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From the Editor

22 January 2002

by Julian Edgar

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Nineteen Seventy Eight was a very long time ago.

If you talk about politics, or fashion, or sport, 1978 seems an eternity away. And that sentiment also applies to cars. I know that, you probably know that - but there is a distinct group of people who are pushed to see that.

If you live in Australia and understand performance cars, I'd be surprised if you don't recognise the initials 'A9X'. The A9X Torana was the last performance homologation Torana, and followed a long line of mid-size Holdens of a similar philosophy.

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It was available as either a sedan or (the rarer) hatch, produced in a limited run of 500 in order that four-wheel discs, certain suspension modifications, an electric fan L32 5-litre V8 and close-ratio Borg-Warner T10 gearbox could be homologated for the factory racing team. But in 1977 and '78 it was also the hottest Australian car around. Fitted (in some road going forms at least) with a very tall 2.6:1 axle ratio, in this form it was called by the contemporary media "that rare beast, a superb high performance road car".

Its pushrod V8 had a claimed output of 164kW ("What? That's all it had?" you're saying - read on!) at just 4800 rpm, with a torque peak of 406Nm at 3100 rpm. It averaged in some tests 17.6 litres/100 km (!) and of course, wouldn't anywhere near meet current emissions or safety legislation.

And it was slow. Oh so slow...

Across the quarter mile the April, 1978 issue of Motor magazine shows that it put down an average time of 16.4 seconds. Hmm, 16.4 seconds - that's just 1/10th of a second quicker than a current Toyota Camry....

Don't like that comparo? OK, well that's the same time as a Ford Cougar. A what? Don't you recognise the Cougar as a performance car?

Oh, and of course a Magna VR-X just wipes the A9X off the map with its standing 400m time of 15.8 seconds... and that's from the automatic version of the Magna!

(A9X enthusiasts like quoting the fastest times achieved, rather than averages - so for the record, Motor recorded the fastest one-way pass at 15.9 seconds - about the same as a V6 Ford Mondeo.)

What's that? But the A9X had the tall diff to get a good top speed down Bathurst's Conrod Straight? Oh well, the road test A9X had a top speed of 207 km/h... a figure bettered by such current luminaries as the VW Passat - which does it in only fourth gear with another gear to go....

But am I knocking the car?

Not at all!

You'll find me at car shows genuinely admiring everything from 1950s Chevs to more modern classics like the A9X, 'Walkinshaw' VL Commodore and the beautiful Falcon EB GT. (And just today I saw a 1930's Rolls Royce Phantom III V12 that left me literally in awe of its interior appointments and mechanical sophistication.)

But I have no patience with those who talk admiringly about the performance of these cars. How fast these cars were in the context of their times, yes. But like any technology, things move on, and those who don't recognise the reality of that progress are doomed to live only in the past.

Enjoy - relish, even - these wonderful cars of yesteryear, but accept that in a modern context, their designs are now pedestrian in almost every aspect.

My newly-acquired Lexus LS400 has standard high intensity discharge headlights. These use high-voltage technology normally associated with commercial and industrial lighting, with just a few cars now being fitted with the technology.

One characteristic of the illumination is that its colour temperature is far closer to daylight than incandescent (glowing filament) lamps - even more so than quartz halogens. (We've covered HID lighting briefly in "Light Action - Upgrading Forward Vision".) And, as someone who regards forward illumination as damn' important, I was very much looking forward to seeing how good these hi-tech lights were.

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But I must say that my initial reaction was one of disappointment. Firstly, the HID lighting is only for the low beam - the high beam is traditional QH-powered. But more importantly, I was concerned that when switching from the competent high beam down to low beam, the change in lighting was too dramatic. Sure the HID low beam was giving a beautifully white light with a very even and wide spread, but when the high beam turned off it was damn' hard to see where I was going. Since I live in a rural area with lots of bendy roads, switching from high to low beam is something that I do very frequently - so the problem was serious.

A HID system isn't the sort that you upgrade easily (and with that technology, why should an upgrade be needed anyway?) so I thought long and hard about what to do. Then I found a very easy answer.

The system is fitted with an automatic headlight-levelling device, so that when the soft-suspension car has a heavy load in the boot, the very intense lights don't blind people coming the other way. And, each time that you start the car with the headlight switch already in the 'on' position, the headlights can be seen going through a self-test - aiming high, then low (or is it the other way around?), then settling in the normal driving position.

One night while watching the lights do their thing, I suddenly realised that the position that they ended up in was extraordinarily low. Would something as simple as changing their aim improve their performance?

The answer to that question is 'yes' - a few minutes with a socket on their adjustment bolts and the on-road illumination is far better. And no, people coming the other way aren't blinded - I checked!

A corollary of lifting the low beam is that the lighting intensity seems to have been diminished a little - the same amount of light is now spread further. But the transition from high- to low-beam no longer causes my eyes to widen as I try to pick out landmarks that I was sure I'd been seeing a few moments before...

So if you've bought a car - recent cars, especially, seem to often have their low beams aimed way too low - and the headlights don't have the expected range, check their aim.

The Smart Technology stories that we have started including in AutoSpeed have sent me off in all sorts of research directions. And a man that I have been studying for an upcoming story is Edwin Land - inventor of Polaroid cameras. But well before he started thinking about instant photography, he was a pioneer in the development of polarising materials. Polaroid sunglasses, for example, use the technology that he developed.

And maybe everyone else in the world already knows this, but for any (like me) who didn't, here goes...

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I recently bought a pair of Polaroid sunglasses and, for driving, they are simply fantastic! Basically, they not only diminish the brightness of the light (yes, like all sunglasses do) but they also reduce very substantially (or even remove entirely) reflections. Reflections? What kind of reflections? Well, you know how even in well-designed cars, if the light is just at the right angle, you can see the top of the dash reflected in the windscreen? Put on a pair of Polaroids and those reflections just disappear - the glass becomes completely clear. Reflections of light off the road (especially light-coloured concrete roads) get the chop, while contrast in many viewed scenes goes up enormously.

Their polarising effectiveness in a given situation depends a lot on the direction that the light is coming from, but even when they're not polarising all that much, their normal sunglass light-reduction function works fine.

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In fact, I've found only one driving disadvantage. When looking through clear plastic, the polarising sunglasses rather distractingly let you see the internal stresses and strains of the material - highlighted by coloured bands.

Looking without sunglasses at my car's radio, the display is quite clear.

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But look at it through the polarising sunglasses, and this is the result. (I took the photo through one sunglass lens.) A similar effect happens when looking through tinted windows - though not quite as bad.

But compared with the benefits, these problems are just minor. Not all sunglasses are as effective as each other - and oh boy, do Polaroids work well in most driving situations!

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