HP-24 Project

Update 10 November 2008: Belt and suspenders

No glider work this weekend, not much to report on the Project. Last week all I did was make a few control stick parts on the lathe and send one to Brad. Brad has been making parts for my fuselage to bring down for ADF VII, currently scheduled for 8-18 December 2008. Let me know if you'd like to visit or attend this workshop; I will be glad to reveal the secret ingredient of success in sailplane development.

Saturday 8 November we spent all day in Yosemite Valley. The plan was to get some climbing in early, and then attend the 50th anniversary celebration for the first ascent of El Capitan in the evening. With the weather iffy and worsening that plan worked out famously. Sunday I spent all day working on the Dodge Neon.

On arrival in the Valley on Saturday we dropped Brigitta and Raen off at Yosemite Village and then drove over to the east end of El Cap Meadow to the junction where they'd just closed off Southside drive. There Alia and I packed our gear in stealth-climbing mode and walked up the closed road to the picnic area at the base of the Manure Pile buttress just east of El Cap. It was kind of spooky with no cars in sight or hearing; it had sort of a post-apocolyptic vibe to it.

At the Manure Pile we gear up and headed up After Six, an easy and popular and usually-crowded six-pitch Yosemite classic. Actually, we started up an adjacent route called C. S. Concerto, which converges on After Six after the first pitch or so.

Three years ago I took a pretty hard fall on the first pitch of After Six, and I have regarded it with some ill-feeling ever since. It draws a lot of climbers due to its "classic" status, and so its granite tends to have a lot of polish from the many hands and feet that have followed it, the more so where the available features tend to constrain you to a relatively narrow path. I had a foot slip in one such spot a few feet above my last piece and fell about 15 feet before the rope tightened behind my leg and flipped me over backwards. Coming to a stop upside down I caught one of my larger cams in the small of my back and hit the back of my head on the rock, breaking my helmet. I was achy for several weeks after that.

I found that first pitch of C. S. Concerto to be the hardest part of the climbing, what with getting into a climbing frame of mind and then climbing above my own gear. About half way up that pitch you clip a fixed piton (one with one of the two eyes cracked), back it up with a small chock, and then you cast off on some unprotected friction climbing before reaching another crack system that takes gear. The climbing there is pretty easy and isn't all that far, but it does sharpen your senses when you look back to the last placement, double that distance, and subtract the sum from your height off the ground. A little further on you sling a small tree and traverse onto a nice ledge for the belay.

Here's Alia at the top of the hand/fist crack on P1 of C. S. Concerto.

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Here she's about to start the friction traverse to the belay at the top of P1.

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Technically, the hardest climbing is supposed to be on the second pitch, but having gotten acclimated on the first it seemed to offer good holds and good protection, so it went quite smoothly and soon I was bringing Alia up and collecting the gear she'd cleaned off of the route. The third pitch had some of the kind of chimneying I've been practicing with Gary Carpenter's Wide Wednesday gang, and for which I am well-sized, and so it was a pleasant cruise. I anchored in a small alcove as shown on the route topo and brought up Alia. There we were met by a French team coming up behind, and there was some good-natured confusion finding a stance and anchor for their leader and separating our ropes. But we pretty quickly got Alia anchored and our gear sorted, and I cruised on up to the large ledge at the top of the fourth pitch, slung a tree, and brought up Alia.

At about that time we felt the first few raindrops and weighed whether to escape off to the left or keep going to the top. I knew the rest of the route well and was comfortable with the climbing there, but I had never expored the escape route and wasn't sure I wanted to lead Alia out that way. I decided the best way off was up. According to the Supertopo map the last two pitches are 80 and 90 feet respectively, and I thought with our 60-meter rope I could just run the two together straight to the top. I charged on up, setting little gear on the easy terrain there. But I was only a little ways past the large tree at the "official" fifth belay when Alia called up with only a few yards of rope left. I backed down to the tree, anchored to it, and brought Alia up in short order. Then I set right out again, setting a single cam where the climbing gets a bit hard, and later slinging a tree when I could no longer see the cam. I topped out onto the plateau known as Jefferson Airport, called "Off Belay" down to Alia, and then anchored at a tree at the back of the plateau and brought up Alia at a fair run. We coiled the rope, pried our feet out of our rock shoes, and departed Jefferson Airport down the steep descent trail that switchbacks off to the west in cool, refreshing rain that became a downpour as we strode along the double-yellow centerline of the deserted Southside drive.

Afer rendezvousing with Brigitta and Raen, in the evening we mingled with many world-famous climbers at the 50th anniversary celebration. I met Wally Reed, of Reed's Pinnacle fame, and saw that he is indeed a fairly compact individual as you'd expect from the claustrophobic tunneling through on Reed's Pinnacle Regular Route. At dinner I sat right behind Hans Florine and his family, whose attendance there meant that the event commemorated not only the first and slowest ascent of El Capitan's Nose, but also the fastest. I also met several members of the SuperTopo climbing forum, some of whom I've known only by their cryptic usernames.

In other news, I've been taking rather a bit of heat for my latest automotive purchase. After the third email suggesting that I might be short of marbles for buying such a trashy little car, I thought it might be good to spell out my reasoning in buying a 2003 Dodge Neon.

For one, I like the way it looks. Aesthically It is a scrumptious collection of curves that I think suggests just the right balance of playfulness, sophistocation, and prowess. It is about the right size, and occupies about the right amount of volume.

For another thing, it performs very well. It out-accelerates, out-brakes, and out-corners any car I've ever owned, and that includes the Autocross-prepped 1968 Triumph Sptifire that is still in my garage. Although, the Spitfire isn't really what you'd call a car, it's more of a grownup-sized go-kart, but with a bit less crash protection.

Certainly, something of the Neon was lost between its development and its manufacture. Some quality of quality, as it were. There are years and paint codes to be avoided, of which the environmentally friendly paint practically leaps off of the primer leaving you with a gray car everywhere the sun shines.

And there is the story, unconfirmed but plausible, of the example that seemed short on power when purchased used with many miles on the clock. The idle was lumpy, too. The Neon-savvy new owner figures it's a blown head gasket, which in the first generation was with almost 100% certainty guranteed to fail. Savvy pulls the head, looks down the #4 bore, and sees a shiny unblemished crank journal, framed by factory-fresh cylinder honing marks. Absent without leave was the connecting rod, wrist pin, piston, and rings.

So, yeah, good idea, perhaps sub-optimal execution. Maybe like a Harbor Freight machine tool: A kit that comes pre-assembled, so that you can use disassembly and refinement as the guide to assembly and maintenance.

Certainly a lot of the egregious mis-steps have been addressed in the second-generation Neon that debuted in model year 2000. The 2nd gens are more refined, have more features, and have better crash-test results. The down side is that the car got heavier without getting any more powerful, so some measure of the original's sprightlyness is dulled.

Here's the real thing about the Neon: It is a parable written in steel about a group of people who looked a thing that was said to be impossible and who said "We can do this. We must do it."

America, it was said, could not compete in the small car market. We could make and sell small cars, in fact, we had to in order for Detroit to achieve fleet mileage values required by law. We just couldn't compete at it, offering such crappy little econoboxes as had to get pushed off the lots by profit-killing discounts and rebates.

As David Woodruff writes in this 3 May 1993 Business Week article:

...The lights were dimmed, and Robert P. Marcell, the 53-year-old head of Chrysler's small-car team, made the most of his opportunity. He began showing slides of his hometown, Iron River, a decaying mining community in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Up flashed the now-shuttered Homer-Wauseca mine, where Marcell had worked summers during college. Then the abandoned yard, where 1,000 railcars a day were once loaded with ore. And the hospital where, because of the flight of the young from Iron River, five people die for every one that is born. The town is crumbling, he said, his voice shaking, "because we couldn't compete."

Detroit, Marcell argued, was slowly heading toward the same fate, and abandoning small cars would speed its demise. But if Chrysler could become the first U. S. company in decades to make a profitable subcompact, it could help reverse the trend. It could prove that American carmakers, in toe-to-toe combat, can outmuscle the Japanese. Marcell uttered what became his team's rallying cry: "If we dare to be different, we could be the reason the U. S. auto industry survives. We could be the reason our kids and grandkids don't end up in fast-food service." As he ended his pitch, he thought he saw a tear in Iacocca's eye...

A rather fuller account of the original Neon project, Chrysler code PL, appears in the Paul Ingrassia and Joseph White book Comeback: The fall and rise of the American auto industry which chronicles the rebirth of Detroit in the early 1990s. Ingrassia is working on another book about the auto industry, and I am looking forward to reading it.

As far as I'm concerned, the major down side of the Neon is is that it was designed as a driver's car and a manufacturer's car, but not as a mechanic's car. It's got a lot of interior space for such a small car, and the way the achieved that is by shoving all the inconsequential necessities out to the corners of the car. That's things like wheels and suspension parts, and also the engine--for which they've reserved a modest corner right behind the starboard headlight. That's all well and good for the engine, it will run wherever you put it. And it's good for the assembly line, where the entire driveline and front suspension is assembled onto a cradle that is later lifted into the engine compartment. It's just not very good for whoever has to work on it on those rare occasions it's called for.

I spent a lot of time in that corner of the engine bay this Sunday, changing the Neon's timing belt. That's a scheduled maintenance item for 100,000 or 105,000 or 106,000 miles (depending on which version of the schedule you observe), and mine is a little past 109,000 miles. The Chrysler 16-valve 2.0 liter engine is, as you'd expect, an interference engine, so if the camshaft stops but the pistons keep going there will be some expensive crunchage between the pistons and valves, the which I am anxious to avoid. It's not like my Volvo B-series OHC engines, where you just carry an extra timing belt and change it wherever it breaks, no harm done unless you have the 16-valve B234 or have decked the engine for higher compression.

It's also not like the Honda Civics I used to drive before getting rear-ended by a Volvo. I never had a Honda engine last to 70,000 miles without needing rings and valves, and the timing belts would last at least that long. So I'd usually just go and get a used engine from a salvage importer and plug that in with whatever timing belt was on it.

So, anyhow, it took pretty much all of Sunday, minus one each trip to Kragen, Starbucks, and Burger King to change the Neon timing belt. My basic guide to that operation was this how-to Web page, which advises changing the water pump and serpentine belt idler pulley while you're in there. It is an awkward thankless job that requires removing a lot of incidental parts (including the power steering pump, the engine mounting plate, two engine torque struts and a chassis brace). Also of note, you need a 3-jaw gear puller to get the crankshaft pulley off, and getting access to various bolts requires placing a floor jack under the engine and tilting it up to worrisome-looking angles.

The real disappointment of the day was that Kragen had given me the wrong timing belt tensioner; their parts system shows the wrong one for my year car. The correct one was at least a day away, a day I didn't and still don't have to spare. After some soul-searching and critical assessment of the original I decided to put it back into the game for another round. It still had a nice, greasy, packed feel to it, and nothing of the skate-wheel clatter of one on the wane. We'll just have to see how well that works out.

Next weekend I should be back at the shop to work on the upper wing molds. The next job to hand is to scribe the locations of the airbrake cap and the flaperon separation line.

Homebuilt aviation is not for folks who don't try things at home.

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page updated 10 November 2008 all text and graphics copyright (c) 2008 HP Aircraft, LLC