much really.  It's still a distributor that requires a rotor, Ignition module and coil to provide spark to the spark plugs at the right time.  The primary difference is that timing is determined via an optical signal instead of the position of a reluctor or cam follower.  Normal distributors usually have shaft with a rotor on one end and a gear on the other that meshes with its counterpart on the camshaft.

Where the only indication of incorrect timing on a regular distributor is a poorly running engine, the Optispark ignition provides feedback to the engine's PCM.  Using data from other sensors at its disposal, the PCM can then adjust the ignition timing to optimize engine operation.  

It utilizes an optical pickup assembly that reads a thin rotating disk with two rows of perforations punched into it.  One row is comprised of 360 slots on the outer ring with another row of 4 cutouts of differing size on the inner ring corresponding to 90 degrees of engine rotation.  The disk rides on a bearing assembly mounted into a base plate that engages with the timing assembly on the front of the engine.  As the engine rotates the optical pickup reads the position of the disc and reports that information back to the PCM where it can adjust the ignition timing according to current conditions. The major components of the distributor are fairly simple consisting of:
  • ·         A cap
  • ·         Rotor
  • ·         Plastic separator
  • ·         Metal separator
  • ·         Optical pick up assembly
  • ·         Timing wheel
  • ·         Wheel support disc
  • ·         Bearing assembly
  • ·         The man body or base plate

Aside from some sealing gaskets and the wiring harness there's not much more to it.

Depending on the year of the engine, the distributor engages the crankshaft timing gear with either a splined shaft or on later engines (95+) a large bearing resembling a hockey puck with cutouts to engage a pin on the engine's timing gear.  An issue with condensation and ozone buildup in earlier models of the Optispark (92-94) caused premature failure.  GM redesigned the distributor for later models in an attempt to eliminate the issue.  The easiest way to tell the difference between the two is the presence (or absence) or two rubber hoses connected to the distributor.  One is connected to vacuum while the other usually connects to the intake ducting of the engine.

The Optispark distributor allows for both fine and coarse tuning of the engine timing and has a certain amount of redundancy because of the presence of those two timing rings.  Should something short of catastrophic failure (which usually happens anyway) interfere with either timing signal, the engine can continue to run at reduced power levels.  It usually sets a code in the engine's PCM that will trigger the Service engine light. 

Most common codes are:

P0372 - Loss of the high resolution timing signal ( not reading any of the 360 slots) 
* 92 to 95 engines will set an OBD1 code of 36

P1371 - Loss of low resolution signal ( Not reading the 4 cutouts) 
* 92 to 95 engines will set an OBD1 code of 16

The design allows finer control of the timing by reading not just what cylinder is firing in relation to mechanical engine timing ( what valves are open, where the pistons are in their stroke etc.) but exactly what degree in rotation the engine is currently in.  In this way the Engine's control computer or PCM knows exactly where the timing sequence was in relation to a specific condition and how long it lasted.  For example, If a condition such as a misfiring plug were indicated, the PCM would be able to either correct the condition or set a trouble code.

Sounds great, so what can go wrong?

Oh wow, let me count the ways...

I remember when optical pickup distributors were cutting edge.  Using light to time an engine might as well have been rocket science to most shade tree mechanics. 

Usually, optically based ignition systems are among the most accurate and reliable ignition systems available.  Even modern so-called "Distributor less" ignitions use "flying magnet" or Hall effect sensors that operate similarly to optical triggered ignition systems but use magnetism instead of light to determine timing.


Unlike most ignition systems that are generally designed to keep the most sensitive components away from harm the Optispark stands in stark contrast.

It sits low on the front of the engine between the water pump and crankshaft pulley and sandwiched between a rats nest of cooling hoses, brackets and engine accessories.  It's at just the right height to get drowned by the undercarriage spray at the local car wash and sit's below a notoriously leaky water pump.  Lest we forget seals for both the distributor to timing cover and water pump shaft whose inevitable failure are sure to coat the Optispark in a greasy mess. 

There's usually some degree of warpage on most Optispark distributor caps which allows gaps in the seal between cap and distributor.  That makes it even easier for infiltration of water and oil.

Then there's the issue of varying quality of replacements.  I've yet to find any source for replacement of just the optical pickup assembly which is the most critical component of the Optispark.  That means failure of it requires replacement of the whole distributor.  With prices ranging from $50 for a unit guaranteed to leave you stranded to $900 for a GM aftermarket unit that may be no better you could go broke before you found a reliable source.  Nothing like doing the same job two or three times before you finally get one that works.
We've talked a lot about failure of the Distributor itself but don't forget about the wiring.  Mid 90's wiring harnesses tended toward the flimsy and after 2 decades they can get a bit crispy.  It's always good policy to check the wiring  before going to all the trouble and expense of replacing an Optispark only to find out a $20 Distributor harness would have fixed the problem. 

A good source for troubleshooting Optispark ignition issues can be found at  While focused on 93-97 Camaro and Firebird models the troubleshooting steps will work on LT1's installed on other models.  If you have one of these engines, this is a bookmark you'll use often.

So if you've made it this far you'd probably like to know how to fix your Optispark problems.  Aside from the link above we'll leave that topic for the next article.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Need for Speed for the gearhead and the gamer

I like a good action movie just as much as the next guy.

Make an action movie about racing around in hopped up cars and I'm in love.

I just happened to catch Need for Speed the other day.  It came out earlier this year and starred Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad fame.  As I watched I was reminded of another favorite film of mine from 2000, Gone in 60 Seconds, which was a remake of the 1974 original of the same name.

While the story differed the premise of both movies was the same.  In short, a bunch of gearheads drive really cool cars really fast.  

That's pretty much it and there's nothing wrong with that.  Leave all your prejudices against inflated male stereotypes and gaping plot holes at the door.  

What makes Need for Speed special, however, is that it's not just a car movie.  It's a car movie based on a video game.

I've got an entire blog as well as most of a Youtube channel devoted to gaming and a big part of that revolves around driving games.  Need for Speed is one of them and a favorite.

So as I'm watching a cool movie about gearheads driving cool cars I'm also noticing elements of the game in the movie.  

I saw scenes that looked like tracks I've raced in the game and action sequences that could have been lifted right off of the game box.  It was an epic experience.  

So for me it was the trifecta.  It tickled my gearhead fancy, had cool cars going fast and reminded me of one of my favorite games.

It made we want to go rearrange my toolbox and rotate my tires afterward.  

The story revolves around Toby Marshall.  He's a top notch car builder that always seems to be on the brink of financial disaster.  He's got a cadre' of wacky friends all with their own unique talents that help him along the way.

Toby has a nemesis, Dino Brewster, a cocky, ruthless a-hole who makes Toby an offer he can't refuse even if it's against his better judgement.

As expected, tragedy soon ensues when Dino causes the death of Toby's friend Pete whom Toby sees as a little brother.  

Of course there's a girl and some romance but the plot really revolves around Toby's quest to bring Dino to justice.

That's as deep as it gets and that's a good thing.  Nothing ruins a car movie faster than an overreaching plot.  I'll watch Gandhi if I need a life lesson.

It's at least worth a rental or a few hours on Netflix.

A Gearhead and proud of it!

I've been doing blogs for almost 4 years now so it's only appropriate that my 4th offering be a little different.  I've written about video games, information technology, job hunting and even current events.  In other words, anything that struck my fancy except for the one passion that frequently makes me question what I do for a living.

I've often said that I can be working on my cars and lose hours in a day without noticing it.  Whereas working in IT means spending most of my days being painfully aware of every second that slowly ticks by.  

I like to be doing things, moving forward, making things better and know I'm moving toward a goal.  IT can offer that but only if you've got an active project. 

It's the primary reason that I consider myself a "Gearhead" which is pretty much the same thing as a "Petrolhead" everywhere else in the world.  I think there's one distinct difference, however. 

It strikes me that most people who call themselves petrolheads tend more toward the driving experience than turning wrenches.  Gearheads like to get their hands dirty and they'll be the first to tell you so.  

That I can watch a popular UK series like Top Gear and see a Mercedes sedan called a "Muscle Car" is an indicator of either a misunderstanding of the term or a completely different definition.  

In my view, Mercedes never made a "Muscle Car."

Hey, I appreciate that getting a 5000 pound car to hit 60 Miles per hour in less than 6 seconds is an accomplishment.  But doing it while seated in heated Italian leather seating "surfaces" while enjoying every conceivable mobile amenity is the realm of luxury.  Muscle cars are about going fast and not much more.  

We coined the term in America in the 60's and the legends that it came to be applied to definitely left most of the options on the order sheet blank.  In fact even air conditioning was considered luxury back then. Gearheads don't mind a little sweat.  

With those cars you were probably going to be sweating anyway as they weren't the most reliable vehicles and many a Saturday night was spent under the hood.  

So maybe there is a difference in terminology but the love of all things that move under their own power is the same.  So I can claim that kinship even if I don't agree with all the terminology.

Gearheads don't mind getting their hands dirty, in fact they prefer it.  They enjoy a more spirited means of getting from point A to B just like their petrolhead counterparts but it's far more enjoyable if they know they've had a hand in making the drive happen.

Nothing is more discouraging to a gearhead than popping the hood and finding a bunch of stuff they can't fix.  Engineered obsolescence has been around since the days of the Model T but in the past few decades it's been downright hostile to our kind.

Cramped engine compartments stuffed with engine covers and beauty pieces designed to hide all those "ugly bits."  Pop the hood (or bonnet) of many European cars these days and you'd be hard pressed to find the engine let alone identify how many cylinders it has.  Some are so shrouded in covers and useless trim that you'd be excused if you thought you were looking at the trunk (or boot for my UK readers.)  

That doesn't stop the determined gearhead. however.

For us "stock" isn't good enough.  We're going to figure out a way to go faster, get better mileage and look cooler than the next guy.  If we can do all three it's even better.  

We wear high mileage like a badge of honor.  100,000 mile trade-ins are for wimps.  Real gearheads can get at least twice that before they give up on their ride, assuming they ever do.

We can point to those little victories that come with fixing it ourselves with a pride that other people get from kicking the winning goal or receiving a university degree.

Which means gearheads are forever chasing the win (or the wind in some cases) and we'll do whatever it takes to have our fix.  

So I've drawn a line in the sand.  If you don't enjoy working on your car as much as you do driving it you're not a gearhead, you're an enthusiast and that's fine.  I'll have stuff that will appeal to you as well.

So I start this new blog with a new gearhead mantra...

If it ain't broke you're not looking hard enough!