Engines

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The main attraction.

Disclaimer: I know nothing about cars.

(i) My son recently became old enough to play with the toy cars I had when I was a kid. Most of them. I’m keeping the Micro Machines on the shelf until we are fully clear of the choking hazard protocol. Aside from the personal nostalgia of rediscovering material traces of my childhood, what struck me is how old some of my model cars are. Yes, I am also sort of old, too, but these have me beat. Seeing dates from the early 1980s and late 1970s embossed on the metal undercarriages surprised me and prompted mental math, leading to the realization that my son handling these battered Hot Wheels and Matchboxes is comparable to me being given toys from roughly the era of the Second World War. Probably made from lead.

Note: I only very recently learned the difference between lead and led. I wasted decades believing they were the same, like read/read.

(ii) My favorite car of the group was the yellow one with the hatchback. The rear compartment could be flipped up, revealing a square, plastic engine which gave slightly and bounced back when pushed. Curious to learn more, I turned the car over.

Matchbox. Peugeot 205 Turbo 16. 1984.

It hadn’t occurred to me as a kid that this toy was modeled on an actual car, or if I had entertained that line of thought, it was ultimately a dead-end given that google and wikipedia weren’t around then. Apparently, this car was a big deal. French. Very popular. Won awards. The version that I had was a suped-up racing edition made for rallying. To my mind, the existence of rally car racing is a separate (somewhat absurd) issue in and of itself. I associate it almost completely with sensationally titled compilation videos of cars swerving off of twisty backroads into screaming crowds of panicked onlookers. My personal experience with rallying is limited to being delayed in Lunahuaná for three hours (while suffering the after-effects of foodborne illness) due to a race scheduled along the only road within the valley.

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Beautiful Lunahuaná viewed through several iterations of photo filtering.

Interestingly enough, the Peugeot 205 T16 is listed as one of the “rallying supercars” unfettered by the sensible restrictions placed on earlier generations of racing vehicles. A series of tragic (fatal) accidents resulted in the restoration of guidelines ensuring that the sport versions would be much closer to the models in general production, ultimately based on the logic that less powerful cars would be easier to control and less likely to be featured in something like People vs Rally Cars | Rally Car Crashes and Saves 2017. (Or, maybe the crashes are expected and the prevalence of “saves” (i.e. narrowly avoiding fatalities) is an acceptable compromise.)

The feature that had drawn my attention as a child, the functional hatchback and its exposed engine, is a key design feature of the vehicle. Mid-engine design places the engine between the front and rear axles allowing for better weight distribution and traction than in cars where the heavy weight of the engine sits at the front. The disadvantage is the fact that the engine is where the back seats should be.

(iii) Engines? I am a not a mechanical engineer, though I have been known to glibly name-check “internal combustion engine” during conversations about the most influential technological advancements in human history, while understanding little about what this technology entails. Are there also external combustion engines? Yup. Steam engines are the most familiar example. The steam, the working fluid, is created by heating water in a mechanism (i.e. a boiler) external to the functional hardware (pistons, turbines, etc.) of the machine where it eventually is used. Internal combustion centralizes this process, as in the familiar case of a conventional automobile engine. Fuel and air mix in the engine (internal) and the combustion process is facilitated by spark ignition. The oxidation of the gasoline produces a hot, pressurized gas that is utilized to work the machine.

Note, though external combustion technology seems a quaint holdover of steampunk lore, this is pretty much how we still generate electricity. Even the most fancy nuclear power plant is essentially a machine that splits atoms in order to boil water.

(iv) Propulsive retro platformer beat:

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