Rocket axles, getting Zen and DSG gearboxes - Morley's Workshop 434

By: David Morley

Presented by

turbonique turbonique

A rocket-boosted rear axle, a bit of Zen and the Art, more red-motor blues, appealing Volvo wagons, what's happened to the dipstick? It's an embarrassment of riches - as usual

 

MORLEY'S WORKSHOP

I don’t mind a far-out gadget now and then. But one crossed my desk this week that really got my attention. It was called a Rocket Drag Axle and it was made by a company called Turboniques out of Orlando, Florida in the early 1960s. Big deal, you say…plenty of companies have offered beefed up third members for drag racing. True, but how many of them incorporated a rocket engine?

Let’s start at the start. Turboniques was the work of a bloke name of Gene Middlebrooks Jr who was a graduate of Georgia Tech and had a wicked sense of the insane. Clearly. He had previously worked in the aerospace industry, helping to develop missiles (which should tell you a lot).

Turboniques started out making conventional turbochargers (unheard of in the US in a passenger-automotive application in the 1960s) as well as gas turbines which ran on nitrate isopropyl monopropellant, or Thermolene in the Turbonique brochures. There was even a supercharger that was spun up not by a crank-driven belt, but by a gas turbine, so there were no parasitic losses. In testing, this unit took a 409 cubic-inch Chev V8 from 405 horsepower to 835 when the blower was spun up.

The Turboniques product that got my attention, though, was the Rocket Drag Axle which replaced the standard live axle and diff in your road car. The Drag Axle consisted of a replacement diff centre which connected to your driveshaft like a conventional rear end, but also incorporated a gas turbine that powered the diff directly. Like his other turbines, Middlebrooks’ Drag Axle was a low-cost turbine that was designed to deliver bursts of power for short periods of terror. Perfect for drag racing, then.

These axles were available in anything up to 1300 horsepower configurations, so once you lit the wick, the turbine would completely outrun the car’s engine up front. At that point, the Borg Warner sprag clutch came into play, allowing the turbine to take over driving the diff gears without waiting for the piston engine to catch up.

The company ran a VW Beetle drag car with a Drag Axle fitted, and it was capable of 9.36 second quarters at something like 270km/h. The catch was, of course, that the Drag Axle was more or less an on-off booster jet. And should you need to pedal the car during the run down the dragstrip, you were in all sorts. See, once you’d backed off the throttle, the layout and the fuel used meant the unit more or less became a bomb, waiting for you to get back on the throttle to detonate. Which is what happened. Several times. In fact, by 1967, the drag-racing sanctioning body in the US, the NHRA, banned the Drag Axle after numerous incidents and even deaths.

In the very late 1960s, Middlebrooks was charged with fraud, mainly over the fact that his products were trickier and more time consuming to install than the adverts would have you believe. In 1972, he ran out of appeals and the company was wound up. Gene Middlebrooks died in 2005.

Prices for the Drag Axle started at under $2000 and went all the way past $4000 which was a fair chunk of change in the 60s. But here’s the other bit I love: The products were all available on a mail-order business from adverts that Turboniques placed in magazines just like this one in the day. And Millennials reckon they invented online shopping!

I’d love to see (and hear) one of these things caning down a quarter-mile, or maybe just take a proper look at one. Anybody know anything more about the Rocket Drag Axle they want to share? Or anything else that could be filed under Mad Professor?

 

HERE'S MY TIP

Just say thanks

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Been buying stuff online from blokes either wrecking old cars or just clearing a bit of space in the garage? Me too. My last score was a bunch of trim parts for my RA40 Celica that I hadn’t been able to find anywhere else. Now, when buying online or over the phone, the big concern is that the stuff will never turn up right? So when it does, why not do the right thing and drop the seller a line to say thanks and let them know the box fronted up at the Post Office and everybody’s happy. The interweb is a great big electronic source of info and obscure bits and pieces, but let’s keep it as human as we can, eh? It’s just manners.

 

Zen and the art of insanity

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Is this Drag Axle equipped Pony tested by Wile E. Coyote? (Photo: hotrod.com)

Reading the ‘piece of string’ brain bender reminded me of the book Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance by Robert Pirsig (now deceased, bless his soul.) On my first reading, being heavily into motorcycle touring, I couldn’t see past the actual physical journey of riding a motorcycle across the country. Re-reading it a few years later while searching for the meaning of life I embraced the spiritual angle while thinking ‘Wow! This is truly deep, heavy shit!’ I didn’t really understand it but it sure sounded great.

Many years later, reading it a third time and being older and somewhat more cynical, offset I might add by a sense of humour, I’ve been assured it is more than just a little warped, I concluded that the bloke thought too much about life as a huge never-ending mathematical problem and drove himself insane.

Watch it Morley, I’m a bit worried about you.

Aussie Sadler,
Mornington Vic

Hey Aussie, I reckon you and I are the only blokes ever to finish reading Zen and the Art. Many people started reading it, but the ones that finished it are a very small roll-call indeed.

For my money, I reckon Pirsig might have scratched too deep, even though he makes a long and reasoned case for his thoughts. From what I remember, he spent a huge chunk of a huge book trying to distil what `quality’ amounted to. He applied all sorts of values to the concept but, for mine, he missed the obvious one: Quality is what you like. And he probably should have left it at that.

At the risk of scaring you further, Aussie, I reckon that something can be termed a quality thing when it gives you pleasure (don’t be dirty). The Kiwis call it `choice’. The fact that we, as humans, share the brain-chemicals that give us our moods and preferences, it stands to reason that some things will evoke almost universal feelings of pleasure. Like a politician copping a cricket ball in the nads, for instance. Sure, you might not find that funny, but at that point, I’d imagine you to be a lane-eight swimmer at best.

I reckon it’s why the majority of us look at a 55 Chevy and smile. Or why beer is an agreeable substance to so many of us. Meantime, instead of being concerned for me, Aussie, I reckon, as the ONLY bloke I’ve ever heard of who has read Zen and the Art not once but three times, it might be time for a quick trip into the hall of mirrors for you, my son. Or a check-up from the neck up.

 

Worshipping a False Idle

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DSG is essentially a robot controlled manual box

Regarding cars shifting to neutral when in overrun, issue 432, the DSG in my 2018 Golf R will do exactly that in ‘Eco’ mode. It is however, lightning quick to re-engage drive when throttle applied. Modern trannies are magic!

Love the mag and your section in it, Morley. Keep it up.

Chris Baksa,
Email

Yeah, this is starting to look like a trend, isn’t it Chris? Seems like this behaviour in auto trannies is pretty common, but one of those things that you only notice once somebody has pointed it out to you. Mind you, the DSG in your VW is a totally different animal to the old-school torque-converter auto that kicked off this discussion, but the theory about decoupling to save fuel still holds water.

I did get a follow up letter from Paul Burge (the bloke who originally noticed this behaviour in his cars) who wanted to clarify the point that his cars only dropped revs momentarily and then the revs bounced back even before he’d given it a little throttle after coasting. But even so, I reckon we’re talking about the same thing here, and it’s all down to the car’s brain trying to minimise the fuel burnt and the emissions emitted. Even though your car with its double-clutch box (a robot-controlled manual, fundamentally) only picks up revs once you’ve applied the boot, I’m sure I’ve noticed conventional autos doing exactly what Paul has noted in his letter that kicked this whole discussion off.

And while I agree with you, Chris, that modern transmissions are great at saving fuel and improving driveability, but I still have old-bloke concerns about the whole double-clutch gearbox phenomenon. As in, I reckon it could easily turn out to be a technological blind alley.

Efficient though they are, these transmissions are expensive to build and they don’t all seem to have the life expectancy enjoyed by the rest of the modern car. Plenty of these things have suffered terminal reliability problems and can die very young with clutch packs wearing out and bearings giving up the ghost and leading to a complete meltdown. And you better believe they cost an arm and a leg to replace.

Ford found out about this the hard way with its own double-clutch Powershift (silent `F’, apparently) gearbox in Fiestas and Focuses. Mainly when the ACCC stepped in, fined the company a bazillion dollars and accused Ford of `unconscionable conduct’ which is a two-dollar way of saying: You done messed up, boy.

But even if the durability bogies can be fixed (and Porsche seems to have got the concept right with its PDK version of the tech) the rest of the transmission world is catching up. While the double-clutch was born out of motorsport where lightness and shift-speed are kings, modern torque-converter autos are more compact, lighter, have lots and lots of ratios and can shift much faster than ever before. And they’re relatively cheap to make. Compared to a DSG, anyway.

Oh, and I just read a yarn where VW is looking at a brand-new family of conventional manual transmissions for pretty much every front-drive platform it plans to make. The manual once looked like it was on borrowed time thanks to emissions targets where the human-controlled manual was dirtier on each gear-change compared with a robot controlled auto. But thanks to hybrid drivelines and the emerging all-electric car which has no tailpipe emissions at all (obviously) the manual could re-emerge as a dead-set force in car design. Lord, let’s hope so.

 

Factory incorrect

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Although well up-specced for the VK. Commodore, the old Holden six had reached the end of the road

Re: The Loose reds, blown blacks letter in a previous issue, I remember, for some reason, a good friend overhauling a Holden red six (not sure of size) many years ago, probably the late 70s. He pulled it down and threw a set of standard-size main and big-end bearings at it. But when he started it… low oil pressure.

After much head scratching, he pulled the engine out and dismantled it, measured the mains and big-ends and found a couple of main journals were .010" undersize. As far as he knew, this was the first time the engine had been dismantled. Big-ends were fine. By the way I have had many batteries go flat quickly on concrete.

Neil Englund,
Email

Yep, that's precisely the sort of story I keep hearing when it comes to dissecting Holden red motors over the years. And it would absolutely not surprise me to learn that Holden was grinding cranks that were undersized from the factory.

The tooling and casting gear was so far past its use-by date by the end of the 70s, that all sorts of weird and less-than-wonderful stuff was going on.

We’ve talked before about Holden’s problems with core shift and having to measure pistons and blocks to match the ones that were closest in size to each other. And just a couple of issues ago, Geoff D, a former NRMA patrolman told us that his experience with red motors showed that a lot of them had one undersized bottom-end journal which required an oversized bearing when rebuilding them. Matches your story nearly word for word.

There’s a strong rumour that Holden switched to the Nissan three-litre inline six for the VL Commodore because it couldn’t justify the investment involved in making the old red six run on the upcoming unleaded petrol. That’s probably partly true, but if you look at the evidence, it’s probably equally true that Holden knew the red-six tooling was stuffed beyond redemption and the cost to re-tool sufficiently to produce a serviceable version of the old girl was just way beyond the pale.

 

Blown bricks

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Morley pines for a....Volvo?

I was reading in this magazine a story about once overlooked but now classic and sought-after cars. For mine, the Volvo 740/940 turbo wagon would be well up the list; a 132kW, 2.3 factory turbomotor that families loved before the BMW X5 and the like existed.

These Volvos have been crushed in droves or used as donors for turbo swaps into 242s and 240s as they reached 20 years old. And now they are over or around 30 years of age, they are now near impossible to find in reasonable condition. Prices are on the way up. They are a nice handling, practical option that also has a decent aftermarket if you care to look into it overseas. 

Alex Isaac,
Melbourne, VIC

Couldn't agree more, Alex. I love these old fridges and I’ve often wondered why people gave up on the conventional station-wagon in favour of the more expensive, ill-handling SUV. And here’s my big admission for the month: I actually went to the official launch of one of the 740 Turbo variants as a much younger journo in the late 1980s.

I forget where the launch was held, but I do recall discovering that it was John Bowe who did the driving for the TV commercial which included (if I recall correctly) a Volvo turbo doing a dirty big skid. It was all about changing the brand’s image as a bunch of cardigan-wearing safety-Nazis. And it worked, for me at least.

Even though 132kW doesn’t sound like much in the context of modern 200kW hot-hatches, back in the day, this was a pretty amazing output and, combined with the turbo’s torque, the Volvo turbo was considered something really quite quick. Certainly quicker than its exterior styling would have suggested. And you’re right; if you get online and have a bit of a dig around Europe, there are some amazing aftermarket hot-up bits and pieces for this engine. I’ve seen them with north of 600 horsepower on stock bottom ends, so there’s no doubting their stoutness.

You’re right, too, that a lot of these cars have been scrapped for their engines to repower 240 sedans and wagons and while that’s a bit of a shame, I’d dearly love a 245 Volvo with a factory sunroof and a wicked-up turbomotor. That hospital green for me, and I’d leave it looking as stock as a rock and ready to embarrass plenty of V8s.

The alternative would be Torrens’ preference which is to drop a Chev LS1 into the old dear. Amazingly, the Volvo 240’s inherent strength, four-wheel-disc brakes and beefy suspension mean that a lot of engineers will happily sign off on such a heart transplant. Fortunately, Torrens’ impecunious financial status (shared by all us freelance journos these days) means he’ll never have the coin to see out this fantasy. And knowing him, that’s probably just as well.

 

Fool gauge

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Stranded Urban Vehicle due to fake news

My daily drive is a 2002 BMW X5 which has clocked up some 230,000 kilometres. I also have three children aged 10, 7 and 5. An elderly gentleman and grandfather wisely suggested to me many years ago not to upgrade the family vehicle until the children are at least 12 years old as the interior of any car will be the worse for wear (and tear) by virtue of its function as a mode of juvenile transport. Of course, he was right.

However, older cars do wear out in critical places. Recently, I had the fuel pump replaced on the erstwhile trusty Bimmer. One cold and wet evening in August, I noticed that the fuel gauge showed the tank to be quarter full, the onboard computer having conveyed to me that I still had sufficient fuel for another 143 kilometres. I decided to refuel the vehicle at a local servo about one kilometre from my home. As I approached the servo the car started to splutter and came to a complete standstill at the servo’s entrance. Typically, the passing rain band was showing no sign of abating.

With the assistance of the servo manager, I was able to push the car to a safe spot to wait for a RACV patrol car. It was 10pm by the time the patrolman arrived. I told him about the new fuel pump installation and that I thought the fuel pump might be the problem as I had sufficient fuel still in the tank.

He called out a tow truck which arrived around midnight. The rain had eased by this time.

The car was towed to my residence. The next day another tow truck towed the car to my BMW mechanic seven kilometres away. Later that day he rang me to tell me the cause of the problem: I had run out of fuel! He then explained that when the fuel pump was replaced the fuel gauge had not been recalibrated meaning I was relying on fake information. The good news: there was no charge. I now refill the tank when the gauge reaches the half way mark just as a precaution.

By comparison, my first car, a 1961 VW beetle, had a reserve tank which, at the flick of a lever, gave the car extra range. It seems that in the evolution of the motor-car basic practicality has been gazumped by technological reliance.

Nicholas Kanarev,
Email

Sounds like one hell of a night. But, Nicholas, you wouldn’t be the first bloke to have been tricked into a false sense of security by a wonky fuel gauge.

Maybe it’s a BMW thing, but a BMW motorbike I once had as my daily transport also had a fuel gauge that constantly told pork-pies. Funny thing is, it only started to read pessimistically (much preferable to the optimistic gauge in your car) after I had it serviced at a workshop where they removed the fuel pump from the tank to change the filter. After that, it always read empty even though there was still anything up to a quarter of a tank on board. Sounds spookily similar to me.

I agree with you on the beautiful simplicity of the early VW Beetle’s reserve tap. Mind you, it was necessary since those early Dak-Daks didn’t actually run to a fuel gauge. So, you simply drove it until it coughed, and then flipped the reserve lever down low on the firewall with your foot. And away you went again.

It’s a nice, simple idea, isn’t it? Why don’t cars have it now? Beats me, but I guess high-pressure fuel-injection wouldn’t be too compatible with such a stone-age arrangement. But I reckon the real reason is us. Face it, mate, if people can’t be bothered to get out of their car to buy fast food, and insist on using the drive-through, it’s pretty clear that forcing them to flick their toe across to move a small lever would send many of them hot-footing it to a human right’s lawyer. A drive-through lawyer, no doubt.

Meantime, the next letter is from another UC reader questioning whether all progress is actually progress.

 

Who are these dipsticks?

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You want a little something in it to make her fly Mac?

Why have car manufacturers abolished the reliable and very useful dipstick? It was so easy to check the oil level and its freshness by the colour. Now we can only check the level through a digital menu.

If the engine oil had been over-filled at the last service, would this show up on the menu display? My BMW M2’s oil level has been stuck on maximum for the last 6000km, so I’m wondering if it’s a case of overfill or the car not using oil. A dipstick would give an instant answer.

Ken Hayes,
Mildura, VIC

You raise a very interesting point, Ken, and it’s one I bet the car makers never considered for a moment. And that’s the question of oil quality and condition. By dipping the oil the good old fashioned way, you not only get an immediate, accurate (providing you’re on even ground) idea of the level, but you also get an idea of how the oil is faring. Is it still clean? Has it discoloured and/or been contaminated by coolant? You can even wipe a bit off between your finger and thumb and check for how `oily’ it still feels. None of these are available to the poor sod with a modern car that relies on an electronic check of the level.

And what happens when the oil-level sensor packs it in or the electronics bundy off and do weird stuff that only modern electronics could come up with?

How do you check the oil then? And am I the last bloke on earth who likes to check the oil each morning of a road trip before I’ve even started the engine?

It’ll get to the point where nobody bothers to even think about the level of oil in the sump anymore, and they’ll only be aware of it when the low-oil alarm goes off. Well, that’s too late for a mechanical sympathist like me. I want to know before I start driving that I have plenty of 20W50 sloshing around in there.

And here’s the stupid bit: With more and more engines using turbocharging, high compression ratios, short, slipper pistons, low-tension piston rings and alloy construction, modern engines use more oil than old, slow-revving cast-iron muthas ever did when new. A modern Golf GTi? An AMG V8? BMW V10? All of them – and plenty of others – can use their fair share of oil between services, so they all need a close eye on the dipstick. Provided they have one. I’ve talked about the loss of such elegant, simple engineering like the humble dipstick before, and it seems a lot of people are on my side. But as you’ll see in the next letter, not everybody agrees.

 

Not missing it at all

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No modern electronic gizmos to mess things up here

Can’t quite agree with you about electric handbrakes. I find the one in the GTS-R falls to the finger quite readily; and if you need a quick getaway, it releases automatically, instantaneously, without any driver input, really! (Good cars those Commodores.)

As for floor mounted dip switches, in the early 80s I was piloting a semi-trailer down the hills towards Holbrook, at night, doing about 110, left foot hovering above the dreaded dip switch. I hit a bump in the winding two-lane blacktop, then nothing, nada zip, no lights! After a moment of serious ring clenching, I realised my foot was half on, half off the dipper. So, no, not missing them at all thanks.

To reply to Chris Percival, the last time I tried to do a handbrake turn was in my EH Holden nearly 50 years ago. That didn’t work that well considering the umbrella-handle rubbish. Better to just wrench the wheel, pound the loud pedal to overcome the push (at least on dirt). The fly-off handbrake in a mate’s TD Cortina was much better.

Anyway Dave, some of the old things were good, but not all of them. I have fond memories of the quarter vent window, but I find, over the years I’ve become quite accustomed to climate control.

Paul Hamilton,
West Preston, VIC

I dunno Paul, I’m just not a fan of the electronic park-brake for a few reasons. For a start, I’m always pretty careful about leaving a parked car with the brake on, so I need to be sure that the thing engages when I push (or pull) the button. That means waiting to check for the tiny red light on the dash. In an older car with a conventional park-brake, you know it’s applied because you’ve just yanked on a dirty big lever.

And, yes, I know some of them (like your Commodore’s) disengage automatically, but that seems careless to me to rely on the electronics. Meantime, releasing the e-brake manually involves another search-and-wait mission. Finally, I’m not sure that a bunch of electronics and an electric actuator motor is real progress when all they’re doing is replacing a cable and a lever. And how do I adjust an e-brake in the driveway on a Saturday morning?

As for managing to turn off your headlights by confusing the dip-switch; c’mon man, you’ve got to put that down to operator error, right? Meantime, I’m glad you never tried a hand-brake turn in your semi. Lights or no lights, it wouldn’t have ended well.

 

TRIVIAL PURSUIT

Cruising on

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If you admire folks who don’t let a disability stop them (and you should admire them) you’ll love a US bloke with name of Ralph Teetor. Ralph went blind at age five, but managed to build his first car aged 12.

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He also became a mechanical engineer and eventually became president of the Perfect Circle Corporation (piston-ring manufacturer). And every time you hit the cruise-control on your car, you should say a little thank-youse to Ralph. Because he invented cruise in 1945.

 

Thank goodness

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They don’t make ‘em like they used to? Probably, and maybe that’s just as well. According to a factoid I just stumbled over, in the mid-60s, American-made cars were delivered to their owners with an average of 24 defects. That’s the cars, not the owners. Although…

 

Write to Morley c/o uniquecars@bauertrader.com.au or Unique Cars magazine, Locked Bag 12, Oakleigh, Vic 3166

 

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