Friday, 2 December 2011


Well the frosts have finally arrived in my corner of the balmy south coast and I'm off to get the winter tyres fitted to the Golf.

I've been a user since last winter, when they enabled me to make a number of journeys I wouldn't have considered trying on summer rubber. I'm just amazed there is still any debate on the wisdom of changing rubber in the UK.


Friday, 25 November 2011

The New, New 911

Here's Evo's Chris Harris spilling the beans on the new Porsche 911.

Its the first real 'new' 911 since 1997. So it had better be good, as we've got to live with the basic car for the next decade or more.

Luckily, first signs are good, even though there are the usual internet complaints about dumbing down/making it softer/being too conservative. Really, who'd be Porsche's chief designer?

My worry (electric steering system aside) is that while the new mostly-aluminium body is 40kg or so lighter that the 997, a good chunk more could have been saved by using the old 6 speed transmission. That was quoted as being 25kgs lighter than the PDK 'box, and its difficult to see the same saving now the manual gearbox uses the PDK's castings. Is a 7th ratio really needed when almost all of the world's roads are limited to 70-80mph?

Its also been interesting to read the comments about pricing. There is an oftly expressed view that a good £10k worth of options are 'essential' for re-sale, and that the only version worth bothering with is the £81,500, 3.8litre 'S'. So you very quickly end up with the grand total on the website's configurator heading towards £100,000.

I beg to differ.

A ‘vanilla’ 3.4 has 350bhp and does 180mph. It comes with leather, climate, sat nav, Bi-Xenons, start/stop, 7 speed ‘box, 19”s, 235watts of stereo (with 9 speakers and aux input), alcantara roof lining, and electric windows. That's pretty much what I have on my 5 year old Golf, and the previous owner ticked every box on the form when he ordered that one. The baby 911 doesn't get taxed at the highest rates for VED, and you now get 36 months worth of Porsche warranty.

I can see how its easy to get seduced by the options list; I might add £1100 of PASM, £400 of rear Park Assist and a £150 Sports steering wheel. But I wouldn’t be that bothered.

However a look at options prices quickly reveals why Porsche is still most profitable car maker on the planet - and my views on the subject haven't changed since I sat down and specified my Cayman back in 2006.

For example, to paint the bloody thing in a metallic colour is £800. Total cost to Porsche ~€50.

To take away the complex, expensive stainless steel exhaust system and replace it with a complex, expensive stainless steel exhaust system that’s a bit louder and has a valve, switch, bit of wiring and software tweaks costs you £1800. Cost to Porsche? Must be €75 tops. Black wheels are £950, electric sports seats are £3,800, a window in the roof is £1200, some bits of useless carbon trim £1100, and they want £3k for their top of the line stereo.

So while loading the car with complex (and expensive) options might give you bragging rights on the forum I really think the pauper's version will be enough for the UK's roads.

In fact on the smaller 18" wheels it might even be the sweetest driving of all the 991 variants .


Monday, 21 November 2011

Give Way - Biker

You see a different side of car drivers on a bike.
Like any other road user, my daily encounters run through the whole spectrum from Redbull’d yoof in a slammed French hatchback, through to the octogenarian gently succumbing to old age at a ‘T’ junction behind the wheel of their Ford Fusion.

On a bike, when most other road users have the potential to do you serious injury, looking for little warning signs becomes both second nature and something you pay plenty of attention to. There’s usually something about the ‘body’ language of the car that indicates dangerous aggression or a distracted driver, and I can usually spot the signs telling me who to be wary of.

Does that car I’ve just encountered on a fast ‘A’ road see my fast approach as throwing down the gauntlet, or will they……..oh hang on a moment, they’ve just driven into the gutter to let me go past.
That’s another one.

Its a trend I've noticed more and more recently, in fact I've followed cars that have hit the kerb in their haste to let me slide past. At the weekend almost every car I approached clocked my presence and very clearly moved aside to let me pass. It didn’t seem to matter if it was on 'A' roads, through towns, or on heavily trafficked roads with double white lines. In fact the main problem was that if it's ok with you, I'd like to decide when I overtake or not, but thanks anyway.

And no, I don’t mono-wheel up to their rear bumper at 150mph on open pipes and putting the fear of God into the poor little mites. Nor does my bike have ‘Polite’ signs and dayglo stickers – although it is a physically big old thing.

Is it me, or has something happened?

Monday, 24 October 2011

The Importance of Wearing the Correct Rubber

After meaning to for some years (and ending up accumulating half a garage full of spare rims), I finally got around to buying and fitting a set of winter tyres last year. To allay any confusion you may have, dear reader, I don't mean tyres with steel studs in for dealing with Scandinavian ice, nor do I mean 'snow' tyres. I mean tyres of a 'rubber' compound designed to stay supple in cold and freezing temperatures, and with a deep tread pattern optimised for rain, snow and slush, and general UK winter beastliness. 

Generally, high performance tyres available in the UK are optimised for summer use, and once the temps drop to below ~7 degrees, the compound becomes hard, and unable to key into the road surface. And large, flat contact patches that give great grip on warm, dry tarmac are pretty useless if there's any snow on the ground. Which explains all that TV News footage of executives sliding out of control down the main road once an inch of snow hits the south east's rush hour.

It’s long been common practise in continental Europe to have two sets of tyres for one's motor. A nice set of alloys with low profile tyres for summer, and a set of old steelies and winter tyres that get fitted once the colder weather sets in. I believe that now tyres marked with a snowflake are even mandated by law in alpine German states from November to March.

For many years, this habit was a funny foreign one, and us Brits, protected from icy blasts by the benign warming seas surrounding our island, carried on regardless. Unscheduled trips into the ditch on winter's days were blamed on 'black ice', and we relied on the fitful and corrosive efforts of the council to spread salt on the roads, thereby preventing water from freezing (at least until it got to quite a few degrees below zero).

Several things have changed since those carefree days of yore. Firstly, we've all fallen victim to 'Ring fever - even humdrum hatchbacks have wide, low profile tyres, secondly a long string of mild winters mean there's a generation of drivers unused to managing in snow and ice,  and thirdly, the changing climate has hit us with a series of cold winters.

I remember arriving on the South Coast to live five years ago, and being told that it never snows here. It has every winter so far. In fact here's a picture of Aldwick beach in January 2009.

I now work freelance; if I don't turn up for work because it snowed, I don't get paid. So last November I bought a set of skinny 16" steel wheels from my local VW garage and after a bit of hassle, got Kwik Fit to mount a set of Continental winter tyres to the Golf.

There was a noticeable difference. The fatter sidewalls did take the edge off the Gti's harsh ride, and there was a drop in traction compared to the summer tyres. Full bore 2nd gear runs up a local hill produced more torque steer.  High speed straight-line stability also suffered a little. It was quite a compromise.

Then about three weeks later it snowed heavily while I was at work up near Gatwick airport. The industrial park is on the edge of town, and the ground falls away from it on three sides. I was one of the last to leave work, and heading back to the coast on my usual back roads route. I joined the main road at a hilly junction to find it in a state of complete chaos. Cars were all over the place, some trying to work their way up the hill on the grass, others with several men pushing, engines screaming, others pointing at haphazard angles up the hill. Behind all this was a long queue of stationary traffic. Lucking I was travelling against the flow. I turned onto the road, covered in several inched of packed snow, and just drove down the hill. It even felt quite normal; no spooky lightness through the steering.

So I hit the brakes to see how much grip was there. The car just stopped dead, as you'd expect it to do if there was simply rain on the surface. I drove happily home, running at 40-50mph on white roads, overtaking the odd hatchback crawling along, and a few 4x4s, whose driver's assumed the £60k they'd spent on their Range Rover/X5/Q7/M Class meant the laws of physics didn't apply to them. Until they found 2 or 3 tonnes of car sliding under them as the little red Golf sped past.

The snow cleared after a few days, but it was back again with a vengence over the Christmas break. In between Christmas and the New Year I had to travel up to the Thames Valley for a family lunch. With my two sons in the back happily occupied with PSP's I headed up the usual A and B road country route.

The roads that morning were deserted. The snow that had fallen a few days earlier was still on the ground, nights of frost had turned it into tracks of ice, with deep ruts of hard packed snow and slush where vehicle tyres had banked it up in-between lanes. The only other vehicles out were those same 4x4's, their drivers having now learnt that a 4x4 equipped with summer rubber may accelerate better than normal cars, but once you start braking they still only have the same braked four wheels.

I drove 75 miles in perfect safety, the only excitement caused by the flashing headlights of 4x4s I had the temerity to overtake.

In March I put the alloys back on for the summer, and the winter rubber went back in the garage. 

Again I noticed the back to back difference. I could feel the added unsprung weight, steering response was dulled, secondary ride deteriorated, and there was a significant amount more road noise.  But the upside is massively increased response to initial turn-in, mid-corner grip and traction. Straight-line stability is also much improved. In this way i enjoyed my summer's motoring.

The nights are drawing in, the first frosts have arrived in the downs, and it won't be long before I spend a Saturday afternoon re-fitting my steelies again.


Sunday, 23 October 2011

Car Porn

I spent the morning idly leafing through Saturday's paper.

I noticed a puff piece on the fragrant and completely unobtainable Yasmin Le Bon, sadly still happily married to the Old Romantic, Simon. She's got a new website out on Monday. Its one of those supplement favourites where the object picks some favourite objects in their life - you know the sort.

Two words jumped out as I skimmed the piece; 'Classic cars'.

I read on: "I am obsessed with classic car magazines. They are like car porn and I just drool over them. Simon has started pinching them from me,which is fine so long as I've read them already. I used to own a 1974 Alfa Romeo Montreal, but Simon wrote it off.*"

Sound woman. I wonder if she has a sister?

* This didn't seem to prevent Bonhams auctioning it off as the ex-Le Bon Montreal recently

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

T25 News

There’s been some more in the press recently on Gordon Murray’s T25 project. We’ve now moved from an engineering hack to pre-production prototypes (‘XP’ in McLaren parlance) and pictures of a very finished looking car. So far, so good, its supposed to be cheap to build, brilliantly packaged (for a Mum or Dad of two, a 1+2 layout is perfect) and crucially, good to drive - in spite of the diminutive 700cc motor.

Yet, I’m sure I’m not alone in finding this all terribly frustrating. While Murray has talked to many organisations about putting the project into production, along with its iStream low cost production system, there hasn’t been any news of any contracts signed. And until then, there’s no chance the T25 will be built, maddening for everyone who would head to a dealer with their deposit tomorrow.

Friday, 14 October 2011

The Best Year Ever?

I know I haven't been sharing my thoughts with my reader recently (hello Pat!), but it doesn't mean that the internal lights have been entirely extinguished.

Something I keep coming back to is the idea that somehow and at some point in the recent past, the motor industry has lost sight of what makes a truly satisfying car - at least one that appeals to intelligent and thoughtful enthusiasts. Oh sure, all the moderns are quiet, safe, comfortable and generally amazingly more efficient than they were in the past, but at the same time, somehow the fun's been lost.

A lot of this is because cars are now massively heavy, and are equipped with numb steering, overservoed brakes and so many electronic gizmos that all that fingertip control and feedback that used to satisfy has disappeared. And while anything with performance credentials (think R Line or M Sport)now has a rock crushing ride that makes it positively painful to drive on the UK's crumbling roads, even manufacturers of humdrum stuff appear to have lost the knack of developing spring + damper combinations that deliver a mix of compliant ride with decent body control. Meanwhile, over in Germany, 20 years of performance wars have produced cars with over 500bhp and a potential for speed its next to impossible to enjoy on most of the world's roads.

So I found myself wondering when did it all start to go wrong? And therefore, when was the highwater mark of motorcar development - at least through my eyes?

I headed up to the loft.

Up there is about every issue of CAR magazine from 1978 to 2008 (when the new editor had a brainfart, decided it was all about celebs, and I finally cancelled my subscription). In fact, a complete history from when cars finally got good, to moderns. And I worked backward.

I found the answer: 1992. Around the month of May in fact, and from there it all went tits up.

In mid 1992, Porsche had launched the 964RS, their finest ever GT (928GTS)and were working on the 968 Clubsport, all now recognised as amongst the best of road going Porsches. The 993 was waiting in the wings for launch in September at the Frankfurt show.

VW had just finished building the mk2 Golf (oh for a nice clean 16V 3-door in Oak Green) and were about to lose the plot completely with the mk3. Mercedes still made cars from ingots -the 190s and E & S class had a build quality that's really never been bettered - but were about to follow these gems up with the gigantic mid-90's versions, and a range increasinglycomplex, poorly built and unreliable techno-fests. Audi still built the original aero-car, the 100, but again the newly launched S2 was a lame replacement for the ur-Quattro.

Over in Munich, the E30 M3 had just bowed out with the 2.5l Sport (I heard one recently sold for £85,000), and had perfected the sports car in a Savill Row suit with the M5. Their replacements, especially the 6 cylinder M3's, were 300kgs heavier, and frankly, rubbish.

In the UK, TVR announced the stunning Griffiths. Ok, it was built with Bostik and cable ties, but was again a highpoint in their troubled history. Bentley offered the handbuilt Turbo R and the Continental R, Jaguar finally produced a customer ready XJ12 and XJS (with lots of help from Ford), and a Range Rover may have fallen apart but still had the original David Bache shape (and didn't weigh 3 tonnes). Rover had also reversed one of the most idiotic decisions in their history and had a Mini Cooper in the range, and the simple, light and efficient K series engine was used in countless 200s. And Ford's glorious Sierra Cosworth just got all sensible with a 4wd system, before bowing out entirely, mainly because you had to be a 65 year old vicar living in Skye to be allowed to insure one.

At Peugeot, they were still building the best Gti of the lot, the 205 1.9 Gti, and the sublime (and so under-appreciated) 405, and still didn't rely on anyone else to build their dampers. Citroen were still selling the lightweight (and so much fun to drive) AX, BX and XM, and poor Saab hadn't yet become the unwanted ginger haired step-child of the car world, and were turning out rugged (and turbo'd) 900s.

The Japanese were also in a zone, you could buy one of Honda's finest ever (NSX), Lexus had arrived with the LX400, Mazda's little MX5 still didn't need more that 1600ccs to provide thrills although down the road Toyota had just screwed up the MR2 by listening the 'Merkins and producing the fat, twitchy mark2. Their rallying inspired Celica turbo 4 was an brilliant (and underated)road-car even without a very clever (and supremely dodgy) air-restrictor. Even Suburu had their DNA sorted, the 4wd Legacy was given a turbo and a whole new future on the special stages before heading off down chav street with the Impreza.

Gordon Murray's Rocket was out, and he was working on the F1 - Albert was running around with a V8 and F1 running gear.

See what I mean? Somehow the world of motoring reached its peak, then had a global crisis of confidence, and was about to head up the blind alley we now find ourselves in.

There is a flaw in my argument.

I don't know what was happening in Italy, but there had been a collective loss of nerve a few years before, the Alfasud, rear-drive Alfa's and Integrale were mostly history, Maserati hadn't built a decent car for a generation and Fiat had long forgotten what it was about. It took until the end of the decade before the Italians finally reached the same automotive peak the rest of the world climbed in 1992.

In 1992 Ferrari had lost its Pininfarina mojo, forgotten about the F40, and was building 348s, Mondials and a handful of lardarsed Monaco millionaires special 512TRs. Lamborghini had followed up the sublime Countach with the dumb Diablo, and apart from the Integrale, Lancia churned out sad Fiat Tipo derivatives.

So there you have it. Unless you live in Italy, we've been over the hill since 1992.


Friday, 7 October 2011

A very big Adventure

A rare effort to put pen (finger) to paper (keyboard).

A lot of my summer one-up motoring recently has been on two wheels. The GS has been doing sterling service for trips from here on the Sussex coast to London and all points in the M25, as well as a recent daily back road commute from Horsham to East Grinstead.

Surprisingly, contrary to general expectation, it is not in its element sliding through inner London jams.

In fact, the capital’s traffic is so heavy – and usually comprises of wider commercial vehicles – that gaps are non-existent and even a thin bloke on a push bike couldn’t slip through. In the summer you end up sitting stationary in between lanes, sweltering in your riding gear, and waiting for the light to change along with all the smug air-conditioned cagers.

I know it’s a lardy and wide GS, but really most of the time you could be Dougie Lampkin and a giant tube of KY jelly and still have zero chance of squeezing through the jams. Even when there’s room to filter, it’s a high stress occupation. Riding down two lanes of traffic you’re always looking for signs of a lane changes, gaps in the queue just inviting someone to dive into, as well as those detached drivers that just wander along oblivious to any bikes filtering through the traffic.

Trust me, it may be quicker than a car, but relaxing it is not. And in the dark and/or in poor weather its plain exhausting.

No, the bike’s element is in moving single carriageway traffic where a car driver is condemned to sit in a line moving at the pace of the slowest vehicle. On a bike you can slip past without the need for a lot of space, and make reasonable A to B journey pace without needing to ride like your hair’s on fire.

However, if my GS has one downside, it’s the amount of buffeting and wind noise that spills off the short screen. Earlier in my ownership experience I did change my helmet to a Schuberth which was much quieter, but this didn’t really solve the problems.

So that’s how I ended up at Vines Motorrad a few weeks ago to try a GS Adventure, which has a bigger screen.

And yes, the taller screen did make a big difference, but BMW’s new for 2010 engine was more impressive still. Neither did I struggle with the seat height, in fact I’d have to say it fitted perfectly.

A bit of man maths later (a new ‘screen plus imminent service plus warranty renewal = price to change) and I was the owner of a full-fat ex-BMW management machine that was 6 months old and had done 2500 miles.

A perfect bit of kit for an slow old biker with bad knees.