Wednesday, 31 October 2007

The Road Less Travelled

I’ve been out and about again; 200 miles so far this week, enough to more than double my normal weekly mileage. The travelling has not been without its irritants. One particular nuisance is poor road sign positioning. I encountered a classic example in Leamington Spa; the sign was positioned behind traffic lights so that the lights obscured the sign. Whether I sign you can’t read is worse than a sign that isn’t there at all is debateable. It is also intensely frustrating – I wanted to get to Alcester Hospital this morning but drive through the town centre and you will not see a single sign saying “Hospital”. Maybe it is a crude attempt to confuse terrorists – an echo of the wartime uprooting of signposts to confuse German invaders – or possibly a conspiracy by the purveyors of satellite navigation systems. Either way it is incredibly annoying.

The other thing I’ve noticed is how tiring I’m finding it. Maybe it is because I’m used to long motorway journeys not urban and suburban motoring. Maybe it is the stress of finding unfamiliar places or of driving an old car. Listening for new noises, trying to detect unfamiliar vibrations and generally worrying that everything is working as it should.

Only one car I can think of could effectively combat all those various sources of stress. That car takes the slightly unlikely shape and lengthy name of SAAB 9-5 Aero HOT (short for High-Output Turbo). It has to be the Aero version, lesser models lack something (possibly in terms of damping out unwanted suspension movement) that makes the top model feel utterly composed. There were no unwanted noises or vibrations to suggest that the big SAAB would be anything but a faithful companion for a decade or three. The ergonomics couldn’t be faulted and nor could the satellite navigation.

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Now if I just had £30,000 to buy one…

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Picture of the week: VW Golf GTI

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Last week I parked next to this Mk1 VW Golf GTI. A long time had passed since I last saw a Mk1 Golf and it was good to be reminded how neat, how compact and how smart Giugiaro’s design still looks.

All sorts of ideas went through my mind about proclaiming the GTI as a sensation in its day. Reading through my old magazines the Golf GTI actually received relatively few column inches. It seems no-one thought the GTI would be a phenomenon.

What does seem clear is that the VW profited from the circumstances surrounding its development. The VW was designed to be as light as possible, so the GTI weighed in at 750kg or so (to put that in perspective consider the current Golf GTI is 1300kg). It was also the time when fuel injection became cheap enough; so a relatively small engine could give good performance without the problems of highly-tuned engines relying on carburettors. The Golf GTI also arrived at a time when there weren’t many affordable performance cars.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Bendy busses cause congestion

Bendy busses have attracted plenty of opprobrium from Londoners but I have had my own demonstration of the problems such long vehicles cause. The scene was an urban dual carriageway leading to a roundabout near Jaguar’s engineering centre in the Whitley district of Coventry. A bendy bus was in a bus stop (sensibly off the main carriageway) behind a smaller bus which meant the bendy bus could not fit into the stop and blocked the left lane of the road. To clear the busses traffic was concentrated in the right hand lane, which is where the smaller bus needed to be. Granted it wasn’t a major hold up but it took a good few minutes for there to be a large enough break in traffic for the busses to pull out. Had the bendy bus been shorter (or the bus stop longer) the problem could have been avoided.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Big cat spotting in Coventry

Coventry isn’t the most glamorous of places but if you want to spot Jaguars, particularly new and not yet released Jaguars it is the place to be. Over the years I’ve been in Coventry I’ve seen prototypes of the XK8, XJ8, S-type and X-type.

Today I wish I had been able to take a photograph of a distinctly non-standard looking S-type. Wide of track and apparently held together by sticky tape I wonder if it was a development mule for the XF or a sporting XF-R.

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I also caught a glimpse of an XF; the more I see the XF the more I like it. It succeeds in looking like a Jaguar without looking like any past Jaguar. There is a strong link to the current XK, which is no bad thing. If, as some people complain, it looks like a Lexus GS then remember that the first Lexus GS took its shape from a Jaguar design study by Giugiaro.

Style-wise all new Jaguars are overshadowed by what I think is the best looking Jaguar of all, the 1975 XJ-C – the coupé version of the series 2 XJ saloon. There was a sober but slightly menacing, dark green XJ-C adding a touch of class to the morning traffic.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Picture of the Week: A quartet of Quattros

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The last time I featured an Audi Quattro it was a rather sad and rundown example. To see a collection of cherished Quattros was therefore a heart warming sight. I took this photo at the Oulton Park Gold Cup meeting. Catching a Quattro on the road is an altogether more difficult proposition. There have only been 2 occasions where I have encountered a Quattro on the road but both of those were opportunities to marvel. Once was on a tightly curving exit ramp from the Coventry ring road. The ramps are concrete with expansion joints running across the carriageway and those joints seem perfectly designed to jolt a car off the road. The Quattro shot down the ramp and the last I saw, following at a more sedate pace, was the tail lights disappearing off into the night. The second encounter was a simple display of speed as a Quattro hurried past on the wide, single carriageway section of the A46 from Alcester to Red Hill.

Friday, 19 October 2007

More thoughts from my travels

Spending time in my Citroën BX this week left me feeling somewhat uneasy. Using a 20-year old car every day was always going to be a risky business and it isn’t that something has gone wrong rather a sneaking feeling that something isn’t quite right. Maybe the tickover wasn’t as steady, the throttle response less sharp and the vibrations more pronounced.

So I find myself contemplating my position and it isn’t great. Maybe my car just needs a service or maybe this is the beginning of the end. Do I spend money (which I don’t have) on the Citroën or save the money for an eventual replacement?

Contemplation of a new car is the best part of the exercise. I know what I want; something taught, purposeful, well made. Above all I want something with decent steering; the problem with the BX is the soft, rubbery steering. What I want is another Honda Prelude, maybe a Legend coupe or 4WS Accord; maybe a hydractive Citroën XM or Xantia; an Alfa Romeo 164; I even caught myself admiring a Vauxhall Carlton 3000GSI. Of course there is potentially a vast gulf between what I want and what I can afford.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Out and about in Coventry and Warwickshire

I’ve had to do some travelling for work which took me past the old Peugeot factory (previously Hillman) at Ryton on Dunsmore and the old Hillman/Humber factory which is Peugeot’s UK headquarters. When I lived in Coventry I would drive past Ryton whenever I went to visit my parents. Seeing the place boarded up and deserted was a strange experience. Peugeot also seem to have sold off a large portion of the Hillman-Humber site, which is being turned into posh flats.

I’m not going to moan about the closure of factories and the erosion of British manufacturing. Business is unsentimental and everything boils down to maximising profit. What did seem odd was seeing posh flats going up next to (apologies to any residents of the area) slightly run-down looking terraced houses. Who, I wonder, will buy the flats?

Sunday, 14 October 2007

That looks a bit like … oh, hang on it doesn’t

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A Citroën C4 Picasso drove past me the other day and I looked at the rear quarter. The kink in the waistline the angle of the tailgate and the way the painted surfaces of the roof and body sandwiched the glass made me think of the Citroën XM.

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Citroën have not always relished the proud history that they should celebrate at every opportunity. Even so, they have plenty of press photos of old models available for members of the press. Finding a suitable picture of an XM was easy. But looking at it only the treatment of the glass and paint are really similar. I’d forgotten how steeply sloped the XM’s tailgate is. The C4 Picasso’s kink goes the wrong way and it doesn’t have the quarter lights in the rear doors.

Even so, it was great to be reminded of the XM. That car pioneered the hydractive suspension still used on the C6; it was the last Citroën to have Diravi self-centring steering (LHD only); there was a second rear window to protect the people in the car from draughts when the rear hatch was open. It was probably the last genuinely quirky Citroën and one day I’ll have one of my own.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Picture of the week – Fake Brakes

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I’ve got nothing against people modifying their cars in any way they please, as long as the modifications don’t compromise safety. Even so I have to wonder whether there is any point in fitting large, fake brake disks. After all, who is going to be fooled given that real brake disks would have substantial callipers?

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Autumn Time

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The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness is upon us, which means it is time for the annual European Car of the Year contest. Voted for by a jury comprising of 58 members from 22 countries, the number of jurors representing each nation depends on the size and significance of the motor industry and new car market in that country. Each juror has 25 points to award to at least 5 of the seven finalists. No more than 10 points can be awarded to any one car and ties are not permitted. Furthermore each juror must provide a written justification for the way they voted.

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The shortlist for the 2008 ECOTY has been released. From 35 eligible cars seven have shown the “right stuff” as potential Car of the Year material. Those cars are the Fiat 500, Ford Mondeo, Kia Cee'd, Mazda 2, Mercedes-Benz C-class, Nissan Qashqai and the Peugeot 308. Picking a likely winner from that lot is incredibly difficult. The Ford and Fiat are both highly regarded and both marques have a strong history of COTY winners. Only once, in 2005 when the Toyota Prius won, has a car built outside Europe been the outright winner – so it is unlikely that the Mazda 2 will win. Mercedes have only enjoyed one COTY win and nothing I’ve read about the C-class suggests that it could beat the Fiat of Ford. The Nissan might suffer because it looks like the sort of car we are supposed to hate – a SUV – or profit because it doesn’t fit typical classifications. The Peugeot will do well with the French judges but probably not any others where as the Cee’d could do surprisingly well.

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I think this is the strongest COTY line-up in years. Only the Peugeot 308 and Mazda 2 seem incongruous – the Lexus LS and Land Rover Freelander might have been more interesting finalists but possibly not consonant with the spirit of the time. My prediction is that the Fiat 500 will win, the Mondeo will be second and it will be close for third place between the Mercedes C-class and the Kia Cee’d. Kia challenging Mercedes, who could have predicted that?

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Monday, 8 October 2007

Car control

I would be the first to admit that I know very little about this subject, although I am always willing to learn. One thing did strike me whilst watching Fifth Gear on Five tonight. BBC Radio 2’s Sally Boazman was learning the secrets of chauffeuring with the instructor from Bentley Motors. One exercise was skid control, the idea being to control the slide by steering into the skid. I’m sure there are times when this is useful but I was more impressed by the small amount of space that it took for a spinning car to come to a stop. Although spinning to a halt isn’t as impressive as a carefully controlled drift I can see circumstances where it might be more useful.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Wheel and woe

What is the one thing you can take for granted when you sit in the driving seat of just about any car made in the last 100 years? No matter what the pedals do; whether the lever for the gears is on the floor, the steering column or even a series of push-buttons on the dashboard; you can be sure of sitting behind a steering wheel.

Some early cars had tiller steering but a tiller could not always supply the necessary leverage. There was a practical limit to the range of movement available from a tiller which is not present with a wheel. When cars got heavier and tyres grew fatter gearing was used to keep the effort of turning the wheel within reasonable bounds. This had the negative effect that more turns of the wheel were needed so that a driver might not tire of the effort of moving the wheel but the sheer number of turns needed could itself be wearing. Chrysler introduced power assisted steering in 1951 to alleviate the problem but on the whole steering has remained lower geared than is strictly necessary.

It is worth bearing this in mind when reading Sir John Whitmore’s weekend Telegraph column (link above) about steering technique. Sir John contends that many drivers, including advanced police drivers who are supposed to be the best road drivers of all, are taught to steer using an inferior technique. Instead of shuffling the steering wheel, alternately pulling and pushing with both hands he advocates keeping the hands fixed on the steering wheel (usually at “ten to two” or “quarter to three” on the wheel rim). This, he claims, makes for smoother and more natural steering input. He might have a point except that in a lot of cars it is impossible to steer that way for long before you tie your arms in knots.

So why persist in having a wheel at all? We can see that it does nothing to promote control; it does nothing for safety, presenting a considerable hazard in accidents; it obstructs the view of the instruments and the location of ventilation outlets. When badly located she simple fact of holding the arms outstretched to hold a wheel can make a long journey tiring. Far better to have a couple of angled grips either side of the driver’s seat which follow the natural rotation of the wrist. Whether or not he realised it, Sir John has highlighted a fault that afflicts every car whilst passing un-noticed by nearly every driver. It is a matter that ought to demand immediate attention.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Picture of the week – Austin Maestro

I know what you’re thinking, how can anyone get excited about an Austin Maestro? Well, Maestros have all but disappeared from British roads; the last ones made by Rover were assembled in 1994 but the Y-prefix on the registration plate of this one means it was registered between March and September 2001.

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The date of registration was the first thing I noticed but consider what the letter means. The first Maestros were produced before August 1983 and had Y-suffix registrations. That puts the Maestro in the small group of cars that have had the same letter as both a suffix and prefix.

How did the Maestro come back to Britain? After UK production ceased the entire production line was exported, there was an unsuccessful attempt to sell the tooling to the Bulgarians and eventually production moved to China. Some cars from Bulgaria ended up back in the UK and a company in Ledbury, imported Chinese Maestros and converted them to right-hand drive. This car has a Hereford & Worcestershire registration which, along with the date of registration, suggests that it is a Chinese car.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Peugeot and Citroën go head to head to find silliest van name

Citroën and Peugeot both announced the launch of compact vans. In fact if you look closely they appear to have launched the same van under 2 identities. The Citroën van is the Nemo, which means “no one” in Latin. Whether the intention was association with a character from Jules Verne or Disney Pixar is unclear. Peugeot, not wanting to be outdone, chose an even more bizarre moniker – Bipper. There is a third derivative with a more sensible name – the Fiat Fiorino. All three vans are made in the same factory in Turkey and represent the latest in a long line of commercial vehicles from Fiat and PSA Peugeot Citroën.

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Thursday, 4 October 2007

Good news

The Citroën passed its MOT. It needed new brake pads and one of the headlamps needed re-aligning. On the whole it isn’t a bad result for a car that turned 20 this year. It does mean I don’t have the fun of trying to find a new car – maybe next year.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

More Torotrak News

Another press announcement from Torotrak, this time slightly more relevant to the real world. A bus fitted with a prototype Torotrak IVT transmission demonstrated a 19% improvement in fuel economy compared with the standard 5-speed automatic transmission.

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The bus, an Optare Solo 60-seat vehicle, was fitted with a Torotrak IVT transmission and run through the Millbrook London Transport Bus cycle at the Millbrook test facility in Bedfordshire. It is an intensive stop-start cycle, which sounds like it should make the highest demands on any vehicle on the test.

Torotrak seem to think that with a purpose built transmission the gains could be even higher. Optare are, apparently, interested in putting the IVT into production. I would imagine that if the transmission can be incorporated at minimal additional cost the bus operators would be keen on the potential reduction in operating costs.

Monday, 1 October 2007

That sinking feeling

It is time to put my Citroën in for its annual MOT test. For international readers the MOT test is an annual safety inspection that all cars over 3 years old have to pass. It checks the condition of lights, tyres, brakes, safety belts, structural bodywork/chassis and exhaust emissions amongst other things. The older a car gets the more likely it is that something will fail – I try to take care of my car and keep on top of any jobs that need doing but there is only so much you can do.

The difficulty comes when your car fails and you have to weigh up the cost of repair against the cost of replacing the car. It becomes even more fraught when money is tight – would any replacement banger that I buy be any better than the 20-year old Citroën BX I’ve got at the moment?