Thursday, 31 January 2008


Notwithstanding its ‘Wrong Wheel Drive”; layout, the SS7 family car dilemma has finally been resolved in the form of a new Honda Civic 2.2 cdti. The Civic is a small-medium 5-door hatch-back, but appears to be big enough for family duties.

I was intrigued, therefore, to compared its dimension with those of a 1967 Ford Cortina 1.6 Delux - as it happens the first new family car my father owned. I was 6, my brother 4, and as a family we toured the length and breadth of the Malay peninsular in it for nearly 5 years.

Cortina: Length: 4267mm, Width: 1648mm
Civic: Length: 4245mm, Width: 1765mm

Or in old money, the modern hatchback is an insignificant 7/8 inch shorter, but 4 ¾ inches wider than the 60’s family car.

So perhaps the Civic’s front-wheel drive architecture gives it a longer wheelbase?

Honda Wheelbase: 2330mm
Ford Wheelbase: 2489mm

Hmm, interesting, contrary to expectation, the Ford has a longer wheelbase. My guess is that the lack of fwd and crash zones means Ford could stick the front wheels right in the corners.

But Honda must have found some more interior room, inspite of the lack of room between the wheels?

The site: quotes something called ‘Passenger space’ for both.

The Cortina is given as 4,280litres, but the Civic is 5,260l, or an additional 23%. It explains the room in the modern car….

But in many ways, most revealing is the weight figures:

Ford Weight: 857kgs
Honda Weight: 1400kgs

Now the Ford figure is probably dry and sans everything, and the Honda will be a DIN number (plus ½ tank fuel, 80kg driver), but you really have to wonder what they built those things of, Walkers crisp packets?


Wednesday, 30 January 2008

My Bugatti

At the recent Autosport show at the NEC, I got the chance to sit in a Pur Sang T35 and make tearing calico noises*. The Pur Sang is an Argentine built tool-room copy of a Bugatti T35, and is where I’d put £125,000 of my lottery-win pounds without hesitation.

As it happens, I have a Bugatti copy sitting in the hallway at home.

Ettore Bugatti applied a magical combination of artistry and technology in the design and construction of his cars. Some of them, such as the T35, were amongst the most lovely of all car shapes, and arguably amongst of the most perfect forms industrial man has ever produced.

His company didn’t survive the 1939-45 hostilities and the death of his beloved son, Jean, but such is the legendary power of the name it has since been resurrected, in the 50’s, again in the 80’s, and now once more by VW.

In some ways the current Veyron is a travesty of the Bugatti tradition; most of the original cars were pure-bred lightweight sports cars using the same designs and technology as the then current GP cars. In fact it was Ettore Bugatti who referred to the rapid, but big and heavy Bentleys, as "Fast truck’s". It seems odd, then that the fastest truck of them all is the current €1M, 2000kg, 1000bhp, Veyron 16.4.

On the other hand, Bugattis always were cars for the very, very rich, so maybe not much has changed.

Ettore’s artistry ran in the family. His brother, Rembrandt, produced superb sculpture, and his father, Carlo, was a furniture maker. It is even said that the trademark horse-shoe Bugatti radiator’s shape was inspired by one of Carlo’s chair designs. Such was the reputation of the creativity and quality of work produced by the family, that in 1979, there was a successful exhibition held at the Design Council in London entitled ‘The Amazing Bugattis’.

Carlo’s work was heavily influenced by Levantine and North African native artwork. The exotic Art Nouveau furniture he produced at the end of the 19th Century was decorated with ivory inlays, silk tassels, beads, copper, and often upholstered with skins or parchment. One piece in the exhibition really caught my eye, a sculptural chair known as the cobra. More simple than his other work, it was a beautifully elegant shape, with a seat that seemed to float on a curve that ran from the legs to the high seat back.

Some years later, I noticed that the Conran Shop in London’s Old Brompton Road had a reproduction of this chair. However the price was huge, much more than an impecunious young database marketeer could afford, so I regretfully had to pass. However, it was still there the next time I walked past the window, and the next, and by this time ownership of this object was becoming something of an obsession. Could it possibly be included in the shop’s January sale?

I arrived outside the store on the day of sale early, and was delighted to see ‘my’ chair in amongst the discounted sample sofa’s and other remnants. A hour later it was in my Clapham flat, and it has been a prized possession ever since.

Several house moves later I discovered what the material used for the drumskin-like upholstery was. A visiting relative decided to try the chair out; a second later he was dumped on the floor – the material on the seat had split completely.

Many furniture restoration specialists later I eventually discovered someone who identified what it was; a vellum made from goat-skin. Fully restored, the chair is again in place, and this time no-one dares to actually sit on it!

straight eight supercharged T35 engine note is reckoned by fabric-rippers to sound like this

White House

This the house Mrs SS7 and I built in 1998.

It was a candidate for the first Grand Design Channel 4 TV series, but they chose a water tower conversion to feature instead. I'd like to point out that, unlike the water tower, ours came in under budget and on schedule so probably wouldn't have made great TV....

However both schemes planned to use a form of building technology known as ‘permanent polystyrene formwork’. This is more commonly known by the name of the most well established manufacturer; Beco, and resembles giant hollow white Lego blocks.

Once in place – and the ground floor walls of a modest home might only take a morning to construct – concrete is poured into the hollow centre of the wall. When it has set, you end up with an insulated concrete structural wall.

Builders are notoriously conservative when it comes to new ideas and materials, so using Beco did narrow the field somewhat. We eventually found a contractor more used to putting up agricultural buildings; where apparently Beco is used for pig-sheds all the time. He did ok, although his people skills were a bit, well, agricultural....

In use, the house was very warm and quiet (important as it was built under Heathrow's flight path), which wasn’t surprising as each wall is a single piece of steel re-inforced concrete.

Practical considerations include the placement of windows, which ideally need to match the Beco dimensions (anyone who has ever used Lego will understand), and we had also to be a bit careful mounting heavy items like kitchen units on the walls as some wall sections were pure polystyrene. The exterior was finished in self-colouring epoxy render whilst the interior was dry lined and plaster skimmed. I built the deck and a 35m2 double garage myself.

We sold the house when the arrival of SS7 Jnr #2 esulted in a serious shortage of bedrooms (as well as 6 months without sleep, the little sod) . We had over 30 viewings the first weekend it was on the market and it sold for the full asking price.

We then moved to one of the few mid-20th century modernist private houses in the UK, but that's another story...
BTW, Here’s a plug for the lovely Tim, our architect. A more decent bloke and skilled practitioner it would be hard to find. You can reach him at


Wrong Wheel Drive

In these days of the almost universal use of front wheel drive there’s a lot to be said for proper wheel drive. Packaging and cost considerations aside, the linearity of response and steering clarity is something you notice even just driving down to the shops. Trust me, I’ve been driving rear wheel drive vehicles exclusively for more than a year.

But I also remember my past experience of the downside of the combination of turbo-diesel muscle and front wheel drive.

Imagine you’re on the way to work, and are in a queue at a busy roundabout.

And its raining.

The sequence of events goes like this: :

Spot gap in busy roundabout

1.Endeavour to accelerate briskly off line into gap
2. Turbo lag means nothing happens
3. Lots of throttle then applied; gap disappearing fast
4. Turbo spools-up; 200+ lb/ft of torque heads for front wheels
5. Head snaps back; steering goes oddly stiff
6. A nano-second later, the front wheels give up the traction battle, and the inside wheel spins, compliant suspension bushes allow spinning wheel to flail around in wheel arch
7. The Bosch ‘Traction Control system spots the spinning wheel, and cuts throttle
8. Head snaps forward, the turbo spools down. Now 20 lb/ft at front wheels.

Progress so far: 6 ft.

9. Gap almost gone, and disaster looming fast.
10. Throttle pedal now mashed to floor; turbo spools again, front tyres vapourise under the onslaught
11. Repeat steps 3 to 10 until field of view completely taken up by Seddon Atkinson badge

And breath...

….for 14 milliseconds until engine reaches end of 1200rpm power ‘band’ then frantically search for 2nd gear



So the other night after work I headed for the coast, leaving the office at 7.30. I was tired and wasn’t in a hurry, but the roads were very quiet and on the open rural section after Northchapel the pace inevitable quickened. Just before Petworth I overtook a couple of cars in what I recall was the approved IAM fashion, one of which was an early Golf cabriolet driven rather gently by what I took to be an old boy. I must have been ½ mile or so ahead before slowing for the 30mph limit through the town.

The road south of Petworth was also quiet, so I made good progress and arrived home around 8.40.

As I walked in Mrs SS7 announces “Sarah says you overtook Chris and her in the Golf doing at least 120mph driving like a lunatic.!!” and then proceeded to accuse me of planning to deprive the children on their father in a fiery death crash, and generally raged on in a similar vein for most of the rest of the evening.

Now I happen to know our friend Sarah (whose partner Chris drives a Mk1 Golf Cabriolet) has never reprogrammed her phone with my new mobile number after I swopped my old one with Mrs SS7.
So she was probably trying to call me, ended up speaking to Mrs SS7 and couldn’t resist a little embellishment of the truth……


Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Log Store

This is the result of several weekend's labour, £100- of wood, and the skin from most of my knuckles: a store for a load of wood for our stove that will allow green wood to season over the summer.

I am oddly proud of my efforts, but now convinced that carpentary is a not a career option I should consider seriously.



So there I was, minding my own business amongst the hurly burly of lane 4 on the M25 one Thursday lunchtime, when the 80-odd mph ‘fast lane’s’ progress was interrupted by the sight of a jam sandwich joining the carriageway.

Within a few seconds, the whole of the motorway was travelling precisely at an indicated 70mph, keeping station with the police car, which had chosen this speed for it’s journey in lane 2. One at a time, the occupants of lane 4 slowly drifted left into the other lanes, intimidated by the unusual sight of an officer of the law driving at exactly 70.

Now, in my experience, well trained police officers in traffic cars rarely behave like this, exactly to prevent the situation I was in: four lanes of motorway traffic with no speed variation at all, It becomes difficult to move across the crowded lanes to an exit, and makes a nasty incident more, not less likely. My suspicions were also confirmed by the fact that this particular police car wasn’t the type of high-powered saloon favored by the Motorway patrols, but the sort of small estate car (a Focus) more typically used by local bobbies.

So once all the law abiding (and paranoid) occupants cleared lane 4 in front me, I gently increased speed to exactly an indicated 78mph, an the basis that this represented a true 73mph or so, and wouldn’t trouble the Buzzies.

Imagine my surprise therefore, when the aforesaid sandwich immediately left lane 2, and joined lane 4 about 100m meters behind me. Now, I’ll admit this was unexpected: the officers appear to have been affronted by my refusal to keep station with them at ‘70mph’ (more likely to be a true 65mph or so) and were going to make my life a little uncomfortable. That seemed fair enough, I’ve driven at more sporting speeds without sanction often enough….

So we progressed for several minutes in this fashion; I could see signs of activity in the car behind, and I suspect my registration, tax and insurance were being checked out. Meanwhile I stuck to a precise 78mph, changing to a lane on my left when it was possible, but only after indicating in a scrupulously correct fashion. Yet at the same time I was rehearsing my lines should I be stopped ( “Does something appear to be the matter with my driving officer?” “And was the speedometer in your car calibrated recently officer?”) I also continued to gamble that these regular bobbies were not going to risk a ‘stop’ on a busy section of the M25, and that they were endeavoring only to persuade me to “Stop the bloke in the Porch [sic] taking the p*ss” (See? I’ve talked to policemen before!).

Sure enough, as we approached the exit for the A3, the police car suddenly slowed and moved back into Lane 2, allowing me to take the slip in approved Roadcraft fashion. I watched carefully as I joined the A3 south, but once it was clear I was no longer being followed, I rejoined the train of cars making progress in lane 3, wondering what had just been proved.