Jason Torchinsky and I have to admit: We don’t read all the stories that make it onto Jalopnik. Doing so would be a full time job that would preclude us from writing our own posts. So while this list of our favorite articles of 2021 is far from exhaustive, it is replete with genuine automotive genius. Check it out.
It’s the end of the year, a time to rack up some free clicks with slideshow retrospectives of 2021, a year that — along with its supremely accomplished predecessor — has been pretty rough for far too many people. But Jalopnik has done its best to make the year a bit more pleasant by giving you, dear readers, excellent content for free. I know, a hell of a deal.
Here are Torch and my picks for some of the best stories of 2021.
Some stories at Jalopnik will never be forgotten. The story about Jason interviewing Pixar creators, the story of Neal Pollack shitting in a Lexus, the story of Patrick George crashing a Camaro mule, the time Raph rolled his Beetle, the time I dyed my clothes in oil — you get the idea.
A lot of these stories are lightning in a bottle — things that happened in just the right way, and written with just the right tone of irreverenceto make for a supremely entertaining story that will forever live in the annals of Jalopnik history.
The topshot is so boring, the headline so generic, but when you open the article out of sheer boredom, you are bombarded with pure hilarity. The five perfect cars to buy during the car shortage are all purple Chrysler PT Cruisers, a vehicle that is itself a huge joke. Write this story the way DaSilva has — describing five PT Cruisers as totally different cars filling different needs — and what you end with is pure genius.
Lawrence Hodge’s story about how a California dealership detained his mom over a Chrysler Sebring is so messed up, it’ll make your blood boil. The infuriating story works well with Lawrence’s relaxed writing style drawing from his childhood memories, resulting in an article so compelling that hundreds of thousands of people couldn’t help but read.
Jesus Juice, Cleveland’s Finest — these are the two nicknames I have for PB Blaster, my favorite penetrating lubricant.
To some of you, PB Blaster might not mean much, but to those of us living in the rust belt, it’s an institution. It is our “right-hand tool,” as important as a flashlight or a flathead screwdriver. Without PB Blaster, unfastening bolts is often an impossibility. But with it, magic happens.
What makes this story worth including in this “Top Stories” list is its premise. Conducting a deep dive into a product that so many of us have used over the years, but really know very little about is just a great article idea. Relatable and informative — it’s a great combo.
In March of 2021, Volkswagen issued a press release stating that it was officially changing its name to “Voltswagen.” Well before April 1, and not too far astray from the wild name-changes and logo-alterations happening in the auto industry as electrification takes hold, the automotive press bought this April Fools joke hook, line, and sinker. In part, because Volkswagen PR had confirmed the press release’s veracity.
When VW later admitted that, actually, this was all a big joke, many car journalists were livid. They took the whole thing personally, writing scathing articles and Twitter posts about how their reputation had been compromised because VW had, in their minds, been deceitful, causing the journalists to believe that the joke — that Volkswagen had changed its name to Voltswagen — had been legit. (For the record, if an automaker says something is true, journalists can report that the automaker said it was true. If it ends up not being true, writers shouldn’t feel hurt about it. It’s no big deal. And yet it was.).
Rory Carroll, Editor-In-Chief of Jalopnik, didn’t buy the press release for a single second. Ferdinand Porsche could have come back from the dead, walked into Rory’s house, and told him “Actually, Rory, it is true. Vee ahr chenging ouher nehm to Voltswahhgen.”
Rory would have said “Nice to meet you sir, but please, see your way out of my house. We don’t like liars around these parts. You’re setting a bad example for my daughters.”
I personally think Rory should have flexed a bit harder about being right, but instead of pointing at other journalists now mopping up the remnants of their egos (again, for no real reason), Rory took the high road. Good on him.
There’s cool car tech, cool car history, an insightful interview with a primary source, and an interesting look at problem solving needed to get the car back on its feet. It’s no wonder that some of the top comments on that story read: “What an awesome story. Love it. Followed. More of this stuff Jalopnik. This is why I love this site” and “What a fucking awesome story. This guy rules.”
Have you ever heard of “Railway Spine?” I hadn’t either. If you read Elizabeth Blackstock’s article “Railway Spine, The Mystery Disease That Changed Our Understanding Of Psychology,” you’d have learned that it was a name that surgeon Sr. John Eric Erichsen gave in the 1860s to people experiencing physical symptoms after being involved in — and even just witnessing — a train crash. Even when there were no apparent physical injuries, physical symptoms like headaches and back pain plagued these people. Blackstock was at the time finishing up a master’s thesis (she was getting two master’s degrees while writing at Jalopnik — what a badass) that was a bit of a blend between psychology and literature, so this story was part of her studies. I’m glad she shared it.
Rory Carroll is a Michigander through and through. He grew up in Traverse City, lived in Detroit for a while, and has more Big Three ties than you can imagine. While he definitely has a well-rounded palate for automobiles (Rory owns two Volkswagen products, a Lexus, and an old Willys Jeeps), he definitely gets American cars — especially American muscle — better than damn near anyone I know.
I love it when José Rodríguez Jr. talks about Mexican car culture in the Jalopnik chat room. Of Mexican descent and hailing from rural parts of southern Texas, José’s automotive experience is quite different than Jason and mine, and it’s always exciting to hear about Mexican cars that we never knew existed.
An example of a story in which José leveraged his background to enlighten the rest of us was his blog about the Ford Lobos, which means “Wolf” in Spanish. The Lobos is what Ford calls certain F-150s in Mexico. José spoke with Ford to learn more about that name, which he pokes fun at a few times in his story.
Sometimes it’s important to dig into the small nooks of history, identify stories that have somehow been lost or underserved, and amplify those tales in a way that gives credit to those who deserve it. It can be an important way of reframing a country’s identity by challenging a history that has been cherry-picked by our predecessors.
Elizabeth Blackstock’s story about Cheryl Linn Glass, the first black woman to race sprint cars professionally in the U.S., highlights a person who deserves to be a household name and a role model. “It is absolutely devastating that the racing world hasn’t remembered Cheryl Linn Glass with the reverence deserved of a Black woman who broke down the barriers placed before her to carve out her place as a racer, a scholar, and a businesswoman,” Blackstock writes.
It’s an amazing tale that I — and I suspect many of you — had sadly never heard. But I’m glad I have, now.
Few topics maximize the important to interesting ratio as well as the chip shortage does. After all, the supply chain bottleneck has caused enormous problems in 2021 and has in many ways defined the year for automakers, and yet it’s just not sexy. “Hey, anyone want to talk about the chip shortage” isn’t a phrase that’s been uttered anywhere outside of deeply nerdy circles.
The story provides us with insightful quotes like this one describing why cars use older chips to meet reliability targets: “Thus, parts for automobiles, including some chips, are often built on older, proven technology, rather than the latest available technology.” Adam goes on to say that “What automakers require is somewhat at odds with what chipmakers prefer and are tooled to produce: smaller, more densely packed chips, that can be manufactured at lower cost and yield more units.”
So cars and electronics use significantly different chip technology, which isn’t something that I, or most readers (if I had to guess based on how many folks read and shared this story) knew. Great stuff, AI.
In my travels to meet car enthusiasts around the world, I’ve noticed that lots of folks living in cities have been forced to substitute their car hobby for a bike hobby. The amount of overlap between car and bike enthusiasts is staggering, especially among those living in urban areas, which is why I’m glad Raph decided to pick up a pen and jot down some of his Bike Tales.
The stories have been well read, not just because they’re relatable, but because they discuss cool mechanical features, describe problem solving techniques that often require true craftsmanship, and get into the history of bicycle design. Though bikes are missing two wheels and an engine, they remain an important part of the global vehicular ecosystem. So I’m glad Jalopnik is covering velocipedes, and I’m glad you readers are taking it all in.
While we’re on the topic of two-wheeled contraptions, we’d be remiss if we didn’t show some love for Bradley Brownell’s motorcycle reviews. Like this story about the epic Honda Grom or “Two Days In The Desert On An Electric Motorcycle,” which about the all-electric Zero DSR Black Forest.
Say what you will about Brad’s tendency to go off on folks in the comments; the man will write the shit out of a bike review. And that’s great for Jalopnik, as motorcycles are an important but underserved (at least on Jalopnik) part of the world’s vehicular ecosystem. So it’s nice to see some representation.
Obviously, I’m going to include this article, because it’s about a road trip in an old Jeep, namely my own. But that’s not the only reason why; the way Bradley describes his road trip from Reno to Detroit is just fantastic:
I was in Potter, Nebraska, a hundred miles from any major town, and the rust-free Holy Grail 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee I was delivering across the country to decrepit-Jeep collector and shaman David Tracy had decided it wanted to die. It had opened one of its veins and was letting itself of vital fluids. It wasn’t just a small leak, it was a massive wound, at idle streaming out of the side of the engine in a pulsing, throbbing gush.
Good writing, a long road trip, a creative repair to a rare vehicle — what more do you want out of a story?
Jalopnik has some great contributors who have done excellent work this year. I’m just going to point out a couple of contributors whom I had the pleasure of editing, but just know that there are many, many more, and Raphael Orlove deserves credit for editing their pieces.
My favorite story to edit was “How NASA’s Perseverance Landed On Mars: An Aerospace Engineer Breaks It Down In Fascinating Detail,” which my friend Brian Kirby — an engineer who played a significant role in sending a spacecraft into deep space — wrote about NASA’s successful Perseverance mission. The way that Kirby wrote this piece makes it clear that he not only intimately understands the chronology of the mission, but he has profound insight to share about the physics behind it. The fact that multiple members of the engineering team working on Perseverance chimed into the comments to offer compliments just goes to show the depth of Kirby’s knowledge on this topic and of space travel at large.
Okay, so some of you probably clicked this article to read some of Torch’s and my work, so we figured we’d include quite a bit of it, here. So get ready for us to brag a little about ourselves. It feels a little weird, but we’re doing it.
I’m an engineer, so you can always expect me to get nerdy about how cars work, but I’m also a bit of a nut-job, so those technical stories are always laced with really “out-there” weirdness. It’s my go-to blend.
I think the 2021 story that epitomizes my writing style more than any other is “I Visited Supercar Company Koenigsegg After Sleeping In A Van And Bathing In The Sea.” It’s a bonkers tale of me living in a $600 diesel manual Chrysler Voyager (which I fixed up), bathing in the Baltic Sea, and then chatting with engineers at one of the most prestigious automotive engineering firms on Earth. The story was fun because it allowed me to blend wrenching, traveling, entertaining, understanding complex engineering, and then wrap it all up with what I enjoy most: writing.
Then there my super-detailed reviews of the Rivian R1T and Ford Bronco, along with a close look at why General Motors used beautiful blue anodized aluminum wheel cylinders that very few will ever see in old Saturns, Pontiacs, and Chevrolets (such a random article, but one of my faves). And then there was that blog in which I basically canceled myself by exposing some of my childhood car-related (and balding/muscle building-related) Yahoo Answers questions. So awkward.
Oh and don’t forget my nuanced discussion about the Ford Bronco’s thermal issues that two journalists experienced during press drives. I’m a former powertrain cooling engineer, so I enjoyed talking about the four-wheel drive system “derate” incidents with Ford engineers and with other auto engineers, and ultimately writing what I thought was a thought-provoking piece that included discussions about what exactly constitutes a failure in an automobile.
Last but not least was an example of my very favorite type of story to tell, a human interest tale. This one was about an older gentleman named Gary Rider, whose listing for an air compressor on Facebook Marketplace — a compressor that he was selling to make money for his liver transplant — kicked off an entire subculture of automotive weirdness in the form of a Facebook group named “a car club where everyone acts like boomers.” Talking with Gary, his family, and members of that group was an awesome experience. (Gary has since passed away; more on that soon).
The reason why Torch and I get along so well is that I’m a nerd infected with a bit of weirdness, and Jason is a weirdo infected with a bit of nerdiness. He’s an artist/comedian who appreciates engineering, and I’m an engineer who appreciates art/comedy. There’s a mutual respect there, where we both look at each other’s work and say “Damn. That’s amazing. I wish I could do that.”
Torch has a healthy appreciation for understanding how things work. He reached out to a transportation company to figure out what the little doors are on the back of truck trailers, and he wrote an explainer about the function of the black stripes on school buses. He also figured out why Ford F-150s still use old-school antennas. He also wrote a cool article about how the Opel GT has a brake master cylinder mounted ahead of its engine bay instead of on the firewall; and there’s his piece about the Lancia whose engine one could destroy by simply turning the steering wheel (load from the power steering pump had a tendency to break the timing belt that drove it). It’s all fascinating stuff!
Jason has also written lots of design breakdowns. These have become his specialty, because as an artist, he has an eye that catches even the most subtle styling features, which he describes vividly and often hilariously. Want a design breakdown for the new postal vehicle? Torch has you covered. What about the new Tundra? No problem. The Hyundai Santa Cruz mini-pickup? Jason will walk you through its weird front face. The new Nissan Z? Again, Torch is there for you. Always.
Hell, Torch has even done a design breakdown of the ubiquitous Check Engine Light found on modern vehicle dashboards, ultimately concluding that it is “Terrible and Due For an Update.”
Actually, let me just stop there, because that article — specifically the videos in that article — is so shockingly disturbing that I think it might actually be considered “going too far.” Definitely read that story if you haven’t.
Also, do you realize that Jason wrote an article that proposed hooking three inline-threes together to make a straight-nine, and then installing that into an Iran-built first-gen Viper — all as a way to solve the Iran Nuclear deal impasse? You might think this is just silly, but then the CEO of a think-tank dedicated to Iran diplomacy weighed in:
How is this the real world? That’s a question that Jason’s articles regularly leave me contemplating.