In a recent episode of The Untitled Car Show, Ike and his guest, Ian of TeamClearCoat, discussed a topic that struck a nerve with me – the proliferation of technical jargon in our hobby. Cars are technical objects, so a certain degree of specialized terminology is certainly required. “Make car go” is not a sufficient description of how to drive, no matter how much Elon Musk wants it and Alex Roy predicts it. But sometimes there are so many acronyms thrown about seemingly at random that it can be quite difficult for someone new to the automotive hobby to understand just what the heck we’re talking about. This can alienate the newbies, make them feel like our special club has our own special language that they’ll never understand, and that maybe they should go take up basket weaving or ham radio instead.
I first got serious about playing with cars in the late 1990s, when my income and knowledge first permitted it. After tinting the tail lights and installing a crappy subwoofer in my Mercury Tracer, I stumbled into a Boston Chapter BMW CCA autocross, and thus a BMW enthusiast was born. Since the Tracer was lousy at autocross (and most other things besides getting me from point A to point B), I soon picked up a 1983 320i – the last year of the E21 3 series.
And here was my first encounter with the technical gobbledygook of BMW chassis codes. What was the difference between an E30 and an E36? How is an E28 better than my E21? BMW owners throw these codes around to differentiate one generation of the 3, 5, etc. series cars from another. When you talk about a BMW M3, there are five different versions of the car you could mean, and eight different chassis codes associated with them. If you’re in the know, a simple “E92” tells you that it’s an M3 coupe made between 2007 and 2013 like Josh and Danny have. But if you’re not in the know, “E92” might as well be “WTF.” I felt compelled to learn these E-codes (they weren’t far enough along to start using the letter F yet) just so I could keep up with some of these guys in conversation, and like I was a second class BMW owner if I couldn’t.
You could write this off to stereotypical BMW snobbery, but that’s definitely not the case (plus I met some wonderful non-snobby people in the BMW club who I’m still friends with today). It’s even worse with Honda, the everyman’s car, as I learned when I had my two Civic wagons. They were from 1991 and 1989, making them from the EF generation. Except they weren’t actually an EF, but an EE4, because wagon. I suppose I could see that, since despite their similar appearance to other EF Civics they shared almost no body panels with them. The engines were the same, but that went down an even deeper rabbit hole of engine codes. My 1991 front wheel drive EE4 had a D15B2 motor, while my 1989 Real Time 4 Wheel Drive wagon had a D16A6. The D16A6 was the same motor used in the EF Civic and CRX Si, although the JDM D16Z6 was an easy transplant and more desirable.
Are you lost yet? Because I sure was. Fortunately, on the internet, no one can see you open a Wikipedia page of Honda engine codes in another tab so that you don’t make a complete ass of yourself on the Honda-Tech forum. (“ur a n00b!!!1!”) I found the Civic Wagon forum to be much more friendly, probably because we all had the oddball Civic and loved them to death. Oddballs tend to stick together, which is something I’ve personally been doing all my life anyway.
Even Toyota, often criticized as the most boring auto manufacturer in the world, is no exception. They weren’t always boring, either. Anyone who’s seen The Fast and the Furious knows the Supra. I, myself, owned a beat up rusty old 1987 MR2, because how else can you buy a mid-engine sports car for just $600? I soon learned that my first generation example was the AW11, as opposed to the SW20 version of the 1990s. Some people referred to them as the Mk. 1 or Mk. 2, and woe be unto you if you called it an “Em Kay One” rather than “Mark One.” The AW11 was powered by the veritable 4AGE engine, shared with the AE86 of drifting fame. And it sounds really impressive when you swap in a 1MZ-FE V6, until you look it up and realize it’s just a V6 from a Camry.
The Price Of Complexity
I imagine basket weaving is pretty simple, but I can’t help but be reminded of another hobby of mine with an even higher level of complexity – amateur radio. Here’s the control panel of the radio I just installed in my BRZ. Unless you’re into ham radio yourself, you probably have no idea what you’re looking at or how to operate it. In this case, you’re required to master some of the complexity to engage in the hobby in the first place. You have to know some basics to get the required license to operate one of these. But while the majority of people you meet on the air are friendly and will go out of their way to help a newbie, there are some habits that can confuse and scare people new to the hobby.
Sometimes during a conversation, someone will ask “What’s your QTH?” Many moons ago, a list of Q-codes was developed for frequently made questions or statements back when Morse code ruled the airwaves. It takes far less time to send “QTH?” than to painstakingly spell out “What’s your location?” Think of it as textspeak 100 years early. But Morse code is no longer required to get a license, and people new to the hobby have never heard a Q-code before. Plus, when talking into a microphone instead of using a Morse code key, there’s no reason not to say “location” instead of “QTH.” They both have three syllables, but only one is easy to understand. Old timers like me, who have been on the air for years and got licensed when Morse code was still required, are fluent in this terminology, but times have changed and this is no longer the case. Plain English, or whatever language you speak, is much more effective and easy for everyone to understand, no matter how new you are.
Remember CB radio? The Bandit used it, and truckers and off-roaders still use it today. CBers use 10-codes. Pretty much everyone has heard “10-4” at some point and knows what it means. But listen to how quickly some old time hams jump down a newbie’s throat for asking “What’s your 20?” on the amateur radio bands. It’s even worse than someone referring to an “Em Kay One” MR2. Yet the same people think nothing of asking “What’s your QTH?” which means exactly the same thing. Pot, kettle, black much? It’s enough to make someone who did the work, passed their license test, and bought their radio to put their radio up for sale and never go on the air again.
Be Excellent To Each Other
There was a point around here somewhere… Oh, here it is. The wide use of codes, cyphers, and technical terminology can be intimidating to someone new to a hobby. Hostility about their lack of mastery of this knowledge can drive people away faster than a Radical SR8LM on the Nurburgring. Some may believe that requiring such esoteric knowledge is a rite of passage, one that will keep the riff-raff out and only allow true believers in. In 1991, many believed that eliminating the Morse code requirement for entry level amateur radio licenses would turn the airwaves into a new CB wasteland and mean the end of the hobby as we knew it. But it didn’t. In fact, it was such a success that the Morse code requirement was eliminated from all license classes in 2007. Despite widespread use of the internet providing free, instantaneous worldwide communication that amateurs had enjoyed almost exclusively for the previous 100 years, there are more licensed hams in the US today than ever before.
The lesson to be learned here is don’t drown newcomers in a fire hose of acronyms, engine and chassis codes, and specialized information. Don’t start an internet flame war with the guy who called a 1987 MR2 an “Em Kay One” – just politely explain that actually we call that a “Mark One.”
Do you want to know why I got hooked on cars, and remained active with the local BMW club for so long, even after I sold my 320i and got a Saturn? It was because of the people. The day I stumbled into my first autocross, people were nice when they approached me and told me about the event. They even offered to let me and my crappy Mercury Tracer join them for fun runs. So I did. I had no idea where the course was. I drove poorly. I skidded all over the place. I was super slow. And I had an absolute blast doing it. That was why I kept coming back for more, regardless of whether I owned a BMW or not.
I didn’t even need to know the difference between an E30 and E36.