Thursday, 31 May 2007

Featured web-links 4 - SABRE: The Society for All British Road Enthusiasts

Are you the sort of person who can tell the difference between a GATSO and a TOTSO? Do you know what the Cumberland Gap is - and do you care desperately about the speed at which it is being closed? Or perhaps you've wondered, as you've driven into London from Kent, why the bit of the A2 heading into town looks like a motorway but for some mysterious reason isn't.

If so, this one could be for you. The SABRE website is a mine of valuable information on just about everything to do with British Roads and its forums provide plenty of lively debate. There are links to just about every other decent site about UK roads as well.

SABRE isn't one of those rather tediously blinkered pro-motorist or pro-road building groups. It doesn't have an official anti-roads or pro-roads line - it's more about documenting and discussing what's out there. After all, if Britain bit the bullet and provided proper motorways for all of its main trunk connections as many other European countries do, a lot of the charming anomolies and special features of the British road scene would just disappear, and life would be that bit more boring for those of us who spend a lot of time behind the wheel.

Incidentally, a GATSO is a speed camera while TOTSO stands for 'turn off to stay on'; this refers to a junction arrangement that requires a driver following a particular route number to turn off. An example can be found on the A14 near Cambridge where drivers heading west have to 'turn off to stay on' the A14 towards Huntingdon, otherwise they find themselves on the A428 going towards Bedford. The Cumberland Gap is a notoriously jam-prone section of the A74 at the England-Scotland border between the northern end of the M6 and the southern end of the M74/A74(M). After one or two false starts, it is at long last being upgraded to motorway standard. As for the question of why Britain has so many roads that look and feel like motorways but aren't, there is no clear-cut answer to that - get over to SABRE and debate the different theories!

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

What's outside today 5 - Aston Martin Vantage

A very welcome visitor. Perhaps the most desirable machine ever to grace my small patch of East Anglian block paving - and that includes the DB9 from 2005.

Marvellous. Not much else to say!

Blast from the past 4 - Peugeot 504 Cabriolet

In my humble opinion, one of the most beautiful cars ever built. This is the sexy sister of the brilliant saloon and estate versions of the 504, which probably came out on top in 'Car' magazine's famous Giant Tests more often than just about any other model. There was a two-door Coupe version as well.

The 504 Cabriolet and Coupe were introduced in 1969, and later in life they got a bit of a facelift, which meant that they lost the groovy rear lights with which they were originally fitted (see below). In the 1970s, the Coupe and Cabriolet also received the same V6 engine as the big 604, the only 504 variants to be upgraded in this way. If I remember correctly, none of these cars ever made it to the UK - not officially, anyway.

Monday, 28 May 2007

This one might make the Verdict - at a stretch

One final snippet from last week's SMMT test day - a chat with the people from the UK end of Binz, a coach-building company that works hand-in-glove with Mercedes. If, like me, you're old enough, you may remember the Matchbox model Binz/Mercedes ambulance based on the old Mercedes 'Heckflosse' ('fintail'), which used to be very popular in the late sixties.

We tend not to have car-based ambulances in the UK, so here, Binz focuses on hearses and lengthened Mercedes saloons like the extended E-class. Binz emphasises that the lengthened E-class cannot really be compared with those American stretch limos that are so popular for hen and stag nights as it is built to full Mercedes-Benz standards with a proper warranty and a proper spare parts supply set up and so on.

I was taken out in an extended E220 CDI for a couple of laps on the Millbrook high-speed bowl. A couple of observations. The smallish diesel engine does a great job of hauling this big car quietly; even when I was in the rear-most third row of seats (see photo below), normal conversation with the driver was perfectly possible at speeds approaching 100mph on a noisy concrete surface.

The ride from the Mercedes Airmatic suspension was excellent too, and this car had the very convincing artificial leather upholstery that is common on German taxis, which is almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

I'm told it's just possible we might be able to get this impressive machine on to the Verdict at some stage, so fingers crossed. This is one of those unusual cars that are as interesting from a passenger's as from a driver's perspective.

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Vauxhall VXR8 - one I didn't drive!

The exciting new Vauxhall VXR8 at SMMT test day at Millbrook - unfortunately only as a static display. This is a Holden really, and the nearest thing there is to a successor to the marvellous Monaro.

The lady who does the press car bookings at Vauxhall is going to be very popular all summer as everyone tries to get their hands on this one. I'd better join the queue.

Saturday, 26 May 2007

More gap filling from SMMT test day

A bit more on the gaps I was able to fill at the SMMT test day last week.

First up, two cars which aren't quite personal top ten jobs like the MX-8 and Jaguar XJ diesel but are nevetheless excellent. One of these has been around for a bit while the other has only just hit British roads in the last few weeks.

The one that's been around a bit is the Subaru Legacy. A recent Verdict participant was telling me all about his the other week, so I made a point of trying one at Millbrook. It's a bit understated but great to drive, with its vice-free behaviour providing an excellent advertisement for the purity of Subaru's drivetrain concept, which involves mounting all of the major components as far as possible 'in line', including the boxer engine, which contributes to Subarus' low centre of gravity.

The Legacy brought back fond memories of the Subaru Forester XT which featured on the Verdict a couple of years back. That test was held in Newcastle and the surrounding area, and I still remember the Forester munching up the miles and attacking the roundabouts on the A1 with a lot more agility than you would ever guess from its rather staid upright appearance. The XT, in particular, is pretty special - it can accelerate as fast as a Boxster until you get up to the sort of speeds where the bluff bodywork starts to hold it back. I was able to confirm that the diesel boxer engine that Subaru showed at Geneva would start making it into various UK models towards the end of the year, with the Forester and the Legacy being the first to benefit, if I remember correctly. I've got high expectations of this engine - as well as opening up Subaru as an option to large numbers of company car drivers and economy-minded private buyers, the diesel boxer promises to sound very good too.

The new car was the second-generation Skoda Fabia. This has the same frontal styling as the Roomster but a daintier rear. The rave reviews this model has had so far seem to be justified - the quality and the design are excellent. The car I tried was the 1.2 litre petrol version, which has an engagingly throbby three cylinder engine that pulls very well for its size. I'm guessing it must be the same as the one fitted to the Urban Fox that featured on the Verdict last year.

A third gap filled was the Volvo S80. Not quite as exciting as the other cars mentioned here, but a fair enough effort and a respectable alternative to some of the mainstream German stuff. The one I tried had a rather ghastly interior colour scheme though; 'bright brown', if you can imagine that, just about sums it up.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Damage limitation at Honda

Today's Financial Times carried a report of an interview with Honda's president Takeo Fukui. This conveyed the clear message that Honda's Swindon plant wouldn't receive future major investments because of Britain's failure to join the Euro, and this was quickly picked up by media outlets in other countries.

His language as reported by the Pink'un was unusually blunt by Japanese standards. As the online version of the FT piece has it,

"On past investment in Swindon, Mr Fukui said: “We made a mistake. We thought the UK was in Europe but its reluctance to join the euro is a big problem.” He criticised government ministers who had held out the hope of joining the euro. He now recognises these were empty words."

In future, the UK was likely to lose out to that well-known Eurozone country, er, Turkey.

This evening, the soothing 'what he meant to say' press release from the UK end of Honda, which I reproduce in full below. To be honest, though, I don't know why they bothered. Most Brits couldn't give a toss where their cars are built.


24 May 2007

Investment in Honda manufacturing story: update from Honda (UK)


Expansion to maximum 250,000 cars on target

Honda’s manufacturing operation in Swindon is on track with its planned expansion to full capacity. By the end of this year, the UK operation will be producing cars at a rate of 250,000 per annum. An extra 700 associates are being recruited, which will bring the total workforce at Swindon to 5,000.

Honda of the UK Manufacturing (HUM) is also to become a ‘mother’ plant for Honda’s eastern European production facility in Turkey. The UK operation will support the Turkish plant as it increases its production capacity to 50,000 by the end of 2007, with HUM’s design and construction engineers overseeing the expansion programme and helping to train workers. The joint operation will facilitate this growth for Honda in Europe, to a total production figure of 300,000 cars.

Ken Keir, Managing Director of Honda (UK) and Senior Vice President of Honda Motor Europe said: “Honda’s fundamental strategy has been to manufacture products where the demand is, and this very practice has been carried out for our operations here in Europe.”

Mr Keir added: “In terms of business efficiency, we think a single currency would allow us to run our business in a more efficient way. However, Honda has always believed that whether the UK adopts the Euro or not, is a decision for the British people. Therefore, we respect the UK government’s policy concerning the Eurozone.”

Honda’s investment in HUM in Swindon stands at £1.33 billion, since the production facility was opened in 1986. The factory builds the Civic and CR-V cars for European markets in its two car plants. Of the 328,430 Honda cars sold in Europe last year, over 44 per cent were produced by HUM.

Honda has a strict policy of never receiving aid or grants from the governments in any country in which it operates.


DSG goes seven speed

Volkswagen has just announced a new seven-speed version of the marvellous DSG gearbox. There's a fair amount of technical detail to this but the headline seems to be that this is a simpler, lighter version of the DSG for cars with up to 170 horsepower; VW says that it will first be paired with the 1.4 litre TSI petrol and 1.9 litre TDI diesel engines.

The first-generation DSG is so good it will have been hard to improve upon - the main benefit seems to be that this should extend the benefits of DSG to a wider range of cars.

Blast from the past 3 - Austin Gipsy

An interesting one. Ended up very briefly at Goodwood last Saturday with Verdict tester Lee Dalton and the Corsa VXR, where we saw this. Although it looks a bit like an early Land Rover, this is in fact an Austin Gipsy.

The Gipsy was built from the late fifties to the late sixties. What did for it was the coming together of Austin and Rover under the same roof after the formation of British Leyland; the Land Rover was probably always going to come out on top when the post-merger model range was streamlined. The Gipsy was available in short and long wheelbase variants; at 90 inches and 110 inches these were very similar to the two Land Rover wheelbase options. A big difference between the Gipsy and the Land Rover was that the Gipsy had steel bodywork to the Land Rover's aluminium.

Gap-filling at the SMMT test day - two corkers

I've averaged about a test car a week from the various manufacturers for a number of years now, but there are still a few important mainstream models I've never driven. SMMT test day is a great opportunity to fill such gaps, though, and this year there were two particular highlights.

The first of these was the 2.7 litre diesel version of the Jaguar XJ, which goes, rides and handles like nothing else. On paper, the engine looks too small to haul an S-class competitor around, but that doesn't allow for the extensive use of aluminium in the Jag's structure, a measure that saves several hundred kg. Pity about the retro styling and interior - personally I quite like it (as I did the Rover 75) but I'd have to accept that I'm in a minority and that something more modern would sell better. We did have this model booked for the Verdict last year, but the test car that was due to come to us got pranged beforehand while it was in other hands and never turned up. One pretty much guaranteed rave review in a national newspaper lost , which was rather unfortunate for Jaguar given the desperate state it's in.

The second was the Mazda RX-8. We've had quite a few Mazdas on the Verdict in recent times - the latest MX-5, the 6 in standard form and most notably the 6 MPS, a very impressive machine indeed, if a little too understated for its own good. But until this week, the RX-8 had passed me by. And as I discovered once I got it out on the winding hill circuit at Millbrook, I've really been missing out. The suspension, which is admittedly uncomfortably hard over uneven surfaces, inspired real confidence on the hill course, while the rotary engine revs far beyond what anything with boring old pistons is capable of, and I didn't really notice the lack of mid-range torque for which this engine (like Wankels in general) is sometimes criticised during my admittedly rather short drive. Afterwards, I forgot to take a photo of the RX-8 in all the excitement, but I think most people know what one of these looks like by now.

Rather busy with the day job today, so the rest of the gap-filling will be covered in a later post.

BMW's Hydrogen 7

I had the chance to try the Hydrogen 7 yesterday at the SMMT test day, and a quick spin around the high-speed bowl at Millbrook showed that while the current 7 has been around for a few years now, it's still pretty good to drive, and also that its impressive performance and refinement do not seem to suffer when this specially-converted version is running on hydrogen.

In fact the Hydrogen 7 is capable of using either hydrogen or unleaded and can even be switched between the two fuels on the move at the press of a button, a change that is scarcely felt at all by driver or passengers.

I haven't looked into hydrogen in as much detail as I have bio-fuels, but I understand that BMW's approach of using liquid hydrogen to power a combustion engine is comparatively unusual; my guess is that this is thought by the company to be the best way of developing cars that can run on alternative fuels but still retain the sporty qualities drivers value in a BMW.

One drawback is that the separate hydrogen tank used by this model eats into the 7's boot space (see photos below), although this is probably no worse than the boots of Lexus' big hybrids, which suffer a similar problem. This does however, remind us of a big advantage enjoyed by cars that can run on bioethanol-based E85, where both unleaded and the alternative fuel can be mixed in any proportions in the same fuel tank and use the same pipework.

At the moment, only about 100 Hydrogen 7s are being built and there is just one UK fuelling point (at Wembley in North London). It's difficult to see big numbers of liquid hydrogen cars being sold, at least until the infrastructure is better developed, but at least BMW is pushing things along. In the meantime, though, the measures incorporated into standard models under the manufacturer's Efficient Dynamics programme, such as cutting, and then automatically restarting, cars' engines when stopped, and exploiting regenerative braking, are likely to have more of an impact.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Definitions 2 - stonking

Looks like a verb ('to stonk'?) but in practice it seems to be an adjective.

Invented a few years ago by motoring journalists because no existing word adequately captured the testosterone-charged character of the Vauxhall (Holden) Monaro.

Actually, I just made that up, although I think you'll agree that it does sound fairly plausible...

Proton Gen-2 - beige banished

A long, full and very enjoyable visit to the SMMT test day at Millbrook. More to follow on that but I thought I'd quickly just get this photo up of the Proton Gen-2's new interior colours.

As this shot shows, the Gen-2's dash and interior trim now have a much more sober colour scheme using darkish grey shades that are more in tune with European tastes than the light colours Proton previously used.

The basic architecture of the interior, which I personally find quite attractive, especially the Lotus-style stacked dials ahead of the gear lever, seems to be unchanged. I'm not sure to what extent the textures or materials have been improved, but the change in colours alone gives the Gen-2 quite a lift, as does the free leather upholstery that is being fitted at the moment.

Also visible in this shot is Proton's sword-grip style handbrake handle, which I've always considered a bit naff, but today I drove the Mazda RX-8, which has something similar, and convinced myself that it looked pretty good. It just goes to show how our responses to features like this are conditioned by the badge a car carries. Put it this way; if BMW had been the first to do this with its handbrake handles, everyone else would have copied it by now.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Road tips 4 - M6 Toll and Norton Canes Services

I know I'm not being entirely consistent by recommending the M6 Toll so soon after tipping the A50 as an alternative, but it does have a lot going for it; it's a pleasant drive and I've never encountered a jam there, which is what you'd expect given that its job is to relieve, or at least provide an alternative to, congestion on the main M6 through Birmingham.

The two specific pluses I'd like to highlight, though, are the following. The first is that the M6 Toll seems to be one of the few toll roads in the UK that is willing to issue receipts, which makes it a bit easier for anyone driving for work to reclaim the cost.

The second is that Norton Canes, the only service area on the M6 Toll, is probably the most pleasant place to stop on a long run north on the M1/M6. Now I know that people who spend a lot of time on the road usually say that the independently run Tebay Services further north on the M6 in Cumbria are the best in the country, and that challenging this notion borders on sacrilege. But Norton Canes shows that the big operators - Roadchef in this case - can do a good job too. Norton Canes is stylish and modern, and offers a wide choice. The only problem is that it can get very crowded at busy times, although on my last visit on Saturday evening - see photo - it was more or less empty.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Lessons from a life on the road 1 - carry a second pair of driving glasses

Lost my driving glasses in the course of a weekend of mad dashing around cramming two Verdicts at opposite ends of the country into two days. I think I'm legal without them (to the extent that I understand my prescription, I think I'm only slightly short-sighted) so I didn't notice precisely when they went missing, but as I started my drive home from the northwest on Sunday evening, I decided I'd better play safe and get a new pair before going much further.

Stopped overnight at Bradford and then went to the local branch of Specsavers who really excelled themselves by fitting me in without a proper appointment and giving me a full eye exam and two nice pairs of specs for eighty quid in about two and a half hours.

Thinking about it, I'm surprised that more countries don't follow the example of Spain and, I believe, Switzerland, in requiring drivers who need spectacles to carry a second pair.

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Great spots 4 - Proton Gen-2

Spotted this one today in a McDonalds car park near Manchester.

You don't see many of these around but this example provides a reminder that the Gen-2 is a handsome car. Many of the fundamentals are pretty sound as well - there was a certain amount of input from Proton-owned Lotus after all.

Unfortunately, this model was let down at launch by its cabin trim, which was rather flimsy and a bit too beige for most tastes, although Proton has recently changed the Gen-2's interior colour scheme by introducing the sorts of dark grey shades that European buyers prefer - and is offering free leather upholstery at the same time. I haven't seen the revised Gen-2 cabin up close, an omission I am hoping to rectify at this year's SMMT test day on Tuesday, but Proton's recent work on the interiors of the Savvy and Satria Neo does provide a certain amount of encouragement.

While UK Gen-2 sightings are, and are likely to remain, fairly rare events, things could have been very different. It was widely reported a few years back that MG-Rover was considering a deal to use the Proton as the basis of a Rover 45 replacement. I think this might just about have worked if Rover had carried out a thorough revamp of the interior while preserving the Gen-2's basic strengths such as its smart exterior styling, eager (if rather noisy) engine and keen handling.

Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that such a happy outcome would have been unlikely. MG-Rover had already taken the approach of borrowing and then adapting another manufacturer's model to fill a gap in its own range by using the Tata Indica as the basis for a Rover 100/Metro replacement, the City Rover. It is now widely agreed, I think, that not enough was done to adapt the Indica to European standards; I suspect that MG-Rover would have been tempted - or forced for reasons of financial necessity - to take similar short-cuts with any adaptation of the Gen-2, with similarly disappointing results.

Anyway, I have to confess to having something of a soft spot for Proton and its quirky ways, so more on the cars and the company another time, I'm sure.

Definitions 1 - CHUBAR

That's right - not FUBAR, but CHUBAR. And it's nothing to do with granola-style snack products either.

CHUBAR = CHavved Up Beyond All Recognition

Description of a car that has been so heavily modified with dodgy spoilers and so on that it is hard or even impossible to tell what model it was to start off with.

Not quite sure why this one occurred to me during a week when I have been testing two extravagantly body-kitted Vauxhalls but there we are.

Friday, 18 May 2007

What's outside today 4 - Vauxhall Corsa VXR and Vectra VXR

Today, a nice pair of Vauxhalls. Of course, it might have been more interesting to show a picture of, say, a pair of Bristols, but given that Bristol is a small manufacturer, I think it's quite difficult to get even a single test car out of them, let alone two at the same time.

Anyway, these aren't just any old Vauxhalls - they are the top-of-the range sporty VXR versions of the Corsa and the Vectra. Which reminds me that the last VXR-badged Vauxhall we had on the Verdict was the much-missed muscley Monaro, although that was really a Holden. Hoping for an opportunity to try its successor, the four-door VXR8, soon. I notice this had a rave review in Autocar this week, which has only whetted my appetite further.

A busy weekend ahead - off to Berkshire on Saturday with the Corsa and then the northwest with the Vectra on Sunday.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Featured web-links 3 - Navy Matters

I discovered 'Navy Matters' a couple of years ago when I wanted to find out more about Largs Bay and Lyme Bay being built on the Tyne (see below). I've got no connection with the Royal Navy and I don't know a great deal about ships, but I regularly find myself checking back to look at this fascinating, detailed and constantly updated site about the Navy's ship-building programme (sorry - still can't get Blogger to do live links).

Blast from the past 2 - Porsche Targa

A few weeks ago, in my write up of the Verdict test of the Porsche Targa 4S I was harping on about the Targa version of the original 911 with its shiny rollover bar (I think it's stainless steel) and pop-out roof panel.

Here's one I saw at this year's Techno Classica in Essen; these shots show the roof arrangement in some detail (click for larger pictures). Much as I like the modern Targa, I'm not sure its sliding glass roof and opening rear window are a great leap forward compared with the original - which, with its seventies glamour, I also prefer to the full convertible version of the 911.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

The changing face of Britain 1 - RFAs Lyme Bay and Largs Bay approaching completion at Swan Hunter, Wallsend, in 2005

Sustained economic growth and industrial change are altering the face of Britain at an astonishing pace - and I see the evidence everywhere as I travel around the country for the Verdict test.

First, something we will probably never see again - ship-building on the Tyne. This photo was taken on a Verdict trip to Newcastle (I think in late 2005 for the test of the Nissan Micra SR), during which I made a special point of heading out to Wallsend to see the mighty new Navy landing ships RFA Largs Bay and RFA Lyme Bay (nicknamed lager and lime for obvious reasons), then approaching completion at Swan Hunter. These are two of a class of four - the other two were built by BAE Systems.

Largs Bay and Lyme Bay were the last ships to be built at Swans, the product of a valiant effort by the Dutch entrepreneur Jaap Kroese to revive ship-building on the Tyne after Swan Hunter went down once before in the Nineties. This time it looks as though the yard, and the proud Swans tradition, at least in ships, have been lost for ever. Blame it on cost over-runs on these two ships and the failure to win work on the Royal Navy's new aircraft carriers.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Wheelwobble wallflowers 1 - smart forfour

This occasional series highlights likable cars that have struggled to get noticed in today's crowded market.

First up is the smart forfour (lower case intentional). Smart announced in April 2006 that it was discontinuing this model after just two years and 100,000 units sold. I have fairly fond memories of the forfour, partly because it was the first car I covered for the Independent's 'Verdict' test almost three years ago.

Here's some background. Smart launched its original tiny two-door model in 1998 and by the early nineties, it was looking to expand its range; one extra model was the smart roadster, which had a similar rear/mid-engined layout to the original but dressed up in a sports car body.

But the big departure from the original smart concept came with the forfour. In terms of its exterior styling, this looked just as funky as the other models, but under the skin, it was a much more conventional affair. Its fairly standard front-wheel drive layout was shared with the Mitsubishi Colt and the two cars were built in the same Dutch factory.

This fact prompted some to complain that the forfour wasn't a 'proper' Smart. Now I'm normally the first to grumble about the diluted pedigrees that widespread part sharing has produced in modern cars but I think that the criticism was unfair in this case. Of course the forfour wasn't as technically adventurous as the other smarts but when it was discontinued, the company was still only a few years old, so there was no entrenched tradition of what constituted a 'proper' smart to be violated. And at least some versions of the forfour did have more smarty features than they were given credit for; the diesels and the cheapest petrol-powered models had characterful three cylinder engines, just like the original; the diesel, in particular had an appealingly fruity sound to it.

An interesting post-script to the forfour story is that around the time it was announced that this model would be discontinued, Smart's partner Mitsubishi introduced the 'i'. In concept, at least, this was precisely the car some of the critics said the forfour should have been; it took a smart-style compact rear/mid-engined mechanical package and used it in a larger four-door, four-seat body.

Mitsubishi brought some 'i's to the UK last year to gauge reaction to the concept, and it does now look as though the car will reach the British market before too long.

Great spots 3 - Toyota Cresta SuperLucent

A big powerful rear-wheel drive car loaded up with all the toys at a bargain price - that's the great mix of qualities Independent reader and Verdict test participant Guy Consitt found when he bought this Toyota Cresta SuperLucent online via a Japanese auction and imported it to the UK.

Large numbers of new and used Japanese cars make their way to the UK outside the manufacturers' official import channels. The most popular are Japanese market versions of cars sold in the UK such as the Mazda MX-5 and its Eunos sister, or those that have developed a strong cult following like the Nissan Figaro. But according to Guy, the real bargains are to be found among the less obvious models like the Cresta SuperLucent. Japanese market cars are RHD of course, and an added bonus is that if you buy a SuperLucent, you're unlikely to see another one in your local Tesco car park.

Monday, 14 May 2007

Road tips 3 - B1225 and B1183 through Lincolnshire

The B1225 and B1183 form a north-south link through Lincolnshire and can be incorporated into any journey between Yorkshire (or points north) and East Anglia. These are excellent driving roads and also provide a chance to see the Lincolnshire countryside, which is a lot more interesting than it's sometimes given credit for - it's not all flat for a start!

These roads can also be a surprisingly quick way of completing north-south journeys when the A1 is clogged and are a lot nicer than the broadly parallel A15 and A16 which always seem to be unpleasantly congested whenever I use them. And don't be put off by the fact that these are B roads; they are a lot better than many 'A's and, at least at the times I have used them, they have had little traffic on them. This description of the route runs from north to south.

It's best to join the B1225 at Caistor, which is about ten miles south of the Humber Bridge. This is a relatively fast road with long sweeping curves that takes you over the undulating Lincolnshire Wolds (no, I'm not sure what a wold is either). On my last run along this stretch yesterday, I saw a lot of new road safety signs aimed at motorcyclists; I didn't encounter any, but the B1225 does look like ideal bike country. It doesn't pass through any significant towns, but a short detour will take you to Market Rasen or Louth.

A minor bonus is that the B1225 also passes the base of the Belmont (TV) transmitting station. You've probably never heard of it but this is the tallest structure in Britain, and, according to some accounts, in Europe. Apparently, it's an identical twin of the old Emley mast that famously iced up and collapsed in the late sixties. This photo, taken yesterday, shows it disappearing into the mist; it's a guyed structure, and some of the guy-ropes can just about be made out here (click on the picture to see an enlarged version).

The B1225 eventually joins the A158 near Horncastle, which is certainly worth a look; like the other towns in the region, it's very charming in a slightly frozen in time, fifties sort of way.

Just to the south of Horncastle, the B1183 starts in an appealingly twisty fashion - there's some fun to be had here - but after a few miles, it opens up, leaving the Wolds behind and tracks for miles beneath the 'big sky' for which the Fens are famous on a series of very long, fast straights.

Incidentally, the B1183 offers an unusual opportunity to visit New York and Boston within the space of about half an hour; New York is a small place signposted off the B1183 to the west, while Boston is the road's southern terminus.

Friday, 11 May 2007

Blast from the past 1 - Volkswagen 'Fridolin'

The Volkswagen Fridolin was produced in comparatively small numbers between 1963 and 1973 for the postal services of Germany and Switzerland.

It was a bit of a mish-mash, using parts from several other Volkswagen models of the time. The engine and gearbox came from the Beetle, the floor-pan from the Karmann Ghia sports car and much of the bodywork was borrowed from the original VW van. The headlights came from the VW Type 3 saloon/coupe.

Snapped this particularly fine example on VW's stand at this year's Techno Classica classic car show in Essen last month.

I don't think anyone has ever worked out why it gained the nickname Fridolin (a German man's name).

Thursday, 10 May 2007

What's outside today 3 - the Ford Focus Coupé-Cabriolet

This is the recently introduced convertible version of the Focus - the Coupé-Cabriolet (CC) designation signifies that it is one of those metal roof convertibles that are so popular these days. Interesting to see that although the two cars couldn't be more different in appearance, the Focus CC carries a Pininfarina badge on its flanks, just like last week's Verdict test car, the Alfa Spider.

Only two other thoughts at the moment.

1) the rather bright orangey beige leather seats are going to take a bit of getting used to.

2) it's not an ST - once you've had a chance to try one of those marvellous machines, other versions of the Focus, good as they are, tend to end up feeling just a little bit ordinary.

But we shall see.

Off to Yorkshire with this one.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Featured web-links 2 - Wonders of World Engineering

Discovered this when doing a bit of background research on the Birkenhead Tunnel. Wonders of World Engineering is a Thirties magazine/part-work which someone has taken the trouble to put on the Web in DjVu format (need to download the DjVu plug-in to read these).

As well as a great article on the Mersey Tunnel there are lots of other well researched features related to roads and cars - for example, on the design and construction of the early German Autobahns.

Pinzgauer maker heading back to UK ownership

More on the Pinzgauer - news in the last few days that BAE Systems has agreed to take over the US company Armor Holdings, the ultimate owners of Pinzgauer, the UK-based manufacturer of the highly agile off-road vehicles of the same name.

The Pinzgauer was originally designed and then developed over several decades by the Austrian off-road specialists Steyr-Daimler-Puch. Production was transferred to a small British company, Automotive Technik, a few years back, after the British Ministry of Defence became the biggest Pinzgauer customer, and Steyr-Daimler-Puch was taken over by Magna and concentrated on contract manufacture of mainstream cars for other manufacturers (for example, diesel and RHD Chryslers and Jeeps).

Automotive Technik was taken over by the US military vehicle specialist Stewart and Stevenson, which was itself then taken over by Armor Holdings, although production remained in the UK throughout. Now Armor is being acquired by BAE.

I've never actually driven a Pinzgauer but on a visit to the Defence School of Transport in Yorkshire a few years ago, I had the chance to travel in one as the passenger of an instructor from the Royal Marines, who showed me what it could do over some of the DST's hairer off-road obstacles. It really is staggeringly good - the nearest thing there is to a mountain goat on wheels.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Great spots 2 - Land Rover 101 Forward Control

While everyone else was swarming around Joanna Lumley at Solihull today, I spotted this gem tucked away behind a fence on the other side of the road. This is the comparatively rare Land Rover 101 Forward Control, built in the seventies to tow light guns for the Army. It shared its transmission and 3.5 litre V8 with the original Range Rover and '101' refers to its wheelbase measured in inches. Looks brilliant. Now replaced by the Pinzgauer, at least in British Army service.

Solihull Celebration

A brief visit to the Land Rover HQ at Solihull this morning. The occasion was the handing over of the four millionth Land Rover, a Discovery, to the Born Free Foundation in the person of Joanna Lumley.

Haven't got much to say about that really but the four million milestone did get me thinking. It took almost thirty years - from 1948 to 1976 - for Land Rover to build its first million vehicles. In the roughly comparable period since, the company has built another three million. And yet, back in 1976, with Land Rover mired in the wider mess of British Leyland, and little being spent on new models, it seemed very unlikely that the company would keep going for another three decades, let alone triple its production. Just goes to show that it's not all doom and gloom in the British motor industry.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

Road tips 2 - The Birkenhead (Queensway) Tunnel

Opened in 1934, the Birkenhead Tunnel was designed by Sir Basil Mott, although the structures that you can see on the surface, including the entrances to the tunnel, are the work of Herbert James Rowse. Like so many older buildings in Liverpool, their imposing style and fine detailing recall the city's prosperous past.

The main tunnel changes direction several times over its length of more than two miles, and four lanes of traffic, two in each direction, run in a large single bore; Mott's cavernous masterpiece certainly isn't the place to go if you want to hear the sound of your engine bouncing off the walls, as I discovered when I drove the Alfa Spider through it with the roof down the other day.

So what's the tip? Not that the Queensway Tunnel is a good way of getting between the two sides of the Mersey - that would be a bit too obvious! No, the tip is just to go and marvel at this wonder of early twentieth century civil engineering; there is nothing quite like it anywhere else in the UK.

261 horsepower

That's 260 under the bonnet of the Alfa Spider and one standing in the field behind.

If you get the chance to drive a lot of fancy cars, you soon get used to people coming up to take a closer look or ask some questions. I particularly remember being tailed along the M6 and followed into Corley service station by some car nuts who wanted to find out all about the then newly introduced Mercedes CLS, and the toll collector at the Forth Road Bridge who instantly recognised the Audi RS4 I was driving and wanted to know all about it. But this is the first time I can remember a horse rushing over to inspect one of the Verdict's test cars.

Friday, 4 May 2007

Road tips 1 - A50/A500 from the M1 to the M6

A trip to Cheshire provides a handy reminder of this alternative to using the southern end of the M6 and the M6 Toll for journeys between the south-east and the north-west. From the south, the A50 leaves the M1 near Derby and heads across the north Midlands past Uttoxeter to Stoke. Until fairly recently, the best bet on reaching Stoke was to turn left onto the A500 heading south, and then join the M6 at junction 15.

Now it makes more sense (although this is not signposted at the A50/A500 junction), to turn right on to the A500 instead and join the M6 further north at J16, thanks to the Pathfinder project, a recently completed series of improvements to the relevant section of the A500, which mainly involved removing at-grade junctions and roundabouts.

The A50/A500 corridor is dual carriageway throughout, although there is the odd roundabout to slow you down. Of course, this important link should really be a motorway, and there was a plan to do it that way at one time. But it's still a handy way to beat the congestion on the M6 at most times of day.

The only bad bit is at the southern end, where the A50 rather messily links in to the M1 directly or indirectly at junctions 23A, 24 and 24A. It's not just a pig's ear or a dog's breakfast - it's more like a pig's ear being eaten by a dog for breakfast.

What's outside today 2 - the Alfa Spider (PS)

Forgot the most important shot...

What's outside today 2 - the Alfa Spider

This is Alfa's new Spider, which just turned up this morning - and a beautiful machine it is too, although these roof-up shots under an overcast East Anglian sky don't show it off to its best advantage.

This week it is the turn of some of the Indy's readers in the north-west to take part in the Verdict - so that's where the Spider will be heading this evening.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Greenery. There are other ways - perhaps

When it comes to green PR, Toyota seems to be making most of the running at the moment. Hollywood stars have been flocking to the Prius for a good few years now, and Toyota's hybrid also enjoys an exemption from the London congestion charge - evidence of some effective lobbying work, I guess. Honda gets quite a bit of kudos for going down the hybrid route too, while Ford, and especially Saab, have also won a certain amount of recognition for offering cars that can run on E85, which is 85% renewable bioethanol.

But a couple of other manufacturers are now starting to pipe up, and are politely pointing out that you can get some pretty good results in terms of fuel consumption and CO2 emissions without resorting to drastic solutions like stuffing a car full of batteries and electric motors, or switching to alternative fuels.

Citroen, for example, recently published a pamphlet listing some of its achievements in this area. This mentions its new C4 BioTech which can run on E85, and a prototype diesel hybrid C4, but the emphasis is very much on what it's already been able to do with smaller changes to mainstream cars - small diesel engines that have tailpipe emissions that are almost as low as those of the Prius, particulate filters, Sensodrive automated manual gearboxes and stop-start mechanisms that shut down the engine when a car is stationary and automatically restart when you go to set off.

BMW is another manufacturer that is introducing a lot of these smaller changes in its mainstream cars, as I discovered when I spent yesterday trying some of the company's revamped models in Wiltshire. The main visible changes are modest (to my eye barely noticeable) facelifts for the 1-series and the 5-series, and the introduction of a new pretty three door version of the 1. Under the skin, though, there is a bit more going on, a series of improvements that are being introduced piecemeal to different models under the general heading 'Efficient Dynamics'. This comprises stuff like better diesels, energy-saving electric power steering, regenerative braking and a stop-start system similar to Citroen's. The idea is to save fuel without cutting down on the sort of driving enjoyment that BMWs are famous for, and in this the company seems to have succeeded. I was able to try the revised 535d and 118d; the latter had the stop-start system, which works almost imperceptibly; the engine is cut out if you put the car into neutral with the brakes on, say when you stop for a traffic light. The engine restarts immediately as soon as you depress the clutch and put the car into gear. I was impressed to discover that a by-product of the new start system is the car's ability to restart automatically if you stall it as I did on one occasion.

It wasn't all incremental changes, though; for the longer term, BMW is betting on hydrogen in liquid form. I had a chance to see, but not to drive, a 7 series converted to run on the fuel; this had part of its bodywork cut away to show off the big hydrogen tank that sits between the boot and the back seat. There's a chance the Independent may get to try one of these priceless cars - there is a limited production run of 100 for the time being, with only a few making it to the UK - later this year, so I'll be eager to see whether I can get my hands on it.