The Slow and The Sedate: Peterborough Drift

NinetySnow4

When you have a 4×4 you actually look forward to seeing Amber Weather Warnings and animated snowflakes on the weather forecast. For the owners of older Land Rovers the ability to keep on motoring through the ‘chaos’ of a typical British snowfall (i.e. the sort of weather than wouldn’t even register as a ‘rather nippy morning’ in most other countries along the 50th Northern Parallel) is payback for all those character-forming ‘quirks’ of the marque.

Land Rovers, essentially, make the British winter fun because you can use them fully as God (or, at least, the Wilks Brothers) intended. Just as it’s hard to get the appeal of a sports car until you’re on a track or a really twisty bit of country road the less-than-stellar road performance of an old diesel Land Rover on dry tarmac in temperate conditions all comes good once the going gets slippy and you suddenly ‘get it’.

In this spirit, and with the thaw seeming to be getting underway, it only made sense to find a large, deserted, but ice-bound car park and let a couple of Solihull’s finest products off the lead for half an hour. It was an interesting pairing- my Ninety CSW Diesel Turbo on one hand and a Range Rover Vogue 3.9Efi Automatic on the other. Both displayed the same grin-inducing characteristics under ‘encouraging’ driving- a scarcely credible reluctance to surrender their grip on the ice even when seriously provoked followed by a very controllable ability to four-wheel-drift under power. Even with nearly two tons of steel and Birmabright sliding sideways just dumping the throttle and spinning the steering wheel straight saw everything return to normal.

For all their similiarities in handling and nearly identical suspension systems the Landy and the Rangey did show the difference in their breeding. The Land Rover lacks anti-roll anything and has stiff rear springs that only really start working with half a ton of hay in the back. As such it displayed almost Citroen-like levels of body roll and some interesting rebound effects when hitting the odd snow-hidden bump. On the other hand its manual gearbox and mechanical centre diff lock meant that had much more predictable grip levels. The Range Rover cruised serenely around the car park like a dreadnought patrolling a choppy North Sea, its squidgy springs soaking up all the imperfections perfectly. The only noticeable defect was its viscous-operated automatic centre difflock which meant that it was continually shuttling between ‘open’ and ‘locked’ 4WD mid-drift.

Au Revoir to Citroen?

Peugeot-Citroen looks increasingly doomed. Its products still linger at the bottom of the reliability surveys, the depreciation charts resemble the recent sales graphs for Tesco Value Burgers and the company is stuck in a nightmare of an overly-complex, overlapping car range using too many factories in places where it is too expensive to build vehicles profitably but equally expensive to shut plants down (i.e. France).  PSA’s ‘tech’ (which seems to rapidly becoming a new battleground for car brands) is pretty woeful and they can’t match their German rivals on image, desirability, efficiency or performance nor their Korean rivals on quality, reliability or value-for-money.

CitDS3

The one glimmer of hope here has been Citroen, more specifically the DS range. Although a rather blatant marketing ploy because the DSs are literally standard Citroens in restyled bodywork, they injected a crucial shot of desirability and lifted the Double Chevron into ‘premium’ territory so they could charge large sums (= More Profit!) and gain customers who normally wouldn’t be seen dead in a Citroen.

For followers of the marque the new DSs raise some conflicted feelings. On the one had sticking the DS name on a lightly reskinned hatchback with some chrome, some LEDs and a purple roof is verging on heresy. On the other hand the DSs are refreshingly different to the other bland premium/retro products out there and the larger models (the DS5 especially) do capture something of the brand’s glory days in their sleek, individualistic styling and oddball interiors even if it’s still not a patch on a hydropneumatic wedge with a concave rear window and a single-spoke steering wheel.

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Given that the DS range is the one thing worth shouting about in the PSA range at the moment and that their success is based entirely on being something different and desirable from the norm, it only makes cold, hard, logical sense for PSA to take no notice and announce that they are abandoning ‘quirky design’.

That really shows levels of brand mismanagement that BMC would be proud of. But then PSA have past form in this respect. Following the Peugeot takeover of Citroen the general scheme was to gradually squeeze the individuality out of the latter marque until they became merely cheaper and more boring versions of Peugeots while the range expanded so that for every Peugeot product there was a matching (but worse) Citroen one. It sort of worked because Citroen became one of the best-selling bargain basement brands with the likes of the AX, the Saxo and the Xsara Picasso.

CitroenXPThen PSA suddenly realised that it had no real premium branding and that the few remaining ‘big’ Citroens were being hurt image-wise by their association with cheap runabouts, so then we get the DS range. PSA’s range structure is now a wierd sandwich-type layout with Citroen being both the bottom (the C1, on sale from £7995) and the top (the DS5, which tops out at well over £30K).

The thing is, this is nothing new because Citroen have one of the most conflicted images in the industry and have done for the best part of 60 years. For a big chunk of time the Citroen range consisted of the 2CV, which was essentially a 4-seater ride-on lawnmower for peasants and the DS, which was a huge luxury saloon about 20 years ahead of anything else on the market in every way, and nothing else. The marque has rock-solid credentials as an upmarket brand, having consistently produced some of the best and most competent luxury cars over several decades. Equally it has produced a string of cars that were amongst the cheapest, basic and least desirable vehicles on sale.

2CVIn my opinion, just as type-casting or ‘that one great album’ can ruin an artist’s career, Citroen’s greatest accomplishment (the DS) is also a millstone around the company’s neck in the modern world. The DS was so thoroughly radical in every possible way, and so thoroughly good as a design exercise, that no one, let alone PSA, has been able to really produce a worthy replacement. The DS introduced new styling, new materials, a new suspension system, a new braking system, new design concepts, a whole new way of thinking about what a car could be like. It is that huge innovative leap that makes the DS so iconic, rather than the car in and of itself. Its successor, the CX, was equally gorgeous and quirky in its own way but it was really just an update of the DS, not an equivilant bound forward. How could it be? If every generation of big Citroen had advanced automotive design as far as the DS did they would now be making self-piloting flying cars that run on discarded plastic bags while emitting only cancer-curing gases.

I’ve talked before about how, for all their engineering and design brilliance, the classic Citroens didn’t sell that well in many markets outside France because people simply didn’t like or trust their crazy habits. But that didn’t make them undesirable. I defy anyone, especially any car enthusiast, to not even slightly covet a DS19 with the proviso that they don’t have to rely on it to get to work every day. And anyone who doesn’t feel even a hint of lust for an SM is simply inhuman.

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Citroen represented something- a different take, a self-plowed furrow. Even if you didn’t like the products it was nice to have them around as a sign of what could be done if you didn’t have to care about boring things like market penetration, resale values, Nurburgring lap times and soft-touch plastics. Yes, modern Citroens aren’t as balls-out odd as the ones back in the 50s and 60s but the world has changed since then. A C6 or a DS5 isn’t as different from a Peugeot 508 as CX was from a 604 but its still showing a different way. It’s not trying to play the dour and dull German executive saloons at their own game. It’s offering people something which, sadly, is almost uniquely ‘Citroen’- a dash of real design flair and individuality. Really, if the premium car market is to slowly divide itself along the lines of ‘tech’, as many commentators seem to believe (with BMW favouring highly efficient conventional drivetrains, GM backing range-extended EVs, Toyota going all-in with hybrid drives, Jaguar seemingly still toying with gas turbines and so on) then few brands can have a heritage of ‘tech’ like Citroen. The company practically invented the idea and for around 60 years offered an entirely engineering-led and -focussed vision of how cars should be designed and built.

The supposed reason for the abandonment (again!) of Citroen’s one saving grace is that it would deter buyers in global emerging markets such as China. Be that as it may, but if you strip a Citroen of its quirky nature all you’re left with is a Peugeot, which takes us back to the bigger and original problem of PSA having an insane corporate structure. If Peugeot are going to be the boring, conventional cars and Citroen are going to be the boring, conventional cars, then why bother maintaining two brands?

In fact, getting back to the China issue. The current car market in China seems to revolve around ostentatious displays of wealth that are also very comfortable to be ferried around in. What says ‘look at me, I’ve made a lot of money making cheap parts for decadent Westerners’ smartphones!’ better than a 16-foot long limo styled like a flying saucer that can move up and down by itself? If only Citroen planned to make such a car…what’s that? They did!?

DS9Bummer…that’s too much of a good idea. That’ll have to go. Shame.

I happen to think that Peugeot is the real problem here. They were (with the exception of the 205GTi, which gave the whole brand ideas far above its station as some sort of French Alfa Romeo equivalent…) dull, tough, long-lived cars for farmers and Morrocan taxi drivers who couldn’t afford a Mercedes E-Class. Now they’re just dull, ugly and unreliable cars with no appeal to anyone. The market they operate in, the mass-middle-market, is dying on its feet in Europe. The brand has no premium credentials at all. What PSA should do is scrap Peugeot, resurrect Talbot as a budget brand to compete with the likes of Dacia for utterly basic, cheap and very profitable small cars and let Citroen do what it does best and produce distinctive, desirable, expensive big cars for people who have too much soul to buy an Audi.

BoringPeugeotBoring. Bye-Bye

But that will never happen. This Peugeot-Citroen, after all, and that would be as daft as suggesting that maybe BMC should close down Austin and Riley back in the 1960s. The ultimate result will probably be the same though.

ECU_Fault: Forza Horizon Review

FHBoxHere’s another review of a game that is, by video game review standards, incredibly late, because it’s been out since October. To do this sort of thing properly you’re supposed to camp out in a town centre at midnight on release day, play the game solidly through the small hours and have a review online by the time everyone else is having breakfast.

There was never a chance I was going to do that, especially for ‘Forza: Horizon’. It’s an expensive game and what I’d heard about it in the run-up to release meant I wasn’t sure it was worth forking out the best part of £50 for something that I might hate. The early reviews didn’t help either- gamers generally liked it, car enthusiasts generally didn’t.

If you’re wondering what all the fuss is about and that surely all racing games are pretty much the same, all this uncertainty is because  Horizon’ set out to be an entirely new type of racing game, which would, its developers claimed, try to capture something of the essence of ‘car culture’.

This was both very interesting and very worrying. Nearly all car-related games revolve around rampant destruction or full-on track racing. Neither of these genres really gets at the nub of why people like me (and presumably, you, the reader) like cars in and of themselves. I’ve already noted that the trend amongst even hard-core racing games to feature cars of a more iconic and less performance nature is a step in the right direction but it’s still only portraying a small part of the car scene.

So could ‘Horizon’ be the first game to capture that rare essence of why people like inanimate objects that move about so much – enough to buy a game so they can indulge their hobby from the comfort of their living room? Yes it could, but the worry was always exactly what sort of ‘car culture’ it was going to portray.

PHOTO1Probably the sort where this sort of thing is socially acceptable…

The thing is, if you were going to make a game that realistically depicted the hobby as experienced by your average enthusiast it would be a succession of ‘Press LB to apply polish. Press RB to wipe off. Use LT to spray WD-40’. There would be intricate recreations of regional car shows where you had to be able to talk to AI characters with extravagant ear hair about SU carburettors or long side-quests to scour rows of autojumble for a particular rubber grommet. There would be a bit where you had to browse an in-game recreation of eBay without spending any of your limited budget, and you would have to complete intricate welding task before your grumpy neighbours got home. It would be very realistic but very boring.

The worry, therefore, was that ‘Horizon’ was going to go for the most ‘sexy’ form of car culture- custom cars and street racing with the whole thing looking likea combination of the SEMA Show and the car park of the McDonalds’ in Kettering on a Saturday evening . It would be a big, awkward, lost opportunity.

So, having waited nearly four months and having bought it at half price, how does it stack up? Is it a travesty or is it a bold new take on a predictable genre? The tedious answer is that it is both.

At its heart there is nothing new about ‘Horizon’. It is essentially the same game as the previous incarnations of Forza (and all its major competitors) in different clothes. The game still revolves around winning racing to earn points which can be spent to buy new cars or upgrades for your existing ones. You neatly progress through the various ranks of races until you reach the end. There are endless ways of modifying and personalising your car and there are many cars available, each rendered in exquisite detail. No change.

PHOTO4Of course ‘Horizon’ wraps all this same-old-same-old in an entirely new environment. Instead of progressing through a series of clinical race series on tracks the events now form part of a ficticious (for now, at least) ‘Horizon Festival’- a motorsport/music festival set deep the heart of a fictionalised version of Colorado. As you complete race series you earn different coloured ‘wristbands’ to access different parts of the festival.

The game has something approaching a plot. Your virtual self is an unknown car enthusiast who takes his red Volkswagen Corrado to the Festival and sets about making a name for himself (and it seems that it has to be a ‘him’) amongst the 249 other petrolheads at the show. Top of them all is your nemesis, Darius Flynt and beating him is the ultimate goal. This is as complex as the plot goes and it makes ‘The Fast and The Furious’ look like ‘Citizen Kane’. The presence of a plot also mean there are rendered cut-scenes – a first for a Forza game. All the other ‘characters’ (I use the term in its most generous form) are caricatures of overly-hip twenty-somethings written by game developers. Prepare to cringe.

The plot can be forgiven for being basic because it really serves as nothing more than a loose frame to hang the main purpose of the game on – driving cars. ‘Horizon’ is effectively a sandbox game and you can drive where and when you please in between races and there are plenty of optional events.

The races themselves are generally nothing special- the usual dozen or so cars and a few laps of a street circuit. ‘Horizon’ does add dirt track ‘rally stages’ (which would be great to see implemented in a more straightforward version of Forza) and there are apparently dozens of programmed-in terrain types which each effect a car’s handling in different ways.

PHOTO6Speaking of handling, a common criticism of ‘Horizon’ seems to have been its ‘arcade’ handling, which was nowhere near the renowned technical simulation of the other Forza titles. I can’t say I noticed much of a difference. Handling is something impossible to recreate accurately in a game when using a handheld controller in any case. Maybe the cars have been dialled down a bit but it’s a case of splitting hairs. Various cars do drive very differently to each other and all perform pretty much as you’d expect them to. Certainly when racing in tight quarters on narrow roads rather than a wide racetrack with gravel traps you’re grateful for your Mitsubishi Evo’s seemingly impossible grip levels and completely linear steering.

You sometimes win additional cars in races and you can spend your winnings to buy others. Every now and then you will hear of rumours of a ‘barn find’ somewhere on the map and you have to race to find it. Instead of being something interesting like a low-mileage Renault 15 or a Chevrolet Nomad it will be some unlikely piece of exotica like a BMW M1 or an Aston Martin DB5 (who knew Colorado was hiding several million pounds-worth of rare cars in them-there mountains?). All are discovered in an unfeasibly sound but dirt-encrusted condition which the in-game mechanical guru can restore to concours condition within half a day/night cycle.

As the setting demands, music features heavily in ‘Horizon’. There are three in-game ‘radio stations’, branded as ‘Pulse’, ‘Bass’ and ‘Rock’. They’re fairly self-explanatory and as you can probably guess from the rest of the game’s content the music is unfailingly contemporary. Each ‘station’ is actually a playlist of 20 or so songs with intercut DJ chatter which does a good job of creating the effect of being part of a large gathering in a real, activitity-filled world. As befits a game soundtrack the music is all atmospheric rather than intrusive and that’s all that can be said objectively. In case you’re wondering, the radio can be ‘turned off’ and the other sounds are up to the Forza franchise’s usual high standards. I particularly like the authentic tappet chatter from the 1964 Mini Cooper.

I’m usually not the sort of person who thinks video games are amoral soul-vacuums that are warping our nation’s youth but some of the gameplay details in ‘Horizon’ make you pause and think. The overarching point of the game is to get ‘cred’ to attract the attention of the Horizon Festival’s corporate sponsors, the organisers and the crowds. Starting out at the bottom of the pack (number 250) winning races progresses you further and further up the charts. The game also provides further chances to ‘improve’ your stature when driving around the map by, in essence, rewarding you if you drive like a complete bellend. You get points for drifting, doing burnouts, nearly missing other cars (of which there are plenty), speeding, knocking over roadsigns and other loutish behaviour which would quickly land you with a dumper-truck full of ASBOs in real life. In the world of ‘Horizon’ Jeremy Clarkson seems to have become Governor of Colorado because there are speed cameras- the aim being to go through them as fast as possible. The game doesn’t pull its punches – the very first scenes require you to tear through the countryside in a highly illegal manner just to secure one of the last places at the festival.

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I know I’m coming across as an up-tight fuddy-duddy but it genuinely (and surprisingly) made me a little uncomfortable to see this sort of thing branded as ‘car culture’. Of course it’s only a game and just because I’ve played it for a few hours doesn’t mean that I now have the urge to improve my cred (what little of it there is driving a rust-flecked Metro) by mounting the kerb and knocking down the nearest letter box but never before has the loading screen disclaimer that ‘Driving In The Manner Depicted Herein Is Not Recommended’ seemed more apt.

So, ‘Horizon’ is a moral outrage that panders to the lowest common denominator and should be hated by all true car enthusiasts? No, because under all the dubstep and ‘sick burnouts’ is one of the most entertaining and beautifully presented driving games I’ve played.

PHOTO3It’s like driving into the opening titles of a Paramount movie.

First there’s the environment. It’s hard to describe what the developers have done. Basically they’ve shrunken the whole of Colorado, from the plains to the mountains, so you can drive across it in about ten minutes. However this miniaturised Centennial State is built so that each environ blends seamlessly into the others so you have no sudden jump between the ‘desert bit’ and the ‘forest bit’ as with most other games that have tried this approach. Within this world are a host of towns, the Horizon Festival itself, flat desert highways, twisting mountain roads, dirt tracks up to derelict gold mines, lakes, farms and everything else. It all looks stunningly gorgeous, even on my mediocre screen. ‘Horizon’ also has some of the best in-game lighting I’ve come across. This may seem like a small thing but watching the whole world mellow as the sun sets in a blaze of orange and red behind the mountains is incredibly atmospheric. At the Festival site there are lasers strobing the sky, fireworks, hot-air balloons and camera flashes. There are little details that are often missed at the high driving speeds that the game demands, like how leaves fall from the autumnal trees as they’re disturbed by your slipstream. All this encourages you to occasionally relax and do some genuine cruising and, yes, admire the scenery. It is a rare game where the scenery itself is worth looking at in and of itself.

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Some have criticised the virtual Colorado for being a bit ‘dead’ and they have a point. Outside the Festival itself there are no people, just cars. Maybe I’m being too lenient by wondering if it’s fair to expect the developers to fully populate the whole of Colorado (given that ‘Midtown Madness’ had plenty of pedestrians in its virtual version of Chicago well over a decade ago) but it just doesn’t seem to make that much of a difference. The other cars driving about are mostly poor Coloradoans trying to go about their lives whilst dozens of yobbos in souped-up Nissans try to (just) avoid crashing into them to up their cred counter.  The computer cars interact with you and the other festival-goers pretty well- they’ll flash their lights in anger, they’ll try to avoid crashes and they’ll overtake you if you block their path.

PHOTO7‘Horizon’ is so realistic that if you drive at the speed limit you will get tailgated by a tosser in an Audi. Seriously.

It’s hard to overlook the basic gameplay aspects of ‘Horizon’, which are, I feel, something of a missed opportunity at best and a irritating, slang-ridden, Z-movie cringe-fest at worst. Early rumours hinted at the game being a plot-driven cross-continent road trip which I think would have been a much better platform for a game to try and explore the appeal of the car. But at its basic level ‘Horizon’ gives you several hundred different models of car and a few hundred square miles of American wilderness to play with them in. Once I’d won and bought a decent range of cars I gave up doing what the game demanded and just drove and drove. As an expression of the freedom of the open road no game can do it better. Other games have had ‘free roaming’ but they’ve nearly all been confined to a single cityscape. In ‘Horizon’ you can plot a route in the in-game satnav and travel between multiple towns or through what seems like mile after mile of beautifully rendered wilderness.

PHOTO8Drivin’ the ‘Stang down to the ol’ doughnut shop. The American Dream.

Other games have provided literal simulations of real day-to-day driving, most notably ‘Grand Theft Auto IV’ where you are required to pay virtual money to cross a virtual toll bridge to sit in a virtual traffic jam on the way to your virtual job. Given the choice between that and hammering a  McLaren MP4-12C along a curving rural backroad or thrashing an Lancia Delta Integrale around some forest tracks for the hell of it, or even just wafting around in a Range Rover is infinitely preferable and massively enjoyable. I haven’t been able to sample the online multiplayer mode of the game but I can see that getting together with a bunch of friends for a virtual classic car road run through the mountains or staging some friendly races would be great fun and a true expression of the ‘car culture’ that sadly seems absent from the game’s mechanics.

PHOTO9For all its loutish tendencies, at it’s heart Forza:Horizon is a tribute to the joy of the open road.

However I do feel there is a nubbin of something at the heart of the game. When you’re storming along a deserted freeway through an exquisitely rendered landscape with the setting sun glinting off the chromework of your Corvette Sting Ray (which you’ve lavished some hard-earned points on with an awesome paintjob and some subtle go-faster modifications) and you see the headlights flip open and the cool radium blue dash lighting come on as the stars come out, all to the contra-bass soundtrack of a big-block V8 rumbling through the desert, there is something of a realisation that ‘Horizon’ has probably come closer to extracting the essence of what makes people enthuse about cars than any previous game.

‘Forza: Horizon’ is a brave and welcome attempt to bring something new and downright fun to a rather staid genre. It is part simulation and part game. Just don’t play the game part as you’re supposed to and enjoy yourself in the simulation bit.

 

 

Trip Report: Brooklands New Year’s Day Meeting

There are some placenames that come to mean much more than a mere geographical description. ‘Longbridge’ is convenient shorthand for the entire British motor industry during its most troubled times. On the other hand ‘Wolfsburg’ is a perfect encapsulation of German industrial might, efficiency and blandness. ‘Romagna’- a place like that could only be home to almost the entire global supercar industry.

‘Brooklands’ is another such place. It immediately conjurers up images of green Bentleys and garter blue Bugattis tearing around the banked circuit whilst wood-and-canvas biplanes totter around the sky overhead. It’s especially evocative because unlike any of the other places I’ve mentioned Brooklands is only a racing circuit-cum-airfield. There is no Brooklands village or town. That name and the location (the edge of the Surrey countryside) should be adorning the gateposts of some Victorian country manor house but instead is known around the world as a centre for speed, power and industry.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABritish icons- the Spirit of Ecstacy and the Brooklands Clubhouse.

As someone who likes old cars and old aircraft in large and equal amounts who has spent most of his life living in the south of England it may surprise you to know that I have never been to Brooklands. That finally changed on New Year’s Day when I made a slight detour on my trip from Hampshire to Peterborough for the regular classic car meeting at the Brooklands Museum. Given the wet n’ wild weather over the Christmas period it was nice to finally see some sunlight on what proved to be a perfect day for car-spotting.

Unfortunately Brooklands’ hallowed concrete isn’t open to 1987 Metros with scuffed wheeltrims so I parked in the ‘normal’ car park, but made a point of parking as close to the event as possible.

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The basic format of the show is that classic cars of all sorts (some from clubs, but mostly just privately owned vehicles) turn up. Those that aren’t slightly rusty Metros are allowed to park in the museum site around the famous club-house, the old finishing straight, along the remaining section of banking and then amongst all the old airliners on the former factory apron. To get there the cars had to ‘parade’ down a steep and twisting downhill access road past the old uphill test runs. Since the several hundred cars took a good  couple of hours to arrive the result was a veritable ‘moving motor show’.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs you’d expect from an event that draws people from around southern England the variety of cars was huge and intricate. There were plenty of the staple models – MGBs, Minis (and variants), E-Types, Stags, Scimitars and Porsche 911s, but there were more idiosyncratic motors there as well – Alvis tourers, Morgan Three Wheelers, a brace of Morris Marinas, pre-war Morrises, a home-made Citroen CX diesel convertible and, much to my private delight, a lone 2CV Special looking a bit lost.

The air thrummed to a symphony of internal combustion- lazy GM big-block V8s, flatulent Morris Minors, the refined whispering of a Rolls-Royce, the coffee-grinder rasp of a VW Beetle and more. I can think of few other events where you’d see a Sunbeam Alpine, an Austin Westminster, a veteran Darracq, an early Mercedes Unimog, an Aston DB6 Supperleggera, a Wolseley Six and a Messerschmitt K200 in quick succession.

I should mention the almost excessive number of Bentleys. I’ve never seen so many winged-B bonnet emblems in one place. There’s nothing wrong with that- if Bentleys can’t congregate at Brooklands, which is almost as much their historical stomping ground as Crewe is, then were can they? It just broke up the delightful and eccentric mix of cars a bit when the clubhouse was surrounded on three sides by a sea of dark green super-saloons.

The most prized spots were, of course, on the Home Banking, where the cars were drawn up in two rows across the track (some owners clearly didn’t trust their handbrakes judging from the chocks and bricks under a few back wheels). I’d read a lot about how evocative the remnants of the Brookland circuit were and always slightly dismissed it as misty-eyed hyperbole.

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I’ve been mistaken. Even when a beige Austin Maxi is slightly ruining the illusion the moss-covered, slightly crumbly stretch of circuit is hugely atmospheric. With its mix of pebble-dash concrete and brick support arches the track looks like a cross between an abandoned Aztec temple and a Victorian railway bridge. It suddenly hits you at some point that this delapidated edifice next to a railway in the leafy Surrey suburbs is what is left of the world’s first motor racing circuit. You then try and climb the banking and realise how absurdly steep it is and how uneven the surfacer is, even allowing for 70 years of weathering. Then picture trying to wrestle with a 4 1/2-litre Bentley on leaf springs and drum brakes at over 100 MPH as it skitters over the expansion joints and tries to slide into the gutter. Incredible.

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Then there’s the whole aviation aspect. Looking at a map of the site you suddenly realise that somewhere near that scabby Volvo Amazon is the spot where A.V. Roe made his first trial flights on his way to becoming the first Briton to fly in a machine of his own design. Or that the car park now occupied by a sea of dull silver executive saloons (and a Metro) was where people used to build VC-10s and Viscounts.

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Of course all this national pride is dampened significantly by the presence of Mercedes-Benz World just across the way, complete with a vast (and slowly rotating) three-pointed star towering over the site like a piece of sculpture from downtown Pyongyang, but I suppose that’s just a neat encapsulation of the differing paths the British and German industries have taken since Brooklands’ heyday.

Here’s only a small selection of the cars that were at the Meeting:

The full set can be found on Photobucket here.

I’m afraid I can’t really say much about Brooklands as a museum. I made a quick circuit of one of the aircraft hangars to marvel at the geodesic construction of a Vickers Wellington and the ever-beautiful lines of a Hawker Fury. I also ducked into one of the sheds to pay a quick homage to the Napier-Railton (as you should) but that was it. A return trip is definitely in order and I think the New Year’s Day event will become a regular fixture.

 

 

 

Trip Report: Wickham Classic Car Meet

I don’t know if its because we’ve finally caught on that if you wait for a whole weekend of decent weather in a British summer before bringing the car out lay-up then you never get to drive it, if it’s because the general shift in the classic car scene towards cars from the ‘Seventies and ‘Eighties which generally come with things such as a roof, a heater and radial tyres which mean they can be used in conditions other than ‘that one day in May between the wet spring and the wet summer’ or whatever, but now there are classic car events up and down the country all the year round.

A staple of the Balloon_Fish family Christmas season has been the meet-up in Wickham village square on Boxing Day (December 26 for any non-UK readers). I use the term ‘meet-up’ because that is exactly what it is. It’s not an event and there are no organisers. It started back in the mists of early time (OK, the early ‘Nineties) as a small gathering of local bikers. More bikers started turning up, then some old cars, then some more cars, then more, then more bikes, then some tractors, then military vehicles and so on and on until the gathering takes over the entire square and a few of the surrounding streets. It’s still totally unofficial, but it now has a burger van.

Given the meet-up’s totally unofficial nature there are no ‘rules’ as to what can and can’t turn up, unlike the more organised Boxing Day event across the county in Romsey, which excludes post-1976 vehicles. This means there is something to suit all tastes, although I must admit even my fairly broad mechanical preferences run out of scope when it comes to bright orange Citroen Saxos bangin’ out choons.

The number of cars and visitors gets so much that the centre of the village becomes effectively gridlocked after 9am until about lunchtime, with rather chaotic traffic when everyone tries to leave. As such if you want to take a car it pays to get there early, preferably around 8am (so don’t over-indulge on Christmas Day…). It also means that your car is effectively trapped for four hours.

Usually my Dad’s 1948 Standard 12 is the representative of the family fleet (it appears that everyone in Hampshire has a story about how hard it is to get the cylinder heads off a Flying Standard) but in a very, very rare occurance the Standard refused to start, so I took the Metro.

It was an illuminating example of how the Metro still isn’t considered a ‘proper classic’ by some. Usually you get half a dozen or so people to chat to if you stand next to the car for a bit. With the Metro I briefly spoke to one person who had an earlier 3-door and wanted to confirm that mine was rusting in the same places as his and to check a couple of details under the bonnet. As is the done thing at shows I left the bonnet open to show off the mighty A-Series lurking within. As I walked away I heard someone say in a very loud ‘Ampshire ‘Og voice “Why would you open the bonnet on that? What’s interesting about a Metro?”.  The Metro was also, literally, being overshadowed because parked next to it was a Plymouth Fury Station Wagon which was about three times as long and completely hid the Metro from anyone approaching on that side of the row of cars. Because my Metro is completely stock and very anonymous I suspect a lot people though that someone had just popped up to the square for a pint of milk. All the other bona-fide classics ended the morning with a fistful of adverts and flyers under their wipers. The Metro didn’t have a single one.

Big Car Little Car

Singer Chamois

Chamois aren’t usually found in southern England, unless it’s actually a poshed-up Hillman with leather bucket seats.

TransAm and Land Rover

 An outdated, tractor-like vehicle with poor dynamic qualities. And an ex-military Land Rover.

TransAm

I beleive this is what is known as an  ‘adequate’  engine capacity.

Citroen BX

 A lovely (and late) Citroen BX 1.9D. Owner clearly showing off by leaving it parked on its tip-toes. It had, predictably, deflated by the time it came to leave.

Festive Leyland Mini

An increasingly rare non-Cooperised ‘Seventies Mini, complete with Flying Plughole bonnet badge.

 Daimler

Never was a car better named than the Daimler Majestic.  This is the last thing that irritating member of the proletariat will see before you squish him whilst on the way to buy more caviar.

Ford PopularAt the other end of the scale was this nicely turned out Ford 103 Popular, next to an equally smart (but much faster) sports-prepped Anglia.

Ford Cortina  Continuing the Ford theme, here’s a wonderfully mundane but rare Cortina.

Rover P6   You gotta have a Rover, and why not make it a P6B ‘S’ on Rostyle wheels? Selective yellow foglamps and vinyl roof make the great greater.

Vauxhall Victor In the background is one of the most hotly-anticipated cars to launched this year which has won numerous awards. I’d much rather take pictures of the Vauxhall Victor.

 Land Rover Series IIA  This Series IIA Landy made a good initial impression (light blue, genuine Station Wagon complete with Safari roof). Then I noticed the wheel arch extensions. It was on coil springs. I’m going to be judgemental and say that it had a 200Tdi in it as well. Bah, humbug.

Jaguar Mk2

On the other hand, I really liked this slightly scabby Jag. Perfect for that ‘country gent fallen on hard times’ look. Maybe it was.

Vauxhall Cresta

Rock n’ roll dudes! Nothing says ‘Fifties glamour like a Vauxhall Cresta in a colour scheme based on a banoffee pie. This one had lots of little period additions like the ‘gunsight’ bonnet ornament and the ‘speed holes’ on the front wings.

Field Marshall S3A

Old tractors are usually a cheap way of owning some classic machinery but sadly Field-Marshalls are the exception, especially for Series 3As like this one. For those unfamiliar with these beasts, they have a 6-litre single cylinder diesel engine that you start by whacking the side of the tractor with a hammer. Seriously.

As always my full set of pictures from the day are here on Photobucket

Dr Alex Moulton 1920-2012

Today brought sad news for all followers of British Leyland and its products, with the announcement of the death of Dr. Alex Moulton. Dr. Moulton passed away yesterday at his home in Bradford-on-Avon at the age of 92.

Dr. Moulton was, of course, the suspension engineer who worked with his close friend Alec Issigonis on all of the latter’s iconic car designs, of which the first and most iconic was the Mini. Moulton’s speciality was suspension and his system of rubber cones (in its own way just as innovative as Issigonis’ brainwave about transverse engines and gearboxes in the sump) was key to the success of the little car, helping produce the two big Mini clichés- the ‘Tardis-like’ interior and the ‘go-kart like’ handling.

Moulton’s association with Issigonis went back to before the Mini, having manufactured rubber springs for an Austin Seven-based racing special that Issigonis had created before the War. Moulton had then worked with BMC to produce the ‘Flexitor’ suspension system of trailing arms and rubber torsion units for the Austin Gipsy 4×4.

Moulton’s choice of rubber as a springing medium stemmed from his background- his family had been one of the pioneers of the modern rubber industry in the 1860s with C.S. Moulton & Co. battling it out with the better-known Avon Rubber Co.  The Moulton family firm carved out a niche making buffers and rubber suspension parts for railway wagons, inspiring Alex Moulton to apply the same principles to cars. By the time the Mini was in development Moulton had sold his firm to Avon to fund the creation of his own company, Moulton Developments, to design and market his ideas for car suspension systems.

Moulton always took an unconventional approach (one of the reasons he worked so well with Issigonis) and was very much an ‘engineer’s engineer’, favouring the best solutions and products from an engineering perspective rather than the needs of marketing or accountants. He had a habitual dislike of complexity. Whilst very impressed with the ride comfort and handling of the Citroen 2CV he objected to the expensive, maintenance-heavy and complicated mechanical suspension system and developed his Hydrolastic system to work on the same principles with no maintenance requirements and only four moving parts.

Alex Moulton (left) and Alec Issigonis (centre) with a diagram of a Hydrolastic displacer unit.

Hydrolastic-equipped cars (such as the BMC 1100/1300 and 1800/2200), thanks to their fore/aft interconnection and fluid damping, offered vastly superior ride comfort to anything else of their size whilst the independent motion, short travel and progressive springing provided by the rubber cones also provided very secure and sharp handling. As with his work on the Mini, Moulton’s Hydrolastic suspension was key to the success of the 1100/1300 which was for many years in the mid/late ‘Sixties Britain’s best selling car model. The system was also fitted to Issigonis’ ‘big car’ projects, the 1800/2200 and the Maxi. Both cars proved surprisingly effective rally weapons due to the simplicity and reliability of the Hydrolastic suspension and the good ride greatly reduce the strain on the cars and crews. By 1970 (if my figures are right) around 25% of all the cars sold in the UK had some form of Moulton suspension system.

Hydrolastic was developed into Hydragas, working on the same principles but with pressurised nitrogen spheres acting as the springs rather than rubber (although rubber was still key to the design, which incorporated several rubber diaphragms and flapper valves). Hydragas further improved the ride quality of cars but the body control and handling was much more controversial due to the increased roll and float that the low-friction gas springs produced.

The unconventional nature of Hydragas played a big part in the poor reputation of the Austin Allegro, in which it made its debut but the system itself worked very well as an exercise in suspension engineering- typical of Moulton’s (and British Leyland’s) approach at the time. In fact the ever-growing problems at BL and the declining reputation of its cars unfairly tarred Moulton’s products with the same brush. In fact Moulton’s long-term development plans and his ruthless elimination of unneccesary components meant that his suspension systems were amongst the most reliable parts of any British Leyland car of the period.

Moulton and BL kept refining Hydragas to suit it better to market tastes and the system was key to the success of the Metro supermini and the MGF roadster, which became the last car to use a Moulton-developed suspension system when it ceased production in 2002.

Moulton’s name was featured prominently on the original version of his Hydragas suspension system.

By this time Moulton himself acknowledged that modern technology had made it possible to make conventional steel springs and hydraulic dampers that performed as well as, if not better, than his own systems and that the Hydragas units were now increasingly expensive to make. None the less he continued to actively develop and expand his ideas producing, amongst other products, ‘Smootharide’ cone springs for Minis which took advantage of the advances in rubber technology to improve the ride comfort of a ‘dry cone’ Mini to the point where it surpassed the original Hydrolastic system.

Dr. Moulton took a keen interest in the classic car scene as it developed and always expressed great pleasure in seeing people enjoy and care for ‘his’ cars. He remained close friends with Sir Alec Issigonis (despite his contribution to British industry in several fields Moulton was never knighted…) until the latter’s death in 1988 and staunchly defended his friend and colleague’s approach to car design.

He regularly welcomed classic car clubs and owners to his home in Bradford-on-Avon and was happy to show them his workshop, original drawings. He maintained an extensive personal car collection, including many used for the development of his suspension designs and ones that he had adapted for his personal use, such as late Mini Cooper fitted with Hydragas. As you would expect from a suspension engineer, Dr. Moulton also owned several Citroens and his main transport for many years was a V6 Citroen XM.

Moulton was always ready to talk about his work and personally corresponded with car owners from around the world if they had questions about his systems and, especially in more recent years, how to keep them on the road. He continued to refine his designs on paper and apparently was keen for Moulton Developments to restart production of replacement parts for Hydrolastic/Hydragas cars following the ceasation of mainstream production.

The good Doctor was also a keen lecturer and speaker, continuing to give talks at universities and societies until very recently. He also founded and managed the Alex Moulton Foundation, a charity to promote engineering at Further Education level.

Whilst proud of his work on automotive suspension, Moulton himself thought most highly of his Moulton Bicycle, which he developed in 1962 to redesign the bicycle from first principles. The Moulton Bicycle Company is still going strong today and, amongst many other features, their products use miniaturised Hydrolastic and Flexitor suspension units.

The good Doctor with a prototype Moulton bicycle, complete with front fairing and rear Hydrolastic suspension.

I deeply regret that I will now never get the chance to meet Dr. Moulton in person. As it is  I can only form an impression from second hand experiences but they have only ever been of a true gentleman who was enthusiastic about his work yet humble about his achievements. His dedication to regularly meeting his ‘fans’, even if it was just an informal group of enthusiasts from an internet forum, speaks volumes, as does his dedication to answering their questions about his products.

Fortunately he was well aware of the number of people dedicated to keeping the cars he helped create up and running for as long as possible and I think doing that is the best possible tribute to a great man.

 

 

Something’s _Fishy About This…

I’m dabbling with investigative journalism this week. Whilst searching for all that was cutting-edge in the world of automotive news I came across this press release from Patrick Stewart’s latest employers, MoneySupermarket.com. It dates from June this year so it’s not exactly current, but considering that most of the content on this blog is debating the rights and wrongs of cars from companies that don’t even exist anymore, that’s no real barrier.

It’s one of those standard-issue press releases that is basically just an advert for the company sending it out thinly veiled in an interesting news story. These are always best approached with a healthy dollop of cynicism but this one is particularly egregious.

The gist of it is that the Volkswagen Beetle is the most common model of cars registered before 1980 on the UK roads and the most numerous tax exempt (pre-1973) car. Apparently 12.7% of VED-free cars are Beetles.

This immediately gets my Bullshit-O-Meter skittering into the red zone. I may not have much time for the products of Wolfsburg but I do take an interest in all cars of an old and slightly rubbish nature. I really doubt that nearly 13% of the classic cars I see out and about on the road are Beetles. Especially because the number two and three spots in the survey are taken by the MGB and the Mini respectively, which are the cars you would expect to dominate the UK classic scene.

Let’s crunch the numbers.

In 2010 there were 307,000 ‘Historic’ (i.e. tax exempt) cars in the UK, out of a total of 31,035,791 cars. In other words, very slightly under 1% of the total UK car population was registered before 1973.

By MoneySupermarket’s reasoning that means there are 38,989 pre-1973 VW Beetles on the road. Considering that over 21 million Beetles were built that doesn’t sound totally implausible. Fortunately the wonders of technology means that we can easily see how many are still around by using the new favourite tool of the over-optimistic eBay seller, howmanyleft.co.uk.

Oh dear. It’s a bit hard to pick out the classic Beetle models from the modern Golf-based flower pot version, but it seems that there are between 5,000 and 6,000 air-cooled Beetles currently registered with the DVLA. Even if I, in my ignorance, am missing out some of the proper Beetle models from this list, the cumulative stats say that there around 60,000 Beetles of all sorts and there is no way that over half of them were built before 1973.

So how have these blatantly wrong ‘statistics’ come about? The answer is in how these numbers were gathered. If you wanted to find out how many old cars of various types were still around you could get the whole DVLA database on a spreadsheet and spend hours cross-referencing all the model names and years of build. That would be interesting to people like me but, crucially, has nothing to do with car insurance.

What MoneySupermarket have done is simply haul data from their online enquiries system and ‘assumed’ that it is fully representative of the classic car scene as a whole. All these stats prove is that lots of Beetle owners need car insurance. In fact they seem to show that every air-cooled Beetle owner got an online insurance quote six-and-a-bit times.

Maybe Beetle owners are, like their cars, notoriously flighty and don’t settle well and that’s throwing off the stats. Surely MGB owners aren’t a bunch known for their cut-throat consumerism who’d shop around for the best deal, and on the internet as well?

By the reckoning of MoneySupermarket there should be 23,000 MGBs and a similar number of Minis. According to Howmanyleft there are 19,000 MGBs and 17,600 Austin and Morris Minis, although the last figure is quite hard to pin down due to the widely varying names they’re registered under. The numbers aren’t quite as far off as for the Beetle but they’re still wrong and the way they’re collected make them meaningless for drawing any real conclusions from.

So, MoneySupermarket, the only thing that’s EPIC is your ability to draw up useless non-story press releases that are basically adverts for your services. And, what’s worse, they bloody work because I’ve plugged them five times in 700 words even when I’m tearing their data apart.

Remembering Rover, Part 2: The Fall

In Part One of this retrospective we left Rover in 1967 at the dawn of the British Leyland era. To get there I had to do an awful lot of ‘history’ and not a lot of ‘opinion’ and if you found that a bit tedious then I can only apologise. Since you’ve stuck around into Part Two I can also say “congratulations!” because this bit is going to be a bit less Open University-style lecturing and much more “What I reckon is…”

There’s some scene setting left to do though. When Rover became part of the BL empire it was very, very close to being one of the best makers of modern quality  cars in the world. If Triumph was the British BMW then Rover was very close to being the British Mercedes. The car that would cement this reputation was the proposed replacement for the P5, dubbed the P8.

This was a big, big car. It looked like an ‘Eighties BMW crossed with a Plymouth GTX. Not beautiful certainly imposing. Under the skin it was planned to feature the hydropneumatic suspension trialled so successfully on at least some versions and a 4.4-litre version of the ex-Buick V8. Basically the P8 was to do to large saloons what the P6 did to medium ones- make almost every other product on the market look instantly old fashioned and doddery.

The P8’s development was quite drawn out and conflicted quite badly with the parallel P6BS/P9 supercar project but by the time Leyland entered the scene Rover had both projects very well on the way to production. In fact Rover had just dusted off the cheque book and placed an order with Pressed Steel Fisher to manufacture the body presses for the P8- in otherwise it had been greenlit for production.

Into this scene of optimism, innovation and progress came British Leyland. By now BL incorporated Rover, Jaguar and Triumph, all manufacturers fighting it out in the sports saloon market. This isn’t the place to go into the rumours and theories about exactly how much back-stabbing and cat fighting went on between these three companies but the end result is that the P8 was canned, at great expense, at the last minute. Triumph lost any future it had in big saloons and was instead ordered to collaborate with Rover on a joint upper-middle market saloon of an entirely fresh design. Jaguar, as was its wont, sailed serenely on as if nothing had happened.

The result of this plan was the Rover SD1 (or plain ol’ Rover 3500 as it was known at launch). Although theoretically a project of the ‘Specialist Division’ (meaning Rover and Triumph) it was essentially a Rover product, being designed and styled by The Master, David Bache, and engineered by Spen King, both long-time Rover Co. members. The SD1 is a hard car to criticise as a design. It caused a sensation when it came out in 1976 (a good six or seven years, incidentally, after Rover felt the P8 should have come along) because it looked like nothing else. Except, of course, a Ferrari Daytona. It was a four-door coupe/luxury saloon that looked like a supercar. Not only did it cost a fraction of what a real supercar cost but it also cost less, went faster and used less fuel than all its rivals. It was breathtakingly modern outside and in. The interior is a bit of a Marmite factor. I know some people dislike the strange combination of ‘functional luxury’, like the way the instrument cluster is just a box screwed on top of the main dash rail, and that it entirely lacks any natural materials at all, but I really like it. The original SD1 even featured a sort-Quartic steering wheel.

The problem with the SD1 is under the skin. Whilst the P6 and the P8 were entirely modern, almost futuristic, in their mechanicals, the SD1 was a step backwards. It had a live axle and drum brakes at the back and conventional Macpherson struts at the front. There’s nothing wrong with that and the SD1 rode and handled very well but it was a sad departure from Rover’s ethos of engineering quality and innovation.  Apparently Rover had planned to offer air suspension on the back as an option on the top-of-the-range models, but that never happened. The engine was just a tweaked version of the 3.5-litre V8 used previously which, again is nothing bad but lacked, I don’t know, ‘ambition’, after the turbines and 4.4s of the previous decade.

None the less the SD1 in 3500, 2600 and 2300 forms was very much a proper Rover. It looked strikingly modern, was comfortable and refined, quick but not exactly ‘sporting’. A weapon rather than a precise driving tool.

I’m now going to gloss over the next decade or so because thanks to BL’s chronic shortage of money and its focus on other, more troubled, parts of its range the SD1 was left largely to itself with very little in the way of development. An indifferent facelift did little to affect the car’s looks for good or bad, but took away a bit of the original interior’s WOW factor. The Rover 2000 and the 2400D kept up with changing tax laws and rising fuel prices respectively. The introduction of the Vitesse (sporting) and Vanden Plas (luxury) range-toppers were certainly A Good Thing, although both were names borrowed from other companies from with the BL system.

We pick up the story again in 1984. By this stage British Leyland had teamed up with Honda, the first result of that ‘partnership’ being the Triumph Acclaim- essentially a Honda Ballade (or ‘Civic With A Boot’) with a Triumph badge and the seats from a Ford Cortina. As you’d expect from a Japanese car it was dull but soundly designed. Crucially it was built at Cowley to a very high standard and provided much needed proof that a British factory with British workers could still make cars quite well.

You could almost say that it met with…some acclaim.

Then the time came to replace the Acclaim and this is where we get to the meat of my ‘most screwed-over brand’ theory with regards to Rover. The next generation of Ballade was a much more joint effort between BL and Honda, codenamed SD3. Unfortunately the resulting car was launched as the Rover 200. After all the groundwork done by the Acclaim in renewing a bit of the public’s faith in Triumph the brand was axed and the Rover marque, which hadn’t been used on a small car since the ‘Twenties, was used instead.

This was, in my opinion, the tipping point. In the ‘Eighties BL was, quite rightly, having a long-overdue clearout of all its brands, many of which were either entirely superfluous because they had long-ago been reduced to mere badge engineering exercises, or had been damaged beyond repair by a string of ill-judged and badly-made cars. Morris finally and, as I’ve said before, not entirely justifiably, bowed out in favour of Austin. Triumph was partially revived with the Acclaim then axed. MG was put in temporary suspension after the MGB was finally put out of its misery before coming back as a badge on Austins, and both Rover was left alone at the top of the tree.

After the  failure of the key mass-market Austins, the Maestro and the Montego (and to ready the whole enterprise for privatisation) it was decided to make the Rover Group a specialist manufacture of premium cars rather than an all-the-bases mass producer. This led to the ditching of the Austin name (although, bizarrely, not the cars, which soldiered on into the early ‘Nineties without a brand) and a focus on the Rover marque.

It makes a sort of sense because Rover was both a premium brand and a relatively untainted one at the time. But why take a relatively exclusive brand like Rover and try to apply it to small premium saloons with a bit of sporting pretention when Triumph, which had received such a crucial shot in the arm just a few years before, had all that heritage already. The Acclaim may not have been particularly sporting but neither were the basic Heralds and Toledos of the past. The SD3 200 proved to have some genuine talent in Sprint and Vitesse form (please note the use of ex-Triumph monikers!) and the Triumph badge would be so much better suited to a small sports saloon that the Rover Longship which had, for 40 years, only graced the bonnet of big-engined wafting road barges.

The SD1s actually replacement, the 800 (which also spawned the Honda Legend) was a much better, more suitable effort. It lacked the SD1s impact or innovation and with front wheel drive and no V8 engine it lacked the visual impact and imposing character of the P5, the P6 and the SD1. It was much more of a P4- refined but sporting gentleman’s cruiser. It also saw a return to the wood-and-cream-leather ambience which hinted at a worryingly un-Rover like turn towards ‘traditional values’ in a market dominated by slick, modern and distinctly woodless German cars. The 1992 facelift greatly improved the looks by bulking out what had been a rather unimposing car but the distinctly old-school interior remained.

The next Rover off the blocks was the R8, the second-generation 200 (closely followed by its 400 saloon sibling). I will state here and now that I believe the R8 to be one the best cars ever made by the British domestic motor industry. In 1989 there were few equivalent small saloons/hatches that could match its looks, its specification, its quality or its mechanical sophistication. However it’s still a car that’s crying out to be a Triumph rather than a Rover. At the same time that the 800’s quality problems were chipping away at Rover’s residual good image whilst the name was being slapped on ever smaller and cheaper cars which, regardless of how good they were, were just helping to drag it away from its lofty perch near the top of the automotive tree.

The ultimate expression of this has to be the Metro. Now, I like the Metro a lot (I do own one, after all) but I have a specific and quite intense dislike of the Rover Metro because of what it represents. I can be satirical and say the Rover Saw The Future because now everyone from Audi to Aston Martin makes luxury superminis but it was just commercial suicide to badge a decade-old mini-hatch with a rather shoddy facelift and an iffy reputation for quality as a Rover. I know that the K-Series engined Metro/Rover 100 with proper Hydragas suspension was technically a very clever car but it could never comfortably wear the badge. A Metro could never, ever, be ‘the middle class Rolls-Royce’.

I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow account of all of the Rover Group’s activities in the ‘Nineties because for all of them (R3 200, HHR 400, 600) my attitude is “good car, but not a Rover”. All of those cars could have rejuvenated the Triumph badge very well whilst retaining a ‘premium’ air that Austin could not. Triumph was never on a par with the Fords and Vauxhalls of this world but, thanks to its long history of small saloons, was never quite as exclusive as Rover.

I have almost fully stated my case, but I will draw it to a close with the most egregious example. The Rover 75.

I feel very conflicted about this car because I genuinely like it but hate almost everything it represents. When I compare the 75 with its quad lamps around a chrome grille, brightwork trim, beige dials and rolling plains of plastic-coated wood with the up-to-the-minute styling of the P6, the P8 and the SD1 and I do slightly despair. It’s everything that people think Rover is- conservative bordering on old fashioned, unadventurous- and almost nothing that Rover actually was.

My disagreement with the styling is made worse by what it’s like to drive because it drives incredibly well with an excellent blend of comfort and handling. It also feels very ‘heavy’ but in a very well balanced way. Solid, that’s the overpowering aspect. In other words under the ridiculous retro bodywork is what is a very good car and one that deserves far more respect that it gets precisely because of the entirely unnecessary ‘old fart’ image.

It’s the yawning chasm between what Rover could have been- what it came so close to becoming in the late ‘Sixties- and what it ended up as in 2005 that’s so infuriating.

You can, in 2012, still walk into a dealership and buy a large, luxurious car with definite performance abilities but no real ‘sportiness’. It’s built in Britain with oodles of class and a big dollop of tradition but isn’t in the least bit retro or stodgy. It’s a world leader in its class and demand is consistently high. It has a V8 engine in the front and clever active and adjustable suspension underneath. It even has a badge saying ‘Rover’ on the front:

The Range Rover and its cousin the Range Rover Sport are where the P5 and the P6 live on in the 21st century and it’s always good to remember where the second word in the marque name comes from. What’s more the same company is building a highly innovative supercar with gas turbines in the back which looks set to make the established Italian manufacturers look a bit foolish. The spirit isn’t entirely dead.

MG News Roundup

NOTE: If you were expecting the conclusion to my ‘Remembering Rover’ epic, then I’m sorry to disappoint but (or ‘I’m pleased to report that…’, depending on how you enjoyed the first part) I’ve decided to carry that particular entry over to next week, because this week has been crammed full of MG Motor-related goodness and I’d like to talk about that because it’s still topical and, I suspect, much more interesting. And now, down to business.

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It’s been a busy week up in Longbridge for MG Motor UK Limited (division of SAIC Motor Corporation Limited), with no less than three things of interest pinging into my inbox. Conveniently, they can each be summed up by a punchy two-word subtitle, starting thusly:

1) The Good

The MG6 diesel is finally here! Yes, only 19 months after the car went on sale and about 6 months after it was first slated for introduction you can now buy a compression-ignition MG6. This means that the company finally has a product that might actually have some genuine, broad-based appeal rather than selling exclusively (and at a huge discount) to members of the MG Car Club.

Why the need for the vinyl graphic of the engine on the bonnet? Couldn’t they just open the bonnet itself? A cynic would say that that isn’t actually a diesel MG6…

The first impressions from the motoring press are generally positive, verging on the enthusiasticAutocar, in particular, were singing the car’s praises but then I don’t think I’ve read a review containing any negativity from Autocar for about three years. The consensus seems to be that the new engine (which is accompanied by a 6-speed gearbox- no news on whether or not this will be being slotted behind the existing TCi-tech) is well up the scratch although tuned more for cruising than thrashing along a B-road, but that’s what you’d expect from a diesel, even a modern one.

Incidentally the engine isn’t, alas, the stillborn Rover –developed G-Series but an all new 1.8-litre ‘DTi-Tech’ engine (I notice from the press pictures that the engine cover actually says ‘Turbo D’, thus nicely continuing the BL heritage of inconsistent badging) developed by SAIC with a big dollop of input from the guys at Longbridge. The only criticism that I can make, on paper, is that the emissions figure of 139 g/km is high for the target market, which is rapidly closing in on the magic 100 g/km and above the 120 g/km figure that is so crucial for many fleet sales. Still, I doubt MG are deluding themselves that the car is suddenly going to overtake the BMW 3 Series as the ‘must have’ company car and the figure isn’t cripplingly high.

The main criticism of the MG6 when it was launched was its outdated and inefficient engine, the old-fashioned gearbox and a few iffy bits of interior trim and switchgear. I can say from personal experience that there is nothing wrong with the interior design or quality of the MG’s interior and it seems that the new drivetrain has largely put to rest the other reservations.

Now that the MG6 actually makes sense as a car that you might have to use on a daily basis all it needs is some decent exposure and a marketing push. This is where I hope that the theory that I subscribe to, that the lacklustre marketing campaign coming from MG since launch has simple been because they’re biding their time until they had a decent product to sell, is proven to be true.

MG now has a well built, good-looking car with a demonstrable race pedigree and a decent engine. I hope they get nearer their sales projections (a decidedly modest 2,000 a year) than they have so far.

PS- It’s not off to a good start. The news feed I usually get my images from is normally full of mundane, unimportant news from MG about how one of their dealers is now offering Custard Creams instead of Bourbons or how the 6 has won a Bronze Award for Best Smelling Boot Carpets and so on. But is there a release or some images of the MG6 diesel? Hell, no!

2) The Bad

The MG3 is still a good six months away! Despite having been on sale in several markets around the world since March 2011 (and having been designed and engineered almost entirely in Britain) MG still don’t have a definite release date for the MG3 supermini in the UK beyond ‘spring 2013’, when it was originally supposed to be here in the middle of 2012 .

Supposing it does reach the UK market in the second quarter of next year the car will then be just over two years old. The strange thing is that MG officially ‘unveiled’ the car to the UK press and confirmed that it will be available well over a year ago. Since then the car has in fact had a facelift. Even Ford, with their bizarrely long ‘release-to-launch’ gaps have never left it so long that the car has needed a facelift before going on sale.

For all my optimism about the MG6 above, I have never expected great things from it. It’s a car competing in an over-crowded sector with a very limited appeal, regardless of how good it is, simply because it’s a strange size and it’s from an unknown company with a badge with a less-than-stellar reputation and image.

On the other hand the MG3 has real potential. The one true success story of the MG-Rover years was the MG ZR- the ‘Halfords-spec’ Rover 25- which, despite being uncompetitive as a hot hatch sold very well because it was cheap to buy, cheap to insure yet decently quick. It also handled well, could take a lot of modification/personalisation and came out of the box with the three things the 18-25 male driver market wanted, namely big spoilers, a garish paint colour and some vaguely sporty seats.

Austin Seven Chummy–>Morris Minor Convertible–>MG 1100–>MG ZR–>Streetwise–>MG3. Not the most logical progression. And where’s the Maestro? Or would that be bit weird, seeing as how you can still buy them new in China?

The supermini market is largely free from badge snobbery, which is why every newcomer to the motoring scene starts off there. People in the market for a cheap small car will drive almost anything provided its cheap enough and vaguely reliable. In fact MG is in a favourable position because unlike KIA, Hyundai and Perodua the name actually has some glimmer of familiarity to the UK public. Not in a particularly good way, admittedly, but with a decent marketing campaign (spotting a theme here?) that can extract the good bits of the brand’s image and apply them to what seems to be a very capable little car then things could start to happen. Offer an MG3 with a bodykit and some free insurance (aka The Citroen Method) and watch them roll out of the showroom.

I will say that, whilst I think the MG3 needs to get here ASAP it’s only worth doing if the product is good. The car is currently only available with one engine choice- a 1.5-litre petrol with horrible power and emissions figures. MG Motor UK say that they are developing a smaller 1.3-litre engine, better tunes for the 1.5 and, ultimately a tax-beating turbocharged 1.0-litre triple. A performance turbo version of the 1.5 and diesel versions are also in the works along with a DSG-type gearbox. This is all promising stuff and I’d rather wait a bit for the MG3 to be launched as a sellable product rather than have it languish in obscurity because it has a useless engine like its bigger sister.

It’s a fine line though because if MG can’t keep to their spring 2013 date, and recent history says it’s quite possible that they won’t, then the MG3 as a whole will begin to slip behind the market and we’ll be back to square one.

3) The WTF??????

MG Motor recently had a chat with some people from PistonHeads and said that they wanted to develop “a new breed of sports car”. Apparently the market for traditional sports cars is shrinking and the car markets which are growing (China and India, mainly) don’t buy them anyway.

The Man From MG doesn’t seem to have given any hints as to what this new breed would be and how it would be different from all the other variations on the sports car theme that have been tried over the years but this doesn’t sound like a good move.

MG as a brand is virtually synonymous with ‘traditional sports car’ across the globe. Car geeks like myself may know that the whole company began making tuned versions of normal Morris cars and that saloons have been an almost continuous presence in the Octagon’s range but to the general public MG means a two-seater roadster with the engine in the front and the power at the back.