Seriously MG- Get Serious!

Way back in the far off days of, erm, two months ago, my first entry on this website concerned the MG6 and my worry that the company was throwing away a generally good product due to a complete lack of any appreciable marketing presence. It ended with a single throwaway line:

And try to remember that multiple touring car wins only help your brand if you TELL SOMEONE ABOUT THEM.

That was back when the BTCC season had only just got going. Despite the MG car’s success I was going to give the company the benefit of the doubt that they were just letting the momentum build- after all it would be embarrassing if they heavily plugged a podium finish in the first race and then it turned out to be a fluke.

But no. As usual MG seem to be operating on the basis of telepathy where we will all magically know about their sporting success without them actually telling us about them.

As a dedicated follower of fashion British Leyland I take an interest in what MG is up to. The fact is even though I know the company exists, and where I can go to find out what’s happening it’s still something of a struggle. The company has a decent presence on Facebook and Twitter but you have to already have found MG before you can find those networks. They spool off plenty of press releases to the automotive media feeds but that’s no good to the general public.

So given that I strongly suspect that 9-out-of-10 people stopped on the street wouldn’t even known MG still exists and has cars to sell, you’d think that MG would be pushing headlines like this:

For all they were worth. But no. Outside the realms of the BTCC itself and a few dusty corners of the internet this doesn’t get mentioned. It’s worth emphasising an MG took podium positions, including a win, in three races over a single weekend. That’s not an isolated thing, either. That was Jason Plato’s performance in the MG6 last weekend at Rockingham. He did the the same thing at Snetterton the week before. Mr. Plato is currently in third place overall.

And not a dicky-bird have the general public heard about this from MG. Ford coined the phrase ‘Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday’ for the effect motorsports can have on sales of car, and it’s true. It’s doubly so for MG which is a sporting brand, forchristsake. It’s like one person in the marketing department at Longbridge had the one really good idea of entering Touring Cars. They’ve now left or gone on holiday and no one has followed up on the idea.

It should work. MG still resonates as a sports car brand with the general public, but it has no real cred and no one trusts it anymore. Most people think the company’s dead. What a way to get back into the public mindset in a positive fashion that with a massive ad campaign highlighting a string of genuine sporting successes? There should be huge billboards everywhere, and a sporting MG6 special edition (MG6 GTBTTC, anyone? No?). They should do another TV ad with footage of lowered, tuned MG6s screaming around Snetterton thrashing Volkswagens rather than endless sepia-tinted fake cinefilm of an MGA. They should get the MG6 onto Forza Motorsport and GT5 in normal and racing trim to get some extra exposure with people under retirement age who aren’t already MG enthusiasts. There- in a paragraph I’ve come up with four more ideas than the people at MG seem to have done.

It’s not as if MGs are sailing out of the showrooms as it is. They sold a grand total of 11 cars in August. That’s a third of what they sold in July and a quarter of what they sold in August. And those figures were terrible.

I did a double-take the other day when I saw the headline ‘MG Dealership Sells Two Cars‘. It turned out to be a story about a new dealership which sold two cars on the same day to two brothers. The thing is that headline would be newsworthy in and of itself, considering that if 11 cars were sold last month, all at different dealers, that still leaves a majority that didn’t sell any at all.

I’m not the only one to speculate that MG are playing a long game and saving the real marketing push until more desirable and sellable models, such as the perpetually ‘Coming Soon’ MG3 supermini, reach the UK. I still think there may be some truth in that given how limited the general appeal of the MG6, for all its good points, is. But then why spend all this money on Touring Cars? It won’t do any good come 2013 because the season will be done and dusted and the impact will be lost.

The MG6 is not a bad car. In many ways it is a very good car. It’s just being let down by a complete lack of interest by the very company that makes it. I don’t understand why but it’s infuriating and a little depressing.

Let’s Go For A Drive: Austin Se7en Mini

This review is, I feel, going to be slightly superfluous because is there anyone who hasn’t driven a Mini of some sort at least once? However this Mini is slightly special in that it’s an early one, being built in March 1960 six months after the start of production. It can be considered Genesis for the Mini and in many ways the modern small car.


First impression? It’s really, really small! Well, durrr, the clue’s in the name, but it does warrant thinking about. The Mini is such a familiar sight that it’s sheer genius goes unnoticed. It’s a car that can take four people and a lot of luggage in bodyshell only just over 3 metres long. Given the continual trend to make cars bigger both in size and styling this is all the more noticeable when you see the car next to a modern supermini. It also disguises how odd the Mini looks when you think about it, especially in comparison to the conventional cars of 1959. The transverse engine and the tiny wheels at each corner, coupled to Alec Issigonis’ ruthless function-leads-form design principles result in a squat, pug-nosed little car. The fancy Austin grille on this one only emphasises the car’s relative width and functional looks (the plainer pressed-steel Morris grille looks better in my opinion). This being a Mk1 Mini the door hinges are on the outside, along with the panel seams. It’s unconventional but, coming from someone who was born nearly 30 years after the car was launched it’s impossible to objectively descrive the looks- it’s just ‘a Mini’.

The doors open and shut with all the sturdily-built finesse of a dustbin lid, but once inside the thing that makes the biggest impact is the sheer amount of space. ‘Tardis-like’ is an overused term but nothing else can really do justice to how uncluttered and airy such a small cabin can be. The Austin is especially blessed in this department because it lacks the thicker seats, padded dashboard, chunkier steering wheel and bigger instrument clusters that gradually found their way onto the later versions and gradually ate up the cabin space.

In this early example the thin door trim cards are stapled directly onto the inside face of the door’s outer skin. This leaves a nice big recess in the door structure to give the driver somewhere to put his elbow and allows the fitting of deep pockets on each door to fill with odds and ends. In fact they’re specifically designed to hold six bottles of Gordon’s Gin upright since that was one of Alec Issigonis’ favourite tipples.

The interior is an exercise in industrial design. The Austin’s interior is sparsely equipped but gives the impression of someone having taken the time to design it. The whole cabin is trimmed in cream and light grey vinyl with lots of painted tinwork trimmed with chrome. The big single dial resembles the tuning dial of a Bush valve radio whilst a neat little round-edged panel underneath it holds the switches and other controls, all five of them. The cabin is full of practical but enjoyable touches like the a lights set into the speedo which bathe the front of the cabin in a dim orange glow at night, the Bakelite rubbish bin held down by rubber sandbags or the indicator stalk with the green warning light built into the end.

The driving position itself is different to most cars. To maximise interior space and keep the overall length down the steering column is as vertical as possible so the steering wheel is angled like that of a bus. No seat belts in this one so it’s a case of turning the key and…nothing happens. That’s because the starter is a button on the floor down next to the handbrake.

Under Way
The engine is the 848cc version of the immortal BMC A-Series. The whole point of the Mini was to be a proper car in minature and this is a proper engine in minature as well. No opposed piston air cooled, hemi head, all alloy foreign nonsense here. It’s made of iron, it has four cylinders arranged the proper way, eight valves worked by pushrods, four spark plugs powered by a proper distributor and it’s all kept cool by water as God intended. The engine fires smartly and settles down the classic sewing-machine chorus of refined tick-tap noises that any A-Series engine makes.

An issue in the design process was how to arrange the gearchange when the gearbox was under the engine rather than sticking out the back of it. The idea was for a Citroen-style dashboard mounted lever but BMC reckoned that the British motorist wasn’t quite ready for such things and opted to drill a hole in the footwell and simply attach a very long lever going directly into the gearbox. Fair enough I s’pose. The result is that the gearshift pattern works in three dimensions rather than two and there’s a huge distance between the gears at the ‘front’ of the pattern (1st and 3rd) and those at the back (2nd, 4th and Reverse) so the gearchange is like pulling levers in a Victorian signal box.

There’s only synchro on 3rd/4th so pulling away requires the old ‘into 3rd/into 1st’ trick to quieten things down. The clutch is light and progressive but you need a fair bit of revs to pull away cleanly. With 30 horsepower on tap even a car weighing only a tad over 600kg isn’t going to be fast. But before we talk about performance we need to talk about the noise. GOD, THE NOISE. Driving an early Mini is an assault on all the senses but the ears take the biggest battering. The straight-cut primary gears between the clutch and the gearbox make a noise like a TIE Fighter at anything over about 10 mph. 1st gear is also straight-cut which means you sound like a milk float when pulling away. The exhaust has only one small silencer in it so there’s a fair amount of ‘rasp’ from the back end. The 4-blade fixed engine fan, seperated from the cabin by 1/4 inch of Birmingham tinwork and vinyl adds some mid-range roar to the cacophony, the sliding windows don’t seal properly so you get some tenor range windnoise and then there’s the general sub-base boom that any car based on the construction principles of a biscuit tin will provide. It’s very noisy.

All this noise means, coupled to the low-slung stance, means that you feel like you’re going much faster than you actually are. This sensation is also helped by the fact that when holding the steering wheel in the normal way your left wrist perfectly obscures the speedometer. This is quite good because it encourages you to change up the gearbox early. Unlike the little air cooled buzzmobiles from the Continent which demand to be thrashed to their limit the A-Series is above such vulgar business. Its long bore layout means it has surprisingly good torque for its capacity and in an untuned state it doesn’t breathe very well at high speeds anyway so there’s nothing to be gained from excessive use of the throttle. Just get into 4th gear as soon as possible and ride the torque. If you do decide to exploit the Austin’s high speed abilities you’ll be pleasantly surprised. The car was purposely designed for use in a Britain with motorways and given enough space it will sit at 70 MPH with throttle range to spare. It also gives you a very good idea of what it would be like to be in a washing machine on a spin cycle.

Ride and Handling

This car doesn’t have Hydrolastic suspension (that came later) but does have the ingenious rubber-cone springs. On high-profile crossply tyres the Austin Se7en actually rides remarkably well, with none of the kidney-crushing jolting that the later Minis with wider, thinner tyres and stiffer spring rubber, inflict on the driver. The system is fully independent and the car’s wide stance means that it doesn’t get upset by single bumps or strange cambers in the road. The biggest flaw is that the springs have very limited travel so on all but the smallest bumps or dips the wheel hits the bumpstops. Because the initial absorption is so good this leads to a very sudden but oddly delayed thud through the bodyshell and gives the car the characteristic tight bouncy ride. It’s actually better than many modern cars and isn’t wearing on long trips. Well, not as wearing as the noise is.

Early cars had drum brakes all round and really early models like this one did without twin leading shoes as well. For an all drum setup they start to bite quite quickly but they need a good hard stamp to really start pulling off the MPHs. There’s noticeable fade on steep hills or after hard braking from high speeds. Fortunately the engine provides plenty of braking of its own and the gearbox is easy to use if you’re comfortable with double-de-clutching and in combination they’re well up to any situation.

I’ve left the handling to last because there’s really little to be said. Naff all weight, rack and pinion steering, weight over the front end, a car nearly as wide as it is long and a very low centre of gravity. You can fill in the result yourself. All I’ll say is that all the ‘giant go-kart’ cliches are true. You can have fun chucking a Se7en around at 20 mph just by enjoying the instant turn-in and limpet-like grip which means you really don’t have to slow down for corners. The only other thing to add is that this car is limited by its tyres. The little crossplies run out of grip way before anything else does and they also cut down the otherwise excellent connection between the steering wheel and the road that later examples have. You can feel and hear them squirming under heavy cornering and the feel is as if there are some ball bearings between the tyre and the road.


As is so often the case, the original is the best. The Mini is better than the MINI and the earliest Mini is better than the later ones. Yes, this one is slow, noisy and bouncy. It doesn’t have the cool factor that the Cooper models had. It’s something much better- a true design and engineering masterpiece that rewrote the book on how cars were built and how they drove and did it in the name of giving ordinary people a little car to take to the shops. How very British.

The Beginning of the End for the Defender?

The Land Rover Defender is 29 years old. It was way back in 1983, when the Falklands War had only just stopped being a current event, the Austin Maestro was cutting edge, Miami Vice set fashion trends and KC and the Sunshine Band were in the charts that Land Rover launched the One Ten (as the first model was called) and the vehicle sitting in Land Rover showrooms is pretty much the same vehicle. Actually, sod pedantry, it bloody well is the same vehicle. The Defender and its associates haven’t exactly had a trouble-free existence. It came close to critical mass sales failure in the mid Eighties and has had more than its share of reliability and quality problems. None the less it has consistently sold around 20,000 examples a year since the mid-Nineties and must make a small but respectable profit for Land Rover considering that its development costs must have been offset around the same time that ridge-and-furrow farming was invented.

Land Rover took a big leap forward into the Seventies. In the early Eighties.

But these days the Defender isn’t the functional travelling Meccano-kit that it was back in 1983. Yes, Land Rover still sell a few each year to masochistic Welsh hill farmers who actively want a vehicle that costs £25k and yet doesn’t have a radio and which lists ‘rear mud flaps’ as a Feature in the brochure. No, in the Noughties and beyond the Defender is a cool car and you’re more likely to see one cruising around Wimbledon than darkest Worcestershire. Like all cars that manage to cling onto production long enough the Defender has become a ‘design icon’ which means that it is now bought by people simply because its ‘a Defender’ rather than because it’s any good as a 4×4 utility vehicle. The 110 Station Wagon (these days available in XS spec with alloys, metallic paint, leather seats, electric windows, air conditioning, inappropriate bare-metal chequer plate and chromed gear knobs) is seen as a funkily retro people carrier which, like all Land Rover products, carries a whiff of green wellies and yellow Labradors which make it acceptable as a lifestyle statement as well. The Defender used to be a wholly classless vehicle that could be driven by anyone and be driven anywhere. Then peoplerealised it was classless and began buying it because they liked that image, which immediately gives the Defender an image to go with it. It’s what could be called ‘The Audi Effect’.

What’s brought all this on, I hear you ask? The answer is this sort of thing:

There have been a slew of Special Edition Defenders over the years but most have either been to cash in on very specific events (the 50th Anniversary or Tomb Raider ones) or carry the pretense of being aimed at the off-road market (like the old Silver Edition which was a normal 110SW with a winch and an A-bar as standard). Now we have the imaginatively named Defender Special Edition which is and out-and-out fashion accessory with the poncy multi-spoke alloy wheels, colour-coded styled grille, strange metallic paint colours and oh-so-fashionable black highlights.

As is the way with many manufacturers, a few months afterwards Land Rover have made all those ‘special’ features available as options anyway, which must make the people who handed over £30k for a metallic beige Special Edition feel like right suckers. There are in fact some extra goodies available. As well as the silly wheels and the black roof you can now get a Defender with, believe it or not, leather bucket sports seats and a bangin’ Alpine sound system for yer choons. Unlike before there is not even the pretence that this is being done to make it better at off-road use (as Land Rover did when they introduced leather seats back in 2002). Its all out-and-out pitched at the fashion conscious on-road recreational user.

You’ll be glad of those side-bolsters when you exploit the Defender’s famously sharp cornering ability. Unleash that de-tuned Transit engine POWAH…..

It seems that Land Rover have given up and are just cashing in on the obvious and easy market that fate and their own marketing have given them. In my opinion this is just the start of a whole series of run-out Special Edition Defenders we’ll be seeing as the current vehicle finally gives way to its all-new successor sometime around 2015. Fortunately Land Rover seem to be actually taking the difficult but correct route of trying to make that successor a genuine competitor in the global 4×4 market. Which is preferable to going down the route so many feared and just producing a fashion accessory rather like what they’re doing to the Defender at the moment. It’s understandable but it’s a shame if this is going to be how the old Solihull Shire Horse is going to be put out to pasture.

The French Dimension

It had to happen. As an enthusiast of all things Leyland and an almost equally hopeless admirer of old French cars the time has come to combine the two. You see, I’ve long had this sneaking suspicion that British Leyland would have been much more successful if it was French Leyland. That’s not the set-up to a joke about strikes. Neither is it a direct compliment to the French as a people, who seem to see the added value of buying domestic products, even when their industry is turning out some right clangers.

In fact my hypothesis is slightly related to that last point. I think that one of British Leyland’s problems (actually set in place by its BMC predecessor) wasn’t so much that it’s cars were awful but that they were pitched at the wrong country- Britain.

Britons, as a whole, don’t like change, as the continued existence of the Daily Mail proves. Almost any slight alteration or unravelling in the fabric of life is met with cries of apocalyptic panic, even around such mundane things as the changing of the Post Office charging rates or the ceasing of Spam production. Car enthusiasts are often some of the worse. Any new model is immediately denounced as inferior to the one before (often before the new one has even been built) and any alterations or additions to the car’s specification is decried as ‘ruining the brand’ or ‘ignoring the heritage’.

Of all the British car companies probably none have been so innovative as BMC with Alec Issigonis on board. With the Morris Minor already in hand Issigonis cranked out a string of cars that each blazed a trail in their sectors and all based around his transverse-engined, front-wheel drive, rubber-suspended cars. A company making front wheel drive cars with odd suspension? Ring any Continental bells? It should be pointed out that Issigonis was not British, but was born in Turkey to a Greek family.

The Mini started the ball rolling and that was fine. It was so blindingly obviously better than anything in its class that had gone before that it sold like hot cakes. The same with the ADO16 models that followed. Then Issigonis began targeting the middle of the market with the ADO17 ‘Landcrab’ and, latterly, the ADO14, the Maxi. Here his own particular tastes and thoughts began to conflict with what the market wanted, and here is where we get to the nub of my argument.

Issigonis had a very ‘French’ view of car design. The French are a nation of philosophers and seem to instinctively approach design in a rather intellectual way. They care about what a product can do rather than simply how it looks.Think of the iconic, post-war French cars- from Citroen there’s the 2CV, the DS, the Ami, the GS, the CX, and the BX. From Renault there’s the 4CV, the Dauphine, the 4L, the 6, the 12 and 16. Or there’s the entire Panhard Dyna range. All of these cars range from looking odd to looking downright repulsive. Look at this:

That is an immensely ugly car. Fortunately in that picture you can only see two sides of it at once because the back is just as bad as the front. None the less it was France’s best selling car throughout the 1960s. Why? Because it offered a huge amount of interior space for its size (because of the oddly shaped body), it offered the usual Citroen blend of an unbeatable ride and surprisingly sharp, if rolly, handling and for all its oddball mechanics it was highly reliable and economical. The Ami’s looks came from its function – the distinctive reverse-angle rear window meant that rear space (especially headroom) was undiminished and the odd front styling was simply a way of fitting the rectangular headlamps (a world first) to the car. The body is only there to keep the rain off the people inside, after all…

The Ami never sold well in Britain for precisely the reasons you’d expect. There’s no way the British would have bought such an odd car in the same numbers as the French. When Citroen tried selling the 2CV here in the 1950s it didn’t work. Their UK manufacturing operation in Slough then clothed the 2CV’s mechanicals in an undeniably pretty, if more conventional-looking, fibreglass body to try and make it more acceptable. It was called the ‘Bijou’ and it remains the only Citroen to have been developed outside France. Unfortunately the huge weight of the body upset pretty much everything about the Deux Chevaux’s finely-balanced design and the result didn’t sell either. The French would never have bought the Bijou. It may have looked better but it didn’t work as well. It wasn’t just the looks, either. The Citroen ID/DS may have been about 40 years ahead of every other car when it was launched in 1955 but it wasn’t aimed at some small-volume high-end luxury market. It was a car for upper-middle-class France. The French equivalent of a Morris Oxford or a Hillman Minx. No suburban-dwelling professional in Britain would have bought a car that looked like a flying saucer (what would the neighbours think!), that floated around on balls of compressed nitrogen and strange red oil, that had a binary brake system worked by a button rather than a pedal, that had a dashboard made of a plastic and that made strange ticking noises as it drove about. It wasn’t respectable and it would look daft outside the mock-Tudor semi in Surbiton.

And now we return to Issigonis because his, and BMC/BL’s error, was to try and force the same sort of thinking onto middle class Britain. Issigonis was very much from the ‘function leads form’ school of thought and disliked any input in his cars from stylists or designers. The original Mini is the prime example of this, with its external hinges and seams, its odd frontal aspect and it’s uncompromisingly basic but effective interior.

The problem came when he applied the same principles to cars further up the market. It all began to go wrong with the ADO17 – the infamous Landcrab. This was BMC’s replacement for the utterly conventional and very successful ‘Farina’ range of saloons but Issigonis was determined to produce something different. The result was technically brilliant – a monocoque with torsional stiffness that wouldn’t be bettered for over a decade, huge legroom and internal space for the car’s size (and it was a big barge of a thing, at nearly 14 feet long), Hydrolastic suspension that offered the usual soft and comfortable ride coupled to surprisingly effective handling and an upscaled version of his transverse engine layout with the gearbox in the sump. The only problem was the looks. Issigonis’ self-penned ‘styling’ was so austere and odd that BMC actually brought in Pininfarina to sort it out, but they couldn’t do much because old Alec had left so little ‘spare room’ in the bodywork- in true Issigonis (and French) style the bodywork had to look the way it did because that’s how the structure of the car made it look. The result was this:

I don’t know about you but that immediately has the look of a French car about it. It’s an odd-looking bus, but it all makes sense if you think about it. The problem is that the British public didn’t want to think about it and the ADO17 was something of a sales flop. The ‘Landcrab’ nickname came about due to the car’s odd ‘wide-as-it-is-long’ stance and wasn’t originally meant with the same amount of affection that it has today. Mr. Surbiton didn’t care if the car was technically brilliant or if it handled better than a Humber Sceptre – it looked ugly.

Undeterred Issigonis tried again with a variation on the same theme. The last car he designed for BMC used the Landcrab centre-section coupled to a hatchback rear end and a slightly scaled-down version of the front end. The result was the Maxi, which as the world’s first car to combine a hatchback, a 5-speed gearbox and front wheel drive with a transverse engine really set the template for virtually every best-selling car on the road today. Like the ‘crab the Maxi was well packaged with a roomy interior and the famous folding seats. It too had Hydrolastic suspension. It too was less than blessed in the looks department because it was doubly cursed. Not only had Issigonis applied the same ruthless, almost brutalist, design methods but he’d carried over the doors from the ADO17 so the Maxi managed to be ugly in both new and old ways. Meanwhile the front end was bluff and tall because it had to accomodate the new OHC E-Series engine (tall) with a 5-speed gearbox underneath it in the sump (even taller) because that’s how Alec did things. The doors also led to the car’s proportions being even more bizarre because they were clearly off something much bigger. Because the doors dictated the wheelbase the Maxi’s wheels were pushed right out to the corners making it look even more squat and square-rigged than the other BMC FWD cars.

It was later sold as the ‘Best of British Design’…

Now it should be mentioned that the Maxi had other problems that went beyond its looks and innovative underpinnings. It was woefully underpowered in its original specification and it was launched before development had actually finished (!) which meant it was saddled with a gearchange setup that wasn’t merely bad but literally unusable. However, in true BL fashion, the bugs were eventually ironed out but there was no escaping that, for all its practicality, no many people wanted a Maxi on their driveway.

Meanwhile over the Channel the French (those who hadn’t bought Amis, anyway) were queuing up to hand over fistfuls of francs for the Renault 16.

It’s nice to have a point so perfectly encapsulated. The R16 even looks a bit like a Maxi, leaving aside the fact that they’re both front-wheel drive hatchbacks based on bits of other cars. It even had a bizarre gearchange of its own, albeit one that actually worked. The R16 sold well all over continental Europe and a few even found homes in the UK. It was in production for three years longer than the Maxi but managed to shift five times the number of cars.

The Maxi was the last car Issigonis designed for BMC/BL. None the less the influence continued. BL at least had the sense to realise that not everyone wanted a high-tech car and decided to develop two product lines- Austins would carry on in the FWD/funny suspension/odd looks department whilst Morris would become the badge for a range of thoroughly conventional, not to mention cheap-to-develop, cars. The result of this is well known as BL went into the Seventies with the Austin Allegro on one hand and the Morris Marina on the other. It’s worth mentioning that for all its faults the basic, boring and old-fashioned Marina was Britain’s second-best selling car for several years and over a million were sold, which was double the number of Maxis. Meanwhile Austin produced the Allegro, a car that rivalled the Ami for challenging looks, and the 18-22 (later rebranded as the Princess, proving once again that BL couldn’t stick to an idea for more than five minutes) which in its large size, even larger interior and innovative styling was firmly from the European mould. It was also the last gasp of the BMC/Issigonis way of thinking (and ironically the most successful in execution, if not in sales). Going into the Eighties and now under the guise of Austin Rover the mass-produced cars were thoroughly conventional, although Austin’s big hope for the decade, the Maestro, did borrow some drivetrain and suspension components from a European builder. That fact that that company was Volkswagen – never a company that could be described as unconventional – is a strangely appropriate sign of how attitudes had shifted.

So there you have it. One of British Leyland’s problems was that it wasn’t British enough. The other was that in many ways it tried too hard to make good cars. They just weren’t ones that anyone wanted.

Back to Badge Engineering?

This week marked an important event in the life of the motor industry as a whole as the latest generation of Volkswagen Golf, the seventh since 1974, broke cover. Now I can appreciate Golfs and the older ones have a definite charm (even if it’s a very Germanic and ‘efficient’ sort of charm) but I just can’t make myself like them. They’re just tools to move people around. Very well designed, generally good-looking, well built and well marketed tools.

However it’s one the best selling car models in history and one of the kingpins on which the motor industry turns so when a new one comes along it’s worth paying attention to. The Mark 7 Golf is, surprise, surprise, slightly taller, slightly longer and slightly wider than the Mark 6 but it is in fact slightly lighter. It also looks pretty much the same as the Mark 6.

Volkswagen in new Golf styling shock….oh wait a minute, I mean the opposite of that.

The new Golf is particularly important to VW as it is their first mass-market car to use their new corporate platform design, the MQB. The architecture of this platform means that it can be stretched, squeezed and chopped to build cars. This is nothing new – VAG have been doing it for years. In fact I’ve long suspected that there’s a machine looking bit like a Las Vegas slot machine sitting in a central room at Wolfsburg. Every now and then someone goes and pulls the lever, the wheels thunk into place and the spec for a new VW product is born.

Rather like this handy little VAG Car Generator I’ve thrown together. Try it out:


Random VAG Car Generator

See how easy it is to create world-dominating range of cars covering every possible market niche?

The introduction of the MQB platform takes this principle to a new level because it is replacing no less than three existing VAG platform designs. Currently the recently-launched Audi A3 uses it, the Golf sits on it and the soon-to-be-launched Seat Leon will be based on it as well. No problem so far- those cars have always shared the same underpinnings. But VW say that the MQB will also underpin the next Octavia, the next Touran, the next Caddy van and the next Seat Altea. So that’s an executive sports hatch, a mid-market family saloon, a van and an MPV all based on the same platform and using the same mechanicals.

Can VW’s powerful marketing department really get away with this? Plenty of people are already wondering what the point in buying a VW when Skoda offer the same basic thing for less money. Equally it’s not hard to find people who decry Audis as just ‘posh Volkswagens’. When they share a platform with not only their VAG siblings but other, widely different and less glamorous products, the distinctions become even fuzzier.

I’ve now gone for over 800 words without mentioning British Leyland so it’s time to do so. BL and BMC were (in)famous for their badge-engineering in the most literal sense. Whole duplicate ranges of cars were maintained that differed only in their badging. The ADO16 range was available in no less than ten different models spread across seven marques. If it was hard for people to tell the difference between the models that was because there was often no difference. The Austin and Morris versions were identical in mechanics and trim. The Riley, Wolseley and Vanden Plas versions were all luxury versions with slightly varying amounts of wood and leather. The MG was a sporty model, but was mechanically identical to the Austin 1300GT, which was also identical to the Morris 1300GT. And so it went on- Austin and Morris Mini, the Riley Elf/Wolseley Hornet, the Austin and Morris 1800/2200, the Austin and Morris 18-22…

Even the adverts were the same…

Some people have wondered how VW have got away with doing what appears to be the same thing for so long. The answer, of course, is that they haven’t been doing the same thing because badge-engineering and platform-sharing are very different and VW carry it out with their trademark attention to detail. If you knew nothing about cars, there’s no way of knowing that a Polo is the same as an A1 is the same as a Fabia is the same as an Ibiza. Each one carries its own house styling inside and out and you won’y find a VW logo anywhere on a Seat. Coupled to this is VW’s careful range and marketing pitch which carefully gives each variant its own niche. Skodas may be cut-price VWs but you can only really tell that by the interiors, which just aren’t quite as nice places to be as in a VW, which in turn isn’t as luxurious and isn’t quite as beautifully put together as an Audi.

There are signs of this approach flagging a little, though. The new Up! range consists of three cars (the VW Up!, the Skoda Citigo and the Seat Mii) which, aside from all having really daft and illiterate names, are stylistically, mechanically and structurally identical apart from the badging and a few mild tweaks to the shape of the front grille and lights. This is badge-engineering rather than platform sharing and it really does raise the question of who would pay over £1000 more for a car with a VW badge over the one with a Skoda logo. The MQB platform will be taking this to a different level. The MGB gets enough flak for being, in essence, a sports car based on a van which was based on a saloon car. Will the Audi A3 be able to get away with the same thing when it’s rolling around on the same underpinnings as a Volkswagen Caddy?

For some reason I’m much more confident that VAG will pull it off than BL.

Seven Things You Didn’t Know British Leyland Made

British Leyland is best known as a chaotic company that build shoddy cars. That can be debated at length in itself but what is often forgotten is that BL was a huge corporate empire that including several other huge corporate empires that, between them, had fingers in all sorts of industrial pies. Mmmmm….mix those metaphors!

So, in no particular order, here are seven BL products that may surprise you:

1) Tractors

For a couple of decades Leyland-badged tractors were big sellers in the UK and elsewhere in the world and they successfully competed against the better known UK machinery builders such as Massey-Ferguson, David Brown and Ford. BL’s tractor range had its roots in William Morris’ Nuffield Organisation which in the years after WW2 decided to start producing tractors to complement its established range of Morris Commercial vans and lorries. The first Morris tractor, the ‘Universal’ was launched in 1948 and was sold under the Nuffield name, that being the territory William Morris chose when he was given his peerage. The tractors used modified Morris lorry engines running on petrol and TVO and bought-in Perkins diesels. The Universal was replaced by a three-model range in the 1950s by which time Morris was part of BMC and BMC petrol and diesel engines were used instead. The range included the ‘Mini Tractor’, a tiny little machine designed to undercut the successful ‘Little Grey Fergy’ being built by Standard-Triumph. Fitted with a diesel version of the 950cc A-Series engine producing just 15 horsepower the Mini Tractor was clever but underpowered at it was soon upgraded with a more potent B-Series unit. In 1969 BL took over and revamped the entire Nuffield range with new models, new styling and a new paintjob, resplendent in the corporate silver and blue livery with the ‘flying plughole’ logo. Production had by now shifted from the old Wolseley works in Coventry to a brand-new factory in Bathgate, Scotland, where the tractors were built alongside BL’s commercial vehicles.

The Leyland tractor range sold well but never toppled the big names from the top of the sales charts. The tractor division was starved of funding during the 1970s just as the rest of the tractor industry was starting its ‘horsepower war’ which left the Leyland range looking distinctly underpowered and weedy. None the less bigger engines and turbocharging was introduced as well as 4WD versions and the range soldiered on in a middling sort of way. In the early 1980s, with new management and orders from the government to stem BL’s losses there was a mass pruning of all the ‘non essential’ parts of the corporate tree and the tractor lineup was one of the first casualties. It was sold off wholesale to Marshall, another long-established but small agricultural machinery builder, who overhauled the range yet again but could never fund the new models they really needed. Production slowly wound down throughout the 1980s with the last ‘Marshall’ tractors being revamped versions of the original Mini Tractor shipped in CKD form from Turkey.

2) Construction Machinery

Taking the idea of ‘vertical integration’ to the extreme BL built machinery to build roads on which, it was hoped, people would drive BL cars. Most of these were built under the Aveling-Barford name, a company formed in 1934 from the merger of several struggling machinery and equipment builders (sound familiar?). Aveling-Barford was originally formed and financed by Ruston-Hornsby, another long-established equipment manufacturer. When R-H stopped building suitable diesel engines in the 1960s they approached Leyland to supply them instead. This grew into BL buying Aveling-Barford thus allowing R-H to offload a subsidiary on dodgy financial ground. Aveling-Barford continued to build their trademark road-rollers, scrapers and dumper trucks which were now ‘blessed’ with the infamously unreliable Leyland 500-Series fixed-head diesel engine. Faced with well-established and mighty competition from American companies such as Caterpillar, Euclid and International Harvester as well as increasing pressure from a little back-yard outfit called JCB Aveling-Barford continued on a slow, refined decline with a few failed product launches along the way that the market generally wasn’t very interested in. None the less a full range of graders, rollers, excavators and rigid and articulated dumpers was maintained under BL’s ownership. The company was split from Leyland’s Truck and Bus division in 1988 and managed to carve out a decent niche making small dumper trucks, which it continued to do under the name and ownership of the Korean Doosan company.

3) Tanks

The Defence of the Realm (and, during the Cold War, much of Western Europe) at one time relied on British Leyland products. These were the products of BL’s Alvis subsidiary. Alvis has a still-enviable reputation for making styling ‘gentleman’s expresses’ but the company also had a nifty range of aero engines and military vehicles. The Rover Co. bought Alvis in 1965 and, seeing no need for there to be two purveyors of motor carriages to the British ruling class, immediately ceased building Alvis cars. However their military vehicle range was continued. This was the famous FV600 series of vehicles all of which shared the same basic 6-wheel drive mechanicals with different bodies on top. These include the Saladin armoured car, the Saracen personnel carrier and, most famously, the Stalwart amphibious transport vehicle. At the larger end of the scale came the Chieftain tank. This was also cursed with the 500-series engine in a rather unique form, using a siamese-twin variant with two pistons per cylinder. This proved just as unreliable as the normal version, although it was immensely powerful. Alvis also continued to develop a range of lighter ‘fighting vehicles’ which became the CV series (such as the Scorpion light tank) variants of which are still in use today. Alvis was never a particularly big part of the BL machine but it produced some of the finest engineering. The division was included in all the sell-offs of the 1980s and is now included in the even vaster BAE Systems global structure.

4) Aircraft

Yes, terrifyingly, British Leyland made an aeroplane. More precisely, BL was the ultimate owner of Beagle Aircraft, owned by Press Steel Fisher, the Oxford-based supplier of bodyshells and panels to much of the motor industry. Beagle had its origins in the Auster Aircraft Company which forged quite a name in WW2 for building tough little two-seater aircraft that were used for observation and liason duties. Auster built improved versions of these aircraft after the war and the Army Air Corp were big users of them due to their hardy nature and excellent slow-flying and short take-off/landing performance. They also used the window winder handle from the Austin A35 for their trim control. In 1960, under the encouragement of the government, Auster was merged with Miles Aircraft and placed under the control of Pressed Steel Fisher (then under the wing of BMC) to form Beagle Aircraft. The company initially continued building warmed-over Auster designs before launching an all-new twin engine touring plane, the Beagle 206, in 1961. Despite a reputation for barely being able to make forward and upward progress when fully laden with both engines running (the 206’s engine-out performance is best not thought about…) the aircraft sold relatively well for a British light aircraft. Beagle then set its sights firmly on taking on the American giants of Cessna and Piper and designed a single-engined tourer/trainer called the Pup. Launched in 1968 (by which time Beagle and PSF had come under the Leyland umbrella) the Pup won immediate praise for its slick, balanced and responsive handling and semi-aerobatic design. More powerful versions followed along with a 4-seater variant. By 1970 152 Pups had been built and over 250 were on order. Then the company went bankrupt, because it had pulled off the uniquely British trait of going bust with full order books, and one of the reasons the Pup had been selling so well was because each one was being sold at a loss to the company (sound familiar?). Beagle was split off from PSF and became part of Scottish Aviation who turned the Pup design into the highly successful Bulldog military trainer which was in service with the RAF until the early years of the 21st century.

5) Trains

In the late 1970s British Rail faced several problems. One of these was that the hundreds of diesel multiple units (DMUs) that had entered service in the 1950s were coming to the end of their lives and there was no replacement waiting in the wings. BR only had a ‘coins found down the back of the sofa’ budget to buy new DMUs and at the same time had to find ways of reducing operating costs on much of its rural and inter-urban routes which were still losing money but which could not be closed. Someone hit on the idea of building a ‘railbus’- a light passenger rail vehicle with the mechanicals and structure of a bus but modified to run on rails. These had been tried by BR before without great success but they had worked elsewhere. The obvious partner for BR was that other great nationalised industrial colossus, BL. The company in fact had heritage when it came to the railways as it had supplied the engines and transmissions for many of those old DMUs which were now facing retirement. BL and BR worked on the railbus idea together and in 1978 unveiled their new product. Now,  a railbus is often described ‘a bus on flanged wheels so it can go on rails’ but that’s surely a simplification? Just the essence of the design rather than the actual product?

Well, blimey, if that doesn’t look like a Leyland National bus on flanged wheels (it also appears to be geared up for a riot of some sort). Fair enough, that’s just a prototype. A proof-of-concept machine. Surely the finished product wouldn’t be quite so obviously a bus?

Photo Copyright Stephen Craven . Licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License

Hmmmm. If that looks suspiciously like a Leyland National sitting on top of a freight wagon chassis that’s because that’s what it is. Now, I’m being a little unfair. BR had no money, the National was a perfectly good bus in widespread use and the idea itself was fine. It’s just that the end product is so strikingly, obviously a ‘rail bus’. BR and BL built three classes of these things, each progressively looking a little less like a bus and collectively known as ‘Pacers’. Whilst they fulfilled their job of providing cheap, efficient and new rolling stock they were far from popular. Their long, fixed-wheelbase chassis with only two axles gave them a horrendously choppy ride (maybe they should have fitted Hydragas?) and made them screech on sharp corners. BR didn’t help by using them on much longer routes than the design was specified for and the thin bus seats were horribly uncomfortable. None the less several overhauls, refits and re-enginings later Pacers are still chugging and screeching their way around large parts of the British railway network, long after the last National bus has left service.

6) Fridges

This isn’t desperately exciting, but it shows the scope of the former BL empire. BL’s fridge lineup was another product courtesy of Pressed Steel Fisher, which spawned the Prestcold brand name. Prestcold products encompassed both domestic and industrial equipment by the 1950s, with BMC fighting it out with that other UK industrial giant, English Electric, in the market. Those were clearly the days when fridges were products of heavy industry rather than ordinary domestic appliances. Under BL ownership Prestcold gradually dropped its household products and concentrated on the more successful industrial line up. Prestcold fridges, perhaps uniquely amongst products from the BL stable, garnered quite a reputation for reliability and longevity and many corner shops had several Prestcold chest freezers from the 1960s still clattering away keeping the Fab lollies and Oven Chips cold well into the 2000s. A quick look around the internet shows that many Cowley-build Prestcolds are still in use today. Prestcold was an obvious candidate when the cull of BL’s ‘non essential’ products came round in the 1980s and it was sold off in 1981. The name is no longer used.

7) Gas Turbines

Most people are at least vaguely aware of the Rover Co.’s ‘JET 1’ car – the Rover P4-based racing machine that was the world’s first jet-powered car (like all ‘jet’ cars it was more accurately a gas turbine powering a mechanical transmission). Like all the other turbine cars it was fantastically fast but suffered atrocious fuel consumption when driven any other way than flat out at maximum speed, which limited its practicality somewhat. None the less Rover didn’t chuck the baby out with the bathwater and put JET 1s power unit into production on its own. Rover turbines found their own market niche powering high-speed fire pumps and as standby generators. When Rover was taken over by Leyland in 1967 the parent company considered the potential of the gas turbine in its main product of heavy commercial vehicles. By 1968 Leyland had produced its own turbine design, the Leyland T350 and fitted it in a prototype heavy tractor unit which managed to be both the most powerful tractor unit ever made (400 horsepower) and the one with the best power/weight ratio. Unfortunately, despite predictions that the duty cycle of a lorry would be more suited to turbine power than a car the fuel consumption issue did not go away. Like Rover BL then put its turbine out to more mundane industrial uses but it did find some oddball places to put them, like the prototype APT-E tilting high speed train, which used five Leyland turbines in its power car.

Head to Head: Mini ‘Rose’ v. Citroen 2CV ‘Dolly’

This week we take a look at two icons of motoring that are also national institutions in their home nations. Both were radical designs when they were introduced and between them they pretty much defined how small cars would be built in the post-war years and beyond. Both were the product of very specific design aims by very individualistic engineers.

Two examples facing-off here have more specific qualities in common. Both were built in the late 1980s and they are both relatively late examples of their type representing the ‘ultimate’ incarnation of the design. Both are special edition models as well, although looking at their specification in comparison to a normal version this means very little in either case.

So as well as being a straightforward comparison between two small cars this Head to Head will also be something of an evolutionary study. Are these cars any better than their ancestors for the decades of evolution that has or hasn’t happened during their production life? Do this Mini and this 2CV still exibit the qualities that made the original vehicles such as success?

Let’s start with the home player.

1988 Mini ‘Rose’ Edition

The Mini is such a familiar shape that it comes as something of a surprise to realise that it has been out of production for 12 years and that the days when any road journey would involve seeing any number of ordinary Minis going about ordinary business are largely gone. You still see them around, of course, it’s just that they’re all obviously enthusiast-owned, with lots of chrome and Cooper parts (regardless of whether the mechanical specification justifies it or not) and usually a couple of London-Brighton placards.The days when people bought Minis purely because they were simply cheap, small cars are over.

This process began long ago. Long before the Mini ceased production, in fact. Like all cars that for whatever reason have long production runs the Mini went through the usual phases of being new, then being merely old and a bit out-dated. If a car can survive long enough it will exit this phase and become a ‘design icon’ simply by virtue of having been around a long time. At this point the lucky manufacturer can sell the car as a fashion accessory and charge a good premium for a design which amortized its design and tooling costs ages ago. For the Mini this stage was reached in the 1980s and Austin-Rover cashed in by making numerous special edition Minis to sell to fashionable, image-concious buyers alongside the ordinary ones. The number and variety of these editions is baffling but most of them had one thing in common in that they were little more than a City-spec (i.e. basic) Mini with some body graphics and a different roof colour.

The Rose edition of 1988 was exactly this. Under the skin it’s a base-spec Mini with a 998cc A+-Series engine, cloth seats and a radio/cassette screwed under the dash in the passenger’s footwell. The ‘special’ bits are the roof (which is pink), the (pink) body tapes, the (pink) floral stickers on the rear flanks and the special badges which are, inevitably, pink. The Rose is otherwise a standard Mark 5 Mini, which is largely the same as the Mk3 introduced in 1969. There are few obvious changes from the Mini of 1959, some for the better, some for worse – the big rear light clusters are undoubtably safer but they spoil the neat rear end design.

I always find Minis a bit of a squeeze to fit comfortably into, but the later the car the worse this is. One of the things that made the original Mini such a masterpiece of packaging was the clever design of the interior where the dashboard, seats, and trim took up as little space as possible. Over the years customer and legislative demands gradually corrupted the minimalism of the early cars and it makes a lot of difference for the taller driver where space is already at a premium. The different seats are biggest culprit. The bases are taller, wider and firmer than the originals, meaning you sit a good inch or so higher. The thicker door trim cards and winding window mechanism remove both the elbow room that the recessed inner door skin allowed and reduce the size of the characteristic door pockets. The dashboard rails received plastic padding for safety reasons in the Mk3 face-lift and again its makes a small but significant difference. Same goes for the steering wheel, a thick 3-spoke plastic item purloined from a Metro. This Mini has none of the striking airy and open feel of the Mk1, feeling like the small car that it is.

None the less the look and layout of the interior is well up to 1980s standards. The added trim and plastics give the whole cabin a more civilised feeling than the stark painted metal and chrome of the older cars and the seats, whilst forcing me into the characteristic ‘Mini hunch’ are more supportive. The instruments are in front of the driver and consist of two instruments from the BL parts bin- a speedo and the inevitable double gauge (fuel and temperature) with two unlabelled warning lights for charge and oil pressure underneath. I wonder how many 1980s Minis died an early death because owners ignored the seemingly unimportant amber warning light? Betraying the car’s 1950s roots the heater unit is fully visible hanging under the lower dash rail and it has a simple On/Off fan switch. The hot/cold control is a push-pull knob on the dash, rather charmingly illustrated by a pictogram of a log fire.

Where the later Mini shows clear improvement over its forebears is in the creature comforts. It has two speed wipers, dashboard air vents, the aforementioned radio, an interior light with courtesy function (the light unit is, of course, the inevitable rectangular Light of A Thousand Uses proudly embossed with the A-R chevron logo), a heated windscreen and a 12-volt socket (or ‘cigar lighter’- how times have changed).

After pulling out the other push-pull knob for the choke and turning the key the A-Series engine churns over rapidly on the starter before catching smoothly. It idles with the characteristic tap-tap-tap from the top end but it otherwise runs quietly and smoothly. The Rose’s soundproofing and trim does a good job of isolating the various mechanical noises and vibrations from the cabin. The gearchange has the slightly rubbery, imprecise quality of all the box-in-sump A-Series cars with the remote gearchange but it’s by no means a ‘pudding stirrer’ and all the gears can be found without trouble. The clutch is light and progressive, but the pedal is slightly obscured by a heater duct, meaning that you either have to use only your toes to operate it or you have to hook your foot behind the duct to use it properly.

Moving off the Rose surprises with its performance, which is best described as ‘exuberant’. The engine puts out 38 horsepower in a car weighing only 650kg is going to give a respectable speed and the A-Series was always a pleasantly torquey motor for all its diminutive size. The exhaust still has the classic Mini rasping note and 1st gear is straight-cut which gives the whole experience a sporty note that the car’s appearance doesn’t suggest at all. Some small cars have to be thrashed to get the best out of them but the Mini is not one of them. It’s best to change up in the mid-range and make use of the engine’s torque rather than trying to rev the tappets out of it. Being a low-riding little car 30 MPH feels more like 50. The powertrain has plenty in reserve for motorway work although the soundproofing can do little to dampen the classic polyphonic whirring noises from the engine fan, the gearbox and especially the intermediate drive gears between the two. None the less the Mini gets something of a second wind at about 60 MPH and actually needs to be reigned in to keep to 70.

The whole car has an eager sort of character to it, which is only emphasised by the steering. Mini steering is legendary and really doesn’t need to be described but for completeness I’ll say that it’s brilliantly quick and direct, perfectly and evenly weighted and the car reacts instantly. However it’s not twitchy – the Mini isn’t a sports car, after all, and the car’s wide track (the Rose sports natty little plastic wheel arches to cover the later version’s wider-than-original track) and independent suspension means that it isn’t disturbed by imperfections, cambers or bumps in the road.

Which brings me onto the ride. Oh dear. Minis have never had the most cosseting ride but I’m sure this late example is worse than others. Minis used Hydrolastic suspension for a while in the 1960s but this one has the original setup of rubber-cone springs at each corner with conventional shock absorbers, although it may as well be solid steel bars. I don’t know if the springs are made with stiffer rubber in the later ones, if it’s the wider tyres with their lower-profiles or if it’s just the harder seats but the ride in the Rose is bad even by Mini standards. The ride on early cars is taught, with short-travel springs but at least a certain amount of bounce. This later example has no dicernable ‘ride’ at all, crashing and jarring over bumps and needing to be slowed to a crawl to take speed bumps with a modicum of comfort. On the upside on good road surfaces it’s stable and smooth, it’s just that British roads are so seldom that good.

As with all Minis the Rose is a car that oozes character. The average buyer back in 1988 probably bought it for its cutesy looks, distinctive colour scheme and fuel economy. All that still holds true, as does the ever-present involving drive and grin-inducing handling. Combined with peppy performance and just enough concessions to modern driving to cover up the fact that it’s a design from the 1950s. The Mini didn’t last as long as did simply because of poor corporate planning and conplacency – it was always very good at being a practical small car, even when dolled up with some pink stickers and sold as a lifestyle statement.

1988 Citroen 2CV6 Special ‘Dolly’

There are two things everyone, even people who aren’t ‘car people’ seem to know about the 2CV. One is that they have a gear lever in the dashboard. The other is that they were designed to carry a basket of eggs over a ploughed field without them breaking. Seriously, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had this conversation:

“So what d’ya drive?”

“Citroen 2CV [tries to say that in the way a normal person would say ‘Ferrari F40’]”

“Oh yeah? Did you know they were designed to carry a basket of eggs over a ploughed field?”

“Really?! Well what-dya-know…!?”

In fact the 2CV had a much more varied design brief than that. It was designed specifically to replace the horse-and-cart then used exclusively by French peasant farmers. As well as the famous basket of eggs it had to carry 100kg of potatoes, a casket of wine and other assorted cargoes. It had to be driveable whilst wearing clogs. It had to be driveable and maintainable by people who’d never seen, let alone used, an internal combustion engine before. It had to be faultlessly reliable and unbelievably economical. It also had to be able to have an acceptable ride over a French road network consisting either of dirt cart tracks or Napoleonicpave that had been smashed and broken by two world wars.

The result was the famous gastropod-shaped car, which finally broke cover in 1948 after a prolonged development was further interrupted by WW2. Forty years later the same Paris factory churned out the red and white example seen here. By this time Citroen, like BL, had cottoned onto the fact that the 2CV had quite a popular following for its own sake and had begun doing special editions. The most successful of these was the ‘Dolly’ which was, in true form, just a basic ‘Special’-spec car with two-tone paint. The Dolly was such a success that by the time this one was built it had become a permanent and popular part of the standard 2CV range.

Just as no-one could mistake a Mini for anything else, the 2CV’s shape is instantly recognisable. All the more so because there were no other cars on sale in the 1980s that still had seperate front and rear wings, unfaired headlamps, vertical straight sides and entirely flat window glass. The 2CV is a car from the time of swing jazz still being built in the era of electronic dance music. What’s striking is how little it changed in the forty years between those first examples and this one. The Mini’s shape and dimensions didn’t change but there were extensive changes to the structure of the panels. Virtually every panel is interchangeable on any 2CV ever made. The only real change was to the bonnet, with the famous ‘ripple bonnet’ of the earlier cars giving way to the more ‘streamlined’ one in the 1960s. The Mini gained plastic bumpers and wheel trims. The Citroen still uses steel. In a strange parallel one of the only other changes was the fitting of some ugly rear light clusters, in this case units from the Ami 8.

It’s also clear that the Deux Chevaux was intended for a very different life than the Mini. The Mini sits low to the ground and is tightly-built and compact for city life. The 2CV’s stance is very much ‘sit up and beg’, with Land Rover-rivalling ground clearance and a tail-high attitude. What’s striking when the 2CV is seen next to the Mini is that the former is not a small car. The Mini was small by the standards of its day and looks ridiculously small next to a modern supermini. The 2CV is a relatively long car and although developed under the codename of the ‘Tout Petite Voiture’ (‘Very Small Car’) it’s not that small. It matches most modern small cars for length but is rather oddly proportioned, being on the narrow side.

Inside it’s clear the Citroen is an exercise in denial. Part of the ‘Dolly’ spec was the fitment of the slightly plusher seats from the more upmarket ‘Club’ and ‘Charleston’ cars. The normal Special had grey cloth with natty blue and yellow cheque weave. The Dolly has oh-so-80s quilt-effect polyester upholstery. That’s the only concession to luxury and it makes no real difference. Just to emphasise how basic the 2CV is, I will list some of the things it doesn’t have- self-cancelling indicators, indicator warning light, main beam warning light, charge warning light, opening rear windows, heater fan control, wipers with more than one speed, electric windscreen washer pump…. Such things are not strictly neccessary and so they are not fitted. There are plenty of exposed wires and relays, mostly bound together with cable ties. The other striking thing is the open feeling to the cabin, thanks to the huge areas of glass and the thin window pillars. Also helping this is the flat floor, something the Mini doesn’t manage despite both cars having all their major mechanical components under the bonnet. Of course the famous dash-mounted gearchange features here.

So, you slide behind the thin steering wheel (sadly not one of the volante monobranche one-spoke types from the 1970s), wiggle the gearlever and turn the key. The air-cooled 602cc flat twin whirs and coughs into life after a bit of churning. It clatters and thrums away to itself. It has none of the inherent refinement of the A-Series but has rustic, almost crude flavour that seems in keeping with the car’s ruthless simplicity.

Depress the very light clutch (no heater to get in the way in the Citroen) and it’s time to do battle with That Gear Lever. In reality it’s straightforward to use- the motions are the same as a normal gearchange (forward, backward and side-to-side) it’s just the twist-action bit that needs to be mastered. The other quirk is that it has a dog-leg shift into 1st. The 2-pot engine puts out 28 horsepower, 10 less than the Mini but the 2CV weighs significantly less at 550 kg. However the performance of the Citroen is noticeably flatter. Unlike the Mini the 2CV’s motor is not one with a lot of torque. It needs a fair old chunk of throttle to pull cleanly away and you quickly realise that the best way to make progress is drive it like an irate French farmer – full throttle, engine screaming away right up to the redline marks on the speedo and don’t slow down for anything. The engine revels in this sort of abuse, and history as shown the 2CV motor to be pretty much unbreakable as long as there’s a modicum of oil in the sump. The gear ratios are widely and equally spaced which encourage you to carry a lot of revs before changing up the next one.

When the engine’s on the boil you want to keep it there and when it takes over 20 seconds to get to 60 MPH every MPH counts. You don’t want to shed speed uneccesarily and it’s here that the ride and handling come into play. The Mini handles well in a very conventional way – quick, accurate, responsive steering, huge grip, no body roll. The 2CV, as you’d expect, isn’t conventional. Like the Mini it has rack-and-pinion steering but with skinny tyres (narrower than most modern motorbikes) it doesn’t have the same grip. The 2CV tends towards understeer when pushed hard but this can be sorted by simply winding on more lock. The steering is light and direct around the centrepoint but weights up significantly when pushed hard. The body roll is another 2CV hallmark. With no anti-roll properties or devices at all the little Citroen adopts crazy angles of lean at even low speeds. The car’s long travel suspension means that it never risks lifting a wheel and the unique steering geometry keeps the tyres perpendicular to the road at all times. The result is that, despite its tall and tottery looks the 2CV grips like, well, a snail. It can be wound along a twisty country road at any speed the engine is capable of reaching without having to slow down.

In terms of ride the Citroen has the British product soundly beaten, but this is no real slight on the Mini because few cars can match the ride of an old Citroen product. The 2CV doesn’t have the same absolute isolation from the entire driving experience that one of its hydro-pnuematic stablemates can provide but it’s almost entirelt unequalled by cars of its class. To describe the system in full would require a whole new article but in short it’s independent coil-springs which are interconnected on each side front-to-rear acting through pull-rods. The entire sprung weight of the car pivots on four near-frictionless ‘knife edge’ joints and the unsprung weight is kept to a minimum by the thin wheels and tyres and the inboard front brakes. The result is an incredibly supple, cosseting ride with so much travel that even serious obstacles like speed bumps taken at a good pace don’t really reach the occupants. The car floats along the road with a characteristic ‘lope’, constantly bobbing up and  down in reaction to the slightest crest or dent. It’s an odd experience, rather like travelling on a gigantic watet bed, but you quickly get used to it and it goes a long way to making the 2CV, for all its lack of performance, surprisingly good at long-distance work.

Both these cars have the same basic brake setup with front discs and rear drums. The Mini has a servo whilst the Citroen has bigger braking surfaces. Do the Deux Chevaux’s discs count as ventilated because they have ducts to channel air from the engine fan? In any case there isn’t much to choose between them. Both are well up to the performance of the cars but the 2CV’s require more effort to get them to bite, as you’d expect. Of course the Citroen’s system works by the medium of LHM fluid, the characteristic bright green oil that is the life blood of most of Citroen’s hydropneumatic products.


The 2CV has clearly evolved less over its life than the Mini. This is not surprising because, really, the 2CV was always more of a unique product, tailored to suit a very particular way of life. Like the Mini a lot of the 2CV’s fossil-like nature was due to a complete lack of interest by its corporate parents. But much more of the Citroen’s original essence remains than in the Mini’s case. The Mini’s ‘wizardry on wheels’ was the packaging of four people in such a small cabin. By the 1980s this had been corrupted somewhat by modifications to the original design. Put simply the 1980s Mini isn’t quite as good at being a Mini than one from 1959. The Dolly, for all its jazzy paint and quilted seats, could still carry that basket of eggs over a ploughed field. You can still remove all the seats in less than a minute for picnics or to put a goat in the back. On the other hand the Citroen in many ways is still rooted in 1940s postwar austerity in terms of its equipment levels and performance. It is much more unconventional than the Mini and requires a certain amount more dedication from the owner to put up with them. However, speaking personally, I would happily put up with a wierd gear change and a funny-sounding engine if it meant I didn’t have to endure the ride of the Mini.

Thoughts on the EU’s ‘Armageddon’ for Classic Cars

Over the past 24 hours the bits of the Internet concerning old cars have been erupting in a mild panic. The cause stems from a post on the website of the ACE (Association of Car Enthusiasts). With the not-at-all-over-the-top title of ‘Armageddon’ the post outlines the new legislation that’s on the brink of being passed by the European Union which would affect both the legal definition of a ‘Historic’ car and how and to what extent any car can be modified from its original specification and Type Approval.

A .pdf of the complete Proposal can be obtained here. If you slog through 23 pages of densely-written and badly-draughted legislative prose you’ll find that the basic intent comes down to two points:

1) Vehicles over 30 years old can be classed as ‘Historic’ and thus be exempt from an MOT. However to maintain their Historic status they cannot deviate from the “technical characteristics” that it left the factory with.

2) Modifications that break a car’s original specification will need to be inspected to ensure their safety. They will have to “comply with its safety and environmental characteristics in force at the time of approval, first registration or entry into service, as well as at the time of retrofitting”.

This comes hard on the heels of recent change to the MOT system where cars built before January 1960 no longer legally required to be tested. I happen to think that’s a crazy idea and haven’t met or read of anyone in the Old Car Scene who wants it or thinks it’s a good idea. At the time it was introduced the government made it clear that the change was to ‘harmonise’ UK regulations with those already in place in the EU. More than one person noted that there were many more differences between UK rules and those allowed for under EU regulation that several countried had been more enthusiastic about implementing. The concern was that the new MOT system was just the thin ende of the wedge.

A rare picture of the actual Thin End of the Wedge

Elsewhere in Europe the ‘penalty’ for having a Historic Vehicle exempt from regular government inspection can be quite swingeing. In the name of Safety such cars may not be allowed on motorways, may be limited to a certain maximum speed, may be limited in the mileage they can cover and may be restricted in where they can go. One can easily see this legislative creep happening  in the UK, and especially the howls from the press the first time a Morris Minor with oil on its brake shoes (because it didn’t need an MOT…) ploughs into a crowded bus-stop to “do something” about “dangerous old cars”.

BUT, all this only applies to cars that are somehow classified as ‘Historic’. Say we had the same multi-layered Historic Vehicle rules that the rest of Europe has here in the UK (and which we seem to be on the cusp of getting). Your Moggy Thousand can classify as a Historic Vehicle and then you pay no Road Tax, you don’t need an MOT and you can get a cheap Classic Insurance Policy. In return you are limited in your annual mileage, you can’t take it in the motorway and you can’t change its spec from what it rolled out of Cowley with, because it’s a vehicle of Historic Interest. However there’s nothing stopping you from registering your Minor as a normal car, getting it MOTd, insuring it with a normal policy and driving it every day however you please. You just have to pay a little more for the privilege.

The storm that ACE has kicked up is with regards to modifications. Here they seem to have a point as the draft regulations imply that everything is ruled out and that cars have to be factory spec. Again, this is a rule already in force in several places on The Continent, with ‘Historic’ cars having to be inspected by a ‘ruling organisation’ (i.e. a busy-body from the local car club) to prove your car is not modified from standard. The rules for this are often absolute, even applying to modifications that were optional on the car when new. I can think of several clubs here in the UK that would love having the legal backing to remove vehicles from the road because they had plastic washer bottles instead of glass ones.

Incorrect and inappropriate wheels?!? Strike it Down!!!

I actually don’t see too much of a problem with the rules as drafted. It would seem to imply that the Historic Vehicle classification would, once again, be rolling date that encompassed cars over 30 years old. At the same time it acknowledges that to be a Historic Vehicle the vehicle has to have some degree of historic interest and so it can’t be applied to cars where the only thing representative of their original state is the VIN plate. Good. A Vauxhall Chevette L in its original spec is much more Historic than one that’s been turned into yet another HS replica. And a Ford Cortina Mk3 that’s a Zetec drivetrain put in and its suspension chopped in half isn’t a Historic Vehicle either. This may put a damper on all those ‘Series II Land Rovers’ on eBay that just happen to have been ‘modified’ with coil-spring 92-inch wheelbase chassis, Tdi engines and Defender bodywork, too. However I can see that if you’re into modifiying cars more than I am (which is to say, at all) then these new rules look quite scary.

The problem here is that the proposals highlighted by ACE are just that – proposals. They have to get through the great fuzzy bureaucracy that is the EU and then they get passed through the mangle of the UK legislature as well before being further rewritten and dis-empowered by however VOSA and the DVLA chose to implement the rules on the ground.  How many pieces of legislation, from the EU or the UK government, can you think of that seemed like ‘Armageddon’ but in the end proved to be nothing of the sort?

The great wooly get-out clause here seems to be this bit:

comply with its safety and environmental characteristics in force at the time of approval, first registration or entry into service, as well as at the time of retrofitting

which seems to allow almost any modifications to non-Historic vehicles provided they meet the regulations in place when they were fitted if they are pre-existing (rather like the ‘grandfather rights’ that old cars have in regards to the current MOT) or that they’re deemed safe now if they’re new. On top of this is the issue of ‘original spec’. What if the parts you’re adding to a car already have implicit approval from the period because they’re from a higher-spec car? Could you fit the engine, suspension and brakes from a Marina 1.8TC to your Marina 1.3 Super? What about all those Morris Minors that have had Marina parts put in them? In many ways this makes them safer because they have front disc brakes and can get out of the way of modern traffic. Should they all be de-modified back to drums all-round, 998cc engines and a dynamo that can’t power the headlights and wipers at the same time? If a vehicle has to be ruthlessly original to classify as ‘Historic’ does this exclude fitting radial tyres or halogen light bulb? Or intertia reel seat belts? How is a garage or VOSA station going to know what the original specification of a 1965 Hillman Super Minx is? Especially when a lot of garages now get confused by distributors and carburretors let alone the intricacies of the BL specifications sheet, which seemed to change on a weekly basis depending on which part of the supply chain was on strike.

These are questions I can’t answer. More to the point I suspect the people who wrote this proposal can’t answer it either. Neither, I suspect, could any MOT Tester presented with a 1970s car be able to tell whether or not it was deviating from its standard spec and Type Approval.

My take on this, for now, is that the calls of ‘Armageddon’ are premature. This needs to be monitored closely by all car enthusiasts but the real test will be what the UK government does with the EU’s legislation and how it’s integrated into the current rules.