Sunday, November 06, 2016

Sunday (Not So) Lite: My first ever oversteer wet-in-my-trousers moments

I got my driver's licence in 1990. I started out driving the driving school's Datsun 120y as well as practicing in my mum (and then hand-me-down) 1981 Honda Civic 1.3 3 door hatchback (paint the car above beige and that was it). The freedom to travel where I wanted to (within my weekly allowance) was fantastic. Of course, In my first few years of driving I was pretty gung ho about my supposed car control skills (I did not have any actually). 

Aside from learning skills from the regular mechanic who used to participate in Proton Saga Cup races back then I was left to my own devices and the influence of friends. Anyway, going to nightspots and driving from Gombak to Ampang to Petaling Jaya to almost everywhere in Kuala Lumpur it was also about driving fast. Supposed 'skillful driving' too. Of course, you could be humbled, or dead in a split second. I suppose since I am typing this article I suppose that I have been humbled by my first oversteer moments.

There have been two humbling or near wet-in-my-pants moments in my early years of driving. These two moments have basically made me concentrate a bit more every time I drive a new (to me) automobile. It does not matter whether the car is front wheel drive, rear wheel drive or all-wheel drive. I basically focus on the drive, which I believe also allows me to write some pretty detailed reviews about how a car behaves in its extreme moments. 

My first oversteer moment was a lift-off oversteer experience. This happened sometime in 1991 at around 2.30am in the morning. I was driving my 1981 Civic (1.3, 4 speed manual - hey, its ancient)  along Jalan Gombak at an extremely brisk pace. Beside me was a good friend of my (still is) who was riding shotgun. I believe we passed an intersection where the road slowly veers right into a fast sweeping corner. This was a 1981 Civic on 175/7013 on early 1990s tyre technology ( and considered wide enough for a small hatch those days). Mid-corner at about 120kmh I could suddenly feel the sidewall of the front outside wheel start to dig in hard, like it was collapsing onto itself. I suppose it was at its limits of its traction. I backed off and suddenly it got worse as when you back off the power mid-corner, the weight is transferred to the front causing more front end dive, as well we causing the rear to get suddenly light...

...causing lift off oversteer. 

And a damn good thing I wasn't driving alone that night. My friend, who to this day I know as the most balls out driver on the streets of Kuala Lumpur (this was those street racing days okay) calmly yanked the steering wheel towards the angle of the slide thereby countering the oversteer in an instant. That split second movement by him saved both of us from wrecking the car. And us. Definitely humbling. 

The second most teeth clenching moment was driving my father's 1978 Fiat 131 Mirafiori S in the wet (white- exactly like the car in the photo above). This was a year or so later. Never did I imagine that a car with 75 horsepower could do what it did. The 131 S had a 1.6liter overhead valve engine that made 75 Italian horses. It was also shod in 175/70/13 tyres back then and like most small family cars from the late 1970s, it did not come with power assisted steering, or abs, or traction control or any driver's aids. It had a 5 speed manual gearbox and rear wheel drive. And skinny 175series tyres.

So what ever you do do not give it full throttle coming out of a wet junction. Which I did. Right in front of the Flamingo Hotel from Ampang Jaya I did just that. The tail started to come right around right at the apex of the corner. That two to three seconds was all in slow motion. The car swung its tail left as I was going right. I countered by turning into the slide by over corrected and the Fiat's tail swung out the other way. It was another two drastic and desperate moments of twirling the steering wheel that the car stopped being like a pendulum and swing from one end to another. My knuckles were white and my arms suddenly felt limp. My breath was as frantic as my heartrate at that point of time. And miraculously, I did not hit anything. Not the curb or any other car.  I think I was shaking for a good few seconds afterwards. And I was driving at about 40kmh for a bit longer too.

I basically learnt that one should always be prepared (so much so that my driving actually improved after those incidents - understeer, oversteer, lift-off oversteer, allwheel drift...etc). Even though these days all cars have fantastic safety equipment one should not take them for granted. I mean, 60hp and 75 hp cars can actually get you killed without the help of anyone else. These days let's just up the power figures to double the amount and you would have what most cars have these days (especially if you factor in the better torque ratings of cars these days). 

So like a what Lord Baden Powell (founder of the Boy Scouts) said 'Be Prepared'. And alert whilst driving. Even a 100hp car can get you in trouble. 

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