COLUMN: Drive (train) me nuts!

Something peculiar happened the other day when I was privy to a proper hero moment. I don’t mean the kind that involves a burning house or a masked assailant, not even the civic removal of a cat caught in a tree. No, I refer more to the DIY level of heroism – that feeling reserved for those moments after you’ve assembled your first coffee table, or replaced the thermostat in your geyser. Better still this one was car related.

No, it had nothing to do with my proficiency at the helm, thank goodness, nor did it involve some bit of motoring trivia about this or that model from such and such an obscure marque from before the second world war but after the first and so on. More innocently than that, my serendipitous event occurred when my 10 year old asked simply, ‘dad, what is the difference between front wheel drive and rear wheel drive?’ A fair question to one’s motoring journo dad, methinks. Obviously, what followed was mostly me gushing, lauding and such over the interesting question my clearly brilliant boy had arrived at, apple falling not far from the tree and all that stuff. It’s at this point that I realised answering would not be as easy as I thought. No doubt compounded by the fact that we use the word ‘turn’ to describe the revolutions of each wheel used to propel the vehicle fore and aft, as well as the left-right motion at the front that points the car.

Now, at this point, the easiest thing to do would have been to fire up Forza 4 or Gran Turismo, (take your pick) floor the throttle of a couple of digital whips then point at the bit that makes the smoke. But that felt like cheating. So, challenge duly accepted, thus begun a very long conversation about propulsion and drive trains and the benefits of both examples of the stuff and the cleverness of a third; all-wheel drive.  The conversation got so detailed and infused with jargon that I soon became entrenched in it, referencing various sorts of transmissions willy-nilly, and their position in relation to the motor, which itself could be turned this way or that depending on where torque and power needed to be sent and I might, I say might, have gone too far, become too involved perhaps to notice the glazed stare pointed back at me from poor Zeke’s eyes. Suddenly I wished I had just raced back home and fired up the damned Xbox. So I began again, using a die cast VW Scirocco that just happened to have spent the night in the Evoque. ‘On a front wheel driven car, these wheels,’ at which point I gestured to the fronts, ‘…spin.’ Wrong word. You see, Catherine wheels spin. Fan blades spin. And the motion of spinning itself is a nausea inducing sensation, so I tried to substitute it with turn. Which of course also means to go left or right. I am not making this up by the way, it really is a right bastard to explain. Hand motions then, accompanying the words, would be key. And indeed it was, even more so was introducing the concept of drifting. ‘You see son, if the rear wheels are spinning (acceptable word in a drift scenario) and the fronts are free to do nothing more than turn (left-right hand motions) you are able to steer the car along a corner and if you start applying the throttle on the way out the back bit will push itself wide.’ So far, so good. ‘Now, in a front wheel drive car (yes, I might have generalised a bit here) the front bit has to turn the car (left-right hand motions) as well as spin (still acceptable) the front wheels to make it go forward. Since it struggles to do both and because such a thing as physics exists, the front bit will push itself wide. In fact, if you accelerate too early, both cars will push their noses off the line’. Oops, I’d turned the front versus rear drive explanation into one of under and over- steer. What was next? J-turns? Schmuck!

At this low point, feeling as though I’d failed as a father and a petrolhead entirely, something wonderful happened. He looked up at me with complete understanding and said ‘Oh so with rear wheel drive the car is pushed along and in a front wheel drive car it is pulled?’

Yes. Wait. What? The simplicity and sheer brilliance of this distilled truth could not be argued. Logic had somehow prevailed despite me overcomplicating the matter? What else could I do but what any other self-respecting father would. I replied, ‘Yes son, that’s precisely what I said.’

I left in a hurry before the conversation turned to all wheel drive.

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