What Is The Best Car Ever?

Strange as it may seem, I have now been chattering away on this little, cobwebbed corner of the internet on a (usually) weekly basis for an entire year.

I’m going to do the standard-issue self-congratulatory ‘Review of the Year’ type thing separately some other time. However this evening’s entry is going to be in the spirit of doing something a bit different on anniversaries.

For the past 12 months I’ve rambled on about ‘bad’ cars, why they’re more interesting than ‘good’ ones, and why they’re usually not as bad as people say they are. Therefore, at this special time, I would like to consider what makes not only a good car, but the best car.

It should be fairly easy to define what makes the best car- we all know what people want in a motor vehicle so you just go for the one that offers the most of that. But it isn’t that simple. If it was you’d just proclaim the Volkswagen Beetle the best ever car and because it sold the most.

VW BeetleWhich is clearly nonsense. Stalin may have said “quantity has a certain quality of its own” but what did he know? The Beetle clearly sold over 20 million examples because it offered a lot of what a lot of people wanted. It was cheap to buy, economical to run, mechanically reliable and could slog along for years in its own slow, tail-happy fashion making a sound like an angry coffee grinder. If you distil a car down to its most basic function, which is to move people around in a quicker and less strenuous way than they could move themselves, then the Beetle makes a strong case for being ‘the best car’.

Except that it clearly isn’t. All it takes to be better than a Beetle is to be similarly reliable and cost-effective whilst having better performance, better handling, better refinement and an engine in the right place. This must be within the wit of mankind. Are we really saying that the automotive industry peaked in the ‘Thirties with an idea by Adolf Hitler? Is the Beetle really the ultimate expression of the engineering and design capabilities of the human race? The Beetle success came from it being wholly adequate to pretty much everyone and adequate does not equal best.

This naturally takes us on to the world of specialist cars which excel at being fast or pulling lateral G or carrying a lot of things, or carrying people in great comfort, or being able to traverse fearsome terrain. The Bugatti Veyron is probably the shoe-in for ‘Best Car Ever…In The World’ with the audience of 13-year olds who seem to be main target of Top Gear these days. It is an engineering marvel but that comes at a (huge) price. If the Beetle didn’t qualify because it offered the bare essentials and was therefore affordable to everyone, then the Veyron and its ilk are excluded because they offer the very best but at a huge price.

Bugatti VeyronBecause this is the only time the Veyron will appear on this blog, I made sure the picture is one of an especially tasteless special edition.

Then there comes more middle-ground stuff. A brand new supercharged Range Rover Sport could be considered the best ‘vehicle’ of all time because it’s excessively fast, can carry seven people in class-leading comfort, can tow several tons without breaking a sweat and few things this side of a Challenger tank can shame it when off the road. If this technical breadth is a factor, then we’d also have to consider things like the Citroën Xantia Activa, which is probably as close to perfection that a car has ever come from an engineering perspective, being technically free from almost any compromises in terms of ride versus handling, payload versus comfort and speed versus stability.

2013 Range Rover SportNow I’m getting too far away from the functional aspect of things and the spectre of reliability beings to rear its head. A car can only be any good when it works and neither the Range Rover or the Citroën can claim the best record here.

This also discounts most cars made since about 1995. There seems to have been a brief period in the ‘Eighties and early ‘Nineties when the Venn circles of ‘simplicity’ and ‘reliability’ intersected. Cars were no longer flaky, wheezy rust traps from the ‘Seventies built down to  the minimum cost. Electronics were simple solid-state boxes of relays and resistors and only deigned to manage important things like fuel injection rather than overseeing all the slave electrons working your heater fan or auto-dipping mirror like on a modern car. Smartphone interconnectivity and mood lighting hadn’t been invented and if your car had emissions controls it consisted of a single lone lambda sensor (and a big boot badge telling everyone it was there). Think how many of the automotive cockroaches of today (the Peugeot 205, the Vauxhall Astra Mk3, the VW Polo Mk2, the Ford Ka, the Rover R8, the Mercedes W124 and so on) come from this period.

Opel Kadett CTo compensate for the Veyron and the Range Rover, here’s a great picture of an old Opel. Rock on.

 So we must be looking  for a car that’s reliable, affordable, offers slightly more than the literal bare essentials but not too much in the way of excessive luxury, isn’t some impractical flight of engineering fancy and covers all the bases.

Volkswagen Golf it is, then! Like its Beetle ancestor the Golf (in all its iterations) has achieved its huge global success by virtue of being pretty much all the car anyone ever actually needs without being crushingly basic. There hardly any practical reason not to buy a Golf (if you can’t afford a new one, buy an old one. If you can’t bring yourself to be a VeeDub sheep, buy a Skoda or a Seat, if you don’t want to buy ‘a Golf’ buy a Golf with a boot, and so on).

VW GolfsYep, I’m using THAT Golf picture again.

 It seems that the only thing better than a Golf would be something like a Golf where everything had been ever so slightly improved so it was, overall, much better without being extortionately expensive or specialised. If only there was such a car.

There is- it’s called the Mercedes-Benz W201, better known as the 190.

Mercedes-Benz 190E

This isn’t a luxury car (or it certainly doesn’t need to be, as anyone who’s seen a basic 2-litre W201 with no radio, cloth seats and manual windows will know). Hard-core Cosworth variants aside it’s not especially fast, even in its biggest-engined forms. It’s certainly not sporty- being an old Merc it’s far too refined and cosseting for that. What the 190 is is a perfectly ordinary car with four doors and a boot which has been designed from the off-set to last for at least three decades. It doesn’t excel particularly at anything, with the exception of build quality, which sort of covers all the bases in and of itself. It is ‘a car’ that’s been done incredibly well. You could be issued with, I don’t know, a mid-spec 190E 2.3, at birth and it could serve you perfectly well in both the functional and structural sense until you drop dead. As a car it’s complex enough (electro-mechanical fuel injection, multi-link suspension etc.) to be reliable and safe while being simple enough to be repairable by someone with some basic mechanical nous. Simply put, it is, in my opinion, the best single model of car ever made.





Five More Cars I Wouldn’t Mind Owning One Day #2

BMW E24 6-Series

BMW 6 SeriesA throwback to the days when BMW was a respected but still slightly niche builder of thoroughly decent and respectable cars but without the awful veneer of pretentious Ultimate Driving Machine bollocks that pervades the brand these days. Back in the good old days a BMW was a svelte car with styling lines like the creases on an Italian suit (in fact Munich’s styling was little changed from the days when Michelotti doodled some Beemers when he was bored of doing Triumphs) and they combined the dynamic thrills of an Alfa Romeo and the comfort of a Rover with that annoyingly Germanic trait of building cars that were simple ‘right’.

The best example of all the cars from BMW’s glory days is the E28 5-Series, but why go for that when it’s also available in gorgeous coupe form as the later versions of the E24 6-Series? It would have to one that’s post-1982 (so it’s based on the E28 rather than the rather unremarkable E12) but pre-1987 (when a facelift spoilt its classical lines). Other than that (!) I’m not fussy- a 3430cc 635CSi would be nice but all of them are shark-nose Beemers with six-cylinder engines and rear wheel drive so there’s little to choose.

Daimler SP250 ‘Dart’

Daimler DartI’ve pondered on the remarkable cultural draw of the V8 engine and how it can make almost any car desirable. The SP250 (known as the Dart to everyone who isn’t a complete anal retentive) is a perfect embodiment of that. As a car it is pretty woeful- its styling would be considered ‘a bit too awkward’ by the people who did the Peugeot 308 and while Chevrolet was making its sports cars look like killer sharks the folk at Daimler were using the humble guppy as a reference. It has a plastic body on a separate chassis which has all the integrity of a UKIP MEP and, famously, the early versions were so flaccid that the doors popped open during heavy cornering.

I don’t desire the Dart because of its status as a massive, ruinous failure, though. It’s because of its superb Turner-designed 2.5-litre V8 engine. It’s a miniature hemi mill which sounds like an entire squadron of Harley Davidsons going full chat at once when it’s speaking through a decent exhaust and is also sublimely smooth and a willing revver. I’ve experienced the Daimler V8 under the bonnet of a 250 saloon and really do think that experiencing it in a small, open topped roadster would be something worth paying for. Even if I can only go in straight lines- but then there are some advantages to living in East Anglia!

Subaru Impreza GF8 Sport Wagon

Subaru ImprezaThose who know me will understand when I say that the Impreza is, on the face of it, the least ‘me’ car ever. And they’d sort of be right. Also, as much as I hate to admit it, this choice was more than slightly inspired by the last Top Gear special, where it was driven, annoyingly, by Richard Hammond. I mean that sentence in both senses- it’s annoying that Richard Hammond has made me want a car and he drove said car in an annoying way.

In my defence, I have always had a glimmer of…’respect’ may not be the right word, more like ‘appreciation’ for Subarus. They are a company that take their own path and they (used to) value solidly-engineered underpinnings over flouncy styling and marketing. A case that comes crashing down when considered the Impreza because it’s pretty much all about the styling and the marketing. Except that underneath is a technically very impressive and capable car, which too many owners ruin in the strange belief that they know better than Subaru’s R&D department.

Why the Wagon version? The only thing better than a boring saloon turned into a fearsome rally weapon is a boring estate car turned into a fearsome rally weapon.

Datsun Cherry F-11 Coupe

Datsun Cherry CoupeOld Japanese cars are one of those things I have always admired from afar and know very little about. Maybe that’s why I like them. Partly it’s the styling. Before they gained a reputation for making cars that looked boring the likes of Datsun, Toyota and Mazda had a reputation for cars that looked downright bizarre.

In the case of the Cherry F-11 it’s a sort of mish-mash of three different cars. There are hints of 240Z at the back, traces of Austin Allegro in the middle and a bit of Dodge Dart (the rubbish ‘Seventies one, not the good ones) at the front. It’s the only car I know that uses the hexagon as the basis for its styling cues. It’s available in some very ‘period’ (read ‘naff’) colours and it comes with wheel trims that seem to be perfectly scaled up versions of those solid plastic lumps that Matchbox cars used to have.

Of course the problem with being so specific in terms of make/model is finding one to actually buy. Much safer just to go for ‘old ‘Seventies Japanese car’, because there are literally some of those left in the UK.

Smart Roadster 3-cyl

Smart RoadstersStop laughing. Seriously, stop laughing. OK, laugh a bit. Now stop. I know the Smart Roadster immediately ruins any credibility anyone might have, even if that stock is already pretty low because said person spends an evening a week writing about crappy cars on a blog with a nonsensical title.

For reasons I can’t quite pin down the Smart Car (now the ‘fortwo’) holds little interest for me, but I’m very keen the ill-fated Roadster version. I think this is because it’s that very rare thing in the modern car world, a genuinely lightweight car that majors on handling rather than performance and relies on sensations rather than numbers to make itself enjoyable. It is, quite consciously, a successor to the Spridget and Spitfire roadsters of the past, and is the only real attempt to update the ideas behind those cars. Plus it has a tiny, manic engine and a recalcitrant paddle-shift gearbox. What could go wrong with that?


Let’s Go For A Drive: Standard Twelve Coupe

Standard TwelveIf, like me, you find cars just as interesting as artefacts of their time than as things to drive around in in 2013, then the subject of this week’s road test is a doozy. For everyone else, may I suggest you return outdoors and soak up some of the precious evening sunlight that we’re enjoying at the moment.

The immediate post-war period is often overlooked in motoring history, mainly because not a lot happened. With all of Britain’s car factories turned over to making machines of war and with large parts of the Midlands flattened by bombing, the industry wasn’t in any state to spring immediately back to action. No new development or research for civilian cars had been going on during the war years and, in any case, petrol was still tightly rationed, disposable income was virtually nil and a good chunk of the population were in the Forces mopping up the aftermath of a little tiff with the Axis powers .

This meant that Britain’s car makers simply dusted off their old pre-war designs, cheapened them a bit to suit the new mantra of cost-cutting and austerity (imagine such a thing these days!) and stuck them in the showrooms while they frantically busied themselves with making properly new cars.

The result would be the raft of new (and often groundbreaking) models launched at the 1948 London Motor Show (the Morris Minor, the Austin ‘County’ series, the Land Rover, the Jaguar XK120 and, last and definitely least, the Vauxhall Wyvern). Until then the fortunate British person able to contemplate buying a new car was faced with a distinctly depressing choice.

Standard Twelve It is one of those cars that we are considering here, in the form of a 1948 Standard Twelve Coupé. This is a lightly fettled (read- ‘significantly down-specced’) version of the pre-war ‘Flying Twelve’. Although entirely vanished from the public consciousness these days from the ‘Thirties to the ‘Fifties Standard was a staple of the British motor industry, offering entirely unremarkable but solidly-built and well-designed cars for the middle parts of the market. It had spent the war years doing the usual thing of making aero engines and bits for tanks, as well as thousands of the ubiquitous ‘tilly’ light trucks based on the Flying Twelve and even a rather desperate light tank based on the Fourteen (same car but a slightly bigger engine) for the Home Guard to use in the event of an invasion. As soon as the war ended Standard snapped up the car-making side of Triumph, which had gone bust in 1939, thus setting that marquee on its course to greater glories. Standard also provided the running gear for a sports car called the ‘Jaguar’ built by a little outfit called the Swallow Sidecar Company (whatever became of them?), and used part of its huge wartime ‘shadow factory’ to build the groundbreaking Ferguson TE-20 tractor. Standard’s influence on the car industry lingered long after the company itself had disappeared.

All that was in the future when this Twelve Coupé rolled off the line in Coventry, though. Instead it provides a rare example of this strange purgatory period for the British car industry and the British car buyer.


Standard TwelvePeople who complain that ‘all cars look the same’ these days have clearly never looked at what was offer in the ‘Thirties or mid-‘Forties. With the exception of some high-cost exotica (and the Morris 8 Series E) every car was essentially identical apart from the grille, with the same styling being scaled as required. The range of ‘Flying’ Standards introduced the distinctive ‘waterfall’ grille with curved vertical chrome strips topped by a bonnet ornament showing a Union Flag pennant streaming back in the wind (hence the ‘Flying’ moniker on the early cars). Apart from that it’s the same broad, high wings with large separate Lucas headlamps, vestigial running boards, suicide doors, a flat bonnet with double-leaf opening sections, a flat windscreen and a tapering boot with an external spare wheel mounted under a neat metal cover.

Standard cognoscenti will recognise this car as a post-war model by the lack of several features- this car lacks the chromed air louvers in the bonnet, the spoked ‘artillery’ wheels and the volute-scrolled bumpers of the genuine ‘Flying’ Twelve. All panels and ornaments are plainer which, in a strange way, help the car look more modern and less ‘fussy’ than it would do if it was built in the ‘Thirties’. In keeping with a world forever passed down in black and white film, the Twelve was only available in black or grey (the pre-war colour palette was slightly broader). This one if former, although a red coach line does a little to relieve the tedium.

Standard TwelveThere are some things that do look dated though- the hood is braced at the rear by external chromed S-struts which look like something off a Royal Mail Stagecoach or an Edwardian pram. Despite the best efforts of the grille’s stylists the car’s profile is undeniably upright and square-rigged. It shows wonderfully how far the trends in car styling have come in 70-odd years- the Twelve is narrow, tall, on plain steel wheels with slim, high-profile tyres and has no ‘stance’ at all in the modern sense.


Standard TwelveAnyone familiar with cars of this period will find nothing surprising about the Twelve’s interior. The interior is trimmed in red/orange leather, resembling the material used for a squishy sofa in a pub snug. The 1948 Standard Cars brochure  warned that ‘due to a world shortage of supplies, quality cloth trim may be substituted for leather at any time without notice’ . Clearly this car escaped the Great Cow Shortage of 1948. The seat and door-trim material is matched by colour-coded carpets in that strange bristly carpet stuff that only seemed to exist in the ‘Forties- it looks like it’s been woven from dozens of pillaged nail brushes. The dashboard itself is made from a single piece of Bakelite (what’s the term for a piece of Bakelite- casting? pressing? Moulding? Whatever…) with the gauges grouped in the middle.

No surprises with instrumentation either, as they’re the usual brown-on-beige Smiths affairs, consisting of a speedometer (reading to the unlikely top speed of 80mph, with a telltale marker at a much more likely 30), an ammeter, a clock (electrically powered…!) and then a tri-gauge showing water temperature, fuel quantity and oil pressure (the latter two in good, solid, dependable gallons and PSI, but the temperature is measured in Celsius). There’s a rotary switch for the headlamps combined with the ignition key.

Standard TwelveThat’s pretty much it- there are choke and starter knobs under the dials and a small rheostat dial to adjust the speed of the aftermarket Smith ‘shin burner’ recirculating heater that’s been crammed into the footwell and not much else. The only other thing worth mentioning are the two big manual knobs, one for each windscreen wiper. To start the wipers you have to push the knob inwards and manually sweep the wiper through its arc a couple of times until the electric motor kicks in with a tediously slow motion.

Under Way

Standard TwelveFortunately the motor under the Twelve’s  bonnet is much easier to get going. Turn the key on, pull out the choke (or ‘Easy Start Device’ as Standard calls it), open the throttle a little and pull the starter. The sidevalve engine catches almost instantly with a loud whirr from the Bendix starter which is replaced by the smooth, refined swish-whirr-swish-whirr-swish of a properly set-up petrol engine. All you can hear at idle is the click of the distributor drive, a hum from the dynamo bearings, a bit of fan noise and a slight hiss from the single Zenith down-draught carburretor.

The four-speed gearbox isn’t slick but, because the big cranked gearlever (topped with a lovely machine-lathed piece of real wood) feeds directly into the selectors it is wonderfully tactile. It may need to be virtually karate-chopped into first gear but you can feel every detent, fork and selector ring moving around.

With the long stroke that was characteristic of British car engines in the days of RAC horsepower the Twelve’s 1.6-litre 4-cylinder motor delivers strong torque at low speeds at the expense of a distinct disinclination to rev. What the engine is is a slogger- it is happy pulling against high gears at the bottom part of its range and once you realise that you basically have to treat it like a modern turbodiesel and change into the high gears as soon as possible while making full use of the throttle you can make respectable progress. Of course modern fuel (with a lead replacement and octane boost additive) is far superior to the indifferent ‘pool petrol’ that was available when the car was new, so unlike the driver from 1948 you don’t have to worry about knock and pinking when you work the engine in this way.

The gearbox never likes being rushed, and with synchromesh only present on third and fourth you don’t want to rush it. It takes a firm, deliberate action to navigate the notchy gate and it’s a case of double de-clutching down the ‘box one gear at a time when slowing down (with a bit of heel-and-toe if needed)  and then (somehow) ‘forcefully easing’ your way into each ratio when accelerating.


 The 12 RAC horsepower translates to around 50 brake horses, so the Twelve is never going to be rapid. To call it anything other than ‘direly slow’ by any modern standards would be utterly false, but when you’re dealing with a 65-year old car this is a complete irrelevance anyway. The Standard isn’t driven with power, but with torque and managing it and maintaining momentum once you have it, is the key to making smooth progress. For all of its disinclination to rev the engine never feels particularly strained. The Standard will clip along nicely at 60mph, with the speedo needle flapping wildling between 55 and 65, while feeling that it has potential to go faster.

These bald statements can’t really do justice to how much you wouldn’t want to go faster, though. Which brings me onto:

 Ride and Handling

 If you’ve never quite understood how the Morris Minor could ever be considered a ‘driving revelation’, you need to drive a car from the previous era. Like this one.

With a separate chassis, a transverse leaf-sprung front axle providing ‘independent’ suspension via lever-arm dampers with a live axle and more leaf-springs at the back the Standard Twelve essentially has no dynamic qualities whatsoever. It is a ‘driver’s car’ only in the sense that it requires constant attention and action on the part of the driver to keep it proceeding in vaguely the right direction.

Standard TwelveLet’s start with a good point- the ride comfort itself is excellent. Those leaf springs, coupled to the squidgy cross-ply tyres, are very effective at soaking up potholes and bumps and the car never jars or crashes over irregularities in the road surface. Given its layout it is remarkably free from bump-steer and ‘shuffle’, too.

I think both of these qualities may be because the entire structure of the car is so limp that the chassis itself flexes and folds as it goes along, as if it were one huge down-filled mattress cushioning the shocks. This car suffers from the bête noir of all convertibles derived from saloons- that chopping the roof off removes a great deal of the structural rigidity of the car. If you’ve always thought that the term ‘scuttle shake’ was a largely theoretical thing, then drive an old drop-top car. On the Standard you can see literally an inch of movement fore/aft between the leading edge of the door and the windscreen pillar (admittedly this is a combination of genuine scuttle shake and slack in the door hinges), and effect made even worse if you decide to crank open the windscreen for extra ventilation. Incidentally this doesn’t open enough to provide ‘wind in the hair’ but just enough to provide ‘bugs in the teeth’.

Standard TwelveWhile the suspension may be surprisingly good at tackling larger obstacles, the Standard’s bodywork fidgets and rattles continuously as it goes along. The affectionate term used by aviators for several old aircraft types- ‘a collection of parts flying in loose formation’- has never been more apt for a car. When confronted with an obstacle that town planners hadn’t though up in 1948, like a mini roundabout or a traffic calming chicane, the Twelve displays true Blitz Spirit and plunges gamely on, feeling for all the world like the chassis and running gear are steering around the traffic island while the bodywork ploughs straight on to meet up on the other side.

You know those old American films with in-car scenes, where the view out the rear screen is a badly-projected piece of stock footage? I bet you thought the exaggerated, constant wheel movements were just bad acting. Well, they’re not. The Standard Twelve uses recirculating ball steering box and a forest of link arms and track rods to make the front wheel swivel around a pair of kingpins. This is not going to produce a quick or responsive steering system. Granted, after six decades this car has some significant wear in the lower bush of the steering box that needs to be taken up but there is a good two inches of play around the big three-spoked wheel’s centre point before anything starts to happen. Even then given the general limp nature of the Twelve’s structure the steering is rarely more than a suggestive instrument, rather like pulling on the reins of a horse. You can make the car go ‘left’ and you can make it go ‘right’ and that’s pretty much it.

On straight roads you adopt the Highway Code-mandated ‘wheel shuffle’ between hands to keep the car in lane as it flounces along. Corners require constant correction and recorrection as you go round, like a sailing yacht luffing up to an unpredictable breeze. The Standard can deal with one aspect of handling at a time without problem, but show it a corner with camber, or a corner with camber and an awkward bump at the apex, and it doesn’t really know what to do. All you can do is frantically wind away at the wheel and see if it sorts itself out.

It always does, of course. It is the complete lack of any real feedback or finesse to any of the controls that make the Twelve such a bizarre and physical driving experience. It would be daft to say that it doesn’t communicate anything to the driver- such a basic, all-mechanical car can do nothing else- but it’s as if every component and system is shouting at once, so you can never pick out one particular part of the experience.

Standard TwelveThe brakes are a good example. Standard described them as ‘very powerful’, but not what this was in relation to. The braking system consists of drums all-round, operated by cables actuated by the single brake pedal. The handbrake simply acts on the master cable, applying the brakes on all four wheels and leaving the pedal ‘dead’. The result is that all slowing actions need to be done well ahead of time. The brakes are perfectly adequate for the weight of the car and the speeds it can reach, but no better than that. Part of the problem is that they are ‘self servoing’, a design where the shape of the brake shoes mean that as they are applied the brake drum grabs the leading part of the shoe and forces it against the drum, applying more braking effort, which forces more of the shoe against the drum and so on. This means that the brakes need a very firm press before they start to bite, then they will gradually bite harder even if you don’t push on the pedal any more, until the system reaches an equilibrium. The design also means that the brakes will work harder if you quickly stamp on the pedal rather then gently depressing it. A full on ‘emergency stop’ can actually lock all four wheels, but with no hydraulics to provide feedback it is initially very hard to judge exactly what the right amount of pedal travel is.


It is pointless to judge the Standard Twelve by any measure other than itself. My rather clinical subheadings show the car at its most objective and therefore at its worst. It doesn’t handle, go or stop well and if your measure of a good car is based on outright performance, balanced handling and lateral-G then of course it fails utterly.

What an objective appraisal can’t really get across is the overall experience. The very nature of this car and its ilk is created by their ‘flaws’. They need a definite sort of skill to drive, and not the sort that is usually implied when the modern ‘driver’s car’ is discussed. It needs not so much mechanical sympathy as mechanical empathy and a sort of ultra-Zen-like frame of mind where the drive is not about the destination or the journey, but the experience.  It requires dedication and the satisfaction of getting it right is where the appeal in driving these sorts of cars lies. For all its individual faults the Standard Twelve is an immensely likeable car. It forces you to engage with it and that makes it alright in my book.

Standard Twelve

Modifications, MGs and Cowpats

Tonight’s blog subject may come a little out of the deep off-side, but I’m going to talk about the subject of modifications to classic cars.

From the start, I’m going to say that I, personally, don’t go in for modification to my cars. I used to- my first Series III Land Rover quickly sprouted some almost entirely unnecessary ironmongery on various parts simply because I thought it looked good. It had some ‘hilariously witty’ stickers on the back, for the benefit of all the motorists I must have held up over the three years I had the wagon. I kidded myself that I needed a capstan winch on the front and a snorkel because I very occasionally went off-roading and had to negotiate obstacles slightly more taxing than a flat, muddy field. Which I managed to get stuck in, anyway.

Like so…

 In retrospect that was a sort of epiphany. In completely standard trim a Series Land Rover is one of the most capable off-roaders ever made and certainly well up to anything I could have thrown it at.

Since then I have operated a strict ‘no mods’ policy on my cars. This isn’t a complete exercise in denial- I fitted a CD player to the Citroën so I wouldn’t go crazy on long journeys and I’m very glad that the previous owner fitted rear seatbelts to it (I’m not so keen on the “2CV’ers Do It Bouncily” sticker on the boot lid, but it won’t come off without leaving a mark on the paintwork, so it stays).

My current Land Rover is resolutely stock. The Land Rover scene is one that thrives on modification, customising and personalisation and so finding a 20+ year old one in the same condition it left the factory was one of the things that attracted me to it in the first place. In fact the only ‘modification’ it had had was a set of larger-diameter tyres, which I quickly junked in favour of some smaller ones of the correct size.

I feel I may be unique in choosing to fit smaller, less aggressive tyres to a Land Rover, but it illustrates my point very well. The larger tyres stunted the Landy’s performance (of which there isn’t much to spare in the first place) and threw the speedo reading out of whack. With the correct tyres on (the ones that Land Rover – the people who designed the car- reckoned suited it best) it not only accelerates faster and actually stay in top gear on hills but it actually cruises better too because while it revs slightly higher it isn’t working as hard. The only downsides to going back to the correct size is that I have about two inches less ground clearance and you can get your entire head into the gap between the tyre and the wheel arch.Land Rover Rostyle Wheel

“Small wheels keep on turnin’…!”

 There’s an obvious counterpoint here- I changed the car from the condition it was when I got it to suit my requirements better. If I regularly had to tackle a deeply-rutted farm track I’d be wanting those bigger tyres, and I’d be stupid to suffer continual grounding-out and scraping all the paint off the bottom of the axles in the name of ‘originality’. Of course I would.

Land Rovers are a slightly off case study because they’re built to be modified and you probably see a couple every day that have been specced up to do some specific job that little bit better. That’s fine with me- it’s the nature of the beast.

It’s when you start changing that nature entirely that I start to lose enthusiasm. Sticking with Land Rovers for a bit longer, a current bug-bear of mine is what I call the ‘Stick A Tdi In It, Mate’ Problem.

For those unfamiliar with the Land Rover scene, for the past five years or so the ‘done thing’ if you have a Series Land Rover with an original 2.25-litre engine (none of which are ‘troubled with a surplus of power’, to use a wonderful old Autocar phrase) is to hoik out the old cast-iron lump and drop in a Tdi unit , usually sourced from a rusted-out Discovery. Being a development of the 2.25 engine the Tdi drops in with minimal alteration work needed, mates straight up to the original gearbox and provides nearly double the power and half the fuel consumption of either of the original engines. This has become virtually the default setting for Series Landy owners, and it’s amazing how long you have to walk around a Land Rover show these days before finding a Series II with its ‘proper’ engine in it.

300_TdiA Tdi in its naturally habitat. Where it should belong.

 The Tdi conversion is, of course, a ‘win-win’ situation for the owner (more power, less fuel) and it makes perfect, logical sense to anyone, except those who write about cars on the internet on Friday evenings. It just seems to be changing the nature of the vehicle and thus, in some essential way, destroying it.

Having used such a strong term, this is probably the time to point out that I’m not taking a strong moral stance on it. Life is too short to get uppity about what people do to the various collections of ferrous metal and rubber that they use to go to work in, and what they want to do to their own property is entirely up to them. It’s just not something I’ve ever managed to get onboard with.

When I upgraded from a Series III Land Rover to a Ninety Station Wagon, I could have (for much less cost than buying another Land Rover and tarting it up) got the same performance from my Series III by fitting a Tdi engine, the same ride by fitting parabolic springs, the same refinement by fitting a soundproofing kit, the same ease of driving by fitting a power steering kit and so on. But then I wouldn’t have been driving a Series III Land Rover any more. The entire experience of those vehicles, the very things that make them such charismatic, involving vehicles to driver are, in my opinion, removed to the extent when you do these sorts of mods that you might as well cut to the chase and buy a Land Rover that comes with all of those things in stock form.

I think it is, fundamentally, because I enjoy cars, both the good and the bad points, especially when we’re dealing with classic cars that are nearly all woefully inadequate in every way when compared to the modern stuff. I like my Austin Metro because it’s, well, a Metro. It handles the way a Metro does, it has as much power as a Metro 1.3L does, it makes the noises a Metro does, it rides like a Metro does. The radio sounds like the one in a Metro and the seats are as comfortable or as uncomfortable as the seats in a Metro because the car is a Metro.


This is not a Metro. It just looks like one.

I could make it go faster (although I don’t particularly feel the need to) by fitting a pair of down-draught carbs, a ported cylinder head, a more aggressive camshaft etc, or make it handle better by replacing the balls of gas and water with proper springs but then it wouldn’t be Metro. I wouldn’t be experiencing the Metro as it was designed, built and offered to people in 1987, which is what interests me. Many people will say that my hypothetical modded Metro would be a much better car, and I would agree (I would also tell them that you might as well get an MGF, which is the same thing but turned through 180 degrees) but that’s missing the point.

I don’t value originality in and of itself. I am not a rivet counter and I don’t care whether or not every little detail is the way the car was when it left the factory. I’m not daft enough to insist that old cars should all be rumbling around on cross-ply tyres with no seat belts, because they don’t fundamentally alter the nature of the car and the experience of driving it.

Of course, that opens the secondary question of where I would draw the line- if radial tyres and halogen bulbs are OK, what about a brake servo, or a disc brake conversion on safety grounds? What about fitting a fully-synchromesh gearbox from a Series III Land Rover to a Series II? It makes it easier to drive and you can’t tell the difference until you try to shift into bottom gear on the move.

I can’t give you a reply because it changes for every car- for me it’s on a ‘case by case’ basis.

What brought on all this pondering was a discussion this week about the Frontline LE50, which takes the idea of modification into the realms of modernisation.

Frontline LE50 If you’re the one person left in the world who hasn’t heard of the LE50, it’s a limited-run bespoke car based around a brand new MGB GT bodyshell, built by a company in Abingdon (the spiritual home of MG) to commemorate the MGB’s 50th anniversary last year.

The LE50 looks fantastic- the press car is turned out in a pale metallic shade of British Racing Green, it has steel perforated wheels with chrome knock-off caps (I’ve never liked B GTs on wire wheels) and it has a neat chin spoiler. It also rides slightly lower and slightly wider than a stock MGB.

This is because, under the skin, it isn’t really an MGB (so I would say). It’s powered by a 2-litre Mazda engine and it has a Mazda gearbox. It has adjustable coil-over suspension on each corner (although it does at least retain the MGB’s live rear axle). It can, apparently, top over 150mph and do dazzling 0-60 times. In other words it’s entirely unlike an MGB in every way.

There are plenty of jokes to be made here-  of course a car that’s exquisitely finished, Swiss-watch-reliable, fast, refined and with handling that has had everyone who’s driven it rambling to the point of incoherence can’t possibly be a proper MG as it’s far too good. And I would agree, and that’s the point.

Being slightly less flippant, the MGB experience isn’t scaleable. Just because the LE50 is twice as fast as an MGB, or more than twice as powerful and so on doesn’t make it ‘an MGB but twice as good’. Classic MGs are about fun and character on relatively little power and relatively little performance. They’re engaging to drive, even at 40mph or so, precisely because the back axle is hung from leaf springs and the B-Series paperweight in the nose needs to be spanked to keep making decent progress. It’s not about performance by the numbers or engineering sophistication, which is exactly what the LE50 is about. It’s not even offering an MGB with none of the downsides- it’s offering a completely different experience with the only constant being the looks.MGB

What it is an MGB for those who don’t want an MGB, like those people on Escape To The Country who want to ‘get away from it all’ in deepest darkest Worcestershire and then complain that it’s too far to the shops, that there aren’t any street lamps and the whole parish smells of cowpats.

I admire the LE50 and the huge amount of work that has gone into it. It’s great that we have yet another thriving small-scale sports car builder on the scene, offering an entirely unique product. Frontline can’t make LE50s fast enough (would that the ‘real’ MG company up in Birmingham had the same problem). In fact, that’s a good point- if Frontline hadn’t built the LE50 on an MGB shell, but a self-built coupe or roadster body with a few retro cues I’d almost certainly be hailing it as a modern spiritual incarnation of the classic MG sports car.

Which is not the same thing as it being a classic MG sports car. Which it isn’t.




Further Thoughts On The MG3

MGThis is the first post about MG Motor that I’ve done in a while. Partly this is because, with the MG6 diesel proving to be a predictably damp squib in terms of sales (making no difference at all to the UK operation’s figures) I’ve been waiting for the launch of their next product, the MG3 supermini. Mostly though, it’s because I had exhausted most of my goodwill on a firm that seems to be able to not only snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but leap head-first down victory’s gullet and scrape some extra defeat out of its small intestine.

The general tone surrounding the MG6 diesel was “Yes, we know that launching the MG6 with only a fettled version of the K-Series is stupid, but it’s all we can afford. Once the diesel one comes along then we’ll start acting like a proper car company”. Since that hasn’t happened the underlying message seems to be “Ok, the MG6 was a dud but it’s a starting point. The MG3 will be a fresh start, just you wait and see!”

Well we did wait. And then we waited some more and some more. Now the waiting is over and the MG3 is with us, with the official press launch taking place at Longbridge last week. As we’ve come to expect from MG, it doesn’t seem to have been the slickest event ever. Most manufacturers do a little more when showing their new product to the press than putting on a Powerpoint presentation (which seems to have taken place in the office meeting room). We still don’t know how much the MG3 will cost to buy and how much it will cost to run, as bizarrely MG won’t announce these figures until they have ‘finalised the pricing structure’. I’m not sure what one of these has to do with the other, but, hey, these are minor details…

MG3 is FUN

Others have already said all that needs to be said about the MG3’s ‘Fun’ advertising campaign which places a great, but ‘Fun’, emphasis on the amount of ‘Fun’ that the MG3 will be, in a very ‘Fun’ way. How effective (and ‘Fun’) this campaign proves to be is for the future to reveal, but I already feel uneasy about using the word ‘campaign’ since MG have already ruled out a TV advert for the 3. Why bother using the most effective marketing medium known to mankind when you limit yourself to Facebook, posting pictures of commemorative T-shirts with the world ‘Birmingham’ misspelled on them, and then posting badly-photoshopped corrected images after everyone points out your incompetence?

I have always wanted MG to succeed, but only in the sense that it should succeed if it deserves to, and my opinion is increasingly turning to the conclusion that they don’t. As someone whose sole involvement in the motor industry is writing about it in complete anonymity on the internet I always feel a bit bad criticising the work of others but the overall level of incompetence is astonishing.

There are two potential explanations for this.

The first is that MG Motor UK is a front for some Chinese governmental operation to purposefully create the world’s most catastrophically unsuccessful car company for some reason. I’m thinking along the lines of some The Producers-style scam to deliberately go bankrupt:

MG3 is FUN“And…now…it’s…Springtime for Longbridge, and for MG! Winter for MINI and Ford!”

 Of course, this isn’t what MG is up to. This is almost a shame, because if it was they would be succeeding brilliantly.

The real reason is more complex and, really, more depressing. The ever-present shame with the whole situation is that it’s not as if the cars are fundamentally rubbish. It’s the usual story for Longbridge products- good in isolation, flawed when compared to anything else. The MG6 is, by all accounts, an adequate-verging-onto-good car, with decent build quality and excellent handling. It is let down by its strange segment-straddling size (a la the Marina, the Maestro, the Rover R3 200/25 and the Rover 600) and it’s ancient, thirsty and dirty engine.

Rover 600Good car, wrong size, wrong market. Copy…paste…repeat 

It’s bizarre to realise that the MG3 is the first all-new MG since the ‘B was launched in 1962 and, I think I’m right in saying, the first MG ever to share no major structural or drivetrain components with another car.

It seems like a competent enough modern supermini. The styling is distinctive, if a bit incoherent and under-wheeled (a bit like a Maestro, in fact), the interior looks decent in a simple, clean sort of way and if it has a similar fit/finish to the 6 it will be quite a pleasant place to be. The UK-spec car has bespoke springs, dampers, bushes, anti-roll bars and tyres and we all know how capable MG are at taking an ordinary car and making it drive superbly. On paper the MG3 seems to be exactly what MG want it to be- a supermini that offers a decent drive and all the personalisation options of a MINI or Citroën DS3 but at a fraction of the price. Job done!

MG3 Colours

The problem is, as usual, in the details. Starting with that little detail known as ‘the engine’. In the MG3 said detail is a 1.5-litre four-pot twin-cam with variable timing on the inlet side (I wonder if this is Rover’s criminally under-appreciated VVC system or a product of the SAIC/GM collaboration). This is the only engine available at launch and is only available with a five-speed manual gearbox.

This is a big engine for a small car, especially in a market where downsizing is becoming ever more strident. Think Ford Ecoboost and Fiat TwinAir, both engines under a litre in size. They offer roughly the same power as the MG3 with 105bhp but with turbocharged torque output and, crucially, low low emissions levels.

MG3 StudioMG can’t even reasonably claim that they’re going for performance in keeping with their heritage, because with 105bhp the MG3 is not going to be especially quick. As with the car as a whole, I imagine it will be respectable but not startling. Other engines are apparently in the pipeline, including a tiny turbo unit to meet the market demands, along with an automated manual ‘flappy paddle’ gearbox.

So the MG3 has all of the same problems as the MG6. It’s not fundamentally flawed but is just off the pace in too many crucial areas. MG knows this but by the time the more palatable options are introduced it will be too late.

It is often said that there are no ‘bad cars’ available these days and this is widely true. The worst rated car in the latest JD Power Survey was the Chevrolet Spark. The Spark may be a gawky little shopping trolley with a Fisher Price interior and all the refinement of an Basildon nightclub but I doubt it does too badly as a simple tool for getting people around out of the rain and at a faster speed than walking. The Spark’s owners agreed because even this, the worst car on sale in the UK today, achieved an overall satisfaction rating of over 70%. The top rated car (the Skoda Superb- how times change!) was only 13% ahead, so virtually every car on sale in the country is around 75 per cent satisfactory.

Chevy SparkNone of the MGs were rated in the survey (they don’t sell enough cars to be eligible!) but these numbers begin to hint at the problem. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the MG6 or the MG3, but in a market where there are, effectively, no ‘wrong’ choices then any flaw, however minor, is going to turn the customers away. It’s a bit like when job-hunting and everyone has four A-grades at A-Level, an honours degree and a Duke of Edinburgh Award on their CV. In that case the employer’s choice is going to be choosing between the person who did the Silver Award and the one who did the Gold Award. Neither person is unsuitable for the job, but when everyone is suitable and there can only be one winner the choice comes down to tiny, tiny fractions of a degree of difference.

This means that the MG3’s large engine (which is probably terrible on CO2 emissions and will cost a huge amount in tax, although MG won’t tell us that yet), old fashioned gearbox and dodgy image is more than enough to keep people away, and this is before you start on the seeming ineptitude of the marketing people.

The way to get around this is price. The Chevrolet Spark may be (relatively) terrible but it is also dirt cheap. MG are stuck in a horrible situation here. On the face of it trying to sell an all-new Chinese car (for that is, at the end of the day, what the 3 is) in the UK should be greatly helped by the presence of a familiar British badge on the front, a British design office and a British assembly operation.

Unfortunately for SAIC the image of MG is terribly confused. It is still a brand with a strong sporting resonance and eight decades of performance heritage behind it but on the other hand it is a brand associated with some terrible (perceived or actual) cars, a failed company and a deeply untrendy image (either tweed-and-pipe smoke or baseball caps-and-dubstep, depending on your age).

SAIC don’t have the option to do what the likes of, say, Kia, did when starting off. Kia sent over the Pride. It was an outdated little buzzmobile with no cred or image at all but it was cheap and it worked. There are always going to be people willing to part with a very small amount of cash for an unfashionable but practical product. ‘Dull but reliable’ is an image that is only half bad and it is a decent starting point for a brand with no heritage or baggage.

MGs have to have at least some sporting pretentions to maintain their credibility, but at the same time they aren’t taken seriously as premium sporting products anymore. They can’t compete in the bargain basement on running costs and as boring but practical runabouts for people who treat cars as white goods because they are wearing a badge worn by some of the finest driver’s cars ever made. At the same time they can’t be priced as an aspirational product for people who care about driving and image because they are wearing a badge worn by some of most derided and shoddily-built cars ever made.

Dacia SanderoIt says a lot that Dacia is outselling MG by a factor of over 10-to-1. People will buy cars built in Romania from bits of old Renault, wearing a badge associated with the worst failings of the Eastern Bloc, if the products themselves are pitched at the very bottom of the market, with strong, well-judged and consistent advertising and cost-effective and sensible drivetrains. What they won’t buy is an car built from a kit of parts from China with a confused image and no clear market position that is expensive to run.

The MG3 should have been a bold new start for SAIC and MG. It still could be. I just don’t hold out much hope of it being so. And that’s a shame.



Five More Cars I Wouldn’t Mind Owning One Day

Humber Hawk

Humber Hawk

If you like old American Iron but can’t face the prospect of actually driving a Chevrolet Bel Air through your average English market town, or of fuelling even a 4-litre ‘economy’ straight six model, then the default alternative has been a Vauxhall Cresta. I present for your consideration a Third Way- the last incarnation of the Humber Hawk. Despite having a name that sounds like some sort of predatory wading bird found in northern Lincolnshire, it is actually a huge saloon from the Rootes Group with styling that, while clearly influenced by America, doesn’t have any of those vulgar fins or chrome teeth. I particularly like the estate version- my fascination with these started after coming across one returning to nature round the back of a local garage. It had a fuel filler cap disguised as rear reflector and a proper split tailgate like a true Yank Station Wagon, yet all held together with proper British values (“why use tiresome sheet metal when we could use this lovely forging?”)

Volvo Amazon

Volvo AmazonAlthough I am fatally attracted to cars that are either crap or quirky (or ideally a combination of the two) I also have a lot of time for the ‘normal car, done well’ approach. Not so much in the sense of it being a superlative driving experience or a stunning design, but one where every component and every part of every component and every bolt holding each part of each component together, has been designed with longevity in mind rather than ease of production or with an eye on the balance sheets. If a car is simply a tool to move people around, then you want one that will do that for as long as possible. Few cars, old or new, exemplify that approach better than the Volvo Amazon which, if it was built in any other country by any other company, would have been like any of the other cut-price family wagons of the ‘Fifties. However because it’s an old Volvo it can live outside and be dug out of snowdrifts, started up and driven across a Scandinavian wilderness without missing a beat and can keep doing that for decades. There’s something very appealing in that.

Honda Insight

Honda InsightWhat other people call ‘quirky’ I like to call ‘focussed’ (when I want to sound like an utter ponce, that is). Cars that try to cover as many of the bases as possible tend to be very worthy but a bit dull. The most interesting cars tend to come from a very single-minded purpose in life, and few cars are as single-minded as the first-gen Insight. Yes, it looks like a fish and yes, it’s usually found in metallic lime green and, yes, it has inevitably picked up a reputation as a hippy car. However it’s packed with intriguing engineering features and it stands out as a superb piece of functional design that can also, apparently, top 100mpg when driven in the correct manner. In other words it’s a modern version of the Citroën 2CV and that makes it OK in my book. The later generations of the Insight ruined things by trying to be ‘normal’ (and colours other than lime green) but the original is still a deeply intriguing car.

Daimler Double-Six

Daimler Double-SixIt’s strange how a different badge on two otherwise identical cars can have such an effect on their image. The Series III Jaguar XJ is barely out of banger territory and still carried around a certain aura of ‘hard-up pub landlord’ about it. Whack on a fluted grille and suddenly that all changes because the result is a Daimler Double-Six- the car of royalty. If you’re going to do the whole ‘old Jag’ thing, do it properly by getting a Jag that isn’t a Jag. For a start there’s the name- it’s a name that requires mental arithmetic to understand (that’s the proletariat’s problem, not yours). It also has 5.3-litre V12 engine, and I can’t think of a better way of burning through my bank account on a single trip than fuelling a big Daimler.

Peugeot 205

Peugeot 205 ZestNot the GTi, not even the Rallye (although I wouldn’t say no…). You will notice that the picture shows a world-acclaimed ‘Zest’ special edition 205. It’s not that the Zest has anything particular to recommend it, but the point is that it is the ‘common or garden’ 205 that intrigues me as an ownership experience. The GTi is very obviously a good car but it was the icing on an already very well-received cake. The 205 is one of the unsung heroes of the motoring world that sold across the world in huge numbers almost unchanged for over a decade. In the UK it is one of those cars that seems to have suddenly gone from ‘ubiquitous’ to ‘haven’t seen one of those in ages!’ but there are still some GDX models with patched sills and faded paintwork, powered by their immortal XUD engines chugging around. In more tin-work-friendly climates there are seemingly thousands of 205s (that would be old enough to buy booze if they were people) still in daily use. The 205 is one of the last of the true ‘world people’s cars’ and I really feel I should experience one before they’re all gone.

Let’s Go For A Drive: Volkswagen Golf Mk2 GTI 8v

Golf GTI Heading ShotWell, well, what’s this? A road test of a Golf? And a sporty Golf, what’s more! I apologise to anyone who was holding out for a test of a brown Chrysler Sunbeam 928, but I assure you that normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

It’s quite hard trying to come up with an introductory paragraph for the Golf GTI. It’s a motoring icon that defined both a decade and an entire genre of cars and if you were to add up all the column inches that have gushed about the GTI over the years as a whole it would probably stretch for an interstellar distance.

The stock opening ‘The Golf GTI needs no introduction’ is usually followed by 500 words doing just that, so I’m not going to write that. Really, I suppose the objectives for this road test are:

1)  The obvious- What is a Mk2 Golf GTI like to drive?

2) The critical- is it worth the hype?

3) The personal- do I like it?

Without further ado, let’s start with the appearance:


Golf GTI ProfileThe Mk2 Golf is really just a moving piece of street furniture. The shape has evolved by frustrating increments since the ‘Seventies and was never a particularly ground-breaking piece of styling even then. The survival rate of Mk2s is high enough that you see them around to the extent that you don’t even notice them, let alone realise that it’s a 30-year old car.

The Volkswagen connoisseurs generally proclaim the Mk2 to be the high-water mark of styling (these things are all relative, I suppose) and I can see the point. Even on the second iteration the Golf had started to put on some flab. It doesn’t have the steam-creased edges and tight lines of the Giugiaro original- there is a slight bulginess to the sides and the car somehow manages to look bigger than it actually is. None the less it’s a thoroughly effective and inoffensive piece of design that really does blend in anywhere. I took the Golf to several different places in search of photos, from an inner-city underpass strewn with graffiti to a shady side-lane in a prosperous rural commuter village and it looked ‘right’ at both locations and everywhere in between.

Golf GTI RearThe Golf GTI’s premium image rested on it being a more ‘mature’ car than the wide-boy looks of the fast Fords with their preposterous spoilers and excessive wheel arches or the likes of Peugeot with their vivid paint and go-faster stripes. At a glance you would struggle to differentiate the GTI from one of its more hum-drum siblings. This is especially the case with this example because the red paintjob masks the sporty red detailing around the grille and the GTI badges on the rubbing strakes. This H-reg car doesn’t even have the BBS cross-hatch alloys which seemed to be virtually standard-fitment to GTIs by the late ‘Eighties. Instead it has rather plain plastic wheel trims.

GTI BadgeThe most obvious visual difference is at the front, where the grille has a set of secondary driving lamps mounted inboard of the main units. This wasn’t a GTI-only feature but the formula of “more lights=sporty” is a well-proved one and it works. It gives the frontal aspect a crucial bit of presence and removes the standard car’s rather plain, almost cute, looks that most basic round-lamp cars have. Although the grille also has a GTI badge it is still moulded from subtle grey plastic (or silver-effect faded to silver…). Round the back, there is another modest badge and a twin-exit exhaust protruding from the bumper which hints at the car’s potential.

Golf GTI (w. headlamps)The GTI version of the Golf sits on lower, stiffer suspension than the normal cars and it has the wider black plastic wheel arches fitted to some of the other trim levels at the time. Again, these changes are subtle in the extreme. The car doesn’t look like it’s dragging its silencer on the ground and the tyres are on a higher profile that most SUVs available today. The differences only become noticeable when you compare it to a standard Golf. This later car has the deeper bumpers with chunkier anti-deforming sections which help to beef up the appearance but it still doesn’t look like one of the most highly regarded sporting car models of all time. It looks like a normal three-door hatchback from the ‘Eighties. If there’s any excitement to be had from a GTI, it’s not from the appearance.


Golf GTI InteriorGetting into the car doesn’t change things. The GTI was an expensive car when it was new, so it avoids the almost monastic levels of equipment and trim that the lower-spec VWs could inflict on the unfortunate buyer, but neither does the interior leap out at you as an especially nice place to be. As you’d expect from a car that was never designed to be particularly sporty, the interior majors on space and practicality rather than any ‘cockpit’ feeling or exciting design touches. It’s all plain, straight lines and simple square shapes.

The overall impression is ‘black’. Everything this made from black rubber or black plastic, from the headlining to the carpets and everything in between. The only relief is offered by the door trim cars (a dull grey cloth with flecks of red) and the seats. Of course a GTI has to have tartan red-white-and-black seat cloth but even here the Mk2 GTI has a less extravagant pattern than the original version. The seats themselves are an obvious indicator that this is not a standard Golf, because they are so bucketed that they’re virtually wingbacks.

Golf GTI Dash (1)There really is a theme developing here, because considering the Golf GTI as a static item (the product of design) it really can be summed up as ‘good but boring’. This is no surprise because that’s pretty much what everyone has always said about the Golf. The interior may be bland beyond description but it has everything you need (although not much you want) and it’s all crushingly conventional and logical. The Wolfsburg designers seem to have spent their entire Sense-of-Humour-Quotient on the gearknob, which, of course, is dimpled so it resembles a golf ball. Except that the Golf isn’t named after the game (although I can’t think of a more appropriate sport to name such a dull car after) but the German for the Gulfstream. It’s an uncharacteristically whimsical touch.

Golf GTI GearknobThe only criticisms I can make are minor in the extreme. The Golf shares a flaw with my Metro- that of grouping a lot of the secondary switches around the instrument cluster where they are hidden by the driver’s hands when holding the steering wheel. There is also the matter of the seating position. Initially I found it truly bizarre but that was because I’m used to cars where the seat only adjusts fore/aft, and then if it’s a deluxe model. The GTI’s seats adjust through all the usual ranges and I was able to find one that suited me fine, except for the reach to that gear knob. When the height, angle and distance to the wheel and pedals was fine the gear lever felt it was too far forward and too far away. Trying to adjust the position to make that comfortable disturbed everything else. This is, obviously, a personal preference more than anything but it’s the first car I’ve come across that does this.

With Volkswagen’s stellar reputation for build quality reaching every higher levels of smugness and the Mk2 Golf being considered one of the most solidly-built cars of all time, it was oddly pleasing to see that the GTI is downright cheap in some ways. The thickness and heft of the metal seems no better than any other ‘Eighties car and the doors feel distinctly light, although they shut with a nice thud rather than the cymbal-like clang of certain other vehicles. I was particularly heartened to see that VW had made good the gaps between the dash rail and the centre console by sticking bits of yellow (now brown) sponge into the gap, just like Land Rover did in the good ol’ days. The door cards are made from that weird resin-covered cardboard covered with a micron-thick layer of cloth that must have been sprayed on rather than stitched and they have a cheap-feeling hollow sound when knocked. The GTI has electric windows and the door cards have plastic blanks stuck over the holes for the winders- something I don’t think even Austin-Rover stooped to.

Golf GTI DoorcardThe thing is that the Mk2 Golf comes from that high water mark in the German car industry when they founded their success by making very dull cars very well, and put actual quality above perceived quality (rather than its contemporary approach of doing the exact opposite). The Golf may have the odd flimsy panel, a few sections of hard plastic and bits of sponge in the dash but it all still works 23 years after it was put together. Those blanks on the door cards haven’t fallen out. The dashboard doesn’t have a single rattle or squeak, the air vents still swivel smoothly, the door mirror adjusters still work and the switches and stalks feel more solid and positive than the ones in my Metro, despite having been subjected to over 100,000 more miles. Similarly the Metro’s dashboard has picked up several scores and scratches in just 6 months of regular use, while the Golf’s dash is unmarked by nearly a quarter of a century of the daily grind.

Under Way

Hmmm…half-way through a road test of one of the greatest driver’s cars of all time and I haven’t so much as turned a wheel. It’s almost as if I’m putting something off.

Golf GTI EngineIn keeping with the whole ‘it just works’ vibe of the Golf, the GTI’s 1.8-litre 4-cylinder engine springs to life after a brief churn on the motor. It catches quite savagely, with a solid thud of combustion that ripples through the car’s structure before instantly subsiding into a smooth and entirely vibration-free idle thanks to the oh-so-vital Bosch fuel injection that lends the car the last part of its moniker. Of course the GTI was already well established by the time this one was made, but you can appreciate just how pleasing it must have been to a generation brought up on temperamental high-tune carburettor engines to have a sporting car that always started, didn’t foul its plugs and wouldn’t stutter around town being out-dragged by invalid carriages until it warmed up.

The exhaust note is noticeably more fruity than a normal Golf, which is helped by the fast warm-up idle of 1100rpm or so. It’s no ear-drum-piercer and it’s not the sort of noise that makes you feel slightly embarrassed to be stuck in a city-centre traffic jam. It’s just a pleasingly raspy tone that hints at better things to come.

Golf GTI ExhaustThe GTI’s gearshift is unchanged from the standard Golf, so it doesn’t feel particularly sporty. It’s not bad- it is (and I hesitate to repeat myself yet again) an entirely unremarkable cable-shift that is easy but not especially pleasant to use. It does the job. The same can’t be said of the pedals. The throttle pedal has a large ‘dead zone’ at the top of its travel and seems to need a huge amount of prodding to get the revs to rise. When they start to climb they climb fast. The overall effect is rather as if there’s an elastic band between the pedal and the engine. The clutch is very, very heavy with an engagement so fierce that it’s practically binary. You can guess where this is going- a combination of a harsh clutch and an unresponsive throttle means I stalled the Golf twice before managing to move away. Not a promising performance, although I can now say that you do indeed feel like a tit when you stall a hot hatch in public.

Driving around town the GTI feels entirely unremarkable, oddly non-linear pedal responses aside. The sporty suspension does mean the car tends to jiggle over the more uneven bits of road and things like drain covers produce unpleasant thuds when taken at normal speed. Otherwise it’s a doddle to drive. The steering is hydraulically assisted, light when stationary and with a smooth, progressive response when cornering. As you’d expect from a big engine in a not-particularly-heavy car the engine pulls strongly even at low revs and you can trickle around in fourth or fifth gear at 30mph or so and still accelerate cleanly. The GTI picks up speed for joining faster traffic flows easily and there is little need in normal driving to take the engine over 3000rpm or so. This makes for good fuel economy when the engine isn’t exercised too far- the oh-so-‘Eighties LCD display registered high-20s MPG most of the time, creeping up into the 30s on long, steady jaunts. Not bad for a performance-tuned petrol engine. In the cruise the GTI is refined, if surprisingly low-geared, carrying 3300rpm at 70mph when the engine could easily lug a taller fifth gear. The firm suspension does give the car a tendency to thump over expansion joints and repair patches on motorways but it is still a car perfectly capable of absorbing long journeys in comfort.

Golf GTI UnderpassOf course, many of you will now be thinking that all this talk of town driving fuel economy is to miss the point entirely. I would say it isn’t, because the whole mythos of the GTI is that it can be both a normal hatchback and a driving sensation. That is its key appeal and it would have been remiss of me not to at least try driving the Golf ‘normally’. The verdict? It’s a Golf, so it’s perfectly capable. Nothing to get excited about, much to commend, nothing really to rave about.


Enough of this- time to get the Golf GTI out of the city and onto some roads where it can stretch its legs. The first chance I get is the A47 heading west out of Peterborough. Joining this fast-moving dual carriageway is the first time I can really haul in the sheets and see what the GTI can do. The 110 horsepower engine is not particularly exciting in the way it delivers its power. It’s a plain iron block with an alloy head, eight valves and an overhead cam, like practically every mid-market engine of the time. It just spools smoothly and quickly with no hesitation and no real change in how it sounds or feels. There seems to be no ‘sweet spot’ as such- no part of its power band where the engine seems to be more or less lively than any other part. Neither is it a particularly rev-happy. It will pull well but you don’t get the impression that this is an engine that likes to be revved hard. Neither is it one that needs to be. It’s an entirely linear power delivery so you just keep accelerating until you run out of speed limit or revs. Although the redline is at a touch over 6000rpm the engine does begin to feel a little restricted at around 5000 or so- more through the sound rather than any particular drop off in pulling power.

Golf GTI (Profile 2)The GTI is a quick car. It’s not one that overwhelms you with its speed, but it can make entirely indecent progress when required. The 0-60 time of 10 seconds or so would be considered hugely sluggish by modern hot hatch standards and pretty mediocre by the standard of your average executive saloon but that’s still a very small amount of time in which to get in a lot of acceleration. It’s also the sort of performance you can enjoy. It’s fast enough to be exciting and to induce the odd childish giggle while being slow enough to savour. A more powerful car can zap from 30mph to 60mph practically instantly while in the GTI you get to change down a gear, pile on the revs and make another gearchange before settling down. The car is at its best when given a long, straight road starting from low speeds. Turning out of a roundabout (which we’ll get to in a bit…) at 20mph or so and punting the Golf up a climbing dual carriageway gives you scope to accelerate hard through three gears before hitting the national speed limit and the smooth and punchy engine makes this sort of thing a pleasure to do.

The Golf is quite a ‘soft’ car, performance wise. It never kicks you up the backside with its acceleration and you never have that sense of clinging on to the wheel while the car powers off towards the horizon that a true hard-core sports car or other high-performance machine can produce. At times, such as when looking for an overtaking gap or when you try to lug one gear higher than is ideal up a long hill it can feel quite unresponsive. It is certainly not overpowered and there is in fact room for considerable improvement (which VW offered with the 16v version which added an extra 20 or so horses) but this means you can make full use of the engine’s capabilities and it is very enjoyable to do so.

Golf GTI Underbonnet

Ride and Handling

As already mentioned the ride is on the firm side. However it is never uncomfortable if you are prepared to steer around the more severe potholes. The GTI is a tightly-wound car. It doesn’t so much bounce on its springs as jiggle, as you’d expect from a light car on high-rate springs with short travel. The wide track and low centre of gravity make the Golf incredibly planted even on some of East Anglia’s most undulating and camber-ridden roads, although in these conditions the car never really feels comfortable, as if it would much rather be storming along an autobahn.

Golf GTI WheelOn your more normal British country back road, where there are actual corners and less chance of ending up in a drainage ditch, the VW is perfectly happy. It hugs the road surface without twitching and crashing over every single divot and crest while also managing to communicate what the road and the car is doing.

To me the most obvious flaw was the steering. While it was ideal for driving the Golf in ‘hatchback mode’ when asked to perform as the steering system of a sports car it doesn’t really answer. Despite being a rack-and-pinion system it has a certain numbness and slowness of response that took quite a bit of getting used to. More noticeable than the problem with getting the driver’s commands down to the wheels is the lack of sensation the other way. There is very little feel for what the front wheels are doing and how much lock to apply for any given situation. You can pick this up in time but it becomes the product of muscle memory rather than intuition or the result of feedback and it took me a while to gain confidence in the car’s overall handling to be able to be more vigorous with the steering. Even then I couldn’t help feel that if the steering was just slightly more weighted and just slightly quicker-geared it would improve things significantly.

Golf GTI 34A similar criticism can be levelled at the brakes. Just like the clutch and the throttle the brake pedal had very little effect in the first part of its travel and even when given a firm press the brakes were never more than what I would say was ‘adequate’ when trying to cover ground quickly on your typical Northamptonshire rural road where straight, fast sections with clear visibility are broken up by sharp bends or crests, make driving a succession of firm braking and quick accelerating manoeuvres.

I guess this is a consequence of trying to make a car with two personalities with the benefit of ‘Eighties technology. A modern hot hatch can have all its systems programmed with multiple modes and maps to deliver the best possible performance in all conditions. The Mk2 Golf’s mechanical systems can only ever be a compromise and VW, quite logically, seem to have set them up for more day-to-day driving.

If the Golf’s controls are little woolly, the car itself is most definitely not. The suspension system is not sophisticated (Macpherson struts at the front, a torsion-beam axle at the back) but it has been developed to near-perfection and the results are obvious.

Opinion will always be divided about which type of car is the more enjoyable- one which easily (but controllably) steps out of line so the driver can correct it or one that just refuses to budge from the desired line and keeps on gripping. I generally fall into the latter camp- it is the sign of a technically better car and the last thing you want to do when trying to enjoy yourself on a decent road is to have to reign in the car to keep within its traction limits.

Front BadgeAs such the Golf and I got on every well indeed. On bone-dry roads, at least, the GTI is extremely tenacious. As befits a powerful front-wheel drive car there is a tendency to understeer but it is very slight. It responds well to the ‘slow in, fast out’ approach of carrying the throttle slightly in advance of speed around sweeping corners to balance traction and steering. Although the Golf is a relatively large car for its age it still weighs only 950kg or so and this makes it very responsive to steering inputs once you have the guts to make them.  When pratting around like this the deeply-sculpted seats go from ‘yuppie posing items’ to ‘valuable necessity’ because they grip you very well and the GTI is well up for generating enough lateral force to fling you out of a normal chair during a vigorous roundabout manoeuvre.

The tight suspension and prodigious anti-roll bars mean that the GTI has virtually no body roll and yet never feels skittish or wayward as you might expect. Some ‘Eighties hot hatches were renowned for lift-off oversteer but the Golf was exhibiting none of this whatsoever even on the couple of occasions that I tried to provoke it by slamming shut the throttle on the entry to a bend. At the very worst there was a slight shuffle from the rear end- not so much a break of grip but a shifting of the rear end on its springs.

The GTI is a joy to drive, but I couldn’t really work out why. Mentally comparing it to my Austin Metro daily-driver, I could only conclude that the Metro had, by far, the better steering in terms of responsiveness and feedback, a much more responsive throttle and more direct-acting brakes. In other words, in all the individual ways you generally judge a car’s driver appeal, the Golf GTI was bested by a Metro.

And yet the GTI is, by far, the more enjoyable car to take on a Saturday-morning thrash. I just couldn’t put my finger on exactly why. It wasn’t the straight-out performance- that was fun but on the sort of roads where the Golf’s strange numbness of its controls really showed speed wasn’t really an issue. Then I thought about how I sussed out the GTI’s handling if all the major controls feel as if they’re set in jelly. And then I realised that it was the car itself.

Golf GTI rear (2)Writers talk a lot about the ‘chassis’ of a car, when of course cars haven’t had a chassis for about 60 years (unless they’re Land Rovers). What this terms means is the whole dynamic structure of the car- the shell, the platform, the suspension etc. It is the Golf GTI ‘s ‘chassis’ that makes it such a fun car to drive. What you don’t feel through the controls you feel, literally, through the seat of your trousers. You can feel the weight of car sitting on each corner and how it changes as you drive, and the overall sense is that you are (cliché incoming *ROOGAH! ROOGAH!*) part of the car rather than merely sitting in it.

When thrashing along a country B-road, switching back and forth between third and fourth gear, with the rev counter flicking around the more vertical parts of its travel, the sunroof cranked back so you can hear the twin pipes warbling in perfect syncopated harmony and the car darting from corner to corner the whole experiences becomes verging on the addictive and it’s a shame when you have to return to roads that might actually have other people using them and you have to go from ‘GTI mode’ back to ‘3-door Golf mode’.


Golf GTII didn’t particularly want to like the GTI. By that, I mean that it had always occupied a firm place on my ‘must drive’ list, simply because of its historical importance and its reputation, but it’s not my sort of car and I had never hankered for one as an ownership proposition (base spec 1.05 C Golf? Now we’re talking!). Obviously I expected to be very impressed but deep down there was the possibility (maybe even hope?) that I would be able to find at least one flaw that would let me say “Ha! The Mighty Golf isn’t quite so flawless after all!!!”

Well, that didn’t happen, and I’m really not surprised. A car doesn’t gain a such a consistent reputation as the Mk2 Golf GTI without some basis, and my three days driving this one showed all the praise to be utterly deserved.

The only criticisms I can make are subjective. I would prefer a car with more tactile and direct controls that offered more conventionally sporty levels of feedback rather than the odd ‘holistic’ approach that the Golf takes.

However there are so many things that I would say are perfectly judged- the seemingly limitless levels of grip countered with what would seem to be very fuzzy dynamic limits that really let you extract every horsepower and mile per hour from the car when the mood takes you, without worrying that it will suddenly rear up and bite. Similarly the engine’s power delivery and the car’s performance strike the ideal balance between ‘fast enough to be fun’ and ‘not fast enough to be silly and license-endangering’.

You really can see why the GTI and its ilk decimated the arthritic and complacent British sports car industry. Here’s a car that is faster than an MGB GT, has the same level of driving enjoyment (although in a different way), has twice the number of seats and a bigger boot. It also has a body that’s actually weatherproof and styling that isn’t from the time when Alec Douglas-Home was Prime Minister and ‘the Mersey sound’ was a ferry’s steam whistle rather than a musical sub-genre. All in a package was reliable to fault and required no compromises or effort on the part of the owner to live with.

There are cars that offer better practicality, better performance, more ‘exciting’ handling, better build quality and so on, but the Golf GTI really does provide a combination of all those aspects that is hard to beat. And I mean that when considering it as a new car in 1990 and from the perspective of 2013.

If anyone is shocked by that conclusion, where have you been for the past 30 years?

Golf GTI Badge

Endangered or Orphaned?

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks for those of us interested in ‘crap’ old cars, because they made a rare appearance in the public eye that didn’t involve being cretinously mocked on Top Gear. Last week no less a news organ than the BBC had an array of old cars featuring on the telly and for the first time that I can recall there were dozens of column inches dedicated to the Ford Sierra.

All this was in response to some figures published by Honest John Classics, the online classic car off-shoot of the Daily Telegraph’s tartan-hat-themed motoring advice forum.

The stats showed that once-common cars were now in danger of shuffling off the roads for ever, with survival rates that required several zeros the wrong side of the decimal point. The slant put on all this was the notable fact that cars from the ‘Eighties seem to be surviving at much lower rates than their counterparts from the ‘Sixties and ‘Seventies did, even when they too were just old bangers.

Leaving aside that the fact that this story basically boils down to ‘Cars No One Liked When They Were New Are Still Not Liked Thirty Years Later Shocker!’, there are two aspects to this that grabbed my attention. The whys and wherefores of why cars from  the ‘Eighties suffer such low survival rates is a subject for another time.

First was the fact that this reached the national press at all. I’m not so naïve as to fail to realise that this is down to skilful PR work on a slow news day rather than a sign that the nation suddenly cares about the fate of the Vauxhall Chevette, but it’s positive coverage of sorts- it’s a shame that the story is about how all these cars are so crap that they’re on the verge of extinction, but positive that this is being spun in a negative way, if that makes any sense at all.

Austin Montego“It’s not as rubbish as we said it was!” “Yay!” “But now they’re nearly all gone!” “Boo!”

The Telegraph, naturally, ran with it as it’s their own story. The Daily Mail devoted many pictures and much digital space to the story, predictably with its own slant that these ‘slices of British history’ were being wiped out by those damn foreigners with their bloody stylish, reliable cars…coming over here, nicking our parking spaces…grrrr. The Mail’s coverage had a few quirks of its own, especially the caption to a picture of an Austin Ambassador that described it as ‘eye-catching’. That’s the most praise the Ambassador’s looks have ever had!

Most glaring was the trend that revealed itself when you looked at the top-10 list. Here it is from ‘worst’ (lowest survival rate) to ‘not quite so bad’ (marginally less terrible survival rate):

1) Austin Allegro (0.05%)

2) Austin Montego

3) Princess

4) Hillman Avenger

5) Vauxhall Viva

6) Morris Marina

7) Austin Maxi

8) Morris Ital

9) Rover SD1

10) Vauxhall VX (0.1%)

Aside from the fact that this is list could also serve perfectly well as the ‘Balloon_Fish List Of My Favourite Cars Ever’, the inescapable conclusion is that of those 10 cars eight are British Leyland products and three are Austins. Expand that analysis to the complete top-20 and you have six Austins and 13 BL products. All the cars are British or quasi-British (Fords and Vauxhalls).

What’s the other notable thing about this list? Every car on it is not only no longer in production (obviously!) but, crucially, it’s model name is no longer in production either.

This data was gathered ‘from the DVLA’s records’. In other words the people at HJC got a work experience student to tally numbers from howmanyleft.co.uk.

HMLTo search, perchance to dream…

 Howmanyleft.co.uk is a great tool (as well being employed by tools when they write eBay adverts- “according to HowManyLeft there are only 157,000 of these cars left, making this one UNIQUE and RARE”) but it has its flaws.

The main one is trying to pick apart cars with several generations of the same model. The DVLA aren’t car nerds and so don’t record the difference between a Mercedes 300E W123 and a Mercedes 300E W124, or a Ford Escort Popular from 1973 and a Ford Escort Popular from 1983.

Ford EscortThey’re all the same these days.

With that in mind, isn’t it frightfully convenient that all the cars in the HJC top-20 of ‘endangered’ cars are bearing defunct model names? If you want to find out the survival rate of Austin Metros, you just type ‘Austin Metro’ into HowManyLeft, note down the number, divide it by the total sales figure and *boom* you have a headline.

Try doing the same for a Volkswagen Golf 1.6 petrol. That covers anything made between 1976 and the present day. You could spend hours working out that a Golf 1600 CL is from the ‘Eighties and that a Golf 1600 SE is from the 21st century but that doesn’t account for all the GTIs and Drivers which have identical names. Even the stuff that’s neatly delineated like the Triumph Acclaim, which can only be a warmed-over Honda saloon from the early ‘Eighties, has data riddled with flaws depending on how diligent the apprentice in the original dealer was in filling out the logbooks. Getting any vaguely meaningful data from HowManyLeft for a model name still in production is essentially impossible.

VW GolfsNotice how the colours seem to wash out of the image as you progress through time. Feel your life force slowly draining away into a puddle of perfect adequateness.

In fact there’s a hint that whoever compiled the figures may have slipped up in any case, because the Lotus Elan is touted as the best-surving car with a rate of 38%. Given that the figures run from 1950 to 1995, this neatly covers the production run of the Elan and the not-so-good FWD one from the late ‘Eighties. Having 4,000-odd cars built with the same name as your classic one, right before the end of your cutoff year will doubtless do wonders for the apparant survival rate.

M100 Elan


When you think ‘Lotus’, think ‘angular purple car with the engine from an Opel Kadett’.

Now, you’re probably thinking “Come off it, Jack, you’re not seriously saying that if you could get the figures out that the Golf would be just as endangered as a bunch of ropey old Austins?” The answer is, of course not. All I’m saying is that the list as it stands has a practical bias towards defunct old cars- i.e. British Leyland tat.

Leaving aside the oh-so-predictable Golf, what about something else obscure, unloved, built with indifferent quality and now rarely seen? Like a Mk1 Vauxhall Astra? I have, genuinely, seen many more Austin Maestros on the road in the past decade than I have first-gen Astras, but the Astra name is still in use and so impossible to pick out from the dataset being used. Are we really accepting that the early Astra has survived in appreciably more numbers than the Chevette (placed at number 15, and a car I have seen plenty more of about these days than its successor)? Are there really so many more Mk2 and Mk3 Ford Escorts around, or are their numbers being obscured by their later siblings?

I’d love to be able to provide some figures to back up this hunch but, of course, I can’t. That’s the problem.