Sunday, January 10, 2010

French catch "English disease"

It seems the French may have fallen victim to the “English disease.” No not that disease, not the one the Brits call the “French disease.”

I am writing about bad engineering design. In this case it is the TGV, the fast French train that plies its trade between the U.K. and France through the tunnel.

Just before Christmas the tunnel service was suspended when six trains failed and had to be towed back to France. It happened again yesterday. It seems that the cold weather has caused moisture build-up in the engine compartment and has shorted out the electrics.

This is bad design, because whoever put this together ought to have anticipated the impact of a hot engine on an influx of cold air and should have isolated the electrical components.

In the 1960s, my father, for reasons best known to him, became enthralled with English cars. Some folks today may not realize that the U.K. back then had a large auto industry that exported its products to the world. In fact, it was the largest car exporting nation at that time.

I think my dad took a liking to a nearby garage owner who also happened to have the local dealership for Austin and Vauxhall. Over a period of about 5 years our driveway had two of the larger Austin’s (which were not large at all by North American standards) and one Vauxhall. They were all purchased new.

Collectively, they spent almost as much time in the garage being repaired as they were being driven. They were terrible cars, completely unreliable. You could never count on going out in one of them and returning in the same vehicle.

We used to chalk it up to the fact that British automotive engineers had no idea about winter driving conditions in Canada when they designed them.

That theory ended in one spring when I took an Austin for a spin on a rain-soaked day. There was a nearby town that was located at the bottom of a river valley, with steep grades at either end of the highway that ran through the middle of the town.

I came down one hill, drove to the other side, and started to climb the hill out of town. Halfway up, the motor began to sputter and lose power.

I managed a U-turn and on the down slope the engine came up to full power. When I started up the other hill, the same thing happened, and I again pulled U-turn and used gravity to get the car up to speed. This time I roared through the town, greatly exceeding the speed limit, and tried to assault the hill. No luck, the motor died halfway up. I abandoned the effort and found alternative transportation.

Later we consulted with the dealer who said the problem was that the sparkplugs were all positioned in the front of the motor, just behind the radiator, and the rainwater had shorted them out. When we asked for a solution to the problem, he said the manufacturer provided a pull down blind that could be installed just behind the radiator. However, he cautioned, if you do that, your engine will overheat.

If the automotive engineers in one of the wettest countries in the Northern Hemisphere couldn’t design a car appropriate for their own climate, then it was time to go back to American cars.

And that is just what we did.

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