Friday, 30 July 2010

Inside the MINI Contryman

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Had a chance to take a look at the new MINI Countryman tonight. I’m not a big MINI fan but I did find myself admiring the design.

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On the outside the ‘big MINI’ design isn’t the most successful but the interior of the car I sat in was a really nice place to be. I love the use of shape and colour. Even little things like the chrome toggles that control the rear electric windows are a source of joy. The term ‘surprise and delight’ was coined to describe the Countryman’s cabin.

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It is nice to see more manufacturers putting effort in to make interiors inviting and attractive.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Cars I’d like to build: Silver Arrows Tribute

Mercedes W196

Almost every day I email my friend Si and we come up with a ‘Random Car of the Day’ to discuss. Today's offering was the Mercedes-Benz W196. The exhaust note I heard at Goodwood still hasn’t faded from my memory. In fact the straight-eight engine sounded so amazing it made me wish that someone would build a modern inline eight. Sadly, the packaging and engineering challenges posed by this layout make it unlikely that anyone will revive the concept.

If I were wealthy enough I would build a Caterham-style car with a straight-eight; probably built up from a couple of four-cylinder motor bike engines. The engineering would take a lot of working out and it might not be the fastest or best car of its type but it would be all mine. I'd paint it silver with matt black, cycle-type mudguards, fit aero screens and find some tartain material similar to the cloth used in the 1950s Silver Arrows - a bit naff, maybe, but intended as a tribute to a racing car I admire.

So there you go; today, in my mind, I'm wearing goggles and a leather flying cap whilst blaring down deserted roads with the sound of eight tiny cylinders ringing in my ears.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Goodwood Highlights 4: Mercedes and Mercedes-Benz

Mercedes

It is a rare treat to see Mercedes racing cars in action. One of the biggest treats was to hear the sound of the gear-driven supercharger on the two SSK models driven up the hill.

Mercedes SSK1

I had heard about the high-pitched sound but never previously experienced it. As noises go it is certainly piercing, produced by the straight-cut gears that engage the supercharger when the driver pushes the throttle pedal to the greatest extent of its travel.

Mercedes SSK 2

The incredible Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix cars of the 1930s were notable by their absence this year (or, if they were there, I missed seeing them).

W196

Instead there was a 1950s W163, less dramatic than the mighty, supercharged eight and twelve-cylinder cars of the pre-war years but possibly more brilliant in their design.

300SLR

Also present was one of the two 300SLR ‘Ulenhaut’ coup├ęs. It was a development of the open 300SLR that famously won the Mille Miglia. However the disaster at the 1955 Le Mans 24-hour meant that the closed SLR was never driven in competition. What I had forgotten, although I have seen 300SLRs in action at Goodwood before, is just how good the straight-eight engine sounds.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Goodwood Highlights 3: Pegaso Z102

Pegaso

A what? A Pegaso; an obscure Spanish sports car from the 1950s, designed by a Spaniard who used to work for Alfa Romeo and built by a truck manufacturer.

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Under the skin it is very similar to the Grand Prix cars of its day. The engine was a small capacity V8 with two, gear-driven overhead camshafts on each bank of cylinders. Depending on the customer wanted it could have single or multiple carburettors with the option of supercharging too. Power outputs ranged from175 to 300bhp. Drive went to a rear-mounted, five-speed gearbox (no synchromesh) with a back-to-front change pattern.

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It used a chassis of square tubes. Front suspension by torsion bars and wishbones. The steering linkage has been described as complicated; but the same could be said of many cars too new for a solid front axle and too old for rack and pinion. For the time de-Dion rear suspension was fairly normal. However, Pegaso used a back-to-front layout with a curved de-Dion tube that passed over the propeller shaft, in front of the gearbox. A pair of substantial radius arms attached to a single pivot point at the back of the gearbox casing provided location.

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Although a low-volume product (about 84 Z102s are estimated to have been built) they were apparently assembled to very high standards. The work was done by apprentices, learning their craft and working in surgically-clean conditions.

The Pegaso is the sort of car that some people write about in hushed and reverential tones (if that is possible). Few people have ever seen one, fewer still have driven one but it was interesting that this car received very little attention from the Goodwood crowds. The company never attained the fame of its Italian rivals and the attempt to revive the brand in the 1990s amounted to nothing. It probably doesn’t help that the standard coachwork isn’t very eye-catching; then again some of the special bodies, whilst flamboyant, weren't exactly beautiful.

Even so, it was great to see another car that I’d only ever read about. Where else but Goodwood was that going to happen?

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Goodwood Highlights 2: Alfa Romeo 164 Pro Car

Alfa Romeo 164

What we have here is not an Alfa Romeo 164. True, it looks like a 164 but I’m pretty sure that only a few components are interchangeable with the car you could buy. According to the internet it is effectively a Brabham F1 car with lightweight body panels to make it look like a production car. Under the skin is a V10 engine of 3.5-litres with 605bhp at 12,100rpm. The engine is mounted where the back seats would be and drives through a six-speed transaxle.


It was conceived for a race series that never took off, but which was intended to support the Formula 1 calendar like the earlier BMW M1 Pro Car series. The theory was that manufacturers would use similar mechanical parts to F1 cars but with bodywork taken from the production car range. However, there was little support from the manufacturers and the series was all but forgotten.


This is another car I remember reading about in one of the many books I either owned or borrowed from the local library. At the time I remember being fascinated by the idea of a car that looked like a saloon but with the performance and handling of a racing car. The fact that a car with such a highly-tuned racing engine would be all but impossible to drive on the road completely escaped me at the time.


Sadly, I didn’t get to hear the Alfa run or see it in action but it is nice to know that it still exists.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Goodwood Highlights 1: Ferrari Pinin

I was lucky enough to go to the Goodwood Festival of Speed this weekend just gone. It is probably the only place where you’ll find so many high value, rare and unusual cars together. This year there were several cars that I’d admired which I’d never seen before.

One of those was the Ferrari Pinin concept. This was a design study for a four-door Ferrari to celebrate Pininfarina’s 50th anniversary in 1980. It was once suggested as a possible replacement for the Ferrari 400 GT.

Pinin again

From the pictures I saw it looked like the most elegant four-door saloon ever built. Up close it was just as stunning as I imagined; although four days exposure to dust and crowds probably did nothing for the car’s condition.

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(Copyright Wouter Melissen)

It does look a bit dated now although the exterior styling has probably stood the test of time better than the interior. Unfortunately I couldn’t take any interior photos but it was very much of its time.

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I just wish Ferrari could build cars as stunningly elegant as this today.