Exploring car technology with LEGO

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Super Street Sensation

Super Street Sensation

©1999 LEGO Group

There has been much discussion recently comparing today's complex and enclosed Technic sets with the simpler skeletal ones of yesteryear.

Brickset reader pHabala has been following it with interest and has written this very interesting and well-researched article that considers the educational value of Technic sets:

When you become a parent, sooner or later there comes a time when you hear questions like "Why does the engine make so much noise", "How come that when you turn the steering wheel, the car turns" or "Why do you keep twiddling that stick when driving".

There was a time when you could just buy the latest Technic supercar to explain what is happening under the bonnet, but what about nowadays?


The first of the so-called supercars was launched in 1977 and since then every car in the series brought something new. By 1994 they included about as much of car technology as (reasonably) possible in LEGO. The development can be summarised in the following chart, reworked from Eric Albrecht's supercar summary in Blakbird's Technicopedia.

Here is the classical supercar line-up:

Set Engine Steering Suspension Differential Gearbox
853/956 Car Chassis(1977) I4
(square)
Yes 2sp (linear)
8860 Car Chassis (1980) F4
(square)
Yes
Ackermann
Swing arm
(rear)
Rear 3sp (linear)
8865 Test Car (1988) V4
(square)
Yes
Ackermann
Yes Rear 3sp (linear)
8880 Super Car (1994) V8 Yes
Ackermann
Yes Front, rear
center
4sp
8448 Super Street Sensation (1999) V8 Yes Yes Rear 5+R

Note that already the second set on the list features all five basic car components. The last two sets are considered by many to be the pinnacle of the supercar line. From a technical point of view, 8880 is the clear winner here with its four wheel drive. However, if you want to use LEGO to explain car technology, then 8880 is an overkill, while 8448 offers the same components in a much more transparent package. Moreover, the gearbox also features reverse. True, it does not have the Ackermann steering, but this is not such a big deal. Add to it the much improved aesthetics and it is no surprise that for many, 8448 is the king.

8448-1Super Street Sensation
8448

8448 Super Street Sensation: the ultimate Technic Supercar?

What actually is a supercar? I think that these sets share three traits:

  • Each sets introduces something new;
  • Each set is on the cutting edge of LEGO engineering;
  • Each set showcases key components in car technology.

The bottom line here is that if you wanted to show your children how cars work, then for about twenty years you could use LEGO. It is interesting that there were quite a few sets released in those years that featured the "basic triad" consisting of engine, differential, and steering (but sometimes only a Hand-Of-God version), these appear even in some smaller sets of about 350 parts. Here is a non-representative list of some sets that caught my eye.

Set Engine Steering Suspension Differential Gearbox
8859 Tractor (1981) I2
(square)
Yes Rear
8850 Rally Support Truck (1990) V6 HOG only Rear
8868 Air Tech Claw Rig (1992) V6 HOG only Rear
8458 Silver Champion (1994) V6 HOG only Yes Rear
8440 Formula Flash (1995) V6 Yes Rear
8408 Desert Ranger (1996) V2 HOG only Rear
8437 Future Car (1997) V4 Yes Rear Rear

So it is 1999, the set 8448 hit the shelves and the supercar line stood at crossroads. LEGO tried two things. It released a Formula 1 car that cut down on car tech components, and recycled the 8448 set in a "cool" package.

Set Engine Steering Suspension Differential Gearbox
8458 Silver Champion (2000) V10 Yes Yes Rear
8466 4x4 Off-Roader (2001) V8 Yes Yes Rear 5+R

8458-1Silver Champion
8458

8458 Silver Champion: the first of many 'Formula 1' style Technic cars

The F1 car looked like a success, so in the following years we had several more of them that were - at least from the point of view of chassis - pretty much the same. The 4x4 Off Roader was a different story, and many fans feel unhappy about it to this day - some because of the aesthetics, and many because of the inferior functionality when compared to 8448. Still, this set has the distinction of being the last LEGO set that has shown the whole quintet of components.

I do not have any inside information, but I imagine that LEGO designers and executives wondered what to do next with their supercar line. Since making reasonable working breaks or clutch does not seem feasible in this scale (unless highly specialized parts are created), LEGO designers ran out of car tech components to add. Of course, it would be possible to recycle the 8448 chassis every few years in a new coat (preferably better than 8466), but this is not how LEGO operates. So instead they switched focus.

The new supercar line would follow these guidelines:

  • Each sets is on the cutting edge of LEGO engineering;
  • Each set has a great wow factor.

One of the consequences of this decision is that fans do not always agree about which sets released since 1999 actually belong to the supercar line-up. In the following chart I tried to include the sets that seem to be considered supercars, as well as some other sets that feature a significant number of car tech components. There has been quite a few featuring the "basic triad" (steering, engine, differential), I chose a few that caught my eye.

Set Engine Steering Suspension Differential Gearbox
8461 Williams F1 Team Racer (2002) V10 Yes Yes Rear
8454 Rescue Truck (2003) V6 HOG only Rear
8386 Ferrari F1 Racer 1:10 (2004) V10 Yes Rear
8653 Enzo Ferrari 1:10 (2005) V12 HOG only Rear
8674 Ferrari F1 Racer 1:8 (2006) V10 Yes Yes Rear
8145 Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano 1:10 (2007) V12 HOG only Rear
8070 Super Car (2011) V8 HOG only Yes Rear
42000 Grand Prix Racer (2013) V8 Yes Yes Rear
42039 24 Hours Race Car (2015) V8 HOG only Yes Rear
42037 Formula Off-Roader (2015) I4 HOG only Yes Rear
42048 Race Kart (2016) I1 Yes 2 speeds
42075 First Responder (2018) F2 HOG only Rear Rear
42077 Rally Car (2018) V6 HOG only Yes Rear
42096 Porsche 911 RSR (2019) V6 Yes Yes Rear

Note that the current high end cars – Porsche, Bugatti and Land rover – were excluded. They do feature the whole quintet, but all this technology is carefully hidden from view, the price is rather prohibitive, and above all, their transmissions are too complicated to serve any educational purpose.

42096-1Porsche 911 RSR
42096

42096 Porsche 911 RSR: A supercar?

What does this chart tell us? That since 2001 there has not been a single set that could be used to show all important car components. There has been just one set with a gearbox, but the Go-Kart does not have the typical LEGO gearbox and it lacks in other areas. This lack of gearboxes is rather strange, given that LEGO during this time significantly improved all crucial parts (clutch gears, driving rings) and also introduced sturdier versions of some popular gears (8 and 16 teeth).

It seems extremely unlikely that we will see another suitable car appearing in the supercar line. The reasons why LEGO went a different way in 2001 are still valid. This leaves open another venue: LEGO could simply offer a simpler car showcasing the technology that would not be considered a part of the premium line. However, I strongly doubt that it will come, given that LEGO did not release such a set in 2017, commemorating the birth of Technic LEGO and celebrating the Car Chassis set.

My feeling is that LEGO reacts to the general trend observable in the younger generations. They are, on average, less interested in the physical, mechanical world, preferring the world of computers and virtual reality. And indeed, LEGO caters to this crowd well with the Mindstorms line. It would be nice if LEGO tried to rekindle the interest in mechanical engineering, but it is very likely that such sets would not sell. Asking them to do things that do not make sense economically would not be fair.

So where does this leave us - parents who would like to use LEGO when talking about cars with our children? We can fish for used old sets, or build our own rigs from parts. Meanwhile, university teachers fondly remember the days when top high-school graduates flocked in large numbers to engineering schools.

8880-1Super Car
8880

8880 Super Car: Old-school Technic at its best

35 comments on this article

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By in United States,

The more modern Technic cars are beautiful.

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By in United States,

I should try to get my hands on one of these.

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By in Ireland,

Interesting article. With cars moving from combustion engines to electric you wonder how long they will keep making Lego sets with gearboxes. What will Technic supercar sets be like in future when you want to explain regenerative braking and autopilot?
I agree with the points about 8448. For me that's still the best Technic car set. Sorry Porsche and Bugatti.
By the way, you might want to fix the caption under the first photo...

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By in Sweden,

It’s sad to see the technology being hidden away. Technic cars nowadays serve very little educational purpose. I’m glad I own many of the 80ies supercars. They are classics.

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By in United States,

I remember one of the big toy companies (and, if I recall, it may very well have been LEGO) did a survey and found the majority of kids wanted to be YouTube stars. I said; "What the heck; that is NOT a REAL JOB"; as I do with the whole "social media influencer nowadays. Look at the majority of LEGO's licenses--they heavily involve video games. And LEGO, in my opinion, seems to be designing the majority of the kid-focused sets on ease of the build and immediate play; not the build. Just like the scourge of the 4+ sets (which I hate and liken to Jack Stone; literally the ONLY LEGO I forgot I had). So, Huw, I believe your observation is spot on. I've had an interest in engineering, but I am focusing on accounting; mainly because I can go into business for myself easier.

Technic was something I very seriously got into as a teen after my first trip to Toys R' Us as a LEGO enthusiast. Of course, living on a farm, I focused on heavy equipment. Built implements for my 9393 "Deutz" tractor because I thought the included implement looked a little stupid (uh, I assumed it was always a bad interpretation at a wind-rower). But, if I can score one cheap, a Car Chassis is on my horizon. Or build one, updated to use studless beams and the modern engine, which will allow me use of the parts I already own. That's engineering--building it myself.

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By in Germany,

There are to many technic car these days compared to construction vehicles.
Please less cars and more construction vehicles, trucks and tractors.

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By in France,

Great article

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By in United Kingdom,

@duq, what's wrong with it?

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By in Hungary,

One day, 8880...

One day

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By in United States,

This was a cool article.

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By in United Kingdom,

I like all the Technic supercars, my very favourite has to be 8860. That set just looks so cool to me, the box art was perfect and seeing it on the shop shelves just made you want it. I remember looking at this set in awe for ages as a kid.
It also introduced many firsts. It was the first to have a differential gear, the first to have suspension, first to have fully adjustable seats, first with Ackermann steering, first with a 3 speed gearbox. This set is a true legend to me and is probably not only my favourite supercar but also my favourite Technic set ever. It always takes pride of place in my displays. 8880 is a close second.

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By in Russian Federation,

They need to re-publish tripple 8 car. It's such a classic.

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By in United Kingdom,

Thank you Huw and pHabala for publishing this. 8448's combination of studded beams for the chassis and sweeps and blends for the body in my view makes it both an engineering classic as well as a real beauty. If only new replacement pistons were readily available.

I wonder if a modern day equivalent of 858 would sell? Possibly not so much. But I would argue that understanding and building accurate engines and gearboxes is still fun and enjoyable for budding engineers and curious minds in 2019. Virtual models are good, but working 3D models which you didn't just download and print are so much more valuable. If computer models alone were satisfying enough then no one would buy LEGO at all :-) Thanks again both.

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By in United Kingdom,

8880 is my favourite. I think it was my first big Technic set. Together with the 8480 Space Shuttle, they are the Technicest of Technic sets.

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By in France,

Thank you for your researches, work and sharing with us all about it. Even as a kid I was not attracted by Technic sets. They were too "cold " for me compared with System, if you can get what I mean. Even now I never buy one. But time passing by, and coming every day on Brickset for reading, learning more about the theme, thanks to reviews and such articles as pHabala's, my curiosity and interest grows up - while the sets, with new panels and techniques comes more and more to modelism with impressive final results (Porsche, Bugatti, Range Rover). Very interesting points and data thank you.

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By in United States,

Growing up, the 8448 was long one of my grail sets. I finally managed to pick one up a few months ago used but in good condition. I like the current Technic automobiles just as much from a technical point of view, but 8448 is still my favorite for nostalgia and the use of the damped shock absorbers.

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By in United States,

I certainly enjoyed Technic sets growing up, but primarily those of the late 90s that appealed to my sense of fantasy and adventure… particularly themes and subthemes like Speed Slammers, Competition/Cyber-Slam, Slizer/Throwbots, Roboriders, Star Wars buildable droids, Mindstorms, and Bionicle. Authenticity was pretty much irrelevant to my tastes — what I loved about the mechanisms was simply their action-packed play potential, and any mechanical engineering lessons they offered were simply a means to an end.

I doubt that anybody with a taste for realistic Technic vehicles, whether with today's tendency towards streamlined bodywork or the earlier tendency towards clearly showing off the working parts, would be really impressed with those kinds of Technic sets I've always been most drawn to.

And in truth, I came to realize over time that Technic probably was never the ideal home for stuff like exciting transformation functions, powerful launcher mechanisms, and robots or mechs with action features inspired by the biological world. What's more, most of my bright-eyed ten-year-old ambitions like creating a humanoid or animal-like robot with lifelike proportions, movements, and AI, were never viable in the first place, both due to my lack of mechanical engineering skill and the limitations inherent to LEGO as a medium.

I am certainly amazed by some Technic and Mindstorms creations I've seen that come quite close to my childhood Technic building dreams, like Lee Magpili's Mindstorms dragons SI3RRA and STRYD3R (https://youtu.be/gioWkk9kanM). And maybe if LEGO introduced brilliant motorized sets like those my interest in Technic might be re-invigorated. But right now, Technic has become just a periodic building challenge or amusement for me, and while sets like https://brickset.com/sets/42055-1/Bucket-Wheel-Excavator can briefly fill me with excitement, I don't think I have any strong preference between exposed or covered mechanisms as long as the final model is functionally elaborate, aesthetically pleasing, and a fun build.

That said, I do feel that the current family of smooth, minimalist Technic panel shapes definitely speaks to me as a MOCist, and I would feel very bummed out if reverting to the kind of open-sided structure a lot of Technic fans prefer resulted in parts like those getting retired without newer and more versatile parts being introduced to replace them. :/

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By in Netherlands,

Nice article!

I guess combustion engines will still be common for at least 20 years in the Western world.
One extra step could have been to include valves, which I wonder why Lego never did.

Gearboxes may still be relevant for electrical cars as well however.

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By in New Zealand,

I love 8466!

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By in United States,

One of the Technic Idea Books showed how to create brakes. Was definitely possible and they did work! I created my own clutch way back in the early 80s so that was also possible. I'm thinking these features have been omitted because they use foot pedals. There's not really a good way for a kid rolling around his Technic car to push foot pedals.

My favorite part of test Car was the pop-up headlights! And on Silver Champion it was the suspension! I thought one of the first two Technic supercars had a reverse gear. And paddle shifting on the Porsche was absolutely brilliant!

Fun article! I used to keep a table of all features of various supercars and concluded that the 4x4 Off-Roader was the pinnacle.

I think there is a massive amount of teaching that can be done with the newer gearboxes, it's just more advanced than in the past.

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By in Australia,

I remember having 8860 has a child. I'm fairly certain I still have a box of Technic Lego in the roof of my house abroad. If so it includes 8860, 8859, 8845, 8844, 8843 and 8842. I particularly enjoyed 8860 and 8859 and the comments in this article resonante with me despite the fact that I own the latest Porsche 911 GT3 and Bugatti Chiron sets.

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By in Australia,

The 8448 Super Street Sensation was the set that brought me out of my dark ages and I still think the wheels on it are some of the coolest looking wheels ever to feature on a Technic set (what with the silver color and the swirly design)

I also own the 8466 and love that set (the metallic green color is cool, if I can ever get enough parts in that color I want to build a Holden Ute in the color because it looks kinda like the Holden "Hothouse Green" color and that's my favorite car color ever)

The 8466 is also cool to me because it has proper 4 wheel drive including a center differential and transfer case (something I don't think I have seen on any other Technic supercars unless the new Land Rover has it) while still having a full gearbox with reverse, a full V8 engine, a working steering wheel and working suspension.

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By in Hungary,

Owning all old LEGO supercars (853, 8860, 8865, 8880 and 8448) for a while, I also think that they belong to another era of Technic cars that will never return, as today's children are interested in other aspects (like aesthetics) more. It seems that taste has changed with time. Totally agree with that all these cars introduced something new, were the cutting edge of LEGO engineering and included some key components from car technology.

I remember staring at 8860 in the catalog for hours and counting it's functions again and hoping to have it under the Christmas tree (never happened). But the true pinnacle of supercars is the 8880. I wanted that one even more badly as a child but chose 8868 instead (never regret). IMO function wise 8880 still hasn't been surpassed as a LEGO car. It is considered one of the best LEGO Technic models and with a reason. Skeletal body is a matter of taste (I like it very much) but it has all the proper functions, even Ackermann steering which is really important : this is how a real car steering works. Unfortunately later 8448 and 8466 (if you consider this off-roader as a part of the line) did not reach the ultimate 8880 even if they had some very nice features (modular body, reverse in gearbox or dampers) which I appreciate for sure.

Talking about other Technic cars, I never considered 8070 as part of the supercar line, despite it's own name, because it was only a nice showcase for implemented motorized functions in a car only. Formula 1 cars have nice functions but not supercars. The other cars on the list can hardly be qualified as LEGO supercars to be honest with two exceptions.

For me the only true successor of the old supercar line is the 42056 Porsche which had a brilliant paddle shifting gearbox (well, needed minor modification to work properly) but also lacked some important features (Ackermann, rear wheel steering come to my mind) and for now is the 42083 Bugatti which, of course, also has it flaws (e.g. sagging suspension).

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By in Belgium,

I'm looking forward to my baby girl asking technical questions while growing up. At the same time I'm dreading those times, since I cannot for the life of me distinguish a piston from a cylinder :-)

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By in Ireland,

@huw The first time I saw the article the caption was 8440 instead of 8448 but it's fixed now.

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By in Canada,

Up until 2003, I had every single Lego Technic sets ever produced (even the obscur promotional ones from Japan etc). Sold many of them by now and kept the best and largest. I had the chance of building all the supercar. The major problem I had with 8466 was its sluggishness. There was pratically no way to motorize this model because it was so heavy and the drive-train had too much friction. The very heavy wheels didn't help either. I liked the functions and all but it seems like the model would have been better with 200 more parts to make it stronger. Of course 8880 is a classic with all the functions you can think of, but I still prefer 8448 for both educational purposes (modular build like a real car) and general aesthetic.

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By in Czech Republic,

Hello,
I did not want to take away from the "amazingness" of the Porsche paddle transmission, but I cannot quite imagine explaining its workings to a typical 10-12 years old with no initial knowledge, which is what my son/daughter were when we were talking cars :-).

I did have some idea how a car works before that, but after playing with the possibilities of Lego my knowledge went much much deeper. Lego can be an amazing tool for learning mechanics. I spent about a month inventing Lego trasmission in my head while commuting.

In case you are curious, you can look here
http://math.feld.cvut.cz/habala/misc/Lego/CarChassis_Storybook.pdf
to see what I made for my kids.

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By in United Kingdom,

This article turned up only a day after I'd had a conversation with members about the appeal of technic as I've struggled to appreciate the line over the years. Article was interesting and informative.
I personally can't stand the appearance of the average technic model but can appreciate their value I suppose in helping parents teach their kids about engineering.
The sets pictured above certainly looked horrid with all their holes and can you call it a gap if there's no attempt to cover a section..dunno but if there aesthetic value isn't gonna change I may never buy one. Not that they need to suit me it seems they're selling fine without my interest.

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By in Germany,

When I read comments about kids nowadays all wanting to be YouTube stars or influencers, I am reminded of the joke by a German comedian I heard the other day.
She said "Influencer? When I was young that was a desease. Nowadays it's a job description!" (the joke being that influencer and influenza are pronounced the same in German).

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By in Germany,

But like others I do indeed wonder how LEGO Technic cars will look like in a couple of years. I already drive a Tesla and my girls are growing up not knowing how cars of old used to work. Thankfully I still have 8860, 8880, 8461 and other Technic sets to show them. ;-)

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By in United Kingdom,

8865 was the first big set I bought myself. Saved up the £45 from my 8th birthday and Christmas money. Still got the set now and built it a couple of years ago with my kids!

I always wanted 8880 but never got it. Made my heart skip a beat when I saw it at the end of the article!

Personally I do prefer the older "skeletal" models but certainly don't dislike the newer "panel" models.

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By in United States,

Not sure of what is available to vote on within LEGO Ideas but it seems the perfect place to feel out what sort of interest there is in this type of set if someone can build and post one within the original set of requirements for a Super Car. I'd vote for that!

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By in Germany,

I remember having stuggles getting 8880 together. But this was ages ago. I struggled with the Bugatti as well. But in the end I got them all up and running. Back in the day I accually liked to customize things which are very easy on the 8880. (lowering, adding another v 10 in the front. Lambo style doors ...
Nowadays it's still possible but well.. there isn't much room for new things. It's all build super compact to get all functions of the cars running.
I mean these license cars look great and stuff. they definitely look the part.
I guess I'm of the old school: "back in the day everything was better"...

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By in United Kingdom,

It would be great to have the best of both worlds, I don't mind getting nice panels to build a chassis but ideally they should cover up a functional and interesting mechanism.
Big technic sets sometimes lack the appeal of very decent mid range one - yes I'm looking at you, amazing Claas Xerion, I'd rather have 2 of those than a BWE.

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By in United Kingdom,

I always thought 8448 was a dumbing-down of the super car line; it lost the 4wd and 4ws of 8880 and gave us instead a couple of different alternative bodywork designs. That made it much more superficial in my eyes. 8466, which I have always loved, gave us 4wd (not just a rear diff as mentioned in the article) and cool damped doors, so despite not feeling like a super car it had more complications than 8448.

Nothing will ever take the place of 8860 in my affections though. Mine evolved into a 4-seat long wheelbase version with front suspension (parts bought from Lego spares after 8865 launched) and a flat-6 engine. I'm sure that set is what led me to read engineering at university.

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