How to shop for an unusual car

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

I find that car advertiser web sites are pretty well-geared towards finding a blue Honda Accord, but not so great if you’re trying to find a pink Borgward Isabella. Which probably makes sense from the point of view of the web site owners, but can be somewhat irritating if you’ve got your heart set on a particular car but don’t want to sit every morning looking at fifteen “no results found” pages.

What I really want is to set up some searches and then wait for an email saying a car’s turned up, and here’s how I go about doing that. I’m going to group these tips by type of solution – please bear in mind that this is going to be heavily skewed to North America, although with a bit of tinkering you can easily apply these techniques to searches in other places.

eBay

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eBay’s an easy one, so let’s do it first. Once you’ve searched for the car you want, there’s a button at the top saying “Follow this search”. If you then visit your My eBay page, you can turn on email notifications for that search. One tip: the checkboxes for options will filter based on the current search results. So if you want a purple Gilbern Invader?you might have to first search for any purple car, and then narrow your results to the exact make and model. Although frankly if that’s what you’re looking for you might be better trying to buy some purple paint, a bunch of fibreglass and a rusty MG.

AutoTrader

Much like eBay, Autotrader lets you save searches and have it email you when new cars turn up. You have to create an account, but once you’ve done that it’s pretty easy to use.

?Craigslist

This one is a bit of a nuisance but I did come up with some sort of a solution. I wrote a whole blog post about it. Off you go and read that.

Classified ad sites

After a lot of digging around, these are the only sites that I now bother searching (in approximate order of best to worst):

These sites are all geared toward you searching every day for new results. But we can change that! All you need is a free account on ChangeDetection.com.

For each of these sites, here’s the process to follow.

1. Search for the car you want.

?2. Tweak the search to be exactly right.?

Sometimes the user interface allows you to get the exact search you want but, if it doesn’t, don’t despair. You can start to look at the URLs that the search generates. These URLs contain the set of parameters that are being passed to the search engine, usually in the form “parameter=value” and separated by ampersands (&). For example, I gleaned that you can search for green cars just by adding?&clrId=27128?to the URL. Don’t like the dollar ranges they suggest you want to filter by? Look in the URL – more than likely you’ll see something like?prMx=6000?which you can just edit.

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Sometimes the clever filters on these sites stop you from filtering results when nothing’s going to be displayed – you can get around this by expanding the search to a larger area or larger selection of models, and then contracting it again (as I mentioned in the eBay item above).

Another URL trick – when you narrow down a search by type of car, Yahoo autos doesn’t actually change the URL. But you can add two parameters manually to the URL to do this – as far as I can see it’s the make and the model with spaces replaced by underscores. So something like?make=bmw&model=3_series. I only know this because they?used to put those in the URL, and they still seem to work.

Make sure that the maximum number of pages are being displayed – as we’re going to monitor this page for changes, we don’t want new cars to suddenly appear on page two.

Once you have a URL you like the look of, try it in a different web browser (or a private browsing window). This stops the site from using cookies it’s stored, and allows you to see how ChangeDetection will see the page.

3. Monitor the page on ChangeDetection.

Once you’ve got a URL you’re happy monitoring, head over to changedetection.com and click “monitor a page”. Put that full URL into the box and click “next”.

Capture

ChangeDetection now has a few extra options to tweak:

  • only send if sizeable change” – I always check this. They’re pretty vague about what it does, but in my experience a new car being listed counts as a sizeable change.
  • only send if text added/removed” – I always check this and select “added”. ChangeDetection is a little finicky with car sites, just because the removal of a 2004 Bentley Continental and the addition of a 2008 one is often seen by ChangeDetection as only the changing of “2004” to “2008”. But either way this counts as text added, so I check this.
  • Only send alert if added text contains x” – you’ll quite regularly get spurious alerts just because advertisements changed on the page, and you can use this option to avoid that. If your search is generally returning no cars at all, just put something like the colour or make of the car you’re after in there. When a car finally appears for sale, the addition to the page is bound to contain the colour of it, and the change detection is much less likely be triggered by advertisements. However… if your search is often returning several cars, don’t use this trick – as I mentioned above, the removal of a 2000 green car and addition of a 2005 one will not be regarded by ChangeDetection as involving the addition of the word “green”.

Get all these set up and, hopefully, you can sit back and wait for cars to appear. It’s not a fail-safe system – sometimes sites change the way they work, and sometimes you’ll get email alerts just because advertisements have appeared or changed. So every so often you ought to go to ChangeDetection and just click on the URLs manually to make sure they’re all working and you’re seeing the results correctly. But it sure beats going to the same sites every day.

Hope this has been some use – if you’ve got your own ideas, please feel free to share them in comments.

Questions people ask when they find out you do Lemons

“How fast do you go?”

Credit: myrideisme.com
Credit: myrideisme.com


You
: Erm, well, I don’t really know. There’s no speedo. Maybe a hundred and ten at the end of the straight?
Them: My brother did a hundred and thirty?between Dead Squaw, Arizona and Coleslaw, Nevada
You: Uh-huh?

“How long do you each drive for?”

 

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You: The serious teams can put a driver in for?a whole tank of fuel, which is usually about?two hours.
Them: I drove from San Francisco to Los Angeles once without stopping.
You: Mmm.
Them: Also I only used two tanks of fuel the whole way.

“Do you all have to be in the car at once?”

Credit: missedshift.com
Credit: missedshift.com


You
: No. It only has one seat.
Them: But how do you get to the race?
You: I think this is a more involved procedure than you’re imagining.

“Do you wear your costumes when you’re driving?”

Credit: 4theriders.com
Credit: 4theriders.com


You
: That would be kind of dangerous.

“What do you do if the car breaks down?”

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Credit: murileemartin.com

You: It doesn’t.
Them: Really?
You: Sorry, that was a joke. Actually we call AAA.
Them: Really?
You: That was a joke too.

“I love driving. I might get a team together!”

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You: Great! Do you love?reading instructions, filling in forms, looking after children, organising other people’s vacations or taking days off work to drive around fire extinguisher companies looking for a metal mounting bracket?
Them: No.
You: You probably won’t like it then.
Them: Then why do you do it?
You: By the time I realised?what it actually involved, I had a car that couldn’t be used for anything else.

Sometimes I wish things were more expensive

Here’s a scenario that played out for me this week, and has probably played out for you before too. I’ve been tinkering around with the idea of recording on-track video from car races, and I was looking for a mobile app which could record video along with telemetry from an OBD2 engine management system while driving the car. From this you can make nifty videos overlaying dials from the car on the live feed.

Anyway, I was delighted to find that such an app exists! So off I went and downloaded it (it’s called aLapRecorder HD). It’s a rather specific niche market, so unsurprisingly there’s pretty much just the one app to do this.

I installed it, got it going and then found a few bugs in it that were going to cause a bit of a problem with what I had in mind. So off I went to the developer forums… only to find that the forum is full of spam and appears not to be in use. Off I went to the reviews page (sometimes you can get some useful extra info from there) only to discover that the most recent reviews were all one-star ones complaining that the app didn’t work well on current hardware and that the dev didn’t pay any attention to the forum or email, and appeared to have given up on the project. And, sure enough, the last update was from November last year, so it looks like he has dropped it.

Why would the developer give up on something that was so close to great? The app looks superb and just has a few bugs. It’s so nearly perfect!

Well, let me tell you why. The “pro” version (which removes a two-recording limit) has sold “1,000 – 5,000” copies, for $6.50 each. The developer has made somewhere between $6k and $30k. This app obviously contains many months of solid development work – I’m going to estimate six months, but it easily could be longer. The US Department of labour says that computer programmers in the US earn $60k per year on average. This app’s first review was in April last year, so if this talented programmer has sold the absolute highest number of copies that he could have done, he has been paid the average developer wage for the last year. And if he’s sold the least, he’s been paid what he could have got working in McDonalds.?So, screw it. Instead of buggering around answering emails from angry users and fixing bugs for various new devices, the developer has no doubt just gone and got a job with some software company and is busy programming his heart out doing something different.

The consumers of this are car racers, and this is an expensive hobby. I just got an email suggesting that I buy the cheapest bolted neck restraint available for $600, which also involves replacing all four of our team’s helmets, at about $150 each. Race entry fees are easily $500-$1000 even for the cheap races. It would make no difference to a race team if this app was $30, $50 or perhaps even $100. And then the developer would have been able to keep working on it.

We’re used to wanting to pay the lowest price for everything, of course, but we have to remember that software is not like physical goods. It needs care and feeding to stay up-to-date with hardware and technology, and it is something that can evolve over time to improve, well after you have purchased it. It makes perfect sense to just want the lowest price when you go and buy a waffle iron. If the company who sold you it goes out of business, who cares? You still have a waffle iron. But if the company who sold you a piece of software goes out of business, it’s not going to get updated to work on the phone you’ll buy next year.

Of course, it’s the developer’s choice as to how he prices his application and in my view this developer made a poor choice. But the culture of users right now is constantly forcing prices down, and giant companies are busily producing mobile apps that make no money because they want a foot in the door of this market and, hey, they already make money from other stuff. For the poor indie developer who isn’t making money from other stuff, he’s left with a userbase that isn’t willing to pay for anything and an app that doesn’t make him a living wage.

So the next time you look at the price of an app, don’t think “$5.99?! Jesus Christ, what am I, made of money?”. You should instead think “$5.99? Hmm, perhaps this will still exist in three years”.

Ten Nürburgring Videos You Won’t Secretly Be Bored By

Let’s face it. We all know the Nürburgring is the greatest racing track in the world and we’re all so excited as we click on yet another Nürburgring lap video. But then, somewhere around Adenauer Forst, our attention starts to waver. Is he intending driving the whole lap with the air conditioning on? And who on earth would wear slip-on shoes in a driving video? Or any video? And, shit, wasn’t I supposed to be presenting at our team meeting five minutes ago?

Yes, while it may be the greatest racing track in the history of the world to drive on, eight minutes is a lot of video to watch of someone else having a good time with their clothes on.

So, we present to you, ten Nürburgring videos that are in some way different. In no particular order:

1. Crashes at Adenauer Forst in 1970

Some useful things can be learned from this video:

  • Always wear your seatbelt (particularly while driving on racing circuits)
  • When racing, do not keep the entire contents of your home in your car
  • Do not buy a car made in the 1970s
  • YouTube has a “mute” button

2. Hans-Joachim Stuck Driving Faster Than You

Meet Hans-Joachim Stuck. He’s a thousand years old and he can drive faster than you. This 2004 video is either from a VLN race or the Nürburgring 24-hour, so it runs on the Formula One circuit as well as the Nordschleife (and there’s no pass-on-left rule). Bear in mind that the cars he is passing are actual racing cars, taking part in an actual race.

3. Porsche 911. Nürburgring. Snow

Skip to one minute in and, unless you speak German, just imagine some commentary. But here is a Porsche 911 driving on the Nordschleife in the snow. Which looks like a lot of fun, if a little daunting.

4. Under 7 Minutes in a Radical SR8 LM

Okay, you got me. This is just a video of someone driving. But, on the upside, you only have to watch it for seven minutes, because that’s how long it is. It’s not the fastest SR8 lap that’s out there, but it’s pretty exciting.

5. CTR Yellowbird

“Sideways Stefan” Roser, drives a 930 RUF CTR around the ring in a rather enthusiastic fashion. Quite a few external shots from a helicopter and various on-car cameras, which should help stave off the boredom.

6. Helmut D?hne Bike Lap

It’s a surprise to most that car lap records are faster than bike ones on the ring – what bikes gain on the straights they make up for in the corners. But, even if you’re not a bike person, you can’t help but appreciate Helmut D?hne endangering himself for your entertainment. Dahne holds the two-wheeled lap record on the Nordschleife – and will hold it for the foreseeable future: Lap records can only be set during official race or qualify sessions, and the track’s motorcycle homologation was not renewed after Senna’s 1994 accident, so until that changes no official bike lap record can be set. Because we’re talking bikes and Nürburgring here, I ought to add that Helmut is still alive.

7. Liri Farfus Passenger Lap

I have driven my wife around the Nürburgring several times, and each time she has managed to look equally bored. My wife is obviously made of much sterner stuff than Liri Farfus, the wife of WTCC driver Augusto Farfus. He drives almost as fast as I do, I think, and she goes to pieces.

8. Electric Car Speed Record

Toyota ran a 7:47 in an electric car back in 2011. We’ve seen the future, and it looks exciting and sounds awful.

9. Sabine Schmitz Top Gear Van Video

I was at the ‘Ring when Jeremy Clarkson tried to break ten minutes in a diesel Jag and apparently succeeded. They closed the circuit in the early-morning for him to practise, on the only day I’ve ever been at the track when it opened. Sigh. Anyway, after Sabine Schmitz told him she could beat his lap time in a van, they sent her a van and a Richard Hammond. So she tried.

10. Seven-Second Ring King

What Nordschleife video collection would be complete without the shortest ‘ring video known to man? Two chaps from Manchester join the ring at Adenau only to leave it again at Ex Mühle. Using the alternate track entrance was probably a wise idea, as they ended up only five minutes’ walk from a pub.

Tesla to take US license plate legislation head-on

Image: dougerino
Image: dougerino

PALO ALTO, CA – High demand for the Model S from Silicon Valley auto manufacturer Tesla (TSLA) is greatly increasing demand for holier-than-thou electric-themed vanity plates, a spokesman for the company said during a press conference this morning.

“A large part of purchasing this automobile is the sense that one is saving the environment, and that others aren’t,” said Crabtree Wolstenthorne, head of the company’s new Plebiscite Differentiation division. “Many of our lucky customers have already successfully purchased appropriate plates such as ‘VOLTS4ME’ and ‘GASSUCKS’ but, as yet more concerned environmentalists join our ranks, the archaic seven-character restriction on US license plates is making it exceptionally hard for us to help them secure an appropriately haughty message for other road users”.

The company has lodged a case with the US Supreme Court demanding a change from seven to thirty characters on standard US license plates for electric vehicles only. “The restriction may seem unusual”, Wolstenthorne added, “but owners of gas-powered vehicles have less of relevance to say to the outside world”. When questioned about the increased difficulty for law enforcement in reading these new plates, he noted with a laugh, “our customers are all just going to hire a lawyer anyway”.

In anticipation of a successful verdict, Tesla is allowing its customers to pre-purchase the new vanity plates. “We’ve had a great response from our clients so far,” Wolstenthorne mentioned, “only this morning I sent home two happy individuals with ‘UH8PLANET’ and ‘MY4THCARISGREENERTHANYOURONLYCAR'”.

The 4,600lb Tesla model S has been highly praised for its cat-like agility by many tech bloggers in the computer industry.

The ten best track cars, chosen by a spreadsheet

I’ve often wondered how successfully one could choose a car by looking purely at numbers, and nothing else. So, without further ado, here’s my list of the best road cars to drive on a race track, as declared by my spreadsheet.

Position Car

1st

 

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Tesla Roadster Sport

2nd

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Porsche Cayman R

3rd

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Lamborghini Gallardo Coupe LP 570-4 Superleggera

4th

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Ferrari 430 Scuderia

5th

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Porsche 911 GT3 RS 4.0 Coupe

6th

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Audi TT Coupe

7th

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Audi R8 GT

8th

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Aston Martin V8 Vantage S Coupé

9th

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Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG

10th

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Audi S4 Sedan 3.0

Okay, there you go. That’s that decided. Now, should you be interested, here’s how I got to this list.

  1. I downloaded the textfile version of Freebase’s automotive data
  2. I loaded it into Excel. I am now looking at 23, 812 cars
  3. I filtered out all the automatic transmissions – down to 6392 cars (presumably this data is somewhat skewed towards America)
  4. I filtered out the front-wheel drive cars – down to 5312
  5. I filtered for 0-60 times of less than 6 seconds – down to 355
  6. I took the lightest ten by curb weight

Here’s the list I had at this point:

2010 Tesla Roadster Sport
2010 Tesla Roadster
2011 Tesla Roadster Sport 2.5
2011 Tesla Roadster 2.5
2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder
2011 Porsche Cayman R
2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder AT
2011 Porsche Cayman R AT
2011 Porsche Cayman
2011 Porsche Boxster

The list is actually fairly reasonable, although unfortunately it’s not very exciting, because it only contains cars from two manufacturers, and a limited set of models at that. So for each car model we’ll take only the lightest, because they make the best racing cars anyway. This cuts my list down to:

2010 Tesla Roadster Sport
2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder
2011 Porsche Cayman R
2011 Lamborghini Gallardo Coupe LP 570-4 Superleggera
2008 Ferrari 430 Scuderia
2011 Porsche 911 GT3 RS 4.0 Coupe
2012 Audi TT Coupe
2011 Porsche 911 Carrera 4 Cabriolet
2012 Audi R8 GT
2010 Nissan 370Z Roadster

The only problem with this new list is the presence of the convertibles. Without trying to get into mud-slinging here, it’s a fairly well-established fact that convertibles don’t have great structural rigidity and so the hardtop version of a given car will normally race better than the convertible. It’s certainly true that when a car has both convertible and hardtop versions, the manufacturer does not tend to race the convertible. Fortunately there are no rag-tops here without a hardtop equivalent, so I didn’t feel too guilty when I filtered out the convertibles manually, leaving me the list at the top of the article.

Obviously this system of selecting cars isn’t perfect, but there are a few caveats beyond even that in this specific data set. The Freebase database has hardly any weights for cars more than two or three years old, and the acceleration figures are missing for many. I’d love to have included some other factors (lap times; weight distribution; price) but these things aren’t present in the data set.

The exercise did teach me a few things, though. First off, Aston Martins and AMGs aren’t quite as fat as I thought they were, and neither is the Tesla roadster, despite all those batteries. Next was the heavy presence of Audis, which aren’t really known as especially wonderful track cars, and the entire lack of BMW, which are (the M3 fell just short of the top ten). And the complete lack of my own car (but hey, maybe this shows I’m unbiased).

If you fancy, download my spreadsheet?and choose your own selections!

Ah well. It turns out there’s more to cars than numbers. But you knew that.