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Brandon Seiler's Blog on Cars

Archive for October 2008

Stand by your Van

Over the years vans have helped entire cultures of people celebrate their unique place in the world, some for the better, and others for the worse. While there are numerous divisions of the van populous, the most prominent can be broken down into four main categories. Each says something slightly different about their owners, or maybe it’s the owners who are trying to say something through their vans. Either way, below are the widely accepted definitions, enjoy. 

The Mini Van:

By far the most common van on the road today, the mini is a family vehicle and most likely driven by a parent. It triples as a daily driver, family vacation ride, and a quiet place to scream into a pillow when your marriage is on the rocks and the boss is at your throat. 

What it says: “I have children, and this is their car…I mean honestly I would not be driving this thing otherwise.” 

Owner Ensemble: Mom jeans, bath robes, anything that looks good in a cubicle.

Smells Like: Discarded juice boxes, dogs, urine, air-freshener tree. 

Biggest Perk: Few vehicles encapsulate the slow strangulation of modern society like the mini-van. 

The Custom Van: 

Like its owners, its existence peaked sometime in the mid 70’s. For a time the custom van was badder than any Camaro and much more comfortable to ride in the back of. In essence it was a rolling sex machine, usually equipped with a bed, heavily tinted windows, shag carpeting, a full bar, and all the fixin’s for life in the fast lane. To a lesser extent it was used for ‘van surfing,’ but the party usually remained inside where you could hear the “Foghat” better. 

What it says: “I’ll do you in the back once my buddy passes out.” 

Owner Ensemble: Tight jeans or leather pants, patchy facial hair, exposed chest hair, greasy skin, purple tinted sunglasses worn at night, TAB can ashtray. 

Smells like: Cigarettes, old pizza, bong water, cheap cologne. 

Biggest Perk: Where else can you airbrush a sword yielding naked chick riding a unicorn without looking like a weirdo? 

Biggest Downfall: Often mistaken for an “Abduction Van.”

The Abduction Van:

Pure and simple, this is the poisonous apple of the van world. It has no windows and a single sliding door perfect for snatching up unsuspecting pedestrians. There is no legal reason to own one of these nightmare mobiles, yet they do exist amongst us.

What it says: “Heater’s broke but it’s nice and warm over here.”

Owner Ensemble: Beard, dirty beanie, shifty eyes, gloves with cut off fingertips, ominously burning cigarette. 

Smells Like: Unspeakable acts.

Biggest Perk: Doesn’t look out of place down by the river.

Biggest Downfall: Doesn’t look out of place down by the river.

The Hippie Van:

Mostly Volkswagens, they’re usually lathered with psychedelic paint jobs courtesy of several hippies sharing a heavy acid trip. The hippie van allows any longhaired peace nik full access to the great American roadways. Unlike the Custom van, there’s more emphasis placed on the kitchen for brewing up granola and herbal remedies. 

What it says: “Am I too stoned to give you a ride? Let’s find out together.” 

Owner Ensemble: Hippie attire, you know the kind.

Smells like: Hippie (Weed, B.O., tear gas, fire hydrant water.) 

Biggest Perk: It freaks out squares like non-other and most will run on naïve political views. 

Biggest Downfall: It gives a cop probable cause for search and seizure even when it’s parked and unoccupied.

So there you have it. Van culture runs deep into the heart of the automotive world and is still evolving to survive as markets fluctuate with prospective buyers. With any luck the van will survive long into the future and continue to provide a platform for car buyers to celebrate their individuality, stereotypically and otherwise.

The Pinto Memo: ‘It’s Cheaper to let them Burn!’

Nowadays, most people are aware that the late great Ford Pinto was widely considered to be a rolling death trap during its reign of terror from 1970 through 1980. 

This is mainly due to allegations that if it were rear-ended, the doors would jam shut and the bomb-like rear gas tank would explode upon impact.

Critics argue that before the Pinto was released to the public in 1970, Ford knew it was a potentially murderous and tacky–looking compact. Only, instead of recalling the cars for safety retrofits, Ford ran a cost-benefit analysis on the matter and found it would be cheaper to pay off the possible lawsuits of crash victims in out–of–court settlements.

“The Pinto Memo,” which contains these dirty numbers, was allegedly circulated among Ford’s senior management in 1968, two years before the Pinto hit the streets and caused a number of injuries and deaths.

Unfortunately for Ford, the memo was leaked to Mother Jones, an independent nonprofit magazine based in San Francisco known for investigative reporting.

An official copy of the memo is nearly impossible to find, presumably because Ford would rather not verify that they did in fact conduct a study weighing a dollar-valued human life against the costs of recalling a car.

Regardless, there does appear to be a definite consistency to the numbers the company allegedly crunched in the various Web sites, books and movies that make reference to the document. 

The Infamous “Pinto Memo”

Fatalities Associated with Crash-Induced Fuel Leakage and Fires

Expected Costs of producing the Pinto with fuel tank modifications:
Expected unit sales: 11 million vehicles (includes utility vehicles built on same chassis)
Modification costs per unit: $11.00

Total Cost: $121 million (11,000,000 vehicles x $11.00 per unit)

Expected Costs of producing the Pinto without fuel tank modifications:
Expected accident results (assuming 2100 accidents)
180 burn deaths
180 serious burn injuries
2100 burned out vehicles

Unit costs of accident results (assuming out of court settlements)
$200,000 per burn death
$67,000 per serious injury
$700 per burned out vehicle

Total Costs: $49.53 million (180 deaths x $200k) + (180 injuries x $67k) + (2100 vehicles x $700 per vehicle)

In sum, the cost of recalling the Pinto would have been $121 million, whereas paying off the victims would only have cost Ford $50 million. The Pinto went into production in 1970 without the safety modifications. According to, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began to investigate the Pinto shortly after its release.

According to, after four years of research into the causes of vehicular fires, the NHTSA discovered that “during that time, nearly 9,000 people burned to death in flaming wrecks. Tens of thousands more were badly burned and scarred for life. And the four-year delay meant that over 10 million new unsafe vehicles went on the road, vehicles that will be crashing, leaking fuel and incinerating people well into the 1980s.”

Public outcry and various legal battles forced Ford to institute a recall for dealer–installed “safety kits.” The kits consisted of plastic safety wrappings intended to dull the pointy objects that might otherwise tear through the Pinto’s gas tank in the event of an accident.

The sticky technical side of the lil’ death trap’s problems broke down to this: Critics argued that because the Pinto did not have a true rear bumper or adequate reinforcement between the rear panel and the fuel tank, it was an exploding accordion waiting to compress.

When the rear of the car collapsed, the tank would be rocketed into the differential, which came equipped with various extended bolts perfect for puncturing the gassy bladder.

Adding to the fun, the Pinto’s doors also lacked stable reinforcement, meaning that they could crumple and jam shut, drawing the fiery coffin routine to a close.

These are just the arguments of the critics, mind you. The general public came up with the unofficial Pinto slogan, “the barbecue that seats four.”

McCain’s Vehicular Fortitude Dwarfs Obama’s


Newsweek shocked the world in their Sept. 29 issue by comparing the number of vehicles this year’s presidential candidates have in their respective garages. According to the magazine, John and Cindy McCain own a total of 13 automobiles while Barack and Michelle Obama share a single 2008 Ford Escape Hybrid. In this time of economic crisis it begs the question: What kind of cool toys does John McCain have stashed in his various homes?
Newsweek reports that McCain’s vehicle of choice is a 2004 Cadillac CTS, the only one of the 13 registered to his name. Of the remaining 12, 11 are registered to his wife. The 12th and final vehicle, her daily driver, is a Lexus registered to her family’s Arizona based beer-distribution business, Hensley & Co. 
The Cindy mobile comes complete with personalized plates that read MS BUD in honor of Budweiser, the company’s flagship beer and popular red state intolerance greaser. 
In keeping with the maverick spirit, the rest of the McCain mini-collection crosses automotive party lines without fear of the press it might receive. 
Perhaps the most appropriate selection of his herd are three American-made 2000 NEV Gem electric vehicles which are commonly found buzzing the elderly about in upper-class retirement communities. Adding to the domestic side of the aisle with healthy gas engines are a 2007 Ford half-ton pickup, a 1960 Willys Jeep, a 2008 Jeep Wrangler, a 2001 GMC SUV and a 2000 Lincoln. 
It’s an impressive slice of Americana no doubt, but Newsweek objectively reports that a trio of foreign terrors have infiltrated McCain’s home-grown automotive ranks. Specifically, a Toyota Prius, a 2005 Volkswagen convertible and a 2001 Honda sedan are shaming the senator’s garages and public image with their superior gas mileage and sturdy craftsmanship. 
Dumping fuel on the fires of the scandal, McCain was recently quoted as saying, “I’ve bought American literally all my life and I’m proud,” in an interview with the Detroit station WXYZ-TV.
In a recent conference call to the media, United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger called out McCain’s home-wrecking philandering in the foreign car market saying, “‘Buy American’ can’t just be a slogan that John McCain rolls out when he is in Michigan. It’s insulting to our members. We need a president who’s committed to rebuilding the auto industry here in America, not a president who buys foreign cars and then lies about it when he thinks autoworkers are watching.”
The Obama campaign took the initiative to spotlight McCain’s apparent hypocrisy by running a smear ad detailing the dirty contents of his garages. The ad flashes the Volkswagen, Honda and Toyota logos with threatening music playing in the background while juxtaposing a particularly unflattering image of McCain’s face. 
It might have been an especially underhanded move as Obama came under fire not so long ago for powering about in a Hemi equipped Chrysler 300C while simultaneously calling for Detroit to manufacture more fuel-efficient cars. 
The heat prompted him to jettison the luxury muscle-sedan from his “change we need” platform last year for the 2008 Ford Escape Hybrid that is now the Obama family’s only car. 
Politics aside, it’s comforting to see that automobiles are still at the forefront of what it means to be an American.

‘79 Cherokee: Dust in the Wind

With gas prices being as they are the sound of a bubbling V-8 engine makes me a very bitter young man. One year ago I was forced to call it quits on my 1979 Jeep Cherokee and its hot rod 360. Ever since my life has been two cylinders short of adequate. 
I miss the cam lope from my male enhancing SUV, the way it drowned out the order of the guy in front of me at drive through windows. I miss the smell of unburned fuel that filled the cab with a euphoric freedom when I dropped it into second and mashed the shoebox-sized accelerator to the floor. 
It’s gone now. The roar of its mighty AMC power plant is nothing more than a fading memory as the V6 of my 1991 Dodge Dynasty meanders into its place. It makes an adolescent groan when I try to pass cars on the highway, like it’s trying to drop another two cylinders. It’s emasculating, or as they call it these days, “economical.” 
What kind of world is this where a god-fearing middle class American is expected to putter about with less than 250 ponies under the hood, since when was ample power adequate? For the average Joe this is our grim reality: Orgasmically overpowered and oversized automobiles are dying a dinosaur’s death as rodent like compacts scuttle their way up the food chain. At this rate it won’t be long until feather footed Prius owners run low RPM quarter miles to see who can rack up the best gas mileage. 
Thank the car gods for this site. If anything has the potential to save the auto industry from collapsing under its own weight it’s a group of people who understand that driving a car is supposed to be fun before it’s affordable.

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About this blog

Brandon Seiler is a bonafide car guy, member of the Northwest Auto Press Association and proud Washingtonian. He covers the latest auto news, technology, and pretty much anything having to do with car culture. You don't have to like cars to read his blogs, you just have to be able to read.

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