Monday, 30 November 2009


For a self confessed car-nerd, my car history really is crap.

Aged 18, after a spell in my mother's white Micra 1.0 - which made me look like Noddy - I splashed out £200 on my first car, a Rover 214 SLi. I loved it dearly: it stalled at every junction, ate front tyres, and failed its MOT spectacularly after three months, needing a lamda sensor, full new exhaust, and some welding.

I sold it to the boy Hugh for £50, who, armed with an MOT by return of post, cruised around in it for about a month before seizing the engine on the Longbridge roundabout. Somehow, by the time he came to collect it the next day, it had disappeared altogether. Ghost car or practical thief?

Mindful of my overindulgence, I went for solid and Germanic a year later, splashing £650 on a VW Polo Saloon 1.6 with a rusty rear arch. This was, at least, reliable: but it had as much poise as a St Bernard on a greased linoleum. Also, the windscreen wiper sheared clean off in monsoon conditions at 80 on the M6: possibly in a sort of windscreen wiper version of a midlife crisis, being desperate to find more new and exciting activities than being attached to one of the ugliest cars ever made.

This one was sold for £590 with very little clutch left, so at least it wasn't a commercial disaster.

Then we entered the banger rally phase, where I owned, in succession: a third of a chavved-up BMW 320i which made it 2000 miles before seizing its diff; the whole of a grey Rover 820i with an engine condition that can only be described as "vindictive asthma" that made it 1000 miles before utterly lunching its rear brake calipers; and an Audi 100E which, although making a rather lovely 5-pot burble, had a fuel cut-off at 5000rpm, which was somewhat terrifying when you tried to overtake for the first time. Change down, pull out, floor the gas, appreciate the burble, SHITSHITSHIT, change undergarments.

We left that one at an Italian scrapyard.

Over the Christmas period of that year, I was lucky enough to be on the receiving end of a couple of loan cars: a Range Rover Vogue V8 - terrible in every single respect, from the square wheels to the broken heater to the inability to top 70 - and, fatefully, a Rover 216gti that I enjoyed very much despite its slipping clutch, clonking brakes and knackered suspension bushes. Only having it for a day, I suppose, may well have helped my spectacles to remain rosy.

My next port of call was Japan for a loan spell in a very swift Civic VTI, owned by the boy Hugh. It announced its displeasure at finding its name on such an undistinguished list by conking out on the way home from the pub two days after taking delivery, leaving me waiting for the RAC in what turned out to be a rather popular dogging spot. Every cloud has a silver lining, I suppose. After a 70 mile tow home, Hugh gave it a good seeing to and it gave faultless service for another month, when a bolt fell off its gear linkage in Asda carpark. It was, I suppose, not really crap as such, but it was wholly impractical - it had two seats, one functioning window, no interior and a storm drain instead of an exhaust, which endeared me to my neighbours to such an extent that one of them decided to express their opinion through the artistic medium of a key and my paintjob. Thanks.

After the Civic rumbled back to Hugh's grasping mitts (where it swiftly put his license in severe jeopardy), I decided to spend the £500 I had available to me on a small, sensible, easy to insure diesel hatchback. That an E30 318i touring resulted from this shopping trip says much about my attitude to car purchase, especially as said E30 had 189,000 miles, no radiator worth speaking of, a whining diff, groaning PAS and a 30mpg thirst. Still, I enjoyed two whole months of enjoying my reflection in shop windows - she really was pretty - before someone erroneously decided she'd make a good getaway car and nicked her on Christmas day - the story of which can be found elsewhere on this blog.

Since then, I've had a Mondeo - worthy but boring, and the air conditioning smelt of mouldy drains - a Suzuki Alto with a knocking CV joint and a pink stripe on it, a Peugeot 106 diesel with a knackered exhaust and a leaking sunroof, a 1986 Reliant Rialto and a Suzuki Jimny. The latter was clean, tidy, reliable and respectable: so obviously we ripped it to bits and painted it yellow.

Where does all this leave me? Well, if I had any sense, it'd leave me with a severe distaste for cars in general.

Sadly, however, I a) have no sense, and b) am a member of So this Saturday I found myself on a train to Swansea, unsightly wonga-shaped bulge blighting my pocket. My target - a Rover 216 which had had all sorts of modifications to make it faster and more comfortable.

When I got there, the car wasn't how it had looked in the pictures... it was multicoloured, like Elmer the Elephant. Some parts of it were grey, some were silver, and some were just crap. The car, which had covered 190k, had 135k on the clocks, and the owner wanted over the odds for it. Obviously, I did the sensible thing and handed over £360 for it.

The drive home was enough to illustrate that the twin cam Honda engine was willing but gruffer than similar units in CRXs. Worse, it used £20 of fuel in 120 miles, but I wasn't going to be disheartened - he'd said it ran rich, after all.

Rich is not a word which would adequately describe me at the moment, as she's used the next £20 of fuel in 70 miles. She smells like the Jahre Viking running aground on Hemel Hempstead, and idles wherever she bloody well wants to - sometimes at 800, sometimes 400, sometimes 1500.

Elmer is now parked outside, where she will stay until a mechanic can look at her on Thursday. I've paid £360 for two days' nervous motoring in a patchwork car.

If and when she gets fixed, you can expect to read about my ownership experience, attempts to justfiy her foibles, and - inevitably - her eventual demise, be it through cold economics, hot-blooded windscreen-tree interface, theft, or (surprisingly likely at the moment) spontaneous combustion. But that's the weird thing. The only cars that have been vaguely sensible and reliable in that list - Polo, Mondeo - have merited but a marginal note at best, whereas the ones which have riled me and got my blood boiling have, at least, made a good anecdote.

So perhaps it's not so surprising that, as a car nut, my car copybook is far from un-blotted. Perhaps, in a strange sort of way, the two are linked.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Chinese roads - full of Old NACers?

Sadly, dear reader, the motoring observations don't stop with the end of the rally. Indeed, after 32 hours on the slow train from UB down to Beijing, I was desperate for any fix of car geekery. Thankfully (for me at least - I can't say the same for my travelling companions) China provided a surfeit of same. In both of my guises - to whit, a British car nerd and an experienced navigator of the Central Asian vehicular peculiarities - China was an odd one. Not necessarily worse or indeed better; but odd.

The first thing to mention is the road quality, which was superb, even by European standards. Granted, my visit encompassed just two wealthy cities, but I daresay investment there will eventually be matched in all the big cities. Mongolian, Kazakh or (particularly) Tajik drivers would have thought they’d landed on Planet Smooth, had they swallowed the (ruinous) import taxes and put-putted their motorbikes eastward. Yet it seems that this is a relatively recent development, as the vast majority of the traffic bounces around on comedy 70-section balloon tyres; a surefire sign of a populace weary of losing rim after rim to man-eating potholes. A certain city beginning with U and rhyming with Goolan Hataar comes to mind.

Speaking of traffic, it falls into two main categories – those with four wheels, and those with more, or less. The cars, which mostly fall into the former category, were on the whole pretty well behaved, but we quickly learned to treat the cyclists and moped-ists as big, unwieldy pedestrians. Not only were they to the traffic as a toddler’s fingers are to the sweety jar (i.e. everywhere, all at once) but they were also seemingly ungoverned by either traffic laws or common sense. No alleyway was too small, no pavement too congested, and no shrubbery too dense for these two-stroke death-traps: perhaps they didn’t quite rival Iranian motorcyclists for sheer lunacy, but they ran them close.

The reason for this dichotomy can, I feel, be found in the prestige attached to the motor car out there, even when the car in question was a vaguely-facelifted version of the 1980s Audi 100 – a Daudi, if you will. Allow me to put it this way: traffic outside our hostel was still gridlocked at 2am, at which point your average mopedist would have been at home for six hours. The fact that an increasing number of Shanghainese choose to pay through the nose for a car just to sit in such jams, rather than spend just 2000RMB (about £200) on an infinitely more convenient scoot, demonstrates that the Chinese are coming more and more to see the car as a status symbol, rather than a tool to enhance mobility. Reminds me of some other countries that I can’t quite put my finger on...

Anyway, this being the case, and given the well-documented taste the Chinese have for aping Western products, you’d expect Roewe (née Rover) and MG products to be selling like hot steamed buns. The old Rover 75 was about as British as a mid-range saloon gets – surely a Sino-spec example would be as appealing to local tastes as an English slogan t-shirt? Well, SAIC shifted about 13,000 750s in 2008, according to official figures, which is about 185,000 fewer sales than VW enjoyed with its ancient Santana, so you’d hardly call it a runaway sales success...*

The simple fact of the matter is this: in Beijing I saw just one MG – one of the Streetwise things – and a smattering of 550s, which look like up-spec Corollas and come on little piddly biscuit wheels. In Shanghai – the home of SAIC, remember – I counted five Roewe 750s, but as three were black and I can’t decode Chinese number plates, they may well have been the same car. It’s a shame, because the mildly facelifted Longbridge relic looked rather good among the restaurants and posh shops of the French Concession. But it seems these cars are being bought for their exclusivity rather than on merit, and in a marketplace dominated by the mid-size saloon this is both puzzling and troubling. True, a big posh bruiser like the 750 will never compete with the sales of, say, the Santana: but to be out-sold three to one by the more expensive Mondeo is a serious cockup. And if they can’t even establish a presence on their home turf – where, by the way, I failed to spot a dealership despite a brief sally into the relevant district – then where can they do so?

I’ve been to China for only a short period of time, and I’m not pretending to be an expert on the industry: for that, you need to head to China Car Times. But my suggestion for SAIC and NAC would be as follows: take Peugeots lead from the Champs Elysees and establish a ‘lifestyle’ showroom on the Nanjing road, between the Rolex shop and... erm... the other Rolex shop. Play on being a lifestyle Western brand until the story becomes so paper thin that you can see through it with a torch; and then play on it some more. Only by gaining a foothold in the ‘aspirational brand’ section of the Chinese motoring conscience are you going to make inroads into a market dominated by a mixture of cheap cars and desirable cars, when you are currently peddling neither of the above. Perhaps the launch of the upcoming MG6, based on the 550, might help.

If, however, SAIC/NAC do not gain a foothold in a market expanding faster than Kevin Howe’s waistline, then a) they’re just not trying hard enough and b) they would have to rely more on export. Which means they’d need MG’s UK arm to build up the brand, and the benevolence of the press corps to reinforce it. In other words, they’d be dead in the water.

* I couldn’t find figures on the sales of the MG7. I’m not actually convinced it even exists outside the pages of car magazines and

Rules of the Iranian Road

Rule 1: Be in a lorry. If you cannot be in a lorry, be in a blue pickup. If you are in either of these vehicles, not only are you impervious to all Earthly laws, but more complex ones like physics and relativity as well. Be advised that colour selection will not be a problem as all Iranian pickups are blue, for reasons that are probably significant but not immediately apparent.

Rule 2: If you cannot be in a lorry or blue pickup, ensure you are in either a Peugeot 405, a Kia Pride or a Paykan, which is sort of like a stretch Lada, with similar build quality. Disregard for these two simple rules will see you riding a Honda 250 motorbike, which is an unattractive prospect (see below).

Rule 3: Ensure that a novelty horn is fitted. The standard horn on your vehicle, even if it is a sodding great truck, simply will not do. Length of tone and volume are the key factors to bear in mind here. Standard badging, too, should be removed wherever possible, and replaced with items which indicate that, against all empirical evidence, your Kia Pride is actually an Audi A6 with FEUL INJECTION and a TURBO.

Rule 4: If you are in a lorry or a blue pickup, fill your vehicle with as many goods as is physically impossible. Extra points are gained for sheer improbable height of your stacked goods. If you are in a car, replace 'goods' with 'people', but keep the bit about improbable height. Seven passengers should be considered an absolute, baseline minimum for passage on the Iranian road.

Rule 5: Having chosen and correctly populated your vehicle, it is time to venture out onto the road. To do this, you must first pick a piece of road on which to drive. Don't worry if somebody else has already chosen this piece of road - they will vacate it, somehow, or you can share. Ensure you change both road positioning and speed at least every five seconds to ensure maximum disruption to the free flow of traffic. For tips on successful road positioning, visit your local funfair and spend an evening studying the way dodgems 'interact'.

Rule 6: Right of way: there is no such thing. Priority, therefore, goes to the pushiest bastard, or certainly to whoever is in the largest, most solid looking vehicle (see Rule 1). If you find yourself in a vehicle which is somewhat lower down the food chain, you can temporarily elevate yourself by making liberal use of your novelty horn (see Rule 3).

Rule 7: Generally speaking, you should at least attempt to drive in the same direction as other traffic on your side of the road. Exceptions are made for Honda 250 motorcycles, lorries and blue pickups (see Rule 1) and those prepared to make liberal use of their novelty horn (see Rules 3 and 6).

Rule 8: Speed limits. These are generally as fast as your vehicle can travel, even if in so doing your lorry or blue pickup belches out enough carcinogenic fog to suffocate the whole of Rasht, and granny has to cling on to the haystack that you have balanced on the load bay (see Rule 4). However, these speeds must only be maintained for short periods of time, and should be followed by sudden, unexpected and violent bouts of
deceleration. Swerving should accompany these wherever possible. This is to ensure that the driver of the Paykan next to you is awake, and will give the seventeen people on the rear bench something to point at.

Rule 9: If you do see a police radar trap, don't worry: although these are numerous, your speed, road position and general sanity are of no concern to the Iranian constabulary. These checkpoints are for the bored policeman occasionally to practice his English by admonishing foreigners for driving slightly over what could, in theory, be the speed limit.

Rule 10: Don't queue for anything.

Friday, 11 September 2009

From the Mongol Rally blog: "Finally Finished"

Our Mongol Rally 2009 is officially over.

We crossed the finish line about 5pm this evening, and received our certificates, so I suppose that means we've completely done what we set out to do. We're 1500 miles over our scheduled mileage, we've had a hatful of experiences, one sensor failure, two spring failures, three tyre failures, and crucially, the best set of story-topping anecdotes a pub-goer could wish for.

Thanks to everyone who sponsored us - we visited Eamon at Christina Noble today and emptied our cars out, and it really does seem like they're doing an incredibly good job. They're having a "sponsor a child" day tomorrow, where the local urchins come in to collect their allowance - for every $30 given to the foundation, $25 goes directly to the kids. We'd love to visit their Ger village (which acts as a kind of mixed orphanage/school arrangement) but we're leaving for China at 8am tomorrow morning, so it's not going to be possible. Hopefully I'll be back and will be able to help out in a more practical sense.

In fact, I'm running out of different ways to be nice about human nature in general, which could be due to the fact that I'm sat in the bar having been on the receiving end of a surprising amount of Chinggis beer. Our landlady for the past three nights has taken "motherly" to new levels - her brother is giving us a free taxi to the station at 7am, and has charged us $8 each per night for a whole apartment with kitchen. The Adventurists have been amazing, despite being hit with an unexpected $400,000 customs bill. Pebley Beach Cirencester deserve a special mention for being for being on our side throughout and shipping our sensor flawlessly to Samarkand, the story of which is well documented earlier in this blog. Even the cops are on our side; we got stopped for an illegal U-turn 100 yards from the finish line, but they got bored after 15 minutes and let us go without a fine.

We've bloody done it. Unusually for me, I'm a bit lost for words. What now?!

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

From the Mongol Rally blog: "Don't Keep Me In Suspense"

The new suspension worked!!!

Well, sort of. The car still sits right on its arse, but the transformation over the bumpy roads has been incredible. Who would have known that a tiny garage in a two-thirds-of-a-horse town like Ayakoz would keep, as its only spare part, a pair of springs that only needed a bit of hacksaw-based adjustment to be a perfect fit on our car? And who could have predicted that they'd relieve us of just $25 for the privilege?

So with our new Audi-based suspension system, we have been transformed (as Pepe put it) from the QE2 to a Q7. We glide over the "undulations" in Kazakh roads (some of which are up to 6 foot deep, you could lose Tom in them easily) with the greatest of ease, and consequently have been making swift progress since Almaty.

Kazakhstan is notable for a select group of things. Firstly, the women are almost all drop-dead gorgeous, knocking the female population of Hungary into a distant second place (although obviously neither Usget nor Pepe noticed this themselves, it had to be pointed out to them). Secondly, there's often more than 100 miles between villages, which can become boring. Thirdly, as previously mentioned, some of their roads are utterly, utterly appalling. And finally, the population of Semey were some of the friendliest people we've met since leaving Iran - parking our cars up in front of the park led to an all-out assault by balloon sellers, ice cream vendors and passers-by, all wanting to try out their English, have photos taken with the cars, and give us gifts. Two hours later we finally managed to drag ourselves away, not wanting to see candy-floss again as long as we all lived.

Incidentally, Pepe and Tom claimed that wolves came around our tents that evening. James and Usget heard nothing, and don't believe them.

From Semey we headed over the Russian border, where we met a couple of Romanian bikers who were quality, and which was, in border terms, painless (and free!) Russia itself has so far proved to be quite a lot like England - bloody cold, rainy (we're at 53 degrees North, our most Northerly point on the trip), and difficult to get things done. Barnaul, though, has been a bit of an improvement: it's a sprawling great university city with a young population and plenty of shops, bars, and indeed a solitary Net cafe (from whence we write). We'll not be spending much time here, though, because it's a bloody long way to the Mongolian border and The Adventurists website is already expressing incredulity that anyone should still be on the road...

8 days to go, and this may be the last full blog until UB. Wish us luck everybody.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

From the Mongol Rally blog: "Loadsa Miles!"

Just a quick update because it's only 2 days since the last one. But it's worth noting that we managed to cover 400 miles in a single day! Our biggest day since Munich, way back in mid-July.

Kyrgyzs roads (the ones that they've finished) are brilliant, alternating between arrow-straight stretches of fast, wide blacktop and sinewy passes that wind their way through the (copious) hills. Even better, we managed to find some 95RON fuel in Osh, so we did the whole thing without Jenny rattling complaints at us with every dab of the accelerator.

On the road, we finally run out of luck with the tactic which has seen us avoid police bribery-points since Iran; ie, pretend to pull over, make sure they don't have guns, then drive off. On the whole, this has been remarkably successful, with nothing more than a succession of confused-looking coppers to our name, and only a handful of bribery attempts (in Tajikistan, where they had barriers across the road). The Kyrgyzs 5-0, however, are far more prevalent and have radar guns, so Pepe and Usget got one tug each. Usget got out of his ticket by pleading ignorance of the 60kph limit - this wasn't hard, since there were no signs whatsoever - and Pepe's "fine" started at 300 Som ($7.50), came down to 200 Som ($5), then a spare wheel, then a tyre... then a cigarrette (of which we've kept a stash in the glovebox for just such an occasion). When he offered to pay the fine in Bishkek (ie through the official channels, rather than into the top pocket) the policeman gave up and sent us packing... a bit more warily than before.

Bishkek is a bit of a hidden gem: the guide book isn't wholly complimentary about it but we've found it to be leafy and pleasant, a bit like Cheltenham. But then all of these former Soviet capitals are leafy and pleasant and a bit like Cheltenham. For the people who supposedly have the lowest average wage of all the Cental Asian countries, the Kyrgyzs dress incredibly stylishly, and Pepe (with his beard now at hobo-rivalling standard) and Usget (with his two-weeks-and-counting shorts and gay cowboy hat) have been on the receiving end of some incredulous, disparaging looks. Also, Bishkek's residents all drive either big 1990s German saloons (we went in a BMW 525i taxi last night, after evicting a prostitute from same) or right-hand-drive Japanese imports. It's probably the most Western-feeling city we've been to since Budapest, in fact.

We are now working out what to do with our three spare days before meeting HTMT in Almaty, just 200km away. The favourite option seems to be white-water rafting, but Usget's belly currently feels like he is white water rafting whilst sat in an Internet Cafe, so this might not be the safest of options.

1500 miles until Mongolia and 2500 until Ulaan Bataar (so long as the bits which sound like they're about to fail - rear springs, brakes, catylitic converter - don't.)

Friday, 21 August 2009

From the Mongol Rally blog: "Drive Me To The Moon And Back"

We're finally back in civilisation after a week in Tajikistan. In brief, a creepy German doctor in Dushanbe cured Usget but appeared to want to take over ze vorld. Once that important aspect was sorted, we headed out into Tajikistan itself, which is an utter moonscape. Sometimes there are 100km between villages, and most of the plateau is above 4000m - no wonder Soviet Cosmonauts used to use it to train for their space missions.

A lot of our journey was undertaken following the Afghan border, which was beautiful, if deserted. A fantastic side-effect of this was that we got to meet the lads at FSD, a Franco-German mission to clear Russian mines from the Tajik-Afghan border using Tajik troops. When we rocked up in Thunderbird Four, they bloody loved it, giving us Plov, Choy (complete with the biggest sugar lumps in the world - Pepe now has a habit and needs a trip to the Priory) and even gave up their tent so that we could have a place to sleep! In one of the strangest nights of the trip, we were first given a showing of the worst German porn in the world, and then woken at 4am as they'd realised they'd given us their prayer tent to sleep in! Weird, but they're doing a damn good job - the sooner Tajikistan is rid of these hideously archaic weapons, the better.

Other adventures from Tajikistan are few and far between - the country has mindblowing views, but little else! The boneshaking roads have killed an indicator and our driver's window, and on one particularly well-hidden pothole Pepe managed to launch the whole car off the ground and snap a spring (it's probably only fair to point out that Usget did pretty much the same thing 4 hours later, so the spring would have gone at some time!) Despite these issues, and our tortured brakes, and the 80-RON fuel (for the uneducated, you'd run a tractor or possibly a lawnmower on 80-RON fuel) Jenny managed to climb the highest pass you can take an English registered car on - the 4655m Ak Baital. We're proud of her.

(Note to Suzuki, though: 4wd vacuum hubs don't work at over 4000m altitude, which is a bit tricky when you've built a campsite on a sandy bit and can't get out again in the morning. Bastard thing.)

We're currently running two days ahead of schedule, so before we meet up with Tom and James in Almaty we're planning to do a couple of car modifications in Bishkek. We're hoping to remove the catylitic converter, so that Jenny accepts the shitty fuel a bit more readily; and we need to find some brake pads which will fit, as ours currently sound like a tribe of banshees on a rusty railway engine and won't last much longer. If we accomplish all that easily enough, we might have a crack at white-water rafting in one of Kyrgyzstan's many excellent rivers.

Kyrgyzstan is beautiful, we've had a good meal and a good explore of Osh, we're loaded up to the gunwales with 95-RON fuel, Jenny's running well, and we're just days away from reunification with Team HTMT. TYO are flying along!

P.S. The finish line party in Ulaan Baatar was today. We're still about 3000 miles away. Whoops!