One from Goodwood

One from Goodwood

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.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Fay Taylour: The Racy Lady Who Spied for MI5?

Recently I finished a Kindle book project, called `Jacks, Knaves and Kings of Speed.'

It doesn't just cover the racing careers, and off-track antics, of colourful male characters like Hunt, Sheene, Hailwood or Achille Varzi. As fascinating as the men who raced motorcycles and cars are, I wanted to cover some of the 20th Century female racers life stories too. 

Here's an extract looking back at the exploits of Fay Taylour, a fiery Irishwoman speedway racer, midget car racer and possibly one of the top MI5 spies of her time too.

You can check out the book here by the way, it's refreshingly cheap;

Fay Taylour was a remarkable woman, a brave motorcycle speedway racer, once so famous that crowds of over 20,000 people turned out to watch her in action.

Yet Fay is all but forgotten today and the reason is probably her bizarre flirtation with British Fascism, which saw Fay jailed on the Isle of Man during WW2- just in case she left Britain and became a dispatch rider for the Nazis.

Born in Ireland to middle class parents, and privately educated, Fay realized that Ireland in the early 1920s was heading for Civil War and off she went to find her fortune in mainland Britain. She was a natural on motorcycles and won trials, grasstrack and scrambling (Moto Cross) events.

Fay then thought she’d sneak into Speedway which was rapidly becoming the most popular spectator sport involving motorcycles at that time. Fay was impressively fast and pioneered the `trailing leg’ technique, as she powerslid her way around the cinder ovals of Britain.

She beat all other women speedway riders with ease, and broke track records set by fed-up blokes. Fay was dubbed the `Speedway Queen’ and off she went to Australia and whupped the local heroes there, setting course records on the big half mile dirt tracks. 

 She had a few crashes too but plenty of wins and seemed to be adept at making a good living from racing, no mean feat for anyone in those days.

But in 1930 women were banned from Speedway for `safety reasons,’ and the ban quickly followed Fay out to Australia. That meant a switch to car racing and she was good at that too, winning the Leinster Cup in 1934, but although she was Grand Prix winner and she didn’t get signed to a factory team.

This brings us to an interesting question; as Fay wasn’t born very rich, how did she fund her racing career and globe-trotting lifestyle?

Nazi Sympathizer or MI5 Spy?

When the Nazis came to power in 1933 Fay began to hang around with the slightly deluded Mitford sisters and Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Fascists – Max Mosley’s father by the way.

It’s rumoured that Fay joined in with jew-hating marches in the 30s, and according the M15 records, whilst interned on the Isle of Man, Fay Taylour carried a photo of Hitler and kept telling everyone that the Germans were really nice people.

Yet for all this Nazi adoration, Fay was released from her prison camp and sent home to Ireland in 1943, long before the war ended. Surely she was a security risk, as a known fascist supporter?

Was she sent home to Ireland as a spy, to see how `neutral’ the Irish government really were? We will never know, but after WW2, and a brief stint in London, (where again, she seems to have joined up with a gang throwing bricks at shops owned by Jews) Fay headed off to Hollywood where she either a. sold sports and luxury cars to movie stars, or b. ran a string of expensive call girls.

The story goes that she met a well connected prostitute in the Isle of Man internment camp, and this woman gave Fay some `useful introductions.’ In turn, Fay realized that some wealthy men of her acquaintance might like to meet women who could be discreet. 

Oswald Mosley’s former secretary recalled that Fay drove him home from a window-smashing brawl in the East End, in a Jaguar that was owned by `a well-known `high class call girl.’

Aboard a Douglas speedway racer in the `20s
For fun in the USA, she raced midget cars, which was a kind of four wheeled speedway on dusty ovals and run by some famously dubious good ol’ boys. Again she was highly competitive in a real `man’s game.’

After mysteriously making pots of cash, in a few short years, Fay returned to the UK in the early 1950s and went car racing, competing against the likes of fledgling would-be GP champion Stirling Moss. 

After touring around Europe – hugely expensive back in the early `50s - she then buggered off to South Africa, giving her address as the Carlton Hotel, Johannesburg and joining the local sports car club.

Fay then turned up back in Britain, where she saw out her final days in a nursing home in the South West of England.

Fay Taylour never married, despite being a good looking woman well into her 40s, endowed with what would now be called ` a very perky rack.’ She gave men little time, except on the track, where she basically liked to whup their sorry, sexist asses.

Fay Taylour was undoubtedly a trailblazing motorcycle racer and fearless car racer. Her murky activities with the fascists might – just might – have been part of her true lifelong work, which was as a female James Bond, spying on Mosley’s crackpots, the Irish government and perhaps even Hollywood movie stars, on behalf of M15.

Taylour’s father was an inspector in the Irish Police, before the 1916 rebellion and civil war of the 20s. It’s not stretching things to imagine that he taught her at a young age to trust no-one, and that information was often the most valuable commodity of all.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Why We Need Concept Cars: The Good, The Bad and Downright Ugly

It took about 40 years for anyone to build a bigger ship
Great engineering is always forged from visionary ideas, a desire to improve. But sometimes a creation that seems utter folly, like Brunel's Great Eastern for example, can eventually become an accidental catalyst for global progress.

Without the Great Eastern the repair of the first Transatlantic telegraph cable would have required another two or three years of head-scratching and painstaking, bespoke shipbuilding.

The sheer size of Brunel's ship, its capacity to absorb huge reels of copper cable, meant it could begin the process of linking world trade by wires, not letters. Other ships took years to accomplish what the Great Eastern managed to do in months.

So, a ship built to ferry migrants to far corners of the globe found its true purpose, after Brunels' death. This grandioise piece of engineering, deemed a `white elephant' at launch, later served a perfect, practical purpose; the birth of worldwide digital communications. All those dots and dashes, fired along the seabed, were a pulsing harbinger of the internet.

News that took ten days, now took less than an hour - just think of that huge leap forward in communication. The Great Eastern enabled that technological step just as much as the copper cable itself; the ship was a crucial part of the means of delivery - a waypoint on the map of the future digital economy.

Toyota FT-1 is a bit too Fast & Furious/Playstation.
OK, What Does This Have to Do With Concept Cars?

Good question. The answer lies in the foggy business of predicting the future.

Will electric cars ever be practical for a family of four who don't have time to charge a battery for eight hours solid every two days? Who knows? But if we don't attempt to tweak the laws of physics and squeeze ever more range from heavy lithium batteries then we are prisoners of the oil industry forever.

Can lighter materials save more lives in road crashes, or make cars cheaper to repair, as well as reduce consumption? Are driverless cars the answer for millions of time-poor commuters, who would rather check emails, rather than their wing mirrors?

These are reasons why I salute concept cars, especially those which make their debut at car shows, thus spicing up interest from the public and justifying the often outrageous admission fee.

If I attend a show and all I can view is next year's range of colours, or iPod connected dashboards, then why should I fork out £20 and pay £3 for a tepid coffee? Blow my doors off car-makers, shred my mind car designers - I need to be inspired, surprised, maybe even moved to laughter at the weird science and silly styling.

So here's my own pick of the 2014 concept cars. No particular order, it's just for fun.

Exalt has steel body, synthetics & wood materials inside.
Peugeot Exalt

A car made from hand-beaten steel, with added sharkskin sections? Well, not real skin - it's a synthetic material that mimics sharkskin and, so say Peugeot, it helps the car slip through the air better.

There's an unusual mix of materials in the Exalt and if that makes us think beyond the mix of alloy shells and samey injection moulded plastics that make up most modern cars, then that's a good thing.

If we can make machines function better, last longer, or just consume less resources when manufacturing the damn things, then let's imitate what nature does so well.

That boot holds a diesel engine & a little boot space!
Volkswagen XL1 - 300mpg Economy For Millionaires

As clever as the VW XL1 is, with its small diesel engine and electric motor combining to return up to 313 miles per gallon, the price tag is ridiculous at 111,000 euros.

I had a look at the VW concept at the Gadget Show recently and it doesn't look worth that crazy price tag. Carbon fibre bodywork sections aren't that expensive to manufacture. If they were, then BMW wouldn't be selling its i-3 electric car for under $50,000 in the USA.

From the outside, the XL1 really looks the part; like a car from a 70s sci-fi movie, designed to run on some type of electro-magnetic railway.

The whole car is set ultra low, almost like a squashed Porsche, with a narrow track and seating for two (only just) inside the cabin. Its flip-up doors add the `wow' factor.

You do get rear view cameras, otherwise a tad dull.
But inside...God's teeth what a disappointment. The XL1 looks like a base model VW Polo or Beetle.

This is not the interior of a $100,000 car, it has no bling, no sumptuous feeling, no luxury.

Hats off to VW for having the balls to manufacture the XL1 and making us dream about 300mpg cars. But you should've got the Italians to style it boys, or just cut the price by about 60,000 euros.

Hyundai Intrado SUV - Hydrogen Cell Plus Battery Equals Practical Transport

This hydrogen/electric SUV is one of my fave concepts of 2014 so far. Why? Two reasons; first any car that runs on water-sourced gas has to be good news, and secondly the way this car showcases a kind of hybrid construction interests me.

There's a carbon fibre section in the body shell, married to lightweight steel sections. The carbon-polymer bits allow the Intrado to do away with the B pillar - that's the pesky bit needed for structural strength that proves a royal pain in the ass when getting rear passengers, or heavy shopping items, in and out of the car.

The seats also clip-on to the floor, which means you can easily remove one or two if you wanted to take your MTB somewhere and ride it.

Inside, the Intrado has a one-piece, injection moulded dashboard that looks capable of withstanding normal daily life. You know, people eating food...playing with games consoles...wet dogs etc. It's a clean design although I think the orange might not be everyone's thing.

One final point; the range is 370 miles. That's enough for the average person to get to work, do some shopping, ferry kids to school and friends houses, and then refuel maybe once a week.

Consider this; You could go on holiday to Devon in the Intrado, even if you lived in Lancashire - wow. Try that in a Nissan Leaf and you'll be staying overnight in Staffordshire..and again in Somerset.

Compare the everyday practicality of the Intrado to the useless 30-80 mile range offered by many `pure' electric cars. Range `fear' isn't marketing speak - it actually sums up what many people think is the achilles heel of electric vehicles - the physics defeats the functionality.

The future needs to take account of human nature and the realities of our lifestyles. Or it won't work. That's why concept cars matter - they make us think about the future.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Road Tests: Land Rover Discovery SDV6 HSE is a Luxury Diesel 4X4

Understated, classier than a Range Rover?
For years the Land Rover Discovery, or `Disco' was a byword for dodgy reliability, shocking resale values, and a fair bit of bodyroll when attempting to corner at a decent speed.

But times change, and the 2013 Discovery V6 diesel is, in some ways, a kind of Range Rover `Lite.' It oozes class now, instead of spores of rust, and you can buy a Disco without first passing a training course in auto-electrics.

Apart from the fantastic view and excellent driving position, the first thing that strikes you inside the HSE 3.0 diesel is the simple, but elegant dashboard layout and the overall ambience. Leather seats, plush carpets, proper chunky door handles and an impressive amount of room for rear passengers too. This is a very nice place to be, you're definitely travelling Club Class.

Push the engine start button and that signature Jaguar/Land Rover central dial glides up, then you click from Park into Drive, as easy as whacking an oven grill on for a bacon sandwich. There's a central touchscreen, which shows you what's happening behind when you click Reverse, and your Sat Nav, MPG, radio options, or 4-wheel drive modes are all dsplayed there.

leather interior on the HSE model
Interior Gadgets and Comfort

There aren't too many buttons to play with, and mostly it's a just a few seconds trial and error to figure out which button does what.

In the central console there's an impressive coolbox, which is big enough to hold a four pack of beers, not that you should be drinking and driving...but hey, your passengers might like a few scoops as you rumble down to the rugby club.

The only slight fault I noticed with the cabin layout is that the USB and iPod connections are inside the lid of the console - so if you want your music on, or someone needs their phone/tablet charging, the coolbox lid remains open and upright.

You can't rest your arm on top of it then, `cos your iPhone's plugged in....seems a bit of an afterthought really, surely there's a reason why people plug their phones into the front of the dashboard? It means the phone and cable aren't in the way.

The door pockets are huge and can easily handle a 2-litre bottle of Diet Coke. There's also a big sunroof, which personally I'm not that keen on ( just don't like sunroofs) but it does give a feeling of real space...boardroom level space.

iPod/USB connection points not ideal
Handling and Performance

First up, I only had use of the Discovery SDV6 for about an hour, so this is just an impression. But what stands out is the accomplished feel of the LR on a twisty road. Everything feels solid, predictable and super stable. You won't be racing any reps in their Audi A5s, but the V6 diesel has enough punch to make overtaking easy and that automatic transmission is near-perfect.

It covers the 0-60mph dash in just under 9 seconds, which is quick for a vehicle that weighs about the same as a terraced house in Wakefield.

Travelling back to Land Rover's test base in the Midlands, I stoppped at lights on the A45 and gunned the Discovery 4 away on green, surprising the Alfa Mito driver next to me. People just don't expect a 4X4 to rocket from the lights as quick as many `sporty' hatchbacks, but it does.

It's an eight speed box, just like the big Jaguar diesels, and equally as impressive on the open road. You can make rapid progress in the Discovery and it's physically such an intimidating front end on the car that lots of people in small hatchbacks tend to cower a bit and let you past. Did I go all Clarkson for a moment then?

Well yes, but that's how the Discovery gets to your inner Mr Toad - it just feels SUCH fun flinging a mahoosive 4X4 about. Naughty but nice. I love the Spongebob Squarepants styling of the Discovery, it looks Tonka toy tough and apart from the slightly dated back end, I think this latest version is the most handsome yet.

Running Costs and Boring Stuff

Come on, the HSE model starts at about £53,000, before you add any options, so do you really care that it's in the high VED tax bracket, and will cost you £750 for the first year?

Fuel consumption, even with stop-start technology, is about 33mpg average, but the on-screen display kept reminding me that by driving fast I was getting more like 28mpg.

Need to make more of a staement? You can add things like blingier wheels, privacy glass and choose fancy paint schemes. It is easy to get the HSE model price over £60,000, which is lots of cash for a Land Rover. The Discovery range starts at £40,000, if you can live without leather seats, touchscreen Sat Nav, rear parking camera etc.

In truth, this is a company car, or a personal lease package, you'd be throwing money away owning it. The other advantage with a business use deal is that the expensive servicing, tyres and spares are all on the company, not you.

Back end looks slightly dated?
There's one more thing worth saying about the Discovery 4; driving it is like piloting a Merc S Class, or a big Jaguar V8. You really feel you've made it, and driving is a pleasure, not a chore. It also feels incredibly safe. Sturdy - good word, sturdy...

So if your company is doing well, then maybe you should treat yourself to a bit of old school 4X4 fun, that's stuffed with modern technology.

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