TCS Daily


Technology on Top: Appreciating the Luxury Learning Curve

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - January 10, 2007 12:00 AM

As the International Auto Show opens in Detroit this week, the growing number of "retractable hardtop" convertibles on display is a reminder of how, every once in a while, technology sort of catches up with itself in an interesting way. Something anticipated years earlier finally comes into its own in the marketplace because advances in engineering, materials or systems design make it more reliable and affordable.

Hardtop convertibles have been gaining in popularity and dropping in price in recent years as the technique and technology of folding a solid (usually steel) roof into a package small enough to fit in a car's trunk becomes more refined.

Advances in lightweight materials; smaller, more powerful and efficient electric motors and better sealing materials, have combined with clever design and engineering to make retractable hardtops much more feasible and trouble free than they were when the first efforts were made to have the best of both worlds - open air driving and sedan like quietness and security.

The Mercedes-Benz "Vario-roof," introduced on its SLK roadsters in 1996, is the epitome of sophisticated drop tops and has been perfected over the past decade to new levels of quiet, seamless operation. In its most sophisticated form, on the SL series convertible, it goes up or down in 16 silent seconds without the driver having to do anything but touch the control switch. The top on the Lexus SC430 convertible is almost as impressive - not quite as fast but possibly even more quiet.

But now there is an interesting group of more affordable hardtop convertibles broadening the market. The 2007 MX-5 Miata, from Mazda, is an excellent example, offering a retracting hardtop in the $25,000 price range. Its ingeniously engineered top, made of lightweight polycarbonate, folds in three sections and takes up no more space than the Miata's standard fabric top. The Miata is still the best selling two-seater in the world, and the new hardtop, giving it a quieter and more secure feeling in rainstorms and winter weather, promises to give it even more cred among two-seater enthusiasts.

Another impressive hardtop, though at a heftier price ($28,000 to $36,000) is the Volkswagen Eos. I recently drove one and was impressed with the speed and quietness of its top mechanism. The clever manner in which the roof stores behind and around the rear seat allows for a roof line with fewer "cuts" for folding hinges. The top also transforms into a sunroof when the driver doesn't want to go completely topless. Volkswagen calls this unique design a CSC (coupe-sunroof-convertible).

Volvo's new C70 convertible, priced around $40,000, incorporates a hardtop that gives the car a sleek and impressive look up or down. Watching the intricate minuet of the three roof sections when raising or lowering the top is a show-stopping experience. This three-section roof allows it to fold up smaller in the trunk but it means that the car's roof line has more hinge cuts, and these seams, however discrete, are more noticeable on C70s painted lighter colors.

In the $30,000 price range, the new Pontiac G6 coupe offers a clean-lined, fairly roomy four-seat retractable whose roof mechanism is engineered and built by Karmann, the German firm with more experience in convertible tops, both soft and hard, than any other manufacturer. However, there has been some feedback regarding trunk leaks and irregular roof motor operation by a few G6 owners.

The open air freedom of a convertible combined with a roof offering a smoother profile, more security when parked and better protection from the elements has been an intriguing challenge for engineers and designers. Solutions to the challenge have been exotic and expensive and usually pursued at the luxury car level. Going against this trend, Mitsubishi introduced a retrac hardtop in 1995 on its 3000GT Spyder. But although these cars were well done, they were twice the price of the regular Spyder and only a little over 1600 were sold.

Before that venture, the most memorable effort in the development of rectractables was the famous Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner introduced to the public 50 years ago. The 1957 Skyliner is recognized as the first mass produced retractable hardtop. Back in 1934, the French maker Peugeot had introduced an elegant retractable hardtop coupe, the Eclipse (great name!), but it was virtually custom-built in small numbers for only a few years. Peugeot had intended the Eclipse roof mechanism to be electrical, but problems with wiring, electrical motors and underperforming batteries led to manual operation.

A sensation when introduced, the Ford accommodated its massive, heavy top (it was, after all, a full-sized six-passenger convertible) in a huge trunk space. Did I say huge? If you are ever at an antique car show and happen to see a '57 Skyliner, get a gander at the trunk when the top is up. It's like looking into a vacant warehouse. You can hear an echo.

Such mega-trunks were common in the '50s when cars had huge overhangs, but to swallow up its top the Sunliner had a noticeably longer and higher rear end compared to Ford's regular "Sunliner" 500 soft top convertible, which was still offered. And when the top was down, the Skyliner, like most of today's rectractables, left very little space for luggage or anything else.

The Skyliner employed a complex, yet surprisingly reliable retraction system that was schematically reminiscent of the Peugeot roof. But the Ford was powered, using 7 electric motors and 610 feet (!) of wire lacing together 10 limit switches, 10 relays and 8 circuit breakers. Watching the huge roof of the Skyliner maneuver in or out of the cavernous trunk of the car was a rubber necker's delight that took about 40 seconds - an agonizingly long time in a sudden rain shower.

Ford sold more than 20,000 Skyliners in the 1957 model year, despite the fact that it was the most expensive Ford. (It cost $2942, which was $427 more than the Sunliner convertible.) Sales fell to 14,713 in 1958 and just under 13,000 in 1959, the car's last year. During those three years Ford sold 158,623 of its conventional "ragtop" Sunliner convertibles. The Skyliner was expensive and time consuming to build. Ford is said to have lost money on every one it sold. After its demise motorists would wait a long time for retractables to reappear.

Their recent proliferation is due not only to material, electronic and engineering advances, but also to the fact that the marketplace has changed a lot. There are many more buyers of luxury cars than ever before, which has allowed for the technology to be produced, used and perfected in ever greater volume. This luxury learning curve has now paid off for the broader automotive market, making a greater variety of more affordable rectractables available.

Convertible sales have been booming in the first decade of the 21st century, with such cars as the ragtop PT Cruiser, Ford Mustang and VW New Beetle giving competition to the venerable Chrysler Sebring and the highly acclaimed Toyota Solara. There are more people buying convertibles as second or third cars and the hardtops give them even greater choice. It's an old story, really - part of the magic of the market.


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31 Comments

Sigh
Then I became very sensible and practical and for the past 20 years have owned such exciting vehicles as Dodge Colts, Hyundai Excels, Ford Escorts and a Focus. :\

I've settled on small manueverable SUV's. Brought a subaru Impreza. Not the best on gas, the fastest, or anything else-but does everything well.

Headroom
I just wish some of these "fun" cars had enough headroom with the tops in place for this 6'2" guy to sit up straight and drive. For me, shopping for a new car begins with the "can I sit up straight" drill, which usually results in a direct line to the luxury car row. Even then, a sunroof is out of the question because of the loss of headroom. SUVs usually have enough headroom, even with a sunroof.

I also hope that the industry remembers tall people as it designs the "upholstered battery racks with wheels" which appear likely to be our next generation of vehicles. I'd like to be able to continue driving safely for a while longer.

Capitalism
The market rules supreme. Embrace it and it will provide something to everyone.

Gas prices and traffic tickets
Are the only reason I don't still own by 1971 Dodge Charger "Super Bee" (not all "Super Bee's" were Coronets). Upkeep and maintence be damned, it just got to the point where I couldn't afford to drive it.

Actually, I never got pulled over in it, but I did once outrun a Highway Patrol car. It was purely an accident (I never saw him) and the only reason I found out was he called our local sheriff and gave a rough description of the car (it was a yellow and black streak, I think it was a 60s/early70s Dodge Charger but I'm not sure) and the sheriff knew immediately who it was. He came and told me not to take my Charger west for a few months. The sheriff did ask how fast I was going, and I told him "I don't know, the speedomemter only goes up to 150." He replied, "That's what I figured."

In my youth I owned Chargers, Challengers, 'Cudas, Mustangs, Cougars, GTOs Firebirds and Cameros, all from the late 60s and early 70s. For pure power, give me the Mopars; for agility, I will take the Mustangs and Cougars; for good balance and pure slick looks and feel, the GMs were my favorite. But overall I liked the Chryslers/Dodge /Plymouth. They rivaled the GMS in looks and outran the works. The 426 hemi still rocks!!! The 440 and 383 Magnums are better than most big blocks. But the quick and agile 67 Camero with a 327/350 LT-1 is a very sweet hot rod and the '69 Mustang with the 351 Cleveland will outhandle the rest and run with the best.

Aww for the good ol' days when gas we under $1 a gallon and many of these cars could be found (used) for under $2,000. Try to buy a hemi-powered 'Cuda these days; no easy feat and it ain't gonna be cheap!

I'm all over the place the past 15 years
I now own a small Chevy S-10 Blazer and a Pontiac Grand Prix. I also have an 86 Mazda RX-7 that has problems and doesn't see much road time. In the recent past I've ownd a Ford Fiesta, a Ford Escort, a Subaru sedan, a Cutlass Supreme, and a Ford mini-van.

The escort got the best mileage (around 36-40 on the highway) and the mini-van was my favorite all around. It was comfortable to drive, could haul a lot of kids and stuff, had enough power, even driving in the mountains, and I got 30+ on long trips.

My next vehicle will be another mini-van. I won't buy another SUV; what's the point??

personally, I prefer not to lose the luggage space.
But that's just me.

The old Cat, not a winter car
Neither was the Pontiac Tempest convertible. They were O.K. with the top up and when the outside temperature was above 0, but, even with the top up, they were cold highway cars when the temp dropped. Leaky, noisy but a blessing and a joy on those warm summer nights! Can't imagine 10 above with the top down and a big air dam piece of furniture in the back. Did anyone suffer hypothermia? ;)

I loved the old 67 Corvette with the removable hardtop. Just plain a cool car.

Funny story about driving your Super Bee. LOL

I was in the Navy when I bought my '71 Charger "Super Bee" I left it with my dad and, since the clutch was going, he decided to put a new clutch in it. After it was back together, he took it for a spin; literally. He was turning onto the highway and decided to gun it; did a 540 and nearly went through the local auto parts store (where he bought the new clutch parts) rearend first. He told me it was the most powerful car he had ever driven!

For pure torque, it was the second most powerful I had ever owned. As I said, the 426 Hemi still Rocks!!

Strictly sports cars for me
in the past 20 years. First it was an 85 Toyota Supra and now it's a 95 Maxda MX3, the GS version. Smallest 6 cylinder ever built. It's had some engine work done on it so now it tops out at around 130 mph. Handles badly on snowy roads, just too light but just great on anything smooth and dry. For a small car it's got lots of trunk (the golf clubs fit) and a decent back seat (if you are less than 5'5"). So where did they cheat? The gas tank. Holds only 15 gallons.

Saving the Market
The Dem's have only been in control of Congress for few days...but have lost no time in proposing multiple schemes to "Chavez-ize" the United States. From health care to business to climate...choice is out and Congressional tyranny is in.

The market under a proper legal structure would rule supreme. But instead of creating a legal structure that optimizes markets, there has been a long term trend towards socialism and central government control.

Embracing socialism will lead to the slow decline of the US economy (see France, Italy and Germany in the 21rst century). While the economies of China and India grow at double digit rates, our economic guru supreme (A. Greenspan) is joyous about our current and likely future 2.5% growth. The historic de-Constitutionalization and de-Optimization of America is a crime…caused by the accumulated negligence of the courts and the voters. The call for “heros” is upon us…a "market" majority that will shepard the ship-of-state to its Constitutional role. If not, matters could deteriorate to a point (c-Venezuela) that a "leader" will emerge to "save" us from the mess of our own making.

Contrary to Abe Lincoln’s hope, the nation of-by-for the people could be gone tomorrow.

Chavez
I see now that he is going to force unlimited terms, more nationalizations and suppression of opposition. All things I am sure the lft in this nation would do if they could (and will if things continue).

He's already announced that he won't renew the license of the opposition TV network
Here in the US, the left wants to reintroduce the un"fairness" doctrine, in order to silence any view that is in disagreement with the beaurocrats in Washington.

Love 'em, can't really afford 'em
However, my brother-in-law has a Supra, not real impressive torque, but pretty impressive top end and handling.

Most of these cars do sacrifice fuel load.

The left
What a joke. They oppose "escalation" but take a symbolic vote to avoid a consitutional crisis on Iraq rather than a true stand which most people disagree with. I thought to liberals the Constitution was a living document molded to meet the needs of whomever is in power? Chavez is the very Christ of Liberalism and they only dream of doing what he did. In fact, I have openly heard Nader call for nationalizing industries. The left...

one party states
Chavez is also talking about consolidating all parties into a single one, headed by him.

And he was re-elected how?
This guy is mini-version of Stalin and Castro. So much for real democracy under Chavez.

Hitler
Last year I read a massive and arduous biography of Hitler. He pretty much did the same. Oh there were elections but he then found excuses to consolodate power and eventually abolish opposition. Do you suppose he models himself after Hitler in a way? I see many similarities such as consolodation of power, nationalization. I have had posts here about how capitalism flourished un Hitler but one has to define capitalism. Hitler nationalized many industries. Seem the large strategic industries, oil, steel, gas are the first to topple. I see Putin on a similar crusade. The world has gone bonkers and I see us standing alone in the world against tyranny yet many here refuse to see it or for that matter, some welcome it. Lead me as oppsed to lead.

Part intimidation, Part bribery
...

True
And Chavez is a 100% raging as$hole.

But of course
You will also see vigorously denials that Nazi, aka "national socialist" bore any attributes of socialism-but it was socialism-only with mythic arayanism replacing the proletariat as the aspirational reference group.

I miss the purr
of a v-8 w/ displacement measured in cubic inches, not liters, overhead valves (no matter what the mechanical advantages of dohc) and with an exhaust unrestricted by the CATalytic converter and other impediments to a deep throaty, free breathing beast

In fact
They call Nazi's right wing in fact they were the absolute apex of statist control, the exact opposite of the right. Socialist preach social tolerance while advocating control of industries, schools, health care and every aspect of the social order except what they deem precious.

The old Supras
were great. Just a Celica body with a big six under the hood.

Sacrifice fuel load is one thing but consumption is something else. My brother has a 1973 Triumph TR-6. The heater in it is a joke and it's ridiculously overpowered for winter or wet road driving (all right overpowered for just about all of us at any time), so strictly for summer use. However, it goes through high test like an alki through beer in a brewery. Strictly a performance machine; zero to 60 in about 8 seconds (you can't shift gears fast enough to keep up with it) and can turn street corners while staying in lane at close to 60.

I loved the old triumph
I had a friend that had a Fiat X19. Rollerskate with an engine, but it was the most agile car I ever drove. Was also quick 0-60, but topped out at around 100. All gearing with a little mid-engine 4 cyl. Difference is the little X19 got pretty good gas mileage!! Had to, only had a 9 gal. gas tank.

Sure you can keep up with it shifting! You want rediclously overpowered, take any late-60s early 70s top-end american muscle car. We are talking 400+ horsepower, max torque and 0-60 in under 6 seconds (some at around 4)! No fun with a manual trans in the snow, but most were O.K. in the rain, if you knew how to drive them. Of course, most got about 6 MPG in the city and 12 on the highway; if you were just cruising. Cut that in half if you were hot-rodding.

The best compromise was the old small-block V-8s; 327 and below (Chevy had the 283, 307, 327; Chrysler had the 318 and ford had the 289 and 302; most of these put out more than 200 horses base stock; Chevy had a version of the 327 that produced 350 horsepower out of the factory). These cars often got something around 20 MPG (16-22) highway and around 15 MPG in town (12-16) yet still produced sub-7 second 0-60 speeds and street 1/4 mile speeds over 95 MPH in the low 14s or lower.

The best of the bunch was probably Fords "Boss 302" Mustang. A friend of mind had one and it averaged about 20 MPG on road trips and 12 around town, yet still did 0-60 in 5.5 seconds, 1/4 mile in 13.4 @ 110 mph and topped out at something over 140.

I had a 289 mustang HO that got about 22+ highway, 15 around town and did 0-60 in 7.5 seconds. Several of my friends couldn't believe the gas mileage until I took them on trips. We would go to the nearest big town (200 miles round trip) and use just over half of a 16 gallon tank of gas. Fill it up and, sure enough, just at 9 gallons used (depending on how much driving around we did). It just about out performed one guys' 74 Pinto (he got 24 highway) and had twice the power, torque and speed.

The big blocks were all real gas guzzlers to some extent. The best of this bunch were the hemis (especially the 426). Chevy made a 396 and 427 big block that were mighty good. Fords 390 and 429 were also solid; but the best were Chryslers 383 and 440 Magnums. All got less than 18 MPG highway under the best of conditions, and usually far less (10-16).

I owned a couple of these; the nastiest was a 426 hemi powered 1971 'Cuda. This thing was just plain quick (0-60 in around 4 seconds, 1/4 mile in the 12s@120+mph) and fast (spedometer went to 160, but you could bury it in less than a mile and just keep accelerating). Unfortunately, you ate up a 20 gallon tank of gas in a hurry. I sold it 6 months after I bought it. Couldn't afford the maintenence and the hemi was having valve train trouble. Got more than I paid for it though.

My favorite was a 383 magnum powered 1971 Dodge Charger "Super Bee". It was a special edition. Only a couple thousand of this particular edition were built and this thing was fun! 0-60 was under 5 seconds, and it topped out at something well over the 150 mph speedometer. I never lost a street drag in that car and, yet, when you were nice to it it got about 16-18 mpg on the highway, but only around 8 around town. Put your foot through that big holley double-pumper and watch the gas gauge move! I don't know what the gas mileage was when I was "getting stupid" in it, but it sucked!! I owned it for 4 years and decided I had to "Grow up" in 1989 after my first daughter was born. Selling that car then was the worst mistake of my life! (Everything it it was original equipment, it is worth $20,000 now; I sold it for $2,500. [you may use appropriate moans and groans, I still do] Also, it was just plain fun to drive!)

Amen motorhead, amen
Give me my 383 Magnum powered Charger with headers and glass packs. Nice mellow purr cruising around town, but backing down from freeway speeds will rattle the glass around town like a sonic boom! It wasn't all that noisy, until you got out of the throttle.

Big mistake, Pauled
"I owned it for 4 years and decided I had to "Grow up" in 1989"

Never grow up, at least I've decided not to, at least not that way. Yeah, I know, families and all that. But we all need hobbies and some excitement in this life, and it's always a tragedy when I hear folks getting rid of the things they loved because of 'obligations'. Look at how many went out and bought Mustangs last year because they were getting nostalgic for the 60s? It's to my regret that I've never driven a car with a hemi up front.

So what would you give to have the Super Bee back now?

About the 'cuda, maybe you were lucky that you only had it a short time. One chap I knew had one, early 70s. Kept it for years. Because of the design of the trunk lid, the entire back end rusted out. He said every 'cuda owner he knew was looking for a backend, because the ridged edge pooled water on the trunk.

Now, here's the car I want. Try not to flinch at the price. If you do, like me, you can't afford it.

http://www.morgan-motor.net/mmc/new_morgan_aero8.pdf

So I know now
That was one reason I bought the RX-7 a couple of years ago. It is a maintenence nightmare, but it has real top-end, looks pretty good and has most of the bells and whistles (including a sun-roof that still doesn't leak!!) as well as being quick and real agile. The fact that it is a two-seater is also a plus (I can't put three kids and the wife in there all at once, one at a time please!!).

And the fact that, while I got four good years out of the Super Bee and sold it for what I paid for it, it was worth much more even then. Now it is worth about 5 times what it was then. (groan)

But I was 29 and everyone (all the women anyway, like my mom and wife) was telling me we need a "family car" and the Charger was "too expensive" to keep. The kid was one when I finally relented, but I held off for a year and a half.

Actually, we had a second "family" car but, that fall it was broke down hard and then the Charger burned up another starter (went through a starter every 6-9 months, always meant a new one on the house, but I had to buy new header gaskets and other stuff every time I had to change the starter) When I fixed the Charger, and not the Cutlass, my wfie and mom went through the roof! LOL!! I then had to get the catalytic converter and the entire exhaust system and put it in the Cutlass. I finally gave up and sold the Charger and the "gutless" to buy a newer "family" car. It was the worst $4,000 I ever spent. I ended up with a 1986 for LTD. It was a total POS ladies quasi-luxury car. The women loved it and I hated it. Give me back the "gutless", at least it had a 350 V-8 and not a 2.8L V-6. Worse, it didn't even get that much better (than the Cutlass) gas mileage!! (Many trucks get better mileage than the Charger did)

So you like the classic roadster type. Good choice, but more than a bit pricey for me. Still, nice power and styling!

I have more modest aspirations: Back to the Chargers and the Hemis!!
http://www.allpar.com/cars/lx/dodge-charger.html
Nothing in the range of the old 426-hemi powered monster of the late 60s, still this thing look pretty nice and is no slouch at 350 HP, 390 Ft/LBS of torque and a rated 0-60 of 6 seconds (5 in the STR version, possibly faster in the Daytona R/T). Doesn't have the style and handling of you Morgan, but a pretty nice muscle car all the same.

We share a lot of the same prejudices
"Gutless" indeed. Your experience with the LTD is also similar to mine. Owned two Fords in my life, first was a 72 Dart. Second was a car loaned by my father, a 79 Zephyr which was the epitome of gutless. Most Fords back in those years were total rustbuckets and these were no exceptions.

I know, the women. They just don't get it. There's the cars we love and then there's the cars we schlepp groceries from the supermarket. The two have nothing in common. The first is the dream, the second is the drudgery.

About the Charger, nice machine, may not have the raw power of the 71 but I will bet it still boots. With the improvements in aerodynamics over the past 20 years, it's probably more fuel efficient than the 71 even with all the emission control stuff.

About the Morgan, yes I love roadsters, and I know that at $120,000 it's a bit much (all right way too much), but we can dream. As to handling, I spent a summer in 1993 driving in the mountain roads in the Mercantour in southern France. All hairpin turns, blind spots and 1000 foot drops with no shoulder on one side and 1000 foot cliff upwards on the other. Ditching not an option. And the mountain roads are mostly one lane roads (though they were used as two lane). Oh, and well kept up no matter how remote they were. No potholes anywhere. First week of this everyone on the road was snarling at me for driving so slow. Second week, I'm picking out the tourists for driving so slow. After that experience I now understood why European sports cars are built the way they are. For that stuff at high speed, you need a wide wheelbase and low centre of gravity.

About the RX-7, a former boss many years ago had an 86 RX-7 with the original Wankel engine in it. Nice machine and had very precise handling is my recollection after all these years.

Morgans may be the last non-mass produced car in the world. No production line, each one is custom built from scratch. Available only on pre-order, and I understand they have a waiting list about five years long. Purchase price includes a 1st class plane ticket to England to pick up the car at the plant.

Pretty interesting
And right on on most accounts.

But I don't hate Fords. My favorite "Family" vehicle was a Ford Minivan. In fact, I'm looking at buying another. Why? It was relaxing and easy to drive, it had room for my whole family, plus kids' friends and all the junk we wanted to carry on any trip. Me and five of my friends could jump in with all our ski/snowboarding gear and go skiing. I could pull out the back seat and have as much room as any SUV; and still seat four comfortably.

It was a wonderful people and stuff hauler, and it got 30 MPG on the long trips.

The new V-8 Mustang is a sweet number and the V-6 version is no dog.

Plus, in my experience, Fords are more reliable than GMs.

But the GM has several of the best cars for the money, and some of the best looking designs. One example is the Grand Am, what a sexy, pretty little car. There is a V-8 option and I bet that is plenty of motor for that car. I've never driven one, but I have driven the 4 cyl. and V-6 versions. The 3.2L V-6 version had plenty of muscle for that little thing.

Chrysler decided to get back into the muscle car game in a big way with the Dodge Viper. A V-10 hot rod capable of near 200 mph speeds. The hemi powered cars and trucks are also solid performers. Yes, aerodynamics and lighter construction materials, combined with better fuel injection and computerized tuning, have given these engines new life as they are more economical then ever possible before.

You are right about European cars in general and especially the little sporty things. There is a reason for the design, and it is not just gas mileage. Snarly little 4s and 6s in low, wide, light cars makes for quick response, agility and all the speed you'll ever need in most European applications. Let's face it, except the Autobon and a few other freeways, where do you have the room to work a big, overpowered Hemi monster? Plenty of deserted roads and back streets in the U.S. where you can have some fun, not many in Europe.

Handling always matters, but light agility and quickness are necessary on many European roads.

In most part of Asia, small motorcycles are better than either. For personal transportation, there are few places in Japan where you can exceed 45 mph and most trips are less than 10 miles.; few are over 50 and virtually none are over 100. The same in Vietnam, the Phillippines, Korea, Maylasia and Thialand.

Yea, the RX is a pretty quick, agile little thing. It is a blast to drive, especially on city streets.

As for Morgans; great cars. I read they were custom built and all aluminum (so that's where my recycled beer cans went, LOL). Very nice, and a blast to drive I bet.

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