Remembering Rover, Part 1: The Rise

When it was founded in 1967 British Leyland became the proud owner of approximately 35 manufacturing brands covering cars, vans, commercial vehicles, fork-lift trucks, fridges, body pressings manufacturers and carburettor makers. As of 2012 half a dozen are still in active use, none of them in independent British ownership.

Clearly BL managed to screw over quite a few famous names during its 19-year existence. In fact it’s a tough choice to decide which company was most thoroughly wrecked by its association with the Flying Plughole. I’ve already mentioned that Morris was sidelined, for all its track record of innovation, in favour of dull, conservative Austin by BMC. Then there was Triumph which in the early ‘Seventies was close to becoming a British equivalent of BMW but within a decade was reduced to one model which was a rebadged Honda Ballade. MG was once estimated to be one of the top three most valuable brands in the world but now is a tiny bit player on the global market gracing the bonnet of some Chinese built B-segment family cars.

However, on consideration, the brand that suffered most at the hands of the Lancashire Leviathan was Rover. I can hear the sniggering coming over my WiFi right now. Rover? Makers of dodgy little wood-encrusted shopping saloons beloved of pensioners and Alan Partridge? Yes. That’s the company.

Or more accurately- No. That’s not the company at all. That’s the lurching zombie-like carcass of the company in its final lunges before it was finally decapitated and laid to rest. If, when you hear the word ‘Rover’ you think of this:

Or this:

Then come with me on a wonderful journey of discovery.

Let’s start in 1948. Rover has just launched the P3 model, a lightly warmed-over version of its pre-war car. Despite the austerity the P3 is a hit with the professional classes and a string of Royal Warrants and celebrity buyers soon followed.

I know this doesn’t sound very impressive so far. In fact it all sounds rather ‘Rover’- a small, struggling company that carved out a niche making cars full of burred walnut and beige leather for Tory-voting upper management types. Bear with me, though, because it will get interesting.

Crucially, during the war Rover had been co-opted into helping some eccentric boffin called Frank Whittle help build some crazy new design for an aircraft engine with no propellers that ran on its own exhaust gases that he’d dreamt up. As it turned out Rover and Whittle didn’t get on, mainly because Rover refused to accept that he knew more about jet engines than they did, despite being the man who had invented them in the first place. The company’s engineers kept modifying Whittle’s designs to their own preferences and in the end he jumped ship to go and work with Rolls-Royce. Which is now the second biggest builder of aero-engines in the world. Nice going Rover.

Necessity is, they say, the mother of invention and the story of how the need to kick-start production from scratch in a world of post-war austerity led to Rover creating a best-selling 4×4 is well known so I won’t go into it now. I don’t know if it was the brief fling at the cutting edge of technology with Whittle, the complete fresh start allowed for by the switch to a new factory (the original one in Coventry had been Blitzed), the steady income provided by the Land Rover or whether there’s something in the water in Solihull but from 1948 onwards Rover went a bit mental. They ran with the gas turbine idea and after only a few years, whilst Whittle and Rolls-Royce were still ironing the bugs out the aerial jet engines, Rover were building and selling their own turbines for industrial use.

Back on the roads the company unveiled its P4 model in 1949. The P4 came to be known as such an eminently respectable car that it has been dubbed the ‘Auntie’ but placed in the context of Britain in the ‘Forties it’s semi-streamlined styling and dramatic Cyclops central headlamp was daring and brash. Rovers were still all leather, walnut, grey and beige but they were increasingly innovative under the skin. The P4s had freewheel transmission and Rover’s peculiar Inlet-over-Exhaust layout engines with their wedge-shaped combustion chambers and Weslake-designed cylinder heads. The Series II P4 introduced the Rover’s own brand of semi-automatic manual transmission. Called the ‘Roverdrive’ it was a strange 2-speed box with a separate overdrive third speed and a manual clutch. It was best thought of as a cross between a traditional Wilson pre-selector and a modern automated manual system. Unsurprisingly it wasn’t terribly popular but it worked.

In the meantime Rover had been (at times literally) blazing a trail with its gas turbine powered cars. Rover wasn’t the only company to be enticed by the turbine’s power, light weight and reliability but their wartime experience had given them a head start. The famous JET 1 car, looking like a rather dashing roadster version of a P4, was unveiled in 1950 and was the world’s first turbine-powered car. It packed 230 horsepower and could do over 150 miles an hour. A whole series of ‘T Cars’ (T for turbine) followed, including the T3 of 1956. This was not only the first car to be expressly designed for a turbine powerplant but it also had four-wheel drive and all-round disc brakes.

Rover then teamed up with racing car constructor BRM to enter a series of turbine-powered cars in the 24Hr Le Mans races. The cars were thirsty and suffered a few reliability hiccups but were dazzlingly fast, setting average speeds of over 100 MPH.

In less exotic, but related work, Rover had designed its own diesel engine for the Land Rover which was only the third small-capacity road-going diesel engine to enter production. To try and extract more power from their new engine Rover used their turbine experience to build a turbocharger for it and then added an intercooler. Prototype 2.5-litre turbo-intercooled engines were running around Solihull about twenty years before any other car manufacturer introduced them and a good 35 years before Land Rover would get around to putting a very similar engine into production.

By this time the glorious P5 was on the scene. Originally intended as a P4 replacement the P5 ended up being a much bigger, grander car, with a front end like a baleen whale hoovering up small fry. It exemplified the solid but strangely modern vibe that Rover were giving off with its Rostyle sculpted wheel trims, minimalist dashboard (including a tool set in a drawer), and its enticing styling combination of sheer sides and rounded edges.

The real stylistic coup came in 1962 when the Series II P5 brought with it the ‘Coupe’ version. Anticipating by 40 years the modern trend amongst German manufacturers for chopped-down saloon the P5 Coupe was still a four-door with ample rear space but it had a lower roofline with more steeply raked front and rear glass and a natty chrome ‘swoosh’ on the rear quarter panel. It remains, in my opinion, one of the best looking cars ever made because it somehow managed to look both imposing and sleek at the same time.

The P5 set out the fundamentals of a ‘real’ Rover- heavy, bluff, luxurious but modern. If Triumph was the British BMW then Rover in the ‘Sixties was the British Mercedes. Not exactly sporty but powerful. Sort of like a muscle car but with burred wood panelling and art-deco light fittings.

Hot on the heels of the P5 Coupe came the real groundbreaker. If Rover was now renowned for the quality of its vehicles and its pioneering work with jet engines no one could really say that its production cars were innovative. Modern, yes. Clever, yes. But more on the edges of the box rather than outside it.

Rover’s post-war ideas blitz was only just getting into top gear though. The eventual replacement for the P4, unsurprisingly dubbed the P6, was a real gamechanger. It was a 2-litre 4-cylinder saloon pitched firmly into a market dominated by 6-cylinder Fords, Hillmans and Morrises. By being faster and better-handling than any of them the P6, combined with the similar (but completely independent) Triumph 2000, which came out one week after the Rover, created the idea of an ‘executive saloon’ from scratch. Before the P6 luxury saloons were just more comfortable versions of normal ones but with an extra couple of cylinders and more chrome. They competed on luxury rather than performance. The small Rover knobbled them on both counts.

The P6 has been called ‘the British DS’ and although this sounds like someone getting a little carried away but it really isn’t that far from the truth. Just as the DS was a showcase for everything cutting edge that the French motor industry could concoct, so was the P6. Famously its original design incorporated a gas turbine. Like everyone who tried a jet-powered road car Rover just couldn’t solve the horrendous fuel economy at anything other than full speed, the slow power delivery or the road-melting exhaust temperatures.

None the less the P6 still had a unique skeleton monocoque where all the external body panels were hung on an immensely strong structural frame. To provide clearance for the gas turbine engine the front suspension was by independent coil springs mounted horizontally along the top of the inner wings connected to the wheels by bell-cranks and push-rods, just like a modern racing car. At the rear was a De Dion rear axle with inboard disc brakes. The new engine that did get under the bonnet was an overhead-cam four-cylinder with a ‘heron head’ design.

The styling and design, by the masterful David Bache, was also revolutionary. Here the DS metaphor really starts to work because the P6 has the same basic teardrop profile with a low, straight nose, a kicked-up rear cabin and a strangely truncated, hunched back end. Whilst the DS is all curves the P6 is straight lines and creases with a wide, low stance. Inside it had a stark, clean look unlike the ‘Pall Mall Club’ atmosphere of the P4. The P6 was a well-deserved success and it became the first European Car of the Year. Rover’s roll just kept continuing and indeed gathered more pace throughout the ‘Sixties.

With mechanical and stylistic innovation now firmly established as a corporate trait Rover weren’t going to let up. Whilst the P6’s suspension was world-leading the company was looking enviously at Citroen’s hydropneumatic system. The combination of ride comfort and handling would be perfect for the new breed of Rover but the bounce and roll exhibited by any big Citroen when asked to make ‘progress’ along a twisty road would not do.

Working in partnership with Automotive Products Rover developed its own variant on the hydropneumatic suspension system. Like the Citroen version this was based around spherical springs of compressed nitrogen gas and pressurised hydraulic fluid. This was connected to the wheel by a hydraulic strut which continuously adjusted the ride height to account for any additional weight in the car. The key development was a mechanical link arm and a hydraulic metering valve. Somehow (despite looking at the drawing of how it’s supposed to work I still can’t fathom it) this allowed the system to tell the difference between suspension movement caused by a bump in the road and movement caused by body roll. It could assist former and completely restrict the latter, meaning that the car cornered perfectly level even at high speeds but soaked up huge bumps and potholes with ease. The AP/Rover hydraulic suspension was fitted to a P6 and found to be perfectly workable.

In more prosaic matters, in 1967 along came the object with which Rover was to be most associated, the 3.5-litre V8 engine. This, of course, came courtesy of General Motors who had designed it in the 1950s. In turbocharged ‘Jetfire’ form it became the first engine to reach the magic figure of one horsepower per cubic inch of displacement (215 in this case). But the engine was too small for the American market and in naturally-aspirated form didn’t produce enough power. Its all-alloy construction was highly advanced but flawed production methods at The General caused reliability problems that tarnished the engine’s reputation. It was just the thing for the new, reformed Rover and they quickly ironed out the bugs and dropped into the P5 and P6, producing the P5B ‘3.5-litre’ and the P6B ‘3500’, because decimal points are clearly the sign of true class.

The now-Rover V8 put clear water between Triumph and Jaguar, who were rapidly cashing in on the market that Rover had created and the combination of power and refinement was perfectly in keeping with the company’s more dynamic image. It’s worth quickly mentioning that before the V8 turned up Rover were in the final stages of developing a 5-cylinder version of the 2000 engine which proved entirely practical. About ten years before Audi did it.

Things were about to get a whole lot more dynamic though because, having invented a whole new type of saloon car Rover then set about redefining two more market areas. One of these was a project to create a more comfortable Land Rover which ended up becoming something called the Range Rover. I don’t really need to go in to that other than to hold it up a shining example of the independent Rover Company’s sheer bloody genius.

The other was a supercar. A Rover supercar. A. Rover. Supercar. That that phrase sounds so ridiculous now shows how far the brand’s stock has fallen. In fact it was never going to be badged as a Rover, but as an Alvis, which Rover had bought in 1965 (this was back in the days when Rover bought other companies rather than being endlessly bought out itself). It was developed as the P6BS and, as the name suggests, was loosely based around the P6. It used a tuned 3.5-litre V8 mounted mid/rear driving the rear axle through a mid-mounted gearbox. The cabin had three seats (two in the front and central rear) and, almost uniquely amongst supercars, excellent near-360-degree visibility. The P6BS was worked up into a fully driveable, practical prototype. All it needed for production was some proper styling. That was well underway (under the P9 project name) when, in 1967, Rover was purchased by the Leyland Motor Corporation. A year later the LMC merged with British Motor Holdings to create British Leyland, bringing Rover, Jaguar and Triumph under one roof.

So, at 2,500 words, I will now take a break. Let’s leave Rover under new management but with a world-leading mid-sized saloon, a much-loved big saloon, a supercar and a ground breaking 4×4. Sadly, it’s all downhill from here.

Let’s Go For A Drive: Metro 1.3L

As detailed in last weekend’s Trip Report I am now the owner of a very low-mileage 1987 Metro 5-door. Aside from it’s numerous good qualities which should be obvious (if they’re not, they should be by the end of this post) I bought it because I could no longer live with the hypocrisy of continually banging on about the supposed not-as-rubbish-as-people-say-ness of British Leyland cars without ever having actually owned one.

It could be argued that I’m still not doing it properly because I’ve bought what is, without much doubt, the best car BL ever made, and that’s not damning it with faint praise, either. The Metro was certainly its best-seller and gave the ailing conglomerate a crucial shot in the arm that allowed it to stagger on through the ‘Eighties and eventually get itself in some sort of order as the Rover Group.

The Metro’s image as suffered as little as the stereotypical chariot of driving schools and the elderly, plus its more real rust issues. However this has never dented its reputation to the extent of some of its Leyland stablemates because, like the Mini (also not without its own design issues and propensity to rust) the product was so fundamentally right. The Metro was the first car BL made that needed no apology or explanation. It was competitive from the get go and was, in its own way, an innovator. All this is quite remarkable given that it was design, and re-designed, and re-re-designed, on a shoe-string budget based around the underpinnings of the Mini, which was 22 years old by the time the miniMetro (as it was originally called) was launched.


The Metro’s angular styling is very much of its time, whilst the slight wedge shape to the bonnet and the front end betrays the hand of Harris Mann. For a car that was, literally, styled by a comittee (ex-Rover stylist and full time mobile hair sculpture David Bache was the other main contributor) it’s a remarkably cohesive design. The ghost of Issigonis was lurking over Cowley long after he had quite the company. Forced to use the same basic structural principles as the Mini the stylists were also forced to use the same proportions and ‘hard points’ that Issigonis had set down back in the ‘Fifties, which gives the Metro the same very tight styling of the BMC-era products, with no excess metal on it. Given that it’s amazing how contemporary the Metro’s styling is- compare it to a VW Polo, or Renault 5 of a similar age and it blends in well.

This car is a facelifted example which introduced the 5-door layout and tidied up the front end styling a little, getting rid of the inset headlamps and rather slab-like front end. Considering that a 5-door version was never included in the original design and styling specifications it blends into the original shape very well. By the mid-1980s BL had finally managed to get some sort of comprehensive ‘house style’ going and the Metro shares its major cues with the Maestro and Montego.

The other thing of note is that, especially in comparison to modern cars, the area of glass is huge. Of course this is ideal for the Metro’s intended environment (the city, as if the name didn’t give it away). The hatchback bootlid particularly dominates the rear aspect, with the rear lights and the panelwork looking almost like afterthoughts. Maybe this was intentional, as the hatchback was the headlining new feature of the car?

Finally, it’s worth noting that the Metro carries no marque badging. Since BL had ceased to exist by the time this particular one was built it was built under the Rover Group banner. This meant that, despite the plethora of Austin-Rover chevrons on all sorts of components (not to mention the hubcaps) this isn’t an Austin Metro. It’s just a ‘Metro’.


Space…the final frontier. It’s the sheer amount of space that makes an impression when you get into the Metro. It proves that, despite the guidance of Sir Alec, BL had lost none of their skill at packaging. If anything the Metro is in many ways superior to the Mini, since it has a much less cramped driving position, a wider cabin and seating for five, rather than four, people in a car of roughly the same size, whilst having a much less spartan interior. Close inspection shows where some of the space has come from- the Metro lacks the Mini’s huge storage bins at each corner and has rather mean ‘slots’ rather than proper door pockets. But how many Mini owners actually needed to carry a dozen bottles of Gordon’s gin in their car at once, anyway? Instead the Metro’s sliding seats and boxy body mean that I, at 6′ 2″ can comfortably ‘sit behind myself’ with headroom to spare. Something that could never happen in a Mini.

The Metro’s facelift included a major tweak to the interior. The early Metro had a very Mini-esque ‘bare essentials’ dashboard with a very ‘Seventies instrument cluster. To bring the Metro into line with the rest of the Austin lineup the interior was revamped to include a proper fascia with the same styling (and most of the same switchgear) as the other M-cars. This included the defining feature of all ‘Eighties A-R cars, the dashpod with the speedo on the right and the fuel and temperature gauges on the left, with the big ‘chess board’ of warning lights in the middle. With a seemingly endless variety of background graphics, needle colours and numeral fonts the same cluster was used on all the non-luxury products of the Rover Group and endured on the Sherpa-based LDV vans right up to 2006. On this Metro the background is a strange ‘graph paper’ pattern which could only ever be found on a car from the ‘Eighties.

Where the Metro carried on its Mini heritage is in the ergonomics, or the lack of them. The switchgear is scattered around the dashboard and none of it is easy to reach. The heater controls sit up next to the instrument cluster and are obscured from sight by the left-hand part of the steering wheel. Other switches for the rear wash/wipe and foglight are obscured by the right-hand part. A few other minor switches are down by the driver’s right knee whilst the radio is almost perfectly positioned to be blocked from view by the driver’s left arm when in a normal driving position.

Manufacturers talk a lot of ‘surprise and delight’ features in modern interior design. The Metro was designed long before this sort of thing but it does have a few neat touches, but coming from a Land Rover and a 2CV almost any form of interior design is a surprise and a delight. I particularly like the heater fan switch, the symbol for which is backlit green at night in keeping with all rest of the dash. If you switch the fan to its ‘Slow’ setting the backlighting turns dim orange. Flick it onto ‘Fast’ and it glows a brighter orange. I don’t know why this impresses me so much. I think it’s because it’s so, well, un-British-Leyland.

The whole interior is made from plastic and rubber in various shades of blue, to match the exterior. Colour-coding to this extent is something rarely seen in today’s cars with their Germanic ‘premium’ obsession with black soft-touch plastics and when carried out on such an inoffensive colour as slightly dusty blue it works well. Austin-Rover dashboard plastics are infamous for not dealing well with sunlight (an unfortunate quality for a material that will spend around half its time in under such conditions). Even this low-mileage car shows the early signs of the dash-top warping.

The hatchback rear end means the Metro’s boot is not only much larger than a Mini but easier to access. In fact the boot is a decent size by modern supermini standards and the car’s part piece (60/40-split folding rear seats) means it can be made even more commodious if needed. As I mentioned in my collection report, you can get some seriously large and awkward loads in the back.

Under Way

The Metro is started up with a very early example of the soon-to-be-widespread Rover Bendy Key. The 1275cc A+ Series motor fires up quickly on half-choke, even on a cold East Anglian morning with frost on the ground. The Metro has sound deadening on the bulkhead and a fair amount of footwell padding so the sound is quite subdued. None the less the classic A Series combination of a smooth chorus of ticking from the top end and a slight rasp to the exhaust note is still there. It feels and sound like any other ‘Eighties hatchback, a testement to the work done to develop the A+ and the inherent ‘rightness’ of the original engine despite its origins back in the post-war days.

The Metro gets a lot of criticism for retaining the Mini’s odd upright driving position. I don’t actually see the similarity myself- the deeper dashboard and different angle of the steering wheel make the Metro much more conventional. What I can, and will, criticse, is the footwell design. Not only is it on the cramped side for anyone with two feet but I think they must have had the guys at Triumph design the pedals, because they are hugely off centre. In fact the steering wheel doesn’t line up with the centre of the instrument cluster and the pedals don’t line up with the steering column which doesn’t really line up with the seat. The upshot is that the first couple of times I drove the Metro I kept stamping on the brake instead of the clutch. The throttle pedal travel is restricted by the outer edge of the footwell, too, meaning you have to change your foot position to access the furthest reaches of the travel. The flawed footwell is my biggest gripe about the Metro, by a long way.

The long plastic gearlever and its rubber bellows gaiter is would be familar to any Mini driver and the 4-speed gearbox it’s attached to is the same. With only 26,000 miles under its cogs the linkage is still fresh and it has the positive, pleasingly mechanical action that contributes so much the driving experience of an A Series-powered car.

The self-adjusting clutch is light with just the right amount of feel, but letting out shows the take-up of drive to me quite sharp. The A Series engine does what they do best, pulling smoothly away without excessive revving and setting of down the road with a pleasant, smooth burble. For all its modern looks and fettling the Metro still produces one of the most evocative sounds of British motoring- the milk-float whine of a small box-in-sump in first gear. I wouldn’t have it any other way, especially since in the other gears the box is whisper quiet. The synchromesh works smoothly although the downchanges feel a little ‘rubbery’.It’s not a gearbox that you can really work quickly, but then neither is the car.


By 1987 Longbridge were getting the hang of screwing the Metro together. This one is eerily free of squeaks and rattles from the dashboard and trim, apart from an irritating drumming caused by the parcel shelf, which has a broken mounting lug.


The 1.3 A+ motor produces 63 horsepower. The Metro 5-door weighs just under 750kg. Those figures sound quite promising but I’ll say this now, this car doesn’t feel like it has that much power and that little weight. Of course a lot of this is down the nature of the engine. Even in ‘Plus’ form the stock A Series isn’t an engine that likes to rev. I think the engine is this particular one, which is both low-mileage and has spent those few miles bumbling around the M4 corridor, is still quite tight, too. It will rev but doesn’t feel happy at being provoked. In First gear it has plenty of ‘zip’ for getting onto roundabouts or out of junctions but in the mid-range it’s better to pop into Third and let the torque do the work. If it’s not nippy the engine is certainly gutsy. It seems to have an almost completely flat torque curve. You can slip into top gear at a shade under 30 MPH and the engine will happily knuckle down and keep accelerating. It accelerates in the same fashion at 60 MPH on the motorway as it does around town. Once you realise that a mid-range Metro is never going to pin you back in the seat with its acceleration you just adapt and enjoy the fact that the car is very easy and predictable to drive.

The car has enough poke to mix it with motorway traffic and isn’t going to get into trouble on a sliproad. 60 MPH would seem to be the sweet spot of making progress without feeling as if you’re starting to stretch the engine beyond it’s comfort zone, but even at 70 it has performance in hand. Motorway inclines just require a firmer squeeze on the throttle to maintain speed and it’s even possible to make the odd excursion into the fast lane if needed. The noise levels are much, much lower than on a Mini, even one from the same time period as the Metro. There’s no transmission howl and the engine is just a steady drone from the other side of the bulkhead. In fact the most intrusive aspect is the wind noise, probably a sign of less-than-perfect door seal design.

Ride and Handling

Surprisingly for a car designed expressly to be a cheap urban shopping trolley this is the area that the Metro really shines. Of course this is just its Mini ancestry shining through- that car was also never intended to be such an engaging and sharp-handling car as it was, it was just a pleasing side effect.

The Metro has the (in)famous Hydragas suspension. To save development costs BL chose not to fit the system properly and omitted the fore/aft interconnection. This was somewhat missing the point because it was this that gave Hydragas cars such as the Princess and the later Maxis their class-leading ride comfort. As it is the Metro simply has a fluid/gas sphere on each corner which acts the spring and the damper.

The result is that the ride comfort is a huge improvement on a rubber-cone Mini, especially an ‘Eighties-built one on the wider, lower-profile tyres, but is hugely below the standard of other Hydragas cars. It doesn’t exhibit the same jarring and jiggling as a Mini. What it does is absorb the shock of most road defects and bumps very well, as you’d expect from gas springs. Around town at typical around town speeds the spheres are excellent at soaking up drain covers, cats-eyes, lumpy patches of tarmac and even speed bumps when taken at a suitable pace- but not the sort of pace you can go over in a 2CV, as I rapidly learnt from experience.

The Hydragas combination of soft springs, short travel and fully independent suspension (not to mention the car’s wide track for its size) means that the Metro generally feels planted and grippy. On the straight, flat but seriously uneven Fenland roads (a real test for any suspension) the system is in its element, absorbing the undulations and getting into something approaching the comfortable, lolloping, bouncing motion of its full-Hydragas stablemates.

What upsets the car is any road surface that is rough or genuinely bumpy, rather than smoothly undulating, when taken at a decent clip. Here the short wheelbase and the lack of interconnection means that the car begins to be affected by uncontrolled pitch, becoming quite skittish and beginning to feel as if its losing its composure.

If the suspension has its flaws, the steering certainly does not. BL clearly knew that there was nothing wrong with the Mini’s rack-and-pinion setup as it was and left it well alone. The Metro has the same wonderfully direct and weighted steering as its forebear. The ‘giant go kart’ feeling is alive and well and the grippy suspension encourages you to chuck the car about a little. This goes a long way to compensating for the engine’s relative lack of ‘pep’ as you can maintain speed and smooth progress round all but the sharpest corners. Despite being non-assisted the steering is still light at low speeds without being over-light once on the move. It all makes for an immensely engaging and enjoyable driving experience without detracting from the Metro’s ability to just be a normal supermini when you don’t feel like having fun.


‘A British Car To Beat The World’ was the rather uncomfortably jingoistic slogan that launched the Metro on the world. It was never going to be a world-beater or a trend-setter like the Mini, the car it was meant to replace, was. Times had moved on and the Metro’s job was much tougher- to compete against  increasingly savvy rivals who were starting to encroach on the previously BL-only ground of transverse-engined spacious little cars. The Metro didn’t rewrite the rules, but it did play by them to dazzling effect. What it was was a genuinelly competent, practical and enjoyable little car that stood on its own merits.The sales figures showed how right the design was.

‘Easy’ is the word that kept cropping up in my mind when thinking about this test. The Metro is a very easy car to drive. It’s also very easy to live with and very easy to enjoy yourself in. I can see why they were so popular.

Trip Report: Metro Collection

Confession time- for all my talk about how bad cars are interesting and, particularly, how most British Leyland products aren’t anywhere near as rubbish as most people say, I have never actually owned a BL car. Yes, my old Series III Land Rover was technically a BL product, and it had the Flying Plughole logos on various bits to prove it. My current Land Rover is also a design from the Leyland stable. I’ve done a fair bit of ‘ownership by proxy’ thanks to my family’s long dedication to BMC-BL products old and new, but when it comes down to it I’ve never had a proper BL car as my own transport, with my name on the logbook.

Well as of 1:30pm today that’s changed because I’m now the proud owner of a 1987 Metro 1.3L 5-door in that delightfully Leyland shade of blue that looks faded as soon as its sprayed on the car.

I suppose you could be really, really picky and say that that’s not really a BL product either, because it was built a year after BL ceased to exist. I don’t care. As far as I’m concerned it was conceived and designed by BL and it’s got the drivetrain out of a Mini, Hydragas suspension, styling by Harris Mann and David Bache and it was built at Longbridge. It counts.

I wasn’t after a Metro in particular when I was looking for a car to put an end to my hypocrisy, but it makes a lot of sense. It’s a car I can actually remember being around when I was growing up, my parents had both of its other M-Car stablemates (the Maestro and the Montego), it’s a thoroughly known quantity mechanically and ‘Eighties Metros are getting pretty rare.

This particular one is stunningly low-mileage with just under 26,000 miles on the clock, so it’s A+ Series engine is barely run in. It is wholly original in specification apart from a modern CD player (the original push-button radio/cassette is in the boot), right down to the Metro-branded floor mats and a wholly unused tool kit in the boot. The Hydragas at each corner is sitting at the right height and the only rust is around the front and rear valances. One of the wheelarches is showing the beginnings of a bit of bubbling but the crucial sills and subframes are spotless. More unbelievably still, all the segments on the digital clock still work.

It came from Reading, where its owner (a bloke called John) had been using it for his 8-mile round trip to work on a daily basis and now wanted, of all things, a BMW E30 Touring to replace it. Having already made the trip to view and agree to buy the Metro the trick was to get myself down to Reading to drive it back.

I decided to Let The Train Take The Strain, and managed to get a through-ticket from Peterborough to Reading via central London for an unexpectedly reasonable price that, for once, actually made it cheaper to use public transport to get somewhere than to drive.

The first step of the journey on a crisp, very cold but bright autumn morning was to get to Peterborough station using another ‘Eighties British classic vehicle, a 1989 Raleigh Mirage. Being a sports product from the ‘Eighties it is, of course, bright purple with neon green decals. It also has no chainring gearchange left and no chain guide rail so it sometimes jumps into low range when you go over kerbs.

By the way, I apologise in advance for the shockingly bad quality of most of the following photos. They’re taken with my camcorder in ‘Stills’ mode and, whilst it can take decent pictures it has to be left to autofocus and ponder the mysteries of its existence for about 10 seconds each time. When bustling onto and off trains in London this is hard to do.

I opted to take the scenic route to the station via the scenic River Nene:

This proved to be a bad idea because what looked like an easy cut-through avoiding the hellish Charybdis that is the Queensgate roundabout turned out to be a huge detour along pot-holed roads through a semi-derelict industrial estate. By the time I’d made it to the station, found the bike park, wrestled the bike into the only available under-cover space (on the upper level of the rack) and collected the tickets the train was already at the platform and I made it on with two minutes to spare.

Anyway, two minutes is enough and soon we were hurtling through the flatlands of Camebridgeshire. There was nothing else to do but to play a little of Sierra’s classic classical city-building game, Caesar II.

All together now- “Plebs Are Needed!”

In just over an hour I was in the glorious Cubitt-designed trainshed at Kings Cross but there was no time to soak in industrial archaeology (or take decent pictures). After walking for what seemed like half a mile in a giant circle I made it onto the Hammersmith & City Line for what should have been a simple 5-stop jaunt over to Paddington for the train to Reading.

Here’s me practising my best Emotionless London Tube Face:

I said ‘should have been’, because at Baker Street, we were told that the train wouldn’t be stopping at Paddington after all so it was time to make a dash to the Bakerloo Line. This involved another half-mile sprint through the old 1860s Baker Street station (which smells like a Gentleman’s Public Convenience, by the way), across into a newer bit and then, theoretically, down an escalator onto the Bakerloo platforms. But no:

The escalator was closed for refurbishment, so it was a case of piling up onto the Metropolitan platforms then diving into another crossing tunnel, onto the wrong side of the Bakerloo station and then finally squeezing along a passageway to the correct side.

With the stress levels considerably elevated, I none the less made it to Paddington with time to spare- just enough time to grab a picture of IK Brunel’s famous roof (although not enough time for a planned-for and much-anticipated cup of tea). It was time to board another iconic piece of British engineering, albeit one now with a German drivetrain.

Unfortunately the High Speed Train didn’t really live up to its name due to weekend engineering works, so it was more of a Sedate Trundling Train that weaved its way around yellow lights right up to just past Maidenhead when a final sprint got me to Reading:

John was meeting me in Reading town centre, in the car park of a nearby Furniture Village. This seemed a suitably classy meeting point for the handing-over of a faded blue Metro.

The deed was done and soon I was steering the wedge nose of the Metro onto the eastbound A4. I’ll be doing a proper road test in the near future but the initial impressions are very, very good. As you would expect the Metro feels a lot like a Mini. The A-Series engine needs the same driving technique (use torque, not revs), the gearchange is the same, it makes the same fantastic whirring noise in 1st gear and the steering is still beautifully quick and direct. At the same time the Metro just feels like a much more grown-up, ‘proper’ car, something doubtless helped by the fact that this one doesn’t have a single rattle or creak from the trim. The only irritation was the clattering from the can of genuine Austin Rover touch-up paint which resisted all attempts to stifle it.

The Hydragas suspension is only half-formed on an early Metro like this, with no front/rear interconnection. Apparently this made the ride/handling noticeably worse but I couldn’t detect it. The ride is certainly ‘taut’ but the car doesn’t crash and jarr over bumps anything like a late-generation Mini.

The Metro isn’t a quick car. Given that it has 60-odd horsepower in a car weighing around 750kg it actually feels quite flat. It’s gutsy rather than nippy because it will pull cleanly at pretty much any speed and, as with my experience in A+ Series Minis it gets something of a second wind at about 65 mph. It will sit happily and easily at 70 with much less clamour than I expected, apart from a shrill whistle of wind noise, which I might be able to trace and solve.

I can’t really say any more without going into proper road test territory because nothing else of interest happened on the trip home. The little Metro soaked up the 122-mile motorway trip with consumate ease.

I made a brief stop at the South Mimms services at the top of the M25 to have a late lunch (given that I’d already given into one vice and bought a Metro I thought another wouldn’t do any harm and went for some of Burger King’s finest).

I took this chance to have a read through the handbook, one of my favourite parts of buying a ‘new’ car. It’s encouraging when one of the first pages of the book takes you, in great detail, through the numerous body cavity drain holes that have to be regularly cleared out with a ‘sharp implemen’ to stop the entire structure rusting out.

This was also a chance to try and tune the radio (which had a coathanger for an aerial) into something other than Radio 4 or any one of a number of London local stations, all of which were playing Dubstep and nothing else.

Whilst getting back into the car with my bag of burgery goodness I had my first “Don’t See Many of Those These Days…Used To Have One….” conversations, which since I’d only owned the car about two hours has to be something of a record. It was encouraging that the fellow remembered his Metro fondly, though.


The Metro whirred its way up the A1 into the gathering dusk and it was still going strong when the time came to turn off for Peterborough. It says a lot about the car that I was slightly disappointed that I was going to have to stop driving it soon.

As a final test I made a slight detour via the station to see if I could get the bike in the back, which would save me having to walk down (horror!) some other time to ride it home. It was a good, early test of the Metro’s practicality. I was slightly sceptical but after folding the rear seats down (I suspect for the first time, given how stiff the latches were) the bike went in easily, upright with just the front wheel off.

This also revealed one niggling fault on the car. Whilst the infamous Hydragas suspension was still level and true the same could not be said for the other pnuematic support system on the car, the boot gas-struts, which had obviously given up on life after 27 years. Opening the boot just saw it sag gracefully shut again.

Really if that’s the only fault for now then I’m looking forward to getting to know the Metro more.

Any other suggestions for E-reg hatchbacks based on very old designs with unusual suspension? I feel I need to get ‘Connect 3’.

Five Facelifts That Made Things Worse

I’ll admit that I’ve been caught short this particular Friday, being unexpectedly detained in deepest Kent and being forced, at no pleasure to myself, to poke around a classic car storage warehouse the contents of which included a Ferrari Daytona, a 1989 Porsche 911 Carrera, a Fiat 130 and not one but two Talbot Sambas.

As I type this it’s just gone past 10pm and I was going to let this evening’s blog slide, especially since I’m off to pick up a new addition to the Fleet tomorrow with plenty of blogging potential. I don’t feel particularly good about that though so, apropos of nothing at all, here’s a list I’ve quickly cobbled together (having just walked in the door and fortified myself with a mug of tea and some chocolate HobNobs) of five car facelifts that just made things worse, in no particular order other than the one I think of them:

1) Austin Allegro 3

I actually mentioned this one a couple of weeks ago but here we go again. The original Mk1 may have been a little stylistically challenged, with its bulbous flanks and inset, squinty headlamps, but it had a certain neat coherence to it. Personally I like the results of  BL’s brief fad (also implemented on the concurrent Marina) of fitting different grilles for different engine sizes, which helped liven up the range a bit as well as implementing some crucial Ford-style snob appeal. The original Allegro had enough chrome to liven up the front and rear ends which also drew the eye away from the most controversial design aspects.

A mild styling tweak in 1975 didn’t really alter much apart from the badging and a single black plastic grille for all the models. By 1979 a replacement for the Allegro was still nowhere near ready and there was no money to do anything major to the car to keep it fresh. BL’s third take on the Allegro was done on the cheap and looked it. The chrome bumpers were replaced by thick black plastic ones which just made the body look even more dumpy than before, whilst the grille was made into a single, bland slab of plastic (also black) which somehow manage to emphasise the car’s piggy-eyed frontal aspect. The colour range was also thinned out and all the oh-so-Seventies lime greens, oranges, yellows, purples and beiges which the Allegro actually wore quite well were replaced by dull, flat, dreary reds, blues and dark browns which did nothing to help the dreary looks. Neither did the plastic wheel trims instead of the neat, plain chrome ones.

2) Chrysler Avenger

The Hillman Avenger was not an interesting car in any way. It exemplified the Rootes Group approach of solid, conventional, rather dull but ‘competent’ cars. It’s three-box coke-bottle styling was pretty interchangeable with any other mass-market Ford, Vauxhall or Morris of the time. The one interesting point on the car was its rear three-quarter angle, where the rear pillar ran down from the rear screen in a sort of ‘buttress’, into the rear wing and ending in a unique L-shaped rear lamp cluster that no other British car of the time had anything like. The ‘hockey stick’ lamps just shouted ‘Avenger’ even at 200 yards and this was four decades before the current trend for manufacturers to do interesting things with the light units to create a ‘nighttime signature’.

In 1976 the Hillman Avenger became the Chrysler Avenger and was treated to a facelift which involved taking all the little distinctive bits of the design and throwing them away. The rear ‘hockey sticks’ went, along with the interesting wing shape, to be replaced by simple rectangular light units that could have been off anything. The front received large, equally angular light units that made the Avenger look like a Lada. When you’re car isn’t very interesting every little helps.

3) The Metro

The Austin/brandless/Rover Metro/100 (as I suppose it has to be called to encompass the full majesty of its various identities) was a classic Leyland product, being based on a 30-year old design and developed on a shoestring budget but packed with good, sensible features that made it so much more than the sum of its parts.

In facelift terms it’s interesting case because during the car had several styling tweaks and rebadgings and the car’s look alternated between bad and good each time these were carried out. The original 3-door car with the tiny inset headlamps and the shovel-shaped plastic front end was not, in my opinion, a good looker. It just looked, well, cheap and, like the aforementioned Allegro, a bit small in the ‘eye’ department.

The next facelift with the more integrated front end and the larger lamps set up into the bonnet line looked much better, especially the later ones with the body-coloured grille and bumpers. Of course the MG ones with the red seatbelts and the big Octagons on the doors look even better.

The real munter in the lifespan of the Metro is the first Rover-badged one. I’m beginning to spot a common theme in all these cars because to me the problem here is, yet again, big plastic bumpers and tiny headlamps. This is one of those looks that’s very colour dependant. On the classier Rover colours like dark metallic red or green it doesn’t look too bad but on the old Austin colours like white or pale blue it just doesn’t work. It gives the Metro the look of a Mk3 Ford Fiesta which is never a good thing, and then there’s that single-slot grille which looks like a giant CD player.The big plastic air scoops on the back edge of the bonnet don’t help things either. In more general terms the slightly more rounded styling just doesn’t seem to work as well as the original’s crisp-cut looks. It just looks like an old car that’s had its styling tweaked a bit.

The final incarnation of the car as the Rover 100 was a much better effort with the corporate Rover grille, rounder headlamps and body-coloured bumpers with little chrome finishers.

4) The Fiat Multipla

This one’s quick and simple, but also a little unusual because the facelift undoubtedly made the car better to look at, which was precisely the wrong thing to do.

The family MPV market has never been one to embrace radical thinking so I really admire Fiat’s bravado in launching a car so totally different in the looks department. Like most of the cars I admire the ugliness had a purpose- the huge, flat glass area made the inside very spacious whilst the odd two-tier front end meant that the drivetrain sat well away from the passenger cabin allowing for the Multipla’s trademark 3-abreast seating and flat floor. I’m also a sucker for any car marketed with a sense of humour in these days of po-faced ‘premium’ cars and the Multipla, with it’s rear window stickers saying “Wait Until You See The Front!” had that it spades.

Unfortunately it didn’t really sell well (with the exception of Roman taxi drivers, who loved it). So when Fiat began rebranding itself in the early 2000s they went and made the Multipla all boring. Boooooo!

5) Volkswagen Polo Mk2F

The Mk2 VW Polo exemplifies the best bits of Volkswagen’s best years. Before they started believing their own marketing hype they just made very good, very dull cars that were well though-out, well-built, practical and up-to-date. There is absolutely nothing of interest about the Mk2 Polo but its sheer competence and the unpretentious way it goes about its business makes it quite likeable.

VW styling in the ‘Eighties was thoroughly in keeping with their engineering- nothing special, nothing bad. It had razor-sharp edges and lines (especially the ‘bread van’ estate model which was the most popular in the UK), broken only by the round headlamps set into a bland but neat grille.

In 1990 the Polo was facelifted (creating the Mk2F) to bring it into line with VWs new corporate styling introduced with the Mk3 Passat two years before. Unfortunately the Passat was a much bigger car and was styled from the start to be a jelly-mould.

The 2F Polo took the clean, neat lines of the original and bespoiled them with rectangular headlamps, a chunkier grille, bigger and softer-edged rear light clusters. It was like the Metro, really- taking a design that was penned in an age when cars were angular and made from straight lines and trying to make it fit into a world of blobby, rounded shapes. It also spelt the beginning of the end for what little individuality there was in VW’s cars. It’s not so much that the 2F Polo is ugly but that it spoiled a really good piece of car styling.




The End of the Normal Car?

A few weeks ago I pondered on whether or not the cars being unveiled at the Paris Motor Show spelt the end of the Retro Car (a time I still feel can’t come soon enough). Recent events have made me ponder even further, because now I’m wondering if we’re seeing the end not of some flash-in-the-pan fashion trend,  but of something that’s been a staple of the motoring scene for the past 50-odd years. I think we may be seeing the beginning of the end of the mass-market family car.

This seems unlikely verging on the possible. It’s like saying that the bottom has dropped out of the market for blue denim jeans or that no one’s ordering Chicken Tikka Masala at Indian restaurants anymore. White-goods cars that are built just to move people around in generally acceptable fashion and which come with a sensible price tag that simply covers their manufacturing costs, rather than playing up to any brand values, have been around since motoring first become something normal people did back in the ‘Fifties.

This is the Ford Mondeo of foods, apparently.

But let’s take a brief recap over recent news. Peugeot SA (the holding company for Peugeot and Citroen – i.e more than half the French motor industry) is wobbling its way down the drain against a background of sliding sales, factories on half-shifts and has had to get cash guarantees from the French government. It’s also shut one of its main plants and laid off several thousand workers.

Ford, surely the most mass-market of the mass-market brands, is losing money hand over fist in Europe and on Thursday announced it was shutting its plant in Ghent, Belgium, where the Mondeo and its predecessors have been made since 1972. Ford is also closing the Transit factory at Southampton, following a scarcely believable 20% slump in Transit sales. This from a factory and a product that only a few years ago could, without any real hyperbole, call itself The Backbone of Britain. The Blue Oval is also shutting one of its stamping plants at Dagenham and laying off 8,000 workers in its European operations- a decision that they announced, in one of the most heartless press statements I’ve ever read, as “the implementation of cost efficiency actions” and a “reduction in installed vehicle assembly capacity”.

I suppose that ‘Coccyx of Britain’ would be more appropriate now.

Meanwhile General Motors as a whole has announced that its profits for this year are going to be down on what was forecast and GM Europe (Opel/Vauxhall) is also still losing money and has the same problem of too much production, too many overhead costs and not enough sales.

You may well be thinking that this is just symptomatic of the Poor Economic ClimateTM which rumbles on and on, but no. The global car industry is going through something of a boom, even in credit-crunched Europe. The UK’s car production figures took a steep dive as the recession bit but in the past 18 months or so the industry has not only recovered but is going a full throttle with output not seen since the days of BL and Rootes and profits not seen since the days of ever.

Across the Channel things aren’t much different. VAG’s plan for world domination (Operation Yes That’s Also An Optional Extra) is going ahead nicely. Mercedes is picking itself up from the doldrums of the past 15 years or so and Fiat is doing so well that it’s felt sufficiently brave to take on Chrysler, which is the motor industry equivalent of feeling brave enough to wander around the Isle of Dogs in a West Ham strip.

But what’s the common factor in all these cases? It’s that they’re all ‘premium’ or luxury makers. The British motor industry is doing well because it now consists almost entirely of premium brands- Jaguar Land Rover, MINI, Aston Martin, Morgan, McLaren, Lotus and so on. Germany also churns out Audis, BMWs, Mercedes and yes, Volkswagens, by the ship load. Fiat isn’t a brand usually associated with the word ‘premium’ but the 500 has managed the fantastic trick of getting people to pay £15,000 for a Panda. Also try and think when you saw a new or nearly-new Fiat that wasn’t a 500. I can’t.

Of course, there’s supposed to be a Great Recession going on, so surely it’s not a case of everyone “Screw Peugeot! This year I’m getting’ me a Jaaaag!”? It isn’t. The problem is that the car market is becoming massively polarised. Without getting all political, in the past few years people have either become much richer or much poorer. The two parts of the car market that are seeing growth are the very expensive cars or very cheap ones.

The UK is slightly apart from this phenomenon because our economy isn’t quite as firmly down the shitter as much of southern Europe, where a quarter of the population is unemployed, and as a nation we can still, amazingly, get credit to buy new Vauxhalls every few years. On the Continent the real success story has been Dacia. Yes, Dacia, those terrible orange cars built in Romania from bits of warmed-up Renault which even Renault reckoned were too far gone to be sold in the West.

Recent Dacias aren’t the flaky Commie-built misery wagons that they used to be. Renault now owns the enterprise outright and basically does the same trick that VAG has been doing for years- send your expired platforms off to a different factory, slap a different badge on it, slash the price and reap the massive profit margins that come from selling a car made with completely paid-for tooling. The Logan and Sandero are simply rehashed old Clios with all the luxuries removed. They sell in the West for between 6,000 and 8,000 Euros a pop and Renault/Dacia can’t make enough of them. With production costs in Romania a tenth of those in France Renault makes three times the amount of money it does on each Logan sold than it does on a kitted-out Laguna, even though the latter sells for twice as much.

This is the saviour of the Western motor industry.

They aren’t the only one. One of the reasons for Fiat’s financial success is that its little cash cow, the 500, is built in Poland. Nissan has confirmed that it will be bringing back the Datsun name as a player in sub-£10,000 market. Poor, troubled, Peugeot displayed dazzling acumen as it looked at Renault’s good fortune with Dacia, considered reviving the Talbot [heavenly choral music] name as a competitor and then decided not to. As I briefly mentioned on Monday even Volkswagen has decided that neither VW, Skoda or Seat are budget brands anymore and will be launching a new badge to take advantage of this trend. Who would have thought even ten years ago that VW would ever need a badge to fit in below Skoda?

Most of the mass-market brands are realising that there is simply no demand for ‘normal’ cars to be bought by ‘normal’ people. The BMW 3-Series has outsold the ‘mass market’ Ford Mondeo for many years now. Even small cars can be made to be very expensive. People will inexplicably pay good money for an Audi A1 when it’s just VW Polo in a posh dress, which is just a Skoda Fabia in business attire. MINIs sell by the wagon load despite being much more expensive than most cars in their size bracket and not as practical.

Peugeot and Vauxhall’s problem is that their cars are just too normal. The people who want them can’t afford them and the people who can afford them don’t want them. This is why Opel/Vauxhall is launching the Adam supermini, which is managing to appear as a ‘premium’ product despite being, well, a Vauxhall. Citroen’s DS3 is also a rare thing of recent times, a fashionable Citroen. It’s particularly ironic that PSA are caught in this marketing pincer-movement because for many years in the 60s and 70s Citroen’s big problem was that it made little lawnmower-engined cars for peasants that looked like they were made out of bits of garden shed, huge technological masterpieces that looked like something from Flash Gordon and nothing in between. After two decades of careful marketing and range expansion they now find themselves with no competitive products at the bottom and top ends of the market, where the real growth is.

If you take a step back all this is part of a very long term trend. The automotive industry has been becoming more and more specialised for a good few decades. In the 1950s  a mass-producer like Austin or Ford could make an entire range of cars from little ‘people’s cars’ like the A35 and the Popular, through several varieties of mid-sized saloon and estate, a couple of sports cars, all topped off by a huge luxo-barge like a Sheerline or a Pilot V8. In the 1970s  the Germans invented the idea of the ‘premium saloon’, which wasn’t any more luxurious or even necessarily any better than a normal one but was built well and marketed even better.

By the 80s the mass-market was further being split by things like hot-hatches, people carriers and 4x4s which were all taking the place of your normal family hatch or saloon. Now we have things like the Nissan Juke and the MINI Paceman which are crossover-SUV-sports-coupes, the Vauxhall Insignia ‘Sports Tourer’ (which I think translates as ‘estate car with a tiny and oddly-shaped boot’), and the BMW 5-Series GT which is part saloon car, part reincarnated Rover SD1 and part basking shark.

It’s very telling that last year, when Renault severely pruned their UK car range the Espace and Laguna models were amongst the casualties. These ruled the family car roost in the early- to mid-90s but sales have dwindled. Equally telling is that one of Ford’s other actions on ‘Black Thursday’ was to push back the introduction of the next generation Mondeo to 2014 (even though the car has already been unveiled) and instead speed up plans to introduce the next-gen Mustang to Europe. It says a lot about the weirdness of the European car market that the solution to Ford’s problems is to stop work on a 3-box family saloon and instead bring in a high-performance sports coupe.

What a freak. It’s not ugly, it’s got decent headroom, it’s 2WD and it’s not got any boot spoilers. It’ll never catch on.

The times they are a-changin’, and I don’t think it’s going to be pretty.

Opinion Triple Whammy

I’ve got three things on my mind this evening, so let’s get down to business:

MG BTCC Edition at Brands Hatch

I made the trek to Kent to watch the BTCC final at Brands Hatch yesterday, because it’s not every day you get to watch a 4-way battle for a championship and one of the cars in the running is an MG.

The day itself was great spectator sport with the continual damp and rain making for a brilliant display of driving skill and, yes, a few ‘offs’ and bumps.

Of course, MG and Jason Plato didn’t romp home to win the championship (it went to Gordon Shedden in a Honda Civic) but he did end up in 3rd place overall. A podium finish for MG in the car’s debut season should not be sniffed at.

MG Motor had a decent presence at Brands Hatch, with a few replica MG6GT touring cars dotted around and a decent corporate stand with around a dozen models, including two MG6GT BTCC special editions.

A touring-car related edition or version of the 6 was one of my recent suggestions for what MG should be doing. I notice they even chose the name I suggested, although sadly my idea was more for comic effect because MG6 GT BTCC really doesn’t role off the tongue like ‘R’ or ‘MPower’ or ‘Cup’. It also means that the model can only have a limited shelf-life before the BTCC becomes ancient history. It could never be a permanent fixture in the range. If MG want to play on their car’s sporting success in more effective way, I’d be tempted to go with just ‘TC’. It’s a snappier, more flexible term and was the top trim level on several cars from the MG/British Leyland past.

A prestigous badge indeed!

As for the BTCC Edition itself, I quite like it. Some people have criticised the lack of any mechanical changes or performance increases over the standard model but I think that is expecting a little too much. MG are only pitching the BTCC as a special edition rather than an actual performance variant and very few special editions of any car are any more than the normal model with a bodykit and some jazzy graphics.

The bodykit that MG has garnished the MG6 with works well. The mild facelift recently carried out has definitly freshened up the car’s detailing and the black sills, roof, boot ‘spoiler’ and so on work well (especially on the blue car). The only styling flaw, in my opinion, is painting the bottom of the enlarged front air dam black which completely disguises it. The ‘MG Racing’ spec car (available in China for the past six months and which the BTCC Edition is based on) is white and this really helps emphasise the different frontal aspect for the better.

‘BTCC’ makes for fairly big badges which don’t really sit well on panels never intended to take them. This is especially the case for the one on the front grille, which has to be put on at an angle under the slanted bonnet edge, making it look like it’s been put on skew-wiff.

The 5-bar colour flashes are a bit of a weak spot. It looks like the logo you got on 80s portable tellys and video cameras to boast about the arrival of Full Trinitron Colour. With four colours and two bars a different width to the others it’s doesn’t have the same impact as, say, BMW’s racing stripes or even the old MG ‘XPower’ branding.

I really feel I’m being unnecessarily, nit-picking-ly cruel on MG but it’s only because I want the people behind it to get this sort of thing right and for the car to do well. This opinion was only strengthened by having a good poke around one of the other cars on their stand, a Magnette HSE in gold (aka metallic beige). The interior really is a nice place to be and the build quality and fit/finish seem to have taken a few more leaps upward in comparison to the already good cars that were on display at Pride of Longbridge back in the spring. There were no wobbly switches, rattle or squeaks, the electronic displays and dash instruments looked slick and modern, there was enough space and it had good ergonomics and a snug, comfortable driving position. My two companions were equally complimentary. One of them, a die-hard German car fan, said that the interior’s feel of solidity gave him the impression of a 1980s Volkswagen, which is praise indeed.

So, please MG, now you’ve rather missed the boat for BTCC publicity, make the most your 3rd place finish and howabout a genuine warmed-up 6? Actually, scrub that- just crack on with getting the diesel version and the 6-speed gearbox over here. Then get the MG3 out here and then do hot versions of both of them. The engineering and build quality is all there ready.

LTI Goes S’aaf of the River

Today came news that Manganese Bronze, the parent company of London Taxis International, has called in the administrators after making a loss for the past four years.This comes a week after LTI’s shares were suspended after it issued a recall for 400 of its taxis due to a steering fault. Which came only a few weeks after an IT error caused the company to lose several million pounds earned from recent sales transactions. LTI had been suffering declining sales for many years due to several other build quality issues and the opening up of the London taxi market to other builders such as Mercedes-Benz and Nissan.

As you can probably tell, the death of LTI doesn’t come as a complete surprise. The company has already done what seems to be Standard Operating Procedure for failing British vehicle builders and signed a deal with a Chinese corporation, in this case Geely, which builds and sells TX4s in China and supplies them in CKD form to LTI for assembly in Coventry, where the company employs 300 people.

Just as with MG-Rover and LDV this collaboration came with the lure of financial support. This final nail in LTI’s coffin came abut when Geely refused to give the ailing manufacturer a loan. Given previous events I’m betting that within 6 months Geely will have snapped up LTI at a fraction of it’s value as a going concern, shipped all the tooling out to China and will be selling TX4s back to the UK.

If no one takes over LTI’s responsibilities, what will happen to the thousands of cabbies who have an LTI product bought, presumably, under a suitable high-mileage warranty and service deal? Expect a lot of cheap, broken TX1s and TX4s on the market shortly.

A People’s Car for the People

VAG never fails to produce ‘WTF?’ moments when their model range and branding is concerned. Another breaking story today was VW’s confirmation that it will be launching a budget brand for ultra-low-cost cars, in line with Renault’s highly successful Dacia brand and Nissan’s recent confirmation of the revival of Datsun for similar reasons.

It shows how far things have come that the company named ‘People’s Car’ feels it is too upmarket to work on cars produced for use by…people. The announcement also comes shortly after the release of the New New Beetle, which at £20k is not really a car of the people at all, and the news that VW is culling most of the remaining ‘heritage’ models such as the Microbus, the Jetta Mk2 and the Santana from its global lineup because the image they produce (presumably that of effective, dependable, functional transport for the masses) doesn’t sit well with VW’s current brand identity.

What happened to the idea of Skoda being VAG’s bottom-run brand? Has their revival of Skoda’s brand image been so successul that it’s now classed as premimum too? Is this because people have finally cottoned on to the fact that a Skoda or a Seat is just a ‘premium’ VW but for less money?

VW have said the brand will be ‘something new’, which will be interesting to watch because VW have never created a brand from scratch since it was itself created. What dormant brands do they own? I can’t see Hanomag, Horch, Wanderer or DKW really working on a global scale.



In Defence Of: The Austin Allegro

Think of this category as Mythbusters but for old cars. Some cars, some types of cars, some engines and some companies just attract bad press and this has a cumulative effect as once it’s slagged off once it becomes a running joke and people slag it off more. Well here at Balloon_Fish we have no time for such things (remember- Bad Cars Are Interesting) so I’m going to be trying to put forward a positive case for much-maligned products of the motor industry. At times this may require a bit of Devil’s Advocate writing but I’m going to kick off with one which requires no such intellectual exercises.

The Austin Allegro.

Can a car described on its own fansite as a ‘chubby underacheiver’ really have a good side?

Now, from the get-go, I must say that I’m not trying to say that the Allegro is the best car ever made. I’m not even trying to say that it was an average car. I’m not one of those BL enthusiasts who thinks that the only problem with the Morris Ital was that not enough people could appreciate it.

However, the Allegro seems to be considered such a dud that it regularly features in (if not tops) lists of the sort MSN Autos love to run on a slow news day. Like this one and this one. And this one. And this one. Oh, and this one. It was even berated in the hallowed chamber of the House of Lords as ‘probably the worst car ever made’.

Now, I think there are three things to consider when deciding whether or not a car is bad. I’ll list them here because they’ll be the basis of most of these posts:

1) Is it a bad design? In other words, is the car itself flawed. Does it have some major defect which makes it fundamentally bad at moving people around in a manner less strenuous and more comfortable than walking. Do the cars’ failings come from some error in the design itself rather than its execution?

2) Was the design executed properly? This is usually the main stumbling block. Here is where we can lump all those build quality issues, niggling flaws, long-term rust problems, dodgy electrics caused by cheap components and so on.

3)Was it the right design?  The other big hurdle. A car may be a brilliant piece of engineering and cutting-edge design but if no one wants it it’s no good to the builder. A lot of cars deemed ‘rubbish’ because they were sales flops fall into this catergory, even if there’s nothing wrong with the design and concept itself.

So where does the Allegro stand on this basis?

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that it’s not a bad design. It’s not a particularly good-looking car but ugliness alone shouldn’t count against a car when considered on the terms of its design. As I’ve said before on this blog, the Citroen Ami 6 is gut-wrenchingly ugly from every angle but is a very good small saloon and sold incredibly well. Yes, we’ve all seen Harris Mann’s original styling sketch (which was actually an idea for an ADO16 reskin) and Pininfarina’s fantastically good-looking counter proposal, and we compare it with the pug-faced, barrel-sided blob of a car that actually made it into production and cringe. But the Allegro was at least distinctive and its, erm, unique appearance has meant that it hasn’t dated half as much as the coke-bottle 3-box saloons of the time, or the cars that came before and after it, the ADO16s and the Austin Maestro, which are entirely of their time and look it. The Allegro was the last fling of BMC’s function-led design ethos and the result is that the Allegro looks like no other car- just an Allegro. Serious people with thin-framed glasses and polonecks have hailed the Ami  6 as a masterpiece of functional design and styling. Why can’t the Allegro be considered along the same lines?

Why indeed?

The only real flaw with the design of the Allegro as it stood was its lack of a hatchback which could so easily have been incorporated into the car given its shape. A point against it, and one that speaks volumes about BL’s terrible market awareness and model strategy, but not one that can condemn the entire car.

The rest of the concept and design was well up to scratch. The handling and packaging benefits of front wheel drive and transverse engines were well understood by the time the Allegro came along but BL was still something of a pioneer in the British market with the contemporary Fords, Vauxhalls and Rootes products resolutely sticking with rear-wheel drive. The same applies to the Hydragas suspension which offered a highly compliant ride combined with better (although not sharper) handling than conventional systems, and took up less space and required less maintenance. The Allegro’s lack of subframes, allowed for by the adoption of Hydragas, amongst other features, helped keep the rust that afflicted so many cars of the time, especially the ADO16s, to a minimum.

The engines were a mix of old (A-Series) and new (E-Series) but both were fundamentally sound with no problems and performance well up to market demands and a big improvement over the ADO16s. All were cursed with the vague and rubbery gearchange of BMC/BL’s box-in-sump models but it was useable and reliable.

The interior was very much of its time, meaning acres of synthetic materials and numerous shades of brown but that’s only an aberration to modern eyes and there were far worse offenders on the market. The only weak spot in this area of the design was in the packaging as despite being bigger than the ADO16s the Allegro offered little in the way of extra space and the huge sense of airiness that characterised all of Issignonis’ FWD designs was conspicuous by its absence.

This is where I have to offer an opinion on the infamous Quartic steering wheel. This has come to symbolise all that was wrong with the Allegro, which is doomed forever to be known as ‘the car with the square steering wheel’. Having now realised a lifetime ambition and driven an Allegro with a Quartic wheel, I can say that it’s no better or worse than a normal wheel. Which makes sense when you look at it. Plenty of other cars before the Allegro, at the same time and since have had not-quite-round steering wheels without raising a whisper of criticism. The problem the Allegro had was that it was such a neat stick to beat the car with. With much of the press and the public turning against BL after its years of shambolic business and increasingly unsuitable cars the square steering wheel was just too convenient a metaphor to ignore.

As to how the design was executed, this is something of a mixed bag. The Allegro has picked up a reputation for being unreliable with terrible handling but this seems overdone. Find any car built in the ‘Seventies in Britain, especially by BL, that didn’t have build quality issues. The Allegro was in fact quite well off in this department. Making use of existing drivetrains meant that the Allegro was largely free of BL’s habit of letting customers do their product testing for them. The Hydragas suspension worked on established principles that Citroen had ironed the bugs out of years before and was in itself a development of BMC’s Hydrolastic setup which had also proved reliable.

I’m not going to argue that the Allegro didn’t have issues because it’s very clear that it did. But these were mainly in the fit/finish, build quality and ancillary areas rather than through any Allegro-specific failing. In fact with its unibody construction and Issigonis-free design the Allegro was quite long-lived and rust-resistant by the standards of its day.

Moulton, Dunlop, Austin, Allegro. Loads of great British brands in one product.

The Hydragas suspension comes in for a lot of flack (and is probably worth a whole In Defence Of… article itself) but this also seems to be badly aimed or arising from a lack of experience with the car. All of the BMC/BL cars with fluid-based suspension systems are more ‘floaty’ and roly-poly than conventionally-sprung cars but this is the nature of their design. They come from an age before all cars needed to exhibit some degree of sporty handling and you could sell a car on comfort and ease of driving. Hydragas offered, for the time, a blend of comfort and handling that was only bettered by a Jaguar or a hydropneumatic Citroen. Yes, the Allegro bounced and rolled a lot more than its contemporaries but, like an old Citroen, this was merely an expression of its different design principles. Bounce and roll are signs of a poor design in a conventional suspension system but with hydropneumatic systems of the time such as Hydragas it meant nothing untoward. The displacer spheres and the fore/aft interconnection managed to completely damp out ‘float’ and pitch making the Allegro stable and planted in a way that few contemporary cars in its market sector were. All these benefits the Allegro could be hustled along a rough, twisty road at much greater speeds, in greater comfort and with greater security than any of its live-axled and leaf-sprung competitors.

So, finally, we come to the question of whether or not the Allegro was the right car for its time. Sales figures alone say that the car can’t have been that bad, because in ten years on sale over 660,000 people bought Allegros. Some people bought more than one. However when considered in context those sales figures start to look a bit shaky. The Allegro’s predecessor, the ADO16 range, sold over 2 million examples in 12 years- at almost double the Allegro’s average this shows something wasn’t right.

The Allegro’s looks may have played a part, but it was more that it didn’t offer anything in spite of the looks. The Mini was considered odd-looking when it was launched but proved the critics wrong by simply being too good in other areas for that to matter. The Allegro offered nothing so revolutionary. Instead it was merely competent in most of the areas that mattered to people. In fact it was seen by many loyal BL customers as a retrograde step after the ADO16, which so neatly covered so many bases. It didn’t have that car’s brilliant use of interior space. It didn’t have the same big-go-kart handling – however good the handling of the Allegro may actually have been it didn’t feel or look like it. It was styled like a European hatchback without the hatch and was smaller and less solid-feeling than a safe, conventional Avenger or Escort.

In fact it should be noted that the Morris Marina, demonstrably a worse car than the Allegro as a design and engineering exercise, thrashed its clever but odd-looking sibling in the sales charts. This reveals a great deal about the habits of the car buying public in the ‘Seventies and goes a long way to explaining why the Allegro’s oddball approach, however good it was as a technical exercise, didn’t find favour.

Like the Marina part of the Allegro’s image problem didn’t start until late in life. Continual delays to the Maestro/Montego development meant that the Allegro was kept around for far longer than it was intended. By the early ‘Eighties the market was awash with European superminis and hot-hatches. The Allegros’ looks weren’t helped by its final facelift into the Allegro 3 which just managed to highlight the car’s styling quirks and looked like the cheap, superficial touch-up that it was. When BL tried to compete on the hot-hatch market with the the infamous Equipe and, later, the HLS the results just came across as desperate because the Allegro was never intended to be that sort of car.

A bronze medal for the Allegro. Kinda sums everything up.

The Allegro ended its days as something of a national laughing stock which the car itself had done little deserve. Instead the car’s problems were nearly all the result of BL’s more general problems, which I suppose is why the car has come to serve as a sort of proxy for the whole enterprise. Which is a shame because under all the years of mockery is a competent, likeable and pleasantly quirky little car. If it really is the worst British car ever made, then we haven’t done that badly.

Let’s Go For A Drive: Triumph Stag

If any one phrase can sum up British Leyland’s products it’s “They’re OK apart from…”. BL weren’t in the habit of making truely bad cars, what they specialised in were fundamentally good (or even excellent) cars that were let down by one jaw-droppingly incompetent design or management decision. For example, the Rover SD1 – a 125-mph executive muscle car that looked like a Ferrari Daytona which slowly shook itself apart on the motorway. Or the Austin Maxi, which set the template for the modern family car and was technically miles ahead of any competitor but which was launched with a gearbox which was not merely bad but literally unuseable.

However no single product encapsulates BL’s ability to shoot itself in the foot like the Triumph Stag. A car that was praised by all who reviewed it and which cost around half as much as its only real competitor. A car which sealed Triumph’s reputation as one of the world’s superlative sports car builders. A car which managed to torpedo its biggest market and which undershot its sales projections by a factor of eight.

The Stag did not earn the nickname ‘Snag’ for nothing. Aside from the iffy fit/finish and electrical gremlins that were standard-fit on any British car of the 1970s the Stag’s unique, advanced and very expensive 3-litre V8 engine was riddled with faults. Chief amongst these were cronic overheating issues caused by a glorious mix of design flaws, quality issues and poor servicing regimes. Sales, which were initially healthy, stalled and then plummeted. As usual a raft of detail changes were made in the Mk2 version, launched in 1973 (only three years after the model was introduced). However the damage was done and the world, once so enamoured with Triumph’s burly roadburner, shunned the Stag. It was killed off in early 1978 after only 25,877 had been built- Triumph had anticipated those sorts of sales per year. In the USA, the market that the Stag was designed for, only 2,700 found homes.

That’s the story, but time can heal all wounds so what’s the Stag like in 2012?

It can not be denied that the Stag is a good-looking car. Not beautiful, but good-looking none the less. Triumph and the Italian design house Michelotti had a long and successful partnership. The Stag brilliantly combined Triumph’s house style, found on the 2000 and Spitfire, and making them work on a larger, more powerful car. For example the swooping ‘haunches’ of the Spitfire are still on the Stag but as more muscular wheelarches. Like the 2000 and the TR6 the front and rear ends are largely symmetrical. As required by US regulations the car has four circular headlamps which help give it a front end that means business. Federal regs also required the fitment of a rollover bar which on the Stag is neatly integrated into the B-pillars with a fixed padded T-bar over the passenger space.

Inside it’s business as usual for a 70s Triumph. The company was relatively unusual in the BL stable in having a recognisable design language that it applied consistently across it’s range, both inside and out. Any Spitfire, TR, 2000 or Dolomite driver would be right at home, with the dashboard being made of several slabs of Fablon lined in black plastic and vinyl with a scattering of Smiths gauges with an oh-so-Seventies blocky font and square-ended needles. The cockpit is deeply trimmed in padded black vinyl and black carpets. The seats are also black vinyl, but are scuplted and well padded with a squidgy centre section and firm edges which hold you in place well. The driving position is rather odd, the Stag being one of those cars where the pedals don’t line up with the steering wheel which doesn’t line up with the seat. Earlier UK-spec Stags lacked standard power-steering and so had a steering wheel similar in size to that found on a Series Land Rover. This later Mk2 example has a more sensibly-sized wheel with a simple but sporty 3-spoke design.

Under Way

Enough wittering about the interior furnishings- this is a MAN’S CAR. Like most engines of its type the V8 spins over quickly. It fires easily with a little choke and quickly settles down to a subdued and refined idle. The engine doesn’t roar or burble but simply makes its presence felt with a subdued rumble, rather like the distant throbbing of a cross-Channel ferry’s engines. It’s not loud but it suggests immense power.

The gearbox is not the Stag’s good point. It’s a lightly updated version of the 1950’s Triumph TR2 and really struggles to stay together when faced with more than double the power and torque it was designed for. It’s not an especially slick gearbox, especially when cold but the shift is well-defined. The problems are upchanges under power. The ‘box locks up under all but the lightest throttle openings making it impossible to snatch the next gear under even modest acceleration. You have to wait for things to settle down a bit before easing the stick into place. Downchanges are no problem (the box is fully synchro) although the transmission appreciates being helped out by double-de-clutching if you want things to happen quickly. The Laycock overdrive is selected by a flick-switch on the gearknob and is one of those little theatrical touches that seem to be lacking from modern cars. The unit itself cycles quickly and freely, even under load and, whilst it’s desperately immature, you never get bored of booting the throttle and then flicking the switch to ‘Out’ so the car takes off like you’ve just selected some magical ‘overboost’ function. The overdrive is electrically interlocked so it disengages if you select 1st or 2nd and then re-engages if it’s selected when you move into the top two gears.

Ride and Handling
The Mk2 Stag had hydraulic PAS as standard but it’s clearly set up for American demands, being very light, over-assisted and over-sensitive Whilst this may be fine for cruising at 55 MPH in a straight line it takes a lot of gettnig used to on your average British B-road as you find yourself over-correcting and then over-correcting-correcting every little movement. Fortunately the car itself cruises beautifully and tracks well. With fully independent coil spring suspension the Stag suffers none of the twitchyness and bump-shudder that afflicted its smaller stablemates and it takes serious irregularities to upset it. Genuinely comfortable sports cars were rare in the 1970s but the Stag was one of them.

Of course, the ‘deal’ with the Stag is it’s engine- simultaneously the biggest attraction and the biggest problem. Let’s just say that it’s a 3-litre, 140 BHP V8 in a 1200kg car so it’s going to make some noise and go quite well. Which it does. The engine expels its gases through two large-bore tailpipes so it doesn’t make the frantic bellowing roar of a Rover V8 in sports mode. Instead it sounds much more like a big Yank iron V8 with lots of burble and bass. When driven gently it wuffles away to itself and, exhaust note aside, is virtually silent apart from the large cooling fan. Step on the right pedal hard and it sounds like an old church organ winding up for the last few chords of Jerusalem. Like all V8s the power delivery is instantaneous and turbine smooth. With OHC and alloy heads the engine revs freely right up to the 6,500 redline if you wish, with the noise becoming a smooth baritone growl at the higher speeds. The cylinder dimensions are massively over-square so you don’t have quite the same indomitable grunt at idle speed that other engines of the same size can deliver. However you’ve still got 8 cylinders banging away and the engine will happily cruise around in O/D 4th at 1,700 RPM and still accelerate cleanly. In fact you need to be careful in the bottom two gears otherwise you’ll easily get a chirp from the rear tyres. You’d expect a V8 RWD car to be a bit tailhappy but whilst the Stag will happily spin its rear tyres on a damp roundabout it would require properly deficient driving to actually get out of line thanks to the sweet handling.

By modern standards the Stag is not a fast car- 0-60 can apparently be done in around 9.5 seconds but I don’t see how the gearbox will let you do that. In normal driving you would struggle to keep pace with an executive turbodiesel. But classic cars aren’t about outright performance but the way they deliver what they have and few cars combine character and refinement like the Stag. It has just enough drama, noise and wind-in-the-hair to be fun even when just bumbling around town without the full sensory assault that, say, an MGB subjects you to in daily use. The Stag has always defied attempts to pigeonhole it. It’s not a true sports car (it’s too big, too soft and it has four seats and a big boot) yet it’s not quite luxurious and refined enough to be a true GT. In fact the car is a split personality through and through and that makes it a wonderfully tempting proposition since it seems to cover so many bases.

Four decades after it was introduced we can now look past the company-afflicted problems that the Stag suffered (which have all been solved by various aftermarket groups) and see that, as usual, BL had a world-class product which they just couldn’t build properly.

Autoelectronica: Classics in Forza 4

This is the first in what I hope will be an occasional series of articles looking at car- and motoring-related things in video gaming, thus neatly combining two of my pastimes into one.

So we’re going to kick off with something that manages to be neither cutting edge or interestingly retro- Forza Motorsport 4 for the Xbox 360. Since this has been out for almost a year and is within a few weeks of being replaced this isn’t going to be a review as such.

To be very brief, Forza 4 is the latest in the Xbox’s Forza Motorsport line of racing simulators which began in 2005 (‘simulator’ meaning that it aims to provide as realistic an experience as possible rather than a racing ‘game’ which is more about easy entertainment than realism). It squares off against the Gran Tourismo series on the Playstation and has generally tried to differ itself by being incredibly geeky about, almost literally, the nuts-and-bolts of car racing. From the series’ earliest days the emphasis was on customisation. You can repaint your car in any shade you want, put different colours on different parts of the car, apply shapes, stickers, symbols, logos, racing numbers and much else wherever you want. You can lavish just as much time on your chosen weapon’s mechanics. Modifications can range from a K&N air filter and some stiffer suspension bushes through lowered suspension, sports dampers, ported-and-polished cylinder heads to bored-out engines with huge turbochargers, massively wide wheels running slick racing tyres and even an entire drivetrain transplant from another vehicle. If your car has adjustable bits you can then spend hours tweaking your front toe-in angles and differential bias to try and find that elusive tenth-of-a-second-per-lap.

Forza 4 added to this by bringing along jaw-dropping graphical detail. Each of the 500+ cars is rendered in minute detail inside and out.What I, personally, like about Forza 4 is that it seems to really be a game made by enthusiasts for enthusiasts, with an enthusiast’s attention to detail. Not so long ago the headlamps on your virtual car would be a white polygon, then they became polygons badly textured by a photo of a headlamp. In Forza 4 you can see every facet of the lense, each bulb in each cluster and even, if you can get the camera close enough, the filament in the bulb. The game includes a mode called ‘Autovista’ which does nothing other than give you the chance to fully explore  high detail 3D models of around two-dozen selected cars. The doors open and close, as do the boot and bonnet. Under the bonnet every jubilee clip, warning sticker, HT lead, fuse and sensor is there to (virtually) prod around. And this isn’t even the point of the game- it’s just there because the developers know that some people like to look at cars for their own sake.

Which brings me to what, for me, is the best development in Forza 4. Previous iterations had, understandably, majored on sports and racing cars. This is all well and good but it’s all a bit, shall we say, ‘Max Power’. People enthuse over cars for other reasons than pure performance or looks. In Forza 4 the stable of cars includes some with no sporting pretension or ability at all but which are iconic or interesting.This is a very pleasing change and acknowledges that cars don’t have to be particularly performance-orientated to be worth driving. Of course Forza’s ability to modify your cars mean that, if you want, you can take an AMC Pacer and turn it into something capable of beating Ferraris if you really want, which only adds to the appeal of doing some virtual tinkering.

There has also been a change in seeking out cars from defunct manufacturers, which adds greatly to the mix of cars available especially those originating in Britain. We now have MGs, Triumphs and Austin-Healeys to play with alongside Hudsons, Oldsmobiles and De Tomasos.

If, like me, you care more about an exquisitely rendered electronic recreation of an a Frogeye Sprite than one of a Pagani Zonda, this is great. It means that every race can be like the Goodwood Revival crossed with a particularly good episode of Top Gear (the test track of which is now featured in the game).

It means you get races that look like this:

Here’s an AMC Gremlin leading the pack whilst a Lotus Cortina Mk1 tries to avoid a Hummer H1. Meanwhile a Transit Sportsvan is being hassled by a Hudson Hornet.

Or what about this? :

A Frogeye Sprite being out-dragged by a 1937 Ford V8 Coupe whilst a VW Karmann-Ghia closes on a gold Ford Pinto. And yes, in the background that is the van from the A-Team.

Of course you’re doing Forza 4 a disservice if you spend all your time chugging around at the bottom end of the performance tables in a 1200cc Beetle. All the cars are worth racing but that’s the joy of the way of Forza has gone- it covers all the bases.

However, it may be a sign of my terrible taste in cars and a lack of ambition but when I have the chance to drive a near-perfect rendition of a McLaren MP4-12C would I rather drive this:

or this:

I mean, isn’t it much more interesting and varied to see how well a Dodge Omni GLHS does against a Fiat 500 Abarth than how many fractions of a second faster a Lamborghini Aventador is than a Ferrari 458?

Where else would you get to see a Ford Country Squire Station Wagon nearly running into the back of a Saab 99 Turbo on a racetrack?

For a classic car enthusiast this is as close as we’ll get to driving many of these cars. The visual models seem spot-on and they make the right sort of noises (I particularly like the shrieking fan roar of the Karmann Ghia when you thrash it!). The handling will never be better than approximate when you’re ‘driving’ whilst sitting on a sofa with a handheld controller but they all seem to drive roughly as you’d expect- the Caddy Eldorado is huge, rolly and slow, the big Healey is fast with hefty steering, the classic Porsches will snap into oversteer given any sort of provocation, the muscle cars are unsophisticated and the Ford Escort RS1800 is fantastically lairy:

It’s just a shame that I didn’t get around to writing all this a year ago when Forza was still vaguely fresh, otherwise I’d recommend it in an instant to any car nut with an Xbox, even if they weren’t into ‘racing simulators’.

Fortunately the next entry in the Forza lineup, due out in a few weeks, promises to put a new spin on the genre which has certainly piqued my interest. Watch this space for something more topical.

The End of the Retro Car?

Yesterday was the first press day at the 2012 Paris Motor Show and it was really a day when British brands stole the limelight. Given the troubled economic climate the European motor industry isn’t really on top form and the products and ideas on show tended to reflect this- a lime green Peugeot SUV, an electric Mercedes SLS, a new Renault Clio, a Golf GTI which looks exactly like the old one but now has red bits in the headlamps, that sort of thing.

Jaguar Land Rover won the day with the first motorshow presence for the 4th-generation Range Rover but the real star was Jaguar’s F-Type, one of the most eagerly anticipated cars of the year. There was very little surprise to be found but the consensus seems to have been one of pleasure that the unveiled car had made it to the show with the styling, interior (in fact most details) unchanged from the C-X16 concept shown last year, albeit only available in roadster form for now, unlike the concept which was a coupe.

The F-Type is undoubtedly an important car for Jaguar. As the name implies it is a direct spritual successor to the iconic E-Type. Whilst the current XK series is in fact that lineal descendant of that car in the intervening decades the model’s concept has drifted a little and the XK is more of a sporting grand tourer than a compact sports roadster such as the original E-Type was.

The near-universal acclaim with which the F-Type has been greeted is merely the continuation of a nearly 5-year ‘high’ for JLR which has been reaping the benefit of Ford’s stewardship and engineering investment combined with Tata’s money. The XK, the XF, the XJ, the revamped Land Rover line-up and the introduction of the Range Rover Evoque have led to that rare thing – a British car company enjoying massive profits all the way through one of the worst economic episodes in history.

What I think is most refreshing about the F-Type is that it pays very little homage to the E-Type. In fact if there is a criticism that can be levelled at it it is that it looks like a cross between a Nissan 350Z and a Maserati. This is no bad thing but it’s not hugely individual. However I would much rather this than it be some ghastly retro car.

I find it hard to believe that I have managed 19 entries on this blog without putting up a 4,000 word post about why I dislike retro-themed cars. This is only going to be a condensed version. In essence it’s that I think that retro cars are nothing but shallow fashion accessories designed to cash-in on a heritage that they usually have no part in and do nothing to continue. The MINI may be a good little car and it’s great that it keeps Cowley humming away at full capacity but apart from some styling cues it shares nothing with the ‘real’ Mini. In fact with its terrible interior packaging, styling-led design and utterly conventional engineering it actually disregards everything that made the original such a success. The same applies to the Fiat 500, which is in no way a cheap, simple and practical small car for the masses, but at least it has the decency to come with a 2-cylinder engine and the styling inside and out is spot-on. Fiat seem keen to push things too far with the upcoming Fiat 500L, which is just an MPV styled to look a bit like a 500. It’s not even forward control or anything like an old Fiat people carrier. All these sorts of cars follow their ancestor’s form, not their function and the result just doesn’t sit well with me.

It would have been so easy for Jaguar to go down this route with the F-Type. If they had just made a roadster that looked like a lightly-updated E-Type it would still have sold in droves, but it wouldn’t be a worthy successor. The E-Type caused a sensation by looking radically, beautifully different to anything on the market at the time. It also offered unparalleled performance-per-£. Times have changed and the F-Type can’t quite be the same bargain that the 1961 car was. I’ll also grant that it’s not quite so radical in the looks department. But really all it is is a nice-looking, conventional but (seemingly) very, very, very good sports car. The spirit is alive and well and that’s what’s important.

Jaguar have learnt the lessons of ‘retro’ the hard way. They suffered massively in the late 90s/early 2000s because their image was all wrong and this was mostly down to the way the cars looked. The XJ was still styled like it was from the late 1960s. So did the S-Type (and not in a particularly good way), the X-Type and the XK8. They were all excellent cars- in fact the current Jaguar range is made up of the same underpinnings clothed in different bodies – but desirable or fashionable they were not. The pity here is that many of Jaguar’s own buyers were driving the company to its grave by insisting that a ‘proper’ Jaguar had to be conservative, old-fashioned and traditional, when the company made its name by being the complete opposite. Think of the iconic Jags of old, such as the XK120, the Mk2, the original XJ and, yes, the E-Type. None of them were traditional or old-fashioned at the time. Fortunately Jaguar was brave enough to overhaul its entire ethos and design language and it’s now enjoying a success and popularity not seen since the heyday of the 1960s.

The Paris Show contained other hints that other manufacturers may be cottoning on that the retro car is, to be blunt, creatively bankrupt and just ends up dragging your brand to a standstill. The same day that Jaguar was stealing the spotlight, Vauxhall (which I suppose counts as a British brand, if not a British company) unveiled more details about its upcoming entry in the retro/premium/bespoke/supermini sector, the daftly-named Adam (or ADAM as Vauxhall would rather I rendered it, but…no). The Adam is an interesting case study because it’s a sort of retro car with no heritage. Apart from the name, which doesn’t even apply in Vauxhall’s case because it commemorates the founder of Opel, it has no historical forebears. It’s not styled to look like a Kadett or a Viva (sadly). In fact it looks like it should be called ‘Now That’s What I Call Car Styling 2012’ because it’s sort of a mish-mash of every supermini currently on the market.

It’s certainly suitably ‘funky’, and it comes with stupid model designations and colour names to match. In the future a real, actual human being may have to have a conversation like this:

“Tell me about your new car.”

“Sure, it’s a Vauxhall Adam.”

“Oh yeah, one of those things that looks like the love-child of a Fiat 500 and a Peugeot 207?”

“That’s the one!”

“What colour is it?”

“It’s ‘Papa Don’t Peach’.”


“‘Papa Don’t Peach’. You know, a sort of colour in between orange and pink.

“Like, peach-coloured?”

“Suppose so. Anyway it’s a Slam-spec one.”

“Slam? Isn’t that something to do with poetry?”

“No, ‘Slam’ is the sporty model. I thought about going for a Jam but I preferred the wheels on the Slam. I really didn’t like the contrasting ‘Purple Fiction’ coloured leather in the Glam model, though.”

“Oh. I see. I drive a VW Golf in Red, myself…”

Despite all this carefully-crafted lifestyle nonsense I do respect the Adam (can’t believe I just wrote that…) for not being just another cynical exploitation of a company’s heritage. Opel/Vauxhall are trying something different and creating a car with no historical baggage, its own look, it’s own image and apparently it’s own language.

The first car to go down this direction was the Citroen DS3, which has spawned a whole DS range of premium-label Citroens (rather like in the supermarket where you can choose between ‘normal’ pizza and ‘premium’ pizza which is the same thing but it has the Italian flag and a cartoon of the Coliseum on the box). I have mixed feelings about this because it’s exploiting the name of one of the most original, innovative and unique cars of all time and slapping it on what it really just a Peugeot. None the less Citroen had the balls to not do a literally retro car and the DS range is in many ways truer to their history than anything in their recent past, especially the gloriously weird DS5.

The Paris Motor Show had one final item relevant to this subject. MINI were unveiling the latest addition to their range, which managed to perfectly sum up what is wrong with retro cars. The Paceman (offering ‘Lounge Inspired Driving’, apparently.) is just a 3-door coupe version of the Countryman. As a technical exercise it is so, so far removed from the origins of the MINI brand that I do wonder why BMW don’t do the whole thing properly and name it the ‘Landcrab’. That’s no worse than ‘Paceman’ and a vast improvement on ‘Adam’. BMW have got themselves truely stuck in a rut because the MINI and its relations has no independent existence. The brand means nothing unless it harkens back to the original BMC Mini, even if to do so is wildly inappropriate. The Countyman and the Paceman are both hugely awkward-looking cars because they have to use all the Mini/MINI styling cues because that’s the only reason for their existence. If they took their own approach they would no longer be MINIs. As a marketing strategy it works but you have to wonder how far it will stretch (literally and in terms of the brand).

I can only hope that these are but the first signs of the tide turning against the retro car and that we may see some genuinely interesting and new ideas that the 21st century can call its own rather than just boring rehashes of someone else’s ideas.