Saturday, 6 December 2008

Weekend part 2

While I was down in Somerset I took the trouble to visit the Haynes Motor Museum at Sparkford. Established by John Haynes, of workshop manual fame, the collection is wonderfully diverse and covers everything from the dawn of motoring to the present day.

My description could make the museum sound somewhat disorganised and lacking in purpose. It is, in fact, very nicely laid out with cars in sensible thematic groups.

You enter the main part of the museum through the “Red Room”, where every car is painted the same colour. The idea, allegedly, is that by having a lot of cars with near identical paint the visitor can more clearly consider line, form and proportion.

From Haynes Motor Museum

There are bubble cars but about the smallest “proper” cars are things like the Renault 4CV, Fiat 600 and this Honda.

From Haynes Motor Museum

It was nice to see three iconic Citroëns together, a Traction, D-series and SM.

From Haynes Motor Museum

Other double chevron cars included a lovely little 5CV.

From Haynes Motor Museum

As well as the corrugated shed that is the evergreen 2CV.

From Haynes Motor Museum

If you prefer your cars low and impractical there is the utterly gorgeous, early De Tomaso Pantera.

From Haynes Motor Museum

Or if you like luxurious grand tourers there is a Ferrari 400i.

From Haynes Motor Museum

The Ford Cortina is more down-to-earth. In fact this is the most basic 1.3-litre, two-door version of the mark four ‘tina. Funnily enough there is a dark blue car of exactly the same type (2-door, 1.3) local to my home. I wonder how many others there are?

From Haynes Motor Museum

A mark-three Ford Fiesta surely belongs in the car park and not behind a velvet rope. This is one of the experimental Fiestas fitted with a three-cylinder, two stroke engine.

From Haynes Motor Museum

I found this Bristol 403 impossible to resist. Sleek and spacious the Bristol was incredibly advanced for its day, with integrated bumpers mounted on rubber to absorb impacts, bonded in rear window and impressively low aerodynamic drag. With a 100bhp version of the BMW-derived two-litre, six cylinder engine the 403 could exceed 100mph. It could also carry four people, plenty of luggage and had decent ventilation. All of which makes it easy to understand why it was priced to compete with Aston Martins and Bentleys.

From Haynes Motor Museum

All of which can only give a taste of the breadth of the collection. If I get the opportunity I’ll post more photos.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Weekend away

I travelled down to Somerset to visit a friend for the weekend. Lovely part of the world, but transport links down there are a bit variable. I didn’t quite realise that the M32 dumps you right in the middle of Bristol. At least it wasn’t difficult to get through the city and on to the A37. The A37 looks like a main road but it winds up and down through villages and the speed limit keeps changing. Then again there was plenty of mist and fog so going fast wasn’t really an option. For a while radio 3 entertained me, first with a concert from the Barbican by the BBC Symphony Orchestra of Paul Hindenmith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of themes by Carl Maria von Weber and then a programme about the Goliards, medieval musical satirists. The only problem was that I felt I should concentrate on the road and not the radio so the instrument was switched off. A sobering reminder of the importance of concentration was delivered a while later when I crawled past an accident, evidently caused by someone pulling out of a side road when there was someone approaching on the main road. Shortly after that, rising out of the mist, was the almost surreal sight of a massive pair of (probably) Lucas P100 headlamps, flanking the grille of a 1930s car. Probably an Alvis or Lagonda all I could make out were large wheels, sweeping running boards and the hood irons of the convertible roof. A car like that looks as though it belongs in the fog although I’m not sure I’d fancy being the driver. A moments contemplation on the crude heating and ventilation arrangements, not to mention - very probably - cable operated drum brakes with no servo followed.

Oh and as I drove I saw signs for both Bath and Wells. Can I be the only person who sees those two place names and thinks of Blackadder’s famous baby-eating bishop?

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Changing seasons

Just a quick update, not motoring related but something that occurred to me tonight.

I know plenty of people moan about winter but I have decided that I love cold winter evenings. There is something wonderful about escaping the stuffy warmth of the office for the cool, freshness of the evening. And little things like the comfort of wrapping a thick scarf round your neck or walking more briskly to keep the cold out.

I'm pretty sure that C.S. Lewis (one of my favourite authors) had plenty to say on the subject of the weather and seasons. There is something satisfying about the combination of constant change between winter and summer and the fact that it is a regularly repeating pattern. Lewis even created characters who enjoyed the weather possibly as a lesson to remind the reader that you cannot change the weather so you are as well to enjoy it and so, with life, there are many things that we cannot change so the only thing we can change is ourselves to try and smile in the face of adversity. Not always easy, not always possible, but I'm sure a positive outlook is more useful than a negative one.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Watching Top Gear

I'm afraid I can't resist the charms of BBC television's Top Gear. Today they are testing the Dodge Challenger, which I have a massive soft spot for and seeing one on the move on the small screen just makes it look even more appealing. Actually seeing it is only half the story, hearing it is even bigger. It makes me wonder how the Challenger drives and how it would compare to the Ford Mustang. The 'stang was crude but both effective and entertaining but it did have competition suspension and incredible, racing brakes, not to mention a supercharged engine. Maybe I should drive one of the racing tuned Challengers that Chrysler offers in the USA only to people with racing licenses.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

FIA Madness?

There seems to be a lot of fuss made about Ferrari pulling out of Formula 1 if plans to introduce a standard engine for all teams come to fruition. You can’t blame them, I imagine old man Ferrari would spin right out of his grave I the F1 team used an engine that came from outside Maranello. What interests me is that there are members of the public who think that standard engines are a good idea as it provides a more level playing field for the driver’s championship.

You can see where they are coming from, there are plenty of one-make championships but is there any way of being certain that the chap who is best in Formula Ford is a better driver than the fellow who can master a TVR Tuscan (not that I imagine Tuscans race anymore but I recall they sorted men from boys when they did)? A standard car does not tell you who the better driver is, only who is best in that car!

Unless there is room for parallel driver and constructor’s championships; one weekend drivers race in standardised cars and the next week they race for team glory in cars that suffer the least possible regulation on their construction. What I have in mind is similar to an idea advanced by my friend Simon. The schedule of race fixtures is known and the length of the race is also known before the start of the season and aside from a stipulation that the top six finishers must complete the race distance (if it is 70 laps all finishers must do 70 to score points) and the fact that the cars must fit in a notional box (say, 14-feet by 6-feet by 4 feet tall). Everything else would be left to the imagination of the designer.

It should make for an interesting grid, especially if all the teams do something different; so we see front and rear engines, enclosed bodies and open wheels, moving and fixed aerodynamic surfaces, small, medium or large engines with or without forced induction and possibly exotic fuels that may or may not need replacing every couple of laps. I think it would be a cross between the heyday of Can-Am racing and the Wacky Races – I’m certain that for anyone who loves engineering it would be a lot more interesting than the current season!

Monday, 27 October 2008

Grand day out 1 – Donington Collection

I decided to take a day to go to the Donington Grand Prix Collection. It is the largest collection of Grand Prix cars in the world, apparently. Once you are inside the collection seems to go on almost forever with halls full of cars and other memorabilia. The oldest cars are, I think, the two 60 hp Mercédès while the collection features examples from every era of racing right up to the present day.

One interesting thing is the noise; there isn’t any except that made by visitors. It is nice to see the temptation to go “interactive” and “multimedia” has been resisted. My experience today might not be typical but as it is half-term there were plenty of families in the museum and everyone seemed to be enjoying the exhibits without needing audio-visual stimulatiion. Somehow even quite young children seemed calm and well-behaved giving the collection a much most agreeable atmosphere. Some museums give the impression of being little more than glorified adventure playgrounds.

It is difficult to pinpoint a favourite exhibit as there is so much to see and I you have ever followed motor racing (I don’t really bother anymore to be honest) then nearly every exhibit will make some sort o connection, whether it is a famous historic machine like the bimotore Alfa Romeo or 1980s Williams and McLaren racing cars driven by Mansel, Senna, Prost, etc.

If motor cycles are your thing there are plenty of those too, including some almost toy-like Yamaha racers and a fine collection of vintage cycles. One of the most eye-catching is an early NSU cycle. Car enthusiasts may associate the Necarsulm firm with the futuristic but flawed RO80 or the unusual, rear-engined small cars but the company made bikes too.

It took me over an hour to get round the museum; a good length of time as I felt I had seen a lot. The only slightly negative criticism I’d make is that to get out you have to double back on yourself. On the other hand, if you want to go back for a second look at something at least you get the chance.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Catching Up

It has been busy lately hence the blog has not been as updated as often as I would like. Not that I’m complaining, I like the constant stream of activity, writing helps me to keep up with the news and there is the never-ending pleasure of seeing the finished result on the (web) page.

To be really thorough would mean going back to the SMMT Test Day in May. Two cars proved to be unexpectedly pleasing; the Fiat Grande Punto 1.4 T-jet and the Audi A4 3.2 quattro. One shared characteristic was that both cars seemed generally good without offering any singularly defining characteristic or area or excellence. Of the two the Audi was perhaps understandably the more impressive, feeling impressively sure-footed but – surprisingly - slightly less well assembled than the Citroen C5.

Friday, 3 October 2008

What’s outside today? VW Polo Bluemotion

I’ve been lucky enough to get the Polo on extended loan for a few months. As far as I can tell it is an arrangement with few downsides. I get a smart new car to use, one that should be pretty cheap to run as well and I have to compile regular reports for my editor.

So far I’ve been pretty impressed with the Bluemotion, I’ve had it for a week now and living with it seems pretty painless. The first journey I undertook was a drive from Newbury back to Warwickshire. This included the usual stop-start motorway traffic you get on a Friday evening but I got home in decent time and feeling quite fresh. As time passes, however, some of the novelty is wearing off and I’m finding one or two irritating quirks. The brake pedal has a lot of travel – you push down and down, and down before something happens. Similarly, there are times when acceleration is not as readily available as you might want it. When the turbo kicks in you can feel the swell of torque carrying you along but if you’re rolling up to a junction in second gear and decide there is time to nip out the immediacy of response just isn’t there. Obviously the solution is to change into first as you approach junctions but it would be nice if the engine did something usefull between its 900rpm tickover and 2,000rpm when the turbo cuts in.

The whole point of the Bluemotion is economy and on that score it appears to be doing well. A week at the wheel has used barely half a tank of diesel. At this rate it could be a while before I discover how much it costs to fill the tank. Then again, diesel is such disgusting stuff the less often I have to come in touch with it the better.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Looking back to go forward

One of the things I enjoy about reporting motoring news is spotting ideas that have been tried before. Last week I was writing about the Mercedes-Benz C-Class BlueEFFICIENCY range. One feature of the frugal Merc that didn’t warrant a mention in the article was the back-to-front layout of the engine.

Just about every car engine has the drive for the camshaft at the opposite end of the engine to the clutch and flywheel. For the new diesel motor Mercedes placed the camshaft drive at the back of the engine. Justification for the layout is to provide a little more clearance under the bonnet for pedestrian protection.

Mercedes isn’t pretending that the layout is a new invention but it did remind me that several engines back in the early days of motoring used a similar configuration. The example that comes to mind immediately is AC’s long-lived 2.0-litre six-cylinder motor. The one question I have over the layout is what happens if you need to change the chain that drives the cam shaft?

Sunday, 14 September 2008

BX update

Fourwheelsteer’s faithful if sometimes fallible Citroen BX has received some long overdue care from the good people of Preservation Garage Services (PGS) in Warwick. The same people who did such a good job of looking after my old BX performed a service and changed the cam belt and the car seems better as a result. There may be nothing measurable – it is too early to see if fuel economy has improved and I’ve not tried to measure acceleration or top speed – but the engine sounds sweeter and feels more willing.

A 1,360cc engine in a large-ish hatchback body might not seem like the perfect recipe for driving enjoyment but the BX only weighs 900kg so the 72bhp motor does not have to work too hard. The power unit is abetted in its task by a five-speed gearbox with ratios perfectly judged to make the most of the engine’s efforts. Although the overall gearing feels rather low – there is no rev counter to verify this assumption – there are no noticeable gaps between gears. The result is that there is always a gear that is right for the occasion.

Sadly, the merits of well-spaced gear ratios are being abandoned by manufacturers for the sake of fuel consumption and carbon dioxide figures. Several times this year I have read boasts of making the top three gears in a five-speed gearbox higher whilst leaving first and second alone – what can this do except leave a big gap between second and third gear? It probably fits the strictures of the standard test procedure perfectly but our roads are not standardised and on the road there will be times when the choice is stream or strain, neither of which is ideal.

This isn’t a new problem; the industry has been producing oddly geared cars for as long as it has been producing cars but it can make a big difference between enjoyment and frustration when driving. If you want a car with perfect gearing all the time surely you need some sort of continuously variable transmission.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Thinking of buying something different

I know my trusty Citroën BX will not last forever and the prospect of promotion at work has set my mind to thinking of buying a different car. Watching the historic motor racing at Oulton Park last weekend and a passenger ride in a friend’s MG Midget has left me hankering for a classic.

A Midget probably wouldn’t do, I would like something that is capable of sustaining a decent motorway cruising speed and that I can drive for a couple of hours at a time. Although I don’t need to use a car for commuting I would need something happy to live outside in all weathers that could be used every weekend without demanding too much maintenance. Such maintenance as is required should not be so complex as to be beyond my modest mechanical ability, nor too expensive if I ask others to carry it out. Other practical considerations should, I suppose, include reasonable fuel consumption – ideally no worse than 20mpg. Emotional considerations, for want of a better expression, are that I would like something good to drive. A decent turn of speed would be good but not necessarily essential; what is more important is tactility; steering that is slop-free, accurate and if possible high-geared; similarly I’d like a gear lever that moves with slickness and speed, ideally controlling a well-spaced set of ratios; pedals should be well-spaced for heel-and-toe action and hopefully not needing either excessive pedal travel or undue effort. I’d also like something stylish – foolish, I know.

I imagine a two-litre Bristol would be perfect; sadly, such things are beyond my pocket and possibly require more specialised care and attention than I could give. Only one car in my experience has come close to meeting my requirements; the MGB roadster. I don’t think I’d want a roadster, a GT would be better for my needs, leaving only a few doubts about whether I could cope with just two seats. Other possibilities I have considered, without knowing if they are sensible or not, are the Triumph GT6 and Volvo Amazon.

There are two questions I need to answer. Firstly, is it a mistake to subject a classic to the sort of treatment I’d give it; i.e. using it twice a week whilst keeping it outside when not in use? Secondly, what cars would you suggest, given a notional budget of about £2,000?

Friday, 29 August 2008

Weekend update Part 4

Time for a little light entertainment before the weekend. I am quite pleased with some of the photos I took at the Gold Cup. Static photos are quite easy to take but I’m particularly fond of this scene with a Lister Jaguar.

Action photos are more difficult. I know a poor workman blames his tools but action pictures don’t always focus in time and there is an annoying delay between pressing the button and the picture being taken – time that can make the difference between capturing the moment and missing it completely. One that did come out well was this scene of three Lotus Cortinas cornering hard at Cascades corner.

Sometimes the pictures were just a little too small or slightly out of focus. This picture of a Ford Falcon illustrates the problem.

Even more depressing is the perfectly framed shot that is completely out of focus. This Chevrolet Corvette was an interesting subject as it had been hastily repaired after an accident, you can make out the blue “gaffer tape” but the detail is lost.

Then there are the photos that were taken way too soon…

… a little too soon …

or too late.

I can’t remember what happened here but it was probably quite dramatic given the smoke hanging in the air…

But sometimes, if you’re too slow on the button, all you get is a picture of an empty stretch of tarmac.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Weekend catch up part 3

Time to cover some of the highlights of the Gold Cup weekend. One of my favourite things about the Gold Cup is the support from local classic car clubs who bring all manner of interesting machinery. I failed to photograph a very tidy chrome-bumper Alfa Romeo Alfasud but whoever owns it deserves a medal for keeping it in such great condition.

To start with, the Rolls-Royce enthusiasts club gathered some lovely cars, including a good many series-1 Silver Shadows but my heart was more taken by this Corniche.

If you prefer older cars there was this lovely Thrupp and Maberley 20/25 saloon.

It looked imposing although I noticed a distinct lack of rear-seat leg room. This is certainly not a R-R in which to be chauffeured. Even more interesting was this Silver Cloud.

According to the notice in the window this was a development vehicle and had been fitted with an experimental V8 engine (although I believe it now has the production V8).

It wasn’t just Rolls-Royces, Bentleys were well represented too. I think this is an S-series Bentley Flying Spur Continental but I’ve never seen one with suicide rear doors before.

My favourite Bentley was this one.

Not sure what model it is but I love the lines of this two-door coupé. I’m not sure I have captured its best angle but the cars were so tightly packed it was difficult to get back far enough to line up the photos – especially as I didn’t want to risk scratching someone’s pride and joy.

Lots of Jaguars turned up including plenty of XKs:

The last car was parked in the paddock rather than on open display. Whenever you go to a historic race meeting it is always worth having a look at the cars being prepared for racing, not only do you see interesting machinery like the Jaguar above but on the whole it is a friendly and relaxed place to be. Just remember not to get in the way of anyone working hard to prepare a car for racing.

Jaguars were also present on the track, including Peter Lanfranchi’s standard-looking Series-1 E-type and Steve Tandy’s Lightweight E.

The lightweight E-types did very well in their race but smaller, lighter TVRs with big, American Ford V8 engines seemed to go faster.

In fact plenty of almost prosaic machinery was giving the expensive stuff a run for its money. MGBs, for example, can go far faster than you’d think possible.

I hope this hasn’t been a pictorial overload; I’d like to finish with a personal favourite sighting. It is a Bristol 400 in very tidy condition but looking like a car that is used and enjoyed as it should be.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Weekend catch up Part 2

This blog entry could be subtitled “The triumph of public transport” because I was truly impressed by how easy it was to make the journey up to Manchester.

It all started because my own aged Citroën BX was not in a fit state to undertake the journey. It is in need of a good service (which it will receive shortly) and in any case it is not the most comfortable long-distance conveyance. As a result I took a look at National Rail’s web site for trains from Leamington Spa to Manchester Piccadilly. Not only is there a reasonably frequent service but the cost of travelling in the middle of the day is surprisingly reasonable. By booking ahead – two days before my departure, hardly an ordeal – I purchased first class tickets for just over £40. The premium over a standard ticket was well worth it when you consider that first class passengers get free drinks, a sandwich and a free copy of The Times. The larger seat and reduced crowding almost seem like incidental bonuses.

The final triumph for public transport came on my return to Leamington. I only had a short wait for a bus to take me back to my village. You could almost believe the bus timetable was supposed to dovetail neatly with the train times.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Weekend catch up Part 1

I spent the weekend up in Manchester with my friends Simon (of MG Midget fame) and Ally. What a wonderful weekend it was, catching up, chatting, messing about with Si’s sports car, enjoying tasty food and taking in some motor racing at Oulton Park.

Over the next few days I’ll try and post some of the photos I took of the racing and of the interesting cars parked on the hill overlooking Cascades. Before then I need to share a few observations:

1. The noise limit seems to have been tightened, some cars did not sound as ear-splitting or dramatic as I remembered from past years.
2. What happened to the pre-war cars? Last year there was some pretty good racing from the vintage and post-vintage crowd.
3. Where have all the Jaguars gone? The first Gold Cup meeting I attended had XKs, C-types and D-types racing but they seem to have deserted the Gold Cup.
4. Digital photography of moving cars can be a bit hit and miss. I promise to share some of the more amusingly bad examples.

I’ll leave you with this picture from practice for the Guards Trophy race.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Motor Show Meets SMMT test day


One of the cars I drove but failed to photograph on the SMMT test day back in May was the Vauxhall Astra VXR Nurburgring. This was a serious oversight as it was a thoroughly impressive car.

Mostly the impression was of a huge amount of noise from the special Remus exhaust. Whenever rapid acceleration was called upon – something the VXR can muster in abundance – a deep, resonating growl came from the rear of the car. I also think there were some pops and bangs on a trailing throttle. With my sensible head on it all seemed a bit juvenile but it was rather good fun.

As far as it was possible to tell the Nurburgring could muster a fair degree of grip and steering control on the Millbrook hill circuit. How much was down to the basic virtues of the VXR and how much to the modifications made to the Nurburgring model I could not say as I’ve not yet driven a standard VXR. It was the eager turn-in to tight bends and the slingshot acceleration out of them that really impressed.

Other than that the VXR Nurburgring had a comfortable interior, apparently decent ride comfort and a level of refinement at speed that you wouldn’t credit from the noise made under acceleration.

For me it is vital that a hot hatch should be fun to drive. My current favourite hot hatch is the Renault Clio RenaultSport 197 but the Astra VXR Nurburgring runs it very close for fun and is probably more practical.
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Thursday, 31 July 2008

Favourite Motrshow Photos #1 Kia Kee


I wanted to do some posts about some of my favorte things at the motor show. The Kia Kee is definitly one of them; not only do I like the shape, which is an odd fusion of current Audi and mk1 Toyota Celica with Citroen BX c-pillars for good measure, but it is just the right size too. It looks neat, compact and quite unlike anything else on sale. Hopefully Kia will give it a great chassis, a good engine and a Kia-type price and warranty and not keep us waiting too long to put it in production.

Or maybe, like the lovely Lancia Fulvia concept of a few years ago, it will never reach full production. That would be a shame.
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Wednesday, 23 July 2008

British International Motor Show – oldies

It wasn’t just new cars at the motor show; there was the heritage pavilion, located outside and feeling a little like an afterthought. The choice of cars was superb but I think I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

Next to the heritage pavilion was a display of AA vehicles through the ages. My eye was caught particularly by the Morris Ital van. There can’t be many Itals of any sort left so it is quite nice to see one that looks cared for and it certainly isn’t the sort of thing you’d expect to see at a show for new cars.

Inside, I noticed but didn’t photograph a fine looking Mercedes-Benz 300SL gullwing and a certain internet magazine had a scrappy-looking mk3 Austin Allegro as “the worst car ever” on their stand. Frankly I think there are many worse cars than the “All Aggro” and it just demonstrates a lack of imagination on the part of whoever chose it.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

British International Motor Show 2008

What a day that was! There were some important lessons learned like, you can’t catch the 6:44 train to London if you leave my house at 6:28. I’ve also discovered that ExCeL is a long trek from London Marylebone and that there are no ticket barriers on the Docklands Light Railway.

More important, I’ve seen just how much hard work goes on getting the news from the motor show to the printed page or web site. I like to think I made my own contribution to reporting the news.

The big news was probably Lotus new 2+2 mid-engined car. For some reason Lotus hired a load of actors/models to dress up in identical suits and blank masks that hid their features, something about not being another face in the crowd. Whatever the reason it was very bizarre, like something out of Dr Who or a 1960s B-movie.

Other important stuff included the new Vauxhall Insignia, it looks smart and will probably sell well but it does seem like just another car – sorry Vauxhall. At the opposite end of the hall Ford was showing off the new Fiesta. Again, I’m not sure the Fiesta is a great leap forward but at least Ford have resisted the temptation to make it larger and heavier than the old Fiesta which represents some kind of progress.

What I found most interesting was the way Ford, Jaguar, Mazda and Land Rover occupied one end of the hall while Vauxhall, Chevrolet, SAAB, Cadillac and Hummer occupied the opposite end. I wonder whether the layout at the Ford end was selected before Jaguar-Land Rover was sold off to Tata? I also thought Vauxhall had the more elaborate and impressive show stand, with a giant iridescent partition wall and more Insignia than you could shake a stick at. By comparison Ford’s stand looked a little sparse and empty – sorry Ford.

Personal favourites: It was nice to see the Lexus LF-A and I can’t wait to drive it (come on Lexus, you’ve kept us waiting for too long). I also fell for the Morgan Life Car concept and both Hyundai’s rwd coupé and Kia’s Kee concept. In terms of cars you can actually buy, I found myself gazing fondly at the Chevrolet Epica – a firm favourite of a journalist friend. The trouble is there is so much to take in it all becomes a bit of a blur.

Is it worth going? That depends, if you’re a jaded and cynical motoring journo then you’ve probably seen it all before, read the press releases and forgotten half of it so there will be very little new stuff. If you want to see a variety of concept cars under one roof then it is a great place to go. There is also the opportunity to have a go in a Mazda or a Peugeot and to drift a Westfield. Children might be entertained by the characters from Disney-Pixar’s film Cars. And if you fancy a break from looking at cars there is a fine collection of motor boats and yachts moored outside.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Motor show ahead

The waiting is nearly over, tomorrow the British International Motor Show opens its doors to the press. What is more astonishing, for me at any rate, is the fact that I’ll be joining them.

I must admit I’m not usually the biggest fan of motor shows but press day should be a bit different. Plus there will be a fair few “firsts” at this show. I’m quite looking forward to having a closer look at the new Vauxhall Insignia and Ford’s latest Fiesta.

It even looks like I’ll have some work to do while I’m there. Don’t want to say too much but at least it should give the day a sense of purpose.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Writing is like…

Just a quick thought as I work to finish my latest news story. I’ve been pondering the writing process. It is rare for a story to spring, fully formed, from the keyboard. What you usually have are various key points either from the press release or other source material. Getting these parts to come together in a cohesive story is a lot like making pastry.

Bear with me if you’re unfamiliar with the process. You start with flour and fat together in a bowl and with your fingers start rubbing the flour into the fat. After a while you end up with flour-coated pieces of lard – it feels as though it will never become a pie. Keep going, however, and the mixture ends up resembling bread crumbs. Add water and suddenly the individual crumbs come together into a lump of pastry.

Somehow writing is the same – keep plugging away, re-hashing the facts and arranging the different key points and eventually something coherent emerges. I’m not sure how it happens (with words or food) but it is very satisfying when it does.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Another 4WS car to try

Just pouring over the details of the new BMW 7-series. As you would expect it comes with all the gadgets you could imagine. Without going into too many details it seems that one option will be Integral Active Steering, which provides up to 3-degrees of steering to the rear wheels. As you would expect the claim is of enhanced low-speed manoeuvrability with high-speed stability. Of course this is not the first time BMW offered four-wheel-steering – the 8-series, back in the early 1990s, was offered with rear axle kinematics which was a fancy term for 4WS.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Red letter day!

What a busy day, travelled down to Essex to drive a Ford Model T. Some things are worth making an effort to do and this was one of them. Although it was completely unlike anything I’ve ever driven it was (or could be, with practice) surprisingly easy to drive.

Just studying the Model T was an education. Here was a car that was not only affordable to buy but simple and robust. No need for specialist care – a competent blacksmith could probably make replacements for any metal part that broke. It is a world away from the elaboration of new cars and so much better for it.

Ford Model T

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Honda FR-V – now it is gone

Time I think to reflect on the Honda FR-V. On the whole I enjoyed driving it even though it was far removed from the type of car I would choose.

One thing that I wasn’t expecting was the performance, maybe not hot-hatch fast but certainly brisk. The engine was as good as one would expect from Honda and coupled to a 6-speed gearbox with delightfully close ratios and a snappy action. Mounting the lever on the dashboard might have been done in the name of leaving the floor clear but it also put the lever exactly where it should be – level with and less than a hand span away from the steering wheel. How many people, I wonder, will zip along in their FR-Vs revelling in the crisp performance as they keep the revs up? Alas, anyone who does will find a fly in the ointment – the engine does seem slow to respond to a closed throttle. Come off the accelerator to change gear and the revs will not fall away as quickly as you would hope.

Two final things should be said in praise of the engine. One is that it is a quiet companion unless you are wringing it out. As my long suffering passenger observed, you are aware that there is an engine running somewhere but it never intrudes. The other thing is the engine bay. Many people complain that modern engine bays are just acres of plastic trying to look like an engine. That is not how things are in the FR-V; you can see the engine and all the major components. As far as I can tell anything you might need to access (to check fluid levels, for example) is easily accessed. It is a joy to see an engine so honestly presented. Of course being a Honda you’ll never actually have to repair it but you could if you had to.

Returning to the subject of enthusiastic driving, the FR-V handles better than expected. The steering, I thought, felt a little odd with slightly inconsistent weight you could never be quite sure if the neat, leather-wrapped steering wheel was going to be light or heavy to the touch. Weighting aside the steering was accurate and responsive and the handling almost never gave cause for concern. Almost because I did manage to provoke a twitching lurch from the rear – but it had to be provoked and most drivers won’t be so silly. Other than that you couldn’t fault it, remarkable given the sheer height of the thing and even more so when you consider that it rode comfortably too.

Something should be said about the in car entertainment. I was initially critical of the sound it made but careful adjustment of bass and treble sorted that. The radio seemed reluctant to find any stations unless manually tuned to the correct frequency but that might be operator error. When I loaded 2 CDs into the in-dash player I could listen to the second all day but nothing would persuade it to give me CD1 without first ejecting the other disk. Finally, as a listening environment the FR-V leaves something to be desired. At speed there is a lot of white noise, a combination of road and wind roar – it isn’t especially loud but it will drown out softer pieces of Bach and Beethoven. The Scissor Sisters, however, come through loud and clear.

I found the leather seats quite comfortable but I would have preferred slightly more under-thigh support. I did wonder if the seats had been made slightly shorter than ideal to make the legroom seem more generous. That said, I did a couple of long journeys without aches and pains and I also did plenty of enthusiastic driving without fearing that I’d slide right out of the seat.

Somehow I knew I wouldn’t dislike the FR-V but I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did. Designing a successful small MPV can’t be an easy job but Honda has certainly succeeded. If you want something as compact as a Civic but with more space and greater versatility the FR-V could be just what you need.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

More thoughts on the Honda FR-V

Took a friend out in the FR-V today as I was interested to see how it would rate from a passenger’s perspective. His first observation was of a lack of legroom, not good from someone of no more than average height. Three people in the front seats would be very cosy, he suggested. Other irritations included a mystery draught at neck level and noise coming from the roller-blind cover over the luggage boot.

The lively performance and mechanical refinement were well received. Also praised were the build quality and the tasteful interior trim.

I’ve got a long journey in the Honda tomorrow; it will be interesting to see what that brings to light. There is also the matter of trying to take some more photographs – that was going to be a job for today but the weather was against me.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

What's outside today?

I've got this Honda FR-V 1.8 iVTEC on loan this week. Initial impressions are favourable; it is comfortable, easy to drive and reasonably quick. Getting used to the width of it has taken a bit of time - the FR-V isn't actually that wide but it feels wide because it seats 3 across in the front and back.

Honda FR-V

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

BMW GINA Light concept car

Just a brief entry as I've got to do a full write up about BMW's latest concept car. What I wanted to say here, where I can afford to be less objective and more opinionated, is how much I love it. Not only does it challenge lots of preconceived ideas about how a car should be made but the thinking behind it promises to challenge the attitude that "we've always done it this way". Of course it helps that the concept car is beautiful, a classical roadster with the engine at the front under a long bonnet. Hopefully all future BMWs will look as good as this.

BMW GINA light concept car

Friday, 6 June 2008

Word of the week: Doppelkupplungsgetriebe

I don’t speak German but there is something wonderfully clear and logical about it as a language. Even I could see how Doppelkupplungsgetriebe means double clutch gearbox. And how, you might ask, did I stumble upon this gem? It was in a Porsche press release detailing revisions to the 911 (direct fuel injection is the other major update). According to a knowledgeable friend it is pronounced:

"Doppel" is pronounced as the spelling suggests and means double.

"Kupplungs" is pronounced with the emphasis on the "Kup" part of the word – clutch, presumably.

"Getriebe" is pronounced "G'Treeber" – literally gear box?

So now you know!

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Evolutionary thinking

About the most difficult question I was asked by a friend after the SMMT test day was what my favourite car of the day had been. How on earth could I choose between the varied delights of the Jaguar XK8 and the Fiat 500? Something coarse but entertaining, like the Vauxhall Astra VXR Nurburgring or civilised and satisfying like the Audi A4 3.2FSI SE.

The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X SST was the only car that could stand a chance of being the best at almost everything and so, by default, the Evo had to be my favourite. Don’t, however, think that I was less than keen on it. In fact I enjoyed the Evo intensely – so much more, in fact, because it was more civilised than I expected. The twin-clutch sequential transmission must have helped; how could a dreaded “flappy paddle” gearbox shuffle forward and back at parking speed with such suavity?

Never mind parking, this is a car for whizzing, charging, zipping and dashing. How beautifully it danced on Millbrook’s hill route, up and down hills, around ever tighter corners. The transmission worked well as an automatic but was pure bliss when changing gear manually. With the gear changes at the second fastest setting (I never tried the fastest) the response to the paddles felt instant. The only complaint I had was that second gear could have been higher as dropping down from 3rd gear always seemed to have the engine screaming its head off.

Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X SST

It was the engine and transmission that dominated the experience. The steering and brakes must have been fine, the ergonomics acceptable. I do remember that the driver’s seat was good. I certainly can’t think of anything that was wrong with it.

Before I drove the Mitsubishi Evo I wondered what the appeal might be. Surely sticking a powerful engine in a family saloon was a mistake, diverting it from the proper purpose of being sensible family transport. In fact the way it goes is positively addictive, I just want another go, I need to feel that gear change again and the G-forces as the Evo charges round another corner. And maybe I need to try the manual version too for good measure.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Something published

Before I went to the SMMT Drive Day one of my aims was to try and make contact with someone from the press. I managed, quite by chance, to bump into someone I exchanged emails with a year or two back. As a result I'm working on a car review for him and, in the meantime, I was asked to write a short news piece on the new small Rolls-Royce. Check it out by clicking on the title or click here.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

SMMT 08 – A tale of 2 Renaults

Two cars I was very keen to try at the SMMT test drive day were the Renault Laguna GT with Active Drive and the Clio Renaultsport 197 Cup. Having heard the rumours that Renault were going to be doing four-wheel steering and then seeing the press release confirming how they were going to do it I was eager to try it. With the Clio, I wanted to try a quick Renault hatchback.

Renault Laguna GT with active drive

The Laguna looks impressive and feels good to sit in but comes up short on the move. The first irritant is the steering wheel, which is annoyingly not round. The gear lever feels somewhat loose and floppy, which is how the whole car feels. Four wheel steering works every bit as well as expected but the rest of the car does not invite, encourage or reward hard driving. If the GT suffix usually denotes Grand Tourer the Laguna is rather too much Tourer and not Grand enough.

Renault Clio Renaultsport 197 Cup

If only the Laguna could enjoy the polish and fine tuning that made the Clio what it is – which is to say rather wonderful. True, you sit more on the car than in it and getting in and out of the deeply contoured Recaro requires considerable agility but it puts a smile on your face. Everything about the Clio 197 feels taught and positive, it positively begs to be driven hard and fast – with verve and enthusiasm. Although it feels too high that difficult to enter seat is superbly comfortable and holds you in place perfectly so you move with the car. Somehow this has been achieved without making the Cup unbearable on the motorway.

Friday, 23 May 2008

SMMT Test Day 2008

Last year I wanted to go to the annual Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) test day but I was too slow in applying. This year I was better informed and got my name on the list in plenty of time. As well as providing the opportunity to drive lots of different cars it is a superb opportunity to meet the press officers and press fleet managers and other journalists. I’m sure I could have made more of the opportunities to make contacts but I’m quite pleased that I have made some new contacts.


My day’s driving started with a Jaguar XK8, it was supposed to be an XKR but I wasn’t about to complain. Without a doubt this is a magnificent car, smooth, refined and surefooted. It was a fine way to learn the curves of the Millbrook hill test route and to get a feel for driving round the high-speed bowl. Those test tracks do a good job of replicating country road and motorway driving respectively. There was also a “City Course”, which didn’t feel much like a city but is laid out in a series of tight curves with a couple of speed humps for good measure. I had great fun whizzing round in a couple of Fiat 500s – I fear I may have upset the man from Fiat by saying that I preferred the cheaper more basic model. More than any other car I tested I could see myself actually buying a 500 for my own transport.

Fiat 500

The other interesting pastime of the day was to see what was in demand. Bentley, for example, had 4 cars and by lunchtime all the time slots were fully booked. Nissan was taken aback by the popularity of the fuel-cell concept vehicle and so was Audi for the R8 and RS6 Avant. According to the list of vehicles there were 2 RS6s but only one actually appeared to be in use. The Nissan and Audis were the only cars I felt I missed out by not trying – maybe next year.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

The search continues and other thoughts on a Saturday morning

Up early today to collect the pipe ordered by the Citroën dealer last week. Not the right part, despite what the computer says. They did try to find the correct part but to no avail. Did give me the contact numbers of people who might be more sympathetic to my plight and who might be able to correctly identify the part I’m after.

Another moan about advertising. Last night I saw a BMW advert on television, promoting their Efficient Dynamics system for reducing fuel consumption and all the nasty stuff associated with burning a hydrocarbon fuel. The theme was BMW saying “thank you” for all the things that saved fuel, such as gravity. One of the things thanked was “the stop sign that allows the engine to switch off and save fuel”! Can you believe such a thing! The very act of stopping and starting is incredibly wasteful.

Treated myself to a McDonald’s breakfast on my way home from the garage. In the past I’ve struggled to get these things home without the coffee cup falling over and spilling. Today, somehow, I managed it – despite having a longer journey than I used to. I’d like to think it was down to my prowess as a driver but I wonder if it is down to the soothing properties of Citroën suspension?

A real treat as I drove through my village, 3 vintage cars in convoy. The lead car had the look of a Bugatti and, as it drove past, I could see that the two other cars were also Bugattis. They were all 4-seat open tourers and much quieter than I expected. Two were Type 50s and one, I think, was a Type 40. It is nice to see rare cars being driven, rather than confined inside a museum

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

A blast from the past #3

Two speed supercharging.

There is, as the popular saying would have it, nothing new under the sun. So when I read a press release from Antonov Automotive Technologies proclaiming 2-speed superchargers the way forward I recalled that the idea has been tried on piston-engined aircraft. In aviation the idea was to maintain performance at altitude so as the aeroplane climbed the pilot would select a gear to speed up the supercharger. It was a crude but reasonably effective way to compensate for the thinning of the air.

A supercharger is an air pump and while different types have different characteristics but, broadly speaking, the faster it runs the more air it moves. Antonov’s idea is to run the supercharger relatively faster at low engine rpm to boost low-speed torque without blowing the engine up at high speed. They don’t say this, of course, but that is what it amounts to. The behaviour of the supercharger should be fully automated and imperceptible when driving. The goal is to allow vehicle manufacturers to use smaller engines that are more economical.

I’m not sure how plausible their claims are. Superchargers are not the most efficient means of increasing performance. I’m not convinced by anyone who claims that superchargers don’t have the heat issues of turbochargers. Anyone who has used a bicycle pump knows that compressing air makes it hot, the air isn’t particularly bothered how it gets compressed. Two-speed supercharging is an interesting idea but I wonder when engineering fashion will swing back towards big, engines in low states of tune combined with high gearing – the sort of thing seen with the BMW 525e and Renault 5TS.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Citroën: moving out of the bargain basement?

In the ongoing saga of the hydraulic pipe I ventured bravely to the parts desk of my local Citroën dealer. I am told that owners of old BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes can order parts from the dealer as though they were ordering parts for current models. Of course you need to pay Mercedes-sized prices for that facility. Citroën offer no such assurance but I went armed with a part number and a mental picture of what it should look like. All credit to Murley Citroën of Leamington Spa, they found the part was available and have promised to order it. Maybe one day I’ll be able to drive my car without fearing the sudden loss of hydraulic fluid.

I also noticed that the showroom had a new C5 on display and I couldn’t resist going in for a closer look. It is an impressive looking car; it does have a German look and feel. The doors close with an impressive thunk and the interior is full of handy cubby holes with damped lids. I’m not sure how much praise I want to lavish on the C5 as I still feel betrayed by the absence of self-levelling, oleo-pneumatic suspension across the range (just as I was irritated by the elimination of the Citroën short-travel brake pedal on the old C5). Final judgement depends on actually driving a C5 or two.

Behind the C5 was a silver C6, looking as impressive as ever and unmistakably French. Next to the C6 was a C-Crosser, another model I’ve not had the chance to study at close quarters. It looked like another quality product, with nice plastics and high quality switches. Contrast this with Citroën’s recent efforts to sell cars based on low prices and generous discounts. Somehow the cars looked like bargain basement products, more like the stuff the Malaysians and Koreans used to make.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Strange behaviour

When I had my Honda Preludes I used to drive with the fastest flowing part of motorway traffic. I was careful, observant and only occasionally the fastest driver of any group (much better to let someone else attract the attention of the Police). Long journeys always felt shorter and more pleasant when I was making progress. From time to time I was irritated by those who would not do as I (try to) do and keep left when not overtaking but everyone suffers because of them. Times and circumstances changed and the Prelude was replaced by my first Citroen BX, the 1.9 litre automatic. It was a long-legged car, typically French in that it gathered speed slowly but felt as though it could sustain high speeds all day. Respect for the car's great age and the lower level of performance available caused me to drive more slowly in the Citroen than I did in the Honda. Journeys took a bit longer but it was something I (grudgingly) accepted. Now I have a 1400cc Citroen BX which is slower than the old BX. As a result my cruising speed on the motorway has dropped considerably. In the old BX I'd keep the speedometer between 70 and 80mph, in the new car it is more likely to be 60-70. Not only does this have an impact on the time it takes to make a long journey but I have noticed something new about the so-called Middle Lane Owners Club. While I am passing a convoy of slower I will try and do it as quickly as possible but there are drivers who will sit right on my tail, clearly wanting to go more quickly, even when there is a clear overtaking lane to the right. Only once I pull over to the left do they drive past but they don't pull over into the clear left-hand lane.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Know your car better: drive something different

Variety, so it is said, is the spice of life. I certainly find that true with cars. This week I had a chance to drive something different and the most interesting part of the experience was the new perspective it gave me of my own car. The first thing was an insight into the driving position of my Citroën. I find it comfortable but it is a little like the classical Italian driving position with the steering wheel a bit further away than normal. Strangely, it is only when I drive something else that I realise this because I wonder why every other car puts the steering wheel uncomfortably close to my chest.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that the BX seems quite spacious. Old cars, like mine, generally have modest dashboards and slim door trims. New cars seem to be bulked out with oversized door trims, massive dashboards, consoles and thick window pillars. But the one thing that always astonishes me, very few cars can match an ageing and scruffy Citroën for ride comfort.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

One day you’re riding high…

… the next you’re sat by the side of the road with a growing puddle of green fluid under the car. So much for all those kind words I lavished on it. Ah the joys of a Citroën and their weird, hydraulic ways.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Simple Pleasures

I had to collect a parcel from the main Post Office this morning. I wanted to beat the rush of Saturday morning shoppers so I was out of the house before 8:30; normal for Monday to Friday but unheard of at the weekend. What a difference it makes, the roads were almost deserted and I felt wonderfully free.

Whether or not it was the clear roads or some other reason I even took more pleasure than normal in the feel, action and response of the controls. It did make me yearn, at least a little, for something either more responsive or, conversely, something more basic and even more demanding of skill and, therefore, more rewarding to drive well.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Smart looking mid-sized Vauxhall

Somehow I feel the arrival of Vauxhall’s new model, the Insignia, has taken me by surprise. This is despite Vauxhall “leaking” spy shots of the disguised car and explaining some of the methods used to fool those who would photograph as yet un-launched cars. I simply didn’t expect to look at the pictures and think, “That’s handsome,” which was my initial reaction to the Insignia.


My two reservations are that it might not drive as well as it looks and that the name reminds me of a brand of men’s toiletries from the 1980s.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

(un)Taxing Experience

Although it has been feasible for a few years I had never tried to buy my Vehicle Excise Duty (aka the tax disk, Car Tax, Road Tax, etc) over the internet. Why? I preferred the certainty of going in with my documents and the cash and walking out with the correct tax disk. No fear of things getting lost in the post and I always either lived or worked within easy access of a Post Office that could issue tax disks and always had a lunch break long enough to accommodate even the worst Post Office queues. Now I live in a village and I don't know if the local Post Office does Tax Disks and, in any case, the customer service is somewhat variable and the queues depressing and I avoid it wherever possible. As a result I decided to give the online process a try. I checked my bank account to make sure I could afford a year's tax and then I logged on to the DVLA's site. I was impressed with the clarity and simplicity of the process, I think I would have preferred slightly fewer pages to click through but it only took 10-15 minutes to complete. All I need now is for the new tax disk to arrive by post in the next few days and I'll conclude that this was one of the government's more successful IT projects.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Eco towns bad? Eco homes better

I’m quite interested in the government’s proposal to build ten new "Eco towns" by the year 2020. You won't hear me saying this often about anything the government does but I think, in principle, it is a great idea. It seems sensible to regulate the building industry to mandate that new homes use less gas, mains electricity and piped water than conventional houses. The proviso is that you don’t have to spend so much (in terms of energy, materials or money) on solar panels, geothermal heating, wind turbines or water recycling that the savings never pay back the initial investment. All new houses should be made that way, not just ones in eco towns.

It will be interesting to see how the towns are laid out and what provisions are made for people to get around. It is all very well talking about car free town centres, 15mph speed limits and park-and-ride bus routes but surely town planners can do better than that. Maybe there is a way that shops and businesses can be distributed within the new towns to reduce the need for transport, whether private or public. Where it is necessary to travel, the links should allow fast, easy access to the rest of the transport network.

One of the proposed sites, Middle Quinton, is not too far from my home. It is an unusual site for a new town as it is in the middle of nowhere. The nearest "big" town, Stratford-upon-Avon isn't that big and there aren't any large employers nearby. To get to the nearest motorway (M40) you need to go through Stratford (not much fun at peak times). At least the site is connected to the rail network but the line would need serious investment to make it worthwhile for passenger traffic. With the necessary investment in infrastructure the new towns will be a success; without it they will be an expensive series of follies.

Monday, 31 March 2008

Cars in Books

To be a successful writer it is important - or so I have been told, more than once so there must be something to it – to read lots of books. Even if it wasn’t important I like to think I’d still try and find worthwhile reading material; there are few things as pleasurable as losing yourself in a good story.

My interest in cars does mean that I take notice whenever they appear in novels. Most people probably don’t notice but getting the details right helps to draw me into the story. Get it wrong and while, if the story is strong enough, I might not give up on the book I will feel somewhat disappointed. Mo Hayder’s thriller Birdman was a superb can’t-stop-turning-the-pages read. The only fly in the ointment was that one of the main characters drove a car identified as a Cobra. This Cobra was no stark, four-wheeled motorbike – it had air conditioning and electric windows. Any sort of winding windows are incompatible with the Cobra shape as devised by AC; there simply isn’t the space in the tiny doors for the window to wind into. Hayder must have been thinking of a different car.


To understand how to get it right you need to get hold of an Ian Fleming. Perhaps not every detail was technically correct but I cannot recall any serious inaccuracies. What he did well was to give a sense of pace and urgency to what was necessarily a lengthy piece of writing when describing a car chase. The most memorable chase was in Moonraker; Bond, in his grey, 4 ½ litre supercharged Bentley, pursued the villain, Hugo Drax, through London and down to Dover in order to rescue the girl (unconscious on the back seat of Drax’s Mercedes 300S) and save the day. At one point an Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 intrudes on the action, you could practically hear the crackle of the Alfa’s exhausts and the whine of the supercharger.

Mercedes 300S
Picture from

Thomas Harris, author of Silence of the Lambs, does a much better job. In Red Dragon cars were fairly generic as the narrative focussed on the actions and interactions of the characters. By the time Silence of the Lambs was written Harris indulged in a little more detail; Clarice Starling drove a worn out Ford Pinto, just the sort of car you’d expect a poor student to be driving. In his latest novel, Hannibal Rising, there was a sense of even greater understanding – at one point the young Hannibal Lecter is driving a borrowed van through a rainy Paris evening. To effectively clear the windscreen he had to keep lifting off the accelerator as the wipers worked off inlet manifold vacuum (which causes the speed of the windscreen wipers to slow down as the accelerator pedal is pressed down). It was such an obscure detail, I was deeply impressed to see it used.

Sunday, 30 March 2008

Of Instruments and Museums

Last weekend I visited my friend Simon, owner of the utterly charming MG Midget which I have mentioned before. Sadly, the Midget is not entirely well as you can read in Simon’s blog. But, component failure aside, the Midget did offer an interesting illustration of a phenomenon that is usually overlooked. Most cars, if they have a temperature gauge at all, only show you the engine temperature when the ignition is switched on. However, the Midget comes from a time before electrical transducers and has a mechanical temperature gauge, which shows the temperature even after you switch off the engine. When the engine stops the coolant pump and fan stop and the coolant just sits, picking up heat from the engine, with a mechanical temperature gauge you can actually watch the needle move towards the “H” marker. Wait long enough and the needle will drop back as the engine cools.

This weekend I visited the Coventry Transport Museum. As I may have said before, one of the reasons I like this museum is the way the exhibits are moved regularly so that there is always something new to see on each visit. The latest special exhibition is a celebration of anniversaries; the 60th anniversary of the Land Rover and Morris Minor and the 40th year of the Jaguar XJ6. It seems anniversaries only count if they are whole multiples of ten! There were some interesting substitutions among the exhibits. Using a Tygan Porsche 356 speedster recreation (developed, I believe from the famous Chesli Speedster) in place of a 1948 Porsche 356 was understandable, the Rover P4 in lieu of a 1958 P5 3-litre Rover was odd but the signage made it clear that it was only a temporary situation. No mention was made of the fact that the “Jaguar XJ6” was clearly an XJ12 series one (built in 1972-3 although Jaguar intended to launch the XJ with the V12 in ’68. Even more unusual was the presence of Daimler wheel trims (you would hope the museum could source the correct parts). Even so, it was a great exhibit even if it ignored the most meritorious 60-year old car, the 1948 Bristol 401.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Another weekend, another long journey

It was a close thing; I wanted to go away for the Easter weekend but at the start of the week I had a car where the vital hydraulic systems had suffered a large leak. My usual reaction is to sulk and spend an excessive amount of time avoiding the issue. This time I leapt into action, on Monday I arranged for the car to be towed to the garage who I asked to remove the offending component. By Tuesday I had a new pipe ordered and coming in the post. Wednesday was a little fraught as I had hoped the pipe would come from Citroën specialist Pleiades overnight. I started looking at the cost of train tickets but the prospect of engineering works disrupting the timetable meant it was a last resort. I even contemplated coach travel, almost half the price of rail travel but with a limited service. On Thursday the pipe turned up, was fitted and everything was well. Listening to the news on Good Friday I was glad I had a working car, every bulletin carried tales of missing trains and long delays. Having seen the level of train service on the West Coast Mainline (the service I’d have used if I was going by train) on Saturday, Easter Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday if I’d managed to get away then I would never have got home again.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Great web sites

Not particularly motoring related but this is the web site for writer, actor, comic and television presenter Stephen Fry. It is one of my favourite sites, there is something charming and intelligent about the content. The site includes the content of the weekly column on technology and electronic gadgets (of which he is surprisingly fond) published in The Guardian. It also includes the occasional “blessay” which is more than a simple, snappy, blog entry but more of a lengthy discourse.

Take a look at

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Oh no, not again!

I visited my parents, in the South East, this weekend. Travelling down on Friday evening I did the 145 miles in 2hours 45 minutes at an amazing 42mpg. Of course it must have been too good to be true as, on the return leg last night the low hydraulic fluid light came on. I stopped in a lay-by to add some fluid (no Citroëniste is without a supply of LHM at hand), but that didn’t do the job. Carefully I made my way to Hemel Hempstead and found a Tesco petrol station forecourt in the middle of a retail park. This was a much better location to wait for help and I called the AA.

It must have been a busy night because it took a long time for the patrol man to get to me. He did at least know his way around the Citroën BX and understood what the hydraulic system did. Knowing there was nothing he could do he called for a recovery vehicle and I just had to wait. At 11:00 the recovery vehicle arrived and it then took 3 hours to get back to my home.

Now my BX is with the garage, waiting for a length of pipe to replace the faulty piece. I hope it turns up tomorrow as I need the car for the Easter weekend. I also hope that this will be the end of leaking pipes; I don’t have time for a car I can’t rely on.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Here toe-day…

Prodrive is a name more normally associated with rallying Subarus but they are a company full of engineering and marketing expertise.

In a press release today Prodrive announced a system to actively control the toe-in and toe-out of a car’s rear wheels. This is because different behaviour requires different settings. For agility and a responsive feel toe-out (where the wheels point out) is better but for stability at speed toe-in is better. The system developed is designed to work on a simple torsion-beam rear suspension to give the benefits of multi-link (a detestably vague term) suspension at half the cost. At low speed it would point the wheels outwards for a feeling of agility and willingness to change direction; at high speed the rear wheels point inward for stability.

Prodrive toe control

I wonder if Prodrive haven’t missed a trick. After all if you can change the toe-in and toe-out I wonder if you could also steer the rear wheels in the conventional manner. Given Honda’s current fondness for torsion beam rear axles maybe it is time for a revival of four-wheel steering.