Friday, 30 November 2007

Quick Torotrak update

Another F1 team have been confirmed as taking out a license on the mechanical kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) for the 2009 season. One license was encouraging but two licenses are a clear sign that this is being taken seriously. Torotrak and its partners, Flybrid Systems and Xtrac, won the Professional MotorSport World “Engine Innovation of the Year Award" on 6 November 2007 in Cologne for the mechanical KERS.

All these developments are very promising, I just hope that involvement in Formula 1 don’t distract from getting a Torotrak transmission into a road car.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Books Lately – Back from the Brink by Sir Michael Edwardes

This isn’t a new book but an old book that is well worth seeking out if you are interested in the history of British Leyland. Sir Michael Edwardes was a successful South African businessman who was approached in 1977 to take on the task of turning British Leyland into a viable business. The book provides an insight into what Britain was like in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the character of some of the key political figures of the time.

It took me a while to get to grips with the writing style, the level of detail meant that the pace felt a little slow sometimes. It is well worth sticking with in order to understand the problems BL faced and how Edwardes addressed them in his 5 years as chairman.

I found my copy in a charity shop and even though I hadn’t even known that the book existed I did know who Michael Edwardes was and reasoned that he was bound to have a story worth reading. It took me a long time to work through the book but I still consider the price I paid to be about the best £2.50 I spent this year.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

I can’t believe it has come to this

The events of the last week or two have brought me to a point where I’m seriously considering giving up car ownership. After all the cost of maintenance, vehicle excise duty, insurance and fuel seem prohibitive. Maybe I would be better off without the expense and the worry.

With careful study of the bus timetable and finding out exactly where the busses stop I’m sure I could manage to get to and from work. Who knows, with a little planning I might even be able to go shopping. Going out at the weekend would be practically impossible, which is a shame. The annual Christmas jaunt to see my family would be impossible because there is no way I could get back for work on the 27th. But I’d probably save money by not going anywhere.

The other option is not to give up the car completely but buy a bus season ticket and even if I only used it 3 days every week I’d probably save money. I hate public transport but at the moment something has got to give.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

The bus don’t work

Since I don’t have a working car at the moment but still have an obligation to my employer to put in a proper day’s work I had no option but take the bus to work on Friday. I checked the bus timetable online at Transport Direct's website and there was a bus leaving not far from my flat at 7:46, roughly 20 minutes before I normally leave for work. Actually it is more than that as there is a 5 minute walk to the bus stop from my flat.

Anyway, the bus was late but thankfully not so late that I was late for work. It seemed to meander on the way but I suppose busses must work like that. Trying to get home was less pleasant. The transport direct site suggested I could walk to the bus stop in 20 minutes. Maybe I failed to live up to their expectations or maybe my vigour had been sapped by a busy day at work but I arrived at the bus stop to see a bus driving away. So I waited for the next one, and waited, and waited. It was over an hour, standing in the cold, watching the rush hour traffic ease. In the end I gave up and walked to the offices of a minicab company where I paid an awful lot of money to get home.

I will try again. Maybe look at getting a different service. The problem is that there s only one direct service to where I work. But on Monday I shall be getting a lift into work with a colleague, at least he shouldn’t leave without me.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

I’m sick of Citroën BXs

Maybe it is Thursdays, maybe it is me and maybe it is Citroën BXs but I’ve just got home (at 9:30) having left work at 5. On the way the low hydraulic fluid light came on – along with the inevitable “STOP” light. I decided to limp to Halfords to pick up some LHM (the green lifeblood of any true Citroën). Limping was the operative word, the back end was sinking lower and lower and when I went to stop in the car park I discovered that the brakes had gone!

After pouring one bottle of LHM into the reservoir I started the engine and went to check the fluid level. At that point I noticed the green puddle growing under the car. My spirits sank like the poor BX’s suspension; in the space of a week I’ve gone from having one broken car to having two broken cars – I suppose it is a kind of progress.

I’m beginning to formulate a hypothesis – you only get one bargain of any model of car. My first Prelude doesn’t count as I paid proper money for it and had 5 great years from it (longer than any other car I’ve owned), the second one was inexpensive and possibly even better than the first and the third was a disappointment. Now with the Citroën the first one was pretty good and the second one looked like it would be even better. Now I’m wondering if I shouldn’t have bought something different.

Monday, 19 November 2007

European Car of the Year 2008

The votes have been counted and the winner announced in the annual European Car of the Year contest. You can read my predictions here. I’m quite pleased that I predicted the Fiat 500’s victory but that is the only thing I got right. The second place for the Mazda 2 came as a complete surprise.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Meet the new boss…

… same as the old boss.

Having spent the best part of the last two years with a white Citroën BX you would think that I would fancy a change. So I went out and bought another white Citroën BX. I didn’t go out and choose a white BX; rather a friend of a friend had one that was surplus to requirements. It is 3 years newer than the old car and has done just over 50,000 miles rather than just under 150,000. Unlike the old car, which is a generously equipped 19TRS with a big engine, the new one is pretty the BX14TE St Tropez – near the bottom of the range. Instead of enjoying the torque of the big engine loping along in the high top gear of the automatic transmission I have a small-ish 1.4 litre engine and a very low-geared manual transmission. Instead of infra red central locking I have a different key for doors and ignition and have to unlock each one individually. Steering is manual and takes nearly 4 turns to go lock to lock where the old car with power assistance needs just less than 3 turns.

One of the biggest shocks was the reliability of starting with the manual choke. Just pull it out, turn the key and it starts. Compare that with fiddling round, wondering if you should pump the accelerator and the general uncertainty of the worn out old automatic choke and it is far better. The second shock is the effort needed to turn the wheel; no lazy swinging from lock to lock with the car at a standstill and the engine running. How did people ever consider this acceptable? I don’t like the clutch – like so many clutches the pedal travel is too long and the arc does not correspond with the natural movement of the human ankle. The gear lever action is typically older French car, slightly floppy and vague but quick, flickable and easy. I have also satisfied myself that the left foot can easily find the brake pedal (at least they haven’t changed – still the same short-travel pedal) and the clutch pedal is not necessary for changing gear on the move.

As you might expect there are a few things that need attention. The wheels need balancing, or something as there is a perceptible wobble through the wheel. A new steering wheel would be nice as the old one is breaking up possibly because of the grip required to turn the wheel at low speed or full lock. There are a couple of scratches that could do with touching up and the driver’s sun visor doesn’t’ want to stay up. On the whole it does carry its years well, which hopefully means that a few more years won’t be a problem.

I’ll try and post some pictures soon.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Time for a change

The trick to running a banger is to judge the point at which it is about to expire and find a replacement before you are left stranded at the roadside. My own judgement is not quite perfected; I underestimated by between 24 and 48 hours the amount of life left in my old Citroën BX.

For some time the cooling system has been leaking slowly. My solution was to keep topping it up as required and since the rate of topping up was modest I thought it was a fix that would keep me going until January. I would then have taken advantage of the post-Christmas lull in the secondhand car market to find something to keep me going for another couple of years. But some instinct told me that I didn’t have that much time and when it turned out that a friend of a friend had an old car they no longer needed, I was able to do a deal and I pick the car up tomorrow.

In the meantime my car appeared to soldier on without fault or complaint. I was looking forward to maybe even selling the car and recovering some of the cost of the new one. What a great plan it was; until yesterday evening when the low coolant light came on when I wanted to drive home. I was able to top up the radiator from supplies I was carrying and thought that would be the end of the matter. Five minutes later the light came on again and I stopped to top the radiator up, after all it was probably only an air lock in the system caused by filling too quickly the first time. Resuming my journey, barely 5 more minutes passed before the same thing happened again and as I had exhausted my supply of coolant I had no choice but to try and get home. By avoiding traffic and avoiding the need to go very quickly I made it home but it was a stressful business, listening for any sign of impending disaster, not something I want to experience again. If only the fault had appeared today I would have been able to keep all my work commitments, had it manifested itself tomorrow it would have barely registered as an inconvenience.

It was a very sad ending to a day that had been thoroughly pleasant. The morning had been crisp with a low-lying fog over Warwick. My mid day journey took me up the Fosse Way from Wellesbourne to the roundabout where it crosses the A425 Leamington to Southam road. I had the window open to admit cool, fresh air, I had the heater directed to keep my feet warm, I had a respectable turn of speed and I had one of the best drives that old BX has ever given me.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Association of British Drivers responds to Dispatches: Bottleneck Britain

The ABD issued a press release in response to Monday night’s Channel 4 documentary.

"Channel 4 did a good job showing that many ordinary people are fed up of the way that motorists are treated by the authorities and are ready to make a stand against parking restrictions, speed cameras and charging schemes," said the ABD's Nigel Humphries. "But the programme failed utterly to deal with the arguments for and against road pricing. Instead, it weakly took the Government line that road pricing was the inevitable solution to congestion but that this is tough to sell to a cynical public."

Naturally it is pleasing to see my views echoed by such an obvious authority.

The ABD also pointed out the following points missing from the program:

• Traffic levels into city centres like Manchester are static and falling and have been for years. Congestion has been increased in such places by deliberately obstructive measures like bus lanes, traffic lights and road closures.

• Traffic growth is concentrated on major out of town routes where the charges suggested on the programme were minimal and public transport alternatives non-existent.

• The motorist already pays £45bn in tax and is getting a raw deal on transport

• Singapore, shown as an example of road pricing, is a small island with one city and a splendid, comprehensive mass transit system.

• Diversion effects of tolling as drivers change their behaviour to reduce costs, were not considered

"The bottom line is that road pricing is grossly wasteful to collect, massively inconvenient to pay, worrying from a civil liberties viewpoint and has to be punitive before it can have any impact on traffic levels," continued Humphries. "Its a political non starter - punitive, regressive and unfair taxes on transport will damage the economy and quality of life of British citizens far more than the congestion they purport to remove."

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Geared up

I was reading through this week’s Autocar, which featured a full road test of the BMW 123D coupé. Now I’m no BMW fan but the 123D looks like it has an awful lot going for it. Because I had plenty of time on my hands I studied the technical detail of the car very closely. Looking at the gear ratios I spotted something unusual; the fifth gear ratio was 1:1. It was a clear reminder and indicator that the BMW has an old-fashioned front-engine, rear-wheel drive layout. I wish there were more cars like it.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

In print - A view on the Honda CR-V

A week or two back I drove the new Honda CR-V as part of The Independent's regular motoring feature, The Verdict. It was a welcome opportunity to try something new and I was interested to see how it compared with the original CR-V which I drove some years ago. There isn't much I want to say about it at the moment - I'd rather you read the review I wrote for the paper. My comments are near the bottom of the page.

One thing I did like and appreciate was the (optional) reversing camera, which was activated when reverse gear was selected and gave a wide-angle view from the back bumper on the sat-nav screen. For a long time I thought having a camera would be useful for reversing but I've never actually tried a car with it before. It works very well and I think it is more useful than parking sensors.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Dispatches – Bottleneck Britain

On British television tonight on Channel 4 was an interesting documentary on the state of British roads. Are we headed for gridlock and what can be done about it? Because my viewing was interrupted by a telephone call and because the program was so interesting I watched it twice thanks to the Channel 4 +1 service on digital television.

The message appeared to be that road pricing is necessary to both encourage people to modify their behaviour and to pay for improvements in public transport, which is hailed as the cure for all our ills. Now I may be mistaken but there if the revenue from road pricing is necessary to pay for improvements in infrastructure then isn’t there a danger that if it actually succeeds in reducing the number of people driving at peak times it will fail to raise enough money to make the necessary changes.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Classic Motor Show 2007

Although I don’t go to lots of classic car shows throughout the year I try never to miss the annual Classic Motor Show at the NEC, just outside Solihull (it is misleading to refer to the NEC, Birmingham). It fills four of the NEC’s exhibition halls and attracts a variety of clubs and dealers who all do a great job of bringing along interesting machinery. Apologies for the lack of pictures but I’ve never managed to take decent pictures at one of these shows.

A personal favourite was the Bristol Owners Club who brought along the 406S - a special, short-chassis version of the 406 saloon with bodywork in the style of the Bristol 404 (there was a 404 next to it for comparative purposes and an early 411 at the back of the stand looking as sober, purposeful and handsome as only a 411 can). The 406S was one of two short-chassis 4060s made by Bristol – the other receiving a low, 2-seat body by Zagato.

Other favourites included a 1969 Plymouth Road Runner on the Classic American magazine stand. As with most, if not all, cars on display it was spotlessly clean and beautifully presented; a beautiful example of one of my favourite muscle cars. Another big V8-powered coupe that I yearned for was a stunning 2-tone Rover 3.5 litre coupé otherwise known as the P5B.
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It is the interior and dashboard of the P5B that I particularly love although the styling and engine are good as well.

If you wanted to wallow - or just take a quick dip - in nostalgia the show is a good place to do so. I saw a Mk1 Ford Fiesta like one owned by my parents and a yellow Mk1 VW Golf like the one owned by my best friend’s family. So many memories of childhood days out…
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That was one of the nicer things about this show; it was nice to see basic models not just the sporting or luxury variants of popular cars. Everyone knows about the Talbot Sunbeam Lotus but I had forgotten about the 1.0 litre basic version (and how basic it is). Ford Capris were well represented and while the 3 litre and 2.8injection models were well represented there were also lesser 1.6 and 2-litre versions – including a 2 litre V4 mark 1. How simple, basic and insubstantial those popular old cars seem now. Conversely, are new cars overstuffed and un-necessarily complicated?

Another nice thing to see was interesting details that I’d not previously noticed. There was a Citroën GS and I realised that the radio was between the seats and the handbrake was on the dashboard. I admired the woodwork instrument pod of the Mercedes-Benz 600 and 220SE coupe. I had forgotten how small and neat the Suzuki SC100 is and I still don’t know why but I do think the FD-series Vauxhall Victor is an incredibly handsome car.

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Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Roadsters Remembered: Honda S2000

With summer well and truly over it seemed time to bring this series to a conclusion. I wanted to save the best until last and the Honda is my favourite of all the roadsters I’ve driven. From the moment I settled behind the wheel I felt at home, the cabin was close fitting without being cramped. The pedals, wheel and gear lever were all perfectly located and the digital instruments were a model of clarity.

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Going slowly the S2000 was as easy to drive as any Honda Civic. Over serious bumps the body felt amazingly rigid, maybe the ride was a little on the firm side but it was controlled rather than harsh. The engine pulled freely and strongly with increasing vigour as the revs increased. The steering felt linear in its weighting and response, the gear lever had a beautiful action and even at 100mph I was perfectly comfortable with the roof lowered.

I have enjoyed all the open cars I have driven. Any of them would serve admirably as occasional, fair weather transport. Only the S2000 felt like a serious car that could be used everyday. It might not be cheap but I’m convinced the S2000 is worth every penny.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

More exciting Classic Motor Show news

Back in my student days, just over 10 years ago, I was a frequent visitor to the Prescott hill-climb course in Gloucestershire. If you want to watch motor sport at close quarters and don’t mind that only one car is on the course at a time I would recommend it to you. It was a perfect venue for watching old cars being driven because you were so much closer to the sights, sounds and smells and you could see the drivers working hard at the steering and gear lever.

The cars that left the most lasting impressions were the mid-engined Formula Junior cars from the 1950s with motorcycle engines; the 2-cylinder 3-wheel Morgan Aeros; and the Bugattis. Prescott is home of the Bugatti Owners Club, which probably accounts for the fact that such rare cars were a common sight. Over the years I have seen a good selection of Bugattis from stark racers like the Type-35 to luxurious touring cars like the Type-57. One model I have not seen is the Type-41 Royale.

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Only six Royales were ever made and only 3 were sold because of the economic climate in the early 1930s. At 21 feet long and 7 feet wide it is a giant among motorcars. Some years back the Donnington Collection commissioned a faithful recreation of a Royale and this will be on display at the classic motor show.

“The car is so big that it requires a specialist moving company even to bring it into the hall” said Classic & Sports Car’s publishing director Stuart Forrest. “We’ve driven the car in our latest issue, and we were delighted to have the opportunity to work with the Donington Collection, where the car can normally be seen, to display it on our stand at the Classic Motor Show. It is an incredible car to see, and there are so few of these vehicles in the world that the chance to do so at the NEC this weekend is not to be missed.”

The show runs from Friday 9th to Sunday 11th November with tickets available on the door. For information on the Classic Motor Show, visit

Monday, 5 November 2007

Volvo celebrates 80 years

At the 2007 Classic Motor Show this weekend (9th – 11th November, Birmingham’s NEC) Volvo will celebrate its 80th anniversary with a display of historic vehicles. In recent times Volvo has made a great effort to (successfully, I think) shake off its rather stuffy image. For years the square-rigged 144, 240 and 740 models provided safe, sensible transport for smug middle-class families. But now Volvos manage to be both safe and stylish. To emphasise a tradition of stylish the emphasis is on convertible models:

Volvo PV655 Norrmalm drophead coupe 1933 ­– A magnificent one-off, generally considered to be the world’s most beautiful Volvo.
Volvo 445 Valbo convertible 1953 – Built on the 445 light truck chassis, this is one of five survivors out of 10 originally built.
Volvo Sport 1956 – Often referred to as the P1900 this nice sportscar with its original plastic body carries chassis number 1.
Volvo 122S Amazon Coune convertible 1963 – The only rolling example of the five open Amazons built by Belgian carrossier Jacques Coune.
Volvo 480 convertible prototype 1990 – One of the two prototypes built by Volvo Car B.V. as design and feasibility studies.
Volvo C70 T5 convertible 2008 – The current open top Volvo in the model range is offered with a broad range of engine alternatives.
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I’ve got my ticket to the Classic Motor Shows and I’m looking forward to it this year.

We’re not giving up our cars – apparently

Despite ever increasing fuel costs people are not being put off driving, according to a survey commissioned by insurance company esure. As with all such surveys it is not without a touch of hyperbole claiming “a massive majority of motorists in the UK (55%) would never part with their cars in favour of public transport - regardless of cost”. Now if you ask me 55% is not a massive majority, surely it is just over half.

Other interesting “facts” revealed by the survey include one in three people not monitoring the prices in their area. Just over a third of people (37%) wouldn’t consider replacing their car with something more frugal. Rather worryingly (unless you work for the oil companies or are the Chancellor of the Exchequer) 79% haven’t changed their attitude to buying fuel despite the threat of huge price rises. But what will changing buying habits do? When so much of the price of fuel at the pumps is tax retailers don’t have much room to compete on price and since people have to buy fuel there is little incentive for retailers to employ that strategy.

Mike Pickard, Head of Risk and Underwriting at esure, said: "esure's poll shows that public transport may never overtake people's preference for their own cars, whatever the cost. Nowadays, cars are clearly seen as a necessity that people refuse to give up. For many people the absence of cheap public transport means a car is essential in their lives and virtually any price will be paid for petrol.”

He has a point, the inconvenience or absence of public transport makes driving about the only way a lot of us can get to work to earn a living.

"There are simple ways that motorists can prevent their cars from guzzling up their pennies. Driving steadily and carefully, with no excessive braking or speeding, will not only give you more miles for your money, it could also reduce the likelihood of making a claim on your car insurance."

It is easy to forget that high fuel costs actually hit people twice, both in terms of personal transport and transporting the things people buy. Strange as it may sound I don’t actually object to the high level of tax levied on fuel, it is surely the fairest way to tax motoring. What would be nice is a reduction in motoring’s other costs. Perhaps esure should issue a press release promising to reduce everyone’s insurance premiums.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Picture of the Week – Bristol 603

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Several years ago I worked in Knightsbridge, London. One of the fringe benefits for any car enthusiast was the number of interesting cars in the area. HR Owen had a showroom up the road where a selection of Ferraris could be found, there was a Rolls-Royce Camargue that parked round the corner but it was the Bristol 603 that always caught my eye. It looked like it was well used although I only saw it being driven once, by an attractive blonde lady.

The 603 was launched in 1976 to replace the 411, mechanically they were more or less identical but the 603 had a controversial new body – the passenger compartment was wider and more spacious but did look a little too wide for the rest of the body.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Automatic Choice

Today was in many ways a perfect motoring day. The weather was cool but dry, the sky clear and visibility good. Even better, I was able to travel on single carriageway A and B-roads. While the roads were practically on my doorstep they were unfamiliar. Under those circumstances it is good to have automatic transmission. There are those who say that you can’t be serious about driving if you like automatics but they don’t know what they are talking about.

Automatic transmission encourages left braking without having to worry about any other pedals. A little practice with the right foot and the transmission selector lever means you will never be stuck in the wrong gear. The automatic transmission in the Citroën BX isn’t the best but the control lever allows you to get the best from it. Lots of transmissions allow the lever to be pushed from the drive position into neutral, something that could have disastrous results for the engine if done whilst driving quickly. In the Citroën the lever can’t be pushed into neutral without squeezing a button on the lever.

The same button must be held to lock out third and top gear but it is useful to hold second gear for roundabouts and tight corners. Between drive and 3rd there is nothing to inhibit free movement of the lever, which is great for overtaking or fast bends. Someone within Citroën clearly understood how to get the best out of automatic transmissions.

It was the automatic transmission that did so much to aid my enjoyment of today’s motoring. I also appreciated the Citroën’s suspension as the roads weren’t always as smooth as they could be. If only the steering was sharper, how much more fun I could have had.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Greens get their knickers in a twist

An environmental group who’s aim is “to provide clear, easily understood advice about choosing and using cars in a more environmentally considerate way”, has issued a press release claiming that expensive cars are being registered as minicabs to avoid the London congestion charge. Apparently the congestion charge was presented as an environmental measure, which is odd as I thought it was supposed to cut down the number of cars entering central London. Although in the future it will be based on carbon dioxide emissions.

Now maybe the rich are clever and prudent enough to employ such cunning tactics but I think there might be another explanation. The cars could be legitimate private hire vehicles. After all there must be plenty of people who want to travel around London in a prestigious chauffeur-driven car. How else should these be registered if not under private hire classification? Of course the Mercedes-Benz SLs, Aston Martin DB7 and Jaguar XK are odd choices but that’s only 10 cars.

I’m fed up with environmentalists bleating about how expensive cars are killing the planet. It sounds more like mean and envious individuals wanting to deprive everyone of expensive cars because they themselves see no point in such things.