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From the Editor

19 Jan 1999

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It's hard to write good fiction about cars. Not that I've tried myself, but over the years I've read a few novels that incorporate high performance cars into the storyline. Most of the time the author - knowledgable as he or she might be on matters of adventure and romance - shoots themselves in the foot when it comes time to describe the cars and driving. Noted author Alistair MacLean had a Formula 1 driver switch on the car's lights when it got dark, while others dispense with in a few words what would otherwise be the highlight of their book!

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One of my idiosyncrasies is that I am partial to the writings of Leslie Charteris, who penned the Saint books. Not to be confused with the apparently awful TV series of the Sixties, the Saint books were written in the period from the 1930s to the 1960s - with the best of the crop being those very early books written nearly 70 years ago. In them, debonair adventurer Simon Templar takes on the villains and warmongers of the day, often with the assistance of the lovely Patricia Holm. He drives a Hirondel, a car described in some detail and one capable of great speed, its lights boring a white tunnel into the darkness of time and space. Unfortunately, I've not been able to find reference to the Hirondel in my books on classic cars; a rather glaring hole in the stories that I've never quite come to terms with.

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Recently while browsing through a secondhand bookstore I came across Formula 1, a novel written by Bob Judd and first published in 1989. It's described by Jackie Stewart in a cover line as "A Dick Francis on wheels" which rather attracted me, given that I have many Dick Francis novels on my shelves. Vague memories of good contemporary reviews also spurred an interest. And the book isn't bad; it's just that the hero - an F1 driver - seems to spend more time having sex with a passing parade of women than driving. I think that the count got to six - I'm damn' sure that none of Dick Francis's slightly innocent and bewildered heroes ever behaved quite like that... The book's passable - and some of the driving sequences quite good - it's just that I wouldn't bother ever re-reading it.

So is it possible to mix well-informed automotive expertise with a rip-roaring adventure? If you've found an author who is capable of doing just that, let everyone know via the AutoSpeed Forums. I'm sure I'm not the only person who'd be interested!

I've spent the last two days getting my hands dirty. It hasn't been a car that I've been working on - it's been a bicycle. I've been trying to develop a DIY electric bicycle project for an Australian electronics magazine that I occasionally pen stories for. The interesting thing about the project is that it's thrown into a very bright light how bloody difficult it is to make an electric road vehicle. The trouble is that batteries have such a low energy density for their mass and volume. I already knew that - but when you're trying to design a vehicle you come up against it time and time again.

I'll give you an example. Some testing showed that it takes about 250 watts of battery power to get me bowling along on the flat - but 500 watts (half of just one kilowatt!) would be even better. Okay, 500 watts divided by 12 volts equals a current draw of just under 42 amps. Pretty high, but it seems manageable, doesn't it? Not when you consider the battery! Safety considerations mean that really you need to use either sealed lead acid (SLA) or nickel cadmium batteries - and SLA batteries are much more readily available in the required package. In fact, one local electronics company sells a 18 amp, 12 volt SLA battery for A$80. However, that 18 amp rating applies only at low discharge currents - suck 10.8 amps out of it and it's good for only 1 hour. At 42 amps it would last just 15 minutes! Okay, so add another battery to double the time to 30 minutes - and that's more weight that you need to cart around the whole time. You never realise how light a bike is 'til you start adding lead batteries to it.....

Okay, let's drop the motor power down a bit. In fact, I was experimenting with two Mitsubishi Sigma wiper motors. Removed of their reduction gearbox, they had a current draw under load of about 10-12 amps each. Coupled to the one shaft, that meant that they were drawing 20-24 amps, a power at 12 volts of 240 - 288 watts. But unfortunately that doesn't mean that all of this power was available to drive the bike - it would be only if the electric motors and transmission were 100 per cent efficient. An extensive Web search located a number of commercial electric bikes, one of which lists its motor/transmission efficiency at 50 per cent. To transmit torque I was using a roller that was bearing against the tread of tyre, an arrangement that I was concerned had an undue amount of slip. So I reckon than my mule's drivetrain efficiency was well under 50 per cent, meaning that maybe only 100 watts was getting through. And 100 watts wasn't enough....

Was it worthwhile improving drivetrain efficiency by adding a chain drive? But then the project would no longer be a simple bolt-on - it'd require the complete redesign of the bike transmission. Should I just go for a bigger motor and live with the reduced range - most commercially available electric bikes are called "electric assist" bikes because you can't use the "assist" long without the battery going flat.... Or should I go through the whole system, improving the efficiency of each part of the design - using NiCad batteries, a better design electric motor than the permanent magnet brush type, installing a second chain drive? As I write this I still haven't decided whether to continue the project or just put it down to experience. But it's sure increased my (already substantial) respect for the solar race cars that go so fast and for such long distances on almost no power at all!

Oh yes, and if you see a perspiring and slightly frustrated man in his mid thirties pedalling a ladies bicycle equipped with a large battery and two whirring electric motors, you'll know that you live near my house.....

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