Let’s Go For A Driver: Jaguar X300 XJ6


This is going to be slightly different from my usual ‘Let’s Go For A Drive’ features as it’s actually going to be a description of (wait for it)…a drive in a car. No long paragraphs about whether or not the exterior styling is an example deconstructivist design, the socio-political importance of the MGB GT or how I feel slightly guilty about agreeing with Jeremy Clarkson, just a car, some road and some words.

The Car: A 1995 Jaguar XJ ‘X300’ 4.0 Sovereign

The Mission: To drive from Portsmouth (birthplace of Charles Dickens and home of the Royal Navy) to Peterborough (birthplace of the founder of Pizza Express and home of the country’s ninth largest building society).

The Distance: 162 miles (2 hours 50 minutes journey time estimate by everyone’s favourite non-evil search engine)

The Time: November, departing at 8pm on a Sunday evening.

The Weather: It Was A Dark And Stormy Night.



Many of you will already be realising that this was a rare case of everything coming together nicely. When you’ve got a tedious motorway run in miserable weather there are few cars better suited to smoothing away the miles like a big old Jag.

Except that the Jag isn’t that old (to me at least- which seems a bit strange since if it was a person it would be old enough to vote…I wonder who a metallic maroon XJ would vote for? Anyway, I digress…). And yet, if the Jaguar isn’t a ‘proper classic’ yet- and the fact that it’s worth about £1500 at the most implies that it certainly isn’t- it’s certainly ‘old fashioned’.

The early ‘Nineties were a strange time for Jaguar. The firm’s brief period of independence had come to an end when Ford took over and the attempt to shift the corporate image into the correct decade hadn’t really worked. The XJ40 of 1986 was the first genuinely all-new XJ since the model had been launched in the ‘Sixties and it was a brave attempt to move Jaguar’s styling development along at something other than its previously glacial pace. All this really meant was that the XJ40 had rectangular rather than round headlamps. The upper-middle-aged, upper-middle-class professionals of the Home Counties gave a collective “Harrumph…bloody typical…this country…!” and stayed away. Things weren’t helped by Jaguar continuing to build the old XJ alongside its all-new replacement for six years- the XJ40 only outlived the Series III XJ by two years.

With its fingers well and truly burnt Jaguar ran fleeing from the ‘Nineties and rushed head-long back into the early ‘Seventies when it came to designing the XJ40’s replacement, which was the X300 we have here. The sculpted, swooping body lines returned, as did the quad round lamps and the trademark Jaguar rear ‘haunches’. Inside the daring ‘Tokyo By Night’ electronic dashboard and synthetic materials were ditched in favour of leather, burred walnut and proper dials with proper numbers and proper needles. Retired doctors all over Florida breathed a sigh of relief.



That’s all I’m going to say about the XJ’s design because on a night like this I struggled to see much of it. What was of more interest was that interior. For all my gentle mockery there’s no denying that the inside of a Jag is a great place to spend time. You open the hefty door with its chromed metal handle and the interior is lit up in a puddle of proper filament-generated warm yellow light (no halogens or LEDs here, old chap!) revealing the inviting sight of several acres of material that used to be alive but was forced to give up its life to go on to greater things as part of a Jaguar interior. It is exactly like getting into comforting sitting room after a long walk on a rainy Sunday afternoon. You expect a kindly butler with a name like Wigglesworth to appear from nowhere to take your coat and proffer a pair of twill-patterned driving slippers. When you shut the door the tedious sounds of nature’s wilder side are shut out completely as soon as the latch clunks into place, with just the gentle patter of raindrops on the windscreen to disturb the peace. The steering wheel (which retracts into the dash on exit to allow those of a more ‘trans-Atlantic’ girth to get out without their paunch hitting the horn button) slides into place…but the seat (which also glides backwards) doesn’t. It would be too much to expect an 18-year old Jaguar not to have the occasional electrical niggle. Fortunately the electric adjusters still work so it’s easy to shuffle the chair into the correct place.



Turn the key and the dashboard springs to life with a symphony of polite warning tones and a Blackpool-esque array of warning lights. One more turn and the 4.0-litre straight-six hums into action. You get a brief cough from the exhaust and then the engine retreats into the background, with just a sibilant hiss from the air vents to show that anything is actually happening. At this point I should also mention that the Jag’s air conditioning system had gone for a burton some years ago, meaning that the vast majority of switches and readouts in the centre console, now gently glowing green with the hue of a uranium rod from a cheesy sci-fi film, are entirely decorative.

Foot on the brake, slip the leather-topped gear lever into ‘D’ and then release the right foot. The Jag slurs into action like an ocean liner leaving the pier. As with all big-engined cars with old-fashioned automatic gearboxes the XJ can clip along at a decent pace without any throttle at all, and it takes only a slight brush on the accelerator to get the Jaguar wafting around the dull and thoroughly un-noteworthy streets of the Gosport peninsular, the single wiper only revealing a sequence of mini roundabouts and those curiously generic parades of shops you always find in suburban Britain (one cheap booze shop, a Chinese takeaway, a barbers and something weird like a mercury thermometer repair business).

This was a good time to take stock of some fuel/range numbers. The X300 did carry over a lot of XJ40’s on-board electronics; it just disguised them behind a (literal) veneer of walnut. The dashboard includes a wonderfully dated array of seven-segment displays to record various things you might be interested in. The one of interest to me was the Jag’s estimate of its fuel range and its instant MPG readout. The previous day I had put in £80 of Shell’s finest vintage petroleum distillate. This was only enough to get the tank to three-quarters full (I chickened out when I realised that I spent the equivalent of about six months of 2CV fuel and the Jag still wasn’t finished) and the car was now saying that this wallet-shrivelling sum was only sufficient to take me 262 miles. The ‘economy’ readout said 16 MPG and it was easy to get that into single figures under acceleration.


So, surprise, surprise, a 4.0-litre luxury saloon that’s 15 feet long and weighs 1.9 tons isn’t the ideal city car. What the Jag was already proving was its sublime ride quality. As well as the exemplary mechanical refinement the XJ simple swallowed up the scuffed tarmac, potholes and speed bumps that make up the lower end of the A32. There was a muffled ‘clonk’ from the back end which pointed to some wear in one of the many rear bushes but the car remained unperturbed by things that a sensible car on small wheels and tight springs would be jarring over horrendously.

Getting off the Gosport peninsula is one of the great logistical problems in British motoring as there is no easy way to get to any motorway from it. I toyed with the idea of just getting on a decent road as quickly as possible and settling in for the long haul but instead decided to hack cross-country to Winchester and pick up the M3 from there.

I’m glad I did as it gave me the chance to sample another, more unexpected side of the Jaguar’s character. The back roads that skirt across the western edge of the South Downs are (in decent weather) perfect sports car territory; sweeping roads with good sight-lines and the odd switchback or chicane to make things interesting. You wouldn’t want to thrash a Mazda MX-5 along these roads on a rainy night but the big Jag proved remarkably suited to the task. What felt like a ponderous barge of a car around town manages to seem to shrink when you start exploring its more dynamic qualities.


It’s such a well-worn cliché that Jaguars manage to combine the ride comfort of a limousine and the handling ability of a sports car that it almost disappoints me to say that it is, in essence true. Of course a Rolls-Royce will ride better and a Honda S2000 will handle better but I can think of no car that so perfectly straddles the comfort/handling spectrum. This is all the more remarkable when you remember two things- that the Jaguar’s suspension is entirely conventional steel springs and hydraulic dampers and that the basics of this system first saw the light of day in 1961. You really do wonder why all cars aren’t set up this way.

Of course, the XJ is not a sports car- its sheer weight and size make that impossible. It’s not even a proper sports saloon. What the Jag is is a brilliant demonstration that the usual axiom that ‘rock hard ride and heavy steering= driver feedback’ is a complete nonsense. Take the Jaguar’s steering for example. It is definitely highly (although not over-) assisted but steering weight and steering feel are very different things. The Jaguar may be a soft, comfortable gin palace of a car but it is also powerful and objectively fast. Of course a surplus of power is a key part of luxury but many such cars isolate the driver so much from the business of driving that making use of that power for anything other than genteel wafting is deeply unpleasant. The XJ manages to tell you exactly where its limits are at any one time, and personally I enjoy a car with low limits that you can exploit with confidence than one with high limits that won’t tell you if you’re getting near the point where it will bite you.

The Jag has steering that is perfectly weighted for a luxury car but also manages to communicate what the ‘chassis’ is doing very, very well. Being a heavy car it is one that you need to ‘settle’ into sweeping corners if you want to maintain momentum and this is easy to judge. Equally, being a powerful rear-wheel drive car, the XJ likes to oversteer if being driven in a hooligan-like manner, but it telegraphs when its approaching its limits- the car’s inherent heft and feeling of planted solidity just begins to lighten up, as if that on-board butler is politely coughing and saying “Do you really think that’s wise, sir?”


The gearbox, which is slushy and shift-up-happy in normal use, has a ‘Sports’ mode which is one of the few I’ve encountered that makes a genuine difference. It holds onto the lower gears for longer, changes down more readily (and at just the right time) and, although I may be imagining it, seems to lose a lot of its thrashy, disconnected nature. Of course the X300 features the famous Jaguar ‘J-Gate’ gear lever setup. I have always wondered why a mere shifter gate shape could have such a fervent following and now I understand why. For those unfamiliar with the arrangement, with the gear lever at the bottom of its normal travel in ‘D’ you can flick it across to the left, and from there access the ‘3’ and ‘2’ lock-out positions like any other auto ‘box. The difference is that most auto-box shifters have stiff ratchet mechanisms to prevent you from shifting between positions accidentally. The arrangement on the ‘flick’ of the J-gate has divisions between each position that feels like a really nicely-sorted manual gearshift, making it a joy to hunt up and down the positions to work around the automatic’s inevitable hesitations.


All too soon it was time to relax, take off the Sport mode and get into the dull but necessary task of hoovering up 150-odd miles of some of Britain’s most tedious motorways. The last indulgence was a quick test of the car’s straight-line grunt courtesy of a set of traffic lights leading onto the slip road. I can see why the folks on PistonHeads keep banging on about the death of ‘proper’ BMWs with naturally-aspirated straight-sixes. You can’t beat the immediate, linear punch of a big engine breathing as nature intended. There is a slight hesitation as the gearbox works out what to do, rather like those old black-and-white war films with Jack Hawkins on the bridge of a destroyer where he calls down the voicepipe for ‘Full Ahead Ram!’ and there’s a pause before things actually start happening. I didn’t dare look at the MPG read out in all of this- I suspect the display would have just shown a scrambled mess of digits as the AJ16 engine guzzled fuel faster than it could keep up with.


 For all its unexpected prowess on twisty roads, long motorway cruises on a wild night are really where the XJ shines. Like when you see the London Symphony Orchestra playing that symphony that’s just arrangements of Queen’s Greatest Hits. They do it very well but you can tell it’s not their natural territory and they’d be much happier playing Mahler. Similarly the Jag seemed happy to settle down to some proper luxury wafting. At 70mph the engine is pulling about 2200rpm. This is deep in its torque curve and the result is remarkably good fuel economy…for something of this size. The readout was showing a much healthier 32 MPG and for half an hour so my estimated range was increasing by two miles for every mile I drove. If only that could always happen!


With the cruise control set for 70 (or thereabouts) miles per hour there was really little left to do other than steer and watch the cat’s eyes flick under the Jaguar’s broad snout as I bored north through Hampshire. The light pollution of Basingstoke was left behind and the south coast radio stations gradually faded out of reach. North Hampshire on the M3 corridor is a surprisingly desolate patch of the Earth- if it was daylight all I’d be seeing was miles of gorse-strewn heath, the odd sign warning of military firing ranges and a few isolated farms. On this night, even the flashes of full moon in between rapidly-moving clouds wasn’t revealing anything other than a ribbon of wet tarmac punctuated by the occasional plodding lorry, which the Jaguar swished past with disdain.


The only thing I was really noticing was that I wasn’t big enough to be comfortable in the inside of the Jag. Which is odd, as usually it takes something with the headroom of a Land Rover or a Suzuki Wagon R for me not to complain about discomfort. However here the problem was not one of height but of girth (snigger). Basically I’m not fat enough to fit the Jaguar’s seats. It is clearly a car designed for someone much broader in the shoulders than I. If you adopt the usual pose of the long-distance motorway driver- right elbow on the door armrest, left elbow on the centre armrest, hands at a discouraged but natural twenty-to-four position on the wheel- then I found that I was having to extend my arms more than was comfortable just to put my elbows where Jaguar had intended. This is a little bizarre because the Jag’s cabin is otherwise remarkably…cramped isn’t the right word, but snug certainly is, for a car of this size.


Unfortunately even an olde-worlde Jaguar doesn’t come equipped with an on-board Teasmade and so I made a stop at the Fleet services for a mild caffeine fix. Here I notice two things. First it that even the warning tone made by the Jag’s central locking is discreetly posh – instead of doing anything as vulgar as beeping it sort-of clucks, like a pheasant in the undergrowth. The other is how good it looks as I walk across the car park to continue my journey. Parked in a dark corner, with only the nose lit by the harsh white light of the floodlamps and the chrome trim picked out from the welcoming orange glow of the Days Inn across the road the X300 looks good. Partly because the dark hides the scuffs, scrapes and peeling lacquer of this particular one. It may have been outdated when put against the thrusting angular lines of a BMW or Mercedes of the time but the Sir William Lyons styling is objectively good. The XJ40 underpinnings do show through and it lacks the exquisite visual balance of the original XJ6 but it still has the Jaguar hallmarks of simultaneous grace and menace – just like the namesake cat, I suppose.

I stir the big six into life to carry on and make another loutishly fast getaway on the sliproad to rejoin, the fat rear tyres just scrabbling slightly on the wet tarmac smoothed down by an endless stream of lorry Pirellis.


Then it was back to soaking up mile after sodium-lit mile. Up the M3, around the M25 where airliners that, when I was still sizing up the Jag on the south coast, were off Greenland or over Greece and just beginning their descent, finally slump to earth, their landing lights like a succession of falling stars. Past sign posts to tedious places like Hemel Hempstead and Watford. That I’m waxing lyrical about aircraft and street signs is because I really can’t remember much of this section of the trip. Other than a slightly irritating need to continually bump the heater settings up or down a degree because the climate control didn’t work the XJ just became a wheeled meditation chamber. A cocoon of wood, leather and power that had gently gathered me up and was bearing me northwards at steady 70 (and a bit) miles per hour with no real mental engagement needed on my part. It wasn’t that I was thinking about other things, it’s just that the Jag’s sublime ride, refinement and effortless progress just makes you zone out and when you suddenly see a sign saying ‘Hatfield A1(M) ½ mile’ it comes a something of a shock because you’ll actually have to do something and, as far as you were really aware you were somewhere Uxbridge.


I still maintain that it’s a shame that so many big Jaguars spend their lives wafting around, their engines barely ticking over and their Sports mode dusty and unused as they bear their geriatric owners from golf club to rotary club. As my exploits on the back roads showed even an XJ can make a star turn when asked to. But while it is merely competent at being sports saloon (and there are other cars that will soundly beat it in terms of dynamics and driver involvement) I don’t think there is anything this side of a Rolls-Royce that can match a big, old-fashioned Jaguar for cruising refinement and making even a boring motorway journey on a miserable night in November pass in what seems like twenty minutes. None of the Jag’s sporting betters can get close to that ability and nothing that matches it for comfort can turn in such a good performance when the driver wants to have some fun on a back road. If you can get past the old fart image (or it doesn’t bother you in the first place) and you can afford to run it, and you don’t mind having a car the size of your average postcode that somehow has less interior space than a Nissan Micra, then it is really rather wonderful.







Grand Theft Metro

As lessons in keeping a decent update schedule go, this one’s pretty severe, because my last post was back in February and it was a hymn of praise to a slightly rusty blue Metro (which, I have just noticed, was actually posted on Valentine’s Day which is…touchingly sad).

Now, four months later, I’m going to have to do a tonal shift worthy of the One Show (you know the sort of thing – “…and if you or any family members have been affected by Nectrotizing Fasciitis, please call the BBC Support Line for help and guidance…[two second pause, smile to camera]…And now, Giles Brandreth has been to Salcombe where a grandmother has knitted the world’s biggest tea cosy!”)

Except my emotional jerk is in the other direction. The flags at the new Balloon_Fish HQ are at half mast at the moment because the Metro has been Killed in Action. That action being Aggravated Vehicle Theft.


It had all been going so well, too. Soon after my exhaltations in February the Metro found itself in the unlikely location of Brands Hatch – not the car park, but the actual track. This was courtesy of a public track day organised by the Jaguar Enthusiasts’ Club and I was proud to find out that the Metro was by far the most rubbish and underpowered car there. Even better, it was a soaking wet day so many of the high-powered racing XJSs had to gingerly pick their way around the Indy circuit until it dried out, while the Metro could prance and four-wheel-drift its way around at full chat (50 mph). It also came through a day of motorsport abuse entirely unscathed, which is more than can be said for some of the more dedicated and German machinery there. But then, the Metro 1.3L does have quad-pot ventilated front brake discs as standard…


A few weeks later it was all change and the Metro was pressed into moving van duties, making numerous scoots back and forth across Peterborough and yet again impressing me with its load-carrying abilities (every time I thought “no, these book shelves are way too big to fit!” it proved me wrong).


It had done so well that I treated it to a rather-overdue service, which was a breeze; a certain forgetting-to-put-the-sump-plug-back-in moment not withstanding.


Oil leak? That’s just one of Rutland’s famous natural oil-tar deposits…

The Metro spent most of last summer off the road with a rusted-out-radiator so I was looking forward to actually driving it, you know, in daylight hours and in weather that didn’t continuously need the wipers and lights on.

Sadly it wasn’t to be, because one fine morning in June I came out of my new place to find this:


A scene which is decidely lacking a small and underappreciated British supermini from the mid-‘Eighties. Which was a problem because that spot (the one with the two drops of 15W/40 on it) is where the Metro had been the previous evening.

It’s a strange feeling when your car gets knicked – kinda surreal and I had a constant nagging sensation that there was some very good reason that the car wasn’t there, like I had woken up at 2am and, half-asleep, decided to move it. Or I had been lazy, driven it up to the corner shop and then walked back (but the Metro 1.3L isn’t such a forgettable driving experience…). I mean, unless Peterborough is being swept with a craze for ‘gloom-riding’ then why would you knick a Metro?

The obvious answer, of course, is that because you can get into one with a slightly sour look and a vaguely blunt instrument. For any ne’er-do-well skulking around the car park wanting to steal ‘a car’ it’s much easier to go for the Metro than of the dozen dark blue BMW 1-Series that all my neighbours seem to drive…actually, maybe this was some vigilante Neighbourhood Watch thing, finally fed up with me lowering the tone?


Anyway, the theft was logged with the police and the insurance company and the uneasy waiting game began. Then, after four days, I got a call to say the Metro had been found and was now sitting in a recovery yard near Stilton. As Brian Blessed would say “GOOD NEWS!!!”. Then I rang the yard and they told me that “it’s definitely not driveable and the front end’s all stove in.” This News Is Not So Good.

The police (who, I should say, have been excellent in keeping me informed with things as they develop) later told me that a patrol car came across the Metro on the road, the registration number flashed up as being stolen and the driver refused to stop. A ‘pursuit situation’ ensued until the thief, doubtless unable to handle the raw untameable power of a 1275cc A+ engine, crashed the car and was ‘apprehended’.

If the Metro had to go out, I’m glad it did it in style in the finest tradition of Police, Camera, Action! I’d rather that then have the lingering thought of it sitting submerged in some Norfolk drainage canal or as an unidentified burnt-out shell in Corby.

My visit to the yard to see the car for myself was with mixed feelings. Almost any damage to the car would write it off as far as the insurer was concerned, so if I wanted to resurrect the Metro it would be by my own endeavours. Given that just finding a radiator took five months I was dreading the prospect of finding an entire new front end. Then there was the logistics of the thing – how was I going to get the Metro from the yard to wherever it was going to be repaired, since the insurance company wouldn’t be paying for it? Where was that going to be? I have no driveway or shed, just a couple of car park spaces.

So I was sort of hoping that I would be greeted by a mangled cube of vaguely Metro-shaped parts, so I could walk away thinking “It’s a goner, sad loss and all that but there’s nothing I can do!”. Sadly that’s not the case.


It’s sort of bad, sort of not. Even the precious radiator has survived! Yes, it’s a foot shorter at the front than it was but it’s nothing some new panels, lamps, bumper etc. wouldn’t sort out. The Metro had clearly been stuffed into a ditch, because on the driver’s side every panel is dented, scuffed and rippled and all the panel seams were full of grass. There are a few dents on the other side – the only unscathed part is the rear end.


Looking underneath it doesn’t seem bad – the front part of the subframe has been pinched in, doubtless where the bumper took the impact, but the engine hasn’t been shifted, the steering is all straight and the suspension is all true. I reckon the car would move under its own power without trouble.


The interior has also been fairly badly borked. Whoever stole it seemes to have simply used a club hammer to bash off the steering lock and then hot wire it. So there goes one of the car’s finest features – it’s immaculate interior. Amusingly the miscreant didn’t think any of my CDs were worth stealing, so I’ve got them back, along with the Metro’s handbook and a pair of sunglasses that aren’t mine. Bonus!


So the car is theoretically saveable. But it’s not saveable by me. I don’t have the space to do the work or, really, the time that would doubtless be needed to source all the new parts (and essentially every external panel would have to be replaced). I also suspect that once the work began you’d find more distorted parts than there seem on first glance and once you started measuring everything up and putting a set-square on bits I’d find that I had paid the insurance company for a unique and useless trapezoidal Metro.


Boy, now it seems doing that oil and filter change was really worth it…

The lack of space also stops me from buying it back selling off the remaining good bits – that low-mileage A+ engine would go for a song to someone trying to turn a Mini City E into a Cooper replica (grumble, grumble).

But, really, the deciding factor is that I was going to get rid of the Metro anyway. As much as I enjoyed owning it I had too many cars and the Metro was lined up for sale. So I’d be putting all that effort into resurrecting a car I was going to sell. And, at the end of the day, it’s a car. As much as we can get carried away sometimes, it’s not alive and it doesn’t need ‘a second chance’. Part of me does want to get it fixed up on principle but I’m not sure I value that principle that highly. If my Land Rover had been stolen and written off in a ditch (that would have to be quite a ditch!) I would be willing to put illogical amounts of effort into getting it back on the road because I’ve had it long enough, and done enough things with it, that its significance to me goes beyond logic. The Metro, for all its charms, hadn’t got to that stage.

So it will be go to a scrapyard vehicle recycling centre where, hopefully, its mechanical parts will go to keep other cars (hopefully Metros, probably Minis) going. So if you’re in the East Midlands and need any Metro bits (especially a radiator!), keep an eye out for a faded blue 1.3L. Under that rust-frilled skin is a mechanical heart of gold.


Metro: 1987 – 2014

P.S. – I can’t not mention all the support I’ve had from friends, acquaintances and whatever social position ‘people-you-talk-to-a-lot-on-twitter-but-have-never-actually-met’ fall into. Even though I only told you all about the loss of the Metro for interest, people quickly spread the word around the internet, with posts appearing on Autoshite and Retro Rides asking people to keep an eye out.

Since the Metro was found I’ve had offers of shed space and engine cranes to fix or strip it, which is frankly amazingly kind for someone who, at best, only posts sporadically on those forums and certainly wouldn’t go as far as to say he’s a member of the ‘community’. Except of course, we’re all lovers of old cars, for which there is no real qualification other than that. And the past week has really proved it. Thank you all who got involved in my tale of Metro theft.


Metro Musings

Metro (1)This wasn’t supposed to happen. It really wasn’t. But the Metro has really got under my skin. My name’s Jack and I’m a Metro fancier.

It was supposed to be something of a check-box exercise. I had plenty of second-hand exposure to British Leyland products but no actual ownership experience. This never stopped me sounding off about how cruelly misrepresented they were, of course, but there was the nagging sense that, really, I should take the plunge.

So the plan became: Buy cheap, unloved British Leyland car, run it for a bit so I can say ‘Actually, I have owned a British Leyland car and it was brilliant/rubbish [delete as experience dictates]’, sell it and get back to fantasising about proper cars like Citroën SMs and Datsun F11 Coupés.

I had no great affection for the Metro before I bought mine. They are, in fact, one of the few BL products that my family never really took to back when they were new. In fact the only experience in the Balloon_Fish clan before November 2012 was that my grandfather had a very early example in 1980 which proved to be so unreliable that it was the only BL product that my family has ever given up on.

Metro (3)

No, the Metro came into my life because I was browsing some classifieds ads for ‘a cheap British Leyland car’. The Austin section was near the top of the page and the Metro was the first one I saw that was within my budget and wasn’t something ridiculous like a 3-Litre or a rusted out Sheerline limousine. “Hmmm,” I thought to myself , “Metros are cheap to buy, cheap to run, practical and the parts should be easy to get hold of because underneath they’re just a Mini.” Oh, how naïve I was back in those far-off days!

The advert sounded promising- a 20,000 mile 1.3L 5-door for £500. Deep down I was slightly disappointed it wasn’t a beige 998cc City X or something else properly basic but, hey, I’m not buying this car for the long term.

One stressful trip to Reading later, where the 2CV got rear-ended at a traffic light by someone in Peugeot (a bit of sibling rivalry, perhaps?), and the Metro proved to fit the bill perfectly- only mild rust in non-important places, very straight and original, it drove well and the interior was virtually unmarked.

The deal was done and, as you can read on this blog, the collection experience was entirely unremarkable. My first impressions of the car where entirely what I expected- it was a small 1980s supermini with the engine out of a Mini that steered quite well.


So, if the Metro was only supposed to be a flash in the pan type of affair, why do I still have it 15 months later and why I am I actually spending more money on it?

Put simply, I’m really enjoying it. I fairly quickly succumbed to the temptation to start putting right its few obvious failings by having the suspension pumped up to the correct height (which did wonders for the ride quality) and putting a proper radiator grille on it (which did wonders for the appearance).

Then the radiator started falling apart, followed by a bush in the steering rack exploding (literally). With replacement Metro radiators being extremely difficult to find I wasn’t able to use the car for four months and things between us got a bit sour. I began thinking that maybe the time had come to part company- fix it up and sell it on. The Metro had been enjoyable but nothing spectacular, job done, move on.

But, as hack writers in glossy mags and unimaginative song lyricists will always point out, sometimes you have to lose something before you realise how good it was. Fixing the radiator removed the lingering worry in the back of my head that the car was going to expire in a cloud of steam- something that really put a damper on a long trek down to the West Country last summer. Usually such a trip would be a good time to bond with a car (any car) and the little Metro performed perfectly- but with one eye on the temperature gauge and a continual wariness about using full throttle I couldn’t really enjoy the experience.

Metro (5)

Replacing the steering also played a big part in my change of heart. Not only did it make the already-enjoyable handling even better but it removed one of the few remaining knocks and bangs from the undercarriage, and it’s these little things that can tip the balance between tolerating a car and growing genuinely fond of it. The job itself also showed the Metro to be a well-executed and thoughtfully-designed car. The same job on a Mini would have had me cursing and wondering how drunk the BL engineering team were on the particular Friday that they decided to put that bracket in that particular place, requiring you to undo that particular bolt and contorting yourself into positions usually not seen outside of a hellish Hieronymus Bosch painting. The Metro was a joy to work on, and having had previous cars where any latent goodwill was removed by the pains (physical and mental) required to work on them, this is a good thing.

Metro (6)

This means that the past three months has been the first period in my ownership where the Metro is actually properly working as its makers intended. I always appreciated why they sold so well back in the ‘Eighties (space, economy, good value for money, yadda yadda) but now I understand why they have their dedicated enthusiasts and why so many people who grew up with Metros or had them as first cars look back on them so fondly.

Metro (2)

To put it bluntly, the Metro has nearly all of the character of the Mini but with very few of the downsides. It may not have the Mini’s cheeky looks, which were such a big part of that car’s appeal, but as a driving and ownership experience it really works. I love Minis but I appreciate that I can fit my 6’ 2” self behind the wheel of the Metro with room to spare and that I don’t have to bend over with my chin touching the steering wheel to peer out of the letter-box slot of clear windscreen demisted by the world’s most asthmatic heater system. In fact you can fit five people and luggage in the Metro and still be cosy rather than cramped. With its seats folded down my Metro has swallowed bikes, keyboards, packing crates of random stuff, two alloy wheels from an Audi, flatpack furniture and even a pair of six-foot living room floor lamps. I doubted the Metro’s packaging abilities when it came to shifting those lamps but it didn’t let me down.

So, this is all tedious practical stuff that the likes of What Car? drone on about. I could add that it always returns a touch over 40 miles per gallon and yet isn’t fazed by motorways. Despite being an early model with the ‘wrong’ suspension it rides much better than many modern equivalents. Besides the radiator and the steering rack it has only needed a gallon of oil, a set of spark plugs and an expansion bottle cap (that last one because I forgot to put it back on before driving off!) in over a year’s motoring.

Metro (7)

But there’s more than that, and now we get to the real reason why so many people seem to have a lingering love of the Metro. It’s just such a fun car to live with. If I had to sum up the Metro’s character in one word I’d say it was ‘feisty’, even this plain-Jane 1.3L model.

The A+ engine and its gearbox-in-sump may have been prehistoric even by the standards of 1987 but it’s an eager, willing engine that is happy to worked hard on occasion yet is tractable when you’re being more sensible. Like all A-Series motors it has an almost hair-trigger throttle response and you get that defining crescendo of gear whine in first gear. The pedals are perfectly laid out for a bit of pointless but enjoyable double-declutching or even heel-n-toeing. That gearbox may only be a four-speed but it’s a joy to use, with a slick shift.


Otherwise the Metro is a featherweight car with famously quick (almost twitchy) steering, a wheel at each corner, fully independent variable-rate suspension and a low centre of gravity. This means you can punt it around the centre of town with the pistons singing their song of 1940s engineering, feeling the front wheels tugging under the influence of torque steer and then slamming on the four-pot ventilated front disc brakes before snatching a sneaky block-shift into second- all at less than 30 miles per hour. You can drive this car sensibly and it’s a nimble, easy-to-park and economical hatchback, or you can thrash the nuts of it and hoon it around the Peterborough ring road (or The Osterschleife as I call it), grinning like a mad Cheshire cat…while being left behind by a Transit van just chugging along on its way home from a plumbing job.

If you don’t look at the speedometer while driving you can convince yourself that the Metro is the fastest car in the world. It’s not a car that needs to be coaxed into doing anything. This isn’t a flabby, boring Golf or Peugeot that needs to have a dedicated hot-hatch version to be fun, although I am now genuinely intrigued as to what a properly quick Metro like an MG Turbo or one of the later Rover GTi versions would be like.

I wonder how much of this new-found affection is because the Metro is the first ‘normal’ car I’ve owned. Having owned two old Land Rovers and a Citroën 2CV maybe I’m just being wowed by some time spent with a car that doesn’t have all the performance and refinement of a ride-on lawnmower.

Metro (4)

If that’s the case, I don’t really care. The reason why so many people like the Metro is because, for their 17-year old selves back in the late 80s and early 90s, even Grandma’s old hand-me-down 1.0 HLE with the extra tall economy 4th gear and flaking paint represented a huge improvement over the bus or bike. I happen to think that the Metro is a genuinely good little car that deserves far more recognition than its current status as a near-extinct granny-wagon provides. But if I’m wrong and I’m just experiencing the high of owning an actual car for the first time (10 years after I began driving) then that’s still something to revel in and a faded blue Metro with only one rear mudflap and a dodgy interior light is something to hang on to for as long as possible.







A Brave New World for MG

MGI was going to spend my first Friday evening blog in a long while bitching about Volkswagen (some things never change) but some interesting conversations on Twitter distracted me while I was putting together the finishing touches and so this is a quickly-slung-together piece about that perennial topic of mine, MG.

MG, like the story of the British motor industry in generally, really is the gift that keeps on giving. If you follow the ups, downs, ups, downs, downs, downs, slight ups, downs and ups of the company over the years you will never be short of entertainment and it’s something of an emotional roller coaster.

Time for a quick catch-up. MG Motor UK is still very much around and as the MG brand enters its 90th year (and how often has it looked as if that would never happen?) it is selling all-time record numbers of cars on a global basis. Granted the vast majority of those are reheated Rovers built and sold in China but there are genuinely impressive and hopeful signs of good things to come.

Chief amongst these is the MG3 supermini, which is designed and engineered (and assembled in kit-form for the UK market) at Longbridge. A steady if unremarkable seller in China, other Asian markets and the Middle East the MG3 was launched in the UK back in September and is widely seen as a ‘make and break’ for the reborn brand. After the frankly disastrous experience with the MG6 (which has sold a tenth of its predicted numbers), those of us who want MG to do well were baiting our breath somewhat with the MG3. It seems to be going well so far.

_MGL0240aThe car has been positively received overall, with most of its flaws being overlooked because it is dirt cheap to buy and run (if only MG and its predecessors had worked that sort of thing out year before). It is apparently a genuinely entertaining car to drive and having been up close with several examples I can say that the overall design and quality of the thing is far better than its lowly price tag of £9999 for the top spec model.

Apparently MG have already sold out their current allocation of MG3s for the UK and nearly 250 were registered (although this is a very different thing from sold…) in the last two months of 2013, which is more than MG6 managed in the whole year. The marketing seems well pitched and the dealers seem to be enthusiastic about the car’s chances.

With things going well, maybe it’s time to dare to dream of the future?

Let’s just assume that the MG3 does as well (or better) than SAIC are hoping and that it encourages them to expand the MG brand’s presence in the UK and Europe. What sort of range should they consider? The following is my considered opinion with, I hope, a touch of reality about it:


71632mg-bThe MG6 as we know it may go down as one of the worst flops in UK motoring history, but the car itself always deserved better. Its failure has been 70 per cent down to marketing and pricing (both of which were hopeless) and 30 per cent down to problems with car. The biggest of these was its initial availability with a terrible engine- a fettled version of the 1.8 K-Series turbo unit which was as competitive on emissions, economy and refinement as you’d expect an engine designed during the Thatcher years to be. The addition of a diesel unit should have helped but by then the damage was done and the engine still lagged well behind the class standards for emissions and (crucially) tax.

The MG6 platform itself is fine and a good basis for improvement. A car of the ‘6s size is a natural range-topper for the MG brand and a heavy facelift or a reskin coupled to the installation of decent modern powertrains courtesy of SAIC’s tie-up with General Motors would sort out most, if not all, the car’s deficiencies. A competent marketing campaign for the new model (which MG seem to have learnt at least the basics of by now) and some more realistic pricing should yield good things.


1920x1080-4At the moment we don’t get the MG5 in Europe and there are no plans for this to change. However in this fantasy alternate future the MG5 makes it over to the Western Hemisphere. The MG5 is a Ford Focus-sized hatch based on an all-new platform. Again, to be competitive it would need a decent engine range courtesy of the GM collaboration, along with complementary manual and automatic gearboxes (or even the twin-clutch unit that is rumoured to be under development).

Without being privy to SAIC’s financial info, I can only make a guess on prices, but my gut says that it should follow the same approach as the MG3- the range topper being about the same price as the entry-level Ford equivalent. That would make the most expensive MG5 about £14,500.


MG4BTCCThis is another real-world model, but we don’t know exactly what it is. All we know at the moment is that the MG4 is a coupe version of the MG5.

Now, I am going to predict that the MG4 is more than merely a 3-door version of the MG5. I’m imagining something a bit more different- a less subtle and more overtly sporting derivative of the ‘5 with a wider stance, some more bulbous wheelarches, a more comprehensive body kit (rather than just the fake plastic diffuser and chrome tail pipe trim of the ‘5) and a lower sloping rear roof line. To back up the looks the ‘4 could have a more focussed chassis setup than the standard MG balance between handling and comfort. Maybe the ‘4 could come with a higher power engine option of its own, but at the same time I’m wary of making the ‘5 seem a bit limp and pointless by comparison.


73444mg-Lifestyle LR cafeReally just business as usual. The MG3 seems a well-sorted car and the only real weak point- it’s solitary engine option- will be sorted in the future when the GM engines become available.

It’s those engines that open up my big idea, which is to do a couple of non-sporting models of the ‘3 badged as Morris. It may be a dead and deeply un-cool brand but it can be revitalised if approached correctly. Give the MG3 a subtle facelift to remove some of the obvious MG styling cues (the octagon motifs in the bonnet and bumper spring to mind) and then fit it with the upcoming 1.0-litre turbo triple engine tuned for minimum emissions and maximum MPGs. Offer two fairly basic trim levels (one ‘essentials only’, one a little more comprehensive) and maybe a slightly peppier engine (either a higher-rated 1.0 unit or the proposed SAIC-GM 1.3 unit). Make the entry level Morris Three cost £5500 to undercut the Dacia Sandero and grab some headlines and you’ve got a competitive product.

The MG3’s design is, in some ways, wasted on a warm hatch, as it’s also a very spacious, practical and well though-out supermini. MG as a brand is constrained by its sporting heritage which means that any MG product needs to have a bare minimum of handling and performance to justify its badge and keep the marque’s perceived values in the right place.

A Morris Three at a minimal price, set up for normal driving duties and tuned for economy would allow SAIC to go head-to-head with the likes of Dacia, Datsun, Skoda and Chevrolet in the market for people who just want a practical little  car for minimal outlay. The Morris name complements MG (SAIC have even used the Morris Garages name alongside the octagon in markets outside the UK) and gives SAIC some much-needed wiggle room in a congested global market.


As the MG4 is the sporty coupe version of the MG5, so the MG2 is a nattier version of the ‘3. Only this one isn’t a real proposal, just something I’ve cooked up now. Same basic idea- a sleeker rear roofline (the MG3’s excellent interior space comes at the expense of it looking a bit tall and boxy) with only three doors, chunkier styling and a firmer, lower suspension setup. No Morris version, obviously.

131113rrTake this sort of thing as inspiration!


MGBadgeIf all these pipedreams work and the MG brand really takes off then there’s a good chance that SAIC will give what most MG enthusiasts in the West (but no one else in the world) cares about- a ‘proper’ MG roadster. SAIC have said that they have a broad idea of what such a car would be (rear-wheel drive, two-seater, small, simple, light- these are all good things) but that with such limited appeal it would only be produced if MG as a whole was successful, stable and profitable.

I’ve decided to call such a car the MG1. While it’s tempting to call it something like the MGD or the Midget (would it be alright to call a car that now? I don’t think so?) the MG1 name works better. As well as fitting with the existing naming structure it has a pleasing resonance that it is the original MG (which, spiritually, it would be) while avoided a huge amount of baggage. If the car was called the Midget or the ‘D then everyone would be comparing it to its predecessors and it would almost certainly be found wanting by a lot of the existing MG enthusiast brigade.

I’d like such a car to be based along the same thinking as the original Lotus Elise- something small and sporty that’s explicitly designed to be an enthusiast’s second car. The Elise had cermaic-coated brake discs so they didn’t rust during the week and you could leave it outside with the roof off without damaging the interior. These are good things. The MG1 wouldn’t be as freakish as the Lotus, though- no fibreglass body or extruded aluminium structure. Just like it’s predecessors it would be a conventional steel-bodied car with the engine (a tweaked version of the MG3’s 1.5-litre, maybe with a turbo option?) in the front and the drive at the back. It would just be small, nippy and nimble.

Price it at around £15,000 to undercut the Mazda MX-5 and watch them fly out of the showroom.



A controversial one- the CS is another MG that currently exists only in concept form and it’s a (shock! horror!) Sports Utility Vehicle. The idea of an MG SUV may stick in one’s craw a little but compact crossovers like the Nissan Juke, Nissan Qashqai, Ford Kuga and AudI Q3 are where the money is in the car market in Europe at the moment. If MG are ever going to be in a position to make a sporting roadster they need to be making cars like this.

The CS concept as it is at the moment is, to my eyes at least, a good looking car as these sort of things go. The original ICON concept car, which was a deliberately retro invokation of the MGB GT, was fairly dire but the revamped version which is more, dare I say, generic while keeping the MG corporate styling, is much better. Provided it has a decent engine and drivetrain range (which it should, courtesy of GM) there’s no reason why it wouldn’t be popular provided that the pricing and marketing was right.


I would say that, with it being an SUV, this could be another candidate for ‘Morris-ification’, particularly if it could be specced and priced to compete with the Dacia Duster and the Skoda Yeti. Maybe it could be called the Morris Traveller? If MINI can get away with slapping former estate car brands on SUVs then surely SAIC can?

A Quick Update

Well, belated Happy New Year to you all.

And even more belated apologies and explanations for my unannounced and prolonged absence from this site in the last months of 2013. What started as a three-week battle with BT over a problem with reinstating my internet connection after a Vauxhall Vectra crashed into a crucial telegraph pole outside my house (long story…) turned into a bit of down time, with the continual intention to ‘get back to blogging next Friday’. Then I decided that the run up to Christmas would be a good time to look for a new place to live (because there certainly isn’t enough to be getting on with in December) and so, well, here I am.

The relocation of Balloon_Fish HQ is still on-going, so there may be a few quiet patches  to come, but now I’m hoping that 2014 will be more like ‘business as usual’.

Before the Friday Night Blogs start afresh, I thought I’d just do a quick info-dump on what the current state of my fleet is and what my thoughts are for the future (this week, at least).

My last blog, back in October, proposed fixing then selling the 2CV to fund the purchase of either a stupid Citroen, a Volkswagen Polo (what was I thinking?!?) or an MGF.

Well, three months on and the state of the fleet is as follows:

WP_20131114_001WHY WON’T YOU WORK!?!?!?!?!?!?!

1) The 2CV still doesn’t work. It’s tyres have now gone flat and there is moss growing on it. I can get it to start and run sometimes (but not others), and when it does so it is absolutely fine, but I don’t trust it enough to take it onto the Queen’s Highway. What I’ve done is get myself into a mental corner by trying to fix too many things at once, breaking the cardinal rule of tinkering with old cars- ONLY DO ONE THING AT A TIME. Because I’ve fiddled with pretty much every part of the engine (all eight of them) I have no idea if the problem is still there or if the issue is now something I’ve done myself. The only way out of this is to redo everything, all at once, by the book.

WP_20130407_001It’s cursed I tell you, cursed!

Once that’s done, The Plan is still to get it spruced up and sell it. More on that later.

2) The Metro is now back on the road and still continuing to impress with its ability to pile on the miles without complaint. I finally managed to track down what I think may be the last Mk2 Metro radiator in existence, through the time-honoured technique of ‘Looking on eBay Every Day Until One Came Up And Instantly Buying It.’

WP_20131017_007Remember where you were when you saw this- it is not for mortal men to gaze upon.

The cooling system has been flushed to remove…whatever was in there (it looked like Irn-Bru) and, as a bonus, the knackered steering rack has been replaced with a fresh one.


The intention is to keep the Metro and now that it’s mechanically sound I hope to spend the better summer months (assuming we get some) tending to the cosmetic parts (frilly sills, bubbly wheelarches) to stop it from dissolving away to nothing, as it deserves better than that.

WP_20131110_0163) The long-suffering Land Rover remains in exile on the south coast, where it has been sitting quietly alone while torrential rain, gales and falling trees happen around it. The steering wheel has turned green and the interior smells as if all the wet dogs in the world have been having a farting contest in the load bay. None the less (and remarkably) it is fully functional, which is just as well because last time I checked it over this happened-

Twittere1e69c2_jpg-so I can’t get to anything under the bonnet without lock-picking my way in with the screwdriver.

I am well aware of the contrast between ‘I will never sell the Land Rover because I like it too much’ and ‘I haven’t used the Land Rover since July and am leaving it by the seaside to rot away through no fault of its own.’ This is where Version 2 of The Plan comes in.

WP_20130411_003Mine’s the one on the left, just to be clear.

I’ve definitely been getting Land Rover withdrawal symptoms over winter. Fellow sufferers will recognise my discomfort when I say that this year the symptoms progressed from the usual ‘Oh I Wish I Could Drive My Land Rover Again’ to the much more serious, virulent strain of ‘Hmmm, I Fancy Driving A Different Land Rover…’

Yes, eight years after I sold my rusty beige Series III Land Rover because it was too unreliable I am, once again, wondering if a Series Land Rover would make sense as summer transport. Something about the idea of pottering about The Fens in a short-wheelbase Landy with no roof, door tops or windscreen on a summers day appeals, and I have to keep reminding myself that for every day like that you have to put in 10 days of pain and suffering.

On the Citroen front, I have been able to drive two ‘proper’ Citroens in quick succession- a 1958 ID and, of much more relevance to my budget, a grey diesel Xantia estate, last of the proper Citroens with hydraulic everything and a tendency to make odd noises as it goes about the place. All this did is confirm that, yes, I do want a hydropneumatic Citroen at some point.


However, as things stand my new thoughts are ‘Instead of buying more cars that you will clearly be incapable of looking after properly, why not sell one car and use the money to make the ones you already have better??????’

Now, this has the horrible stench of logic and common sense to it but maybe, just maybe, it will work?

The Land Rover would be the main focus of the attention. It has quite a few structural parts (bulkhead top corners, A-frame chassis cross member) that, while they don’t need attending to RIGHT NOW, will definitely need doing so an MoT or two down the line. If selling the 2CV proved particularly lucrative I may even treat it to some expensive reconditioned drivetrain parts- the main gearbox is the obvious part that’s getting a bit sloppy, or I could treat to a zero-hours Turner engine rebuild. Who knows?





Decisions, Decisions

Why is it that no car enthusiast seems to be able to approach what must, surely, be the key part of our hobby in a responsible and logical way? Go to any newsagents and there are literally dozens of publications that promise to tell you ‘How To Buy The Best Car’. Being a car enthusiast, of course, you spend a frankly ridiculous amount of money buying all of them, even the obscure ones like “Vintage Daihatsu Monthly (incorporating Jowett Jottings, formerly known as Performance Invacar World)”, thoroughly digest the information, leave the magazines strewn all over the house and then ignore every bit of advice they contained.

Or is it just me?

I have only ever bought four cars in my life, which is a terrible record by some people’s standards. There are people who must be on the DVLA’s Christmas Card list what with all the amended V5C forms they fill out. The problem is that of those four cars I still own three of them.

None of them work.

BrokenFour cars. Two work, two don’t. Guess which are which? Answers to the usual e-mail address…

Now, if there are any Toyota enthusiasts reading this (hah! as if…) I should explain that there can come a time when cars can’t be used for driving about in because, due to some severe moral failure on the part of the designer, the engineer, the person who assembled the car and the person who made the tea at the factory, something goes wrong which prevents the car from functioning as it should. This is known as ‘being broken’.

To be brief- the Land Rover does work in the sense that it can be driven, but is 150 miles away on my parent’s driveway and needs welding to pass the MoT. Which is due.

The Metro would work and would be legal to drive if it had a radiator. It doesn’t have a radiator because, apparently, there are no more Mk2 Metro radiators in existence. I think they’ve all been hoarded away by some rather depressed dragon-like creature who is sleeping on and admist a big pile of them in some distant mountain cave somewhere.

Metro RadiatorNow the Large Hadron Collider is between jobs, here’s a new use for it – try and find a Mk2 Metro radiator with the later sort of thermostat switch. Now there’s a challenge.

The 2CV didn’t work, but now it does. And I don’t know why. I thought it was an electrical fault, then it seemed to be a fuel supply problem, which has been fixed, and now it seems to be an electrical fault again. If it did work, it’s out of tax and MoT and it would need quite a bit of welding to get through that.

The root cause of this lack-o-working-cars is that I own too many of them (that and I’d seemingly rather spend my free time writing on the internet about how I have no time to fix them rather than fixing them). At least one of the three needs to go.

The one that’s most in line for the chop is the Citroen. Not through any fault of it’s own, but simply because it is worth a useful amount of money, it does nothing that the Metro doesn’t do for less fuel and better refinement (except the, admittedly, appealing trait of not needing a radiator) and if I sell it and regret it then there will be another red and white 2CV6 Dolly around somewhere.

1988 2CV DollyWell, goodbye, Dolly, it would be nice to see you back where you belong….

I’m not bored of the Metro yet, especially since I haven’t been able to drive it anywhere since the beginning of June. Although it’s seriously getting to the stage where, if a radiator can’t be found, it will have to be sold for parts (incredible, but true). That would be horribly unfair to the car, though.

The Land Rover is the most ‘valuable’ of my fleet of shitters but is essentially irreplaceable in the spec/condition that it is in, and I know I would immediately regret selling it.

So the Citroen is for the chop, once I can figure out why it sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.

Selling the Citroen to reduce the number of cars I have to try and keep up with and using the money for something actually worthwhile has a horrible, inevitable logic and common sense to it which makes me uneasy.

The other thought in my mind is- if I sold the Metro (sans or avec radiator) I could ‘Combine All My Small Old Car Problems Into One Horrible Big One’.

For someone who pretends to know so much about cars, all the ones I’ve actually owned have been slow, utilitarian rustbuckets. Which is great, but I’m getting the urge to try something a bit different. With a 2CV+Metro-sized pile of cash, a whole world of possibilities open up.

A lot of the cars on my Wouldn’t Mind Owning One Day list are in that sort of ball-park of values. But which to go for?

The theoretical budget is spot-on the values of a decent Citroen CX, which remains top of my current car-buying wishlist. The appeal of a huge French car that looks like something from Logan’s Run with styled vinyl seats, an interior made from blue plastic and not a single control or instrument that’s remotely recognisable as anything else from any other car may take some explaining, but I’ll give it a shot. It’s not the simple fact that it’s different- doing anything for purely contrarian reasons is stupid and only one step removed from doing something you actively dislike because it’s ‘ironic’. The CX is so wonderful not because it’s different, but in the way it’s different.

An Australian reviewer said that the Citroen 2CV ‘had an almost narcotic effect on the technically minded’, which is the best way I have ever seen the appeal of a classic Citroen sumised. The way normal car enthusiasts go all squiffy over a screaming race engine on throttle bodies or a lowered Ford Escort Mk1 burning its tyres as it drifts around a racetrack with flames popping from its exhaust is, I think, the way I feel about the Citroen CX and how it goes about doing, well, anything. It is perfection, not of performance, but of engineering. It is a car without compromise. It is The Car, Deconstructed, not unlike a motoring equivilant of one of those ‘Seventies French films that are black and white and consist of 10 minutes of autumnal Parisian streets, 12 minutes of a tap dripping then ‘Fin’. In fact, look at the advert for the CX- it’s like some sort of absinthe-induced hallucination that would win all sorts of pretentious film awards:

Ford never thought to put a Giant Robotic Grace Jones Head their Sierra adverts, did they?

Every part and every system has been considered and the question asked ‘Why do we do it this way?’ If the answer is ‘because it is cheap’ or ‘because we have always done it this way’ then it is done some other way. With the complete exception of the engine, which was from the ‘Thirties and was used because it was a) cheap and b) the one Citroen had always used. Way to ruin an argument…

At the complete opposite end of the scale, I am also getting a hankering for something Germanic. My big guilty secret is that one of my favourite cars was the base-spec Mk2 VW Polo that I used for about a month back in 2005. It was for all the usual VW-loving guffy reasons- it was dull, it did nothing particularly well, but it was honest. There was something very likeable about the way it just did what it did, no more, no less. It was a Volkswagen in the literal sense, before the brand really became associated with small-minded badge-snobs and soft-touch plastics. It was just a cheap, well-designed, rather tinny but perfectly adequate little car that ‘just worked’.

Breadvan PoloAs I sit here with no working cars, there’s something strangely appealing about that. Due to the curious way that Volkswagen enthusiasts don’t actually like any VW that isn’t a Golf GTI or a Mk2 Jetta, old Polos are dirt cheap, especially the fantasically pointless Coupe ones. Which is what I think I’d go for. Maybe I’d find myself utterly bored after a month and I’d wish I’d bought some sort of pointlessly big Citroen, but it’s best to get these things out of your system. If that’s the case, I can just pour some paint stripper over it, put some Iron Crosses on the boot, chop the springs out and then sell it for even more than I paid for it. I jest, of course.

My itch to own something sporty-but-not-actually-fast is still there and this hasn’t been helped by cycling past an MGF (with off-set go-faster stripes) that looks very tidy and is available for a three-figure sum. I could debate with myself endlessly about whether or not I should buy a Mazda MX-5 or an MGF if I’m after a cheap sports car :The Mazda is the better car for driving, but I have a sneaking suspicion that if I bought an MX-5 (noisy, raw driving experience, a bit tail-happy, tough but unexciting engine) then I’d wish I’d bought the MG (refined, handles like a giant go-kart, technically sophisticated, brilliant engine) and so on. Of course the onset of winter is just the time to buy any rear-wheel drive convertible…

MGFAnyway, those are my thoughts as they stand. As always comments, good, bad or indifferent, are welcome.


Premium Past

I have only just noticed that the subject for the Sir William Lyons Award (a competition for aspiring young motoring writers) is ‘premium cars’. Now usually I would run a mile before discussing the topic of a Premium Car because it’s one of those phrases that turns my stomach (I’m not saying this just because I’m not eligible for the Award in all sorts of ways…what’s that smell? Could it be rotting grapes?) but after considering the matter for a bit, I’ve had the following thoughts about the past of premium cars.

What makes a premium car? Let’s start with a basic definition of premium- I will make the rash assumption that if you’re reading this blog you already know what a car is, unless you came here looking for some way of making your goldfish levitate. In which case I suggest you close your browser tab now. The Online Dictionary has 13 definitions of ‘premium’ of which the two relevant to this topic are:

“a sum above the nominal or par value of a thing.”


“of exceptional quality or greater value than others of its kind; superior”

You will immediately notice that there is a difference between these two definitions. The first is objective (a quantifiable sum of money) while the other is subjective (it depends what sort of value is being referred to).

I reckon that if you were to ask the general public what a ‘premium car’ was, they would plump for something approaching the second definition; it is a car that is better than the others. But all the manufacturers care about is the first definition- the amount of extra money they can charge for the product. This immediately raises an interesting point because, while these are two different ways of looking at the issue, they are related. The car maker will only be able to charge their premium if the buyer reckons they are getting what they think is premium. The business that interests me is that what car buyers value in a car has clearly changed over time.

BP- Before Premium

In the early days cars were luxury products- they were all, in a sense, ‘premium’ because they were better than the usual way of getting around, which had four legs and ran on hay. With the rise of mass motoring in the ‘Twenties and ‘Thirties the market became very polarised- the rich had their Rolls-Royces, Humbers and Wolseleys while those that could afford a car made do with an Austin Seven, a Morris Minor or a Ford Model Y. There was very little middle ground and the few cars in the middle were generally just slightly scaled-up versions of the small cars. Throughout the market there was very little notion of ‘speccing’ a car. Obviously a Royce would be pretty much custom-built at great expense but mechanically it would be the same as every other one. An Austin Seven came with pretty much nothing in the way of equipment that wasn’t the minimum required to make the car work and the lucky first-time motorist was left with little more than the choice between a saloon and a tourer.

The interesting kind of Morris Minor.

In this period it’s easy to discern the ‘premium cars’ and why they were considered such- a Hillman was better in almost every way- size, trim, equipment, power, performance, brakes, even the thickness of the steel, to a baby Austin. There was more to the car, so it cost much more to make.

Rover 16

Where things get interesting is in the ‘Fifties when the car became a consumer item. When ‘having a car’ ceased being a status symbol in itself it became increasingly important to people what sort of car they owned and manufacturers and advertisers were only too happy to oblige.


The Age of Appearance

This was the time of badge engineering when ‘premium’ was, seemingly, hugely superficial. Manufacturers tended to release what would now be considered different trim levels as entirely different models, or even different marques. A Ford Consul was just a lower-powered, less garish Ford Zephyr. A Vauxhall PA Velox was just a base-spec PA Cresta. A Riley One-Point-Five was just a more powerful and better-trimmed Morris Minor with a different nose (and differed from the Wolseley 1500 only in the badging and a couple of dials on the dash). A Hillman Minx with a different paintjob and some more chrome became a Sunbeam Rapier. The point of this, of course, is that the preconceptions from the previous era were still alive and well. Why buy a Morris when you could get the same car but with a Wolseley badge? The cars may have been structurally and mechanically identical but you still got more in way of power or luxuries or trim- the price premium was justified by the premium in perception.

Rootes Ajax RangeThese days BMW offers that sort of variety just in the 3-Series line-up.

At the bottom rungs of the motor industry it worked the same way but on much more modest terms. A ‘DeLuxe’ Mini or Imp meant that it came with a heater and, maybe floor carpets rather than mats. A lot of really cheap cars like the Ford Popular, the Citroën 2CV and the Volkswagen Beetle still offered the ‘like it or lump it’ specification.

Citroen TPVEarly plans to offer the ‘High Intensity Bi-incandescent Lighting Pack’ as an optional extra were shelved.

In fact Ford is an interesting digression here. While it may have had its Consul-Zephyr-Zodiac ‘range’, they were all Fords. Ford (in Europe at least) didn’t have a stable of different brands to work with. Instead the company became masters at carefully picking its trim levels and then marketing them with huge dollops of snob appeal. In the ‘Sixties the Ford Cortina range was labyrinthine in its scope, all so Mr. Jones could lord it over Mr. Smith next door because his Cortina Super had a tachometer and a clock which the ‘mere’ Cortina DeLuxe didn’t. This reached its peak with the 1600E, a badge that was worked up to such levels of kudos that it remains the only case I’m aware of where there’s an enthusiasts’ club for one specific trim level of one specific model. The fact remains, though, that a Cortina was still a Cortina and that the ‘premium’ 1600E was only a premium product on a superficial basis. This isn’t to say that buyers didn’t personally value the vinyl roof and velour seats but the car was no better at being a car than most of its contemporaries.

Cortina 1600E

The Age of Engineering

The real shift came in the ‘Seventies. This was when the turmoil in the British motor industry was combined with the rise of the Japanese and German ones. In an austerity-ridden war-devastated nation few people had the money or inclination to feel superior just because their car had a few more letters on its boot badge than anyone else’s and the focus was on making affordable cars that were cheap to run, easy to use and, crucially, reliable. These buyers put their premium on reliability and technical quality rather than trim and badges.

When these countries began exporting cars to fill the gaps that the British had made themselves, it suddenly dawned on the public that cars could be reliable. A Datsun Cherry or a Volkswagen Type 3 had an appalling image and was not considered ‘premium’ (no Cortina 1600E driver would have felt threatened by a competing rep turning up for a photocopier sales pitch in a Corolla 1.6) but they were cheap, they worked and they came with a lot of kit as standard.

However it was the Germans that really hit on the idea of making build quality and reliability into something people would value in and of itself, and pay over the odds for. Unlike Japan, Germany didn’t enjoy the benefits of low-cost labour so the likes of BMW and VW couldn’t compete on price. What they could do was make very ordinary cars that were very reliable and then sell to people on the basis that a basic Golf may have a gutless engine, no radio, no glove box lid, almost non-existent door trims and terrifyingly poor brakes but it would always, always work and would keep on doing so for a long time.

This wasn’t an entirely new idea. Other companies had tried basing their marketing on clever or sophisticated engineering. Citroën had turned the technique into something approaching a literal art form. A classic Citroën is much as an intellectual exercise as it is a driving experience and the cars are the result of engineers being given free rein to design their way around problems. This, as much as their poverty-suitable running costs, are why 2CVs are so stereotypically associated with aesthetic intellectuals and polytechnic lecturers. BMC and British Leyland tried to do the same with their own range of clever and capable front-wheel drive cars with weird fluid-based suspension. Citroën and BMC hoped that their cars’ technical benefits would encourage people to pay the higher prices (the financial premium) that the complex engineering made necessary.

Austin Allegro 1100This was British Leyland’s idea of a premium car.

The problem both companies had was that most car buyers didn’t put a ‘premium of perception’ [pushes glasses up nose and strokes chin] on such things. Citroëns may have had theoretically perfect suspension but they felt entirely different to drive from a normal car and they looked weird. A BMC ‘Landcrab’ may have been a much more spacious, better-riding, better-handling, stiffer-structured, more clever car than a Cortina but it was ugly, it was untrustworthy and its image and marketing lacked any of the artificial pizazz that Ford managed to give its products.

CitroenCX“Yeah, so what if it’s the most advanced car ever made. Does it have a vinyl roof and can I get it with extra driving lamps?”

Volkswagen was much more straightforward. To appreciate the benefits of a Citroën GS you needed an engineering degree. Anyone and everyone could appreciate that a Golf always started on a winter’s day and that after three years of use it still had no dashboard rattles. Volkswagen’s marketing department turned the Golf’s flaws into selling points. The car’s crushing lack of equipment and cosmetic fripperies was spun as the sign of someone who appreciated a functional design and quality engineering rather than shallow things such as trim levels and performance.Golf Mk1

BMW did something similar; an -02-Series or a 3-Series may have been a bit bland to look at and basic inside but underneath they were ‘the ultimate driving machine’. Audi went from being the dead-end cast-offs of NSU that made rebadged Volkswagens to ‘Vorsprung Durch Technik’ almost overnight. Suddenly German brands associated with clattery and slow economy cars became desirable status symbols that buyers actively wanted to pay what seemed like over-the-odds prices for.

BMW 1602 From premium acorns grow huge, twattish oak trees.

Naturally, this didn’t mean that the British public suddenly abandoned the notion of consumerism and were happy to drive around in perfectly adequate cars that worked on a purely functional level.

All that had changed was people’s idea of what portrayed the image of being successful, well-to-do and able to afford a premium product- from garish but rust-prone repmobile to stark but reliable German hatchback.

This attitude filtered right through the motor industry (well, almost- it was around this time that BL decided to stop trying to be engineering-led and start being all about superficial marketing. Twenty years too late, guys!) Ford began caring more about aerodynamics and drag coefficients than vinyl roofs while Vauxhall decided to make cars that were actually enjoyable to drive. Instead of trim levels car boots proclaimed the use of turbos, catalyctic converters, fuel injection, ABS, airbags and much else. Volvo made a killing by making cars that wouldn’t kill the upper-middle class families within.

This sort of thing reached its peak with the likes Mercedes-Benz W210 which was an entirely unremarkable car (a compact 2-litre saloon with four doors, a boot and not much in the way of performance) where every single aspect had been designed to be as reliable and as long-lived as possible. The W120 was priced accordingly but people were more than happy to pay extra because the car was demonstrably a better car than pretty much everything else. Just like the Ford Cortina had been in the ‘Sixties, but in a very different way.

Mercedes-Benz 190EThe Age of Brands

That brings us worryingly close to the present day. The next stage in the premium car story is really a return to superficiality, because cars have reached such equilibrium in terms of build quality these days. A £9000 Kia Picanto offers reliability and fundamental build quality that even Mercedes owners would have envied 25 years ago. As I have previously mentioned, it seems that there are no bad cars any more. At the same time increasingly tight and homogenous regulations have restricted what manufacturers can do on the engineering front. It’s hard to imagine a car in 2014 that would be as radical as the Citroën DS or the Mini were in the ‘Fifties.

With quality and engineering no longer being the things that create the sort of image that commanded a premium in the minds of the public, manufacturers have returned to the old ways. The market is now awash with trim levels and specification options that offer very visible differences for very little practical effect, or that actually make the car worse on a practical or driving level (big wheels, low-profile tyres, tinted windows, fake exhausts, fake diffusers and such). Where today differs is that it’s not just about the bolt-on accessories and cosmetics. The modern car market commands a premium for the values of the brand, its heritage and other more esoteric things. People don’t so much buy a car as a complete ‘lifestyle’ package and it that which commands the premium.

Audi RSQ...bleurgh

In fact things have come full circle and manufacturers have begun making their cars under different brands for different levels of ‘premium’- think Citroën and their DS range, the corporate wedding cake that is Skoda-Seat-Volkswagen-Audi, Nissan and Infiniti, Toyota and Lexus and so on. Even Ford, which for years was notable for not relying on a basket of brands, has joined in and launched ‘Vignale’ as a weird sort-of-sub-brand. The immediate irony here being that Ford used to have its own Italian styling house (Ghia) for its top-level cars, which it ditched in its attempt to push Ford upmarket by itself, and now it’s launched a brand nicked from yet another Italian styling house.

Ford Mondeo Vignale It’s just a normal Ford with some tasteless bling on the front. A Zephyr Zodiac for the 21st-century

The other thing that all these modern ‘premium cars’ have in common is that they offer the buyer a huge degree of personalisation (as long as the options are chosen from the manufacturer’s approved list, of course…) which modern design and manufacturing techniques have made possible. These days it’s not a case of getting a Vauxhall Astra CX to beat next-door’s Astra Merit. It’s about getting a Vauxhall ADAM_Glam in Purple Haze with the cloud-print headlining so it’s different from the other ADAM_Glam in Papa Don’t Peach with the cyan speed stripes that’s always next to you in the office car park. Jesus.

ADAM interior Premium. Yesterday.

That rather depressing note brings this train of thought to a close. Conclusion? It’s all a load of transitory image-driven nonsense and we should all drive Citroën 2CVs.

Five More Cars I Wouldn’t Mind Owning One Day #3

Chevrolet ’58 ‘Task Force’ 1/3-ton Apache

Chevrolet ApacheProbably one of the longest-yet-least-descriptive model names in automotive history, but it basically translates as ‘Chevy pick up truck’, which everyone should immediately recognise as something of an icon. ‘Fifties American automobilia revolves around four things- tail fins, chrome, V8s and pick-ups. Why not have something that has all of those features? The Apache version of GM’s ‘Task Force’ pick-ups express that uniquely American idea that, just because you lived on a farm and had to move chickens around, you shouldn’t have to stop looking good and invoking your God-given right to use petrol as fast as possible while doing it. I’m not sure if I’d choose a done-up glitzy one or a proper faded gem that’s been hoiked out of a Utah desert and still has the name of some long-vanished cattle feed discount warehouse on the side. Probably the latter.

Honda Z600

Honda Z600It’s easy to say that Japanese cars are all a bit dull, even the ones that are supposedly fast enough to be exciting. They major on things like reliability, longevity, good equipment levels and ergonomic design- things that are laudable but not really the sort of thing that gets people enthused. There are some exceptions and most of them seem to come from Honda. And if there’s one thing Honda does wel; it’s small, economical cars. They don’t come much smaller than the Z600, which in a fair world would have kicked the Mini firmly up the backside. It has that strange ‘ugly but it works’ styling that Japanese cars from the ‘Seventies had, which I like. It has a rev-happy twin-pot air-cooled engine under the bonnet, which I like. It has a dash-mounted gear lever, which I like. It has a rear window styled to look like  the screen on an RCA telly, which I like. In the UK it was only ever available in orange. These are good things.

Vauxhall Cavalier Mk1

Vauxhall Mk1 CavalierA bit more social-artefact-interpretation going on here. The likes of the Cavalier were staples of their time, which makes them appeal to me. Why not a Ford Cortina? Because I’m being deliberately contrarian and going for the second-best-selling  car of the period. Mainly because I like the ‘droop snoot’ styling, which is pretty much the only thing GM trusted Vauxhall to do, since the Cavalier is just an Opel Ascona underneath. This means that it drives well and should be generally reliable. There’s also the rarity value- you just don’t see these things around any more. Ideally I’d like a Mk1 Coupe, but that’s being fussy. It also brings us on to:

Volkswagen Polo Mk2 Coupe S

VW Polo CoupeI really don’t know why I like ‘coupe versions of boring cars that aren’t at all sporty’ so much. Maybe it’s that exact disparity between appearance and ability, Maybe it’s just because I’m falling straight into the marketing trap and like them because they just look better. Anyway, I have previously admitted that a VW Polo Mk2 remains one of my favourites of the cars I’ve used on a daily basis and I’d still very much like another one. That particular Polo was the classic ‘breadvan’ but given a choice I’d go for the rarer coupe version. Just because. Given any choice at all I’d have the 1.3 ‘S’ spec, which had driving lights, some naff body tapes, big stickers that said ‘Coupe’ on the side, a little rear spoiler, a hugely out-of-place red ‘S’ badge on the boot and no mechanical upgrades over the standard car at all. German reliability and efficiency with an infusion of ‘so bad its good’ taste. The perfect combination.

Range Rover P38 4.6 Vogue

Range Rover P38As a Land Rover enthusiast, it’s hard to come up with Solihull products that ‘only’ deserve a place on the ‘wouldn’t mind owning’ list rather than something more definitive. However the second generation Range Rover is one of the few that is fit only to linger the second division. I’m sure it’s a very good car- all Range Rovers are. I know that logically it’s just as good (if not better) at combining wafty luxury and off-road prowess as any of the other Range Rover models. I just don’t desire a P38 as much as the ones before or the ones after. And it’s for the same reasons as everyone else- it looks bland, without the classic, functional lines of the original or the carefully judged ‘techno-retro-industrial’ styling of the L322. It could be badged as a Lexus or a Lincoln. There’s also the worrying reliability levels-  the P38 comes from that dangerous time in Land Rover’s history after they had the learnt how to make really complex electronic systems but before BMW had shown them how to make them properly. They even managed to mess up the mechanical bits from the ‘Sixties- the 4.6-litre V8 engine is by no means trouble-free. So sorry, second-generation Range Rover, you don’t quite make the cut. Why specifically a 4.6 Vogue? Because if you’re going to chance P38 ownership you might as well go for the one that’s the best when it works. Diesels need not apply.

Ford Mondeo At 20

Ford MondeoThe Ford Mondeo is 20 years old this week.

Now, at this point I’m sure the natural reaction is to rush outside this very moment to order some balloons, party streamers and a crate of Genk’s finest lager:

Cristal Alken (Genk) In the strange event that some of you don’t find the Mondeo entering its third decade that exciting, allow me to enlighten you.

 For starters (and this won’t apply to everyone, I’m sure) there’s the big ‘WHAT!?!’ factor. I’m finally turning into my Dad because for the first time I can legitimately say *ahem* “I remember when they came out and they were all the rage, but now you hardly see any of them” about the Mondeo. 1994 was pretty much the time it was explained to me that the first letter of a car’s number plate denoted how old it was, and I can distinctly remember my 7-year old self sitting in the back of the family Montego estate (2.0 Gti, none the less…) and looking out for M-reg cars. Most of which seem to either have been Mondeos or Mk3 Cavaliers.

Ford Mondeo Now the Mk1 Mondeo, especially in pre-facelift ‘small grille’ guise seems to be pretty much extinct. It’s also gone through an entire generation  (or two’s) consciousness from launch to rarity, and its 20 years old. By any logical process this would make it a classic car, but it isn’t, for reasons that I have waffled about before. Was the Mk1 Cortina a classic car when it was 20 years old, in 1982? Probably. Was an Austin Cambridge a classic car when it was 20 years old, back when Isaac Newton had one…I mean, 1979? Yes. Nonsensical, but that’s old ground.

For this blog’s purposes the Mondeo is worth talking about because it proves that even the dullest cars can be interesting. The Mondeo is not an exciting car- unlike its predecessors it didn’t even have a particularly rorty performance version (even the ST200 was a bit weedy compared to the Cossies of the ‘Eighties) and its Touring Cars success seems to have skipped the public’s imagination somewhat, being the preserve of the sort of people can’t talk about cars without applying ‘dabs of oppo’ with an imaginary steering wheel.

Mondeo BTCCFord’s billions of development money were well spent- the BTCC cars had Star Wars landspeeder technology, it would seem.

 In fact the ‘Mundano’ is probably best lodged in the public consciousness for lending its name to ‘Mondeo Man’, the hypothetical well-off-but-aspirational-housing-estate-dwelling-middle-manager-from-Slough that New Labour courted to such dazzling political effect in the ‘Nineties.

I’ve said before that cars are interesting as social artefacts of their time as much as engineering ones and the Mondeo is a good case in point. It was really the last of the ‘great company cars’ (certainly the last such car from Ford)- those carefully pitched, devastatingly efficient motorway cruisers given out to Middle England by the thousand. The Mondeo ruled the roost when it was launched but by the present day it is being out-sold by the BMW 3-Series, which tells you a lot about society. ‘Mondeo Man’ has fulfilled his ambition- he may have had a decent enough job to be given a Mondeo but now he’s got a Beemer. Maybe he bought it, maybe he got promoted into it, maybe he loaned it from a bank on a mountain of inadvisably cheap credit? Whatever- it’s a telling story.

The Mondeo is a crucial car in the history of Ford, too. Having swept all before it with the crisp Cortina and the go-getting Granada Ford rather lost its way in the ‘Eighties as it let its accountants run the show a little too much. The Sierra may have been dramatically styled but was positively ancient underneath. The Mk2 Fiesta was cheap but not particularly cheerful. The Escort became steadily grimmer, squeezed out of its once-dominant position by a Vauxhall’s comparatively-priced but much more sophisticated Astra and Cavalier, and Volkswagen’s chillingly efficient Golf.

Ford Escort (1)It was the same story throughout the world- in almost every market Ford was losing the financial and engineering battle. In 1989 Dearborn went on the war path with one of the most ambitious projects in the history of the motor industry. It would build a new mid-sized (except in America where it was a compact) saloon that would replace around a dozen global models. It would be built in Ford plants around the world and would be so good that it would leapfrog anything the competition had in the pipelines. The car would be called the Mondeo- the name derived from ‘Mondus’, the Latin for ‘the world’.

The entire project cost Ford $6 billion, including rebuilding most of its global production capacity. The resulting car was one of the most flexible platforms ever made, available in 4-door saloon, 5-door hatch and 5-door estate versions with the ability to accept front- and rear-wheel drive layouts with engines ranging from a straight-4 to a V8. It was badged as a Ford, a Mercury and a Lincoln. A genuinely ‘all new’ mass-production car is an exceptionally rare thing in the motor industry (in fact, the Hillman Avenger is the only other one I can think of off the top of my head, but I’m sure there are others).

Ford ContourIn America it was the Ford Contour- presumably shorthand for ‘Contoured to be much, much uglier’.

 It also achieved everything Ford wanted. Just as the Cortina made everything deem dull and fusty back in the ‘Sixties the Mondeo was better than its rivals in almost every conceivable way- styling, interior, design, driving, economy, handling, practicality, running costs and the only cars to be significantly better were much more expensive. The Mondeo was the turning point for Ford in Europe, shaking it out of its doldrums from the previous decade and beginning a process that would really begin to bear fruit with the Focus of 1997 which finally killed off the not-at-all-lamented Escort.

So Happy 20th Birthday to any 1993 Mondeos that are still out there. If the price trajectory of your ancestors is anything to go by, by the time 30 years rolls around a 1.6 Mondeo LX will be worth £15,000.

Ford Mondeo 3



Rover: Breathing Life Into The Longship

Rover Longship Logo

Because BMW have been whoring the new i3 electric city car all over the internet for the past couple of weeks, and Jaguar have launched the new R version of the XJ (which, of course, they strenuously denied would ever exist back when the XJ was launched), my thoughts have been turning to the Rover brand.

What? That’s an entirely natural thing to do…!

Rover is, of course, dead and has been for nearly a decade. The famous longship, which one sailed proudly across the upper levels of the British motor industry, sank into a sea of K-Series engine mayonnaise, weighed down by a surplus cargo of debt, mismanagement, tartan picnic rugs and string-back leather driving gloves.

Many people will say that this is good riddance to bad rubbish, but I don’t agree. While, quite understandably, Rover is associated with some of the dregs of the car industry to much of the general public, the brand itself deserves more than that, as I detailed at great length last year. For the majority of its existence Rover was either a maker of solid, dependable and stylish gentlemen’s expresses or some of the most cutting edge and desirable saloon cars ever made. At its best it managed to combine both.

Rover Safety BicycleA century later the name would be being glued onto the front of a small saloon from Japan. The mind boggles.

This is a company that, having invented the modern bicycle (estimated global population of bikes based on the ‘Rover Safety Bicycle’ design, 1.2 billion!), then spent some time trying to make the gas turbine car a reality before deciding to invent the executive saloon in its accepted form. Rover then invented a whole new type of car with the Range Rover and then built a fastback saloon that looked and went like a Ferrari but for a fraction of the cost.  Even when the badge was slapped on wildly inappropriate cars that began life as Hondas or Austins there were flashes of the old brilliance, such as the K-Series engine which was flawed genius if ever there was.

KSeriesHGFThey were pretty big flaws, mind.

While the final products of Rover are now in the hands of the Chinese the brand has returned to its spiritual home at Solihull. It lies in the hands of Tata Motors and their Jaguar Land Rover subsidiary, due to a complex series of legal agreements to protect the image of the Land Rover and Range Rover brands (both, of course, former Rover Company model names). So the longship logo sits in a filing cabinet in the West Midlands, a sad remnant of a former glory, kept in fossilised form only to guard the worth of its more successful children.

I don’t think it has to be that way, though, and now we come to why the recent activities of Jaguar and BMW made me think of Rover.

Jaguar Land Rover is on something of a roll at the moment, and has been ever since Tata Motors took over the pair in 2008, helped greatly by the effort that Ford put into the brands but didn’t have the guts to stick around to reap the benefits of. A slew of fresh, innovative and class-leading models (the XF, the XJ, the Range Rover Evoque, the third-gen Range Rover, the Range Rover Sport, the F-Type and a host of new variants on those models) have turned a bit-player back into a significant global force. Jaguar was a troubled brand for much of the last decade of the 20th century, plagued by reliability and image problems that weren’t far behind Rover’s, while Land Rover has had mixed fortunes, with products that remain unerringly popular despite a tendency to self-destruct and low profit margins. Now JLR’s plants are working flat out, profits are pouring in by the billions and both Jaguar and Land Rover are enjoying cachet and global appeal (not to mention actual relevance on the car market) that neither have enjoyed since the early ‘Seventies.

2012 Jaguar RangeThere is a dark lining to this silver cloud, however, and it takes the form of the environmental imperative. JLR’s product range is deeply environmentally unfriendly from a legislative point of view. The emphasis on low CO2 outputs puts a company that makes only sports cars, big sports saloons and various flavours of 4×4 at a huge disadvantage.

This can’t be sustainable in the long term, both in terms of the environment and economics. Yes, someone who can spunk £90,000 on a Range Rover isn’t going to worry about the £800-odd road tax or the huge congestion charge or even the fuel bills but that’s a situation that’s only going to get worse. To JLR’s credit they are doing sterling work with lightweight construction and hybrid drivetrains to improve their fleet’s environmental performance but the time will come when any Range Rover-type vehicle becomes unfeasible through a combination of politics, economics and ethics for all but the very wealthy.

Jaguar is in a very similar situation. In a simple world the answer would be obvious- make smaller, more economical vehicles. Unfortunately the modern world is one dominated by brand values and JLR relies very heavily on the cachet of both its brands to justify the high prices that make it so profitable, despite the company’s production volumes which are still small-fry on a global scale. This is another problem waiting in the wings. Modern cars are hugely expensive to develop and much of JLR’s success is down to nothing more than the billions of pounds of R&D money that Tata has put the company’s way. To make this back you can sell a few cars for a lot of money (as JLR does now), but as Henry Ford proved over a century ago it’s better to sell lots of cars for a little money. The more cars you make the cheaper those hefty R&D costs are per car and you can start doing things like platform sharing and drivetrain swapping.

That’s fine when you’re starting from scratch but JLR’s brands are built around exclusivity and being near the top of the automotive pile. At the same time the mass-market car is rapidly becoming an endangered species, with companies dependant on this sector like Peugeot, Renault, Opel and Chrysler in severe financial difficulties.

BMW i3BMW have faced the same problem, being a relatively small company with no corporate partners that relied entirely on building fast, thirsty cars. In fact BMW’s purchase of the Rover Group was an attempt to do precisely what JLR need to do- sell more cars by getting closer to the mass market. BMW kept MINI, which has done them very well by allowing them to sell lots of small, economical cars at a huge mark-up due to the premium brand. But even now we’re seeing the ‘proper’ BMW range fall into line, with the emphasis on ‘Efficient Dynamics’ and now the i3 electric concept car.

JLR can downsize to a certain extent, and indeed they have done, as the Range Rover Evoque and the upcoming ‘small Jaguar’ to compete with the BMW 3-Series/Audi A4/Mercedes C-Class proves, but this can only go so far without stretching the all-important brand values too far.

Both brands are also very ‘traditional’. Jaguar could launch a small saloon with a range-extender electric drivetrain but it would almost certainly be decried as ‘not a real Jaguar’.

What JLR needs is a brand that can be treated as a blank slate, but with a suitable heritage in cutting-edge automotive technology that can be extracted to give the brand some added value (so it doesn’t seem like a brand new ‘insta-brand’ like Lexus, Infiniti or Qoros). If it’s a brand with some British resonance then all the better, because that sort of things goes down well in the developing markets.

Rover SD1 3500Luckily Rover could provide just that. The problem Rover and Jaguar had for all the years they were bedfellows in British Leyland was that they, essentially, made the same sort of car- big, fast, luxury saloons. BL tried to inject a little difference by making the Rover SD1 all pointy and avant-garde while keeping the Jaguar XJ very traditional but it didn’t work because under the skin the SD1 was about as advanced as a blacksmith’s anvil while the Jaguar XJ, for all its olde worlde charm, was very clever.

They were on the right lines, though. Jaguar have done sterling (Rover pun, there!) work recently by finally building cars that look modern or even a bit radical but still have a lot of the expected Jaguar styling cues.

Rover T4 Jet CarMy hypothetical Rovers would be even more radical than the Jaguar XJ, which in many ways is still very classically styled. The divide between the two brand would be that Jaguar uses technology in a traditional disguise (like they do now) while Rover is very obvious about it. ‘Tech’ is becoming more and more of a selling feature in cars as people start to care more about emissions, economy and driving aids. The Rover for the 2020s would be styled to make a fuss of its tech, not to disguise it like a Jaguar. This is utterly in keeping with the 1963 P6 which was styled around its innovative body structure and advanced suspension. Similarly, while the interiors of modern Jags and Range Rovers are stupendously wonderful, they’re still very traditional (that is one of their many great points). However with a Rover you could make full use of JLR’s love of TFT screens instead of dials and have a sleeker, more modern style like the strip-dash of the early P6 or the functional yet strangely good-looking dash of the SD1. Maybe the Quartic steering wheel could make a reappearance? Or is that going too far?

Range Rover interiorNow tell me that doesn’t remind you a little of an early SD1? Just me then…

The new Rover range would slot beneath the Jaguar one- maybe meeting at the ‘Jaguar 3-Series’ model, which could platform share, and possibly spinning off from the Evoque/Freelander platform as well. In time there could be a proper ‘big Rover’, still along the same cutting-edge high-tech lines but based on whatever’s underpinning the XF by that stage. JLR win by decreasing their CO2 average and increasing their volumes as well as keeping up with (or even ahead of) the way motor industry is clearly going.

Exactly what tech JLR could choose, I don’t know. They seem keen on diesel-electric hybrid technology at the moment but one of the good points of having a brand dedicated to the cutting edge is that they could use new ideas as they become viable, such as hydrogen fuel cells or even full electric vehicles.

Of course, all this relies on marketing. I’m not so naïve as to fail to realise that any new Rover, especially one based around advanced technology, would be facing an uphill struggle for acceptance at the very best. However I don’t feel it’s an insurmountable problem. JLR are very good at marketing and they’re recent compound successes mean they have momentum where it counts. They have two whole range carrying the ‘Rover’ suffix that are very highly regarded. In fact in many markets, especially North America, ‘Rover’ is the generally accepted slang for a Land/Range Rover anyway. That could be a marketing ‘hook’- as wrong as it is chronologically, sell the new Rovers in the USA as ‘from the company that brought you the Range Rover…’.

Range RoversYou can’t spell ‘Range Rover’ without, erm, ‘Rover’.

There are plenty of good bits of Rover history to cherry pick from, too. I can almost see the advert now:

“Since 1885 we’ve been improving the way people move about…[footage of Starley Rover Bicycle]…how we do that has changed [footage of Rover 12]…as the world has changed [Series 1 Land Rover] but we’ve always been looking at new ideas [JET 1] and then bringing them to more and more people [Rover P6]…”

You get the idea.

Yes, there’d be the inevitable jokes about head gaskets and Werther’s Originals but, as Skoda (and Jaguar) has found, it takes only one or two good products that demonstrably work, right off the bat, backed up by a good marketing campaign, to silence all of that malarkey. In 2005 Jaguar was still attracting lots of gags about golf and Freemasonry and it all seemed (sort of) justified. Less than 10 years later those quips have a rather hollow ring to them.

It would be huge risk and there are plenty of good reasons why JLR wouldn’t try to bring back Rover. I think that would be a shame though, because it’s a brand that deserves much better than it got and I feel it could work if the will was there.

C-X75 turbine enginesThere is a good way JLR could get the ball rolling. Last year Jaguar built the C-X75 concept car, which was a daft hypercar powered by gas turbines and a hybrid drive with a claimed at-the-wheel horsepower of 800-and-something. They said they were going to build it then didn’t. However, in a marketing masterstroke they’ve kept fettling the pre-production cars to the extent where they’re essentially in ‘production spec’ then they’ve let journos drive them, albeit powered by a Formula One-style super-supercharged 1.6-litre engine rather than the turbines. Jag gets all the rave reviews and gets to show off their technology (which the C-X75s are playing a bit part in developing) while taking none of the financial risks of actually trying to sell the thing.

Let’s say that JLR announce that Rover will return. Step one needs to be to lightly restyle the C-X75 (or build a new Mk2 version) to remove some of the Jaguar-ness, fit it with the jets and then badge it as a Rover P11 in British racing green with the BRM orange nose. Rover was the first company to build a turbine car and a Rover-BRM ‘jet car’ raced at Le Mans. Say that the P11 is only a concept and a development project to underpin new production models but let lots of people drive it, run it up the hill at Goodwood and let Top Gear do burn-outs in it on telly. Do that for a year or so, or for however long it takes to properly develop the actual product, then hit them several million quid’s worth of marketing.

That’s as good a start as any Rover revival could get, in my opinion.

Jag_C-X75_Image_04_270613Leader By Nature, Paris By Lunctime, Car By Rover. It works.