Friday, March 28, 2008

The Blue Light Rant

One thing that amazes me whilst driving on the motorway is how the apparently law abiding British public never fail to slam their brakes on when presented with anything that vaguely resembles a police car. You'd like to think the police apply a certain amount of discretion when patrolling our roads and hence they'd take a dim view of anyone locking all four wheels in an attempt to haul their repmobile down from 75mph to a thoroughly legal 68mph. Surely nothing implies guilt like the frantic over-reaction we see from people who were barely exceeding the speed limit in the first place.

I am issuing a plea now to everyone who does this to use their eyes. In this era of Gatsos and geriatric do-gooders armed with speed guns it's very rare to see an actual live policeman on our roads. Almost inevitably the car that causes someone to bring the entire outside lane down to 60mph turns out to be a Highways Agency Traffic Officer – a car or van with reflective paint, amber flashing lights and crucially 'Traffic Officer' written in large block-capital letters in the rear window. These are not police cars. They are principally intended to respond to accidents and breakdowns in an attempt to improve traffic flow. They absolutely, categorically, cannot throw you in jail for going past them at 71mph or any other speed for that matter. The same applies to breakdown service vans, electricity board cars, wide load escorts and motorcycle instructors who happen to use the same bikes as the police riders. There is no need to slam the brakes on and bring the whole motorway down to 60mph, just because there is something that looks like a child's drawing of a police car up ahead.

The only people with a legal right to enforce speed limits are the police. They have blue flashing lights and sirens. More importantly they don't have anything like 'Traffic Officer', 'AA' or 'Dave's Motorcycle Training' written on the back.

This brings me onto the topic of emergency vehicles in general. An emergency vehicle can be simply defined as one with blue or green flashing lights. There are sixteen eligible groups in total and for reference these are:

The police
The ambulance service
The fire Brigade
Certain specialist company fire salvage companies
The Forestry Commission for fire fighting
Local councils for fire fighting
Bomb disposal
Vehicles responding to nuclear accidents
RAF mountain rescue
National Blood Service
HM Coastguard
Mine rescue
RNLI for launching lifeboats
Human organ transport
Revenue and Customs for responding to serious crime
Doctors for emergency calls (green lights or blue if accompanied by a paramedic)

According to the Highway Code: "When one approaches you should not panic. Consider the route of the emergency vehicle and take appropriate action to let it pass. If necessary, pull to the side of the road and stop, but do not endanger other road users."

All sounds very sensible when you bear in mind that they well may be dealing with life or death situations. What I cannot get my head round is the fact that out of all these, only the police, fire and ambulance services are allowed to exceed the speed limit. How rigidly adhered to and indeed enforced this is I don't know, but I'm fairly sure it would be a good idea to give the relevant people exemptions in the event of say, Sellafield going into melt down. Furthermore, I find it incredible that a trained driver taking a vital organ to a dying patient isn't allowed to exceed 70mph in suitable road conditions.

Why is this? I suppose the law makers would argue there are two reasons. Firstly, although the emergency services are clearly a special case it would still publically allow another group of people who aren't the police to exceed the speed limit. I suspect the constabulary are keen to enforce the idea that it is reckless for anyone other than themselves to do so. Secondly, it is estimated that emergency vehicles are involved in more than two thousand accidents every year. The cost of providing additional training to reduce this number and insurance for when it goes wrong would in theory get worse if more vehicles were allowed to travel at high speed. In reality, the number of bomb disposal technicians or mine rescue workers must pail into insignificance when compared with the police, fire and ambulance services and of course not all of the accidents recorded will have happened at high speed anyway.

A few months back I spoke to a Transplant Service driver and he was equally baffled. Worryingly, this goes back to the idea that the police are keen to limit the number of people allowed to exceed the speed limit, simply so they reinforce their control over it. So, on second thoughts maybe the alarmists on the motorway have got the right idea after all. Maybe they know something we don't.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

My Cars: Quantum 2+2

I'm going to be looking at all the cars I've owned to date in a series of posts. First up is the Quantum 2+2.

Everybody remembers their first car. Technically speaking I had driven others before (we'll come to those later), but the first car I ever actually owned was a Quantum 2+2. So named because of its (slightly optimistic) two plus two seating layout, the Quantum was one of the success stories of the 90s kit car industry. It used Ford Fiesta running gear allied to a tough and pretty GRP monocoque. Most, like mine were XR2 based, but there have been examples built with the later Zetec engines, turbocharged CVHs and even the occasional Diesel.

Inside, the car's humble origins become apparent; you sit somewhat lower than in a Fiesta, but the dashboard is instantly recognisable. On the flipside, so too is was an excellent heating and demist system, electric windows, a decent stereo and a large glove box – all considered luxuries on a kit car of the time. Add to this some space in the back and a comparatively huge 450 litre boot and it really was as usable as the donor car.

The Quantum interior - puppy not included.

So far, so good, but usability isn't really what sportscars are about. Fortunately the stiff tub combined with Quantum's own suspension geometry and spring rates provided a very entertaining driving experience. True, the unassisted steering was a little heavy at parking speeds, but you could forgive that once on the move. Prod the throttle and the Vulcan-built engine would suck air rather vocally through the K&N air filter, past its enlarged ports and valves and then out through the exhaust. A lumpy cam provided a suitably sporting burble at tickover and a lightened flywheel gave instant throttle response, ideal for scaring passers by with blipped down changes! However it was the chassis' balance that really made the car come alive when pushed; it maintained a very neutral stance only really giving into understeer when wet. In the dry it proved very throttle adjustable and a deliberate lift could easily bring the back end into play, yet it never felt nervous in the way that a 205 GTi could. In honesty it lacked the Pug's last degree of steering feel and turn-in ability too, but it remained playful, whilst never quite giving you enough rope to hang yourself. It was the perfect combination for an enthusiastic young driver.

Whilst the Quantum was a genuinely capable and versatile car, the other things that make your first car stand out are the experiences you have with it. I was lucky enough to be living in Devon at the time and my memories of the car will always be intertwined with the county's rural roads and those of neighbouring Somerset and Dorset. I did my first trackday with it at the Haynes test track in Sparkford; I used it to drive to my first serious job interviews in London and when I finally moved to the other side of the country it was the car that took me there. However my defining memory will always be of driving it back from a friend's house late one summer evening. It was about 1am and I'd just started the car on the street outside when I heard an interesting noise. An enthusiastically driven TR5 buzzed pass heading in the same direction and I pulled away behind it. Within yards the road went into national speed limit and I was just about able to keep up. And so for the next half hour or so we flew through the lanes of Somerset and Dorset in convoy under the stars. With the hood down I could hear the Triumph's straight six echoing off the hedgerows and had a perfect platform from which to see the driver threading it through corners with just a hint of four-wheeled drift. We continued like this unhindered by traffic until we reached the main road, then with a wave we headed off in opposite directions. It remains one of my all time favourite driving experiences.

The Quantum at Wiscombe Park Hillclimb

So what of the other cars before that? The first car I actually drove after losing my L-plates was a Citroen Saxo belonging to my parents and I did eventually own that too. Recently in fact, which is why I'll come to that one in the future.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Articles Of Interest

Whilst this blog is still in its infancy, I thought I'd take the opportunity to share some of my articles. I am always actively looking for publications to write for and I have previously contributed to, and the Quantum owner's club magazine amongst others.

The Piper GTR - a first look at this exciting new trackday car based on a 60s sports-racer:

The Exeter Kit Car Show - news from one of the biggest shows on the calendar:

MEV announce the new R2 - the first ever news story on MEV's latest car:

Music Articles - a collection of pieces from my music column on

Special Delivery

The following was written when I picked up my TVR in early February. It's the story of my first 200 miles or so with the S3 and was originally posted on the TVR forum.

So, after possibly the longest week of my life and a certain amount of insomnia I picked up my S3 on Saturday. Mr Livingstone and co were clearly conspiring against me as my train was first delayed by an hour and then, having only travelled a handful of miles, spent the next 15 minutes reversing back towards Kings Cross to clear a broken down service. Finally, five and a half hours after leaving the house I made it to Brough and with glorious sunshine it was far from grim up north. The formalities dispensed with, then a quick explanation on how to work the immobiliser and I was away. Hood down naturally.
The fuel gauge was firmly set on zero, so a couple of miles down the road I pulled into a garage and tentatively filled it up, trying my best to avoid tripping the auto-cut-off on the pump whilst simultaneously attempting to guess the quantity that was left. I gave up at £40's worth and headed off again. The fuel gauge still read zero, but frankly I didn't care as the sun was out and I was heading down a slip road in a TVR.

Cruising along the M18 I came across an interesting looking mini with flared arches and a roll cage. I slotted into a gap in the traffic just after him until the road cleared and then (easily up to temperature) I dropped down to fourth and gave it some beans. To my surprise the mini was still right behind me, accelerating hard at the sort of speed a standard A-series car would struggle even to reach. Accompanying it was a banshee wail, suggesting a bike engine or VTEC lurked within. That's what I'm choosing to tell myself anyway. Discretion kicked in shortly afterwards and we both pulled in to resume a more law abiding rate.

After about an hour on the A1 I was starting to loose feeling in most of my extremities; whilst I still had a broad 'village idiot' grin, on my face, the shivering that was starting to accompany it was less becoming, so I pulled in to the services for my first attempt on the hood. I went for the previous owner's suggested technique of balancing the targa panels in the windscreen and rolling the rear section up to meet it. Despite fears of broken glass and ripped canvas, all went smoothly. That was until I came to restart the car atleast. A single relay clicked with no other signs of life and I began to suspect this was where my TVR experience really began. After a quick phone call to the seller who re-iterated his earlier advice on the idiosyncrasies of the immobiliser system, I was (much to my relief) back on the road.

With the hood up the car suddenly became a very civilised proposition. The heater now had some effect, I was regaining feeling in my arms and the wind noise was virtually gone. Fortunately the engine note wasn't and it burbled on along the final stretch of the A1 sounding even better than it did with the hood down. As the Hatfield tunnel approached I couldn't resist winding the window down and listening to the exhaust note echo off the walls. Naturally I went through exactly the same routine in the Enfield and Holmesdale tunnels on the M25 - it would have been rude not to.

Emerging from the final tunnel with aching cheek muscles, I took a diversion up the M11 and onto the A414. This particular stretch is quite twisty in places and great fun in daylight with a car with that you know. Despite covering over 200 miles in the tiv by that point it had been almost exclusively straight and darkness was now upon us so I had to exercise some self-restraint in the corners. On the straight stretches however the S proved to have about the best overtaking pace of any car I've owned. The power delivery is so effortless compared to the 4 cylinder screamers I'm used to that it could have been left in top, but instead the schoolboy within demanded 4th if not 3rd and full throttle. The torque of the V6 makes real world progress feel very rapid - I'd love to know what the V8S is like.

As I finally pulled up outside my garage in the outskirts Chelmsford one of my old worries resurfaced. Would it fit in? I edged up very nervously, drove the front in and then got out to check for clearance on the back (the wing mirrors had long since been folded up). The eventual clearance between the rear wheel arches and two particularly vicious looking metal plates that stick out from the door frame was about 2" on either side. No worse than the average London parking space perhaps, but a nerve racking experience when parking the most expensive thing you have ever owned for the first time. Once the car was safely in I began the equally precarious task of getting me out. In the confines of the garage this involved removing the driver's side targa panel and squeezing out over the top.

Safely extracted, I got a lift back to the house and that evening I slept far more soundly than I had previously. The grin however, remains.


Welcome to Chris' Car Blog.

I am Chris Pickering and for most of my life I have had a complete addiction to all things with wheels – two, four or any other multiple of them. Out of all these it is the combination of four wheels and an engine that excites me the most. I'm not entirely sure I can say why – the thrill of driving, the adventures it can lead to and a fascination with the technology behind it all contribute. One thing is for sure; I'm hooked.

I began my motoring life at the dawn of the 21st century with a Quantum 2+2 kit car (pictured above) and progressed through various sportscars and hot hatches before arriving at the current combination of a TVR S3 and Citroen Saxo. You may laugh, but the latter has provided me with as much fun as some of the more exotic cars I've owned and it proves infinitely better for loading a pair of mountain bikes or a weekends worth of camping gear in the back. In the following posts I aim to share some of my motoring experiences, along with some stories from further afield.

I hope you enjoy reading the blog and please check back regularly for updates!