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Automotive Hell: The Land Speed Record


3 AUTO HELLFrom 36055512, Tales

The owners of Dishonest Used Car Dealership weren’t particularly business-savvy, but they knew to hop on trends in the market when they appeared, and so all of the sudden we found ourselves as a new, cutting-edge, environmentally-friendly dealership, right about the time that sort of stuff was starting to become a big deal.

This meant things like hybrids, biodiesel, and electric cars were suddenly part of our repertoire, just as such things were getting really hot in the market. There is some good stuff out there that markets itself as being “green” and unfortunately an awful lot of snake-oil, so one of our jobs in the service department was to test things like veggie oil conversions, new little electric cars, and so forth to see what was good and what was trash - or more accurately, what we could pawn off on people and what was so obviously junk that no one in their right mind would ever buy it. This meant I did a lot of "real world testing" of various terrible cars or various terrible cars with various terrible aftermarket systems slapped on.

It turns out that the world's best stress test is to try and take a horrible veggie-oil converted diesel Volvo on a date, because it is absolutely sure to break down on you mid-drive-to-restaurant, and when it breaks down, it will be absolutely sure to blow a hot veggie oil line, and when it blows an oil line, it'll be absolutely sure to be the one that runs right underneath the passenger's seat, basting the lovely female you're trying to impress with yellow sludge salvaged from a Chinese restaurant...

But that's another story for another day.

Carolanne and thenAmong the many cars of dubious quality in our new “environmentally-friendly” inventory was the Xebra. Xebras are a Chinese electric car engineered to be as cheap and simple and terrible as possible. So they don’t have to pass any kind of safety standards, they are technically classified as motorcycles, and the Quingqi Motorcycle Company that makes the Xebra pulls off this feat through one simple trick: they leave a wheel off the car.

That’s right, these are three-wheelers, laid out like a Reliant Robin with one wheel in the front, two in the back (for why this is a terrible idea, see the Top Gear episode on the Robin). They have atrocious build quality, a 35-ish MPH top speed, begin rusting the moment they’re made, and are absolutely terrifying to drive.

Imagine a slightly oversized tricycle with a flimsy steering wheel that bends in your hands and a body made of fiberglass so thin you can just about see through it, and you’ll get close. Now imagine this tricycle is so poorly made that the company that made it does not recommend driving it in the rain because the electrical system will short out. That is the Xebra.

Why on earth the owners paid to import a half dozen of these things is a mystery for the ages, since few even survived a test drive before breaking down and we could not get them out the door to save our lives.

Colossal Redneck belched his way into my office on a grey spring morning and placed his KFC-greased palms on my glass desk. I briefly considered spraying the entirety of his person with Windex, but before I could, he launched into his spiel.

CR: “Lord Salisbury thinks he can swap out the throttle controller on one of them Xebras to get some more speed out of ‘er.”

Me: “That’s terrifying.”

CR: “Yeah, awesome, ain’t it? I’m gonna have ‘im do it.”

A couple hours later and out from the bay rolled out a white Xebra pickup with a new throttle controller under the bed. Lord Salisbury, one of my technicians, so named for his English accent and his proverbial bottle of Bombay Sapphire hidden in his toolbox, showed me his handiwork.

Under the bed was a new aftermarket throttle controller, two huge fat cables snaking out of it. The throttle controller on an electric car is basically a giant glorified potentiometer attached to the accelerator pedal. A higher amp controller lets more amperage through at full tilt, at the cost of munching through your batteries that much faster. Of course, if the wiring in the vehicle is made of pot metal and insulated with Foxconn workers’ suicide notes, you might question whether it’s a good idea to dump 600A through it. Nor is it a particularly great idea to boost the top speed of a vehicle whose sole selling point is that they managed to avoid having to crash test them.

LS: “So, the stock throttle controller is 300 amp. This one’s 600.”

Me: “What do you think it’ll do?”

LS: “I’m not rightly sure. I’m guessing it’ll go at least 45, which means it should to be able to keep up with traffic a little better.”

Freddy frustration 1Me: “Is that a good idea?”

LS shrugged. CR shot me his stupid toothy grin.

“C’mon, let’s see if this piece of s#!t is any good!”

Against my better judgement, I reluctantly climbed in the passenger side and we whirred down the street. We must have looked quite the sight, two fat idiots crammed into a three-wheeled sardine can, struggling to go 25 in a 45. Around the corner from the office was a big hill, and our litmus test for whether these cars had enough grunt was whether they could successfully climb the hill without coming to a halt.

For the first time, this one practically zoomed up the hill, not falling below 10 MPH the entire way up. You laugh at 10 MPH, but most of these s#!t sandwiches would just stall, leaving you to have to roll backwards down the hill. Simply making it to the top was a minor miracle.

The typical test drive route went up the steep side, down the gentler way on the far side of the hill, and back to the shop on the ring road that wrapped around the town. Instead, CR pulled into an industrial park at the top and whipped the three-wheeler around.

CR: “Let’s see how fast we can get it goin’ down the hill!”

Me: “Are you stupid? These things have NO brakes.”

CR: “Naw, if it gets goin’ too fast, I’ll just saw the wheel back and forth and it’ll slow down. It’ll be fiiiiiiine.”

This was an incredibly dumb idea, even for him, and I continued protesting for a minute, only to conclude that, f**k it, I didn’t have anything to live for anyway. If I was going to die, at least this mode of suicide had a pretty good chance of being funny, versus any of the others I had considered in my adulthood. CR pulled the car back onto the road when traffic was clear and paused at the top of the hill.

PET27CR: “This is gonna be f**kin’ awesome!”

He made the Mario Kart race-starting noise - “beep… beep… BING!” - and mashed the pedal to the floor. It wasn’t exactly neck-snapping acceleration, but as we rolled down the hill, we started picking up speed. CR began calling out the speed indicated on the dashboard as though were were pilots on some kind of experimental supersonic test flight:

“20… 25… 30… 35…”

At about 35, the contraption picked up a noticeable vibration from somewhere in the front.

“38… 40…”

The vehicle was now beginning to sway back and forth. The little truck was not pleased about its downhill trajectory and was doing everything in its power to steer us in a safer direction, like into a tree, or into the back of a delivery van. Colossal Redneck jerked the wheel left and right in an attempt to keep the car pointed in a vaguely downhill direction.

“45… 46… 47… 48… 49… 50!”

At this point the vibration had evolved from “noticeable” through “worrying” all the way to “world-ending”. The dashboard was rattling and visibly shaking, and the entire… “assembly” that comprised the truck bed sounded like it might just clatter its way off. The fiberglass that Quingqi optimistically calls a “passenger door” was shaking so badly that I could see daylight appear around the seal.

At 50, CR stabbed at the brakes. Even he wasn’t stupid enough to take it up all the way to freeway speeds. I watched his foot stomp the pedal, retract, and stomp it a couple more times. He gave me a look that landed somewhere between surprise and terror, which told me everything I needed to know: the brakes were as good as they ever were in a Xebra, which meant that we had none.

Carolanne argh 3At the bottom of the hill was a T-junction, and you can guess what leg of the T we were on. A few hundred yards ahead was a concrete wall which separated the road from a 20-foot dropoff into a junkyard. We were going to crash into the wall, and one of two things was going to happen: we would be instantly wadded up into a firey ball of fiberglass and Great Leap Forward-quality steel, or we would blow completely through the wall, arc gracefully through the air, and then immediately land atop a pile of dead Pontiacs.

CR, in spite of the general panic inside the car, managed to pull the handbrake, which surprisingly did have a marginal degree of effectiveness, and I watched the speedometer creep glacially down toward slightly less insane speeds. But it was not enough, and as we reached the flat section near the intersection, the gauge still hovered above 35.

I heard CR shout at me to hold on, and he yanked the wheel violently to the left. Because of how the steering on the Xebra is designed, past a certain steering angle, the wheel will just simply snap all the way to full lock, and that’s exactly what happened. The car whipped sideways with a horrid bang and my body slammed against the door. I don’t know for sure whether we were on two wheels at any point, but I can’t imagine we weren’t. We careened onto the main road, and miraculously managed not to slide into the concrete wall at the bottom of the hill.

We coasted back to the shop in silence, the Xebra having now picked up a horrible squealing noise. Back at the service bay, we piled out. I had just started to compose my tirade when Colossal Redneck punctuated the moment with a loud “holy f***ing s#!t!”

CR: “Look at this f**kin’ thing! The wheel! The god-damn wheel!”

Sure enough, there was a severe abnormality to the steering system on our rocketship. The violence of the “maneuver” at the bottom of the hill had taken the front wheel and fork assembly and bent it backwards to the point where the tire was now grazing the bodywork.

Think about how terrifying that is. Cars are pretty robust objects; generally speaking, short of an accident or hitting an enormous pothole at Mach 5, most handle abuse very well. Going around a corner at 35 might feel a bit fast, but it you can reasonably expect that if you do so your car isn’t going to explode. Our turn at the bottom of the hill had been rough, but not nearly rough enough to completely collapse the front subframe in any ordinary car, and yet collapse it it had. We concluded that the front subframe was apparently either made from tin foil or some sort of soft cheese.

We submitted the damage as a warranty claim to the manufacturer, somehow forgetting to include the little details of the upgraded throttle controller or our land speed record attempt. CR informed the owners that the Xebra couldn’t survive anything aside from the most gentle of driving, and recommended we try to get a refund from the manufacturer, as they were clearly unsafe.

The response was typical: “Once it’s out the door, who gives a s#!t?”

From then on, Colossal Redneck and I both categorically refused to drive the Xebras ever again. We never did sell a single one.





veggie-oil = Smells like old french fryer oil. Someone in town drove a car that smelled like that when they drove near you.

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