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Cold starts on the way back from the moon

I received an unexpected email from Google a few weeks ago, not long after the New Year. It seems that my smartphone, which is smarter than I knew, had been keeping pretty close tabs on me throughout 2021. Turns out the phone had been tattling on me all year long to Google, who summed up everything they had learned about me (well OK, maybe not everything) into one concise summary. The email offered some interesting information about my travel habits and recorded every destination I’d visited last year. I had no idea I was being so closely surveilled, although I’m not surprised. Among the highlights, Google was pleased to inform me that in 2021 I’d spent 1,003 hours behind the wheel, driving a total of 38,310 miles, or about 1.5 times around the equator, the email said. It also showed me a map of the midwest with hundreds of little red dots all over it and claimed I’d visited 198 cities in the previous 12 months.

If I ever decide to go on the lam, I think I’m in real trouble. Nobody’s going to have a hard time hunting me down. My friends tell me I can adjust different settings on my phone to keep all this information to myself, and I think there was even an option to change some privacy settings in the email they sent. Hopefully, I’ll remember to turn off all this tracking before committing my first bank robbery, or just leave my phone at home. I guess I’d better, if I want to make a clean break.

Not only did the email show me how careless I am with my personal data, it also offered a reminder of a few thoughts I’d had about my car while sitting behind the wheel for all those hours last year. I purchased my silver Honda CRV from its first owner in late 2016 with just 60,000 miles on it. Last December, five years and one month after I bought it, it finally displayed 250,000 miles on its little digital odometer. That calculates, incidentally, to an average of just about 38,000 miles per year, so Google is not far off the mark. When I hit 240,000 miles on the highway one afternoon late last fall I patted the dashboard lightly and said “Well done. If we’d been driving through outer space, you’d have gotten me to the moon. Now let's see if you can get me back home”. Everybody knows that people who fail to occasionally offer their cars warm words of affirmation should not be surprised when it fails to start one morning when they’re running late for work.

Not surprisingly, this Honda has been the very definition of reliability, performing all the duties for which it was purchased flawlessly. It has plenty of space, has been ridiculously economical to maintain, easily tows my Hobie 16 catamaran with all its gear, and most importantly, has never once started a trip it hasn’t finished. This is important to me because when I’m gone, I’m really gone. If I have a breakdown, I won’t be stranded five miles from home, I’ll likely be stuck hundreds of miles away. That’s the sort of distance where even your closest friends will be busy walking a dog you didn’t know they had when you call for help.

Time will tell if I’ll be the only driver to pilot my CRV back home from the moon, or if it will even finish the trip. But when you’ve spent five years quickly racking up almost 200,000 miles in the driver's seat of a dependable car, a false sense of permanence begins to grow in your mind. Like your first romance, it’s easy to be lulled into believing that what’s now will be forever. You have to be careful, or the inevitable mechanical catastrophe that renders the car “too tired to fix” will shatter the illusion and leave you with a bitter sense of unexpected betrayal and disappointment. For this reason, I’ve been casting wayward glances lately toward the new Ford Mavericks and been tempted by them in ways I haven’t been by a new car in a long time. I love my Honda, and I’d drive it to St. Louis tomorrow. In fact, I made that trip three times last year. But my feelings may change about such long excursions as the miles continue piling up.

For all the things I like about my car, there is one thing I would change, and that’s the gearing. My CRV has a relatively rare 5-speed manual transmission, sought intentionally when I was shopping because I was bored with the slushbox in my previous car and felt like shifting again. The only problem is at 75 miles per hour on the highway, where I do ninety percent of my driving, that little four-banger is buzzing along at a pretty busy 3,500 RPM. Because of the shorter gearing, I generally keep to a self-imposed maximum speed of about 75 wherever I drive. I seem to have a psychological hangup about pushing that little engine to spin to almost 4,000 RPM so I can go 80. The car doesn’t necessarily feel busy at these speeds, but I have to spend thousands of hours staring at that tach. If I spend all day driving any faster it wears on my conscience and I have a little harder time falling asleep that night.

The only silver lining here is that I’m basically invisible to speed traps on the highway. On more than one occasion after driving past highway patrol cars with their radar guns pointed at me, I’ve looked in the rearview, and in my best James Cagney voice said “You’ll never catch me, copper, I never drive faster than 75, see…”.

When I test drove it, the short gearing was nearly a deal killer for me. My perception was that Honda had designed a nice little in-town commuter SUV, but they left highway wanderers like me out in the cold with an engine that would never hold up to the sort of abuse that continual highway travel would inflict. Highway miles are typically the easiest for most cars, but how long could an engine last, thrashing along hour after hour at such high RPM? I had my doubts, but took the gamble and bought the car anyway, betting on the legendary engineering of the late Soichiro Honda’s products rather than my own engineering intellect. So far, that bet has paid off. The last time I adjusted the valves at 190,000 miles, I did a compression test out of curiosity and found all four cylinders were still holding around 190 psi, which were the same results I got when I replaced the spark plugs at 100k. Amazing.

It was while staring at that busy tachometer one afternoon that a loose sort of math problem began rolling around in my mind. How many times, I wondered, had the crankshaft in my little engine rotated to take me where I needed to be? Knowing that an exact number could not be calculated, I began thinking of a way to get at least a reasonable approximation. After thinking about it for a moment, a little equation came to me.

Nobody ever won a Pulitzer writing about their math homework, so I’ll spare you the details of the algebra. Suffice it to say that after calculating an average vehicle speed over 250,000 miles to establish approximate engine hours, I multiplied those hours, converted into minutes, by an estimated average RPM over the life of the engine, settling on a guesstimate of 2300 RPM. Punching all these numbers into a calculator, I arrived at a total of 908,000,000 estimated crankshaft revolutions over the life of the engine.

To be clear, it’s only an estimate, based on an imperfect set of estimates and averages. For all you Beautiful Mind types out there, I’m well aware I did not account for a few potential variables and could be off in either direction by 100,000,000 or more revolutions. My last traffic jam through Nashville on I-65 for instance probably added about 50,000,000 revolutions just idling alone. It felt like it anyway.

Even if my estimate is overstated by half, (it’s not) these are pretty impressive numbers. To think that crankshaft and rod journals can reliably spin hundreds of millions, even billions of times against bearings, separated by nothing more than a thin film of pressurized oil is almost unbelievable. Just contemplating the symphony of mechanical activity going on under the hood makes me want to change the oil in all my cars right now.

That’s why when I read articles about caring for your car during the winter months, I’m indifferent to the advice peddled by countless articles suggesting that today's engines need only a short warm-up on cold winter mornings before sliding into gear and driving away. Some writers even claim that allowing a warm-up longer than 30 seconds in cold temperatures may actually be damaging to your engine, as excess gasoline in cold, rich running engines allegedly washes the oil off cylinder walls and piston rings, leading to premature wear. I can easily see such a scenario in a diesel engine, and it seems entirely plausible in old carbureted cars. But in today’s cars, dire warnings of cold crankcases filling with excess gasoline while piston rings grind away against dry cylinder walls seem a little hysterical to me. If all this idling is so harmful for today's engines, why do so many automakers keep putting remote starters in their cars?

Despite my skepticism, there is truth in elements of such advice to winter motorists. Modern fuel systems are vastly more efficient at delivering fuel to cylinders than carburetors, which do a poor job vaporizing fuel until the engine has warmed up. For a long time now, our cars have run reliably, without hesitation or stalling, from the moment we turn the key. This was not always so. Additionally, modern engine oil is almost too good to be true. With chemical bonding agents, detergents, corrosion inhibitors, not to mention full synthetics, many of today’s engines are capable of five-figure mileage before the engine is ready for an oil change. Even with these advanced service intervals, engines are running longer, farther, and cleaner than ever before.

Still, in all my years of motoring, I’ve never heeded the advice in these articles. I’m a fan of the reasonable wintertime warm-up, particularly when it’s single-digit cold outside. I don’t warm my engine to full operating temperature, but if it’s well below freezing out, I’ll always start my car and give it at least a few minutes to warm up before leaving.

Why do I do this? The answer is simple but maybe slightly irrational considering we’re discussing machinery here. Basically, I try to do unto my engine as I’d have my engine do unto me. Sort of like the Golden Rule, but with spark plugs. If our roles were reversed, I might resent any car that allowed me only thirty seconds to get up and around before starting my day. I need a little time to warm up in the mornings before I get moving, so why not my car? After all these miles together, I’d like to think that my Honda and I have reached something of an unspoken mutual understanding. I agree to keep the vehicle in top mechanical condition, use only genuine Honda parts when something needs replacing, and change all fluids at the recommended intervals. In return, my Honda agrees to never leave me stranded on the side of the Ohio Turnpike in the middle of the night- or anywhere else for that matter. So far, we’ve both been holding up our ends of the bargain.

Bottom line, I dislike that first startup on winter mornings. On the very coldest of mornings, when you can hear the snow literally creaking under your feet as you walk, you can’t help but feel a little sympathetic for your frozen engine. You hear the starter straining to pull every cold-cranking amp from a battery that would rather be left alone. The belt-driven ancillary pumps whine for the first few moments as frigid fluids like coolant and power steering fluid reluctantly begin circulating again. All the bearings are tight. The valvetrain rattles momentarily waiting for the cold oil below to return to duty. In the middle of it all, brittle connecting rods are getting shoved around by insistent pistons, their rings squeezed tight by cylinder bores contracting in the arctic air, possibly awash in gasoline, for all I know. On days like these, before the car has warmed up, that temperature gauge isn’t just reporting on your engine temperature, it’s displaying the outside temperature too- a big “C” for cold, and the needle’s pointed right at it. If you’ve never held a set of engine bearings and connecting rods in your hands this may all sound a little melodramatic, but I’ve built an engine or two in my life, and measured journal to bearing clearances to within .0025-inch. It’s better if I don’t think about hydrodynamic oil wedges and bearing clearances half as thick as a sheet of notebook paper when I’m turning the key in my car and it’s negative four degrees outside.

All of this is usually on my mind during the winter in ways that never occur to me in the summer months. So what’s five minutes of quiet idling before I leave, letting that coolant warm up a few degrees while the oil circulates and gets everything good and lubricated? Fuel costs be damned, I think it’s a small price to pay. After all, my Honda just turned 255,000 miles the other day. If I want to make it all the way back from the moon I’ve got a long way- 225,000 miles- to go. And an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of bearing shells.


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