Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Around this time, people across the country will be reflecting on what they achieved in 2008. It's a yearly ritual I'm often a bit reluctant to carry out, for fear that I haven't really moved on much in the last twelve months. But not this year.
Skipping back, almost to the beginning of January, I found myself on a desolate, wind swept, ex-RAF base on the eastern tip of Essex. I'd gone there, in place of my day job at Ford, to write an article on the Piper GTR track day car. The wind was icy cold, but I couldn't care less. I was about to step into a mid-engined sports racer for the first time, write one of my first 'proper' articles and experiment with my new digital SLR. Life was good.
The following month was dominated by the arrival of the TVR. It was the first time I'd really gone out and searched the country for a pristine example of anything. The long, loud, top-down drive back from Humberside set the tone for disrupting the peace of the countryside and, the best part of a year later, I remain utterly chuffed with the purchase.
There was a brief return to normality before things went into overdrive in the spring. In May I attended my first work placement at MSN Cars in London. The following month I had the great pleasure of revisiting them for the Lotus Elise versus Honda S2000 twin test, not to mention attending Autocar's drift school at Silverstone and acquiring my own garage (to secrete yet more cars in) with the new house. The pace didn't slacken for July and August either, which saw me attend further work placements at Evo and Autocar, carry out my first proper road test with the mighty AMS Murtaya and apply for my first fulltime job in journalism.
And so, in September, between road tripping around South Wales and making my first pilgrimage to the Nurburgring, I made the switch from automotive engineering to writing. It's since led me to Modenna, Maranello, Cologne and Florida to name a few. As predicted, it has entailed at least twice as many working hours and rather less than half as much pay, but you know what? I'm hooked.
If this sounds self-indulgent (even more than usual...) then that's because it is. I've marked too many New Year's Eves with the dull realisation that I haven't moved on in any meaningful way, but this time I feel justifiably proud of what I've achieved: Nought to journalist in sixty weeks... here's to maintaining that momentum.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Thunder in The Tunnels

A 'small informal' TVR gathering comes to the streets of London

It's 4:30am on a dark, murky November morning and the roads are slick with their winter sheen of perma-damp. Normally I'd enjoy the idea of deserted tarmac, but right now, I'm just desperately trying to wake up on my way to meet the rest of the Hertfordshire contingent en route to the Thunder in The Tunnels TVR run.

A cereal bar and a healthy dose of caffeine at our South Mimms rendezvous does the trick and I'm soon part of the thunderous convoy into making its way into the capital. The general damp has given way to a full on downpour, but to my surprise the S3 remains bone dry inside and really rather civilised. There's plenty of time to check for leaks as an accident on the A12 - fortunately not one of us - holds up our arrival. As a result, once we're moving again and nearing the start point, there are already cars roaring past in the other direction. A group of us elect to perform a hasty u-turn and join the main part of the run.

For a while there’s nothing other than flame-spitting TVRs flying left right and centre in the dark, otherwise-deserted streets. There’s a sense of mischief about it – like Satan’s little minions let out for a night to wreak havoc. Confusion reigns and after a couple of runs through the Limehouse Link and Rotherhithe tunnels, we come round a corner to join a stationary bunch of TVRs regrouping. As one of the cars at the front starts to move I elect to join him, but rapidly it dawns on me that no one is following.

Maybe the guy I've chosen to follow isn’t on the correct route – for that matter, maybe he’s decided to go home for some reason? Still, having zero knowledge of central London I elect to tag along. We stooge round for a while before pulling over and (after brief introductions) hazard a guess at where we’re actually supposed to be heading. A few minutes later, driving down an equally unfamiliar road, we spot (or rather, hear) a silver Sagaris up ahead as it darts into a side turning. Upon approach the turning just looks wrong – narrow and well-concealed, it seems more like the entrance to a car park, but sure enough it's another tunnel there's half a dozen TVRs parked up inside.

I get out to stretch my legs, take a few photographs and meet some of the other tunnel runners – during which time the main group of cars shows up with a thunderous roar. First comes David Hughes, the organiser, in his bellowing supercharged Chimera 500, complete with flags and banners. Following him, a stream of Cerberas, T350Cs and Wedges come past, with an ear splitting burst of acceleration, followed by sheets of flame popping out the exhaust on overrun.

After looping back for a couple of more runs, David gives the order to move on. By the time I’ve got back in the car most people have already gone and then… silence. I try to start it but the starter motor won’t engage and it occurs to me that leaving the lights on wasn’t the smartest move. After sitting with the lights switched off for a minute and playing with the immobiliser I finally manage to coax the S3 back into life and head off behind an enthusiastically driven T350C that’s making one last run through the tunnel.

I follow it to the next re-grouping point in Battersea park, where bladders are drained and cars are dreweled over. Fortunately the rain has now stopped and the sun has just risen, making it an ideal time to survey the hundred or so TVRs assembled in this automotive art gallery beside the Thames.

The next leg takes us through the city. Again confusion reigns as the traffic lights conspire to separate me from the pack. I make an impromptu U-turn after spotting a Cerbera coming in the opposite direction and fortunately he appears to know where he’s going. We carry on to Whitehall – looping round around Parliament Square and Trafalgar Square. The police seem to be paying rather more attention to the proceedings now, but the good natured (if somewhat spirited) driving is treated with discretion – proof positive that we’re much better off with real coppers than revenue-generating cameras. In fact, I suspect they were largely there for the fun of it.

As the regrouping concludes, the entirety of Pall Mall is filled with TVRs on both sides. It's a fitting climax to our little early morning drive through the capital and a sight to behold. The final part of the run takes us underneath the gloriously echoey A40 elevated section, through West London and on to the famous Ace Cafe. The car park and beyond that, the road, the adjoining roads and every other available scrap of tarmac rapidly fills up with TVRs, while the kitchen goes into overdrive supplying cooked breakfasts and bacon butties to a couple of hundred hungry petrolheads.

Surveying the scene I can't help feeling pride in my six cylinder 'baby TVR'. It acquited itslef very well, both in terms of noise and performance, compared to its V8 bretherin - not to mention a couple of non-TVR interlopers. It performed faultlessly and remained a very pleasant, comfortable place to be in the cold, wet conditions. What's more the event had been great fun and a fine chance to meet some like-minded (and equally mascochistic) fellow enthusiasts. In the end it was more than worth crawling out of bed at such an ungodly hour. I would, however, recommend a can or two of Redbull before setting off next time.

Monday, November 24, 2008

My cars: Mazda Eunos Roadster RS-LTD

I started off this blog looking at some of my previous cars, now we pick up the story at number five - no hairdresser jokes please.

Do you have a defining mental image of any car? I do, at least in the case of the Mazda Eunos Roadster, and it’s the one you see above. It was taken one Sunday evening as I was driving back to Chelmsford from London. I’d already decided to take the fun route across country, but rapidly forgot about my destination altogether and just began driving around the rural north of Essex. It was around 9pm by the time that photo was taken; the countryside was bathed in the last of the warm summer sunshine and I’d been driving for around two hours, completely lost in the experience. Somehow I’d only seen a handful of cars and a few enthusiastically ridden bikes in that time and I’d had a real chance to enjoy the Eunos Roadster.

And it wasn’t any old Eunos either. The car in question was one of just 500 hardcore ‘RS-Limited’ special editions – the most focused factory iteration of the Mk1 Eunos (or indeed MX5 or Miata depending on the market). It came with a raft of genuinely useful performance modifications including extra chassis bracing, a lowered final drive ratio, a lightened flywheel, a Torsen limited slip differential, Bilstein dampers and carbon fibre Recaro seats.

More fundamentally, the Eunos was Japanese giant Mazda’s attempt to recapture the fun factor of a classic British roadster. Legend has it that the design team were given a fleet of MG Midgets, Triumph Spitfires and TRs to drive, inspect and analyse. They are said to have spent hours just listening to recordings of the MG’s characteristic exhaust note in an attempt to recreate it on the new roadster. And, on the whole, you’d have to say they did a pretty good job. The rasp it emitted sounded perfect when bouncing off a passing wall, even if it arguably lacked that final degree of attitude. The engine, meanwhile, felt eager and snappy with a very linear torque curve and excellent responses. What’s more it was mated to one of the nicest mass produced gearboxes around complete with a very positive short-throw action and beautifully stacked ratios.

In the cold and frequently damp climes of the UK, the original Japanese-market tyres on my imported Eunos tended to dominate the handling somewhat. In the dry it frankly felt a little over-tyred on occasions, when the modest 140hp struggled to alter the balance of its impressive grip reserves. However, at the slightest hint of moisture, it became a very different story. The Teflon-smooth Bridgestones would conspire with the car’s trick differential to produce hilarious levels of oversteer at minimal speeds and throttle openings. This leads to my second defining memory of the Eunos – applying opposite lock with one hand, half asleep, coming out of the T-junction near my house on wet mornings.

While it was great fun and eminently controllable, the Mazda’s wayward manner could also be a pain in day-to-day driving. The wet-weather grip reserves were so low that you had very little safety margin at normal traffic speeds. Much of this would probably have been remedied by some more suitable tyres, but I was never entirely convinced that there weren’t a few more fundamental problems – at least with this particular example. In addition to the grip levels, and very much contrary to their reputation, the steering was curiously lacking in feedback, there was noticeable scuttle shake and the brakes offered little in the way of feel or stopping power.

Yet, given the right setup modifications, the Eunos would doubtlessly have proved an ideal every day sports car. To bolster its case it came with bulletproof reliability, a surprisingly ample boot and one of the few genuinely watertight convertible hoods I’ve ever come across. And recently I’ve found myself contemplating getting a decent example for daily transport (and possibly a supercharger to go with it).

Back then, however, there was always a nagging thought in my mind. Mazda truly had created a modern Japanese take on the 1960s British sports car and, in most quantifiable respects, they’d improved on it. But had they gone a step too far? The plastic-laden dashboard sometimes felt a little soulless; and the (admittedly competent) engine a tiny bit clinical. I couldn’t help thinking that some of the character of those cars which inspired it had gone at the same time as their oil leaks, their cold start problems and their dubious hoods. Perhaps it was with this in mind that the car I eventually replaced it with was an old school kit car powered by a 1960s Fiat powerplant… Needless to say, I rapidly came to appreciate the value of Japanese efficiency.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Motoring's axis of evil (sort of)

Forgive me for sounding like an old git, but the one thing that I feel is missing from driving these days is manners. In the old days I dare say the good chaps in their ‘blower’ Bentleys and Aston Martin Internationals would pause to let people out of junctions when on their way to lap Brooklands or do battle with the hun. And you know what? I reckon they’d have acknowledged anyone who did the same for them.

However, these days – at least if you live near London - it seems the only people you’re on your way to battle are various idiots clogging up the roads. Despite this, I do try to be nice. If there’s no obvious end to the traffic behind me and I’m feeling so inclined I’ll stop to let people in. It’s a small gesture admittedly, but all it requires by way of thanks is the merest lift of a finger or flash of the headlights – it’s not difficult. And yet it winds me up no end when people can’t be bothered to do so. It is, without doubt, my greatest motoring pet-hate.

You may wonder what sort of person fails to do this – surely it’s arrogant yuppies in BMWs, boy-racers in dubiously modified Vauxhalls or white van drivers? Actually, no, the number one perpetrator seems to be a far more socially acceptable stereotype – the suburban housewife. Should you make the mistake of offering them some small kindness to ease their stress-filled lives, the female parental units of North London will blank you with a form of contempt that’s hard to fathom. They’re far too busy yelling at Tristan and Paris in the back seats to acknowledge the fact you’ve brought half of suburbia to a halt in order to help them. Instead, their X3 or Touareg just wafts past sanctimoniously.

So, I’ve resolved to leave them stuck in the middle of the road screaming at their spoilt offspring in the future, and this got me thinking about other driving stereotypes. Who else should I avoid at this hypothetical T-Junction? Maybe I need a list…

Right behind the yummy mummies on my inventory (and frequently overlapping them) would be suburban soft-roaders. It’s not an environmental concern, I just think they’re a pointless waste of resources. Next comes any one of the current ‘retro’ craze of cars, particularly when driven by an estate agent. And following that comes any modern BMW with less than six cylinders, cosmetically ‘enhanced’ hatchbacks playing house music and anyone with a really egotistical personalised plate (yes, B16 B0Y of Chelmsford, that’s you).

So who does get let in? Well, that would start with anyone who shows a bit of decency on the road (even if they otherwise fall into any of the above). Next comes the original Mini - you see, it’s physically impossible to dislike one of Mr Issigonis’ inventions. It may come bulging with bits of Halfords-sourced body kit or indeed it may cut you up horrendously, but a Mini can never be evil - at worst it’s simply a bit cheeky. Beyond that, the drivers of kit cars, TVRs (well, most sports cars to be honest), classic cars and Alfa Romeos also get automatic entry. Then last - although by no means least – you shouldn’t forget to let in those pleasant gents in their vintage Astons and Bentleys. After all, they would do it for you.

(Image shamelessly pinched from the superb

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Cooler cruising in Cologne

I spent last week at the Professional Motorsport World Expo in Cologne. It was a great chance to catch up with various people in the industry as well as to gather information and interviews for the magazine. Alongside the more technical exhibits it was good to have a closer look at the KTM X-Bow, the Corvette Racing C6R and the mighty Caparo T1.

Sadly, on this occasion, the above were all stationary. However, I did manage to blag an exclusive first UK drive (or should that be ride?) of the Cruizin Cooler SL500. Standing at a mighty 18” tall, the Cruizin Cooler is essential a motorised cool box, with space for a crate or two of beer, alongside its 500 watt electric motor. The German importers were all too happy for me to indulge in an impromptu road test around the exhibition centre’s foyer and first impressions are indeed positive.

The controls are very simple with a twist’n’go throttle on the right and a single brake lever on the left. Acceleration is surprisingly brisk and the top speed of 13mph felt more than quick enough when travelling through an enclosed space on a motorised beer cooler. Cornering was another matter, with the unladen SL500 showing a distinct tendency to role over when pushed to the limit in our highly scientific ride and handling evaluation. Fortunately, leaning inwards cured this and, bizarre as it sounds, the Cruizin Cooler proved rather addictive. It does however pose the difficult question of how much beer to leave in as ballast and how much to drink before you can fully appreciate the experience.

An inconvenient truth for Dr Hansen

Cast your mind back a few months before the phenomenon that is the credit crunch and you may recall another major talking point: climate change. Back when the upwardly mobile could still afford a Prius, Al Gore was their main inspiration and his ideas principally came from one Dr James Hansen.

Recently Dr Hansen popped up again with the shocking revelation that last month had been the hottest October on record. Highs of up to 10 degrees more than normal had been recorded in parts of Russia and a new ‘hot spot’ had been discovered in the arctic. This seemed like unprecedented evidence of global warming, until that is, two well known meteorologists - Anthony Watts and Steve McIntyre – discovered a flaw.

Anecdotal evidence appeared to show that last month had, in fact, been unseasonably cold. There had been the first October snowfall in London for 74 years, Tibet had suffered its ‘worst snow storm ever’ (according to the Chinese News Agency) and there had been heavy snowfalls across America. Upon further investigation it transpired that Hansen’s figures for October were, in fact, those for September. The correct set of recordings showed it to have been only the 70th-warmest October in 114 years. Not only that, but satellite imagery showed Arctic sea-ice recovering so fast from its summer melt that it was 30 per cent more extensive than at the same time last year.

All very interesting, but what does this have to do with cars? Well, I like to consider myself a fairly open minded petrolhead when it comes to environmental issues, yet the message given out by champagne-environmentalists is usually far more black and white - superficial concessions to climate change are good; conventional cars (particularly fast ones) are bad.

These groups take the views of people such as Dr Hansen and Al Gore as absolute fact, with no question of error or misinterpretation. However, this latest blunder shows quite clearly that is not the case. Instead it appears that many apparently independent scientists will take their results, manipulate them to fit their own argument and then broadcast it to the world as an absolute truth, without pausing to consider the trivial matter of accuracy. Make no mistake, the study of climate change and any possible man-made influence is important, but the barrage of spin and dodgy statistics on both sides simply detracts from it. We can only be thankful that the Guardian readers out there were too busy worrying about their finances to take notice. That or they were out playing in the snow.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The click

Maybe it’s just me, but I reckon you sometimes come across a defining point with a car; one where you suddenly get to grips with it and finally feel that everything is just right. Well that’s what happened to me with the TVR over the weekend. It just clicked.

Suffice to say I had a good drive on Saturday (as featured below), but what really cemented it was venturing out in the dark, damp conditions of Sunday evening. I co-organise the local Pistonheads meet and, aside from gawping at an array of interesting machinery and getting a ride out in a fantastic Austin Healey Frog Eyed Sprite, it provided the chance to go for a bit of a drive. Along with a fellow PHer in a Noble M400, I headed out onto the local lanes after the event.

It’s the first time the car has been out in the wet on its new tyres (fitted some months ago I’m afraid – the phrase Garage Queen springs to mind...) and it handled superbly. The Bridgestone rubber behaves very consistently and retains an impressive degree of its dry weather grip. The steering feedback remains well telegraphed and the car’s ultimate responses benign and well balanced. But this zen-like state goes well beyond trivial issues such as the tyre performance. There’s just a feeling of every last detail being pretty much how you want it. Everything suddenly feels natural and intuitive.

I also think the experiences you have with a car help to secure its position in your affection. And over three hours of driving on Saturday, followed by an intensely atmospheric night-time hoon on Sunday won’t quickly be forgotten. Neither, for that matter, will the sight and sound of the M400’s be-winged profile sling-shotting out of the mist as we reached the dual carriageway. The latter has earned the Noble a firm place in my fantasy garage, but for now, in reality, I can’t think of anything I’d rather have than the TVR. It just clicked.

Aston Maintained

Just to prove I wasn't showing favouritism with the link to the Ferrari video the other day, here's another YouTube gem. This time it's Captain Slow in one of my all time favourite cars.

...Damn it, did I say no favouritism?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

It's good to be back

Do you remember what it was like to be a kid on Christmas Eve? Well, that’s exactly how I was feeling for the entirety of last week. The call came through from Trimar Sports Cars in Barnet on Tuesday to say that the TVR was finally ready to be collected. And, from that moment, the countdown to ‘Christmas’ began.

Picking the car up yesterday I was too excited too think about the considerable bill (£860 for some exhaust fabrication, an MOT, service and front brake overhaul). Or the three weeks it had taken to accomplish it. Or the fact the car had been obviously been left outside without its cover to thoroughly moisten the interior. No, I just wanted to get out and drive it.

After I’d wiped the worst of the condensation from the inside of the windscreen I set off with the top down for a spot of blow drying. Surprisingly, it wasn’t that cold – the rear section of the hood (minus the targa panels) greatly reduces buffeting and the heater actually does a respectable job of keeping the cockpit warm.

I was mindful of bedding in the new brake pads on the quick cross-country dash to South Mimms, but already it felt good to have the car back. From there I headed up the A1 and to one of life’s simple pleasures – the experience of driving a TVR through a tunnel. Maybe it’s psychosomatic, but I could swear it sounds different since the work – a somewhat leaner, harder sound than before.

I could swear it’s more than just the noise which has changed in the past month or so too. The warm, grippy tarmac of late summer has been replaced by something altogether more entertaining and the series of roundabouts that take me off the motorway provide plenty of childish amusement. This time of year seems to strengthen the position of cars like the S-Series, which a mere mortal can exploit on the public road at sensible speeds. Any hot hatch worth its salt would leave it behind on a twisty road, but there’s nothing quite like the combination of modest grip levels, ample steering feedback and a well balanced chassis.

Continuing onto the B-roads of Hertfordshire the TVR feels firmly in its element. The roads seem to be uncharacteristically empty for early afternoon, which (along with falling petrol prices and a surfeit of affordable sports cars) leads me to believe the ‘credit crunch’ isn’t such a bad thing after all.

I press on, into Bedfordshire, which brings some fantastic roads and some very English place names. After getting stuck behind the first real traffic of the trip, I take a chance on a side turning signposted to Apsley End and discover a fantastic stretch of tarmac, full of well-sighted bends. As it passes under the trees, the car kicks up cloud of dry autumn leaves and I really, really wish I had a photographer. From there I randomly pick Higham Gobian as the next destination and get rewarded by an equally entertaining, if rather faster, exposed stretch which takes me all the way to Barton Le Clay.

I’ve driven here before, but never via this route and one thing becomes clear – there are many more fantastic roads to be found and many more side turning to be explored. In fact, a few miles north of here lies the A507 – allegedly an entertaining drive in itself, it eventually leads to the sensational roads of rural Essex. These two areas, plus all that lies between, add up to create an impressive playground for petrolheads, all just a short hop from the edge of London. Christmas, it seems, is here all year round.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Ferrari California

Link to Andrew Frankel's video road test on Autocar. You NEED to watch this, preferably with the sound a long, long way up:

I think I’ve found my new favourite car. Finally a Ferrari I’d forsake Aston Martin for.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

On the road again

My first trip with the magazine takes me right into the heart of Italian supercar country...

People sometimes question the car as a means of long distance transport, and you know what? They’re right. If you want to get from London to Italy by the following morning, nothing beats a plane. However, when it deposits you 300km away from your destination and well into the hours of darkness, things start to become complicated, as I found out on my trip to Modena.

I’d love to say something more glamorous was involved, but in fact, the transport that myself, one of my colleagues and a very large case full of exhibition equipment had to pile into was a 1200cc Fiat Grande Punto. Our collective knowledge of Italian geography was non-existent and our faith in the sat nav was about to prove misguided.

After a brief trip onto the autostrade that we assumed would take us all the way, a computerised voice directed us into the outskirts of Milan. I wobbled away at the helm trying to reconcile unlit roads, driving on the right and late-night fatigue. However, it soon became apparent that my driving was the least of our worries.

The first rule of driving in Italy is… there are no rules. In the entire trip I only saw one vehicle indicate and, even in the dead of night, lights were an option. So, it seems were speed limits – at one point I went to slow down as we were approaching a police car rather faster than the law allowed and the local drivers just kept streaming past. Overtaking was also somewhat of an art with Puntos and Pandas darting into the slightest gap left by the car in front.

We drove on, following the Tom Tom’s increasingly baffling instructions. Once clear of Milan all we could really tell was that the surrounding countryside was very flat. The route took us through a mixture of tree-lined rural roads, run down villages and dubious looking industrial areas. In my naivety it took a while to twig what all the groups of young women standing by the road were. Virtually the only people we saw in the next 250km were prostitutes – it seemed to be an interesting take on Catholicism.

The following day after a short, restless sleep we met up with our two bosses and went to set up the exhibition. That completed we headed off onto the road again and up to Maranello. We had been due to meet a friend in Ferrari Formula One team, but an end-of-season rush had put paid to that plan. Instead we took a tour of the Galleria Ferrari and drooled at decades of F1 cars, along with 288 GTOs, F40s and the new California.

That night we were invited to a dinner held by the organisers of the show at what was reputedly Enzo Ferrari’s favourite restaurant. Along with my colleagues from the magazine sat a well-known Nascar engine designer, an AMA Superbike rider and a former F1 driver turned IRL racer. It already felt a little strange, but the night was about to take an altogether more surreal turn.

As the meal came to a close, we were ushered out of the restaurant for ‘a surprise’. About 200 yards away from the main building stood what appeared to be barn. Here the owner stopped and proudly explained (via a passing Indy 500 winner acting as interpreter) that this building had once been a famous brothel frequented by none other than Benito Mussolini. He had bought the building in its entirity and transported it brick-by-brick to the new location and recreated the 1930s interior - as a museum apparently.

He showed us around with pride (after all not everyone has a pre-war brothel in their back garden), but something didn’t quite seem right. People started commenting on various things – half empty bottles of (contemporary) mineral water, an equally up to date DVD collection in some of the rooms and a less than pleasant smell. We began to suspect the ‘museum’ offered a very hands-on approach to history.

Having safely made it out of Mussolini’s shag pad we retired to the hotel. In the morning we left early for the first day of the exhibition. In between manning the stand and interviewing our fellow exhibitors for the magazine, I switched on my phone to find a voicemail from the garage I’d left my TVR with. Taking a deep breath I phoned them back agreeing to the quoted price. Maybe next time I should haggle.

The following day we left the exhibition early and entrusted the hire car to our corporate overlords who were making their way back seperately. Our transport back to the airport was a taxi. In most respects this made sense – he would surely know the roads better than us and avoid a repeat of our scenic route over. However, there was a typically Italian approach to booking the cab and it finally turned up an hour and a half later than intended.

To start with all was fine. We made good progress on the A1 autostrade with surprisingly little traffic for a Friday afternoon. Then, approaching the final toll, we came to a grinding halt. Nobody was moving forward as the road funnelled back down to three lanes from the huge width of the tollbooths. There was just a sea of beeping, nudging Fiats jostling for position. After about fifteen minutes even this ceased and people got out and started smoking and chatting. I half expected to see Charlie Croaker and a fleet of Mini Coppers flash past, but he failed to turn up.

Three quarters of an hour later we finally started to move – now seriously behind schedule. With just moments to spare we arrived at the airport scrambled onto the plane. From there the journey back was easy, but sitting on the plane I found myself reflecting on something: I’ve been to Italy several times before, flying to an anonymous concrete airport then taking a coach up into the alps, yet it felt like the first time I’d really seen the country. Without doubt our nocturnal road trip three nights before had been a less efficient means of transport, but it had given us the chance to really travel. The car, it seems, still has its uses.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Tackling the Nurburging

It’s 7am on a crisp September morning and I’m about to catch a lift to Germany, because tomorrow I have an appointment with a Porsche 968 and one of the most famous stretches of tarmac on earth. My transport for today is a grey Seat Leon FR Tdi driven by Dan; an old friend and self-confessed speed freak. Beneath its standard exterior a Revo ECU remap and a few other choice tweaks lie in wait to silence the diesel critics.

With the roads mercifully clear of weekend-traffic we make good time down to the Channel Tunnel, where even the previous weekend’s fire fails to disrupt our progress significantly and we soon emerge into the sunlight at the other end. We head up onto the familiar tarmac of the A16 and, free of the British road system, the pace starts to rise rapidly. There’s a very marked improvement in observation and lane discipline on continental roads, which means speeds that would be reckless in Britain are comparatively relaxed. We cut across the flat plains of Northern Europe with the speedo rarely dropping below three figures. The Seat’s modified powerplant remains impressively civilised despite a GPS-recorded peak of 143mph and a cruising speed of around 120mph. Even driven with such enthusiasm it returns an indicated 31mpg.

As we head off the autobahn onto the B257, the landscape changes dramatically. Within a matter of miles it goes from wide-open farmland to the soaring foothills of the Eiffel Mountains. There’s also an increased feeling of Germanness. Steep roofs and gothic architecture start to lend the villages a Bavarian feel – none more so than our penultimate waypoint of Adenau – and yet it’s the road beyond here that really captures the petrolhead’s imagination. The L92 has a series of fast-flowing, well-sighted bends separated by alpine switchbacks. It’s almost hard to imagine a better driving road. A few miles ahead lies our hotel, The Altes Forsthaus. It was adopted as a local base for the Mercedes Benz racing team shortly after it opened in 1924. Since then, it’s seen the mammoth vintage SSKs, the breathtaking Silver Arrow grand prix cars and the graceful sports racers of the 1950s. And now… us.

Sometime before 6am the light is turned on and I find Dan standing by the switch already fully dressed. Like a kid at Christmas it turns out he’s been up for hours and got tired of waiting. And so, after hauling myself out of bed, we go out to check the oil in the Leon and then wander down to the circuit entrance. It’s barely dawn, but already a RUF 9ff and Nissan GT-R are burbling into the paddock. This just seems to typify the Nurburgring - a place that oozes petrol from every orifice.

After breakfast we head down to Haus Marvin – a small family run guesthouse, which just happens to own a fleet of high performance hire cars. My choice, the Porsche 968, looks pristine sat outside on the street and with a 10,000 Euro excess on the insurance policy I intend to keep it that way.

As we head back and queue to join the circuit, my pulse starts to quicken. I drive out as the barrier rises and almost immediately face the challenge of simultaneously trying to find my way round and keeping out the way of those who already have. My first impressions are that the circuit actually seems strangely unintimidating in real life. It’s much narrower and twistier than it appears on a computer screen, so driving a standard road car with some degree of self-preservation keeps the speeds reasonably sane in most places. Not that anyone seems to have told the supercar drivers that - various modified 911s buzz past, punctuated by the occasional BMW M5 or Weismann Roadster.

However, within a few laps it ceases to be a source of terror and just a point of mild annoyance. Normal autobahn rules apply and you’re obliged to pull over for faster traffic. Once you’ve slowed down to take a tighter line hugging the right hand curb this can easily spoil several corners. Even worse is overtaking slower traffic, where you have to go past on the left, which (on a clockwise circuit) is more often than not the outside. You also can’t take any of the risks you would do in competitive racing, so teetering around the dirty side of the track can be a nerve-wracking experience.

Fortunately the car isn’t a concern. It feels distinctly similar to my old Porsche 924S, with a few of the flaws ironed out. More to the point, the driving experience is nearly identical to the later 16-valve 944s. It leaves me even more baffled as to why 968 owners don’t just spend half the money on a good 944 S2. That’s not to say it’s a bad car. In fact it’s very good indeed. The free-spinning 3.0-litre four-cylinder engine, although barely powerful enough for a hot hatch by today’s standards, feels eager and responsive. The steering is direct and brilliantly precise with reasonable levels of feedback. Meanwhile the comparatively soft, but brilliantly damped suspension gives the 968 an almost supernatural ability to maintain complete composure; irrespective of what bumps, cambers or crests the Nordschleife chooses to throw at it.

When you do reach the limit it initially gives way to mild, well-telegraphed understeer. Push further and the 968 will tighten its line into a sort of four-wheel drift, but with ‘only’ 220hp combined with chunky aftermarket alloys and no limited-slip differential you can rarely provoke any serious oversteer. Which, on an unfamiliar track, suits me fine.

As the day progresses I start to gain a vague idea of where I’m going. I also start to notice a few stereotypes amongst my fellow ‘ringers. Most of the local drivers are humblingly competent – they hustle their BMWs and Porsches around at great speed and deal courteously with any traffic in front or behind them. But every so often you get one who appears to be out of control. They go past in a flurry of flailing hands and opposite lock, missing you by inches. Occasionally somebody gets it wrong in a big way and the traffic is either yellow flagged or stopped completely as the marshals scoop them up with typically Teutonic efficiency. On one such occasion I drive past a man who is walking away from the remains of his 997 GT3 RS. Going past slowly I can just make out the expression on his face – it’s exactly how I’d look too if I’d just written off a £100,000 supercar.

After this sobering experience I return to the paddock and let the 968 cool down while I ride shotgun with Dan. His Leon continues to impress out here on the track as it did on the autobahn. There’s somewhat more body roll than in the Porsche, but outright grip is very similar and the brakes are noticeably sharper. Even more impressive is the engine, which pulls like a train and responds with the sort of eagerness you wouldn’t usually associate with a diesel. It even sounds quite nice. Yet the soundtrack seems to be the last thing on Dan’s mind as he pilots the Leon with total commitment and considerable skill. I’m enjoying the roller coaster ride and waxing lyrical to this effect until politely reminded that it’s my job to keep quiet and hold the stopwatch. Dan, it seems, is on a mission.

At the end of the lap we head back to sit out another lengthy stoppage, at which point I spot an opportunity. As soon as the announcement comes over the tannoy that the track will soon be reopening I head towards the barrier. With the benefit of an empty road things finally start to come together. Apex follows apex and I feel at one with the 968. After around nine minutes I’m approaching the start line again, but, being on a roll, I decide to queue for the track side barrier instead of pulling into the pits. Once again someone else’s misfortune turns to my advantage. I’m a couple of cars away from the barrier as another stoppage is called and after fifteen minutes lounging in the late summer sunshine the session restarts in a carbon copy of the previous lap.

Immediately behind me a bright red 968 is joining the track and we set off down the straight. The other car seems to have somewhat more straight-line urge, so I pull over and signal to let him past. Going round the first set of real corners at the Hohenrain chicane I find myself catching up slightly. Building on my confidence from the previous lap I’m now able to judge the corner speeds better and the car is on its limit of adhesion virtually from the point I turn in.

Corner after corner, we concertina our way around the ‘Ring. A trio of bikes constitute just about the only traffic up ahead. Here, unlike a conventional road, the greater cornering speeds that cars can achieve hand them an advantage over all but the bravest of bikers. Conversely, the only people to catch us are a handful of the usual banzai 911s that blast past quickly, creating no real little distraction. It’s another perfect lap which sees our two 968s still separated by only a couple of hundred yards as it draws to a close.

Unfortunately my tank is virtually empty and my twelve lap ticket is about to expire, so I peel off towards the paddock. The other driver, meanwhile, gives a friendly wave and continues on to the track side barrier. I can’t deny I’m slightly jealous, but the day is rapidly drawing to a close, I’m completely knackered and the 15 year old Porsche is also starting to feel like it could do with a rest. It has, however, proved the ideal tool for learning the ‘Ring and it is with slight regret that I give the 968 back to its owners at Haus Marvin. I would highly recommend either to anyone contemplating a similar trip.

The journey home the following morning begins well with an enthusiastic crossing of the German B-roads in Dan’s Leon. However, as we join the autobahn the traffic thickens and it’s a trend that continues through into Holland and Belgium until we eventually grind to a halt on the Brussels Ring Road. In total, the journey back takes nearly three hours longer than the outbound trip. We’re not complaining though – it’s more than worth it for those fifteen miles of tarmac in the Eiffel mountains and one thing’s for sure – we’ll be back.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Road Tripping

A fortnight after the trip to York I once again found myself heading to the hills with the Focus, except this time it was South Wales.

Before leaving I called into the dealers (Hutchings Motors in Goff's Oak) for them to have a look at the electrical gremlins. They were all too happy to oblige and within a matter minutes both were fixed for free.

I was very glad of my (newly) fully functional windscreen wipers as the heavens opened shortly after departure, yet it was bright sunshine again by the time I stopped to pick up a friend a few miles away. After packing both the bikes and a considerable amount of associated paraphernalia there was still room to spare.

The M25, at first, lulled us into a false sense of security. It wasn't quite the hellish gridlock I expected from half three on a Friday afternoon. No, that came with the M4. We slogged through eighty miles of stop-start traffic, before it suddenly dissolved around Bristol, only to reappear again at Cardiff. Some time later the moment finally came to turn off the motorway near Port Talbot. I welcomed this for two reasons – firstly we were overdue for some food and, secondly, I knew what was coming next.

The A4107 starts at a rather dodgy looking underpass beneath the M4. From there it snakes through the village of Cwmafan before the much-welcome national speed limit sign plunges you into the Welsh countryside.

The Focus started to come into its element on the smooth dry tarmac as the steep-sided Afan Valley got progressively more alpine. Despite still being hampered by the less-than-ideal front tyres limiting the overall grip, it steers very directly with a good level of feedback and relatively flat cornering. The comically vocal tyres only added to the amusement on the road's impressive variety of corners, while a decent length straight gave even our fully loaded 1.6 the chance to pass a dawdling MPV.

As we approached the first stop at Cymmer the car was presented with a slightly more unusual challenge. We swung down a series of tight hairpins before climbing up the opposite side of the valley and there – on one of the steepest sections of road I've ever driven up – was the B&B's parking. Conscious of the heat in the brakes after our enthusiastic drive over and aware of a motor-industry colleague who'd watched a development car roll off the edge of a mountain as its brakes cooled, I gingerly parked the car with the handbrake on as high as it would go… and with the wheels pointing straight into the curb… and left in gear. Then I walked away and offered silent thanks to the fact I wasn't in the TVR.

The following day after a brief, but entertaining drive retracing our steps to the forestry centre at Afan Argoed we rode the Penhydd trail. In fact it's such a sublime loop of singletrack that we rode it twice, after which the bikes needed a good clean. We put our rucksacks in the car and headed for the bike wash, except it was at this moment that a slight problem dawned.

The Focus allows you to open the rear hatch while leaving the two front doors locked. Quite why it does this (when you can easily crawl from the boot to the front or vice-versa) I don't know; clearly someone in product design at Ford thought it was a handy feature. However it also makes it particularly easy for the absent minded to lock their keys in the car. And at that precise moment my keys were in my camelback, which in turn, was securely locked in the boot of the car.

Much to everyone's relief my AA membership was still in date and I merely had to sit in the afternoon sunshine being lightly mocked for an hour or so until the van arrived. I know from experience that it's not hard to find someone capable of braking into a car in South Wales, but the professionals fortunately use a much more delicate touch. Having progressively used various devices to prise a gap at the top of the door frame our new friend used a three foot long stick to jab the central locking button and open the doors.

Much obliged and safely on our way, we drove back down the A4107 for one last time. Fortunately the stretch of the M4 that came afterwards as we headed towards our next destination near Cardiff was mercifully clearer on this occasion and we made good time.

Turning off the motorway we headed up a quiet stretch of semi-suburban dual carriageway. With so few people around and an array of roundabouts to play with it proved difficult not to be at least a little juvenile. Once again the Focus' chassis wanted to oblige and once again the Fateo tyres blunted its ability to do so.

It remains throttle-adjustable, but with such an overwhelming rear-bias to the reserves of grip the most it will do is tuck its nose in a little. It's still good fun and a very positive indication of how the car will handle with some better rubber, but boy does it need some.

As we turned off the dual carriageway the rural roads narrowed and dictated a far more cautious pace. We only continued for around a mile and a half, yet our destination felt completely removed from 21st century suburbia. The Rectory Cottage B&B nestles in a truly idyllic spot on the edge of the Brecon Beacons. If the alpine slopes of Cymmer had elements of Tolkien's Rivendell, then that spot with its lush rolling hills must have been The Shire.

Wandering to the local pub for dinner after a long day in the saddle (and the driving seat), I found myself lost in the beauty of the landscape again. It really is a stunning part of the world. To the north, the Brecon Beacons rise like a wall, but to all other sides the verdant farmland seems the complete opposite to the wild and windswept terrain I normally associate with Wales.

The following morning - without a hint of irony - we found ourselves about a dozen miles away on yet another windswept Welsh hillside. This time it was the Twrch trail. Home to a gruelling initial climb, some fantastic cross country singletrack and one of the best descents this side of the Alps.

Awesome as the Cwmcarn trails were, I was still concentrating sufficiently when I got back to the car to avoid a repeat of the previous day's hilarity. So with the keys safely to hand we headed back to England. Fortunately the traffic was flowing far more freely than it had been before and we maintained a reasonable cruising pace for the whole route back.

Under those conditions the Focus once again displayed its versatility. While its defining feature upon release may have been class-leading handling, its natural habitat was always going to be ferrying reps and the occasional family across motorways. It does so in a very civilised manner for a small and relatively inexpensive car. Admittedly the 1.6-litre engine lacks the torque required for truly relaxed motorway cruising, but that really is about the only thing that spoils the Focus' case.

I don't have to wait long for the next road trip – out to the Nurburgring at the weekend – but this time the Focus is staying at home. As for what I'm actually going to be driving, that's yet to be decided.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Adrenaline Motor Sport Murtaya

Last month I was invited down to Adrenaline Motor Sport's South East England agents Arden Automotive to sample the fantastic Murtaya.

Both the car and the two companies left me very impressed. They represent the best things about the small, but ingenious (and often very professional) specialist car industry in this country.

The Murtaya is, not surprisingly, an electrifying car to drive point-to-point. Yet what really sets it apart is its ability in other areas and outstanding value for money.

You can read some of my other thoughts on the car at:

MSN Cars (first drive)

Madabout-Kitcars (full road test)

And more about the Arden Automotive open day at:

Madabout-Kitcars (event write up)

And offline in Complete Kit Car magazine out on Friday 19th September (in the 'This Life' section)

The Focus: One month on

It's been nearly a month since I picked up the Focus and, so far, things are going well.

I'd said from the start that my new car had to be a good long distance cruiser and a load-lugger. This was based on the possibly somewhat idealistic notion that it would be used to ferry mountain bikes and other paraphernalia as part of my 'active and exciting' lifestyle.

Actually, that's exactly what it has done. Since picking the car up, it's completed no less than four trips to the local mountain bike trails in Broxbourne Woods with two hefty full-suspension bikes in the back. It's been on a 500 mile round-trip to the North Yorks Moors, again with a bike in the back. And it's been used to 'roadie' equipment around for my pro-muso girlfriend.

It's covered over 2,000 miles already – demonstrating that I'd heavily underestimated my annual mileage. During that time it's averaged a somewhat disappointing 36.5mpg, but what's more surprising is how constant that figure has been. My normal weekly commute on the M25 draws fuel at a rate of around 37.5mpg. Yet on a more enthusiastic and slightly less law-abiding dash up the A1 with the air con on full blast and the headlamps ablaze, followed by two days enjoying the North Yorkshire B-roads it still returned fractionally over 35mpg.

Although this isn't bad as such, I'm slightly frustrated to admit that my TVR gets within about 10mpg of this figure and something like a sedately driven Elise would comfortably exceed it.

Still, while it may not be an Elise, the Focus has proved to be a very satisfying drive given its humble origins. In fact, in a funny sort of a way it reminds me of the baby Lotus. The free-revving Yamaha-designed engine fizzes not unlike the Toyota unit in the S2 Elise and there's something very reassuring about the steering feel as you turn in to a corner. You seem to know exactly what the front end is doing.

Unfortunately in its current state that is invariably understeer, especially in the wet. I suspect this is due to the combination of rather dubious budget tyres on the front and much softer premium-brand rubber on the rear. Once I've procured some new tyres it should be far more neutral and hopefully we'll see more of the throttle-adjustability for which the Focus chassis is renowned.

Other than that, the Focus has very much lived up to expectations: The leather seats are some of the comfiest I've sat in and will happily tackle London to York in one hit. The stereo system produces a powerful and pleasingly crisp sound for a standard-fit unit and the CD changer (although somewhat temperamental) is a handy feature.

The engine is very quiet at cruising speeds, even when pressing on. Wind and tyre noise are somewhat more noticeable, but it's still a pretty peaceful environment in which to cover miles and the latter may well be improved with new rubber.

The only real complaint I have about the design is a very minor one. The steeply raked windscreen seems to be perfectly angled for catching glare. It's sufficiently intrusive that I've taken to wearing (polarised) sunglasses pretty much all the time. It generates some odd looks at dusk, but saves squinting.

Finally, there are a couple of minor electrical issues that I should have spotted on the test drive. On the single wipe function the windscreen wipers only work while you are pressing the stalk down; release it and they just come to a halt in the middle of your field of view. Secondly, the remote central locking doesn't work. Time to speak to the dealer methinks.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


It's about ten months since my first serious car article (for Madabout-Kitcars) and it looks like I'm now going to become a full time automotive journalist.

As of the 29th of September I'm going to be an editorial assistant, covering the Race Tech and Moto Tech high street magazines, plus the Bernoulli aerodynamics journal.

I will be part of a close-knit team of just six permanent employees. As well as plenty of writing, this gives me the chance to try my hand at virtually every other part of the publishing process. I'm warned I'll have to be a Jack of All Trades, but frankly I'm relishing the opportunity!

So, there you have it. I guess I'm now a professional automotive journalist.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Alfa beaten

Magazine road tests reveal too much electronic intervention, lifeless steering and poor driver involvement. The Alfisti sigh and continue to wait for the next truly great Alfa...

I've just read the first couple of reviews of the Alfa Romeo Mito and they seem a bit, well, mixed. After the disappointment surrounding the dynamics of the (standard) Brera it seems that the Italian manufacturer may have faltered again

Alfas remain gorgeous, highly-desirable cars, but how difficult would it be to do away with some of the mod-cons, lose some of the weight and bring back some of the driver involvement?

I can't say I'm in the market for either, but I was looking forward to seeing the Mito knock the Mini Cooper off the top spot and it just doesn't sound like it's going to. Maybe Alfa's hotly rumoured rear wheel drive revolution will sort things out. We can but hope.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The car chase Pt2

Shortly after my last blog the insurance company finally confirmed I needed a new car. While the clarity was welcome, the fact that they’d left it until the day before the courtesy car hire period wasn’t. The hunt resumed…

After the two Alfa 156s I made a vow to be sensible and consider more affordable, practical transport. It was, after all, to be a load-lugger and motorway car to complement my TVR. This lasted around 24 hours.

The day in question started well. I’d made an appointment to visit a company with a selection of Ford Focuses - the leftover stock from an ex Ford dealer who’d sold up. The cars were all very smart, low mileage examples – perhaps a little too smart for my utilitarian requirements, as they were priced accordingly, so I pressed on.

The next car I was due to see was a 306 D-Turbo which, while showing a lot of promise as a design was clearly a knackered example. The dealer explained in reverential tones that it was his teenage daughter’s own car. And I don’t doubt it. It certainly felt like a strapped-for-cash student had owned it.

The next target was Renault Clio Dci, about half an hour’s driver away in St Albans. I headed off, but it wasn’t long before I got distracted.

I stopped at a petrol station on the way and something to the left caught my eye. On the edge of the forecourt was a bright red Prodrive-tweaked Alfa Romeo Brera S. After paying, I moved my hire car to the side and decided to have a nose.

It had taken me this long to realise that there was in fact an Alfa dealership on the other side of the fence. I had a quick look at the Brera - surely the most desirable car you can get (new) for the money in its 'S' trim - and then I wandered into the showroom.

Sadly my budget doesn't currently stretch to a brand new anything, let alone a top of the range Brera. However, they did have a gorgeous looking, very well specced 1.6TS 147 within my budget, so I asked if we could go for a test drive. The salesman sent me indoors to fill in some paperwork whilst he brought the car round to the front.

After about five minutes he returned looking rather sheepish to explain that his two year old, low mileage 147 wouldn't start. I stifled a bit of a snigger at that moment - I know the stereotypes are a little unfortunate, but I also suspect he spends a lot of his time trying to explain this to people and it seemed to be a little too ironic.

It was a final reality-check for me as I carried on to the diesel Clio, which proved to be a somewhat mixed experience. It handled well, went acceptably and promised extremely impressive fuel economy. However, it was just too small inside and the ergonomics left a lot to be desired… even my Westcountry gene pool hasn’t left me as a 5’2 hunch back with size-three feet.

With that final test drive complete and time rapidly running out, at last, I had a clear winner: The Focus. True, the 306 was cheaper, the Puma handled better and the Clio was more economical, but it offered an all-round ability that none could match. It was a spacious hatch back with 40mpg potential that would cost peanuts to insure and still prove a reasonably entertaining drive.

The example I’d seen earlier also had a variety of enticing options, such as air con, sports suspension, a 6 CD multi-changer and heated leather seats that were a huge improvement on the standard items. It was also barely run-in at 37,000 miles with a full service history and the fabled one lady owner.

I managed to negotiate twelve months free road tax and a small discount and arranged to pick it up the following day. Two weeks on, the car has proved faultless. The only minor annoyance is the choice of tyres that the seller had put on the front. They’re an oriental make I’ve never even heard of before and their performance is best described as amusing.

As I approach the second fill-up, the time is nearly here to calculate the first MPG figures and see whether it really was the sensible choice. Needless to say, I’ll post an update.

The Car Chase Pt1

Thanks to stints at Evo and Autocar in quick succession it’s been a while since I last had a chance to blog on my search for a new car. Well, that’s all about to change…

The process that saw me arrive at this ubiquitous junior-repmobile was, predictably, a somewhat tangled one. When I last wrote about it there were a string of contenders besides the Focus, including the Ford Puma, the Ford Fiesta Zetec S, the Citroen Xsara, the Alfa Romeo 156 and its smaller brother the 147.

I came very close to buying a Puma. I scoured the local area and eventually found a good one, got an idea of price and then decided to sleep on it. This decision turned out to be (potentially) fortunate as I got a phone call from the insurance company telling me to hold off purchasing another car the following morning. It turned out the vehicle they’d originally said was a confirmed write off, might not be. I’d have to wait and see.

In the intervening time, something caught my eye. Something red and Italian – an Alfa Romeo 156 2.4 JTDm Sportwagon to be precise. It’s a vehicle that I’ve mentioned before: a front wheel drive diesel estate car that somehow manages to be genuinely desirable.

The first one I had hoped to see appeared to be going at a bargain price. Unfortunately, as is all too often the case, it was found to be, quite literally, to be too good to be true. A friend in the trade had spotted the same car at auction with crash damage a few months before and this blew the dealer’s assertion that it was pristine and 100% original clear out of the water.

Still, my next move was a virtually identical 156 Sportwagon. This car was a relatively well looked after and mechanically sound example owned by a chap on Pistonheads. It drove beautifully, but - cosmetically - it looked every one of its 90,000 miles and rather more than just four years old.

Something was missing too. Inside it just didn’t feel special enough to live up to the mystique. It was nearly twice the price of something like a low mileage Focus or 306, yet it felt pretty much as utilitarian. What’s more, this one wasn’t even red. I reluctantly decided to look elsewhere.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Evo Magazine

Over the past week or so life has been interesting. The insurance company finally decided I did need to buy a new car... so I did; my TVR suffered its first (pseudo) breakdown; I had a taste of the true Alfa experience and I carried out my first solo-roadtest.

I'll no doubt cover all of these in due course, but for now I'm here to tell you about the other highlight from the past seven days: Evo.

I've been a reader since virtually the first issue and their epicurean approach to cars (excuse the phrase, but it just seems right...) plus the top quality writing and superb photography has always made it one of my favourite magazines. And last week I finally got a chance to work with them.

My two days at Evo Towers passed all too briefly, but in between picking Peter Tomalin's brains on all matters journalistic, debating my future car choice with Ian Everleigh and proving that a fully grown human being does actually fit in the back of the RX8 long-termer, I got a chance to publish some articles. Seeing my name on one of their pages was a real buzz and I have the following as a (virtual) souvenier:

There was a strange sense of familiarity with everyone in the office. I'd never met any of them before, but the names (and in some cases faces) were already well known.

I almost felt a little star struck... Maybe that's a sign I need to get out a little more, but for me it was an exciting experience. They are, of course, simply professionals who are good at what they do, but the Evo staff - along with their counterparts on several other publications - are household names to petrolheads in a far greater way than the nobodies filling our screens on reality TV.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

A fortnight with a Corsa 1.2 Club

The fastest type of car, so they say, is a hire car. Well, I’m here to tell you that ‘they’ are wrong. At least when it’s a 1.2-litre Vauxhall Corsa like my current hack.

Initial impressions aren’t actually too bad. The Corsa bears the clean lines of a contemporary small car, with hints of the Fiat Punto and the new Ford Fiesta - nothing revolutionary, but a pleasant enough exterior. Inside, it’s much the same situation. The basic layout is fairly conventional, although there are some nicer-than-average materials and neon backlighting system for the dash that just about manages to avoid looking too ‘Fast and Furious’. For an entry-level car, the kit is fairly good too, with a decent stereo and air conditioning as standard.

It’s not all good news though, the front seat belts are positioned so far back that even tall drivers require a degree of contortion to reach them. The stereo volume control requires a million turns to produce any audible difference and the boot is one of the smallest I’ve ever seen. This car also has a distinct tendency to steam up in the wet, which only a good blast from the air con is able to cure.

Yet by far the most annoying thing has to be the indicators. The spring loaded stalks don’t actually stay in position, making it quite difficult to tell whether you’re in the short or prolonged flash modes and the self-cancelling seems to be a little hit and miss too. As a result, a typical manoeuvre begins as you indicate out, continues with you indicating for longer than you intend and ends with an unwanted flash from the opposite indicator as you try and cancel the original one. It’s a small matter, but a source of constant annoyance.

Once on the move, another issue presents itself... The Corsa’s rear windows allow for reasonable visibility to your left, but look over your right shoulder and the view is dominated by the rear pillar. This asymmetry of vision blocks off your view just where you need it in the blind spot, making the Corsa noticeably harder to manoeuvre than some of its competitors.

These gripes aside, it remains a car of contrasts. It cruises reasonably quietly on light throttle loads, but put your foot down and the noise can become harsh and intrusive. It’s not as if this is a rare occurrence either – the 16v engine needs to be revved to extract any power and yet it still never satisfactorily overcomes the Corsa’s mass. On several occasions I’ve ended up not in fifth or even fourth gear, but down to third on motorway inclines. The other downside is that fuel economy suffers when you have to drive it like that – fuel stops are more frequent (and indeed expensive) than expected. Not surprisingly I find myself longing to have the Saxo back – at 805kgs it was nearly a third of a ton lighter, despite having roughly the same power output.

Corners are a similar situation. The Corsa comes with rather lifeless power-assisted steering and rolly-poly suspension, yet somehow it still possesses a rather firm ride over small bumps and ridges. This isn’t bad enough to be a problem, but it seems at odds with the amount of body roll. It’s not a driver’s car then, but push the baby Vauxhall a little harder and you’ll discover it actually grips tenaciously. Perhaps there’s some hope for the VXR version after all.

But what of this 1.2 Club model? Well, despite having few areas where it truly excels, there’s not a lot which would disappoint you as a no-thrills run-around. The driving experience may leave somewhat to be desired on the open road, but there’s nothing that would cause alarm in its natural habitat of suburbia. As cars of this class go, the cabin aesthetics are pretty reasonable and, as long as you’re not going up hill, it’s a relatively soothing place to be on the motorway. There’s certainly more of a quality feel than the Vauxhalls of old, but it doesn’t really go far enough to single the Corsa out in this very competitive market.


On the whole I’d say I’m a fairly conventional petrolhead. I like the usual things - rumbling V8s, perfect driving roads and absolutely anything that’s red and Italian. There is, however, one respect in which I differ from the stereotype… I’ve never been especially excited by Formula One. The last race I can really recall was Suzuka in 1996, when Damon Hill won the driver’s championship. Since then, the only thing about F1 that’s really entertained me has been Max Mosley’s fancy dress shenanigans.

I must admit I’d started to tar all motor sport with the same brush. I enjoy any chance to compete in it, but I’ve never been hugely inclined to watch twenty overpaid professionals mince around the track in a procession. I couldn’t really see its appeal as a spectator sport. Then, over the weekend, I caught my first British Touring Car Race in about ten years and it seems there have been a few changes.

Gone are John Cleland’s Vauxhall Cavalier and Rickard Rydell’s Volvo 850. What’s more, the dominant team this season have been running – wait for it – a diesel engine. There’s no doubt things have moved on from the late 90’s, however one thing remains; it’s still great fun.

I switched on during the first of the three televised races from Snetterton, right at the moment that privateer Seat driver Adam Jones overtook the BMW of Rob Collard through a borderline-existent gap on the entry to the Russell Bend chicane. At this point in F1 the drivers would have eased off and paused to conduct a brief risk assessment. Not in the BTCC however, as Collard retook the Seat with an equally bold move at the next corner and a further three cars streamed through. This wasn’t the end of it either – Jones came back to recover three of the lost places in a series of bumper-to-bumper clashes.

The next race played out in equally dramatic fashion. First I watched five cars streaming under the bridge side-by-side at The Esses, all vying for position as Tom Chiltern nudged Fabrizio Giovanardi off the track. Two laps later and it’s Tom Onslow-Cole and Andy Jordan’s turn as they piled into Sears three abreast with Adam Jones’ Seat. The scraps continued throughout the field. On the last lap, Giovanardi and Colin Turkington were still trading paint as the chequered flag fell. Jason Plato may have romped off with the win up front, but the director concentrated on the battle behind and the entire population of my living room were on the edge of their seats.

The top eight finishers from race two started in reverse order for the final showdown, with the all-conquering Plato in eighth place. He was slow off the line and dropped several places as lights went out, which would made for an interesting drive, had engine problems not put him out of the running shortly after. Up ahead, Tom Onslow-Cole was locked in battle with Stephen Jelley. After swapping places four times in one lap, Onslow-Cole came out on top and proceeded to have a go at Turkington in 5th place, overtaking him at the beginning of lap 12. Meanwhile, further down the field, Adam Jones and Rob Collard were at it again as Mat Jackson took the chequered flag ahead.

It was an hour of my life thoroughly well spent and far more entertaining the average F1 race. Yet some things, it seems, never change. As he answered the first question of his post-race interview, Jackson began with racing driver’s favourite coverall phrase: “For sure…” I’m not entirely clear what, if anything, they’re always sure about but it seems to be a standard opener to any racing answer. Maybe it’s some sort of involuntary response? A delay-tactic perhaps? Either way, I’m sure about one thing – real racing is more fun than Max Mosley in a gimp suit.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Decisions, decisions...

The first week of my car buying mission is drawing to a close and, on the upside, at least I've reached one conclusive decision.

I must admit to having something of a car buying habit. I’ve never actually managed to kill one before, but I’ve never kept one for more than about a year either. You see, there are just so many exciting possibilities and so little time. With the Saxo gone, I need something to get me moving again before the insurance company ask for their hire car back.

This should be simple, but there are a few mitigating factors. Firstly, I have a 65-mile commute, which gives me a simple choice of either low fuel consumption or bankruptcy. Secondly, when I’m not driving cars, writing about cars or arguing about cars, a good percentage of my remaining time is devoted to cycling; so I need something big enough to accommodate my bike. Finally - although there is probably an oil-burning MPV out there somewhere which suits those needs - I also want something that’ll provide a bit of fun on those rare occasions I escape from the confines of the M25.

Looking into it a bit further, I set a target of 40mpg for petrol contenders; anything diesel would have to significantly better this, due to the difference in fuel costs. I also decided on a maximum budget of around £7,000 (second-hand). The rest, however, is all to play for.

My first thought had been some kind of warm-hatch. The idea of a Fiat Panda 100HP appealed, as did a Suzuki Swift Sport. Ford’s evergreen Sportka also sprang to mind along with the (previous generation) Fiesta Zetec-S and the Focus. I even contemplated an e36 3-series.

The list rapidly began to shrink. It became obvious that the Swift was going to be out of my price range to purchase; the consensus amongst BMW owners on the internet forums was that you’d be lucky to get 30mpg out of the six-cylinder coupes and the Sportka was deemed too thrashy for motorway miles. Meanwhile there were a couple of additions – the Fiesta’s coupe cousin, the Puma, caught my eye. Citroen’s Xsara VTR seemed to combine economy with low insurance premiums and the Alfa Romeo 147 JTD crept in… although largely because it was an Alfa (I’ll have mine in red please).

I’ve now visited a few dealerships and, on the whole, the test drives have yet to produce any startling results. The Focus 1.6 Zetec (chosen for its economy) comes with a large boot and handles well, but feels somewhat lethargic in a straight line. The Fiesta Zetec-S feels far more lively, but concedes a certain amount in running costs and comes with a slightly dubious boy racer image. The Puma meanwhile… feels like a Fiesta Zetec-S.

The big shock for me was the Panda 100HP. I’d expected to love this car and face a worrying dilemma about spending twice the price of the other contenders on something barely big enough to hold my bike. In reality, I found it a bit of an anti-climax. Its 1.4-litre 16-valve engine, although willing enough, is nothing exceptional, the cabin is awash with cheap plastics and, to me, the concrete damping is simply a step too far. While the crashy ride is merely an annoyance in town, on a bumpy B-road it becomes bad enough to genuinely spoil the Panda’s composure.

To be fair, our test route may not have helped: “Now you’ll really have a chance to get a feel for it on the back roads” commented the salesman at one point as he directed me down 500yds of pothole-strewn 40mph limit with a dawdling Volvo in front. I wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic.

Even on a more suitable surface, the Panda felt good rather than great. For my purposes this rules it out. Being a relatively recent model, second-hand examples are still twice the price of something like a Puma, and it simply isn’t twice the car. It may be a great buy in the future, but for now I’ll resolve to let someone else take the depreciation hit.

So what about the others? Well, I remain undecided. An unmolested Fiesta Zetec-S would be a great car, offering a tempting combination of low running costs and reasonable space, but most look like they've ram-raided Halfords. The Puma is essentially a Zetec-S-R and good ones are easier to find, but it loses out on some of the hatchback's practicality. So far I've yet to try a Xsara VTR or Alfa 147. In fact, the list keeps growing as I've just seen an Alfa Romeo 156 JTD Sportwagon so gorgeous it's made me start dribbling.

Like I said: So many possibilities, so little time.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The great scrapyard in the sky

It had to happen eventually. I’ve evaded them for years, but this week the North London Kamikaze Driving Squad finally found me, and my trusty Citroen was written off as I sat waiting in traffic.

The car proved no match for the current-generation Astra that collided with it; while the Vauxhall bore little more than a scratch, the Saxo was twisted, scarred and broken. Coolant gushed from underneath and the misaligned steering creaked and groaned as I limped it back to my house. The time, it seemed, had come for W169 OFJ. In contrast, I was physically unhurt, but the end to eight years of incident-free motoring and the loss of my no claims bonus was a bitter sting. The only small consolation was that the woman who had brought about its untimely demise was apologetic and very amiable – I couldn’t deal with an argument that early on a Monday morning. Fortunately, she too was unhurt.

And so, the following morning, the salvage company came to collect the first car I had ever driven. It had come from my mother and seen me through university, various house moves, several memorable holidays and a couple of less clearly recalled music festivals. It was like a family pet. Still, this didn’t seem to matter to the lorry driver as he thrashed it onto the top layer of the car transporter. Just as quickly as it had appeared on the forecourt all those years ago, it was gone.

I wasn’t deprived of transport for long however. Somewhere in the insurance application my inner-scrooge had forgotten to untick the hire car box and I was now rather glad of this. Frankly it wasn’t TVR weather (despite a hastily purchased outdoor cover in case I had to commute in the S3). Instead, I found myself presented with a Vauxhall Corsa, less than 24 hours after the smash. I’ll discuss the relative merits of that at a later date, but suffice to say, it has got me moving. What’s faintly disturbing is that even with the traumatic events of the previous day and a less-than-enthralling 79bhp to look forward to, I was still very eager to go and have a play. It’s just possible I need to get out more.

Looking ahead, I obviously now have a requirement for a new daily driver. In truth, the excuse to legitimately scour Autotrader, rather than just window shopping for once, has proved the biggest consolation… Now, like an automotive Jack Bauer, I have just twenty four days to locate my new car. That's likely to be a topic in itself, but rest assured I shall keep you informed.

RIP Saxo…

Friday, July 4, 2008

The good, the bad and a MINI adventure

Despite my journalistic aspirations, I currently have a ‘day job’ in the motor industry and as part of this I get to attend an annual test day with various cars to play with. It makes for an enjoyable afternoon – that one day each year – and it also produces some interesting observations.

This year was no exception, and what’s more I found myself having to renounce some of my automotive prejudices.

BMW 120D M-Sport
The first thing I notice about the 120D, queuing to exit the car park, is the stop-start technology kicking in. It’s faintly unnerving the first time you come to a halt and the engine dies, but it springs reassuringly back into life as you go to pull away, cutting down on both fuel consumption and emissions as it does so. The next observation is the chunky, well-weighted feel to the steering. Unfortunately, once you get out onto the open road, it doesn’t offer quite as much feedback as you’d like – it feels reasonable, but strangely artificial.

It’s not just the steering either. The M-Sport suspension feels somewhat under-damped on the bumpy, cambered B-roads of our test route and then there’s the engine… Make no mistake; it produces plenty of power, giving the 120D impressive mid-range punch, but the delivery feels disappointingly ‘old school diesel’. The torque comes in one big lump with little before or after and rather lacklustre response. It’s not bad for a repmobile, but I’d expected my first trip out in a premium diesel to be something more. I can’t help thinking that the Ford Focus concedes very little to it overall (and betters it in some areas) for significantly less money.

BMW 320D Auto
As a sanity-check I try the 120’s bigger brother, the 320D, and despite being a larger (and presumably heavier) car it actually feels rather better. The floaty feeling is gone and ironically it doesn’t seem like such a big car. The steering remains somewhat aloof, considering it’s not dealing with the driven wheels, but suddenly BMW feels like it would better its competitors dynamically, which as ‘the ultimate driving machine’, is exactly what it should do.

The engine performs much the same as it did in the 120D, yet its torquey delivery works somewhat better with the auto-box; delivering crisp gear changes and a smooth pullaway. It’s not without fault though – there’s a rather clumsy kick-down and the manual mode is typically slow. Despite this, I was (as a fan of lighter, more compact cars) surprised to note it feels like a better overall package than its smaller sibling.

Ford Fiesta ST

Next up is the feisty Fiesta ST. From the word go, everything from the not-so-subtle bonnet stripes to the overtly sporty exhaust note feels like a statement of intent – it's certainly not a car for the meek.

The free-revving, responsive powerplant pulls eagerly and, while you'd hardly call it refined, it’s certainly entertaining. The same goes for the handling, which offers a sharp turn-in, decent throttle-adjustability and reasonable levels of steering feedback. It feels like an old school hot hatch, albeit with corresponding levels of traction and lateral grip available. I’m undecided as to whether this is a good thing – you see, while the Fiesta is good fun, it lacks the pace of today’s super-hatches. Its manic character sometimes feels like a sheep in wolf’s clothing in the era of 200bhp Clios.

Mazda MX-5 2.0i Roadster Coupe
It’s hard to believe, but the world’s best selling small sports car has been around in various guises for two decades now. The simple formula of engine at the front, driven wheels at the back and relatively little in between has certainly proved successful in the past – I used to own a mk1, but this is my first chance to drive the current mk3 version.

My initial impressions aren’t great to be honest. Come the first roundabout I find myself questioning whether they’ve left the dampers out – it certainly feels a lot softer than the old cars. The sharp turn-in remains, but somehow it no longer seems to follow up that early promise. The steering feels a little woolly and distinctly light on feedback. To compound matters, the ESP system is irritatingly intrusive. Fortunately disabling it not only cures the problem, but proves that (in the dry at least) there's plenty of extra grip when you venture beyond the confines of its nannying.

There’s nothing to fear when you do so either - it remains a fundamentally well-balanced car and the new chassis feels significantly more rigid than before, with none of the earlier models’ scuttle shake. The 2-litre engine seems to have lost the some of the earlier unit's character, but it makes up for this with noticeably more torque, particularly at low revs. It doesn’t just go better either – the brakes offer a significant improvement in stopping power – admittedly they also lose some of their precision, but the trade-off seems more than worth it overall.

So, the MX-5 may have lost some of its edge, but it remains virtually unique as a low cost, front-engined, rear wheel drive sports car. It’s frustrating that the new chassis and gutsy engine clearly have untapped potential, but it’s still an entertaining drive and the sort of ‘fun car’ we could do with seeing more of.

Toyota Aygo
There's something a little bit funky about the Toyota Aygo's interior. Admittedly, the cheap plastic faintly reminds me of that inside a portaloo, but the fresh design, complete with a curious bug-eyed tachometer is conspicuously contemporary. Let's not forget this is the product that sponsors Channel 4's youth programming and one that was famously given to assorted motoring journos to play football with. So, the Aygo is young and athletic then?

Fire up the 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine and, sure enough, it has a pleasingly sporty rasp. It revs freely too, but sadly, actually getting the car moving is another matter. It features quite possibly the most rubbery gear change I've ever encountered and just finding first is a challenge. Once on the move, its soft suspension and over-assisted steering conclusive dissolve any notions of it being a junior hot hatch. To be fair, that's not really what it's intended to be, but worse is to come. For a city car, the Aygo's long gearing makes it feel sluggish at low speed, and on the open road the engine's peaky nature feels strangely at odds with the stodgy chassis.

It's not fundamentally a bad car – at least not for the market it's intended – but it fails to be anything more. For anyone who really wants no-thrills city-bound transport that much I'd strongly recommend a weekly travelcard. For those seeking something a little more exciting (and indeed versatile) the next car may well hold the answer…

MINI Cooper D
The last car I decide to climb into is a MINI and, to be honest, I'm not sure what to expect. I've always had a soft spot for the original Mini and an equally strong distain for the current retro trend in car design, not to mention a healthy degree of scepticism about diesel performance cars. This is my first time at the wheel of the 21st century MINI and part of me hopes it won't be that good – secretly, I already doubt that will be the case.

Sitting in, I cringe slightly at the gigantic central speedometer – it's a stylistic link to the original car that seems to be growing with each passing year to emphasise its Mini-ness. Fortunately the rest of the interior is different - there's a quality feel to it which genuinely sets the car apart from the usual crowd of bland hatches. The engine buzzes eagerly into life and I make my way out onto the road. First impressions are of a pleasingly revvy powerplant by diesel standards. It's almost petrol-like in its responsiveness, yet still delivers a broad spectrum of torque. The noise isn't intrusive either – recognisably diesel, but reasonably refined.

However, it's when you get to a corner that the MINI really starts to shine. It has a very sharp turn in, which immediately banishes any ideas of a nose-heavy oil-burning hatchback. The steering is beautifully weighted, perhaps not as communicative as it could be, but still wonderfully precise. The firm suspension limits body-roll while effortlessly soaking up mid-corner bumps and pot-holes. Combine this with excellent traction and a degree of throttle adjustability and the Cooper D becomes a car that genuinely goads you on, yet one that still feels completely planted and firmly on your side.

When you want to play, it really is up there with the best of the warm hatches – not as showy as something like the Fiesta ST, but very nearly as competent. When you just want to get from A to B, it simply blows them away… Its superb tractability, civilised cabin and general refinement would make it a pleasure to drive on long journeys. Whatsmore it does all this while sipping fuel at the rate of around 65mpg and putting out only 118g/km of CO2. It's this all-round ability which really blew me away – it ticks very nearly all the boxes. The only area where it falls short is luggage space, but this is a criticism which could be applied to most small hatches and, let's face it, a student-chic roof rack would only add to the retro Mini appeal.

So, am I a convert? Well, yes and no… I still think they should have called it something like the BMW 0-Series, because, despite its Fisher Price styling, the links to the original Mini remain pretty tenuous. It is, however, a superb small car and an incredible all-rounder. It's also the first time I've driven a sporty diesel that genuinely felt like a driver's car, not just a compromise for economy. If I had to own just one car on a tight budget this would be a serious contender, if only they could badge it as something original!