Bob Knoll: Coast to Coast In The Pursuit of Economy, The Mobil Economy Run

This Sunday’s New York Times Automobiles section has a charming article by Bob Knoll, Coast to Coast in the Pursuit of Economy. It’s about the author’s role as a driver in a nationwide contest known as the Mobil Economy Run. [1] The Run was a contest that consisted of driving across the U.S., not to see which car was fastest, but which give the most miles per gallon.

We learn that the author is “Bob Knoll, an engineer who retired in 1997 as auto test director of Consumer Reports, is a frequent contributor to The Times.” (Consumer Reports is a wonderful magazine, and I recall reading it as a child many decades ago. Their main office is in Yonkers, NY, not too far from where I now live.)

I’m writing this post to add my own little contribution to this story.

Mr. Knoll writes,

After the sealed cars were delivered to the teams — the first time I saw the Valiant I was to drive cross-country — each was allowed 2,500 break-in miles. The object was to become familiar with the particular car and to figure out which driving techniques would coax the best mileage from it.

Since we could not tinker with the cars (the auto club’s monitors kept them under watchful eyes), we started a rigorous break-in schedule. The enemy of fuel economy is friction, both inside the engine and in the running gear — all the moving parts that can sap energy. We set out to reduce the cars’ rolling resistance.

Each day when we took our cars from the impound area we drove them as close to wide-open as was prudent in the mountain roads around Los Angeles. One Chrysler driver who had been there before told us, “They only check mileage on the run itself — so get the worst mileage you can now.”

Note in particular the phrase, “the auto club’s monitors kept them under watchful eyes.”

I was one of those monitors — my eyes were watching.

I first learned about the Mobil Economy Run via a notice on a campus bulletin board at Caltech. This would most likely have been in the spring of 1963, near the end of my freshman year. It said you could earn several dollars an hour for sitting in a car, serving as a monitor as part of the Run.

I was in need of money and also interested in the riding-around part, as my family never had a car until I was in high school, the Caltech campus was quite isolated, and I was curious to see more of the LA area. I signed up and vaguely recall some of the drives. They took a few hours and were mostly spent on freeways.

Mr. Knoll relates that

I had been looking forward to this part of the assignment, and though my Valiant was not exactly a sports car, it did well enough in spite of its slow manual steering. I scrubbed the tires mercilessly in corners and thoroughly wore down the brakes — to create clearance between the shoes and drums and prevent any brake dragging, however slight.

What Mr. Knoll described was allowed, though my drivers weren’t as meticulous as Mr. Knoll.

By way of background, the notion of “break-in” used to be a standard part after buying a new car. You were instructed to drive the car gently for the first couple of thousand miles, to give the seals and gaskets time to adjust. Key also was to avoid sustained high-speed driving at a single speed early on lest the engine be “locked in” to this speed.

Modern engines are much more forgiving, so this ritual has become a thing of the past.

Mr. Knoll participated in the race as a engineer from Chrysler and drove a Plymouth Valiant compact sedan in the 1964 face. As he notes, the 1960 Valiant was Chrysler’s first true economy car.


I put a bar across the page just above so if you are here just to reminisce about the Mobil Economy Run, then thanks for stopping by, and I hope you enjoyed your visit.

The rest of this post is about blogging, and some of the lessons I have learned in the last few months.

I wrote this post as I expect others — particulary those such as myself who were involved in even a small way — will be reminded of the Economy Run and will then use search engines to seek out others with an interest in this topic and to see what they have to say about it.

I first became aware of this after writing some posts based on the columns of Tom Friedman. Turns out Tom has many fans, and the searches they launched soon found my blog, and for a while accounted for a fair share of my readership, even though the focus of my blog was open-source.

The title of a post is the most important part. It has the first words a potential reader will see, and you want to get the reader’s attention so they will go on to read the first sentence. If you can get them past the first twenty-five words, they may read most of the post; see In twenty-five words or less, On blogging: The two-character guide to writing a successful blog post.

Looking back, one reason my posts were found was that I used a simple formula to generate the title: “Thomas Friedman – title-of-tom’s column,” which as it turns out matches the strings people give to search engines looking for information about Tom. That explains the title of this post. It contains Mr. Knoll’s name, the title of his article, and the subject of the article.

This suggests that when you write a post inspired by a particular article or event, you should take that into account in your title. I could have called this post, “My days as a test driver,” or some such, but then fewer folks searching for posts about the Economy Run would have found it.

I’ve written several posts based on seeing an obituary in the New York Time, in each case inspired by the story of an individual life and how it affected others. Most of these posts hav been about volunteers or educators. In these posts I’ve either just used the title of the obituary from the Times, or otherwise made sure that I included the person’s name.

My first three such posts were On Golf: Byron Nelson, “A Great Player, and a Nice Man”, R. W. Apple Jr., Globe-Trotter for The Times and a Journalist in Full, Dies at 71 and Norman Salsitz, 86, Author Who Survived the Holocaust, Dies. The first two were well-known figures, Mr. Salsitz less so, though I expect many knew of him. Search strings about them found these blog entries.

The fourth was about a maintenance man who did much volunteer work in his lifetime, E. Fred Garel, Jr. May his memory be a blessing. I saw searches for his name, too. I knew he wasn’t famous, so my best guess was that some of these searches came from people in his family or people who knew of him, had heard of his death, and wondered if anyone has noticed the death, or if others had written about it.

Which means I was damn glad I had written good things about Mr. Garel, because if I had chosen to use his death as an example of something wrong, or of how not to lead a meaningful life, then no matter how well-intentioned by own views, I would most likely have inflicted needless pain and suffering on those who were just mourning him. Why drag his name into an unrelated area?

So if you write about someone’s recent death, then you should be kind in your words. I also suggest this applies when making blog comments about such posts. For example, I’ve been sucked into a debate about the authenticity of a web site related to the Shoah (known to most folks as the Holocaust) because the author of one chose my post about Mr. Salsitz to mention their web site, and someone chose to attack the first poster in another comment. Indeed, I’ve even gotten mail from some of these folks and, not wanting to take sides, I have deleted these comments. I still see the occasional search string of the form “name ip address” as one of the parties tries to locate the other. Both posters dishonored Mr. Salsitz’s memory by dragging his good name into their personal dispute.

Similarly, you should be aware that citing someone can have unexpected consequences. For examples, I also wrote a post about a professor of Art History at Williams College, as well as another post in which I used a memorable quote from a woman named Leigh Anne Tuohy. If you take a look at my Trivia page you will learn that because of these posts, Goggle returns my post before the professor’s obituary notice, and my post is one of the first matches for Ms. Touhy.

By way of illustration, here are the search strings that have found my blog so far today

leigh anne tuohy
leigh ann tuohy
Learning to Keep Learning
programming notation
Big Mike Briarcrest Christian Leigh
better to light one little candle
+obituary +”ernestine carey”
James Kim
A-note computer
leigh ann tuohy photo
jikes in yiddish
yogi – yoda
je sucks

Here are the most viewed posts today, most popular first:

Leigh Anne Tuohy – “God gives people mon
“The Game” 2006: Yale 34, Harvard 13. Je
Thomas L Friedman – The Green Leap Forwa
Make my day
The Emergency Capacity Building Project
links for 2006-12-23 2 More stats
Education: Thomas L Friedman – China: Sc
Thomas L Friedman – Learning To Keep Lea
Sixth Sakai Notes – Workforce Training
Me Tube

Ms. Tuohy’s post has accounted for about one sixth of today’s traffic so far.

Mr. Knoll’s story reminds me of another tale from those days, and another feature of blogging.

Mr. Knoll drove a Plymouth Valiant. I once owned a Valiant, perhaps even a 1960 year, the first year it was produced.

As I have posted earlier, I once owned a Yamaha YDS2 motorcycle. Indeed, my post about this drew a comment from someone who was searching the web for posts about this wonderful — though not especially reliable — machine. In the summer of 1966 I needed to sell my YDS2 as I had no need for one in NYC. The bike still ran, though I suspected the engine was not in great shape. Knowing that I had to see by early September, and knowing that a car would be easier to sell than a bike, I traded with someone who had a Valiant, straight up.

I used that Valiant to make two round trips to El Paso. I had decided I wanted to wear contact lenses. The optometrists had a monopoly in New Mexico, but I knew that lenses, including fitting, could be had for only $60 in Texas. So I made one trip down to get the fitting, and another a couple of weeks later to pick up the lenses.

I didn’t quite make it back on the second trip. Near Socorro, about 70 miles south of home, I was driving along when I saw one of the cylinders of the Valiant’s engine come flying though the hood.

Needless to say, the car came to a halt soon thereafter.

Someone called a local towing outfit, and I learned that the car was beyond repair. The driver offered to take the car for parts, and paid me just enough to pay for the tow, a night’s stay in a cheap motel, and the bus fare home.

I recall that night. There was only one movie in town, so I went to see it. Though Patty Duke is a fine actress, one of the absolutely worst movies ever made was Billie. Even thinking about it forty years later makes my teeth hurt.

I recall the bus ride home. By coincidence I happened to have a copy of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” and. after remarking on the concidence of reading it while in a bus, read a bit. I was so depressed, either by the writing or by the loss of the anticipated proceeds froms selling the car, that I haven’t read any of his work since.

I had been counting on that money to help me get started in NYC. Now I can’t blame Chrysler for that Valiant. The car was used. I had made the trade. I knew my bike was not in the finest condition, so it wasn’t too surprising the Valiant wasn’t so great either, and I didn’t have the mechanical acumen to investigate it properly.

But one thing blogs let you do is make some personal observations, so here is one inspired by Mr. Knoll’s article.

Back in the days when Mr. Knoll worked for Chrysler it was one of the leaders in the automotive industry, especially in engine design. See Wikipedia Category:Chrysler engines. Chrysler also was the pioneer in the Minivan. But things went downhill somewhere along the line, as I learned twenty years ago, when we moved to Westchester and bought a Plymouth Voyager. It was the first year they offered a long wheelbase so we bought it new.

It was a real lemon. The engine started to fail by 90,000 miles, the transmission not long therafter. On one occasion a big part of the front-wheel drive failed, and took over a thousand dollars to have it fixed. The repair failed within a few weeks. As it turns out the vehicle had been in a small accident, and the dealer refused to fix the repair,, claiming it was due to the accident.

I was fortunate in that the car had been inspected by my auto insurere as part of the accident, and the man who had looked at the vehicle said the repair was indeed faulty and the failure was in no way related to the accident.

However, when I spoke with the dealer, I learned the poor quality of the vehicle was matched only by the lack of integrity in the dealer. Indeed, during one of my visits there, I heard the head of their repair shop give instructions to a customer on how to cheat on an insurance claim, telling them just how to lie. The dealer still refused to make good the repair, and so I had to drag them into small claims court. I won,but didn’t get fully recompensed for my trouble. I reported this to Chrysler at the national level, and didn’t get any relief from them, either.

However, I did tell the dealer, or at least silently vowed to myself, that I would never buy another Chrysler product as long as I lived, nor would I recommend their products to anyone else. I’ve felt some sadness ever since when I’ve seen a car indicating it was sold by that dealer, and I also had a sense when Mercedes-Benz and Chrysler joined forces that success was unlikely, as failures in integrity will in the long run trump short-term business realities.

As it happends, the same insurance company that had helped me in this situation dropped my coverage a couple of years later. I had dealt with them over a decade, but the local agent said the national company had imposed some sort of quota and so he couldn’t help. I would name the company, but I can’t think of it just now. I do know I haven’t deal with them since or recommended to anyone else that they do.

Notes:

1. Keen readers may note I wrote this the day before the Sunday when most folks receive the Sunday edition. I live in the suburbs of NYC and much of the Sunday edition, the part that is not related to the day’s events, is delivered on Saturday.

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