One from Goodwood

One from Goodwood

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Notes From The Margins - Essays on Clarkson, Cycling Vigilantes & More

Are those sweaty, middle-aged white guys, gleefully filming everyone's traffic crimes whilst riding along, with a smug grin, on their 2K bicycles annoying you?

They do me. In fact I say they've ruined cycling for all of us, because the rise of denouncing other citizens is an Orwellian nightmare. Men with beards called Nigel or Sean, broadcasting on You Tube and constantly dobbing drivers in to the local Police, will undermine the law, not enforce, or strengthen it.

People should not cause deliberate confrontation, there's enough stress involved in simply getting to work, especially in the separate country that is London.

That's another topic in theis series of ramblings - London vs The Rest of The UK, with the Capital's economy booming as the rest of Britain becomes a kind of hinterland.

The gap between the world's super-rich and the rest of us is also examined, plus the strange obsession the BBC had with destroying their most successful TV show, Top Gear, by `shaming' Clarkson. Was it because he wasn't one of the Oxbridge `chumocracy?'

You can read Notes From The Margins for free this weekend on the Kindle, or buy it. Taylor Swift might approve...*Version*=1&*entries*=0

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Second Class Citizens - The Cheapskate World of British Motorcycle Advertising

Gay and colourful. Oh yes.
Britain is rapidly becoming a country of `Haves vs Have-Nots' in 2014, as the rich in London and South East get all the best paid jobs, the big infrastructure projects and a lucky few score big on the lottery of the London property market.

But Britain always has been a country divided by class, and decades ago in the 50s and 60s this demarcation between working class motorcyclists and middle class - or aspiring middle class - car owners was clearly visible in the advertising of the era.

Whilst car buyers were seduced with posters showing luxury travel, with even an Austin Mini owner being promised regal levels of social status, motorcycle buyers were fobbed off with cheapo black and white adverts blathering on about craftsmanship and tradition.

The harsh truth was that whilst BSA-Triumph, AMC, Norton, Velocette and others were already on a downhill trajectory in the early 60s BMC's Mini was a glimpse of the future. Cars were modern, fun and sexy. Motorcycles reminded people of the war, rationing, make do and mend.

60s cars like the Ford Anglia or Cortina, or the first Vauxhall Viva also offered the working class man a leg up into the middle class lifestyle. You might not suddenly fit in down at the golf club in a Cortina, but you had definitely left the world of pie `n' peas at the local pub behind if you could afford a new car. You had, like Bob Ferris in The Likely Lads sitcom, set your sights on surburbia - upward social mobility.

King for a day in a Mini.
Throughout the 1960s, Norton, Triumph, Ariel, BSA, Matchless, AJS and Velocette all continued to paint themselves into an austerity corner, stressing the penny-pinching fuel economy, or ease of home maintenance that a Brit bike could offer.

Whilst the car manufacturers brochures and adverts were full of chubby-cheeked, well fed types, sporting the latest fashions and pictured outside new houses, or golf clubs, the sad, drab people sat on motorcycles wore cloth caps, massive, medieval style gauntlets or waxed Belstaffs.

That was all the better to cope with the vile weather they must endure because they were too poor to afford a car. The advertising message was clear; motorcycles are for low class blokes, men who get coated in grease and sweat at work.

However, managerial types and professional men should buy a nice, sensible motor car, wear a suit and tie and always remember to marry a woman who can bake a decent cake and arrange flowers correctly in a vase.

Bikes Are Fun - Sell The Fun, Not the Misery

Motorcycles are exciting things to ride, but you would never know that from much of the advertising and marketing that surrounded British bikes in the 50s and 60s.

Although the US importers of Norton, Triumph and to a lesser extent BSA, all tried `sexing up' the marques in the late 60s with a parade of bathing beauties draped over the bikes, the advertising back in Blighty remained stubbornly rooted in its working class ghetto.

Right up until the final sorry collapse of NVT (Norton Villiers Triumph) in the mid 1970s, the products were sold on their traditional engineering points, alleged handling advantage over Japanese rivals, or ever declining racetrack success. 

Whilst Kawasaki sold thousands of bikes on the strength of their `Let The Good Times Roll' lifestyle ad campaign in the 70s, Norton and Triumph were begging customers to `Bike British,' as if simply supporting the home team was a good enough reason to part with hard-earned cash.

In the end, reminding their customers that somehow, they weren't quite up to the mark socially, or economically, helped send the British bike makers out of business. True, Japanese machines were much more reliable and often faster, but Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki all sold their bikes as something classless, entry tickets to a life of personal freedom and above all else, FUN.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Five Reasons The British Car Industry Deserved To Die

Yes, I know we still assemble thousands of cars each week in the UK, but there isn't a `British' industry anymore. Tata own Jaguar, BMW own MINI and VW-Audi own Bentley/Rolls Royce. TVR of Blackpool has long since rumbled into history, Del Boy's Reliant Robin fell off its perch and Lotus went Malaysian over 15 years ago.

All that's left of a once global UK car industry are oddball sports car brands like Morgan, BAC, Ariel, Westfield or Caterham, or hi tech, Russian oligarch chariot makers like McClaren and Noble.

How did car makers like Austin, Jaguar, Healey, MG or Morris bite the dust? Part of the answer lies in the structural decline of the UK economy in general during the 1970s and a failure to invest in modern production line machinery to keep pace with rivals from Germany and Japan.

But the big problem was often very simple; British cars were crap. Here are five of the biggest lemons in UK motoring history which all played a much bigger part in the decline of the entire industry than Red Robbo ever did.

1. The BMC Mini.

Surely not??! The Mini was a work of engineering genius; cheap to run, roomier than it looked and very cool when racing through the streets of Turin in The Italian Job?

Yes it was. Austin Morris group also LOST money on every single Mini they produced in the early 60s, as the thing was so fiddly to weld and bolt together. Let's also talk sub-frame collapses, rust traps and boiling engines in summer too shall we? The Mini was an OK city car, but on Britain's hill roads, or motorways, its feeble 850cc and 1000cc engines soon overheated if you drove over 60mph for any length of time.

As BMC became BLMC, then British Leyland, then Rover Group, the Mini staggered on into the 1990s, even the 2000s, staying in production so far past its sell-by date that it was an affront to NCAP crash testing frankly.

The original Mini should have been put to sleep like a lame terrier sometime around 1972. By keeping the Mini in production BL wasted valuable manufacturing capacity and hung onto a vanished past for too long, as the Germans and Japanese busily made small hatchbacks that were faster, quieter, more frugal on petrol and more practical.

Did VW carry on making the original Beetle until the 21st century? Nope, they designed the nimble, classless and fun-to-drive Golf in the 70s and sold the Beetle tooling to Mexico instead. Good move.

They say genuises choose green. They're wrong.
2. The Austin Maxi

So much depended on the Maxi, that you would've thought BLMC would have got things right. But no, the Maxi was bodged up at birth, assembled by bolshie workers and incompetent managers, creating shameful reliability problems right from its launch in 1969.

The 1500cc engine was woefully underpowered, unable to pull the car uphill at a decent speed if four adults were in the Maxi. It also had a new five speed gearbox operated by cables - yes cables - not rods and selector shafts. The Maxi should have been an original, new design, but to save cash BLMC used doors, windscreen and other parts from the `land crab' 1800/2200cc models.

Despite having a handy hatchback tailgate, plus seats that folded all the way down to provide a rough sleeper's delight, the Maxi wasn't the familiy car flagship that British Leyland desperately needed in the early 1970s. Early models suffered problems like sheared engine mountings, so the arthritic 1500cc four cylinder unit fell out onto the road - best place for it some might say.

With the bigger 1750cc engine fitted, plus the later rod-operated gearbox, the Maxi was a bit more acceptable, but still looked stodgy as a maiden aunt's sherry trifle compared to a sleek 1970s Ford Cortina.

Oh and one more thing; Hydrogas suspension. I rest my case...just as a Maxi rested at least one wheelarch on its soggy as rice pudding suspension.

3. Morris Marina

This 70s masterpiece of mediocrity sums up everything that went wrong in the British Leyland empire at that time. It was marketed as a family car, and a salesman's repmobile, a rival to the Ford Cortina, Escort and Vauxhall Viva. But a sad litany of penny-pinching, rehashed designs, inter-factory squabbles within BL and the usual strikes and `Friday afternoon' cars, put the Marina at a distinct disadvantage.

Like many British motorcycles of the late 60s and early 70s, the Marina was something of a 'parts bin' special, with engine, gearbox and other chassis components sourced from the venerable Morris Minor, Triumph Dolomite and the dated 1960s MGB GT sports car.

This cost-cutting R&D plan, plus the usual `Up the Workers' type industrial disputes at Leyland's outdated Cowley plant, all helped to produce an ill-handling dog of a car, styled like a chintz sofa and frequently painted in baby poo yellowy-green, or a pensioner's anorak shade of beige.

Thanks to a rock bottom price tag, BL shifted lots of Marinas and even set up `kit' type manufacturing in far-flung countries like New Zealand, where people were grateful to drive anything locally assembled.

The reason the Marina and its ilk helped to kill BL is summed up in its pedestrian performance, the shabby unreliability of the car and its overall lack of ambition.

In a sense, BL had already thrown the towel in by the early 70s and by producing cheap, second rate rubbish, they were asking the Japanese and the Germans to pick up the technological baton and run with it. Toyota, Nissan, Mazda, VW-Audi and Honda didn't need any further encouragement, they got on with making better cars.

4. Triumph TR7

Words cannot really describe how repulsed most young men were by the pig-ugly, wedge shaped TR7 when it made its debut in 1975. Guys who thought wearing 10 inch flares, platform shoes and listening to Emerson, Lake and Palmer was acceptable choked on their Corona cherryade when they first saw the horror that Triumph attempted to foist on the sports car world. In America Burt Reynolds personally shot the first three candy-ass guys who bought a TR7.

Fact is, blokes under 35 with spare cash and an urge to own a sports car want something that looks powerful, a bit curvy maybe, and hopefully `cool' by the standards of its time.

Compare the slice of red cheddar cheese that is the TR7 to other sporty cars of the era; for example, the outgoing TR6 was perhaps the most Italian looking British sports car of the 70s, undeniably beautiful and could have worn a Lancia badge with justifiable pride.

A Triumph Spitfire was tiny, a bit slow too, but hey, it was a genuine soft-top and some might say, it looked quite sexy compared to a TR7. A Datsun 240Z might have rusted faster than a Fiat 124 Coupe, but it passed for a Ferrari Daytona...from a distance, on a foggy day.

Even the MGB Roadster, undeniably slow and a bit old hat, still looked OK on a summer's day with the top down. Then there was the Ford Capri Mk 3.0, which had Mustang lines and a V6 lump that pissed all over the TR7. Even the 2.0 litre Capri was a capable performer.

Not only was the TR7 an ugly tin top, but as ever with 70s BL cars, it proved unreliable, prone to rust, had ropey electrics and the usual niggling engine and gearbox faults.

Matters weren't helped by the TR7 being assembled at the BL Speke plant near Liverpool, where a determined cadre of union members did their level best to sabotage production at every opportunity. They eventually succeeded, and the Speke plant was closed in 1978, with TR7 production moving to Coventry, and then Solihull.

The failure of the TR7 was a crucial nail in the coffin for BL because since the 1950s British sports cars had a big share of the US market and the MG, Triumph, Austin-Healey and Jaguar names actually had some kudos from California to North Carolina.

But baffled US buyers didn't know what to make of the TR7 and even the TR8 - fitted with the Buick V8 that Rover used in the 3500 series - failed to save the British sports car from becoming a relic of the past across the atlantic.

Another export market dried up for the British car industry because of the TR7's dismal failings. Brit sports cars had gone from being cool, to pathetic, in the space of ten years.

5. Hillman Imp

Here's another example of a good idea; a compact city/commuter car, almost a Smart car of its time, which went badly wrong in terms of its development and manufacture.

To be fair, the Rootes Group, who owned the Hillman brand knew they were getting marginalised in the car market in 1950s Britain and they knew that although their big, stodgy Hillman/Humber saloons were OK, but they needed a small, economical car that a working man could realistically afford.

They started working on the Imp in the mid 50s, but progress was slow and the UK goverment wasn't keen on letting Rootes extend their Coventry works to make the new small car. That meant building a new factory in Scotland, but the upside was the government chipped in £10 million of the £22 million costs - a bribe basically.

So Linwood became the all-new centre of the Scottish car industry and in `63 the Imp made its debut.

The spec was great on paper; an 875cc all-alloy engine, trick carb operated by pneumatic air valve, not a crude throttle cable and an auto choke. The engine was canted at an angle and slotted into the back of the car, leaving plenty of luggage space at the front - something that the BMC Mini didn't have.

But the Imp's hi-tech engine tended to warp its heads, as the cooling system wasn't perfect and owners tended to flog the Imp mercilessly, racing bigger engined vehicles. It handled really well, but a stream of build quality faults and the expense of maintaining an alloy engine properly did for the Imp. The idea that penny-pinching small car owners would spend big money on maintaining a high performance engine, was a bit flawed.

Rootes Group stuck with the Imp, as they had no money to develop another small car to replace it. So Hillman jazzed up the Imp every which way they could, with all kinds of badge engineered variations, (Singer Chamois, Hillman Husky, Sunbeam Stiletto etc.) plus they exported it in CKD (Complete Knock Down) format around the world.

But the Imp wasn't as simple to fix as a Mini, arguably looked a bit oddball and, in the finest traditions of UK car making, it rusted like a bucket of nails in a salt mine.

The later twin-carb Hillman Imp, with the `fastback' Coupe styling, could have been the first `hot hatch,' but instead, it remained firmly in the Mini's Cooper's shadow. Imps never seemed as cool as Coopers.

After the Chrysler takeover of the Rootes Group in `73, the US parent company seemed baffled by small cars and had no clue as to developing or marketing them. The Imp was dropped three years later and Linwood closed in the 80s.

Move Over Austin Rover

The story of the British car industry in the 1960s and 70s is one of wasted chances, clever engineers being hampered by cost-cutting accountants and directors more interested in corporate takeovers than selling well made, innovative cars.

Defeat was always snatched from the jaws of victory, as the once mighty Rootes and BMC/BL Groups repeated the same basic mistakes in R&D, marketing, plant management and labour relations. Almost all middle class professionals in Britain once drove Humbers, Jaguars, Rovers or huge caravan-towing lumps like the Triumph 2500. That entire market was slowly, but surely, handed over to the German makes of BMW and Audi.

The astonishing thing is that Austin-Rover survived the 1980s at all, given that its best mass market efforts were the Metro, Maestro and Montego. Middle managers were offered dullsville motoring in the shape of the Rover Sterling. Thankfully, almost every single one of those cars has now been consigned to breakers yards.

You could argue that the last truly great, bang-on-the-market, innovative British car was the 1970 Range Rover - a durable, versatile design that carved out its own niche in a global market. Fact is, the Range Rover was so good, other brands copied the formula - nobody copied the Marina.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Random Classics: Orange Capri Spotted Today

Just spotted this 76 Capri GL for sale, in Newton le Willows today. Solid body, original velour interior, with chrome exhaust stubs and chrome pedals..,shaped like iron crosses. 

Heavy metal motoring from back in the day. Gotta be worth three or four grand? 

Car Dealers - Good, Old Fashioned, Customer Service Still Works

Car dealers.

Say those two words to the average bloke down the pub and you'll hear a tale of woe, financial loss and general fed-up-to-the-back-teeth pain.

True, I've been to some dealerships and been treated like a mild nuisance, despite attempting to spend thousands of pounds, or been fobbed off by a service desk jockey, keen to make me pay to fix a faulty car, rather than the dealer of manufacturer pick up the tab.

But when I do get great service, I will mention it online, for two reasons;

One it's truly rare in the UK, where the `take it or leave it' attitude still seeps from the public to the private sector, like an oil stain on your fave jeans. Secondly, people on social media often use blogs, Twitter or FB to simply moan about problems and never give out praise.

Well step forward Arnold Clark dealership of St Helens, who have just checked over my leaky Fiat Punto and told me that it's just the aircon reservoir, disposing of the moisture that builds up inside the system. They even did a phone video of the car on the ramps so that I could see there was no leak from the engine or coolant system, brakes etc.

This was all done - free of charge, as I bought the car just two months back - and on a Saturday morning, when the dealership was busy.

Getting 40mpg from the 1.4 Punto btw
A coffee and a read of the paper at Tesco and I was on my way again. Plus, they are contacting Fiat about the Stop-Start fuel saving feature playing up, which should be fixed under manufacturer's warranty.

Super efficient service. Clean dealership. Smiley people. That is how things should be in the UK car trade and no, I'm not a paid blogger, or a `shill,' or a relative of someone who works there.

Just a happy customer.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Flying Into The Cauldron of Heat and Speed

Years ago, I stepped onto this tiny Twin Otter aircraft and left the runway in the Western Sahara. The plane spluttered and groaned as it took off with about eight or ten on board, plus camera gear.

We set a course for a place with an unpronounceable name, located by satellite markers, but easily visible too, as a cluster of tents, trucks and 4X4s were gathered near the sheer cliffs.

We were chasing the Paris Dakar rally and somewhere below us, there were people battling soft sand washes, dodging rocks that would puncture tyres, or avoid ledges that might break their suspension.

There was a bivouac waiting too; hot tea or coffee, sugary pastries, bread rolls, apples, luxury in a desolate place like this.

The Twin Otter dropped like a stone, without warning, as we hit little air pockets and turbulence. The Sahara is a unique, invisible cathedral of air funnels, vortices and layers of heat, all shimmering skywards. Small planes dart inside and around these towers of air, blown this way and that, almost like kites. Few clouds blotted our view across the vast, unearthly expanse of restless dust and broken geology. It was like flying over another planet, devoid of any blue or green. Just brown, beige and white space under our wings.

The plane slowed, to what seemed like walking pace, and we began to almost glide into the desert strip. I could see the cars and tents below us, the sweep of the rocks surrounding the encampment, like a giant's jawbone, half buried in sand. The wings waggled, the wheels bumped a few times, things went loose in the overhead lockers and then we were down and almost ploughing our way to a stop in the gravel.

Engines roared, we parked and then the narrow door flipped down and an oven-like breath of fire enveloped us, sucking the energy from our lungs and legs in a second. This was the centre of the earth, an eye of fire in a quiet storm. Nothingness, glowing like ashes.

I will never forget that last, 400-500 metre, sweat-soaked walk to the bivouac. Thirst driving us onwards. Relief that we'd made the landing OK giving us those fake smiles you see after a minor road crash.

Yes, we'd made this far on the rally, nobody had lost their life yet, just some broken bones and one unlucky technician had driven over a mine which had blown his leg off below the knee.

You could taste the danger in the air.

I can still taste it, even after 13 years. The unforgettable Dakar. The circles in the sand.

If you want to read some more, it's on the Kindle thing ;-)

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Volvo V40 D2 1.6 Diesel - Decent Company Car

Some cars have company written all over them and the Volvo V40 diesel is one of them.

True, it looks nice, especially in its SE spec, which includes heated seats, variable dashboard displays, Blind Spot warning system, proximity ignition key and more. I tested the auto version which worked beautifully with no jerky changes up or down.

The only problem with having all the gadgets is that it bumps the price up to nearly £30,000, which is a huge wedge of cash for a 1.6 four cylinder diesel, with Stop-Start.

You can buy the base model, with manual gearbox and no aircon, Stop-Start and so on, but you still might feel that you've paid too much at around £21,000.

Based on the Ford Focus, the V40 has its own unique styling, with the car looking a bit sportier than the Ford family hatchback. The price is a certain lack of practicality, with the rear seats in the V40 being suitable for children, not adults, and the narrow boot lip shape limiting the size of load you can fit into the back of the Volvo, even if you do fold the rear seats down.

MPG wise, it's capable of about 48 miles per gallon overall. That was recorded on a mixture of A roads and motorways, with just a little bit of commuting. Way below the `steady 56mph' figure quoted by Volvo, but then nobody does a steady 56mph all the time.

The economy of the engine means it falls in the £20 per year VED tax band, which is another bonus for company car fleet managers.

One optional extra on the V40 is the false boot floor. This handy shelf slots in over the real floor and acts as a cover to hide valuables like iPads, laptops, cameras, tablets, charger cables etc - all of which attract casual gadget thieves if left on view inside the car.

OK Company Repmobile, But Not a Family Car

Taken all round, I can't say the V40 is a good choice as a family car. The bottom line is that it's far too expensive. You could buy three Dacia Stepways for the same money.

Neither is the V40 funky enough, or luxurious enough inside, to rival the Mini, Fiat 500, or an Alfa Guilietta when it comes to attracting female drivers.

All that leaves the company car market, which is dominated by German brands. The trouble with the Volvo brand itself is that it still has an image problem, it just isn't seen as a `success' badge, like BMW, Audi or Mercedes Benz. Even dentists drive BMWs these days, not Volvos or Saabs.

Volvo isn't in the same league as Range Rover or Jaguar for prestige either, which makes me wonder if a successful sales manager would ever choose a V40 at 30K over a Range Rover Evoque.

The one Volvo a sales rep with a family would want is the V60 Polestar, which goes like a rocket - and has a handy bit of boot space. But by comparison the V40 is a bit too slow and anonymous. It just doesn't quite hit the spot sadly.