When is a Mini not a Mini?

Mini Cooper

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

When it’s a Maxi and the Maxi was not a nice car.

I am not a person suited to the original Austin Mini, I have travelled in one, in the passenger seat and my knees were up round my ears. The car that is still referred to as the “New” Mini is a bit more my, er, size. I can’t stand the thing though, it’s not a Mini and I’m not the only person who has said this over the years.

Born of the trend for cool and “authentic” retro cars it is a product of fashion as opposed to the original which influenced fashion; a small, low cost, simple car, accessible to everyone (unless you’re as tall as me) yet something so essentially cool (in it’s original, sixties sense of not trying too hard to just be) that it was popular with celebrities too. Like the Fiat 500 it was small, cheeky and fun to drive, so I’m told. The new car is bigger, more expensive – a product aimed at, rather than adopted by, the fashionistas, the hipsters, hence the price tag. The size increase of course was due to car makers obsession with the idea that “people want more space” for stuff, more cup-holders, more cubbyholes, more drawers and more speakers, as such it is a pastiche as is the “New” Beetle. The coupe version looks ridiculous but the biggest travesty is the Mini Countryman which is comparatively huge, probably bigger than a Morris Minor Traveller, on the outside at least, less Countryman more Country Estate.  Even the headlights, angled backwards make it look like a mini that’s been in a very stiff gale.

Fiat fared better with the 500, it at least looks like it’s as small as the original though it still can’t really be called a “people’s car” any more and certainly can’t be fixed with parts from a local corner shop. My own car is half-way to a retro design, Citroen took the general shape of a 2CV for their retro effort but left out the pod headlights and the suspension suitable for ploughed fields – though that might have been useful, with the state of our potholed roads today…

There have been other such cars over the years but many of them, in my opinion, show that some things just can’t be improved on and the past is often best left where it belongs.

Unplugged: How To Power a Car in 2025

action asphalt automobile automotive

Photo by Taras Makarenko on Pexels.com

Would you buy this used car: it’s in good condition, it’s reasonably priced, good so far, it only takes two hours to refill with fuel, eh, what? Oh, and you’ll need to buy a new fuel tank which costs more than the car, and if you use it regularly and keep it then you’ll need another one in a few years time and it’ll not be any cheaper than the last one because you can’t use a second hand one, they either work or don’t. Tempted? No, me neither but that’s the issue with plug-in electric cars. No matter how much the makers claim that soon they’ll be able to be charged more quickly it’ll still take much longer than refilling with a liquid fuel such as petrol, diesel or… hydrogen. And the batteries usable life is still poor like the one in your phone, Lithium Ion batteries can only be recharged so many times – as witnessed by the fact I’ve just had to buy a new battery for my laptop.

An advert at the moment says that because more people are buying electric cars it means that “The Electric Car is now just The Car”, and the government is looking to invest millions in charging points, someone even recently suggested that in the future petrol stations could become recharging stations instead. Ok, let’s have a look at that for a moment: there’s an electric car advertised at the moment that states the “rapid charging” takes 75 minutes to reach 80% charge. How many cars visit an average petrol station in that time? The last time I filled up my car at least four of the six pumps were occupied for the two minutes or so it took to fill up and pay, imagine the queues on motorways leading to the recharging stations.

Still though electric car sales have gone through the roof, driven by hype and fashion. Many countries are proposing banning sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2040, or 2035 in the UK now, saying “woo, look how eco-friendly we are” but again think about the practicalities of this – what about people who have no garage to park their car in, people who live in apartment blocks with communal parking, or parking on the street – are sales of very long extension leads going to soar, are we looking at a future of pavements covered in cabling or are landlords and councils expected to dig up the road and install charging points? Who will pay for the electricity? Already some places that put in charging points for customers to charge for free are pulling them out again because someone will park there and leave the car all day.

Battery electric cars are always being described as clean but this is only in terms of direct emissions, indirectly the electricity has to come from some form of generation and unless its solar, hydroelectric or geothermal it won’t be as clean as the ads imply.   Add to that the environmental costs of making the batteries.  Vauxhall have an advert for a new electric car that shows a gravestone with “Petroleum, back in the ground where it belongs” on it. The gas and coal used to generate the electricity to charge the car, taken out of the same ground. This country isn’t really suitable for most renewable forms of energy, even if we surrounded our coastlines with wind turbines and even using solar power to directly charge a car isn’t really feasible – neither will solar powered aircraft, the best ones at the moment can only generate enough power to carry one person.

Hydrogen gas is the only option in my opinion.

Hydrogen fuel cell cars can be refuelled quickly, they only produce water as a by-product and don’t require batteries which have a huge environmental impact and short lifespan. Petrol and diesel persisted because of convenience of refuelling and energy density – you get a heck of a lot of energy (and hence mileage) from a small volume, compressed Hydrogen has this same advantage.
Because producing Hydrogen requires either a chemical process or electricity to separate it from the oxygen in water that’s the argument that many people use – that you’re using fossil fuels to do the job, the counter argument being “where do you think the electricity to charge your ‘green’ electric car comes from eh?”
In hot, dry countries there are solar power plants which focus the sun’s rays to create steam to drive turbines and generate electricity, if dedicated plants were built which used the energy they produce to create hydrogen (and oxygen) then that could then be transported to nations like ours to use in fuel cells. This would reduce the environmental cost to only the transportation – which is the case at the moment for petrol. But you don’t even need the electricity, Hydrogen can be produced using chemistry from other substances where it is bonded with elements other than Oxygen.
In nature plants take in carbon dioxide, water, sunlight and nutrients and use them to grow, releasing oxygen in the process, hydrogen fuel-cell cars can be part of the natural water cycle too – split seawater into its components, use the hydrogen – recombining it with oxygen to release usable energy and produce water that returns to rivers and seas to then evaporate or be split into hydrogen and oxygen again.

When Honda’s FCX Clarity fuel cell car came out it was heralded as the car of the future yet many years later there’s still nowhere to fill up a fuel cell car so that creates the paradox – nobody will buy a car with nowhere to fill it up but no-one will build the infrastructure because they say “where are the cars to use it?”
Essentially the barrier to Hydrogen use is the infrastructure – it would cost millions to put in place equipment at filling stations for hydrogen they say. Oh, lets not bother then, let’s spend millions on charging stations instead. Huh?

The fuel cell car is cleaner to make as it has no lithium-ion batteries which also means the ongoing costs of replacing worn out ones are eliminated. Maintenance is simplified as the only moving parts are the motors, or even just one motor and some driveshafts depending on the drivetrain. It’s more practical as you can refill it quickly, park it anywhere and still get decent range from it. It has the same benefits of power and torque as any other electric car. Depending on how the hydrogen is made it can be near to zero emissions both directly and indirectly.
The irony is that both the electric motor powered car and the Hydrogen fuel cell both pre-date the internal combustion engine – if only they’d been brought together sooner.

The Bluetooth Totem Pole

Bluetooth - FM Bridge

Bluetooth – FM Bridge v2.0

I’ve owned the Citroen for eighteen months now and for most of that time I’ve been plugging a strange contraption (above) into its cigarette lighter socket.  Like most modern cars the radio/cd player is highly integrated into the car’s systems, being used to display more than just the time and track on its remote display, therefore it’s not recommended (though not impossible with the right adaptor) to replace it.

Putting an aftermarket cd player would also spoil the lines of the dashboard so if I wanted to do more than play cds I had to come up with an alternative solution to playing my music from my phone through the radio.  First I tried a plug-in FM transmitted which worked well enough but it was a bit of a faff, plugging in various cables, next came a simpler FM transmitter that plugged directly into the top of the phone, powered by a splitter cable.  Better but not perfect – I want less cables.  I had a small bluetooth receiver and I could plug the transmitter into that, power both with a splitter and voila, bluetooth from the phone to the adaptor, FM to the radio.

Bluetooth - FM Bridge Mk1

Bluetooth – FM Bridge v1.0

Still not ideal though, it was a bit untidy – plus the button on the Bluetooth made it too easy to redial the last number used instead of switching it off.

Next, by chance, I bought a usb-powered bluetooth receiver (the white bit in the middle) from China on Ebay for a few quid.  After wondering why I’d bought it other than the fact that I thought it was a cool thing the lightbulb moment happened.  If I got a three-port car USB power supply I could plug a lead to the phone in, the USB Bluetooth Receiver and finally with a very short USB lead, the FM transmitter that plugged into the top of the bluetooth receiver. In one neat tower that plugs into the lighter socket I have everything I need.  I don’t have to switch this one on and off even, if it’s left in the socket it all comes on with the car’s ignition.

The phone is set up to automatically launch the music app and start playing music as soon as it detects and connects to the Bluetooth adaptor and I can control the volume of the radio from the steering wheel while swiping the screen to change tracks.

Now, of course, you can buy the same setup as a single device that attaches to your dashboard but it was still immensely satisfying to make something that did the job from these various disparate modules – all bought for a few quid each off Ebay.  The joy of tinkering is still with us.

Get a Dashcam for Only £4*

Light Trails

Light Trails

(* plus one old Android smartphone, not included)

I only drive my car once a week, generally, when I visit my folks, twenty-something miles up the A1.  However, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said “I wish I could have recorded that” after some idiot has done something daft and/or dangerous.

Dashcams have gained in popularity over the last few years, overcoming fears that people might take exception to being filmed while driving (ok, maybe that’s just my fear), due in part to the videos posted from russia of often spectacular footage of crashes and meteorites.  Of course, apart from the draw of gaining YouTube views the footage is handy for insurance or police evidence reasons in case of an accident.

I’ve looked at various options over the years and decided that I couldn’t justify the more expensive (better reviewed, supposedly better quality) ones and yet the cheaper ones seemed to get mixed reviews and needed to be powered from the car to work properly.  The problem with a wired cam for me is that my convoluted smartphone charging and combined Bluetooth receiver/FM Transmitter combo setup takes up all the USB charging ports I’ve got in the car.

Then a couple of weeks ago I had a revelation, via a Gizmodo UK article on reusing supposedly outmoded gadgets.

I have two smartphones, the older of the two Xperias being semi-retired after becoming brain-addled a few years back, lacking storage and running very slowly suddenly, for eighteen months it’s been a receive-only connection to my old phone number for texts from the network pleading with my to top up my credit.  But as mentioned in the article it could serve as a dashcam with one free app.

So off I went.  Firstly I turned sync off on  most of the Google services as I don’t want it downloading historical emails.  Next I deleted any apps that were never going to be used again (including, it seemed, the one that had caused its memory and speed issues – it’s like having my old phone back).  Finally I installed the CamOnRoad dashcam app and after a few settings tweaks to save the videos onto the SD card it was up and running.  Two advantages to this Xperia dashcam is a great camera and long battery life – it’s cordless!

The last part of the solution was mounting it on the windscreen.  The next day at the supermarket I found a £4 smartphone holder.  The first test showed this wobbled too much on the road but a simple block of rubber jammed between the dashboard top and the phone holder kept everything stable and free of seasickness-inducing motion.

The only other issue was finding the videos on the phone to copy to the computer but putting the phone in “pretend I’m a USB disk” mode (Mass Storage Mode to be precise) sorted that out – after much head-scratching and cries of “where the blazes are you hiding them?”  Or words to that effect.

I can also still use the old phone for one of the other tips in the article too – as a Google Play Music streaming device with either headphones or one of my many Bluetooth speakers.

Technology becomes seemingly outdated quickly today, the hardware can’t cope with new software, they run out of space, but if you can’t or don’t want to throw devices away or sell them then there are people coming up with creative and useful ways to give this tech a second life.

 

Free Parking? Of Course, Don’t Even Ask…

English: Car Park £ 200 Presumably a decimal s...

English: Car Park £ 200 Presumably a decimal separator has gone amiss and the fee for using this car park beside the Coast Road is £ 2.00. At this time of the year plenty of free parking is available and the car park is closed. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Outside our shop we have a forecourt which is intended for the use of our vans, delivery lorries and of course our customers – for the ease of getting glass into their vehicles without too far to walk.  The road beyond that has parking restrictions enforced with a zero-tolerance approach, and beyond that road is the Royal Mail sorting office which has no customer parking of its own which all leads to people collecting parcels to use our forecourt.

I wouldn’t mind if they’d just ask but despite the big signs saying that it’s for customer parking only these people either assume it’s for customers of Royal Mail too or they just don’t care – I’d say it’s the latter.  Maybe one in fifty will actually ask if it’s ok to park there for five minutes and to be honest as long as they’ve not parked in the way I’ll let them.  The rest though just ignorantly, arrogantly abandon their cars on our land, often actually blocking the entrance completely.  I have even witnessed two visitors to the Royal Mail park side-by-side in the sorting office entrance driveway, blocking it completely so that the delivery vans couldn’t get in or out.

As for our own forecourt invaders, they do it even when some of us are outside at lunch time, often looking at us with an expression of “what?  I can do what I like” on their faces.  We’ve even faced torrents of abuse from people who have blocked the entrance or access to our side gate and been asked to move, politely.  “Oh, for f***’s sake, I’m only collecting a parcel, where the f*** am I supposed to park” they shout.  Anywhere but where you have, without asking permission, would be the appropriate reply but by that time they’ve driven off loudly.

They could park in the nearby supermarket car park, or in the bays down the road but no, they might have to spend two minutes walking and that’d be tragic.  Just today one old BMW driver took the biscuit – he parked up, again avoiding eye contact as if he hasn’t seen me he hasn’t had to ask permission.   He then went and picked up his parcel, returned to his car and then sat, as many do, opening the parcel and inspecting the contents.  What he did next though was unbelievable – he opened the bonnet (hood) of his car and proceeded to fit the items from his parcel into the engine bay of his car – so now we provide not just free parking but free garage space too.  Finally tonight we were parking up the vans and a driver pulled up in our car park right where we were about to put a pickup truck “where can you park?” was again the plea.  Ten minutes later she could have used our land as we’d have gone home but at that moment I directed her along the road.  Edit:  even better than those, a few days after publishing this a couple parked in our car park, didn’t ask permission, visited the post office, came back and dumped the parcel in the car and then walked off down the road and into the town centre, coming back over an hour later.  It’s getting worse.

It’s the same at home.  Our building has eleven allocated spaces for eleven apartments and most evenings and at weekends a number of the spaces will be occupied by cars belonging to people who own houses on the adjacent street.  They buy a house with no off-street parking, on a street with clearly signed parking restrictions and then think “oh, where can I park my car?  I know, in that free parking next door.”  The free parking that everybody in this building pays a premium on the rent for.  These same neighbours are also the ones who think that our building’s communal rubbish skips are available for the overflow from their bins and garden waste too, oh and as with the work car park we provide free workshop space too as one neighbour used our car park, in fact the very space where my Citroen now resides, to replace the cooling pipes of his mid-engined MG-F.  All without asking one person if it was ok to get coolant and other fluids all over our tarmac.

The sheer volume of people who exhibit this lack of basic manners, this sense of entitlement to park where they like is troubling.  I was brought up with the maxim that manners cost nothing, yet today it appears that people seem to think that being polite costs them their very soul.

What Do You Mean By Real Criminals?

Day 175 - West Midlands Police - Traffic Officer

Day 175 – West Midlands Police – Traffic Officer (Photo credit: West Midlands Police)

What do the drivers of any of hundreds of cars that pass me on the motorway every year and a man parked on single-yellow lines outside our shop yesterday muttering and throwing his parcel into his car have in common.  They all compalin that motorists are being victimized and targeted (as easy prey) when they’re caught by the fuzz.

For my non-British readership who may not be aware, single-yellow lines on the road are restricted parking, though many people think that parking across the yellow line, half on the road, half on the pavement counteracts these restrictions.  As does putting your hazard lights on.

So many people given speeding fines and parking fines will come out with the old classic saying “I ain’t doing nuffing wrong, officer, why aren’t you out catching real criminals” to the traffic officer whose specific job is catching traffic offenders, many of whom turn out to be real criminals as well, strangely – people who regularly break the law breaking the law, who’d have thought it.  The non-criminal types will usually accuse the police authority of using speeding, parking and crap driving in general as ways of generating easy revenue, without realising that that isn’t quite how police funding works.  Of course they forget that it’s the same traffic officers they’d turn to if they have an accident and need someone to pick up the pieces.

The thing is, if you believe that it’s all about the money then there’s a simple answer: don’t speed, don’t park on yellow lines, drive properly (you can still enjoy yourself) and look after your car.  Simple, no?

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Running on Sunshine

Solúcar PS10 es una planta solar termoeléctric...

Solúcar PS10 es una planta solar termoeléctrica por tecnología de torre, la primera en el mundo explotada comercialmente. Solucar PS10 is the first solar thermal power plant based on tower in the world that generate electricity in a commercial way. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am interested in cars, nice cars.  I’d particularly like a new Jaguar F-Type, an orange one, if anyone’s feeling generous.  I’m telling you this in case you think this post is in some way biased.

I’ve just read yet another article about another designer with “eco” credentials planning a zero-emission or in this case emission-free car.  This one was a hydrogen powered car but others have been fully electric.  I have a little issue with the idea that these cars have zero-emissions.  It’s a case of semantics.  Petrol, diesel and hybrid cars have a pipe at the back that makes you cough like you have a forty-a-day habit if you wrap your lips around it, electric and hydrogen cars don’t, hydrogen cars even put water back into the environment, combining the hydrogen with oxygen in the power production process.

All good yes?  Well, apart from indirect emissions.  Electric cars are charged from the mains which at the moment requires mostly fossil-fuel powered generation.  Hydrogen, although common in the universe has to be extracted here on Earth and that takes…  electricity, fossil-fuel, etc.

I’m discounting the environmental impacts of building the cars in the first place as even the advocates of these technologies don’t deny that.

The thing is that cars won’t be truly zero-emission until we can generate power widely without emissions.  Some nations are fortunate to have abundant geothermal or hydroelectric power resources but for the rest of us we need to look elsewhere.  Nuclear power is still controversial, though the technology is still being refined to be safer in the long-term and new thorium reactors can even use previously created waste plutonium.  Personally, for cars at least, I think hydrogen is the way forward and another emerging technology is the way to make it.  In hotter countries such as Spain large solar power stations (see above) have been built that focus the sun’s immense power onto arrays of receivers which can be used to heat water to drive generators and generate electricity.  If you use that electricity to power a plant that creates hydrogen then the power created from the Sun’s energy is portable beyond the locality of the power station.

To places like this where we’re enjoying our couple of weeks of sunshine.

Watch The Road

Person using cell phone while driving.

Person using cell phone while driving. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When you’re sat in a comfy seat, warm and dry, listening to a great album, singing along, thinking about dinner, or perhaps chatting to your friend, spouse or chinese takeaway it’s easy to forget you’re in over a tonne of metal travelling at speed.

When you’re learning you’re always paying attention to the road, checking your mirrors and being aware of the dangers around you.  Someone might walk into the road, some idiot might pull out in front of you (no particular brand owners mentioned, but you know who they are).  When you’ve passed your test though you might not be quite so vigilant.

Modern cars have only made the problem worse.  Even though California recently allowed texting and emailing via voice only whilst driving research has again shown that distracted driving is still dangerous.  Talking to someone places far higher mental demands on drivers, reducing their concentration on the really important task – staying between the white lines and not hitting anything.  A few years ago David Strayer and colleagues from the University of Utah compared mobile phone users to drunks in a driving simulator.  The talkie drivers showed significant impairment and slower braking reaction, roughly similar to participants who registered a .08 percent blood-alcohol content.

In tests of texters handheld typers naturally took their eyes off the road for longer periods than normal but even those using a handsfree to dictate to the phone took their eyes off the road for long periods too.  When you’re trying to concentrate on what you want to say you’re brain will focus on that rather than the outside world so your eyes will wander.  A counter-argument that drivers talk to passengers all the time is counter-countered by the facts that the conversation is often about the traffic, other drivers and so on and also that many accidents are caused when the driver is having an absorbing discussion or blazing row with the passenger alongside them and/or the kids in the back.  It is why so many accidents involve a car full of friends, loud music, and often but not exclusively young, inexperienced drivers.

Car makers haven’t helped though.  I like a car where I can alter the temperature, open a window, change the track or the volume on the MP3 player or switch on the hazard lights by reaching out to a familiar location and flicking a switch.  While it still takes some attention away from the road at least you’re still watching the road, using muscle-memory to find the control, knowing by tactile feedback if it’s set right, and then a very quick glance can confirm this.  Many cars though have just about everything set by some kind of menu, operated by a joystick so you have to watch a screen in order to set the aircon and so on.  On a recent Ferrari tested on Top Gear you even had the choice of seeing either the speedometer or satnav display – that shouldn’t have been even considered.

Voice control has been around for a while but generally only for basics like phone dialing and satnav but some manufacturers are now starting to consider advanced controls, for example the eye-tracking and Kinect-like gesture controls as seen in Hyundai’s recent HCD14 Genesis concept.

Driverless cars promise much but still have a long way to go and the technology that has made its way into cars so far such as automatic braking could easily encourage drivers to pay less attention to the road, lulled into a false sense of security that the car will save them from an accident.

I know personally that you can easily even be distracted while driving by feeling anxious or upset about something – the realisation that you’ve driven a mile down a road but can’t remember doing it is a sign of this distraction and is disturbing – but we need to remember the importance of making sure that tonne of metal doesn’t hit anything and the less things that get in the way of that the better.

The Sound of Silence

English: BMW Mini E (electric vehicle) at the ...

English: BMW Mini E (electric vehicle) at the 2010 Washington Auto Show (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Electric cars are becoming more popular, widespread and cheaper but safety campaigners feel that they’re too quiet for pedestrians to hear approaching – which therefore should be true too of cyclists, and rickshaws.  They have suggested that electric vehicles should make a noise to alert people to their presence, some kind of siren has been suggested, a beeping noise, verbal warnings.

The obvious thing to do, if they must make a sound, is to follow the lead of digital cameras’ reassuring shutter sound and the way cash machines whir while preparing your cash and perhaps, and this is out-there I know, they could make a noise like a car.  You could even download different engine sounds to make your family hatchback sound like a Ferrari.

That would be popular with the lads who currently put noisy exhausts on their Citroen Saxos.

Old is the New… New

Alfa Romeo Duetto

Alfa Romeo Duetto (Photo credit: lewong2000)

It seems that the more we step forward into the blinding light of our techno future the more people seem to be looking back.  Retro is still with us and is increasingly seen as a mainstream design choice.  As I see it the reasons are varied and often depend on the product.

For some the appeal of retro design comes from the feeling that designs from the fifties and sixties were crafted with more care and solidity, with metal rather than plastic, with levers and cranks that moved with a reassuring smoothness, clicked and whirred precisely giving a sense that they’d last forever and that you were getting what you paid for.  Such is the case with cameras such as Digital Leica rangefinders that remain true to their film predecessors’ styling and construction; Fujifilm’s X100, X1 and X-Pro1 cameras which are also built from metals and leather patterned plastic; and my favourite the Olympus OM-D E-M5 digital system camera which from most angles looks as solid, sleek and minimalist as the old OM series cameras – it’s only round the back that you see the array of buttons and the large screen that betray it’s 21st Century innards.  It is true that these cameras are relatively expensive and for many that will be the reason they’ll buy them but there is also another reason for products like these: to look longingly at what is often perceived as a better time in society as well as manufacturing.

Many retro products aim squarely at a time before bling when cool meant understated presence, celebrities and celebrity photographers used Leicas, drove E-type Jags and Alfa Duettos – the latter cars also currently being reborn with new century tech and tweaked, sharper lines to again bridge the gap between the past and the future.  There are hints of the rejection of overt showiness and loud celeb culture beginning to emerge.  In fashion and advertising the likes of TV shows such as Mad Men are having an effect for the same reason.  Stella Artois’ current campaigns have an obvious fifties-sixties style to associate the brand with what is seen as classic cool.

Instagram and Hipstamatic photos flood daily into Facebook and while the low-fi style of these is fun and interesting too many of the people taking the shots take the whole thing too seriously telling people that their pictures are more “authentic” because they look like old photos taken with film cameras, this kind of retro though is not strictly accurate though as film hasn’t had the kind of graininess and vignetting applied by these apps for most of the last fifty years, unless you had a really cheap camera, like the ones that you can now buy imitations of to deliberately get the poor quality – because it looks cool, of course.

So retro is either a desire to emulate a seemingly better time before our throwaway society and our transient carbon-copy celebrities, or it’s a fad to show how unconventional you are, or it’s a way to say how well off and tasteful you are, or it’s a case of designers taking cues from a time where form and function both mattered and subtlety had more impact than in-your-face showiness to create something truly stylish and often beautiful.

To create the future it is often useful to reference the past, both for its mistakes and its triumphs.