Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Big Brother is watching you...

...but don't worry he can't get you.

Nothing to do with the ever popular TV series, more a question of the wisdom of law enforcement by camera and computer. I drove past a roadside checkpoint which according to the sign displayed was automatically checking everyone's road tax (or Vehicle Excise Duty to be precise) as they drove past. It seemed like a sensible idea and I expected to see the police further up the road waiting to have a word with anyone flagged as un-taxed but the police weren't there. I can only presume that a stern letter and a £80 fine will be sent to the registered keeper for any un-taxed cars the camera identified.

Now maybe I've thought about this too much but if I was going to drive around in an un-taxed car - and go the whole hog and avoid insurance and MOT too - then I would not have it registered to my address. So who will end up getting fined? A few forgetful motorists who keep their cars correctly registered but somehow overlooked the clearly visible date printed on their tax disk. No doubt the fine will act as a sharp reminder to those people not to be so forgetful in future but it is not going to address the hardcore offenders.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Road Pricing

Parliamentary consent has been given to allow local authorities to trial methods for charging drivers based on the time of their journey on a particular road. The idea is that the highest charges for using the busiest roads at the busiest times will deter drivers from making un-necessary journeys at peak times and thus keep the roads clear for essential traffic.

Now it is good that the government wants to tackle congestion. The free movement of people and goods is vital to the economy of the nation. The problem is that Britain is densely populated, everyone is crammed into a relatively small area and when we go to work we end up going to the same places.

Sadly the proposed solution appears to be based on flawed assumptions. I would suggest that the biggest flaw is the idea that a big scheme like road pricing is the answer. Grand schemes are a great way of being seen to do something (which government always likes to do), but may divert attention from the boring practicalities of solving the problem. In the case of traffic management small improvements such as redesigning junctions, revising traffic light timings, removing traffic lights where practical and removing “traffic calming” measures may yield greater benefit but won’t make front page news.

Public transport is touted as a way to reduce congestion but it seems that funding for new initiatives will only be granted for local authorities where road pricing schemes are implemented. My fear is that the road pricing will come before any public transport alternative is put in place. You also have to be sceptical of any support for future public transport schemes give that cost-benefit analyses carried out by government always count lost revenue from motorists as a cost.

The biggest problem is that no consideration is given to the fact that there are already incentives to reduce congestion. The biggest incentive is congestion itself; no-one wants to sit in traffic and, where possible, people plan their journeys accordingly. Of course workplaces expect their employees to start on time – and usually the same time - which means sitting in traffic. There is also the question of cost, sitting in a traffic jam burns fuel to no good purpose – anyone stuck in traffic is already in effect paying a healthy sum to the government for the privilege. Assurances that other motoring costs will be reduced are met with understandable cynicism.

Maybe there is a place for road pricing in managing Britain’s road network. Simply raising awareness of the issue is no bad thing. I would suggest that road pricing is better left as a last resort rather than using it as a quick fix.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Roadsters Remembered #2: Caterham Super 7

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The Caterham is an uncompromising driver’s tool. It represents the reduction of the motorcar to the barest essentials in the pursuit of performance. The 7 is derived from the Lotus Super 7 which made its debut in 1961. Lotus stopped production of the classic S3 Super 7 in 1970 in favour of the restyled S4, which lasted until 1973. Caterham cars acquired the rights to the 7 from Lotus and started making the S4 but within a year reverted to the S3 design. Older readers may recognise the S3 from the cult TV series The Prisoner.

With no excess weight to move the Caterham is impressively quick. The one I drove was the HPC, powered by a Vauxhall 2-litre DOHC 16 valve engine. It is difficult to say how fast as the speedo was either defective or obscured (I forget which). The gears were incredibly close; I remember hitting the red line in first, changing up to second and the revs barely dropped, third was little better and if I hadn’t nearly run out of road I’d have tried 4th.

There was never any need for high gears nor high speeds as I was driving in an informal auto test, wiggling and swinging round a tight course. It was great fun, and a good introduction to what the Caterham can do. There is no better way to understand understeer than to see the wheels turning (how many new cars allow you to see the front wheels from the driver’s seat?) and the car running wide; no better way to appreciate oversteer than by looking past the side of the windscreen because the way the car is going is not the direction in which it is pointing.

My abiding impression, however, was less than favourable; the Seven isn’t actually that nice to drive. I like controls that feel smooth, well oiled and – ideally – light in their actions. Cars like that are good to drive even when going slowly, taking pleasure in driving as smoothly as possible. In the Seven the controls are heavy and lifeless, it is all hard work and if you’re not balancing the car on the limit of grip then it isn’t much fun at all. Maybe I’m too fond of the easy life, or maybe I need to give the Seven another go but I don’t think it is for me.
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Friday, 18 May 2007

Alfa Romeo 159

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I’ve just seen a television advertisement for the Alfa Romeo 159 Q4. It didn’t immediately grab my attention but I had to take notice because of the strange contrast it offered. You would expect the advert for a sports saloon to show the car charging along deserted roads, flying round corners and generally looking dramatic. For an Alfa the soundtrack would probably be engine noise although for less musical cars some dramatic music would be substituted. Advertising guidelines forbid anything that would glamorise speed, performance and reckless driving; you can’t tell the truth that a performance car is quick. Instead the driving is shown in slow motion and the only sound is voices of people justifying why they bought one. Reasons given include, “Four wheel drive” and “Torsen differential” but an on screen caption suggests people are lying. The tag line is that they bought the Q4 simply because it is an Alfa Romeo. It struck me as an interesting and clever way to communicate the car’s features and virtues. It seemed oddly old fashioned to hear about the car’s specification in an advertisement. Now if the 159 can combine old-fashioned Alfa virtues with modern standards of reliability, durability and ergonomics then it deserves every success.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Roadsters Remembered #1 MG MGB

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The British climate is not the most conducive to driving open cars but with summer on its way I’ve been thinking about all the open 2-seat cars I’ve driven. The MGB is more than just a car – it is practically a national institution. There is something about the B’s simplicity, size and good looks that give it enduring appeal.

There is no better way to see how cars have changed than to drive one that is 40 years old. It is a physical car; the steering is heavy, the pedals demand firm inputs, the ride is restless and there is persistent background noise. You get used to carrying a can of WD40 to spray on the engine when the weather is wet – otherwise it won’t start – and the fact that the rain will find somewhere to come round the edge of the convertible roof.

Old virtues also emerge, the steering is also more direct than a new car, the gear lever feels pleasantly mechanical and there is overdrive to get used to. Overdrive was a way to give 4-speed cars a 5th gear for relaxed high-speed cruising and on the B was operated by a switch on the dashboard. When it worked there was something wonderful about flicking a switch to change gear – but there was no guarantee of an instant response or even any response at all. Overdrive units have a tendency to get sticky with age.

What the MG needs to be enjoyed at its best are the right kind of roads; lightly trafficked, country roads. Do not try to drive as quickly as possible, you will expend a lot of effort for little reward and it is better to relax, enjoy the view and the beat of the exhaust. Repeat the exercise at night; the view may be diminished but the sounds and smells are enhanced. If you are used to closed cars it lends a whole new dimension to driving.

You may not want to do it all the time but driving an MGB is something you should try at least once.

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Sad Audi

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I was out and about in Leamington Spa today and I saw a sad sight; a neglected Audi Quattro. It was parked on someone’s drive so it wasn’t just abandoned and it appeared to be completely standard, with no naff alloy wheels or silly spoilers. It looks like it hasn’t moved for a while, judging by the fallen leaves around it, the flat tyres and the thick layer of dirt covering it. I also noticed a large patch of rust on the sill, below the driver’s door.

You have to wonder how the Quattro came to be in this state. Had it been damaged in an accident or some other mishap I could understand To leave it, half forgotten, on a suburban street is no way for such a car to end its days. At some point it must have been someone’s pride and joy and one of the fastest cars on the road. I can only wonder how this one ended up neglecting and slowly rotting.