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.