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Sophisticated Side

12 January 2002

By David Rubie

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Looking at motor vehicles from the early part of the twentieth century, you'd be forgiven for thinking that automotive innovation was pretty much over by the 1930's. By that stage, most of those things we think of as modern technology had already been tried by one manufacturer or another.

Double overhead camshafts? Try Peugeot's Grand Prix model in 1914. Unitary body construction? Lancia's 1922 Lambda. Supercharging was well known and widely used in high performance cars and aero engines by manufacturers like Bentley, Alfa Romeo and Daimler-Benz in the 1930's. Turbocharging hadn't made it to road cars but was used in aero engines. Fuel injection was alive and well and firing up diesel engines. Citroen had already settled on front wheel drive in the 1930's, well before the Austin Mini.

What makes a modern car so out-of-sight better than these early examples is careful evolution. Better motor oils, much better quality machining (with tolerances that most volume manufacturers could have only dreamed of at reasonable cost). The relative cheap goodness of electronic fuel injection (so few parts, such magnificent timing and control). There's no reason why a modern car can't blast through 200,000 kilometres of motoring without a major mechanical problem.

So why the hell is my car's battery still a mongrel, ugly bucket filled with lead plates and acid?

Surely somebody has come up with a better idea for storing electrical energy than this 19th century anachronism? In my stop-start cars I rarely get two years out of a battery; having one in the car for three years gives me an ulcer worrying about when the stupid thing will fail. The lead and zinc sulfates, the housings crack and the terminals corrode, eventually leaving me pushing my car down a convenient ramp to start it, or my wife desperately ringing the mobile battery man to replace the worthless 1850's escapee lurking under the bonnet.

About the only thing a wet cell, lead-based battery is good for is making frog legs jump on a metal plate. If your beater decides it doesn't want to start today, you're lucky to get five attempts before the battery throws its wrinkled hands in the air asking for a disability pension. It's high time the traditional battery was pensioned off and replaced with something better.

You might infer that I've had a bit of a hard time with batteries this week. You'd be right. Normally at my house there're three cars available for use. Most of the time this guarantees that I can get where I'm going.

Not this week though.

The Volvo 850 T5 was skulking around a Volvo dealership, awaiting a replacement brake booster check valve from Sweden. Apparently dwindling ABBA royalties have forced Benny and Bjorn to start hoarding this twelve-dollar part and doling them out one by one, personally. This meant the car was off the road for over a week while flights were organised and my background checked to see whether I ever disrespected the Eurovision song contest.

This left two cars.

The Alfa Spider is undergoing Round 3 of chassis welding after we decided that the patched-up driver's floor had to be replaced completely, so unless I wanted to develop Fred Flintstone's calf muscles, it was out of commission.

The Alfetta GTV tried to hide behind a bush but I followed the small trail of oil drips and hived it out. The battery in this car has had a bit of a hard life, I have to admit. Since the Spider has only sporadically been useful in the two years I've owned it, I've had to jump-start it practically every time I wanted to use it. Once, stupidly, I left the good Alfetta battery in the Spider and flattened it when the usually inoperative interior light spontaneously decided to start working again. Batteries don't like that, and it was never quite the same after I recharged it.

This week it sounded particularly sick, although this doesn't present much of a problem in the Alfetta, which normally starts on the second churn of the engine. For the first two days of the week, I piled the family into the old bomb and we rasped, popped and backfired around town. That was until a fateful trip to the shopping mall on Wednesday, when, on returning to the car, we discovered that it didn't want to start. The starter motor made a couple of lazy noises and then quit.

Tina rolled her eyes at me, muttering something about the national character traits of 1970's Italian autoworkers but I ignored that, got out and pushed the car to a handy ramp. In third gear, down the ramp, pop the clutch and we roared off again.

Normally a flat battery indicates some kind of stupid problem, like an interior light left on or a short somewhere in the electrics, but there're so few electrics in this car that I was completely puzzled. It doesn't even have a clock. Once we got home, I diligently dug out the old multimeter and started checking circuits for leaks.

Nothing except the CD player was consuming any power. Puzzled, I put the battery onto a battery charger. The battery took a charge, indicating to me that it was probably OK, so I re-installed it and motored off to work. Stupidly, I parked on the very lowest level of the underground car park, altogether forgetting about the problem.

Upon return to the car, the battery was dead flat again, necessitating a difficult (but not impossible) push-start on sixty metres of flat concrete. It was just like being a student again: gearbox in neutral, door open, ignition on. Push the car using the roof pillar and the door until you start to grunt with the effort, then swing clumsily into the seat, trying to grab third gear then popping the clutch while the car still has momentum. Being out of practice, I got it on the third try, but it left me wondering why a simple, old and small coupe like the GTV needs to weigh over 1000kg. The weight of that useless bucket of crapola lead and acid that refused to start the car doesn't help.

Over the next couple of days we parked creatively, bump starting the car while I tried to ascertain what was wrong. The local auto electrician shrugged and thought the battery itself was OK, there was nothing wrong with the charging system (dead on 13.8 volts, rock steady). Reassured, we drove off, only to have the car not start at the next destination.

Eventually, disregarding the auto electrician's advice, I disconnected the battery one evening and went to bed, only to be greeted by a dead flat battery again in the morning. Batteries normally fail on me when they stop accepting charges, not start discharging themselves, so it was interesting but not terribly handy. A replacement was procured and the problem has gone away again (I guess until 2003, when the stupid thing is due to die).

So I've got until 2003 to find a replacement power source that isn't a cruddy old lead-acid battery. Some of the electric vehicles released in the last few years rely on a different arrangement of scrap metal in a bucket called a nickel-metal hydride battery. In the March 2000 issue of Car and Driver, a GM spokesman explained that the cheapest way to procure a nickel-metal hydride battery is to "buy a complete Toyota RAV4 EV and remove its battery". Not very practical, not to mention cost-efficient for $1500 dollars worth of Alfetta, given that the RAV4 retailed for US$42,000 at the time.

There is a government funded quango in the United States called the United States Advanced Battery Consortium that spends around US$300 million a year trying to research new vehicle batteries (largely for powering electric vehicles, not just starting up worthless junkers) but they've been operating for over ten years and appear to have come up with exactly nothing. $300 million buys a lot of junky, high school science experiment lead acid batteries, but apparently it can't find a reasonable alternative other than relying on Toyota selling RAV4 EV's at a loss.

In a bizarre twist, computer notebook manufacturers and cell phone companies have been researching how to get rid of batteries, replacing them with tiny fuel cells that run on petrol, among a variety of alternatives. Motorola have now released a crank handle based battery booster that can give you 4 or 5 minutes extra talk time.

Hey wait! A crank handle? Most of those old '30s cars had a crank handle. I wonder if I could fit one of those high tech devices?

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