Thoroughly Modern MINI

I make no apologies for the slew of rather Nuffield-centric content in recent weeks- it’s the centenary of Morris Motors in a couple of weeks and, as I’ve talked about before, I feel that Morris is one the companies more cruelly screwed over by the British Leyland era than most.

    I mentioned in my Morris retrospective that there is a pleasing irony to the whole story that a former part of the Nuffield empire (the Pressed Steel works at Cowley, now BMW Plant Oxford) is busy churning out cars with a name derived from a Morris product (the Mini-Minor), complete with a grille design based on the one developed to distinguish the ‘lesser’ Morris Minis from their Austin counterparts/competitors.

Over a decade since it was introduced the MINI still causes no small controversy amongst classic car enthusiasts. My stance on the matter has always been that the MINI is a very good car but a very poor Mini. I have more general issues with the whole retro car phenomenon which the MINI was largely responsible for kick-starting but this isn’t the time for that. I’ve imposed a rule on myself that I’m not going to talk at length about the MINI as a car until I’ve actually driven one, because until then it’s all second-hand information and guesswork.

MINI RangeI have no qualms about talking about the MINI as a design, though, and that’s where most of my problem with it lies. It simply lacks the technological and design innovation that made its forebear so iconic and successful. The Mini was a clever car designed on ruthlessly functional lines. The MINI is an ordinary car designed around its styling- the complete polar opposite. Yes, that styling is a pretty good update of the original but that’s not what the Mini was about. However I do like the similarity that, while the Mini’s functional looks worked superbly on a small car they just didn’t when applied to larger cars like the 1800 and the Maxi. The MINI suffers the same problem- it’s a neat enough exercise on the original product but applied to the Countryman/Paceman models it makes a Landcrab look elegant and suave.

Alec Issigonis and his full range of cars

It’s like that Ascent of Man poster, only in reverse.

The retro looks aside, it really is the lack of anything new from the engineering point of view that bugs me. Almost every major mechanical and structural system on the original Mini was either a new idea (rubber cone suspension, external body seams, 8-inch wheels) or an existing idea used in a new way (A-Series engine turned sideways). The MINI has none of that. It’s an utterly conventional front-wheel drive small car from the late 20th century. Yes, there some pleasing parallels in that they both use existing and rather old-fashioned engines that were originally design by another company for an entirely different car, but beyond that there is no strand of design thought that connects them. The MINI has no identity of its own, just an update of the original, often to the point where it becomes literally form over function. Like the central speedo. Yes it’s funky and yes, the original one had one too but even Leyland found a few quid to move the instruments in front of the driver because no one could actually read them in their original place. A problem that the MINI also has, and that it solves by fitting an electronic readout on a separate dial in front of the driver where it should have been in the first place. I can think of no better way of summing up the MINI’s problems as a design than that.

MINI InteriorI will quickly reiterate that I don’t criticise or deny the MINI’s success as a product. Rover and BMW’s business logic in going down the retro route can’t be faulted and neither can the resulting car be called anything other than a global (and British-built) sales success. It just grates slightly that it’s with such a cynical and superficial product which uses the badge of a car that started out something wholly non-cynical and non-superficial.

MINIs on the production lineSo that is a brief introduction to Why I Can’t Stop Moaning And Love The MINI.

On the way to the Brooklands Austin-Morris Day, however, something dawned on me. As I thrashed up the A31 in the Metro (now there’s a proper Mini replacement…) I overtook a clearly-Brooklands-bound Morris Minor Convertible. As usual when seeing a Moggie out on the road my thoughts briefly turned to the discussion of whether the Minor, the Mini or the utility Land Rover is the ‘British People’s Car’ (a subject for another day).

Then, looking in the rear view mirror I saw the same (grey) Minor being overtaken by a (grey) R50-model MINI, and it clicked that here were two Oxford-built cars, both of which sold in huge numbers worldwide as everyday family transport. Neither were especially innovative or exciting from a design point of view but they were up-to-date, well executed and sound. If we expand the comparison to take into account all the various versions of the Minor and the MINI, both are available in saloon (sort of…), estate, convertible and van form. Both have attracted a fervent enthusiast following who are prone to personalising and modifying their cars, often in strange ways. On the other hand both were/are also bought simple on their own merits as practical daily drivers. They’re even pretty much the same size.

OSo there you have it. I’ve been thinking about this all wrong. The MINI isn’t the successor to the Mini at all. It’s actually a follow-up act to the Minor

Let’s Go For A Drive: Triumph Toledo 1300

Triumph ToledoAs should be clear by now, the main tenet of this blog is that the worst thing a car can be is boring, and that cars that are generally considered very bad can, in fact, be very interesting and worth appreciating on that level, if nothing else.

To that end I have enthused about how the Austin Allegro is really an engineering masterpiece, why the Citroen 2CV is better than a Mini, why the AMC Pacer was a good idea ruined at the last minute and why the VW Polo Mk2F messed things up by being better than its predecessor.

So what am I to make of a 1973 Triumph Toledo 1300? This is a car with, seemingly, no redeeming features at all either from the perspective of ‘so bad it’s good’ or just outright ‘good’. It’s a three-box saloon car with four doors, a boot, four seats, a tiny engine in the front, a four-speed gearbox in the middle and a beam axle in the back. It is, literally, a car with all the interesting bits taken out because it is based on one of the most interesting Triumphs ever made (the longitudinal engine/front-wheel drive 1300) but with all the quirky bits taken out. It is, really, an utterly generic ‘Seventies saloon car, but being old and British this means that it’s likely to be boring and flaky rather than boring but effective like a German or Japanese car.

Triumph Toledo 1300

I make no bones that I like my cars from a rather ‘techie’ perspective- hence my fascination with hydropneumatic Citroens and my utter disinterest in water-cooled Volkswagens. The Toledo has nothing for me here, so what is it going to be like to drive?


Triumph Toledo 1300 profileBefore we get into that, let us consider the car’s appearance. It may be a generic three-box saloon but it’s a very tidy- no, pretty- design. As with most Triumphs the styling was the work of Michelotti and it was really just a quick revamp of the old round-headlamped 1300/1500 design. The Toledo has the little rectangular lights and thin, wide grille that was fashionable at the time (think Viva HC, Avenger, Cortina Mk2 and so on) and it works well. The styling has some sharp, defined creases like a finely tailored suit but there really is very little to get excited about.

Triumph Toledo 1300The exception is the rear end. The Toledo retained the short, stubby boot of its forebear and coupled to the subtle sloping rear roof line, which ends in a pronounced overhang over the slanted rear screen almost reminiscent of a rear spoiler; this gives the car an almost coupe-like appearance from certain angles. The boot itself is a decent size but, rather like an old Jaguar, the lid is designed so that it obscures most of the aperture even when fully open, limited the size of the objects you can fit through.

Triumph Toledo rearThis particular example is resplendent in Mallard Green, an unexpectedly tasteful green/blue/black colour which contrasts with the chrome and polished steel bumpers and trim parts. Like most ‘Seventies Triumphs the Toledo has ‘over riders’ on the front bumper that actually sit below and behind the bumper, thus performing no useful function whatsoever. The Toledo also suffers from British Leyland’s habit of a different font for every badge- the centre of the grille bears a ‘Toledo’ badge in a nice Swingin’ Sixties rounded text while the boot badge used chunky block capitals. Similarly the Triumph badge on the bonnet lip is in italics while the one on the back is upright. This is an incredibly minor thing to quibble over but I have a pet theory that it was just as much the failure to get the little details right that did for the reputation of BL’s products than any of the big and famous problems. We will touch on this subject later on. In fact, right now.


Triumph Toledo interiorIn my Stag road test I mentioned that Triumph was one of the few components of British Leyland that managed to have something approaching an actual ‘house style’ for their cars, inside and out. Nowhere is this more evident that the inside of the Toledo, which would be immediately familiar to any Spitfire IV, Dolomite, Stag or 2500 driver. In contrast to the monastic minimalism of an Issigonis Austin or Morris the Toledo’s dashboard is luxurious in the extreme, with big slabs of veneered wood and no less than five dials and a warning light cluster (the ‘pie chart’ that found a home in all of Triumph’s products of the time). There’s no brown velour or green Formica here- the thickly-padded seats are plain dark blue cloth with black vinyl facings. The carpets and door trims are more black vinyl, as is the dash top and the window ledges are capped with slabs of stained wood (which don’t appear to have been sanded smooth…). Triumph’s signature white headlining is there which helps brighten the place up a bit and stops the relatively low roof line feeling claustrophobic. The ‘eyeball’ air vents at each front corner- another Triumph design feature- are present and correct.

Triumph Toledo dashboardThe driving position is quite upright (almost Mini-like) but otherwise the driving position is very modern. The pedals are, unusually for a classic Triumph, in front of the driver’s feet and in line with the steering wheel. The gear lever (made of wood effect plastics, in a shade of orange that I’m sure no tree has ever been in real life) falls nicely to hand and you can see most, although not all, of the dials while holding the steering wheel. The major switchgear is neatly arranged along the bottom of the dashboard and all the switches share the same basic look, at odds to the random array of switches, toggles and buttons that were scattered at random across the dashboard of an ADO16 or an Allegro from the same period.

Triumph Toledo gearknobBecause this is a car from the ‘Seventies the little Triumph has one ashtray per person. The Toledo doesn’t have the incredible sense of space of a BMC product but neither is it cramped. This is particularly impressive considering that it is a front-wheel drive design turned into a rear-wheel drive one.

What is even more impressive is the generally feeling of quality. The doors shut with a solid ‘thunk’ that comes as a complete surprise to those of us used to the wheelie-bin like flapping of a Mini door. The panels and trim parts are all securely

On the Move

Triumph ToledoThe little 1.3-litre four-cylinder engine fires up quickly with a dab of choke. This engine has its origins in the days of the Standard Eight and then went on to power the Herald and Spitfire with great success. It has no design features of note other than that the oil filler cap is at the back of the rocker cover rather than the front and it is renowned for sounding like it has loose tappets and a worn camshaft even when in perfect nick. This particular Toledo has just less than 45,000 miles on it and this engine is pretty quiet by Triumph 4-pot standards but still has a definite rattle. Otherwise it is smooth and quiet with just a rasp from a (possibly slightly leaky) exhaust and a bit of fan whine.

Triumph Toledo engineThe clutch is light but this example suffers from a rather hard take-up and more than a little judder. The gearbox, which would later go on to see service in the Morris Marina, is very pleasant to use. It’s by no means a sporty box to use but it has a light, tactile action and it’s easy to navigate between speeds.

The first thing that’s noticeable about the Toledo when pulling away is the remarkable lack of anything that could really be described as performance. The engine is willing and pulls very smoothly and evenly throughout its rev range, but with only 60 horsepower at best this is never going to translate into brisk acceleration. The Toledo trots along smartly enough in the lower two gears but after shifting into third the car gathers speed with some effort. In fast traffic or in a hilly area you need to work the engine hard with lots of use of full throttle and extensive use of the rev range. This particular Toledo has an interesting niggle in that the rev counter briefly sticks at the 3,500 rpm mark which doesn’t help the impression of speed.

None the less, given enough road and a lack of inclines the Toledo will continue to gently gather momentum until it reaches the national speed limit. At these sorts of speeds the other issue is the low gearing but there’s no way the engine could pull anything higher so that is to be expected. The motor is spinning at 4,250rpm at 70mph so refined cruising is off the cards. It will happily maintain that all day, even if it does require some careful forward-planning to avoid the need to lift off for even a fraction of a second, which would mean starting the business of acceleration all over again.

Triumph Toledo 1300What this talk of performance disguises is how generally competent the Toledo is at everything else. It drives very smoothly. It’s comfortable. It handles very sweetly. This is really the biggest surprise but it shouldn’t be when you remember that it is a Triumph, even if it  is the most boring and least sporty one ever made. It may have a rear beam axle held in place by trailing arms made from I-section beams that look suspiciously like off-cuts found in a skip round the back of a warehouse in Canley but it is coil sprung and at the front is Triumph’s well-proven double-wishbone independent suspension. Coupled to the direct and nicely-weighted steering this makes the Toledo surprisingly ‘chuckable’. It handles very well and I don’t mean this in the “No, it does handle well and here’s a 2,000 word engineering essay explaining exactly why even if it doesn’t really feel like it” that Hydragas cars ‘handle well’. It’s just a nicely balanced and grippy rear-wheel drive saloon car. Certainly this is a car where the handling is far more capable than it has any need to be given the modest performance.  Despite the presence of a front anti-roll bar the little Triumph rolls quite a bit but it keeps on gripping and this is crucial to maintaining crucial momentum.

For all its sporting pedigree the car rides very well. It has the classically British setup of soft springing and tight damping meaning that isolated bumps and cambers don’t really make it through to the interior yet the car doesn’t feel wallowy or uncontrolled. Really scabby rural lanes can make the back end get skittish, as you’d expect from a live axle, and a big pothole taken at the wrong angle can induce a bit of bump-steer but otherwise it is very stable. Even over very lumpy and bumpy bits of tarmac the interior’s quality of fit and finish holds true with no rattles or squeaks to speak of.


Before driving the Toledo I had very little opinion of the small Triumph saloons, but after covering 500 miles on all sort of roads, from pottering around rural lanes to a 200-mile motorway jaunt, I will stick my neck out and say that the Toledo/Dolomite may well be the best British Leyland car there is.

Triumph Toledo badgeIt’s not technically impressive but that is part of what makes it so good. It is just a conventional car done very well with neat styling, a reliable engine, a nice gearbox, decent suspension and solid build quality.

A lot of people talk of Triumph as the ‘British BMW’. In that analogy the Dolomite is the 3-Series, the 2500 is the 5-Series and the TR is a Z4. I generally don’t like trying to pin down modern equivalents of classic cars because things have changed so much and it creates unrealistic expectations, but here the comparison is too good to pass up. The Dolomite Sprint is the ‘Seventies version of the BMW M3- a small saloon with race-bred performance and some extravagant styling that helps define the maker’s image. But for every M3 BMW sells today they sell dozens of 318 diesels which could never be described as sporty or fast but which reap the benefits of their maker’s experience to just be sound, pleasant to drive cars for ordinary people. This is what the Toledo 1300. The only real criticism of it is that it is very, very slow but that’s because it was the base model of an extensive range. If you wanted a faster Toledo you bought a 1500 or a 1500TC. If you wanted something with a bigger boot and a dash of sporty style you opted for a Dolomite.

As I mentioned earlier it is the little things that come together to make the Toledo such a capable car. It has an excellent heater and decent fresh air ventilation. It has enough oddments storage to be practical on a long motorway journey. You can hear the radio (Radio 4, Radio 5 and a dozen French music stations on Long Wave) even at a frantic 70mph. It has a heated rear window that works. Uniquely amongst classic cars that I’ve experienced the filler neck will accept the full flow of a petrol pump nozzle and then cut it off when full without discharging a litre or so down the side of the rear wing. It has servo brakes with discs on the front wheels. You can take a 270-degree motorway slip-road at 50mph without worrying that you’ll either slide or fall over. Really it’s a vehicle with all the charm of a classic and all the day-to-day practicality of a modern car.

Compliments don’t really come higher than that.

Triumph Toledo

Cars Ruined By Their Engines – Part Two

Following on from last week’s blog, here are the final three entries in my list of cars that would have been much better had it not been for what was under the bonnet.

1)  Rover ‘R3’ 200

Rover 200Is that bonnet open? Seriously- is that bonnet open??

I could have populated this entire list with Rover Group cars that had the misfortune to be fitted with the K-Series engine in its original form because all of them suffered from the engine’s unfortunate and infamous head-gasket problems.

However I happen to believe that the car most cruelly denied deserved success by the ‘Kettle Series’ was the R3 200 series. The MGF and the Freelander managed to become best-sellers in their respective class despite the engine and the Rover 45 and 75 had more general marketing problems that made the engine largely irrelevant.

The R3 should have done better than it did. It was the first all-Rover car since the Montego (and would go on to have the unenviable distinction of being the last wholly indigenous UK-designed-and-built mass market car) and had to replace both the R8 and the aging Rover Metro. As such it was a rather odd size, straddling the supermini and small family car segments.

The R3 followed the same pattern as the R8 and was priced at a similar level to the higher specifications of Ford Escort and Vauxhall Astra but being much more modern in design and engineering with far superior handling, better refinement and a veneer (literally) of old-world Rover wood-and-leather charm that justified its price premium to many buyers. Following the pattern established by the Montego and the R8 the new 200 eschewed the weird suspension and odd styling of the older BL cars and reaped the benefits of being conventional but well sorted and effective. It still couldn’t compete with Volkswagen and BMW on quality and fit/finish but it didn’t cost nearly as much.

The problem, of course, was the engine. The K-Series had been very well received on its debut in the R8. Its advanced all-alloy single casting construction, modular top end design and extremely low weight made it efficient, free-revving and bestowed sharp handling on the cars it was fitted to. Rover’s Variable Valve Control system was second only to Honda’s VTEC system for producing fast-revving, powerful engines and had the benefit of producing an almost entirely flat torque curve.

KSeriesHGFIt’s really hard to find pictures of K-Series engines in one piece, so here’s one in its natural state.

Unfortunately by the time the R3 came along the K-Series had been redesigned to be produced in higher capacities. Originally available in 1.1- and 1.4-litre versions the second generation was also produced in 1.6- and 1.8-litre capacities and to do this the top deck of the engine was removed to make it an unusual ‘very wet liner’ design. This placed undue stress on the head gasket which, as we all know, failed with alarming speed and regularity. The bigger versions gave the sporting R3 200s rapid performance but all were afflicted with HGF problems which would occur almost perfectly on cue at 60,000 miles or so.

The K-Series’ well publicised problems (and Rover’s reluctance to do anything about it) overshadowed all the company’s products but the R3 was cruelly denied the success that its otherwise sound and reliable design deserved. The fact that the versions fitted with the bombproof L-Series diesel remain popular and desirable today while petrol-engined versions are hard to give away.

2) MGC


Top of the list of Things That Could Make an MGB better- a power bulge in the bonnet.

MG was on something of a high in the 1960s. The MGB had been launched to great acclaim and success worldwide, the evergreen Midget cars were selling well and the brand as a whole was safely on its way to becoming, by the early 70s, the third most valuable brand in the world.

The problems were one of power and one of politics. The power problem was the MGB’s B-Series engine. At 1.8 litres it had reached the limits of its development potential and even with twin carbs and a sharp camshaft it only produced 95 horsepower. That was fine for zipping around British B-roads on a summer’s day but when laden with anti-smog gear for the crucial American market this figure dropped to a distinctly anaemic 75 horses.

At the same time MG’s corporate parent, BMC, was feeling the loss of the ‘Big Healey’ model, the 3000 MkIII. The Austin-Healey brand had been dropped because it made no sense to maintain two separate sports car lines in the same company. However MG had nothing to directly replace the hairy-chested Healey.

The solution seemed obvious- put the engine from the Healey in the MGB. Not only would this solve two problems but the big-engined MG would be available in GT form, something the Healey never was. This created the prospect of a cut-price BMC equivalent to an Aston Martin.

CSeriesUnfortunately the engine in question was the BMC C-Series 6-cylinder. This came courtesy of Morris (unlike the other two BMC power units) and had its origins as the propulsion for the big Morris land-yachts such as the Isis and the Wolseley 6/90. It was a big, heavy, iron engine for big, heavy iron cars.

BMC actually spent a great deal of money redesigning the C-Series for use on the MGC and their proposed luxury saloon, the Austin 3-Litre. Although using the same core dimensions the new version was narrower and slightly shorter than the original engine and it had 7 main bearings.

As in the Austin-Healey the C-Series in the MGC (as it was inevitably called) had twin SU carburettors but the MG version had to use slightly smaller units running at a lower tune for packaging and safety reasons. The real problem was one of weight. The C-Series weighed in at 240 kg and all that added weight had to go over the nose of the MGB, never a car that needed making more nose-heavy than it already was.

The result was that the MGC’s handling had none of the quick-fire ‘chuckability’ of the MGB and none of the raw and slightly fearsome waywardness of the big Healey. Similarly the B-Series may not have been a fire-breathing powerhouse but it was engine that enjoyed a good thrash and made a decent noise. The C-Series, especially in the tune used in the MGC, was more for refined wafting than thrashing. The MGC in its original form was just a wallowly, badly-balanced mess with all the fun taken out of a car that built its entire brand on just that. BMC wisely killed it off after 2 years.

3) AMC Pacer

PacerAdFirst…and only.

I am now going to do something deeply unfashionable and say slightly complimentary things about the AMC Pacer, ‘America’s Allegro’. Widely regarded as one of the worst cars ever made it was so monumentally awful that even Americans in the 70s spurned it, and if you look at some of the cars Detroit was rolling out in that decade you’ll realise that their standards weren’t high.

However, rather like the Citroen DS that made the list last week, the Pacer is a car which never fully realised its designer’s potential because it had a fundamentally unsuitable engine

However badly wrong the execution was, the Pacer was a brave attempt to do something different, which should always be admired. The American motor industry went into something of a panic after the 1973 Fuel Crisis when the public suddenly began caring about fuel consumption. The major companies responded in different ways. General Motors ignored the problem entirely and launched a Cadillac Eldorado with an engine capacity equivilant to that of nine Morris Minors. Chrysler hastily called up their subsidiary in England and slapped the Plymouth badge on a Hillman Avenger. Ford took one of their European engines and put it in an American-designed car that became famous for self-combusting in a crash.

Only AMC had what could be termed a decent idea. As the fourth entrant in the three-player game that was the US car market AMC had been used to thinking outside the box and had carved out a niche of lower-end products such as Rambler Station Wagons and the famous Gremlin ‘wedge car’ which were combined with clever marketing to pitch them as youthful anti-establishment products with features such as interiors clad in Levi’s branded denim.

The Pacer was supposed to be an all-American product to give customers what they suddenly wanted- smaller cars that used less ‘gas’. This was also the era of Ralph Nader so the Pacer emphasised urban safety. At the same time it was aimed at people trading down from full-size cars who wouldn’t want to compromise on comfort. This gave the Pacer its odd looks. It was deliberately kept as wide as a normal car but was much shorter. The need for good visibility and a sense of space produced its bulbous windows while an emphasis on low drag for good fuel economy made the external detailing rather bland and plain in comparison to many of its contemporaries. .

The Pacer was also supposed to be clever. AMC had struck a deal with General Motors to buy Wankel rotary engines from them. GM had been one of many companies to believe in the future of the rotary engine and had invested heavily in its development. When they canned their project AMC was left without their rotary engine and no means of developing their own. They fell back on their range of good ol’ iron reciprocating engines designed for station wagons and Jeeps driving  a 3-speed slushbox through a live rear axle hung from leaf springs.

AMC V8 engine

The Pacer was supposed to be a ‘form follows function’ sort of design where the odd styling and design quirks meant that it worked better than a normal car. This only works if the function is actually good.  Instead the Pacer became a car that looked uncannily like a goldfish bowl on wheels for no real reason. Supposed to be a car for a new, ecological age, its smallest engine was a 3.8-litre six and you could get it with a 5-litre V8 that slurped now-precious fuel at the rate of a gallon ever 13 miles. Burdened down with emissions equipment even the biggest engine produced only 125 horsepower in a 1.3 ton car and the Pacer handled with all the alacrity you’d expect from an American car of its time.

So the Pacer was a compact economy car that turned out to be a large, ugly, thirsty, slow and squidgy car. I can’t imagine why it didn’t succeed.

And no, I’m not going to mention the Triumph Stag on this list. That’s far too obvious!

Cars Ruined By Their Engines – Part One

My blog a few weeks ago about the V8 engine as a phenomenon got me thinking about engines in general and how some seem to loom larger in the consciousness of enthusiasts than the cars they’re in. The Lotus Twin Cam engine is a much greater entity that the list of cars that it powered. The same applies to the Triumph Sprint 16v engine, which transformed the Dolomite from a worthy footnote to a pioneer, or any Mazda with a rotary engine. Some cars are defined by their engines more than anything else. The sort of people who describe themselves as ‘petrolheads’ or ‘drivers’ wouldn’t be seen dead in a Honda Civic…unless it has a VTEC engine. Old Rover saloons are stuffy, boring and slow until they have a V8 in the front, in which case they become desirable classics.

Of course, in keeping with this blog’s ethos that success is boring but a failure usually has a story behind it, it can work the other way. There are plenty of cars that should have been set for greatness and utterly failed (or better yet, were denied greatness by a fraction of an inch) because of what was fitted under their bonnets.

So I present, for your pleasure, are some cars that were ruined by their engines. As usual these are in no particular order.

1)  DeLorean DMC-12

DeLorean DMC-12Aah, the DeLorean. The story of one man’s dream of siphoning large amounts of money from the British government, Colin Chapman and a slew of Hollywood celebrities.

Of course the DeLorean wasn’t really a failure because of its engine. It failed because it was an expensive and unconventional car launched just as the American market went into a huge recession. I generally like to take the view that Time Heals All Wounds and that just because a car was flawed in 1981 doesn’t mean that it can’t have much to recommend it in 2013. Unfortunately the DeLorean was that essentially unsalvageable thing- a sports car with no sportiness.

The DMC-12 was supposed to have a Wankel engine. It was also supposed to have an advanced, lightweight chassis built from extruded and bonded aluminium. In the event it had neither of these things. It had a steel chassis based on the one from the Lotus Esprit and it had the engine from a Volvo. Actually, it was the V6 developed by Peugeot, Renault and Volvo together and which would go on to power such fearsome performance machines as the Renault Espace, the Citroen XM, the Talbot Tagora and the Volvo 760.DMC-12 engine

The DeLorean weighed just over 1.2 tons. Its 2.8-litre V6 engine produced 150 horsepower in European tune and a mere 130 horsepower in Federal spec. Coupled to the inevitable 3-speed automatic gearbox that most of the US-bound ones had fitted and the performance couldn’t have been more at odds with the car’s looks. Really the company collapsing for reasons entirely unrelated to the DMC-12 itself was one of the kindest twists of fate that could have happened because it would have been a laughing stock had it been seriously pitched onto the market.

2) Ford Corsair V4Ford Corsair 2000E

This is that rarest of things, a Ford marketing cock-up. The Corsair was the result of Ford’s convoluted model range in the 50s and 60s where the same basic model was spread across several different market sectors under different names (Consul Cortina, Consul Classic, Consul Capri and so on).

The Consul Corsair was added to the range to satisfy that, presumably very small, sector of the market who wanted a car slightly more luxurious than a top-spec Cortina but with a smaller engine and styling aped from the Ford Thunderbird.

The original Corsair had a 1.5-litre Kent engine, which was fine. The real problem was the new 1.6- and 2-litre engines added to the range in 1965, by which time the ‘Consul’ part of the name had been dropped.These were the infamous ‘Essex’ V4s. V-engines, with their compact dimensions and (usually, at least) two-dimensional balance, were somewhat in vogue at the time- BMC looked at V4s for the ADO16 before wisely dropping the idea. The problem with the ‘Essex’ V4 was that it was a flat-plane rather than a cross-plane design and so was, in fact, as balanced as a straight-two engine (i.e. not very). Ford pioneered the use balancing shafts to try and improve matters but with little success and all they did was add complexity to an otherwise tough and conventional unit. Ford Corsair V4

The 1600 V4 offered little power over the traditional Kent engine while the 2000 version had all the refinement of a Lister diesel-powered cement mixer which was at total odds with the car’s otherwise sharp design, very generously specced interior and pretentions as a luxury range-topper. Ford finally saw sense and the larger Mk2 Cortina meant that the Corsair could be quietly dropped. This being the only thing it ever did quietly.

3) Citroen DSCitroen DS19

To say that the DS was ‘ruined’ by its engine is putting a bit strongly because the car was by no means a failure. No car before or since has advanced motoring technology so far in so many areas at once. In a world of Ford Populars and Morris Oxfords the DS, with its spaceship styling, innovative use of materials, disc brakes and oleopnuematic suspension was so far in advance of the rest of the industry that much of it is still playing catch-up nearly 60 years later, not least Citroen itself.

The one thing that wasn’t revolutionary about the DS was its engine, since it was a lightly fettled version of the old 4-cylinder unit that dated back to the 1930s and the (equally stunning) Traction Avant. Citroen had planned for the DS to have an air-cooled flat-six derived from the twin-pot engine used in the 2CV (hence the car’s low nose and lack of a radiator grille) but the budget and the schedule had run out and so the old engine was shoe-horned into the front end amongst the gearbox and approximately 4,000 miles of hydraulic piping.Citroen DS engine

The result was that for all its Dan Dare looks the original DS19 was extremely sedate. The DS wasn’t an especially light car and the engine, for all its new cross-flow cylinder head and hemispherical combustion chambers, only produced 75 horsepower. Of course performance doesn’t really factor into the ‘big Citroen’ experience and the suspension meant that even the feeblest DSs could keep up with supposedly faster cars if there were bends about. It wasn’t that the engine was bad, just that it was so out of keeping with everything else the DS was about.

Citroen did their best but never had the money or the will to give the DS the engine it deserved. Tweaks to the engine and the fitment of ‘Injection Electronique’ on the DS21 were significant advances and the bigger-engined DS23 made a heady 140 ‘steam horses’ but the engine remained something of an engineering throwback. The Maserati V6-equipped SM and the air-cooled boxer-4 GS showed how things should have been and just made the DS’s flaws all the more glaring.

4) Land Rover Forward ControlsLand Rover SIIB

The Land Rover Forward Control should have been brilliant. Take the proven and popular underpinnings of a Series II Land Rover and rearrange the bits on top so the cab sits at the front, leaving all the rest as load space. The result is an off-road lorry with a 1.5-ton payload with much more capacity (by volume) than any other Land Rover.

The problem was one of weight. A long-wheelbase Land Rover was no Lotus, weighing in at a good 1.5 tons or more. Because the LWB chassis was designed to mount a traditional ‘bonneted control’ body it had outriggers and other structural niceties in all the wrong places. Rover’s solution was to mount a second ladder chassis on top of the original one which then carried the new body. Coupled to the heavy duty axles that were also deemed necessary and the SIIA Forward Control tipped the scales at nearly 2 tons unladen.

This is no bad thing (lorries weight a lot) but Rover’s engine range in 1962 wasn’t really geared towards heavy duty commercial vehicles. Plus whatever unit was chosen had to fit within the original Land Rover chassis. So Rover thought long and hard about what to do before deciding to do nothing and use the standard 2.25-litre Land Rover petrol engine which produced 72 horsepower. That gives the SIIA Forward Control unladen a power to weight ratio of 36 horsepower per ton, or about two-thirds as much power for its weight as a Citroen 2CV. Fully laden that 4-pot had to shift 3.5 tons. To help a lower-geared ‘high range’ gear was used which capped the top speed at about 45mph.

The Forward Control had other problems- the ridiculous height imposed by the Jenga-style double chassis meant that it was rather tottery off-road. Rover tweaked the model into the Series IIB which had special wider-track axles, one inch more in the wheelbase and, more importantly, a bigger engine. This was Rover’s 2.6-litre 6-cylinder with their curious inlet-over-exhaust valve arrangement. While an improvement it was designed for use in luxury saloons and to maintain reliability when in the conditions a Land Rover is expected to perform in it only produced 86 horsepower (14 more than the 4-cylinder) so performance was just as stunted as ever. Incredibly Rover also offered the IIB with the diesel version of the 4-pot which put out a mere 62 horsepower. With barely enough power to move themselves, let alone a decent payload, the Forward Controls never sold in the numbers their inherent capabilities deserved.

Pop in next week for the final three on the list!

Let’s Go For A Drive: MG TF

MG Badge in the Snow

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, and I’m afraid I’m really covering a lot of ground already well traversed.

My first road test on this blog was of the MGF and my verdict was, unsurprisingly, positive. Now it’s the turn of the MG TF, which isn’t so much the successor to the F but a heavily revised and facelifted version of it. So much of what I wrote about the F still applies that I’m not going to repeat myself, but merely point out what I actually think is different. Besides, there’s a more esoteric matter that I want to cover.

By 2002 the F had been on sale for seven years. It had been well received and was one of Europe’s best selling roadsters (although since that market consisted essentially of the MGF and the MX-5 that isn’t saying too much). In the UK  the F actually bested the Mazda in the charts. Now MG-Rover was out in the cold without BMW’s money and it needed to keep things fresh. In a familiar story, it also needed to cut costs.

To that aim the biggest change was the deletion of the Hydragas  suspension. This had been a key part of the MGF’s appeal since it offered tenacious grip and excellent stability while also allowing a cosseting ride. With the MGF now the only car using Hydragas left in production it wasn’t economical to produce the units and so they were replaced on the TF with coil springs. The body tub was redesigned to improve the torsional stiffness and the 1.8 K-Series engines received more aggressive camshafts. A new nose cone and some different interior trim items completed the ‘transformation’ and the TF would soldier on as Britain’s best-selling sports car until MG-Rover collapsed under the weight of its own history in 2005.

The Drive

My recent drive of a TF took place in mid January and involved driving from Peterborough to Birmingham and back. A drive in the middle of winter along a motorway to the NEC is not a traditional stomping ground for roadster test drives but it was enough to nail down what had and hadn’t changed.

The first thing to note is the interior. This TF is a 2003 example so it has mercifully been spared the ravages of Project Drive, the cost-cutting exercise implemented in 2004 which essentially ruined the entire MG-Rover range for ever. None the less it’s noticeable that the TF is a cheaper, more basic product than the F I drove last summer. While that had an interior made largely from bits of Rover 200 it did, thanks to its wooden trim and leather sits, beige dials and chunky buttons exude a certain old-school Establishment quality. The TF revamp has got rid of all that and replaced it with bits of (fake) chrome, stainless steel and horrible grey-coloured plastics. It’s more ‘contemporary’ for 2002 but it looks cheap and nasty. Of course sitting in glorious splendour on the dashboard is the electric mirror switch from the Triumph Acclaim (1981).

716358547Clambering in on a dark morning the most immediately obvious loss is the red ring light around the ignition barrel which, coupled to the less-than-perfect ergonomics means that you have to have a few stabs at getting the key in. The plastics are nice and scratchable, too, so the area around the keyhole looks like a ploughed field. The other offenders are the heater control switches. If a Little Tykes Cosy Coupe had a heater, this is what the switches would be like- cheap, tacky and vague in operation.

Nasty heater controls

On the road the ride is the most obvious change. It’s a much more conventional sports-car ride and the TF is noticeably stiffer and, in many ways, offers better feedback as to what it’s doing than the F, which gripped like a limpet but didn’t really feel the need to involve the driver in the process. I’m not sure if it’s the coil springs or the stiffer platform which plays the greater role here.

It’s a surprisingly big change because it alters the whole purpose of the car. The MGF had a unique selling point of being a comfortable, cheap and entertaining roadster that was much better mannered and less ‘raw’ than the Mazda MX-5. By switching to coils stiff-as-a-board dynamics the TF puts itself right on the Mazda’s front lawn, so to speak. Deciding between an F and an MX-5 was always a ‘swings and roundabouts’ decision (specifically how much you wanted to get the tail out around the latter) but MX-5 v.  TF is clearer cut because the MX-5 is a better driver’s car in the traditional roadster mould than the MG is.

It’s not just the stiffer ride that makes the TF a less harmonious experience than its predecessor. The real benefit of the Hydragas wasn’t so much its ride but its stability because it prevented the inevitable pitching of a short-wheelbase and wide-track car like the MG. The TF lacks that and, on a less-than-perfectly surfaced part of the M6, it really showed. The TF fidgeted and scuttled over rough tarmac in a way that the F never did.

A lot of the MGF’s good points are still there, though. The essential layout is the same so the high grip levels are there thanks to the rear-mounted engine and good weight distribution. The K-Series engine is a gem that responds well whether being driven gently or thrashed, although it seems to enjoy the latter more, particularly due this particular TF’s very fierce clutch.

Once I’d stopped mentally checking off the list of things that MG-Rover had managed to ruin about the F and began concentrated on the TF as a car in its own right I actually really enjoyed it. I enjoyed it so much that, with business at the NEC concluded I added over an hour to my return journey to take the MG TF ‘home’ and swing by the MG Motor plant at Longbridge.

MG TF at LongbridgeThis is always a journey filled with a certain amount of pathos these days as the current MG operation only occupies a part of what was once the largest single-site car plant in the world. To get to the famous ‘Q-Gate’ (most familiar from all those news clips from the ‘Seventies of men in snorkel parkas and extravagant moustaches standing around braziers) you have to drive past several acres of wasteland, bare scrubby concrete, boarded up electrical substations and derelict brick work sheds behind lines of razor –wire topped security fencing. Once I reached Q-Gate the immediate impression was that the site was deserted. Behind the fence was a small line of new MG6 Magnettes. Apart from some limp MG, SAIC and Union Flags stirring in a frigid breeze there was no movement. No noise, nothing. On that particular Saturday the home of one of the most famous brands in global motorsport was utterly deserted. There wasn’t even anyone to object to me parking the TF on the double-yellow lines under the MG totem sign and taking a couple of pictures. I thought about sneaking onto the brick display podium outside the gates but thought better of it due to the TF’s lack of under-chin ground clearance more than anything else.

I cranked the K-Series into action and drive back towards the M40. I’m a great follower of the opinion that to drive a convertible car with the hood up is to have all the disadvantages and none of the pleasure so even though the radio was warning of ‘chaos on the roads’ and the temperature was heading steadily south of zero I just, cranked up the heater (which is excellent, by the way), adjusted the air vents so both my hands were in the path of some warm air and hunkered down in the seat.

The Essence

It was as I was passing Kettering on the A14 (not as romantic as the Road to Damascus, but it’ll do), that I managed to think my way to why I had so much to criticise about the TF and yet why I liked it so much. The reason is that in cars of that sort the quality of the interior plastics and the technical sophistication of the suspension really don’t matter. That never stopped the MG roadsters of old selling very well and garnering a huge following, and the TF follows in their footsteps brilliantly. It has that same elemental appeal that makes you press on through a freezing January evening with the hood down and the radio up because it’s a fun experience. It flatters you and makes you feel intrepid, like the pilot of a Sopwith Camel boring through a star-strewn sky over Flanders or something. Its simplicity and lack of sophistication is, in many ways, its appeal. Yes, it’s not a ‘quality’ product and however much the various owners of MG wish it, it’s not going to have real value as a premium one, either. What the TF does have is charm.

A TF in fun to drive!Two warm layers, a scarf and a duffle coat. Normal gear for a proper British sports car.

That’s the sort of thing that the people back in Longbridge are going to have to try and build into their products, and not in the slightly less-than-intentional way that the TF does. The Mazda MX-5 has the same sort of basic appeal and fun factor but that was designed in from the very start and it is a thoroughly well-engineered car because of it. There’s nothing wrong with MG making saloons and hatchbacks (it has just as much historical cred for making them as it does for making roadsters) but the brand’s ‘soul’ will always be a cheap, basic roadster being driven through an empty English countryside with the hood down when really it would be better to have it up because the driver is enjoying himself too much.

Classic Considerations

Morris Minors at the BL Spares Day Morris Minors in a field. Classic Cars In A Nutshell.

From the start I should make it clear that this is not another ‘What Makes A Classic’ type of article. That debate has, like a Land Rover two-and-a-quarter engine with knackered big ends, been rumbling on for decades and a few hundred words on a poxy blog aren’t going to magically solve it.

My thoughts this evening are more about why the debate exists in the first place. If you thought that a classic car was just something old enough not to be modern but not old enough to be ‘vintage’ then, wow, are you in for a shock. It’s a surprisingly complex subject (presumably that’s why there is no easy answer) with lots of different facets.

It’s not even as simple as trying to agree on an cut-off point of age. The debate rages not because people think that all cars built before 1945/60/70/80/whatever are classics and those that followed just weren’t. If only it was as one-dimensional as that.

To my mind the most interesting divide is between ‘classics’ and those euphemistically known as ‘modern classics’. The latter term is generally applied to cars that were built after 1980. It raises the interesting suggestion that classic status is nothing to do with age but that, potentially, a car could be a classic as soon as it roles of the production line, but conversely that a ‘modern classic’ is somehow not as pukka as a car that is merely a ‘classic’.

I have a theory about this. The classic car movement didn’t really exist in its modern form until the mid-Seventies. People had used and kept old cars before that but they were either a) very poor and couldn’t afford anything else or b) Lord Montague. By the middle of the Decade That Taste Forgot the car had been a mass-market consumer item for 30 years or so. There were hugely more cars around than there had been in previous decades. While they may have been surpassed by technological and fashion advances they were still perfectly useable if maintained and restored. This was a surprisingly crucial development. In 1950 a 30-year old car would have been built in 1920 and looked like this:

Vintage Cars at CranleighIt could have been taken for a nice spin on a sunny weekend or even used to go to work in but it was a chore to manage all those oil-drip feeders, keep the acetylene headlamps topped up, crank it into motion every day and drive with virtually no brakes and no performance. By 1980 a 30-year old car was one of these:

Morris MO Oxfordwhich may have been deeply unfashionable in the world of the Golf GTI but was still a practical proposition to use. Combined with a much greater number of people who had owned cars and had nostalgia for them and this led to people preserving, using and enjoying old cars in a way never really seen before.

It seems frightfully convenient that the broad definition of a classic car tends to have its cut-off point at the time the movement really got into full swing. It’s really a definition that has become fossilised. In the early ‘Eighties no one would have denied that a Morris Minor or a Ford Consul was a classic but here in 2012 their Montego and Sierra counterparts are lumped as lesser ‘modern classics’, despite being just as old now as their predeccesors were then. Most ‘modern’ classics aren’t really modern at all.

Really the term has come about because the first generation of classic car enthusiasts, understandably, made their own definitions based on the cars they liked and had nostalgia for. The problem is that the movement and the definition haven’t really moved on. Someone who is now 45 could have started driving at the age of 17 and never driven car made earlier than 1980. That person may be a die-hard classic car enthusiast but if they go out and buy a Mk3 Escort because that was what they learnt to drive in then that is seen in many people’s eyes as ‘not good enough’.

Vauxhall Nova 1.3 Merit“A long-out-of-production and rare mass-market saloon car? That’s not a proper classic! You need to get yourself a Hillman Hunter!”

There are other factors at work here. I can’t help notice that the time when ‘classics’ become ‘modern classics’ is roughly the same time when the British motor industry imploded and cars from foreign manufacturers really began making big inroads into the sales charts. Because of the near-total disappearance of the UK’s native car industry our classic car movement has deep rose-tint to it than when compared to say, the French or German scenes. There it’s simply a case of enjoying old cars for whatever reason and there’s much less snobbery about modern cars.

The Germans, predictably, have a nice logical solution. A really old car is an ‘oldtimer’ while a slightly younger one is a ‘youngtimer’. It doesn’t carry the same whiff of inferiority that ‘modern classic’ does, mainly because it’s not so self-contradictory.

I could also raise the point that a lot of people in the wire-wheels-and-dynamos brigade treat the MGB as a holy relic while refusing to consider the Mazda MX-5 as worthy of any sort of consideration at all. This isn’t to say that I believe the MGB to be a bad car (far from it), just that if an 18-year old ‘B was a classic back in 1980 (which it certainly was) then why is a 20-year old MX-5 still treated like a pariah in some circles today?

Toyota MR2This mid-rear engined 2-seater sports car isn’t a classic because its Japanese and competent.

On the flipside the Rover 75 was treated as a classic from the moment it was launched (and not just because it looked like one…) while a W210 Mercedes E-Class from the same time is still lingering around in banger territory. Similarly any Jaguar is guaranteed future classic status of some sort but a ‘Nineties Lexus is not , despite being in almost every way a better car and in fact much more interesting as a historical artefact. Or, hilariously, why a Honda Ballade is not a classic but a Triumph Acclaim (same car, different badge) is.

MGFThis mid-rear engined 2-seater sports car is a classic because it’s British and a bit rubbish, really.

I would like to point out that, in my experience, these views are not widespread but they are certainly around and have an effect. This is shame on principle and a worry for the future of the classic car movement as a whole.

Demographically there will soon be more people with an interest in ‘modern classics’ around than people who fondly remember the days when they yearned for a Jaguar Mk2 as a boy. Of course, thanks to the very existence of the classic car movement, people like me who were born long after the heyday of the British motor industry can enthuse about cars from the ‘Fifties and the ‘Eighties (and everything in between). The old cars aren’t going away but ‘newer older’ cars are continually joining them. In 20 years time are we still going to be describing my Metro (which will by then be 45 years old, if it’s still around at all) as a modern classic?

This sort of division is unhelpful and is becoming increasingly irrelevant. As car enthusiasts we should value the fact that all cars of any badge, reputation, market segment or country of origin represent a moment in social and technological history. As such as many of them should be preserved as is practical and treating ones that happen to have been built after an entirely arbitrary date as less deserving is daft.

Peugeot, MGB and a TransAmThree different decades, three different continents, one definition- classic.



Metro @ 1,700 Miles

Metro in the SnowThe Metro has now been on the fleet for almost exactly three months. I did a Trip Report on going to pick it up and a review of my first impressions, so I thought it would be a good idea to take stock of how things have been going and if those first impressions were accurate.

I’m pleased to report that we’re still on very good terms. In fact, the occasional flat battery aside (more of which later), the Metro has not given a moments trouble. On the one hand this shouldn’t be too surprising as it is essentially a brand new car and, all Austin-Rover jokes aside, you’d expect it to still be pretty fresh at 27,700 miles. I’ve now done 1,700 miles in the little blue car. Considering that its average annual mileage over its life averages out at a smidge over 1,000 miles a year I’m surprised that it didn’t suffer something of a shock to the system on suddenly being pressed into regular service hammering around the motorway network.

The Metro impressed me on Day One with its load carrying abilities and those have been put to further good use. People will always say that the Mini is a packaging masterpiece but really the Metro is even more so- you can get five people inside in something approaching comfort and still have useable and decently-sized boot. The Metro’s cavernous hatchback has swallowed up (simultaneously, I should add) a Casio keyboard, a mountain bike, a pair of Alfasud front wings, a bag of laundry, a pair of Guitar Hero controllers and a plastic crate of miscellaneous ‘stuff’. You can’t do that in a Mini. Or many modern superminis, for that matter.

Metro 1.3LAs a car my long-term complaints about the Metro are pretty similar to those levelled at it back in the ‘Eighties. Although the A-Series engine is gutsy and economical it does have refinement problems. It could really do with a 5-speed gearbox and I’ve just about cured myself of the habit of trying to put it into ‘phantom fifth’ on the motorway (something that I’ve never tried to do in the 2CV, by the way, which makes much better use of its gear ratios). Not that this seems to affect the fuel economy, which stands resolutely in the high 40s/low 50s.

Although the interior is spacious the driving position is weird. Not uncomfortable, just weird. The interior, even on this ‘new’ car is made from some immensely cheap-feeling materials. Now the Metro (especially a basic 1.3L like mine) was a cheap car but I’ve never come across dashboard plastics that can seemingly be scratched by the air current of a foot or fingernail passing too close. The indicator stalks (stock Austin-Rover items found on everything from the ‘Eighties up to and including, to my delight, the Range Rover) are horribly flimsy and rubbery to use. Contrast with the clockwork precision of a Mk2 Golf’s switchgear.

In terms of actual issues the most prominent has been an intermittent but total battery drain. This proved hard to pin down because the car could sit for a week unused and be fine then the battery would go flat overnight. I tried pulling fuses with a multimeter measuring the draw on the battery with no success. I cleaned and freed off the totally stuck interior light switches to no avail. I then started disconnecting the alternator between uses (only once forgetting to reconnect it – “I’m sure the headlights are getting dim…Oh!”). That seemed to sort it and I was all ready to start ordering diode packs when the battery flattened itself just as the snows began to fall. So I’m back to square one and now suspecting the radio/CD player just because it’s the only vaguely sophisticated electrical item in the entire car.

The first time my Dad heard the Metro running his immediate response was “It’s hissing too much”. I thought it sounded fine and the slight sibilance at idle was normal SU carburettor noise. But then my Dad has been around A-Series engines for twice the time I’ve been on this Earth so is not someone to ignore on such matters. In a matter of seconds the problem was found- the vacuum pipe from the carb to the distributor advance had broken at the carb end, leading to an air leak. Put a finger over the hole and the hissing disappeared and the engine’s idle, which had always seemed smooth in an ‘engine from the late ‘Forties’ sort of way became literally sewing-machine like. The solution was easy- just fit a new vacuum hose. One of those nice little jobs that requires no tools, takes 5 seconds but makes a noticeable difference.

Broken Vacuum PipeBroken vacuum hose was easily fixed and made a noticeable difference.

The only other ‘issue’ is a strange noise from the driver’s side front wheel area. It’s intermittent , is related to road speed and nothing else, and sounds for all the world like the loose end of a cable tie on a propshaft gaiter rubbing on something as it turns. Except that it isn’t. The noise comes and goes at random. There is no wear or tightness in the wheel bearing on that side and the brakes aren’t dragging or worn so that particular quirk is currently on the ‘monitor and ponder’ list.

I’ve been to a couple of shows in the Metro, both of which confirmed my suspicion that it’s still not considered a proper classic by more than a few people. Sod ’em. Enough said.

Snow in PeterboroughI should also briefly mention the SNOW CHAOS a few weeks ago. When we were being advised to avoid travelling unless strictly necessary I drove 200 miles from Peterborough to Hampshire. A part of me was hoping that it would make for exciting blog entries about a plucky Metro battling through blizzards as BMW 3-Series slewed wildly across the road but it was actually an entirely ordinary sort of trip. In fact it was one of the best trips I’ve had because the roads were completely deserted.

Metro and Land RoverThe Rover Group…On Ice

The final thing worth mentioning is that over Christmas I put the Metro over an inspection pit and, with moderate dread, had a look underneath it. Pleasingly the structure is as sound as the external bits, even given the rather half-hearted Longbridge undersealing. The front edge of the passenger’s side sill is getting rather  scabby and will need remedial action sooner rather than later but otherwise no drama to report.

UndersideThe inspection pit holds no fear now. The Metro is very presentable underneath.

The Metro has just passed its MoT so is all paid-up and legal for the next year. Bring on the next 1,700 miles!


What’s GR8 About the V8?

It can be hard enough to pin down exactly why so many people like cars. Many gallons of ink and billions of ones and zeros have been expended by people much cleverer than myself trying to nail down why you can take some rubber, metal ore and plastics and make a washing machine from them and no one will care while if you use to make a car some people will care about it so much that they’ll spend their own money to create some space on the internet where they will talk about it every Friday evening.

If the specific appeal of cars as a whole rather defies explanation what about particular bits of cars? As far as I know there are no enthusiasts clubs for the Saab Inca alloy wheel or the Ford Cortina ‘peace symbol’ rear light, as iconic as they may be. Some Land Rover enthusiasts may look upon the leaf spring as an existential symbol but even they don’t covet the springs themselves (at least, I hope they don’t…).

Splayed_SpringThat would make this sort of thing very dubious. 

Of course lights, wheels and springs are rather dull. Engines are more exciting because they make nice noises and within their dull metal exterior lurks a certain magic that takes a strange smelly liquid and turns it into rotational power. But even then it’s all about what the engine can do when placed in the front (or back, I suppose) of a car and put to work. In and of itself an engine, even an excellent one, is useless and not worthy of any regard as an object.

With the exception of a V8.


Why does this particular, and not especially interesting, engine layout garner such passion amongst enthusiasts of things mechanical? People will make owning a V8-powered car a life goal while others will expend hours of creative engineering effort to put V8s where they shouldn’t be. The V8 has been immortalised on film, in music, in artwork and in marketing. Crowds of people will gather to listen to a V8 engine running and even non-car people will make appreciative noises.

Of course there have been plenty of other engines that, individually, have gained their own cultural place (the flat air-cooled VW and Porsche engines spring to mind) but they’re specific makes and models of engines. All V8s of any make, age, size, type and use seem to collect this near-reverential appeal.

Let’s start with the obvious thing, the first answer that anyone will give if you ask them what the appeal of a V8 engine is- the noise (or ‘the soundtrack’ as unimaginative writers have called it for decades). No engine makes quite the sound of a V8. The basso-profundo burble of a big-capacity V8 exhaling through a low-restriction tailpipe is the sort of thing that does, literally, make your spine tingle.

My beautiful pictureNow, just as the purpose of musical theory is to deconstruct the most beautiful, emotional experiences into bland sequences of black dots and lines on a stave I can say that the ‘magic’ of the V8 sound is no great mystery. A cross-plane V8 engine (where the crank throws of each cylinder are set at 90 degrees to each other) has a firing order which irregularly switches between the left and right banks of cylinders so you get pulses of exhaust travelling down the pipe. The principle is just like a big 16-foot organ pipe with a reed setting up standing pressure waves and the effect is the same- a rhythmic, low-frequency pulsing noise that is naturally harmonic and can be easily made even more effective by some careful tuning on the part of the manufacturer. Incidentally V8s with flat-plane cranks, as favoured in racing, don’t do the same trick which is why they either sound very bland (the criticism levelled at the McLaren MP4-12C) or they scream instead of bellow (like all Ferrari V8s). Even with cross-plane engines its having two groups of four cylinders that produces the effect because it’s just enough to set up the pulsing effect without losing the ‘beat’ in between gaps in the firing sequence while being not enough to make them all blend into one another.


As you’d expect Detroit’s marketing men had it sussed ages ago.

So that’s the magic-ruining science, but that doesn’t explain the appeal, just as Phrygian modes, interrupted progressions and subdominant textures aren’t why people go all misty-eyed whenever they hear ‘Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis’. To keep asking the question- what’s the actual appeal? Why does the trailer for Jack Reacher feature an idling V8 under all the rest of the action? It’s not even a proper car film. Can you imagine that trailer playing out to the top-end clatter of a Simca 4-pot or the turbine hum of a BMW straight-6? No. So why the V8?

I think it’s something to do with the animalistic nature. Think of the clichés used to describe the noises a V8 makes, most of which I’ve already used- ‘burble’, ‘bellow’, ‘roar’, ‘snort’, ‘snarl’. These are organic, predatory noises. Listen to that Chevelle’s big block V8 in the film trailer. At idle it  has such an irregular beat that it sounds on the verge of cutting out. It’s an unpredictable noise suggestive of great power and force. Given its head (more animal terminology!) a V8 offers a symphony of a thrashing exhaust, induction roar and the sound of eight fuel/air charges igniting in perfect sequence. Just as perfection is boring the slightly ‘rough’, uneven quality is what gives the engines its appeal over any other engine of the same capacity and power but a different configuration.


So that’s the noise dealt with. There are other, more prosaic factors at work, like the smoothness of the delivery or the V8s extraordinary mechanical refinement due to all its working parts balancing out each other’s movements. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the V8 is a rather schizophrenic engine. It can be about noise, showing off and power or it can be about utter refinement and ease of travel. It was actually invented for the latter reason- Cadillac and Rolls-Royce championed the V8 because of its luxurious nature rather than its animalistic noises. But this isn’t exclusive to the V8. A straight-6, a V12, a straight-8 or even a little flat-2 can offer similarly top-rank refinement levels in the right application.

I think the V8s appeal is really more sociological. It is something to be aspired to but it is very attainable. It’s not like that other desirable icon of internal combustion, the V12, which is only found in ultra-expensive exotica. Because of their powerful yet compact nature V8s can be a practical choice as well as a lifestyle statement. Take the ex-Buick Rover V8, probably one of the most famous engines in the world. As well as lurking under the bonnet of Range Rovers and Prime Ministerial P5Bs it has been found in the MGB , the Sherpa van, the Land Rover, low-cost sports cars like Ginettas and Westfields. The Sunbeam Tiger was hardly cheap but neither was it entirely unaffordable.

SunbeamV8Again, this can be put down to boring economic reasons (it’s relatively easy to drop a V8 into a car designed for a straight-4. Much easier than dropping in, say, a straight-6 *cough*MGC*cough*) but that’s the crux of it. The V8 is an attainable luxury. It’s unusual enough to be special but common enough so that it’s affordable. You can buy a V8-engined Land Rover for a couple of grand. If you must buy new then Vauxhall will sell you over 6 litres of 8-cylinder goodness and you’ll have change from £40k.

Personally I think there may be something in the look of a V8 as well. It must be down to the basic symmetry and that’s why people will pay four-figure sums to have a coffee table built from a slab of glass screwed to a polished V8 block. One of my personal best looking engines is the Daimler 2.5 V8, with its pleasingly clean rocker covers and spark plug holders, centrally-mounted dynamo and air cleaners that look like the gun turrets of battlecruiser.

My beautiful pictureReally, I suppose, the reason why we all love the V8 is because it embodies the very thing I mentioned in the first paragraph- the way that an inanimate object can become something strangely desirable and symbolic of something much more than the sum of its parts and materials.