Monday, 10 December 2007

The Cold Car Caper

As you will all know, there are two types of car enthusiast: those who have experienced a Crap Car Caper, and those who have not. Myself and Tim Colley most definitely fall into the former category.

In May of this year, when Caper #1 occurred, when Scott Woodcock and I joined Tim in his coupe for a jaunt up to Nottingham to purchase a Rover 820 Tickford. The journey home was punctuated by some high-speed class-spotting and by the surprise of a Scooby driver at the guerrilla assault he received from said turbocharged convoy, which, to the untrained eye, might have looked like a couple of lethargic old knackers. Then in June, Tim returned the favour. Caper #2 involved two days, the Tickford, Keith Adams, several laybys, a knackered and misfiring Rover 820i and a lot of Red Bull, and resulted in my ownership of probably the worst car I have ever driven... until now.

Time passed, as is its wont. Both Tim and myself were desperate for Caper #3, so when Keith offered to loan me his Range Rover for a week to provide transport for my work experience placement, I jumped at the opportunity - and Tim kindly agreed to help out, on the agreement that I'd lend him an amp and a sub I had spare later in the day. So at 9am on a Saturday morning, after a refreshing 4 hour sleep, Tim picked me up from university, in (as has become customary) the Tomcat Turbo.

I should explain at this point that, after borrowing it for Caper #1, I am in love with this car. The first boosted kick-in-the-back was enough to cure my hangover, and despite the miserable weather we made swift progress down the road to Peterborough and the Practical Classics workshop.

Leaving a car unattended on a seedy industrial estate is brave. Leaving a car unattended and unlocked on an industrial estate is almost asking for trouble. Leaving the keys to said unattended, unlocked car in the boot could almost be said to be foolhardy. It is a measure of the sheer sheddiness of this Range Rover that it was still very much present and correct when we arrived to collect it. A G-reg Vogue SE, with all the toys and a leather interior, a stonking great V8, and an LPG conversion to boot? 'Ooh sir, suit you sir,' you might be thinking. Suit me, my behind.

I won't beat around the bush here - me and the Rangie didn't instantly hit it off. Much of this initial grumpiness was due to something Keith had warned me about - the lack of a heater. This forced me to wear so many layers of clothing I resembled the promotional tool of a well-known tyre company, but as this photo demonstrates, I still couldn't control my shivering...

I will transcribe, in full, the text of a voice-memo I recorded, half an hour into the journey home. For best effect, shout these remarks in a force-9 gale, to the accompaniment of a skipping Mark Ronson CD, in a voice somewhere between Harry Enfield's Kevin and Mariella Frostrup...

'Right, these are my thoughts on the Range Rover so far. It's probably about, ooh, five degrees outside, it's raining, verging on the sleet, and... I am sat in a car with no heater. I've got a hoodie on, I've got a jacket on, sadly I don't have any gloves. My hands are freezing. Erm... and because the windscreen keeps misting up from the rain, I'm having to drive along with the window wide open... hence why I'm being forced to SHOUT. We've been for a performance run - top whack was seventy miles per hour... nearly killed somebody in a Renault Clio when I was making a lot of noise and... erroneously assumed that I had overtaken them. I'm so cold.'

For despite a supposed 182bhp (this was later proved to be utter bollocks, but was my supposition at the time), this car's auto box was trying its hardest to ensure that not a single gee-gee got as far as the actual wheels. I did once see eighty, but just as I had been warned, the lack balancing on the front right-hand wheel made such reckless speeds undesirable. Meanwhile, Tim 'Smug bastard' Colley turned the heater up a notch in his coupe, but soon penance was to come in the form of a shower of LPG. Neither of us had ever experienced the fuel before, and while it is satisfying to see the meter read '30 litres - £14.00', it's a serious faff! A blog on the subject will be forthcoming soon.

The normal loveliness of the A429 provided the Rangie with a further opportunity to piss me off. Without the power to overtake, I was forced to sit back and try to catalogue the interesting selection of noises emanating from various distant corners of the beast. There was the whirring when I pressed the brake pedal, the tappety hiss of the engine, the occasional groan from God knows where, a clonk from the transmission and a harmonious clank from the right-hand CV joint. Next on my list of gripes came the hardness and lack of travel of the brake pedal, and the the dim-witted auto box which seemed grimly determined to prevent me from cresting hills altogether.

Parking it in my mother's street was a ten-minute affair owing to the sheer bulk of the thing, and the fact that the auto box had by this time gone into "sulk" mode, refusing stubbornly to engage reverse gear for minutes on end, then suddenly CLUNK! And you've hit number 38's Merc. Despairing, I went to play with Tim's coupe instead, and spent an evening defrosting.

So I've got 140 miles to do tomorrow to my jumping-off point for the work experience - then 60 miles per day for five days. A total of 550 miles including today's jaunt, this Caper is longer than most. Given the above, I should in all honesty be dreading it. And yet... I can't help but warm to the Coldest 4x4xFar. It's pushing me away, yet for some reason I'm coming back for more. Without a shadow of a doubt, it's the worst car I've ever driven (and I've driven some snotters in my few short years on the road), but I find myself with an irrational hankering to drive a good example of the breed.

Glutton for punishment? CHPD victim in the making? More importantly, is there a cure? I guess I'll find out over the coming week.

Cheers to Tim for Caper assistance, great company as ever, and a quick blast in the Turbo. Cheers (I think...) to Keith for the loan of the Rangie - hope I don't sound TOO ungrateful and spoiled. It's 3 degrees outside. I'm going for a drive. I might, as a better man than me once said, be some time.

Monday, 19 November 2007


While we’re all one big happy European family right now, it is untrue to say that some national stereotypes refuse to persist. According to an article in last week’s Times the French think that English women are fat, lazy, and fail to take care of their appearance. British men, meanwhile, are rubbish in bed and can’t cook, something which I’m sure would come as a surprise to Gordon Ramsey. Well, the second one would, anyway: I'm not sure what he's like in bed.

The British are as bad as anyone else, mind. Ask us to précis the various European nations and we’ll launch into a travelogue that would put Marco Polo to shame. The Germans are humourless and efficient, the French are rude and intransigent, and the Dutch all speak perfect English in between tokes on the bong. The Greeks are mental, the Italians are anarchists (and in the case of the women, raven-haired beauties who, however, become wizened old crones off the Dolmio advert some time around their thirtieth birthday) and the Belgians are boring. Whether or not he’s ever been to these places, an Englishman will be able to reel you off these definitions without so much as a moment’s hesitation. They’re accepted wisdom. They are facts.

Except, of course, they’re not facts at all. Having been on a hitchhiking mission to Paris last weekend, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a conciliatory French railway official, a Persian (not Iranian) communist in exile, and a Dutch bloke who spoke no English. A Belgian chap who gave us a lift across the channel, meanwhile, was the biggest playboy I have ever encountered – as a pilot and former tank driver, with his own boat on Lake Maggiore, he’s the definition of what a small boy wants to grow up to be. Ask him the definition of the word boring and he’d probably have to look it up in a dictionary. In short, he did not fit into my preconceived Belgian paradigm. Perhaps that’s why they say that travel broadens the mind.

How, though, to broaden the public’s mind with regard to cars? Because the automotive world suffers just as many preconceived judgments as the geographical one, and some of them are just daft. The one I’ve been struggling with the most this week has been the Renault Clio, which is, of course, perceived as the archetypal young person’s car. Ask me to count the number of cars on Warwick’s university campus that aren’t Clios, and I’d not be in any danger of taking my shoes and socks off. Nicole, it seems, has done her job well.

But I’ve been thrashing about in a 1997 1.4 model and I’ve been frankly appalled at almost every aspect of it. It IS a young person’s car, in that a child’s birthday party clearly had a major hand in the design process. The ride was modelled on a pogo-stick, the clutch was harder to depress than the birthday boy on a Ribena high, and the seats were as comfortable as his Little Tyke’s Cozy Coupe. The dash was laid out by blindfolded toddlers as part of a the afternoon’s entertainment, meaning the conjurer could slip outside for a cigarette – the car has no magic, no sparkle, none of the (sorry) joie de vivre I was expecting from a car pitched at the young, enthusiastic driver. It was slow, thrashy, the brakes didn’t work and it wasn’t even all that economical.

Compare this to the overlooked Rover 200, in both R8 and R3 form, which is of course perceived as the car of choice for fans of Werthers’ Originals. Those who carry a tartan rug on the passenger shelf. Those with a predilection for wearing pork-pie hats. Not to put too fine a point on it – old giffers. But why should this be? My old R8 was a tired old thing which set me back just £196, but it was superior in almost every way to the Renault. The dash was well laid out, its 1.4 K-series had the measure of its French cousin by forty horses (whilst sounding gorgeous through its K&N cone filter) and the cabin was light and airy. The boot was bigger, the driving position was superior, and despite a blowing exhaust and a rogered catalytic converter, I’d see over 40mpg on a run – all the things that are important to a young driver on a tight budget. What’s more, there was an air of class, of faded grandeur, like the country house of a family who have fallen on hard times. For first-time buyers, the Rover was a tatty Cotswold cottage to the Renault’s Barratt starter-home.

Sadly, though, the stereotype is self-perpetuating. Whilst the MG Z-cars went a long way to rehabilitating that brand’s image, it would be untrue to say that this halo-effect extended to their Rover siblings, and thusly to the rest of the brand. Old people drive Rovers, therefore more old people buy Rovers, and young people are put off by this. The few enlightened individuals that I know who admit to owning R8s face a similar level of incredulity to if they announced they’d discovered a cracking German stand-up comedian or an Italian business with a correctly filed tax report.

So we are back where we started – the Clio is a young person’s car, and the 200 is for pensioners. In that case, to quote that nice young man Robert Williams, 'I hope I’m old before I die.'

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Gaydon: Twinned With The Louvre

(Author's Note: This article was written after confirmation that the National Motor Museum at Gaydon had been leaving priceless exhibits outside, unprotected from the elements, because of lack of space)

Outrage at Mistreatment of Louvre Exhibits.

There was mounting anger on the streets of Paris last night, as a small but vocal crowd gathered to protest the mistreatment of many valuable artworks by the Musée du Louvre, Paris. Protesters said that some priceless, irreplaceable works, such as David’s Oath of the Horatii and Alexandros’ Venus de Milo, had been left in totally unsuitable conditions for their preservation. Photographic evidence, meanwhile, suggested that paintings and sculptures were being stored outside the museum’s walls, in an insecure location by the site’s waste disposal facilities.

In a recent press statement, the museum’s press director, J Merde, gave assurances that the exhibits were being stored outside only temporarily, and that the situation would soon be rectified.

“This process has been more prolonged than we anticipated as planning permission has had to be sought from the local authority. As a result we have had to keep some paintings outside, a situation we are clearly less than happy with…We have been able to move a significant number of the most fragile paintings… into covered storage and we hope to complete the process for all the collection with 4-5 weeks. At the same time we have also taken the opportunity to inspect paintings and sculptures in our workshop. We certainly have no intention of keeping any works outside during the winter period and have no plans to sell any works from the reserve collection.”

However, protesters point to the recent grant given to the Musée by the Lotto, which has been spent on an interior remodelling rather than the preservation of existing works. It is strongly felt that the money has, at least in part, been mis-spent. Merde insists that “We have taken the opportunity to spruce up the rest of the museum,” and that “Whilst it may feel more empty, this is in response to an often-raised comment by visitors that they would like more space around the exhibits, to view them more easily.” Many protesters, however, see this as an indication that the displaced works will not be returned to public viewing, and instead will be allowed to languish in inappropriate conditions for the foreseeable future.

The French Secretary of Culture, Jamie Lesoignons, was unavailable for comment.

Then, with a jolt, Russ woke up in his bed, reaching immediately for two aspirin. His head was spinning, and he was appalled by what he had dreamed. No museum would be allowed to carry on like that, would it? Would it?

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Bumper Cars

I'VE never been much of a fan of the ill-fated Rover Streetwise. Indeed, I’ve always thought it cynical, a pastiche on a ‘proper’ off-roader and a shameless attempt to cash in on the trend towards urban mudplugging. Along with its CityRover contemporary, I have always held it as symptomatic of the desperation evident in the final days of the Phoenix 4’s tenure. Above all, I’ve always hated its stupid, faux-tough, dodgem-style bumpers.

For the first time in many years, I may have to admit that I was wrong.

Allow me to present case A). A good friend is following an old giffer in a Vauxhall Meriva up to a junction. He checks – there’s nothing coming for ten miles. He accelerates and goes to turn left, only to find the Meriva still stationary, its driver rearranging his tweed, or whatever it is that old people do at junctions.


The resultant accident can’t have occurred at more than 5mph, but it caused a four-inch crack in the Meriva’s rear bumper. The bodyshops’ quotes to repair ranged from a worrying £400 to a faintly ludicrous £700, so his pockets have now been lightened to the tune of a nice, round, £500. You could blame youthful impatience or geriatric dithering for this: me, I blame Vauxhall. Why, when you know a car’s going to be used in the city and get a few parking knocks, would you fit bumpers made from that stuff they make Tesco Value egg boxes out of?

Now, ladies and gentlemen of the Jury, please examine case B). I have recently completed a banger rally in a 1988 Audi 100 which had standard 1980s “diving-board” style bumpers. The contrast with the modern ones could not be more marked – we drove the poor car into trees, walls, and Team 182’s Ford Mondeo more times than I can remember. Damage to the Audi – slim to none. Damage to trees, walls and Ford Mondeos – devastating. If the chap above had rammed us at thirty miles per hour, never mind five, I can guarantee that the damage to the Teutonic tank would have been nil.

Now, I know that these bumpers are to pedestrians what a hot knife is to a packet of Anchor, but surely there’s a case for some kind of compromise? Can’t manufacturers make bumpers which are tough, built to withstand low-speed impacts without damage, but which are pliable enough not to turn your RTA into a kneecapping? Why can’t a manufacturer fit bumpers like this to a city hatchback, which, after all, is the most likely car to suffer this kind of prang?

Enter, from way out of leftfield, the Streetwise. Tough, yet EURO NCAP compliant bumpers, and a jacked-up ride height for increased city visibility. You’re not going to take it on the motorway much, so who cares about the aerodynamics. And you can grin smugly at all the passing soft-roaders – you’ve made the more sensible city-car decision.

When you put it like this, it all makes perfect sense. The trouble with the Streetwise was the way it was marketed, all that faux-macho bollocks. They could have run an advert which said “Look, we know it’s no Defender, but it’ll save you £500 every time you reverse into a post. Fair enough?” They could even have called it a “25 with tough bumpers”. But no, they went and spoiled it with that ridiculous name, and an advertising campaign which suggested it was an “urban on-roader” – easily the daftest strapline of all time.

I’ve been man enough to admit I was wrong about the Streetwise. I wonder if, looking back, Rover’s marketing men would be able to do the same?

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Hybrid Hypocrisy

EVER played the game “Mini-Punch”? For the uninitiated, this is a great way to pass the time on a journey of any length. The rules are simple: every time you see a Mini (or MINI), you yell “MINI PUNCH!” and smack the person next to you on the nearest available limb.

Predictably, on a recent trip to London, I got a very sore arm indeed.

It’s a good thing, however, that the rules haven’t been extended to include Toyotas, or I may well have been hospitalised. Quite apart from the yuppie-favourite R50s and R56s, a surprisingly large proportion of Big Smoke real estate was occupied by Toyota hybrids, in both Prius and posh Lexus flavours. It took me a while to work out why, but I finally cottoned on – it’s because they’re exempt from the dreaded C-Charge.

Let's take the Prius first: It isn’t exactly as green as the eco-conscious chat-show regulars would have us believe. Most tests achieve a combined mpg of between 40 and 45mpg, which is impressive for such a bulky car… until you recognise that my mother, bless her, never fails to get 43mpg or more from her 1.6 petrol Golf, and that Jeremy Clarkson once drove an Audi A8 TDI from London to Edinburgh and back on a single tank of diesel. But you can, at least, see why Ken has fallen for the eco-babble. Big car, small fuel consumption – everyone’s a winner.

Less explicable, though, is why Lexus’ range of hybrids is exempt. What they’ve done, basically, is to take cars with performance already on the ample side of sufficient, and to add electric motors for a bit of extra oomph. Except for libel laws, this would be known as “cheating”. The RX and LS hybrids have urban mpg figures in the low twenties, yet because they’ve got a Kenwood food blender attached to the drive-train, they’re considered green enough to swan around central London all day long.

Take the new LS600h as an example. Lexus make the claim,oft-repeated in the motoring press, that it has “performance comparable to a 12-cylinder petrol engine, yet with the fuel economy and emissions of a six-cylinder car.” This is pure marketing bullshit. Claimed urban mpg is less than twenty, and considering Toyota’s somewhat optimistic assessment of the Prius’ economy, that figure should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt. Laughably, even Lexus’ own LS460 has higher claimed motorway mpg than the LS600h: yet the latter is ‘green’, while the former is not. Furthermore, both Lexuses (Lexi?) begin to look distinctly dunce-like in comparison to the aforementioned Audi A8 TDI, which offers nearly double the motorway mpg of the 600h – 39.8 vs. 22.

Indeed, the only real advantage the ‘green’ Lexus has over the ‘smog-brown’ Audi is performance. Because of the torque of the electric motors, the 600h can storm to 60 in five seconds dead, while the A8 takes a second longer. Basically, Ken is rewarding you for driving a performance car.

Now, I should be happy about this: after all, I’m as much of a fan of fast cars as any other twenty-something car enthusiast. I’d gladly have an SD1 Vitesse, and drive it in so lead-footed a manner that we’d have to invade Kuwait just to keep me in jungle-juice.

But here’s the thing: I wouldn’t be hypocritical enough to claim I was saving the planet whilst doing so.

Friday, 6 July 2007

Give some Gear

As commutes to work go, I suppose, mine isn’t the worst. Fifty miles of A429 spear their way through Gloucestershire and make significant inroads on Warwickshire, with a smattering of curves thoughtfully inserted to awaken the inattentive, and a jus of tumbling hills which, on a clear day, provide a stunning panorama.

Villages with names like Stow-on-the-Wold and Moreton-in-Marsh betray the road’s ancient origins, and seem to be the subject of a gentleman’s agreement of some sort: in exchange for careful observance of the 30mph limits, keen drivers can go bonkers once they’re through, aided and abetted by an almost complete absence of Scameras. Despite the best efforts of both councils to spoil the party with potholes so deep that I’ve seen someone emerging from one with a pickaxe and an Australian accent, the experienced helmsman can hustle down there at a fair old lick… in theory.

In practice, the road is a corridor between the M4 and M40, meaning that every corner hides another Eddie Stobart beast. And even the eighteen-wheelers are brought down to a crawling 40mph by The Widest Nissan Almera In The World. All too often, I’ll power into a bend, clip the apex, dodge the pothole, and exit triumphantly, to find the road ahead blocked by a fourteen mile road-train, headed by Albert and Ethel and their tartan rug on the parcel shelf.

Now, this isn’t yet another rant about what I believe to be a secret World’s Slowest Driver competition. Indeed, in a badly misfiring 820i, which regulars will know is my current steed, I often come away with the trophy. I’m more interested in what happens in the only moments of blessed relief in fifty miles – two half-mile long hills with overtaking lanes.

Things must be prepared carefully. You allow distance to build between yourself and the car in front as you descend into the valley and drop into fourth. As the perigee approaches, you snick into third and floor it, carrying speed, revs and power just as you hit the overtaking lane. You triumphantly blast past the first car, then the second. The World’s Widest Nissan Almera is in sight! And then a Passat Diesel pulls out in front of you. He hasn’t followed the steps above: the decision to overtake has been a mere whim to him. In fact, he’s still in sixth. What should he care, with his turbodiesely globs of torque? But because the hill is so steep, and he’s not really concentrating, he spends so much time going past the car in front that, by the time its your turn, there’s four inches of overtaking lane left and you have to pull in behind Albert again.

Finally, then, we’ve reached the crux of this morning’s musings. Why have people stopped changing gear? Have their kickdowns broken, or are they simply all too lazy? Since when did it become acceptable to spend half an hour on the wrong side of the road making an overtaking manoeuvre, just to avoid going past 2500 rpm? I was followed to work this morning by a Volvo S80, and as I powered up the hills in third, he fell away time and again. Now, I refuse to believe that he had fewer horses than my ailing T-series, so it must have been a conscious refusal to drop a cog. Doesn’t he know that he’s now being criticised by the driver of a Rover 800, for crying out loud? Has the man no shame?

A message to the people of Britain, and those of the A429 in particular: For God’s sake, get busy with the lever next to the handbrake once in a while. It’ll have benefits which will far outweigh the .001mpg it might cost you. You will help ease congestion, you will get to work more quickly, and you will lower my blood pressure. Finally, something strange and unexpected might start to happen.

You might start to enjoy driving again.