Four BL Excuses That Need To Stop


I make no bones about being an enthusiast of British Leyland cars. Been there, done, that, literally got the T-shirt. Being a BL fan is one of those things that society at large generally treats with a certain element of sympathetic contempt (like smoking, The Independent or musical theatre). That’s fair enough, really, and I’m happy to let the vast majority of the population who don’t get the joy of cars with square steering wheels drive their Audi A3s in peace. It takes all sorts etc.

The problem comes when I end up disagreeing with people who really do put the ‘fan’ in ‘fanatic’. The sort of people who will argue long and hard that the decline of the British motor industry had everything to do with anything other than the cars themselves.

I would describe myself as a ‘BL Realist’ rather than a ‘BL enthusiast’. Actually, I wouldn’t, because that would be a stupid thing to say in any real-world situation, but for the purposes of this blog it will make the point. I don’t think everything that bore the Flying Plughole was a work of genius let down only by some other poor chance of fate. A lot of it was much better than its general reputation deserves. A lot of it really is as bad as it’s made out to be, if not much worse.

A lot of people out there don’t seem to realise this, and this is the sort of thing that I’m getting tired of hearing because it makes me want to go and start enthusing over old Datsuns instead.

1)  It was all the Unions’ Fault!!!

StrikesThis is the standard viewpoint in the snug of the Crank & Tappet Public House. What brought BL down was that its workers didn’t do much work and when they weren’t huddling around a brazier outside Q-Gate or rampaging through Cowley smashing the place up a bit they were half-heartedly slinging cars together so that a fellow down the line could take it apart again for ‘rectification’ while another two blokes stood around and watched, all on cushy wages and jobs-for-life. Alternatively it was down to short-sighted management maintaining a very British air of arrogant apathy that meant that it failed to foresee virtually every motor industry trend between 1965 and 1990 while being more concerned with maintaining its corporate empire than producing a viable industry. The thing is that industrial relations, as the term implies, are a two-way affair.

It’s true that the relentless strikes (and the often ridiculous working practises that were put in place by managers who wanted to try and avoid them) caused BL a lot of damage to both its image and its bottom line.  The Cowley ‘washing up strike’ in 1983 put a huge dent in Maestro production just as demand was at its height. Cars with a retail value of £100 million (or a third of BL’s big government bail-out) never made it to the showroom because the production lines were stopped.

But the whole of the UK economy was riddled with strikes in the ‘Seventies. Ford and Vauxhall had the same, if not worse, problems and managed to turn out cars that were at the very least semi-decent and profitable. A whole industry can’t be brought down over 53 years simply by its workers going on strike- it takes concerted effort to cock things up in the long term by both parties to do the damage that was inflicted on BL.

2) The public should have been more patriotic!!!

Metro Launch AdvertWorst. Excuse. Ever. You can make a case for putting the blame on to almost anyone and anything connected with BL but the car-buying public are the very last people to blame. People should never be expected to use their own cash to buy a clearly inferior product just to prop up an incompetent industry.

If anything part of the BL’s problem was that the public were far too forgiving. This isn’t so much a BL-specific issue and more an intriguing insight into the woeful standards of your average car buyer in the ‘Sixties and ‘Seventies, but BMC was quite prepared to keep building the Morris Minor and the Farina saloons because people were quite prepared to keep buying them. It was the car-buying public that let BL ‘get away’ with building the Marina, a thoroughly uncompetitive car that none the less sold over a million examples.

Deliberately-specific excuses aside (“But what if you need to fold the seats down into a double bed!” doesn’t count), can anyone mount a viable excuse as to why Mr and Mrs Average should have bought a Maxi over a Cortina, a Marina over an Avenger or an Ambassador over a Carlton? No.

The general public did, in fact, directly support BL by voting for a series of governments willing to prop the whole creaking edifice up with huge infusions of cash. It rewarded their loyalty by building the Ital.

3) It was all BMW’s fault!!!

Rover 75Aside from the whole ‘clusterfuck theory’ that I’ve already outlined- that no one entity or event can be blamed for BL’s problems- the hatred for BMW just seems utterly baseless. Yes, BMW screwed up the Rover 75 by making it look like a design from the centre spread of The Eagle, circa 1958 (‘The Car Of The Bank Manager OF THE FUTURE!’) and then using the car’s public unveiling to tell the assembled crowds that Rover was a doomed company staffed by work-shy ne’er-do-wells, but that is more than cancelled out by practically everything else they did.

While British Aerospace (who presided over what many would call ‘the glory years’) invested about £7.50 in the Rover Group, the result being the Rover Metro and the Rover R3 200, BMW sloshed millions of its own Deutchmarks into the firm and let them get on with making cars- an approach that the company had desperately needed since the ‘Fifties. The result was the first generation of the MINI, the very successful (if fragile) P38 Range Rover and Land Rover Freelander, the Rover 75 (which under all its pipe-and-slippers styling is an excellent car), the Series II Discovery and the L322 Range Rover.

Leaving aside the issues surrounding BMW’s ditching of ‘The English Patient’, there is the legacy that they left behind. As well as ensuring the continued dominance of Land Rover’s products in the West and the initial success of the MINI, BMW have kept Cowley humming away at full capacity making desirable British-built cars and building engines for the both MINIs and BMWs at Hams Hall. They may have given Rover a further nudge towards its inevitable end but BMW have done more good for the British motor industry as a whole, and especially the remnants of the BL empire, than any of the British owners ever did.

4) But what about the [insert obscure engineering feature here]?!?!?

MaestroTurboThis is the sort of thing where rational defence starts to tip over into blind ideology. The Maestro was not better than the Ford Escort simply because it was the first car to have a bonded-in windscreen and single-loom wiring.  No one cared back in 1980 that the Metro was the first car with 12,000 mile service intervals and no one cares now. The Allegro may have been the first car to have an electric fan, but so what?

I have, frequently, made the case that BL’s cars are excellent designs but poor commercial products. Fluid suspension may be technically very capable but people didn’t want it. The K-Series engine may be, on paper (or when put in a Lotus) one of the best small-capacity petrol engines ever made but that doesn’t change the fact that it was riddled with detail design and installation errors that all but guaranteed expensive failure.

Even the apparently successful stuff shouldn’t be immune from criticism. How many cars today use the much-hyped Issigonis transverse engine with the gearbox in the sump? None, that’s how many. How many use the transverse engine with the gearbox on the end, as invented by Fiat? Most of them. What was BL’s reaction to this much better way of laying out the drivetrain of a car? To ignore it entirely, try and squeeze five gears into the sump of an E-Series and then, when that didn’t work, buy a proper gearbox from Volkswagen and then somehow cock that up too. How many sales did BL lose because its ‘Issigonis-style’ cars were slow, odd-looking rotboxes with mushy gearchanges and NVH levels similar to a Victorian steel mill? Tens of thousands.

We can always find some metric where a BL car will be superior to a more successful or more highly-though of competitor, or some feature that BL introduced before everyone else, but that doesn’t remove the blame from the company or the car for all the other faults.



Five Cars I Wouldn’t Mind Owning One Day

I tend to worry that this blog gets a little too much heavy on the facts and not enough on the opinion- by that I don’t mean ill-informed ramblings (although I’m sure there are plenty of those) but just lots of ‘info dumping’ about Hydragas and the aesthetical ethos of the Citroën Ami. If you want that then there’s always Wikipedia.

So I’m going to let analysis, structure and facts go to hang every now and then and do raw personal opinion with an occasional list of cars that, for whatever reason, I fancy owning at some point. There’s no logic to this list- just whatever I pull off the top of my head at any given time.

Given that my car-buying wishlist (come on, everyone has one, don’t they?) changes frequently and dramatically there will probably be lots of contradictions. But that’s what makes it fun. Let’s kick off with:

1) Volkswagen Beetle

BeetleVolkswagen gets a lot of flak from me on these virtual pages and as a 2CV owner I shouldn’t be contemplating Beetle ownership at all. None the less I have a strange sense that I’d get on quite well with Ferdinand Porsche’s little rear-engined fire hazard. Having never driven (or even been in) one I can only guess that, while they may be slow and tediously reliable, they must have at least some of the elemental charm that comes from cars that are both basic and the product of one man’s particular ideas (by that I mean Dr. Porsche, not Adolf Hitler). Plus I feel I should probably experience what is, after all, the most successful car ever made for long enough to find out what all the fuss is about.  They can’t just be underpowered, tail-happy hippy-wagons with a tendency to suffocate their drivers…can they?

2) Austin A90 Atlantic

Austin Atlantic“Austin Atlantic- If You’re Going To Fail, Fail Spectacularly” That might as well have been the slogan, because Austin’s big hope for breaking into the American market in the ‘Fifties proved to be very badly misjudged. But look at it! I’ve always liked the cars from Austin’s ‘County’ phase from a styling point of view, what with their chrome grilles and swooping creases. The A90 is the basic design language cranked up to 11. Why make do with one Flying-A badge when you can have two? Why have two headlamps when you can three? Blank bit of bodywork? Add even more chrome! The result is a wonderfully awful caricature of a ‘Forties Studebaker based around the mechanical parts of an Austin van. What’s not to like?

3) Citroën XM

Citroen XMI keep meaning to do a big article about why exactly I like hydropneumatic Citroëns so much, but that’s for another time. It goes without saying that I want to own some sort of ‘proper’ Citroën at some point but which one to go for? The whole classic Citroën ownership experience is based around the fact that they offer a uniquely sublime combination of handling and ride comfort when they work but at any moment they can slump to their knees in a puddle of green oil. Given that, why not go for the most technically ambitious one that, when it works, can corner like a Lotus and ride like a Rolls-Royce? Plus it’s wedge shaped and has a strange steering wheel. The only real question is whether to go for the vast estate version (the only thing better than a hydropneumatic Citroën is a hydropneumatic Citroën estate) or the saloon/hatchback which has two rear windows, one inside the other. I can’t work out why, but I need to find out.

4) MG Midget

MidgetFor all my crippling like of gutless, softly-sprung cars I can actually enjoy a good thrash in a properly engaging convertible. Now it’s the summer I’m starting to have dangerous thoughts about owning a proper convertible with proper handling, not a Citroën 2CV.  If we’re talking classics, then it has to be an MG Midget. The other contender is the Triumph Spitfire but while all the talk of ‘getting the tail out to play’ and ‘having a little ‘moment’ on the roundabout’ on the way to work may be entertaining at first it gets tiresome after a while because you’re continually having to rein the car in. Something grippy like a Midget can be hooned to within an inch of its life in perfect safety, which is ultimately much more fun, in my opinion. Plus if you’re going to have an MG, which is famous for its small, basic, rorty roadsters, get the smallest, most basic ones. Plus they have endless opportunity for a little modification and tinkering. A win all round, really.

5) Vauxhall Astra GTE

Astra GTEI can blame my fascination with British Leyland tin on the fact that I was brought up with them and that it wasn’t until upsettingly late in life that I realised that not everyone thought that the Austin Maestro was a good car. I have no explanation for my attraction to old Vauxhalls, but it is there none the less.  The ‘droop snoot’ era ones are my favourite but they didn’t do a hot Cavalier and the sporting Chevettes will forever be out of my price range. That leaves the next best thing- a first generation Astra GTE. One of the first generation of hot hatches (and therefore one of the best) with all the cheese and white colour-coding that makes ‘Eighties cars so glorious, but without the massive ‘scene tax’ that any old Ford with a performance badge brings with it.


What The F-Type Means For Land Rover

For a blog that concerns itself mainly with cars from the dark, beige-clad days of the ‘Seventies, I don’t feel it’s too remiss of me to take a whole two weeks to do what everyone else on the internet seems to have done already, which is talk about the Jaguar F-Type.

Jag F-TypesThe reviews have been universally positive, occasionally verging onto the ecstatic. The F-Type is sure to be yet another big seller for Jaguar Land Rover (which is setting sales records with almost tedious regularity at the moment) and very good for the status and condition of British car manufacturing as a whole.

Going by past form I won’t even get to set foot in an F-Type until it’s 30 years old and metallic silver has become a desperately uncool colour that people laugh at as they drive by in their heliotrope-coloured VW Golf Mk16s (which I imagine will by then be the size of a current Bentley Mulsanne). Therefore I can’t offer any opinion on the F-Type as a car. It sounds like it’s a very good one since the only consistent complaint is that the boot isn’t very big. By the standards of past Jaguars that isn’t a flaw at all.

What I can do is talk about the Land Rover Defender. Bear with me!

Land Rover are currently working on the long, long, long overdue replacement for the Defender, which is a vehicle launched in the early ‘Eighties which was based on a vehicle from the ‘Forties’ and used bits of a car from the ‘Seventies. It (and its direct predecessors, the Series models) provides the core of Land Rover’s image, from which every other model derives its credibility. It is, unjustifiably in my view, hailed as a ‘design icon’ and has an ardent enthusiast following.

2013 LR DefenderThe background noise of discontented grumbling about the present and future Land Rover range that underpins the LR enthusiast scene erupted into a full bellow last year when Land Rover revealed the DC100 concept cars which were the first results of Project ICON, the company’s long-term programme to replace the Defender.

From the vitriol that erupted on some parts of the internet you’d have thought that Gerry McGovern had personally deposited a flaming bag of dog poop on the bonnet of every Defender out there with a ‘One Life Live It’ sticker on the windscreen (come to think of it…). The underlying premise of all of this was that the DC100 was too modern. It was too complicated and it would be useless at carrying hay bales up a Welsh mountainside. Given that there are some in Landy fraternity who seem to believe that ‘proper Land Rovers’ ended when they introduced a heater as an option back in 1954 you can imagine what they made of a concept car with a sonar water-crossing-depth-measurer built into the grille badge.

DC100sThe key complaint, rather interestingly, was that it “didn’t look like a Defender”. For people who always claim that proper Land Rovers are about doing roughty-toughty outdoors work and being fixable with a roll of baling twine and a set of Mole grips they seem to get very hung up on the aesthetics.

Personally, as a long-time Land Rover enthusiast (I own a Barbour jacket and everything!) I don’t really care what the replacement Defender looks like, but about what it can do. The original Land Rover was never designed with its looks in mind and the vehicle evolved along strictly functional lines- the barrel side to cover a wider track, the flat front to accommodate the V8 engine, the air intake on the wing to feed the turbocharged diesels, the wheel arch extensions to cover the even wider track, the deletion of the scuttle flaps (but retaining the pressings) because the new dashboard didn’t need the flaps anyway, and so on.

The other thread running through a lot of the grumblings down at the Radius Arms or wherever the Bogshire & District Land Rover Club meet to debate free-wheel hubs and how best to apply chequerplate panels to unnecessary bits of the bodywork is that if only Land Rover focused on making ‘proper’ Land Rovers again (rather than, you know, globally successful products like the Range Rover Evoque) then everything will be wonderful. The idea that, having passed over it the first time it was on sale, the world is just waiting to buy hoards of 300Tdi Defenders again is touching but fails to really account for the fact that the world has moved on.

HUE 166In the ‘Sixties a lot of people wanted a very basic, very uncomfortable, very slow 4×4 that they could strip down with two spanners and that had an engine that would run for thousands of miles lubricated only by whatever oil could be tapped from the nearest road-side tree in the African bush, that would carry a ton of ground-nuts across the Sahara desert and much else.

The Defender is still (pretty much) that vehicle and Land Rover sells 15,000 of them a year. Contrast that with the 600,000 Hiluxes that Toyota sells across the globe each year. Coupled that to the 400,000-odd Mitsubishi L200s and the similar number of Mazda B50s, Nissan D22s and Ford Rangers that find ready buyers throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, rural Asia, South America, Australia and the Middle East, and then remember that a good chunk of those Defender sales are going to people in Chelsea who specify leather bucket seats and forged alloy wheels and you’ll begin to get an impression of how irrelevant the Defender, for all its charm, appeal and undoubted ability, is to most people.

Since the DC100 unveiling Land Rover have issued a slew of press released which are gradually fleshing out what the real ‘new Defender’ will be like. For a start it won’t look like the DC100. Land Rover are consulting buyers around the world as to what they’re demands from a utility vehicle are. The buzz-words are ‘capable, useable, abuseable [which I don’t think is a real word] and adaptable’. That all sounds very Defender-ish to me.

So what as the F-Type got to do with all of this?

F-TypeAs the name implies the F-Type is the successor to the E-Type, which is Jaguar’s equivalent of the Defender. It is the car from the company’s past that made it what it is, and to which every product that followed it has been (however rightly or wrongly) compared with.

E-TypeThere has been some mild criticism of the F-Type’s looks- both that it doesn’t look enough like an E-Type and that it doesn’t look enough like a Jaguar. Looks schmooks, I say. The key is in the name. Jaguar aren’t making a retro revival of the E-Type (as with how the MINI relates to the Mini), but a successor. Hence why it’s an F-Type, because F follows E. It’s just a Jaguar sports car, but one with its own identity that approaches the need and wants of people in 2013, not 1961. Yes, it has a few mild styling cues from the E-Type but its stance is totally different (it’s almost as wide as it is long, unlike the E-Type with its weird Commer van-like body overhang) and, joy of joys, it doesn’t have an oval grille, faired in headlamps, bonnet louvers or any other retro nonsense.

F-Type noseIt is a new Jaguar, not a recreation of an old one for the sake of tradition or the whims of enthusiasts, and it seems to be all the better for it.  What it is a very good, very modern sports car with a Jaguar badge, just like the E-Type was back in the ‘Sixties. That makes the F-Type a much truer successor to the E-Type than any backwards-looking pastiche could ever be.

The best thing about it is that the design office behind the F-Type will soon be thrashing out the final design for the Defender replacement. If they judge it as well as they have with the Jag then I think JLR will have another well-deserved success on their hands.

F-Type and Range Rover


In Defence Of: The Audi A2

Who would have thought that this blog, as it slogs towards its 1st birthday like a Perkins-powered Mk1 Transit climbing a motorway gradient, would be defending an Audi? Audi is probably the antithesis of this blog’s content, with its tedious cookie-cutter design, rather dishonest brand positioning, its habit of letting its buyers spec a 2-litre diesel hatchback with a ‘Sportline’ cosmetic pack and increasingly flaky mechanical quality. There’s nothing different, innovative, interesting exciting or even that capable. The cars are just cynically-branded commercial products to let VW squeeze a few more Euros out of its corporate platforms.

It wasn’t always this way. Although they’d never admit it in public, almost all of VW’s current success comes from Audi (or Auto Union). When VW was about to go bankrupt because it was only building Beetle-based biscuit tins that no one really wanted to buy they bought up Auto Union and used their existing water-cooled engine family and front-wheel drive technology to create the Passat and, much more importantly, the Golf. From that time onwards one of the most distinctive and engineering-led car producers in the world was doomed to become a corporate badge-swapping exercise.

With one exception, which is, of course, the Audi A2. The A2 is generally regarded as a sales disaster that lost Audi a huge amount of money on what was, on the face of it, a family hatchback that looked like a slug  and seemed to sell mainly to old people and lecturers at university engineering departments.

Audi A2In case you hadn’t guessed yet, I reckon there’s more to the A2 than that. The best way to put the case forward is to go through the familiar three questions:

1) Is It A Bad Design?

Short answer- no. To expand on that statement a little, I would say that the A2 was the best pure car design of the 1990s (with the possible exception of the Honda Insight) and could credibly be described as the most innovative car design of the past 30 years.

The A2 was, and is, a wonderful expression of functional design. It was intended to be a highly fuel-efficient car and, like all the best designs, it arose from a functional need rather than simply an intent to fill a gap in the market. The A2’s design brief was to transport four people between Stuttgart and Milan at normal motorway cruising speeds on a single tank of fuel. This was then expanded into a technical exercise by Audi to develop the most fuel-efficient conventional car ever made.

The A2 was designed and built with almost obsessive attention to three things- a low weight, a spacious interior and aerodynamic efficiency. To do this it used an aluminium ‘space frame’ structure with entirely non-structural aluminium body panels.The frame is made from extruded single castings of aluminium laser-welded together (traditional welding adds more metal and thus more weight). The entire structural element of the car could be picked up by two people and the side panel (A-pillar, top rail and D-pillar) weighed only two kilos per side. A base-spec A2 weighed only 890 kilos- about the same as a Rover Mini.

A2 frameThe A2’s ‘distinctive’ looks were derived from its aerodynamics. The side profile is close to the ideal tear-drop shape with a blunt nose, tapering roofline and a Kamm tail. The slab sides and rounded corners that make it look so odd were key to providing it with the world’s lowest drag coefficient for a production car (0.25 Cd). This was also the reasoning behind the A2’s most infamous feature, it’s ‘sealed for life’ engine compartment. By doing away with the usual bonnet and front end design Audi could reap huge gains in aerodynamics. Instead the A2 had the ‘service hatch’ – the blanked ‘grille’ panel between the headlights which flipped down to reveal the fluid reservoirs and the dipstick. In fact the A2’s engine was readily accesible through a lift-off top panel which was screwed down against a rubber seal so it didn’t produce uneccesary drag.

A2 service hatchThe minimalist structure of the A2 also meant that it yielded an almost unsurpassed amount of interior space for a car of its size (it was about the same length as a contemporary Nissan Micra). The structural platform was built so that a great deal of the car’s parts such as the fuel tank, the battery, the spare wheel and a great deal of the electrics could be placed within the under-floor void leaving the passenger space an almost perfect cube, complete with a flat floor. The A2 had more bootspace than an A3 of the same era. The rear footwells were let into the underfloor void so that there was impressive headroom in the rear despite the tapering roofline. The unused parts of the platform void were formed into storage bins.

A2 interiorAll this function-led design created a car that, while it could never be described as pretty, was certainly timeless. The A2 did have some basic styling, largely inherited from the same minimalist school of thought that produced the original Audi TT. Like that car, I reckon you could launch an A2 now in 2013 and it would still look as fresh now as it did back in 1999.

2) Was The Design Executed Properly?

It’s an Audi, so of course it was. The A2 was dazzingly successful when compared to its brief. By some measures it remains the most fuel-efficient production car ever made and it still holds numerous records for a conventional car without an electric or hybrid drivetrain. The most efficient version, the 1.2 TDI with a 3-cylinder engine in ‘3L’ (which in itself was a cutting-edge design being a turbodiesel engine that weighed less than 100kg in working trim) was the first car to record a fuel consumption of less than 3 litres/100km (or over 94 MPG!) in the German government tests. It also produced CO2 emissions of under 90g/km over a decade before such figures began to be seen again in the motor industry.

Audi A2 profileThe same model could record cruising fuel consumption figures of 140 MPG in certain conditions and one such car won a fuel economy rally with an average consumption over the entire course of 107 MPG.

Of course the 3L was the headline-grabbing eco model, and carried with it distinctly mediocre performance with a 0-60 time of over 14 seconds and a top speed of barely over 100 MPH. None the less the inherent efficiencies of the design meant that even the more peppy 1.4 and 1.6 petrol engines could reach MPG figures in the high 40s. The two tunes of 1.4 TDI could both return over 60 MPG.

A2 engine

The A2 wasn’t just about miserly running costs, though. It’s extreme lightness meant that it was remarkably nimble and sharp to drive and it benefited hugely from the combined might of Audi and Volkswagen’s knowledge on how to make decent-handling cars. Road testers almost uniformly expressed suprise (sometimes verging onto amazement) about how the car cornered and gripped so well, but this is, of course, a natural benefit of a light car with minimal inertia.

Audi A2 driving

3) Was It The Right Design?

This is where it all starts to go wrong. While the A2 was a superb piece of design taken in isolation, and was a resounding success at meeting its own stated design aims, it was simply a car that no one really wanted. However much people will complain about high fuel costs they generally won’t accept any real changes in their car in order to save a bit of cash. The A2, with its stark appearance and ruthlessly efficient design was too much of an oddball for the mass market, especially when wearing a badge that had been formed into a by-word for safe and conventional executive motoring.

The A2 was also incredibly expensive. It had been designed with little regard to cost, with the development team being told to make a ‘small Audi, not a cheap Audi’. The car’s aluminium construction was hugely expensive to make and it made almost no use of the VW parts bin which meant it had no economy of scale. People who want to save money on fuel don’t generally have the means to buy a quirky but expensive gadget (which is essentially what the A2 was) and the sort of people who could afford an Audi didn’t want a small one.

Audi A2 X2 AUDAudi did price the A2 as keenly as it could afford but even then it only made money on the most lavishly-equipped ones and if everyone had bought the most basic, fuel-efficient model (the one that underpinned the A2’s complete raison d’etre) it would have been completely unviable. It soldiered on as a bizarre sort of halo model for Audi’s “Vorsprung Durch Technik” ethos until 2005 when it was axed. The axing of the A2 was in fact the very first thing that Bernd Pischetsrieder (he who doomed the Rover 75 by bad-mouthing the company that built it, in public, during its launch party) did when he became VW CEO.


There we have it. The A2 is a brilliant car, but a pointless one.

There are other things that can be said in its defence. It’s design approach was almost unique in the 1990s and is now even more extraordinary. The style of designing a car for a function rather than a marketing niche is distinctly old fashioned. As such the A2 can make a decent claim to be the spiritual successor to three iconic cars:

– The Mini – With its ingenious packaging, clever construction and entertaining handling that came entirely by accident rather than by a concious decision to make the car ‘sporty’ the A2 embodied much more of the engineering spirit behind the BMC Mini than the BMW MINI does.

– The Citroen 2CV – No car since the 2CV has combined engineering innovation and ruthless simplicity in the name of achieving economy than the A2. I would hesitantly put forward the A2 as an embodiment of the entire ‘proper Citroen’ way of doing things- offering ordinary motorists a technologically superior product and hang the expense.

– The NSU Ro80 – Again, no other German car (especially from NSU’s modern descendants in the VW Group) has combined function, elegance and innovation in such an effective way.

The A2 doesn’t really need to be defended in and of itself. It’s not so much that people thought it was a bad car. It just seems that few people realise quite what an extraordinary car it really was.




I Don’t Like Bad Cars, Honest!

People often accuse me of having terrible taste in cars. “Jack-” they say, “you have terrible taste in cars”. This doesn’t particularly bother me because someone’s likes and dislikes are, by definition, a personal and subjective thing.

However a recent event made me do something of a mental double-take because I shocked even myself with the apparent poverty of my automotive aspirations. To put it in stark black and white- I had a choice before me to drive a Ferrari 308 or a Morris Marina. And I chose the Marina.

Morris Marina

People go their whole lives with the dream of being chucked the keys to a slinky red car with a prancing horse on the front, and without a moment’s hesitation I’d passed it up for the opportunity to drive what is widely regarded as one of the worst cars ever made, built by a company whose badge didn’t depict a rampant stallion but a cow going for a gentle dip in a river.

Morris and Ferrari Logos

Granted, the 308 isn’t really anyone’s dream Ferrari, but it’s a Ferrari none the less. A choice between a crap Ferrari and a Marina is like being given the choice between listening to a T’Pau album or a looped recording of someone scraping a fork across a plate.

So, has this moment of dazzling self-awareness made me spring forth from my house and go running down the street to the nearest VW dealership, shouting to all passers-by “I HAVE SEEN THE LIGHT! HALLEUJAH!!!” ?

No, but it did make me think about why I like the cars that I do.

Since this blog has been running for almost a year the general mission statement should be clear by now- Good Cars Are Boring. It’s a nice pithy phrase but my car fancies are bit more subtle than that.

I don’t only like crap cars, and I certainly don’t actively dislike cars that are good. I DEFINITELY don’t like cars that are considered bad out of some horrible post-modern sense of irony. I think it’s easier to try and do this through the medium of snappy sub-headings.


I cannot think of a single car, good or bad, old or modern, that I would pass on the opportunity to drive. Had the chance to drive that Ferrari 308 been offered in isolation I’d have leapt on it- it’s a fucking Ferrari, after all!  I’d like to drive as many different types of car as possible but I have only a finite time in which to do so.

Why waste that time driving dull stuff? What burning question is driving a Nissan Bluebird going to answer? Am I really going to be the first person in history to drive a BMW E30 and come away with a conclusion other than “it’s very good, but it’s a bit boring and it’s so low-specced I’m surprised it comes with four tyres as standard?”

BMW E30“If we remove this windscreen, we’ll be able to charge people for it as an optional extra.”

But a Ferrari could never be described as dull. Moving on.


By ‘great’ I mean the size of the car’s reputation, good or bad. Let’s consider the Ferrari v. Morris issue. The 308 is a bit of a non-entity- it was a cheap, and not particularly good, Ferrari when it was new, and it still is today. It’s not controversial, it’s not exciting, it’s not a motoring milestone.

The Marina, on the other hand, may be a bargain-basement car that handles with all the finesse of an over-excited Springer Spaniel on a laminate floor, but it’s a car that I feel needs to be experienced. It is infamous as a car so dangerous that road testers virtually begged British Leyland not to put it on sale because it was an understeery death-trap.

I feel this is a car that I need to drive. Can it really be as bad as it’s claimed (answer- yes)? It’s a benchmark for automotive crapulence that hasn’t really been surpassed, in this hemisphere, at least. As someone interested in ‘cars’ in general I want to drive the full spectrum and the Marina is a much more unusual opportunity in that respect than a middling Ferrari. In fact, and slightly beside the point, the Marina is a much rarer car than the Ferrari.

This doesn’t just apply to the cars with reputations for being awful. I have no great love of VW Golfs but I’d take the chance to drive a Mk1 or Mk2 GTI in a heartbeat because it’s one of those cars that everyone raves about and it’s a milestone in automotive history.


The other factor in play with the Marina and the Ferrari is what they represent. Leaving aside the issue of which is the better car (the Ferrari, if anyone was wondering, and I can say that without having driven it!), this is what, to me, makes one more interesting than the other. Good cars are not necessarily interesting cars and vice versa.

Maybe this is my former existence as an archaeologist coming through, but a do find myself treating cars as artefacts of their time and what they say about the world that created them. The Marina is worth experiencing simply because it encapsulates so perfectly the problems faced by the British car industry at the time it was made- the lack of funding, the absence of any real notion of marketing, the loose grip on cost control, the poor attention to the little but important details and so on. It also speaks volumes about what people in the early ‘Seventies wanted from a bread-and-butter car. For all its handling and quality issues the Marina was Britain’s second best-selling car several years running and it was the third British car to sell over a million units. That wouldn’t happen to such a ‘flawed’ car today but it shows where the priorities of the average punter in 1972 were (namely “How many artificial materials is the interior made of?”) and how that has radically changed over the intervening decades.

TrabantTo take a more extreme example- the much maligned Trabant. By all accounts it is a terrible car as a driving experience but as a piece of social history (and, strangely, as an engineering exercise) it is fascinating and I would probably opt to drive one over a decadent capitalist Ferrari if the choice arose. The Ferrari doesn’t really have any interesting story behind it. Like every Ferrari before or since it simply proves that rich people will part with a lot of cash for a car that flatters their ego and makes a nice noise, even if it’s built no better than the average Morris.

I couldn’t really give two hoots about the Hillman Imp’s rally success or how great it is at drifting sideways in corners, but as a representative of a bizarre but well-intentioned industrial policy in 1950s Britain, a bold attempt to compete with the Mini and the car that really started the Rootes Group on its long and terminal decline it’s an interesting car.

This is, I think, where a lot of my penchant for ‘crap’ cars comes from. It’s not that I so much like the cars themselves but I find them interesting. Bad cars are the result of a failure somewhere (or, in BL’s case, everywhere) in the system that created it and that’s much more intriguing than a success.


I also tend to like cars from quite a ‘techy’ angle. This is why I have such a fascination with old Citroens. From a design and engineering perspective they are unendingly interesting and satisfying. A car that does something different or unusual from a mechanical or design point of view is, almost by definition, more interesting that yet another front-wheel drive Macpherson-strutted monocoque 5-door hatchback. But of course that formula is so common because it works well.

NSU and AudiInteresting but rubbish on the left, boring but very good on the right, and pretty damn awesome in the middle.

Any attempt to do something different (any old Citroen, the aforementioned Hillman Imp, the NSU Ro80, any British Leyland car with a Moulton suspension system, Variomatic DAFs, most Saabs, and the Rover P6) carries the risk of failure and even if it works from an engineering perspective there’s the very real chance that the public simply won’t take to the idea, the car will flop and it will be branded ‘a bad car’ when really it is no such thing. This is why the only modern(ish) Audi that I would remotely consider buying is the much-maligned A2 which may look like a slug with a bad case of indigestion but probably the only car built in the last 20 years (with the honourable exception of the Honda Insight) to be genuinely engineering-led. This doesn’t stop it being called crap, though.

Audi A2


Having read all of that, you probably think that I’m some tedious intellectual who can only admit to liking a car after a great deal of chin-stroking and pondering its philosophical implications.


All of the above is simply the result of some introspection about why I chose to drive a Morris over a Ferrari. It doesn’t mean that the obvious attractions of a car- good looks, a great engine noise, speed, handling and so on don’t hold any appeal. One of my favourite cars of all time (and one that I definitely would choose to drive in favour of a Marina) is the Corvette, probably the most superficial and least intellectual car ever made. So what? It’s awesome!


It also doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate a car that is plain ‘good’ without having to write a [checks word count] 1,593-word explanation as to why it’s likeable.

I’m going to end this post on a Top Gear-style bombshell. Had it not been for crippling insurance premiums my first car would have been a F-reg Volkswagen Golf Mk2 1.6CL rather than a shonky Series III Land Rover. When that emptied its guts onto the road for the second time I ran around for a month in a ‘bread van’ Mk2 Polo 1.1 and it was one of the most enjoyable cars I’ve driven on a daily basis.


So, really, I don’t know what I’m talking about.


The Halo Effect

It’s strange the effect that time and fate can have on a car’s reputation. I happen to believe that a few decades can absolve a car of pretty much any failing simply because by the time a car is 20 years old no one is going to be buying it with the same expectations as they would if it was new. Of course the manufacturer’s don’t want to wait that long and spend many millions of pounds trying to craft their products’ reputation before it has even hit the showroom.

Clever marketing can do wonders for the perception of a car (think ‘Vorsprung Durch Technik’) but one of the most effective ways of rep-building is to combine marketing and the product itself into a ‘halo model’. This is a special version of the standard model which by offering much more performance (the usual choice) or luxury, places itself in a whole new market and creates lots of favourable press reviews. All being well this effect will trickle down to the even the lowliest models in the range and the car’s reputation as a whole will be given a nice boost.

In terms of classic cars this can have one of three effects, and it’s those that I’d like to talk about in this blog. Let’s start with the obvious one:

1) The Lingering Halo Effect

This is where the Halo Effect has worked so well that even 20 or 30 years after the car was on sale it’s desirability is almost entirely down to the halo models.

The best example of this I can think of is the humble Vauxhall Chevette.

ChevetteIn standard form it was, well, very standard. It was a neatly-styled, rear-wheel drive variant of GM’s global T-car platform that was only noteable by being the first ‘British’ supermini (i.e. a small car with a hatchback) and for being the first product of the Vauxhall works at Ellesmere Port. Apart from that it had nothing particular to recommend it and nothing particularly wrong with it, either.

None the less the surviving Chevettes carry a definite ‘cred’ these days far beyond what you’d expect from any other mass-produced rot-box from the ‘Seventies. That can be laid squarely at the door of the Chevette’s HS and HSR versions.

These weren’t true halo models because Vauxhall only made them as homologation specials to allow the Chevette to go rallying. None the less the result was, I think, one the best looking cars of any type of all time and plenty of other people agrees. The Chevette HS had a 2.3 slant-four wedged under its droop-snoot and won plenty of fans because of its rather lairy and tail-happy nature.

Chevette HSAlthough only 800 HS and HSR models were built (out of over 400,000 Chevettes) the Halo Effect worked so well that any of the hatchback Chevettes, even a lowly 1.3 L, carry a certain desirability and status in the classic car world. The downside of this is that most of them have had to suffer the indignity of being turned into terrible HS replicas done on the cheap and with wildly inappropriate engines.

Exactly the same applies to another distinctly middling British rear-wheel drive hatchback of the period, the Chrysler Sunbeam. This was Chrysler’s panic reaction to the supermini trend and was made by chopping a few inches out of a Hillman Avenger. It didn’t even have a proper bootlid because that would take time and money- it just had a hinged glass panel.

SunbeamLike the Chevette the Sunbeam’s rear-drive layout encouraged its builders to take it rallying and they beat a path to the door of Lotus. The Nutters of Norfolk shoehorned their Twin Cam engine into the otherwise unremarkable Linwood shopping trolley to create the Talbot Lotus Sunbeam which is still found in competition series. The very few surviving standard Sunbeams still manage to carry a slight whiff of desirability (or, at least, credibility) because as dull and as asthmatic as they may be, they still formed the basis for what it regarded as one of the best rally cars of all time.

LotusSunbeamHonourable mention should also be made of the BMW E30 which is often touted as one of the best ‘driver’s cars’ of all time on the back of the M3 performance version. This overlooks the fact that the E30 3-Series was also available in some distinctly basic and lethargic versions at the bottom end of its range that could be out-run and out-specced by a Rover SD3. This doesn’t stop people paying far more for a rubbish old BMW 316 than any logic would dictate.

I was also going to mention almost any old Ford here, but looking into the Ford ‘scene’ a bit it seems that Fords of any sort instantaneously become valuable classics as soon as they turn 20 years old, which has nothing to do with the presence of any halo model in the range (Note to Self: Explore ‘The Essex Effect’ in more detail in the future)

2) The Faded Halo Effect

This is where the halo effect didn’t really work, or at least has proved not to work in the long term. Here the halo model itself is very desirable but the lesser cars carry none of their specced-up siblings desirability or value.

The most obvious contender here is the most successful halo model of all time, the VW Golf GTI. The GTI is, rightly, considered a milestone in motoring history but it’s real effect was to take Volkswagen from being a builder of slow, under-equipped and distinctly boring cars to being a builder of slow, under-equipped and distinctly boring cars that people were willing to pay a lot of money for.

GolfThis was entirely down to the GTI which gave the ‘people’s car’ a dash of upmarket yuppie appeal that allowed it to become the cultural icon that it remains today. While it allowed Volkswagen to market itself as a brand much higher in prestige than it really had any right to be the effect has worn off in the long term.

Mk1 and Mk2 GTIs are worth increasingly ridiculous amounts of money. Meanwhile the standard 1300 and 1600 models can be bought for a three-figure sum that would just about buy you a pile of rusty parts in the vague shape of a car with a GTI badge clinging on for dear life to the remains of the bootlid. These cars still have the same qualities that made people by VWs in the first place- sound design, faultless engineering, good build quality, ease of driving- but none of the desirability.

Golf GTIAnother contender in the ‘Eighties hot hatch market has suffered the same fate but to a more extreme degree. The MG Maestro 2.0 was (as the BL marketing people never let anyone forget for an instant) slightly faster than the Golf GTI and was praised for its straight-line performance and ‘entertaining’ (i.e. rather unsettled) handling. The turbocharged version is even accepted by dedicated Leyland-bashers as a rather desirable road-weapon, although some of this is down to a slight ‘kitsch ‘Eighties Irony effect’ rather than the halo. None the less a Maestro Turbo in top condition is worth £3000. The common-or-garden Austin versions of the Maestro are lucky to command a tenth of that. Just as the standard Golf has all the same qualities as the GTI except its speed, the  performance Maestro can be seen as having all the bad points of the standard model (odd looks, iffy build quality, temperamental electrics, a tendency for the body panels to fizz in the rain) with only outright performance showing any improvement. Yet it’s worth 10 times as much. The perfect halo model!


3) The Reverse Halo Effect

This is where the image of the standard car was so woeful that the halo model was dragged down by it, even if it was quite good. The result today is that they are seen as no better than any other version of the same car, with values to match.

Take, for example, the ‘hot hatch’ version of the Austin Allegro 3, the infamous Equipe.

EquipeAs a small performance car it wasn’t too bad- it had over 90 horsepower, a 5-speed gearbox, a tartan seat pattern, orange and red side stripes and natty turbine-effect alloy wheels. On paper and in performance terms it was a match for the omni-desirable Golf GTI.

Of course, it could never be. The Equipe still had the same looks as the rest of the Allegro range and combined with the silver and orange colour scheme this made it look like a helium balloon left over from a party that had begun to go flat. The Allegro’s reputation in its final years was so rock-bottom that no one with any sense was going to buy a performance version to enhance their image when they could buy…almost anything else.

AllegroThe result is that the Equipe is now only desirable to people who like Allegros of any sort. Leyland’s podgy company-wrecker has actually begun to gather a strange sort of desirability in recent years but that’s mainly a hipster-ish ironic thing and the Equipe is no more or less desirable in general than any other Allegro variant.

A (dis)honourable mention also goes to the high-performance versions of the Vauxhall Viva which, unlike their Ford equivalents or Vauxhall’s later efforts, have had absolutely no positive effect on pretty much anything. Same goes for any ‘Eighties Citroen GTi model. Finally, there’s the most extreme halo model of all, the MG Metro 6R4. It doesn’t really count because the 6R4 is really a barely-controllable explosion on wheels that happens to look a bit like a Metro, but even that didn’t manage to improve the standard Metro’s image one iota.

Metro6R4The lesson seems to be that if your car uses nitrogen as its springing medium, don’t try and make a performance version because however good it is people won’t take it seriously. More fool on them, I say.




Disco Fever

I don’t talk about Land Rovers that much on this blog. Which is strange because I have had a Land Rover of some sort all of my driving ‘career’ (a horrible phrase, but it sounds better than the alternative of ‘driving life’) and the vast majority of the miles I’ve driven have been behind the wheel of a Lode Lane product. Land Rovers were my first, real, introduction to the world of old cars and their combination of obvious, almost unforgiveable flaws and hugely engaging driving experience really set the foundations for my opinion that almost any car can be enjoyed if you approach things with the right mindset. That, of course, is what this blog is about.

That may be why Land Rovers haven’t featured very much. They’re qualities, good and bad, are widely known and understood already. It’s not much of a revelation to write 2000 words and conclude that a Series III Landy has all the dynamic experience of a castor-mounted wardrobe but is still a brilliant working tool and a fun car to drive. People have been saying that for 60 years and it’s very obvious. This blog abhors the obvious.

To that end, today I am offering what I hope is a less-than-obvious statement for your consideration. Namely that the car pictured below may very well be the best car the British motor industry has ever made:

1989 Land Rover DiscoveryOnce you’ve picked yourself off the floor and wiped the mouthful of Well-Deserved Friday Night Evening Beverage off your computer screen, allow me to explain myself.

The default answer to ‘what is best British car ever made?’ is ‘The Mini’ or ‘The Jaguar E-type’, but I beg to differ. One was an innovative and cleverly-designed car that proved to be riddled with flaws that were never fixed. It was an engineering dead end, a financial millstone for its maker and it ended up as something of an irrelevance existing for its own sake. The E-type was a conventional car in eye-catching bodywork that allowed its buyers to appear much richer than they actually were because it was ridiculously cheap compared to its competition. It was designed to be a fashion accessory and a plaything, nothing more.

If the hallmarks of a good (or great) car are merely things like market success, financial success, and longevity then the original Discovery is already well up the rankings. It was on sale for 9 years and was the best selling 4×4 in the UK and Europe for nearly all of them. It made a huge amount of money for Land Rover, giving the firm the foundations for its current success and almost instantly turning around the near-death times of the ‘Eighties. It founded a model line that is still going strong with every generation being hailed as a market leader. Over a million Discos have been sold.

Discovery 4 and Discovery Series I This is all very worthy and I don’t expect anyone could deny that the Discovery is a successful car. But, as numerous British Leyland and Rootes Group products proved, cars don’t have to be good (or mediocre) to sell well. So why is the Disco such an unsung hero?

It’s because it’s a vehicle that needs no excuses. The standard liturgy for most followers of the British motor industry is “it’s a good car apart from…”. This blog has plenty of examples, most of which merely prove that if you need to write several thousand words explaining why something’s not as bad as people think it is then they probably had a point.

The Discovery Series I is just a very good 4×4. End of. It does everything a large mid-range 4×4 is expected to do and it does it exceptionally well. It is a towing vehicle without real compare. It is one of the best off-road vehicles there is short of something with caterpillar tracks. It has a hugely capacious load bay and an interior that offers literal armchair comfort. It will seat five people easily and seven at a pinch. It was available with reliable engines that were perfectly designed for what they were intended to do.

300Tdi Land Rover DiscoveryThe Discovery was such a complete package that it achieved its market success despite arriving very late on its own scene. Launched in 1989 the likes of the Mitsubishi Shogun and the Isuzu Trooper had been on the market for nearly a decade. Despite being based on the Range Rover’s underpinnings and using other components from cars as illustrious as the Maestro, the Freight Rover, the Marina and the Metro the Disco immediately wiped the floor with its well-established rivals.

Yes, it has its well-known flaws. The early LT77 gearboxes wore out quickly because, apparently, no one at Land Rover realised that spinning components need an oil supply. The early 300Tdis chewed their cambelts. The fit and finish isn’t particularly brilliant and the ergonomics are a bit crap.

1998 Discovery InteriorNone of this matters because the detail flaws were quickly worked out and the inherent ones don’t detract from the ability of the Disco to do what it is meant to do. I haven’t mentioned the real problem with an early Disco these days, which is the rampant rust. The newest of these cars is now 15 years old and most of those are just starting to get a bit scabby. If a car doesn’t start to rust out until over a decade has passed, especially when you consider that most Discoveries are consigned to a life entirely outdoors, then it doesn’t have a rust problem.

Once ridiculed as the preserve of yuppies and suburbanites the Discovery Series I has become something of a ‘people’s car’. They can be bought for a fraction of the cost of a ‘proper’ Land Rover and you still see plenty of former Chelsea Tractors working hard in their second life as budget workhorses. The mechanical parts and the chassis seem to be good for getting on for 20 years and several hundred thousand miles. Land Rovers were always praised for their ‘classless-ness’ but that is, sadly, a characteristic that is rapidly slipping away. The Defender is now a fashion icon, the Series models are bona fide classics, as are the older Range Rovers. The Freelander is too flawed  to be reincarnated as a cheap vehicular multi-tool and everything else is too new and expensive. Only the old-shape Discos remain as a car that says nothing about you because you’re just using it for its abilities and nothing else.

Land Rover Discovery Series IThink of the Discovery’s fellows in the Rover Group range and it comes out as the only one to be both a good car and a deserved success. Then think a little wider and try and think of another all-British car from the post-war era that was such a total and consistent success over nearly a quarter of a century.

I’m not sure I can.

1998 Land Rover Discovery GS 300Tdi