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SAN FRANCISCO: Who are the best and worst drivers in Europe? According to the popular magazine Conde Nast Traveler, the Dutch are the most civilized on the roads, possibly because the fines for traffic violations are rather severe. The British score a close second for their unfailing courtesy and stoicism in the face of foreigners baffled by having to drive on the left side of the road. As for the worst, Belgium takes the prize, with the magazine speculating that one could expect no less from a country that didn't even require a driving test until the 1960s.

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A Louisiana patrol officer attempted to stop a suspicious-looking Pontiac, only to have the car speed off in a cloud of dust. The ensuing pursuit was short and sweet, as the car soon met a tree head-on. Miraculously, no one was injured, even though there were 20 people in the car, including 5 in the trunk. Even more interesting, they were all from Texas and all of them were naked. But there was an explanation for all this--God had told them to shed all their earthly possessions and head for Louisiana.

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While the price of classic cars is down some from the peak years of the late 1980s, the overall investment value of true classics has steadily increased. The April 1970 issue of Road & Track magazine advertised a 1956 Mercedes 300SL Gullwing, in excellent original condition, for $4,995 or best offer. Not a bad deal, really, considering that the same car today could cost $250,000.

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Car-pooling was carried to a daring extreme by the French town of Montpelier in 1958. In an attempt to alleviate traffic congestion, a fleet of yellow Simca 1000 sedans were left in the streets for anyone who wished to rent them at a bargain rate. The idea was to do one's errands about town, then drive the car to any one of a number of drop-off points, depositing the keys into a box or kiosk so that the next driver could use the vehicle. Apparently, the scheme failed not because of accidents or abuse, but because no technology of the time could effectively monitor and charge for a car used in this innovative way.

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Los Angeles has never been friendly to the pedestrian, and a recent survey by the American Geriatrics Society confirms that it's particularly stressful for the older person on foot. Fully 27 percent of all people over 65 couldn't cross a typical Los Angeles street before the light turned against them. To L.A.'s credit, an attempt was made by traffic engineers to delay the "walk" signal another 3 seconds. This helped, and now only 15 percent of the city's senior citizens have to risk their lives to cross the street.

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Automobile Year 1992/1993, a publication that describes every car currently manufactured, features the results of a poll taken of automotive journalists around the globe in which they were asked to list 20 of the most significant cars made over the last 40 years.

The surprising choice for the number one spot was the 1955 Citroen DS19, a technically interesting though rather obscure car. Second place went to the amazing Porsche 911, and third to the ground-breaking (and ground-eating) 4-wheel drive Audi Quattro. Other choices included the BMC Mini, the Jag E-Type, Chevrolet Corvette and VW Beetle.

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Saab, one of the smallest auto manufacturers, has never been short on innovation. Their latest development is the Trionic Engine Management System, a sophisticated form of combustion control operated by the industry's first 32-bit microprocessor, developed by Motorola and ingeniously applied by Saab. The degree to which clean emissions are produced is startling. When tested in London on a production Saab 9000 CS, it was found that the outside air entering the engine's intake system was dirtier than the stream coming out of the tailpipe.

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Older cars may look lovely, but they are hardly innocent when it comes to exhaust emissions. A typical car from the 1920s spits out about 30 grams per mile of unburned hydrocarbons, 200 gm/mi. of carbon monoxide, and 2 gm/mi. of oxides of nitrogen. By 1960, most cars emitted around 11 gm/mi. of HC, 84 gm/mi. of CO and 4.1gm/mi of NO. Modern standards far surpass these numbers. A typical 1993 car produces only .41 gm/mi. of HC out the tailpipe, 3.4 gm/mi. of CO and 1.0 gm/mi. of NO. So 60 modern cars produce roughly the same HC and CO emissions as one 1928 Model A Ford.

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Driving a car on alternative fuels such as propane, natural gas or M85 (85% methanol and 15% gasoline) , might seem attractive in terms of price, but it's not as simple as that. A major obstacle to the widespread use of alternative fuels is their inferior energy-per-gallon ratio when compared to gasoline. For instance, a gallon of M85 costs about $1 per gallon, but has only 57% the energy of gasoline. The actual cost, therefore, to match gasoline's performance is almost $2 per gallon. Propane is a little better, but compressed natural gas (CNG) is really weak, with only 17% the energy of regular unleaded gasoline.

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Automobile racing is not only getting safer, it's a lot more profitable. When Ray Harroun won the first Indy 500 in 1911, he received $14, 250, driving a dangerous and primitive beast of a Marmon at speeds far too great for either its tires or brakes. Al Unser, Jr., winning the same race in 1992, had a much better, though not guaranteed, chance of staying alive than Harroun did, and was awarded the princely sum of $1,244,184 out of a total purse exceeding $7 million.

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Manufacturers of the world's most prestigious and expensive motorcars are constantly bragging about the high mileages their cars can rack up, but no one ever gives credit to the average New York taxicab, which is generally retired and often still running at 156,000 miles.

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A survey conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which studied automobile accidents in the state of Virginia over a five year period, showed rather conclusively that front-end collisions are most likely to produce serious injury to occupants(46%), with side collisions (32%) and rollovers (20%) the next riskiest respectively. Grievous injuries from sideswipes and rear-end collisions were practically negligible.

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It seems fitting somehow that the first speeding ticket ever issued in the United States would be awarded to a New York City taxicab,. It was on May 20, 1899, that a Mr. Jacob German was stopped by officer Raymond Schuessler for going 12 mph on Lexington Avenue in, of all things, an electric cab. History does not record whether the arresting officer was on foot, horse or in a pursuing vehicle, but the record does note that Mr. German was thrown in jail.

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Wages for automotive workers around the world still vary widely. Labor costs, which factor in the cost of benefits and taxes as well as the actual pay to workers, are highest in western Germany, at $28.65 per hour, considerably more than in the U.S., which pays $24.21. The UK and Spain are tied at around $16, and it becomes abundantly clear why automakers are setting up plants in Mexico , where a top wage for autoworkers hits about $3 per hour.

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Avid TV watchers might remember that Columbo drove an old Peugeot, but they'd have to be even more astute to recall the type of car that rolls out of the garage in the opening sequence of Hill Street Blues ( Dodge Monaco), Kojak's wheels ('74 Buick Century), Rockford's ride (Pontiac Firebird) or the Green Hornet's heavily customed machine ('64 Chrysler Imperial).

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The privacy of the automobile put a big dent in the moral framework of America's youth. In the 1950's, the best "make-out wheels" were the late 40s Ford and Mercury "Woody" wagons, the tank-like 49 Merc' sedan, the early 50s Chevy Panel Truck and the very sexy 1957 Chevy Hardtop. By the 1960s, tastes had changed, and a number of today's "Generation X" can probably trace their conception back to a gaily-painted VW Van owned by their hippie parents.

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The 1994 Branson International Collector Car Show auctioned off two famous Cadillacs--one owned by Elvis Presley and the other by President Bill Clinton. Many people were interested to see which would bring more money--Elvis' '71 Caddy Sedan or Bill's '71 Eldo Convertible. It was no contest. The "King's" car brought $44, 720, and Mr. Clinton's a mere $5,800. The reason? Auctioneer Mitchell Kruse speculates: "Elvis can't use any more cars, but Clinton can."

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The Firestone Tire Company conducted a survey recently to assess customers' attitudes about their cars. Among the questions--"Do you have a name for your car?" Only 15.3% said yes, with women more likely (17.9%) than men (12.6%). But over 36% of the names used were feminine, 15% were male, and 49% neuter. The most popular name? "Betsy", of all things.

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When Preston Tucker introduced his famous Tucker Torpedo in late 1947, the car created a sensation in America. Since so few were ever seen by the American public, legends grew up around the car that persist to this day. One story says that if a Tucker sped past you at night, a neon sign in the rear window would light up and say "You've just been passed by a Tucker". Another myth asserted that each Tucker left the factory with a bottle of Old Crow whiskey mixed into the gas tank.

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One of the strangest races in recent memory was conducted in Odivelas Portugal, a suburb of Lisbon. The contestants were a Ferrari 348 and a donkey, and the point was to demonstrate how bad traffic congestion was in the area. Reports indicate that the Ferrari took an early lead, but at the end of the 3 kilometer course the donkey was victorious with a couple of minutes to spare.

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Harry Armenius Miller, unknown to most Americans, was one of the most prolific geniuses in automotive history. A self-taught engineer, he was the most successful race-car designer between the World Wars. His innovations in engine efficiency, supercharging and front wheel and all-wheel drive were so revolutionary that his basic designs ruled the Indianapolis 500 for 40 years. He died impoverished in 1943, and Preston Tucker had to pay his funeral expenses.

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Auto manufacturers have always had a weakness for slogans. "See the USA in your Chevrolet" saw service in the 1950's, and "Engineered Like No Other Car in the World" works well for Mercedes-Benz today. The slogans of cars now defunct still serve nicely as epitaphs. The Maxwell (1904-25) was "Perfectly Simple, Simply Perfect" and the Oakland (1907-31) was "The Car with a Conscience". Arguably the best slogan was Packard's (1899-1958), which challenged buyers to "Ask the Man Who Owns One".

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Who might be the five best race drivers of all time? Opinions of experts vary, but starting with pre-World War II drivers, Tazio Nuvolari makes nearly everyone's list. Postwar, Juan Manuel Fangio was undisputed champion in the mid-1950's. Stirling Moss is a strong contender because of his incredible versatility. Jim Clark's record in the 60's is amazing, with 25 Grand Prix wins. Another sure pick would be Ayrton Senna, considered by many fellow drivers in the 80s and 90s as one of the best ever.

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To rabid car enthusiasts throughout the world, the Antique Automobile Club of America's annual fall meet at Hershey Pennsylvania is Mecca, the Land of Oz, Paradise and Eldorado all in one. With over 2,000 cars on display, 20 miles of booths to peruse, and 7,000 vendors selling every auto-related item imaginable, it's the biggest car event on earth.

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Manufacturers like Connolly, who specialize in providing leather hides for automobile interiors, employ "graders" who can quickly but accurately judge the quality of each hide passing before them on a conveyer belt. Number One hides, free of any bark wire marks or other scarring, go to Rolls Royce or Ferrari. Number Two, slightly marked, may go to Jaguar or Volvo. It takes about 5 cows to do up an entire luxury car.

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Next time your car breaks down, you might think of Howard O. Carter, who decided in 1907 to build a car with two engines. The two powerplants could run independently, or by pressing a foot lever, in tandem for extra power. There were two radiators, clutches and transmissions as well. Price of the Carter Twin Engine Car was $2,500. And while the automotive press liked it, the public didn't, and by 1909 the company was making a very conventional car called the Washington.

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The 24 Hours of Lemans is a race noted for its "running start", even though this is no longer done. But in 1967, a driver was still required to run to his car, start it, and hopefully get to the first turn before anybody else. American Dan Gurney, driving Ford's awesome Mark IV GT40, saved a little time at the start by not buckling up his safety harness until he was clear of the pack. He snapped it together later, while driving down the Mulsanne Straight at 200 mph and steering with his knees. PS. he won.

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When parent company American Motors decided to terminate its Hudson line in 1957, all former Hudson dealers were required to upgrade their facilities and sell American Motors cars. But Carl Miller, a small dealer in Ypsilanti, Michigan, didn't like the new cars was supposed to sell, so he just remained a Hudson dealer, keeping the signs up and selling used Hudsons in his showroom. In 1973 his son took over, and "The Last Hudson Dealer" is still in business, looking very much the same as it did in 1957.

Byline:  By Joe Troise AutoWire.Net - San Francisco
Column Name:  Automotive Anecdotes
Topic:  Automotive Facts
Word Count:   2305
Photo Caption: 
Photo Credits:  
Series #:   1999 - 5

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