Tuesday, 26 November 2013

My life in Golfs

Quick enough, and comfy

This summer, the 7th generation Golf Gti was released. I've not tried one yet (I don't trust myself) but press reports suggest that once again VW have managed to create a car that meets all the expectations of a demanding market; sensible fuel consumption, low emissions, lots of safety equipment, a dose of prestige, high levels of refinement, driver friendly DSG transmission & electric steering, electronically adjustable dynamics, and the connectivity demanded by the iPhone generation. At the same time, poke it with a sharp stick and there's plenty of performance, more than the small power increase would suggest as the adoption of VAG's new all-things-to-all-men MQB platform comes with a big weight saving over its predecessor.  

Performance and comfort; perfect for a middle aged family man like me with the odd ache and twinge, but who still likes to put the pedal to the floor occasionally (when the conditions are suitable and all within the legal limits m'lud).

It occurs to me that the Gti's development over three and a half decades has matched my own driving career.

In 1979 VW launched the Gti version of the Mk1 Golf in right hand drive form. Odd that we don't notice seminal moments until later on, but for UK enthusiasts it was the start of the hot-hatch revolution that came to define the next ten or so years. That Gti weighed a mere 850kgs, and had a wonderfully responsive 1600cc engine, great chassis and terrible brakes. It was a middle-class hooligan. The year was significant for other reasons too; it marked the beginning of near two decades of Conservative rule, there was a Muslim inspired revolution in Iran, the IRA assassinated Lord Mountbatten, Sid Viscous died, and at the tender age of 18 I entered the world of work - complete with brand spanking new driving licence.

Mk1 Golf Gti; perky and good with Pimms

Sadly, a Gti was way out of reach, but within my social sphere there were a few. A generous father bought one for his daughter - a bright young thing who made something approximating  a living catering for smart dinner parties. From time to time I'd find myself squeezed into the back, dawn in the sky, as we returned home from a ball or party, balancing glasses of liberated Pimms or Champagne on our knees and the front seat passenger on steering duty while our driver took another sip.  Possibly the bright young thing and I enjoyed a moment, possibly not, but I'll always remember her Lhasa Green Gti.  My own car, a tired MGB, felt vintage by contrast, I remember an indicated 100mph requiring all three lanes of the M3 when I tried it one quiet winter's evening. 
The Mk2 16v; 139bhp has got to be enough, right?

By the middle of the decade we'd all grown up a bit. In 1983 the mk2 Golf hit the UK's shores. Like me, it too was a bit heavier, a bit more serious, and a bit more sensible. At the time I was working in London, taking the first steps in a career in marketing. I lived in Battersea and had little money left over for expensive cars after rent, beer, and food bills. Black, blue, red or dark green Gti's were ubiquitous in my slice of south London, sitting in summer traffic jams with Everything But the Girl, Aztec Camera or Duran Duran spilling out from the stereo. The VW dealer in Sloane Square must have had a very, very good decade. 

Occasionally a friend borrowed cars for the weekend from the Surrey VW garage where he worked. I remember one Sunday afternoon heading west along the A4 towards Marlborough in a brand new 16v Golf, and being given the opportunity to get behind the wheel. I thought that it (with a full 139bhp) was as fast as any road car needed to be. 

Another time my brother and I hired one for a few days as a treat  for the old man's birthday (we couldn't manage the hire fees of anything more interesting). It had the desired effect though, that Golf re-lit the blue touch paper of our father's long dormant motoring interest, which had long been long subsumed by the need to pay school fees.  Not long after he bought the first of his Porsche 924s.

VW's next effort arrived in the UK in 1993. Like me, it had gone rather soft and pudgy. The Mk3 was produced in the face of a major recession and huge increases in insurance costs for anything that might possiblty be labelled as a performance hatchback. In this hangover from the party decade of the 80's, perhaps the third generation Golf did make sense, but the Gti, especially with the old 8 valve engine, was a long, long way from the perky Gti's of old. 

I bought one. 

Middle aged, overweight, dull.
The Golf I had was pretty good though.

It was a perfect family runaround now that I had one toddler and another baby on the way, and made a practical foil to the Caterhams and 911s that occupied the other half of my double garage. My wife liked that it didn't show complete surrender in the face of demands of motherhood, and while the torquey old 2 litre engine was no ball of fire, it could be persuaded to make decent progress. Ours was dark red, with the air-conditioning system that we suddenly discovered we couldn't possibly live without. 

Later on, two more Mark 3 Golfs entered the fleet; one a lovely low mileage VR6 that was supposed to be a winter hack, but turned out to be too good, the second a hybrid Mark 3 1/2 cabriolet that provided summer fun for a couple of seasons.
It might look dark red, but it was purple
 (with a matching leather interior)
The Mk3.5 cabriolet; for West Sussex summers

By the end of the 90's I was holding down a consultancy job in a marketing services company North of London. I had clients in Yorkshire and Bristol, and as a result needed a comfortable, economical car, that would present a professional image in client car-parks but could also provide family wheels at the weekend. 

Enter the fourth generation of Golfs; my own Gt Tdi was one of the first cars that tried to combine Gti performance with the 50mpg a diesel promised. The quantum leap in interior quality the Mark 4 represented perfectly matched my new found executive status and grown-up tastes. I loved it. In hindsight, everything that made the Mk1 such a brilliant drive had long been developed out of the Golf. 

Red 'i', red 'd'. Middle manager wheels; the Mark 4 with the
115bhp version of the Tdi engine 
A few years later, I found myself starting a well paid nine month gig as a self-employed contractor - the only downside was that the client was located 50 miles away on the other side of the county. So I went on the search for a reliable car that would be able to soak up hours of all-weather commuting but still entertain when the mood took me. It also needed to be big enough cope with two rapidly growing sons and their kit, and present an acceptable image to clients and not remind them too much of my day-rate. The thought of pumping a clutch for more than three hours a day didn't appeal, but my experience of automatics transmissions attached to 4 pot engines in the past had not been happy.  Whatever I ended up with also needed to be economical over the 500 mile a week commute, but I found myself dreading the thought of transit-like clatter on a cold morning, long warm-up cycles and the constant drumming companionship of a 4 pot diesel. I also needed to keep mobile if the weather took a turn for the worse - no work meant no pay - but didn't want a SUV.

Enter my mk5 Gti, complete with a DSG gearbox. Its been perfect;  suitable steel wheels and winter tyres proved to be a revelation when the snows came, and other than replacing the dampers when they became tired, I've not had to lay a spanner on it in 40,000 miles and 3 years. 

Inoffensive all-year round mobility

Its difficult to build a strong case for replacing the car at the moment. Depreciation at 8 years old is now low, mileage is a reasonable 70,000, and the magazines (CAR was the latest) are fingering it for future classic status. Perhaps a growing list of mechanical woes will force an update. If that happens, I wonder what will replace it, 6 or 7?


Saturday, 24 August 2013

911 Killers

It's forty years ago, and Hans is busy in Porsche's Stuttgart factory working on a silver 911T, one of several thousand he has already helped build that year and one of the last of the original shaped cars to roll off the lines. It is nearly the end of July and Hans is looking forward to next month when the factory closes down and he and his workmates will take their three week annual holiday while the toolmakers and production engineers stay on to re-fit the production lines for the new 1974 models - the ones with ugly bumpers and what would turn out to be fragile 2.7litre engines.

As usual, Hans was just putting the finishing touches to the headlining and rear parcel shelf area before starting on the carpets and trim. There's a hollow section running along the bottom of the rear window and before he fits the rear shelf Hans stuffs a fistful of cotton wadding up both of the open ends - all the better to prevent any foreign objects getting in and causing annoying rattles.

Cotton wadding; perfect for destroying Porsches
The car was finished, signed off, and shipped to California where its happy new owner collected it from the dealer and drove off into the sunset.

Over the following few years, the car was cherished, but inevitably the harsh Californian sun worked on the car's rubber and plastic, causing the seals around the windows to harden and shrink. 

In most parts of the world, the car's death warrant had been signed. Rain creeps in under the perished window seals and settles on the steel underneath. In particular, Han's cotton wadding forms a permanently damp compress, keeping the moisture nice and tight against the bare metal and producing a perfect rust nurturing environment. The first thing any owner normally knows about it is when bubbles appear in the metal under the rear window, but most of the damage is hidden under carpets and sound proofing. Left untreated, the whole rear bulkhead can disappear and eventually structural metal around the rear suspension mounts gets eaten away. Before early 911 prices hit the stratosphere that meant another old Porsche for the scrap heap.

The silver 911T Hans worked on in July 1973 was lucky. The dry Californian climate and the owner's habit of garaging the car meant little rain got past the seals and the vulnerable metal stayed rust free.  Over the following decades the car stayed in California before being taken off the road  and becoming someone's RS replica project.   Eventually the car ended up being sold by a dealer in Florida and shipped across the Atlantic back to Europe. After a year of being used for sunny weekend drives, the car was stripped back to the bare body shell.

Last week I pulled the wadding out of the channel and stuffed half a can of Dinotrol Cavity Wax up there instead.
The other fist full


911 Project Latest

The school holidays mean I've been busy looking after the two boys, but in between day trips and sporting activities and days on the beach I've been able to spend some time on the car.

My first stagegate is to get the car back on its wheels; that means suspension, brakes and various undercar pipes and wires.

Front strut - Tuthill's had already replaced the tired internals with
nice new Bilstein dampers

After much (internal) debate I decided to keep the current brake set-up
for now, however the calipers looked scruffy and seals are sh*gged so
they went off for a re-build.

Rear suspension and brakes on - just waiting for some correct nylocs for the trailing arm and lower damper bolts. The rear dampers are also new Bilsteins. 

Lots of bling. One of the front calipers was scrap - the casting had cracked -
but luckily those nice people at Classic Car Automotive in sunny Macclesfield
who did such a nice job of the rebuild were able to provide a spare

Top mounts. I've replaced all of the suspension bushes
throughout with purple Superpro kit

Al Fresco restoration - as my garage barely big enough to get the
car in, I have to drag the car onto the drive for almost every operation. 


Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Is Slow The New Fast?

I was struck by this recent blog post from my mate Chris.  In it, he makes the point that the major motorcycle manufacturers have continued to obsess about speed, producing faster and faster bikes each year, failing completely to realise the implications of the changing demographics of biking. 

Two slow bikes yesterday
He goes on to criticise those same manufacturers for their continued support of the increasingly irrelevant MotoGP circus, pointing out that modern bikers in their 30s, 40s and 50s are increasing unwilling to spend a hot day in a field watching bike racing, and that attendance at GPs will continue to fall.

In Chris' view, this goes towards explaining the huge increase in sales of 'slow' bikes like BMW's GS range, as well as the fast growing interest in resto-mod cafe racers.

I do take his point. Sometime ago I blogged about the futility of the modern superbikes, producing headline power figures that were to all intents and purposes utterly irrelevant for road use. After all, if your 1000cc bike produces its 190bhp at 13,500rpm, and runs gearing that means the bike's speed at the red-line with the throttle pinned is 90mph in first, 112mph in second, 134mph in 3rd, 153mph in 4th, and 169mph in 5th, when is the average-to-competent road rider really going to see more than a small chunk of the power he's paid for? Our society increasingly views high speed as irresponsible and dangerous - its pretty hard to justify 120mph on a country A road as 'perfectly safe' even if you do have 4 more gears to go. 

Those are the real in-gear maximums for a BMW S1000RR by the way.

However, I don't think its a simple as all that. 

For one thing, that is somewhat of a UK-centric view. In someways the UK has long bucked the European sales trend for large naked and enduro bikes. It is something of an anomaly that the machines habitually topping British sales charts were racer-inspired replicas. A visit to my local biker cafe on a sunny Sunday reveals that grey and no-haired bikers still arrive in their scores, leathered-up and astride big, late reg. sports bikes, some with chicken strips as broad as your palm but still having enjoyed the ride. 

What has happened is that the UK is moving to a pattern closer to our continental cousins; 2012's best selling 'proper' bike in Europe by far was the BMW GS, and Triumph's 1200cc Explorer GS-tribute led the UK charts. The only race-reps the top 10 sales lists dominated as usual by 125s and larger scooters were the S1000RR in  Germany and Honda's Fireblade in the UK. 

There may be an element of demographics in play but sales of bikes are heavily affected by economic factors, and European sales are all down. Job insecurity, reduced incomes, and the restriction of credit means the 1.9m motorcycle units shifted in 2006 across the EU had almost halved by last year. Its not surprising that when money's tight a £7,000 naked bike sells better than a  £12,000 race-rep, but roll on a decade of economic growth and those superbikes will still have a market. After all, Rolex still sell watches waterproof to 100m, and your £70k Range-Rover can still ascend a Scottish mountain. 

But right now, it's the economy that is forcing bike manufacturers to change their offerings; Honda's recent fuel efficient NC700 and budget 500s will sell - but because they are cheap to buy and run, not because they don't go fast.

I'm also much more sanguine about the effort manufactures put into MotoGP. I applaud the efforts of Honda, Yamaha and Ducati to build MotoGP prototypes, in much the same way as I love the fact that Mercedes, Renault and Fiat still throw their millions into F1 campaigns. And those MotoGP efforts will still support big sales in the truly big world markets - those in India, Asia and South America, where a powered two wheeler is not just a thrill for Sunday morning ride-outs.  And I think that all it would take to get the crowds piling into the British MotoGP would be a couple of winning Brit riders with the charisma of Simoncelli or Sheene!

One thing that does muddy the water is what has happened to the performance of 'slow' bikes in the last decade. A few weeks ago I spent a couple of hours trying out one of the new watercooled BMW GSs. Not only did it go like hell, but it also handled superbly, and I found myself travelling 10mph faster everywhere. Faintly alarming velocities were an easy wrist twist away - it takes a much more determined effort on my older generation Adventure.

BMW's 125bhp GS. As quick as a ten year old sports bike
When I got home I had a close look at the new GSs performance figures. It turns out that BMW's sensible shoes big enduro/tourer offers the same power as a Ducati 996SP from a decade ago. The GS also has 30% more torque, an utterly dependable chassis, sticky modern tyres and blanket of electronic safety systems, all in a package that weighs within a few kilos of a 996. BMW aren't alone in this - the big Adventure big offerings from Honda and Triumph also serve up big power. 

It turns out that we've embraced 'slow' bikes because they go just as fast as the fast ones used to go. 

Style and the expression of personality is always going to be a big part of riding bikes. Bikers are getting older, and we're all having to be a lot more sensible about money, but for an awful lot of riders, bikes are still about going fast.

Just not as fast as all that.


Sunday, 30 June 2013

911 Bits

I've been making slow progress on putting the 911 back together. I make a start each sub-assembly, and things progress smoothly for a good 2 or 3 minutes before I realise either:

1/ I needed a fixing that's disappeared, or hasn't been cleaned/painted or got missed off the last order from the fixings supplier or
2/ I can't quite remember how it came apart and not one of the ~600 photos I took when taking the car apart quite captured the angle I need, so I have to ask the long suffering DDK types (if consulting google and the Porsche PET diagrams proved fruitless) or
3/ There's a seal or a gasket or a bracket or other consumable that got consumed on disassembly that I haven't ordered yet.

As a result its still a long way from being car shaped. 

But here's a couple of pictures anyway:

Heater flapper boxes; before and after refurbishment

Right hand flapper box installed

Left hand etc.

Front anti-roll bar gorgeousness that will be completely
invisible once the car is wearing wheels

Thursday, 27 June 2013


I struggled with the choice of colour for my 911 project for a long time. 

Of course, it would have been simple (and probably financially optimal) to return it to its original colour (silver) but firstly the car is already a long way from being standard (bodywork, interior, engine), and secondly I don't think the world needs another silver Porsche. 

The main stipulation I set myself was that the colour would have to be period correct. Thankfully, Porsche's palate from the early 1970's was nothing like as limiting as the variations on grey, silver, black and white of the current range, so I had a nice wide choice. 

I ruled out the white/creams on the basis that I wasn't trying to build a RS rep. Black was out for reasons of practicality, and the metallics I excluded on grounds of their additional cost and the problems of future matching.  Some of the brighter colours like viper green and blood orange have had quite a lot of exposure recently - I didn't want to follow a trend that might possibly date. Similarly, I ruled out pale yellow as a mate has an original RS in that colour, and the reds are just a little too mid-life crisis. I'm also quite happy to admit I bottled some of the errrrr... braver colours like aubergine (which can look brown in some lights) chartreuse (limey green) fraise (pink) and the browns.

Looking around the cars at Essen it was noticeable that cars painted in the more pastel colours appear to have less aggressive down the road graphics that the brighter shades, something that is become more and more important as we move into an anti-car age. In its current yellow/black form the reaction from other road users is somewhat polarised, I can see hackles rise amongst some - and the planned exhaust system probably wouldn't help.

What eventually swung it was a plain 911T I saw in one of the outside courtyards in Germay, it was in a lovely period colour, one with classic Porsche resonances, worked well with the 911's curves, and even when combined with some well chosen accents couldn't been seen as aggressive.

I briefed Charlie the Paint on my return. 

A few weeks later the car re-appeared on my drive-way:

Porsche Gulf blue

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

911T Project - Update

I'd mentioned that the 911 had been sent along to the blasters to have the old paint cleaned off. Well it's back and in the paintshop. 

Here's where we've got to:

Blast cleaned and coated

Re-profiling the rear arches

Smoothed and ready for paint

The other side (and shy paint genius)

Meanwhile I've been busy at home:

Hot air gun to remove the underseal

Wirebrushing the tank clean
After two coats of POR15, a sealant and a
good plastering with stone chip 
Clean front wishbones

Clean rear trailing arm......

Oil tank - its copper coated steel

Oil tank after a first coat of POR15

Front struts cleaned

Front struts painted in a jolly green,
approximating the Bilstein originals

Assorted bits blast cleaned....

....assorted bits painted

More assorted bits after paint.

Toodle pip,


Essen 2013

A few weeks ago a DDK mate called me to ask if I fancied a road trip. He and a friend were planning to drive over for the big classic car show in Essen and had a spare seat. Did I fancy it? 

I thought long and hard for 1/10th second and said "Yes".  Not only was I going to be at a loose end for a few days, but I was also in the middle of trying to decide on a colour for my 911T project. After all, where else could I almost guarantee to see old Porsches in every available colour than at Germany's biggest classic car show in the 911's 50th anniversary year?

Techno Classica Essen (to give the show its full name) is certainly the most important, if not the biggest classic car show in Europe. Its been going for 25 years, and around 200,000 old car nuts turn up for each one. In contrast to the UK's strictly amateur hour event at the NEC, Techno Classica enjoys major support from the home manufacturers - not only a recognition of the importance the Germans place on their heritage, but also a reflection that for a long time the centre of gravity of the European motor industry has lain just to the west of River Elbe.
BMW Motorrad celebrates the ditch pump

We travelled up on Thursday afternoon, took the Eurotunnel (who else remembers how far away France was before they dug that?), and overnighted in a Belgian hotel before completeing the drive to Essen the next morning. It would have been completely painless had we not spent a lot of time driving around the exhibition centre trying to park before throwing in the towel and ending up at the Park & Ride, a full autobahn junction away.

It really is big. There were four massive exhibition spaces, and a whole series of smaller halls, corridors, nook, crannies, basements, mezzanines and courtyards. Every taste in old cars is catered for, from Pebble Beach grade Bugattis with a price tag that would fund a BBC pension to tatty 'Youngtimers' at  money you could almost afford. 

Steve McQueen's 911S; $1.4m to buy and
then restored to within an inch of its life. 
I say 'almost', but you would have to be very, very keen or a recent Lotto winner to buy anything at Essen. A mass hysteria overtakes vendors, and everything is marked up to an incomprehensible level.  I took lot of pictures but bought hardly anything other than a sustaining Wurst mit Bier (or two). Shame, really. I hadn't travelled equipped with a shopping list, but the very least I'd hoped to find was a 1/43rd scale model 911 in my chosen colour.

Germany and great automotive art, going together
 like pizza and pineapple  for 25 years
Eye-watering prices aside, everything automotive related was available at Essen, from dodgy art to rare parts, including any sort of clothing and memorabilia. All of the top flight European dealers take space, plenty of UK based firms come over too, along with a huge range of restoration specialists. It really does take a couple of days to see it all. 

How would Sir like his hotrod?
Later on we booked into our colourful and reasonably priced hotel on the other side of town, and spent the evening in a pizza restaurant where we enjoyed dinner and the sort of conversations that would provoke sighs of sad incomprehension in mixed company. Next day, eschewing the joys of parking miles from the halls, we used the inevitably clean, cheap and punctual public transport system and spent a second day at the show.

The signs of domination by the three big German car combines were subtle but easily seen. As a Brit proud of our industrial heritage, it was heart breaking to see Monte Carlo winning Minis celebrated in the BMW hall, and a 1926 Le Mans team Bentley sitting proudly in the middle of the VAG display areas - along with vintage Bugatti's and (whisper it) Porsche's classic arm. 
Porsche's stand in the VAG hall; not rammed with
jewels from their museum.

More VAG heritage, a 1926 Le Mans
team Bentley
Funnily enough, although I expected to see the choicest selections from Zuffenhausen's museum at Essen, the company thought fit to bring only a few cars, one of which was a 2013 vintage 991. 

Now there's an idea.....
But it wasn't a worry, old 911s of all varieties (and colours) were present in abundance, so I had plenty of opportunity to choose the ones I liked.

The third of Germany's automotive Goliaths, Mercedes Benz, had a hall the size of a First Class Cricket ground all to themselves, and laid on an incredible display fitting for the company that invented the car.

VW making a splash of the
7th generation GTi

Two full days were enough; after having covered endless miles on foot, rummaged through countless stalls, stared at priceless classics, gawped at lunatic prices, and pretty much decided what colour 911 I wanted it was time to head back to the UK.
The DS, amazing motorshow crowds for 63 years
Alfa booked a corner to display their
 stunning Tipo 33s
After a civilised breakfast on Sunday, we loaded up the lumpen riding (but abstemious) SportLine Audi A6 and returned along Belgium's poorly maintained autoroutes to Blighty. 

One of the Audi's occupants leavens his patrician Porsche habit with a rootsy enthusiasm for old Dagenham dustbins, so we stopped in a scruffy field off the M23 where a 'Classic Ford Car show' was taking place. 

The shaven headed, heavily tattooed Ford enthusiasts with their modified Escorts (baseball bat not quite hidden behind the front seats) and Sierras couldn't have been a bigger contrast to their fellows over the channel, and the vendors sitting behind trestle tables proudly displaying rusty, oily and unidentifiable components were a long way from the slick dealers at Essen ("Original works 917 steering wheel? Certainly sir, we have one in stock, a snip at 14,000 Euros").  

It was ironic then that those Kentish traders proved to be a happy hunting ground for valuable Porsche bits at below market prices. We left clutching a set of 356 horns, a rare 911 Sportomatic gear knob ("Any idea what its off guv? No? How about a fiver then?") and a 1/43rd model of a 911 in just the right colour.

Excellent trip.