Ronin of the Spirit

Because reality is beautiful.

Geo Metro reflections

When I was a 11 years old my dad bought a brand new Geo Metro.  He had to get something to replace his wheezing Chevette.  He had, at that time, a 120 mile round trip to work everyday.  The Metro was the highest fuel mileage vehicle he could find.  Now, in the 1990s there were small cars and then there were tiny cars.  The Metro was tiny.  It had tiny 12″ wheels, a tiny backseat, and under the tiny hood something I didn’t even know existed.

I started working on cars when I was eight, so most of the cars I worked on were late 70’s early 80’s full size sedans. Beneath the hood was an engine so small you could actually work on it. When you looked down the engine you could see the ground on every side of the engine. You could get a wrench to any part of the engine without taking out 2 belts, a shroud, 15 vacuum hoses, and a wiring loom.

It’s not that the engine compartment was big, it was as tiny as the rest of the car.  It was just that the engine was that small. One liter displacement, smaller than my uncles’ motorcycles. It had a watch-like 5-speed manual transmission.   It would drag me, my dad, my mom, my sister, and all of our crap for a trip down the road at 70 mph and getting 50 mpg.  Since my dad put a lot of miles on it, I got to work on it a lot.  It got me thinking about mileage, and the environment.

It also introduced me to something that I had remained blissfully ignorant of until then: the power of stupid people in large numbers.  People hated that car.  People at gas stations would insult the driver.  My parents were told by other drivers that they were criminally irresponsible for allowing their kids to ride in that death trap.  Strangers would call it a roller skate, a go-kart, or a beer can with wheels.  Tire store employees would refuse to sell us tires until we brought a tire into the store and proved to them it really did take 12″ tires.  On the rare occasion that my dad and I could not fix it and we had to bring it into a shop the people would try and sell us a new car that was “safer”.  Once, a shop refused to work on it.  (My dad and I took fantastic care of the car.  With it’s freakishly overloaded little 3 cylinder engine we put over 300,000 miles on it.  The shop said that they would not work on small cars with a lot of miles on them.)

Which in turn introduced me to skepticism. Conventional wisdom said the car was dangerous. Yet my mother and father felt it was safest car they ever owned? Why?  If our little car could get 50 mpg, why couldn’t other cars do better?  Why did (does) the EPA require expensive catalytic converters, but not require cheap manual transmissions, which reduce pollution as well?  What was the real secret to good gas mileage?

And this is what I learned.  Some of it relates to cars directly.  Some not so much.

(1.) Don’t make technological solutions to social problems.  The problem with pollution is not that engines pollute.  Its that the owners’ of those engines don’t give a damn.  Seriously.  No process is 100% efficient. There is always irreclaimable energy released and usually byproducts created.  The problem isn’t the technology.  The problem is that people don’t care what consequences their actions will have on other people or even themselves.  When we try to solve social problems technologically, we end up with more complicated problems to solve.

Case in point: coal power plant.  The problem is that people waste too friggin’ much power.  That means they burn a lot of coal.  That means the coal puts out a lot of waste.  “Solution” clean the coal waste gas.  Now, coal plants don’t have huge plumes of stinky smoke.  Nope, now they radioactive solid waste to dispose off. (Coal contains radioactive isotopes in fractional quantities. Burn enough coal, and scrub enough of the exhaust and you will have radioactive solid waste.) Again for clarity.  Technological solutions to social problems will make the problem more complex and expensive, not solve it

(2.)There is no free lunch.  Like most kids I didn’t really learn much in school. Real learning comes from the things you decide you want to know, not what a textbook writer decides you should know.  My early science education came from investigating 100 mpg carburettor scams.  My dad said they didn’t work.  I wanted to know why.  Had to learn some chemistry to understand fuel/air ratios.  Had to learn some thermodynamics to understand the amount of energy the engine can make.  Had to learn some physics to understand why the engine has to store some of it’s energy in the momentum of the crank and flywheel to be able to finish the next cycle.  I learned that engines waste around 80% of the energy that they make because they must, not because of a global oil company conspiracy.

(3.) Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large numbers. American cars get crappy gas mileage and handle like bloated whales because that is what people want enough to pay for.  There may be many things that people want.  Most people want a car for free if possible. It is not the car companies job to give you what you want. It is the car companies duty to it’s stock holders to make money by giving you what you want more than your money. If Americans wanted electric cars more than they wanted money, they would have them.  But they don’t.  Americans DO want big V8s more than they want their money.  So they have them.   Remember I am not saying people don’t want electric cars.  They do.  They just don’t want electric cars more than they want $30,000.

Case in point:The BMW mini.  Things people like the most: sporty but with good fuel economy. Things people dislike the most: to small and not good enough fuel economy.  The cause of the things people like is the things they dislike.  Dumb, dumb, dumb.

(4.)Government agencies (and other large groups of people who aren’t paid to produce anything) are more interested in next year’s budget than their stated mission. The EPA mandated catalytic converters.  But not manual transmissions.  In the 70’s when they mandated that automatic transmission mechanical efficiency was about 85%.  Remember that cars are only about 20% efficient on a good day?  That takes it down to 17%.  That’s a 15% reduction!  (A properly made manual tranny will have losses equal to a plain shaft of the same length when in road gear.)

(5.)Not all sciencey stuff is scientific. Case in point: Hydrogen economy.  We need a hydrogen economy to save us.  How do we get the hydrogen? Electrolysis of water, which wastes 60% of the energy that goes in.   Well, how else can we get hydrogen?  Cracking of natural gas.  Who owns the natural gas?  The same oil companies who own the gasoline. The hydrogen economy talk is bread and circuses to keep you from noticing that rich and powerful have you by the soft bits.  But psudeo-science is a magic totem for the stupid.  Hold up sciencey words and “smart” people will line up behind you like Crusaders behind a cross.


April 15, 2008 - Posted by | Government, Microcar, Politics, skepticism, Small Car, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. ha! i drove a metro when i first got my license. 50mpg. that thing was awesome. it was hard to get that 3cylinder over 60 with the AC blasting.

    before that i had a 1980 Honda 70 passport 3-speed-no-clutch moped-ercycle. (cause 50cc’s was the legal limit for a moped, my dad told the courthouse that he put a ‘govenor’ on it so it wouldnt go over 30… several times it went well above 50, even with a heavyweight wrestler on it)

    i didnt appreciate either at the time. evergreen jeep grand cheorkee’s were what was hot. this was also when gas was a whole dollar a gallon. one dollar. dammit. the honda 70 would hold exactly one gallon and i would fill it up probably every other week.

    all together now – “i wish. that. i knew what i know now. when i was younger….”

    Comment by Tony | April 16, 2008 | Reply

  2. I drove a ’92 Geo Metro LSI Convertible in high school. I loved it. I filled the tank about every three weeks and drove it everywhere. I even took it on long vacations up and down the east coast. It unfortunately became a target for abuse by theives and vandles in the neiborhood and eventually my parents made me trade it in to get a safer car. Unfortunately I had to agree at the time that the car was becoming a problem not because it was a bad car but because for some reason it demanded disrespect from others. My dad hit a dear with it when it was new racking up 3000 dollars in damage and as a result of that and the vandalism all the body panels with the exception of the deck lid had fresh beautiful paint on them. It was blue and had a black spoiler, chrome rims and a black top. I owned it for six years and really enjoyed it despite the problems I did have. I wondered what had happened to it and often wished I still owned it, especially when gas went up to five bucks a gallon and my 40 minute commute was getting expensive even in my compact sedan. The car was ahead of it’s time.

    Comment by Andrew | June 24, 2009 | Reply

  3. Always pleased to meet another Geo metro enthusiast. I find that people either adore or despise small efficient cars. They are sort of the miniature Chihuahua of vehicles if you will. Thanks for stopping by and feel free to read any of my other madness on the blog.

    Comment by truthwalker | June 25, 2009 | Reply

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