Thursday, 3 July 2008

What's outside today 45 - 1915 Ford Model T

Outside Ford's Dunton Technical Centre last weekend, that is. This year is the 100th anniversary of the Ford Model T and Ford offered us the chance to use it for the Verdict, albeit on private roads. This is the car with Ivan Bartholomeusz, one of the people who looks after Ford's UK Heritage Collection, which is kept in a big warehouse in Dagenham, rather than in a museum.

This car is a lot of fun, once you get used to the bizarre pedal arrangement shown below. The left-hand pedal engages first gear in the depressed position and second gear (there are only two forward gears) in the raised position. Between the two is neutral. The centre pedal is reverse, and the right-hand pedal is the footbrake. The lever is a transmission brake - when applied, it also puts the car into neutral. The throttle is operated by a stalk on the steering wheel, rather than any of the pedals. It sounds absolutely impossible, but it's not too difficult to grasp with a bit of practice.

One interesting fact I picked up from the chaps at Ford; while these cars are very old and exceptionally appealing, they are in fact not worth very much. Ford simply made too many of them for them to be particularly valuable.

Glorious Goodwood (II)

Just been looking at the Goodwood website and it appears that the Airbus A380, which is even bigger than the 747, will be making an appearance on the Saturday 'in low speed action'.

I just hope the display will be a bit more ambitious than that low-key description suggests.

Glorious Goodwood

Counting down the days until the Goodwood Festival of Speed, which starts at the end of next week. As usual, I'm looking forward to it enormously but this year I'm also feeling slightly nervous about the whole thing as I've invited one of my car-mad German friends to come along too; I've been telling him for years what a fantastic event this is and he's finally decided to take the plunge, so I'm really hoping it doesn't rain like last year, which could turn the whole thing into an enormous disappointment.

Just about everyone I've spoken to about the Festival of Speed has the same favourite memory as I do, which isn't strictly car-related at all; back in 2004, I think it was, the organisers lined up a South African Airways Boeing 747 to do an aerobatic display.

Exactly. That's what I'd have thought if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, but it is possible for a jumbo to put on a spectacular show, as the very capable crew of that SAA plane showed. I don't think they quite got it to loop the loop but more than once I was convinced the thing was going to fall out of the sky. I suspect that there may have been some complaints from the Earl of March's neighbours as I don't think the 747 has appeared at Goodwood since. I suppose it's too much to hope for a repeat performance this year!

Reinventing the wheelchair

Back in the saddle, or perhaps that should be back at the wheel, after a long busy period dealing with other stuff.

Lots of catching up to do but one thing I'd like to mention straight away is my small role in spreading the story of the revolutionary new Trekinetic wheelchair. I first encountered the wheelchair's appropriately named inventor, Mike Spindle, when he took part in the Verdict test a month or two back. We got chatting about his work and in particular the wheelchair; the chair itself is fascinating, but so is the story of its development. I thought it deserved a wider audience and when I outlined it to the powers-that-be at the Independent, they obviously agreed because they immediately commissioned me to get it into the paper. This appeared yesterday and you can read it online if you click the title link for this post.

I don't think I even began to do justice to the product, the designer or the story with all its twists and turns - that would have required a book, rather than a double-page feature - but I hope some of the flavour comes across.

The Trekinetic chair embodies a wide range of innovations but probably the most obvious of these is its 'monocoque' design in which the main components are attached to a very strong and stiff carbon fibre seat. Traditional wheelchairs, which haven't changed much since the thirties use a steel tubular frame with a canvas seat stretched across it. The change is analogous to that made by the car manufacturers when they abandoned separate chassis and bodywork in favour of lighter, stronger all-in-one body shells.

The functional advantages of the Trekinetic chair for wheelchair users are very clear, but what's difficult to get across to anyone who hasn't seen it in the metal, is that it is also an exceptionally beautiful object, especially in the recently introduced GT-3 version, which is optimised for street use and finished in white.

The other thing that is difficult to convey on the page is Mike Spindle's enthusiasm and his commitment to the project over the last eight years or so. If every British fifteen year old could hear Mike tell the story of how he developed the chair, we'd be a nation of engineers within a generation. That said, it's important not to underestimate the quality of what we've already got; Mike has a background in the highly successful UK Formula 1 industry (seems strange to refer to it as that, but that's what it is) and can source most of the work and parts he requires for his high-tech product here in the UK.

The Trekinetic website is at

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Honda's marvellous new diesel Accord

At last a chance to post after a busy few weeks.

In Austria at the launch of the new Honda Accord. As usual with Honda, while the car is pretty good, this is really all about engines. Just spent the afternoon trying the 2.2 litre diesel unit, which according to Honda is all, or nearly all new. It really is staggeringly good - it feels five or ten years ahead of most other four cylinder diesel engines out there. I'll be particularly interested to see how Subaru's new boxer diesel stacks up against it; that's turning up in the Legacy in a few weeks' time.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Terminal 5 - what's all the fuss?

Came through Terminal 5 today on my annual trip to the Techno-Classica classic car show in Essen and encountered none of the problems that have been so widely reported over the last two days - although I had checked in online in advance and was carrying only hand baggage, which probably helped. My flight to Duesseldorf was almost bang on time.

The new terminal itself is magnificent, although it does suffer from the usual BAA problem that the vast, lavishly appointed retail outlets take precedence over the operational side of the airport; even with the relatively low traffic levels going through T5 at the moment, the wait at security was fairly long.

On the plus side, the vast glass frontage gives a great view of the airport and plane movements from the main section of the terminal, and the overall tone is very classy - budget conscious families looking for something cheap, quick and straightforward to eat are going to be disappointed. KFC, BK and McD appear to be completely absent at the moment; I reckon they'll be in within a year when some of the fancy shops don't make it.

BAA probably deserves to be broken up and I find BA's smug, complacent style deeply annoying but I have to say that today, the two companies combined, against all the odds, to give me one of my best flying experiences in recent memory.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

What's outside today 44 - Vauxhall VXR8

Tear-stained hankies today when the man from Vauxhall came to take this one away - it's brilliant.

The VXR8 is the successor to the much-loved Vauxhall Monaro, and like the Monaro, it's really an Australian Holden, in this case the sportiest version of the latest Commodore.

This car is aimed at BMW's M cars, Mercedes AMG models, the RS Audis and the 'R' Jaguars but it's a lot cheaper and a lot less intimidating - you can just get in and drive the thing.

Much of the VXR8's appeal derives from this, its 6.0 litre Corvette-derived V8 engine; you might expect this to be a slow-revving, lazy affair, but it's actually quite zingy. The same goes for the automatic transmission fitted to our test car which was a quick-shifting six speeder, rather than a slushy, slurry four-speeder of the sort usually associated with US cars.

I haven't driven any of the less powerful Australian Commodores, but the VXR8 is so good, I wonder whether Vauxhall has considered bringing these cars over as a delayed replacement for the Senators and Omegas that were so popular with users such as the police.