Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Why don’t I get gifts like that?

On 12th February Sandown Park racecourse will host an auction of classic cars. The auction is being run by Barons, which is celebrating ten years of car auctions. This is the first auction of the year and a tempting selection of cars is going under the hammer. If you fancy a convertible you could have one of two Jaguar E-Types, a Jaguar XJS Cabriolet, Porsche 944S2 Cabriolet and a charming 1939 Rover P2 open tourer. One exceptionally rare convertible is the ex-factory, RHD 1981 V8 Triumph TR8, one of just 18 RHD models built in 1980/81. Very few genuine TR8s exist outside the USA, except for pre-production examples, and this particular car was originally supplied to the Quality Control and Reliability Department of British Leyland – there must be a cheap joke to be made at the expense of BL. The TR8 is estimated to fetch £10,000-£12,000. There are plenty of other interesting lots but particularly a highly original 1969 Cooper S, described - rather poignantly - by the vendor as “an unwanted gift” (estimate £6,000-£9,000).

For more details go to

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Interesting idea from John Simister in The Independent

The Independent may no longer be producing a weekly motoring supplement but it still producing some decent motoring content. Road tests from John Simister are a particular highlight, John has been testing cars professionally for over 20 years and knows what he’s talking about.

Recently the Renault Laguna estate came under his scrutiny and he was somewhat critical of the modern trend towards nose-heavy car styling. The problem is that a lot of cars have their engines mounted ahead of the front wheels. To conform with regulations the engines must be surrounded by sacrificial crumple-zones which pushes the front of the car further and further ahead of the front wheels.

It is possible to make cars that follow the established mechanical layout and conform to the regulations for occupant and pedestrian protection, Audi do it well and Citroën did a magnificent job with the C6. On the whole, however, it is a bad idea both in terms of styling and engineering to have so much of the car ahead of the front wheels. Simister suggests,

“One of these days a mainstream car maker is going to take a deep breath and reconfigure its front-wheel-drive powertrain so the driveshafts run in front of the engine instead of behind it, but until then, cars are condemned to be ungainly.”

Which reminded me that Jim Randle, formerly head of engineering at Jaguar, suggested the best driveline layout for high-speed stability was front-wheel drive with the engine mounted behind the driven wheels. It is a layout that probably wouldn’t suit a small car, even though the Renault 4 and the original Renault 5 used exactly that layout. It does recall some of the greatest old French cars including the Renault 16, Citroën SM, DS and the father of them all the Traction Avant. It is an idea long overdue a revival.

Friday, 25 January 2008

Books Lately - On the Edge: My Story, by Richard Hammond

There can’t be many people in Britain who don’t know who Richard Hammond is. Given the worldwide popularity of the BBC show Top Gear, which Richard co-presents with Jeremy Clarkson and James May, there must be plenty of people around the world who know his name. Back in September 2006 Richard suffered a near fatal crash whilst driving a jet-powered dragster for Top Gear.

On the Edge opens with Richard, post accident and pretty much fully recovered, learning cross-country skiing for Top Gear’s race to the North Pole. From there we learn of young Richard’s daredevil antics and his love of machines, particularly the bicycles he loved riding and repairing. From there the story moves quickly through Richard’s career in local radio to where he joined Top Gear. You get an idea of the creative process behind some of the Top Gear stunts.

The events leading up to the accident and the crash itself are described in great detail. The long and traumatic story of the days and weeks of recovery is told by Richard’s wife, Mindy. Even though you know Richard pulls through you can sense, just a little, the tension, the fear and the suffering felt by Mindy and all Richard’s friends and family.

It is a moving story, occasionally funny but always tempered by a sense of just how serious Richard’s situation was. At the end of the book you feel so happy that Richard has recovered. But not, I suspect, as happy as Richard and Mindy are.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Hard Year's Drive 2007 - Part 5

Final installment, a Honda "soft roader" and Peugeot van.

There was one more new car Honda CR-V 2.0 i-VETEC which was almost entirely unremarkable. Honda did an impressive job making the CR-V feel car-like. I remember the original CR-V felt much more cumbersome. Honda have made good automatic transmissions for years and the one fitted to the CR-V was better than any other I’ve encountered. Most of the time there was no sensation of shifting gears and it always seemed to be in the right gear. What a shame Honda decided to spoil things with an awful, stiff and counter-intuitive selector. Normally when I evaluate a car with automatic transmission I start by leaving them in Drive to see how well they cope as most people will use them. I also like to try any manual over-ride or means of holding gears as, under some circumstances, this gives better results. Just moving the CR-V's selector from Park to Drive was enought to put me off using the selector any more than necessary. I had thought Honda would standardise the Tiptronic-style selector, first seen on the NSX and currently in use on the Accord.

Honda CR-V

Finally, a house move this year meant hiring a Peugeot Boxer van. It did a perfectly acceptable job although the arrangements for changing gear took some getting used to. Every other gear lever I have ever encountered has moved in a gate that involves forward, backward, left and right movements. In the Boxer, however, the lever was at an unusual angle so that all the movements were diagonal. It never caused me any problems but you have to wonder why, when the conventional gate has worked so well for so long, Peugeot felt the need to change it.

This year was a little disappointing but it was interesting to see that I drove exactly the same number of cars in 2007 as I did in 2006. New cars arrived at a rate of less than one a month, which suggests a lack of effort on my part. I must try harder in 2008.

The End

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Hard year’s drive 2007 Part 4

This is the penultimate installment. The Saab 9-5 is one of the longest running models on the market. Maybe that is why the best version is so good - Saab have had years to carry out fine tuning.

SAAB 9-5 aero

One of the most satisfying cars of the year was a Saab 9-5 estate Aero HOT. There was nothing to suggest that it would be any good, the prospect of a powerful front-wheel drive car with a large 4-cylinder engine was not particularly mouth-watering. On the road any misgivings soon disappeared; the driving position took a lot of fine tuning and the steering wheel wasn't nice to hold on a long drive. When driving it those failings faded into the background. There was a solidity to everything about the Aero; even the ride, which was firm but never uncomfortable. The linear, predictable and utterly dependable response of the steering, brakes and even the turbocharged engine offered tremendous assurance. There was no doubt that the 9-5 would do whatever was asked of it. The only worry was the frequency with which the traction and stability control intervened. Even on a perfectly dry road a moderately energetic left-right-left flick around a roundabout had the warning light coming on - at least the traction control is subtle in its behaviour rather than suddenly cutting power.

Saab 9-5 bio power

While I had the Saab Aero I drove another 9-5 estate; a 2.3 BioPower, which runs on E85 bio ethanol or normal unleaded petrol. The idea is that, by running on a fuel derived from growing plants (E85 is bio ethanol plus 15% unleaded petrol), the BioPower will reduce the quantity of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. The engine produces more power when running on E85 - a difference you can feel - but to take advantage of the benefits you need to live near a petrol station that sells E85 and there aren’t many yet. The penalty is that fuel consumption on E85 is somewhat higher and the small tax break on the fuel does not cover the difference. I was slightly saddened to find that the BioPower was softer in its steering response and yet no more comfortable. The differences under the skin may be small but they add up to a big difference on the road. When you take away the power boost from the bio ethanol and the 9-5 BioPower felt slightly disappointing.

To be continued ...

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Hard year’s drive 2007 Part 3

Continuing the account of the cars I drove in 2007. This time it is out with the old and in with the (slightly) new(er).


When I drove the MG Midget I struggled initially to get to grips with a manual transmission. Those skills have lately been refreshed as my old Citroën BX19TRS auto was replaced by a Citroën BX14TE St Tropez. The new car has proved to be full of surprising contradictions. The BX14 doesn't have the central locking, powered windows, electric sun roof or even power-assisted steering of the old car but the seat fabric and dashboard plastics seem much better quality. It looks a lot smarter inside and more modern. With the smaller engine I expected it to be much slower but more economical; subjectively it does not feel slower and my economy checks suggest that the BX14 is only 2mpg more economical than the BX19 - I expected more. Despite an unexpected and nearly catastrophic failure of a hydraulic pipe early in my ownership the new car is proving to be just as endearing as the old one.

To be continued ...

Friday, 18 January 2008

Hard year’s drive 2007 Part 2

It was going to be an epic post to review all the cars I drove in 2007. For a blog format this didn't seem appropriate so I decised to break it down into several installments. Last time I looked at a couple of Vauxhalls. This time it is an unlikely pairing of Skoda and MG.

Skoda Roomster 1.4

The Skoda Roomster 1.4 was actually the first new car of the year. I wanted to like it; I admired the unconventional styling (particularly in the vivid blue paint of the test car) and the refreshingly colourful interior. Neither of those things could really be enjoyed while I was driving. What sparked my frustration was the way the door pillars blocked the view – a common problem with new cars. After that I noticed that there was more noise that I expected - at speed the engine felt as though it was revving its head off. On uneven roads the Roomster bobbed around as though the suspension couldn't cope. It should be said, however, that neither the ride nor the noise levels were any worse than in the Corsa.

The Skoda’s problem was that it was too tall, a criticism that couldn’t be levelled at the most entertaining car of the year; a 1972 MG Midget. Something so simple and even downright crude in places surely has no right to be such fun but it was refreshing to be able to look under a bonnet and be able to identify all the components within. It was great to have something so straightforward that I could fix it (or help to fix it) in someone’s back garden with about 3 tools. On the road it was sheer delight, for one accustomed to automatics getting used to the short-travel clutch was difficult. But the clutch pedal was an object lesson for all to copy – why does a clutch need more than an inch or two of movement? The gear lever was a delightful, mechanical, flick-switch affair; the engine was coarse but very charming; the brakes needed a big push (no servo?). The steering was pure delight, light and direct. Driving the Midget required skill and understanding but there was no substitute for the pleasure gained from getting it right.

To be continued ...

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Hard year’s drive 2007 Part 1.

The old is good not just because it's past,
nor is the new supreme because we live with it,

The words of Paul Hindemith echoed in my mind when I began considering the cars and van that I drove in 2007. Those cars that were new models were at best disappointing and at worst inferior to an equivalent car from ten years ago. It was the older models – not just old cars but new cars that have been in production for years – that proved far more satisfying.

Vauxhall Corsa

I was appalled by the Vauxhall Corsa 1.2 twinport, which I hired early in the year. It was slow, noisy, bouncy and erratic in its steering. As a car for pottering round town the Corsa might just be acceptable but it was hopelessly out of its depth on the open road and far to noisy on the motorway. The most frustrating thing was the way it positively defied my attempts to drive it well – only feeling right when driven thoughtlessly or even badly. Where did Vauxhall go wrong? A 1994 Astra Swing, borrowed while my car was being repaired, was a much better car. The dampers felt worn out and the interior was a bit grimy but I came away impressed. Comfort, driving position, visibility, performance and economy were all better than in the Corsa. I even found myself admiring certain details, particularly the way the doors sealed and the side windows that were practically flush with the frames.

To be continued...

Monday, 14 January 2008

Well, it was fun while it lasted

About the only thing that made every Tuesday for the last 4 years remotely worthwhile was The Independent’s motoring section. There was always something interesting to read, whether it was motor show coverage, celebrating unusual classics (who else would do a feature on the SEAT 600?) or the weekly cycling column. Sadly the motoring section is no more, which is a bit of a blow for me as I was hoping to write a few more pieces for it. All I can hope is that while this door has closed (for now) another will open.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Interesting goings on at Mazda

Today at the NAIAS (North American International Auto Show), in Detroit, Mazda pulled the covers off a new rotary-engined design study and an updated version of the Mazda RX8. The Furai concept car is intended to celebrate 40-years of Mazda’s rotary-engined sports cars (going back to the 1967 Cosmo) and Mazda’s motor sport heritage.

Mazda Furai

The Furai is not intended to race, although it has the chassis of a Courage racing car, nor will it go into production – even as a limited run supercar. What it does do is provide a suitable canvas on which Mazda’s designers created interesting shapes and unusual proportions. Some of the visual themes in the Furai will end up – toned down for production – on Mazdas people can buy. Technologically it makes a nod towards future possibilities; it has a 3-rotor Wankel rotary engine which is tuned to run on E100 bio-ethanol.

Mazda RX-8

The updated RX8 has redesigned bumpers, including new headlamps and LED tail lamps. The dashboard is revised. Under the skin the body has been braced to improve rigidity, the rear suspension geometry has been altered to improve handling. The gearing has been lowered to improve acceleration. It seems like quite a modest series of updates for a model that is (I think) nearly 5-years old.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

That’s annoying: missed the chance to see Xtrak

Transmission experts Xtrak are showing its wares at the Autosport International Engineering Show. As well as conventional racing transmissions Xtrak will be showing the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) based around the Torotrak variator. What a wonderful opportunity it would have been to study the system and maybe ask some intelligent questions and possibly even report back here with my findings.

Torotrak Xtrak

The problem is that the engineering show is on 10th and 11th January (according to Xtrak’s press release) and my work commitments mean I won’t be able to go along. If you would like to go; the engineering show runs from 10-11 January at the NEC, where the company will be exhibiting in Hall 19 on stand number E1038.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Blast from the Past 2 – Tatra

Not to be confused with the Indian company in the news as a potential new owner for Jaguar, Tatra is a Czech manufacturer of lorries and cars (although I thought it had gone out of business). Certain features have become synonymous with the Tatra name - particularly air-cooled engines (as far as I know Tatra make the only air-cooled V8 in the world); chassis based round a central tubular “spine”; and independent suspension by swinging half axles. Surely there was no way that such quirks could survive in our conformist world.


Apparently they can; Tatra are supplying the British firm, Bowler with a prototype T5 class transporter for the famous Paris-Dakar rally-raid. The transporter will act as a support vehicle for the Bowler team and will enable Tatra to investigate the market for factory-built international rally-raid and rally assistance FIA category T4 and T5 vehicles. The press release makes a point of mentioning the truck’s fully independent swing-axle suspension (surely the only vehicle on sale anywhere with swing axles), rigid central tube frame and air-cooled 442bhp V8 diesel.