Friday, 30 November 2007

A fascinating visit to KWE near Newbury

A very interesting outing today to Jaguar restorers KWE who are based in a small industrial estate on the grounds of the former Greenham Common base.

Chris Knowles - the 'K' in KWE - showed me around the company's facility, which specialises in particular in XJs, especially the post 1979 Series 3, and the mechanically very similar XJS. Chris thinks that what he calls the 'third market' for cars is going to get a lot more important in future; let me explain that term because I think it represents an interesting idea that we may hear a lot more about in the future. The first and second markets for cars are the new and mainstream second-hand car markets respectively. What Chris calls the third market is that for substantially remanufactured 'as new' cars that aren't just enthusiasts' occasional play-things, but vehicles that are a practical alternative to new cars for everyday use on modern roads.

The third market will probably be driven by eco considerations as much as anything else - while these old Jags don't normally have modern environmental kit like cats, the use of a restored car saves the energy and other costs involved in building a new car.

This visit also provided an unexpected treat; Chris let me sample his V12-engined demonstrator, and I think I would have to agree with him that it really is a viable alternative to a modern prestige car for someone who wants something a bit different. I'd never had the chance to try the famous Jag V12 engine before, a fact I'd long regarded as a huge gap in my experience, so it was great to be able to put a big fat satisfying tick in that particular box.

The photo above from KWE's workshop shows the XJ's rear suspension assembly (actually it's upside down) - the famous inboard disc brakes and half-shafts that double as suspension wishbones in this sophisticated set-up can be clearly seen.

Anyway, more on this in my piece in the Indy in the new year; Chris tells me it may be possible for us to borrow a KWE car for the Verdict as well, which should be a lot of fun.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Anorak Corner 7 - the eyeball vent

These were very popular on British cars of the sixties - Cortinas and Hunters, for example - but I was surprised to see them on the 1977 Capri I had on test recently (see below). I thought they'd been phased out by then.

I've always thought this was a very simple and effective design but I recall reading somewhere that they tended to be leaky and draughty, and that's what eventually did for them.

Anyway, so keen was BMW to plunder the back catalogue of British car design for the retro detailing on the MINI that it reinvented the eyeball (see above for an example from last week's Clubman test car). I think the first BMW MINI had just two but the latest revamped version has four. Can't remember whether the 'proper Mini' had eyeballs back in the sixties, though.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Alistair Darling - Sonata Watch Update 1

Mr Darling is still using the Sonata - saw him getting into it live just now on Sky News - so it looks like it's a permanent part of his transport arrangements.

He looked a bit glum but I don't know whether that was because he was getting into a Hyundai, or whether all that other stuff is getting him down. Perhaps he was cheesed off because he's been watching TG and therefore realises his Sonata is no longer the latest model. I noticed that he got into the front seat alongside the driver, rather than getting into the back - very democratic.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Alistair Darling - last year's model

According to the 'News' section of last night's Top Gear, the Hyundai Sonata has had a bit of a face lift.

So as if Alistair Darling didn't have enough to feel depressed about with the collapse of Northern Rock, the loss of two CDs containing half the nation's personal data, and tax receipts running at far below the expected level as the economy slows down, his shiny new Sonata is now out of date.

Mind you, although most of his problems were inherited from his predecessor, I fear Mr Darling is now in danger of becoming last year's model himself.

What's outside today 32 - MINI Cooper Clubman

Although I love the BMW MINI, I have to confess I was a bit sceptical about the Clubman, especially after all that fuss about the 'door on the wrong side' (the second side door on the right-hand side of the car, which opens into the traffic when the car is parked at the side of the road in RHD markets).

But a few hours with this car were enought to dispel any doubts. It goes just as well as the standard version, and coped easily with a long trip north to Newcastle for the Verdict on Saturday and Sunday. I needed a few cans of Red Bull on the return leg but the Clubman itself was as fresh as a daisy when it arrived back at 1.30 this morning.

I think the combination of maroon metallic (well, Nightfire Red as BMW call it) and silver pillar trim on this particular one looks brilliant and the divided rear van-style doors are fantastic.

I also think the Clubman's stretched styling looks better than that of the normal MINI - especially, and somewhat perversely, on the left-hand side where the lines aren't spoiled by the fussy shutline of that second side-door.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Aston Martin Rapide to be built abroad?

Today's FT had what appears to be a detailed, well-sourced story saying that the new four-door Aston Martin Rapide is likely to be built outside the UK. Four continental European supppliers - Valmet, Pininfarina, Karmann and Magna - are named as possible partners.

The first thing this list tells me is that this is probably not a classical cash-driven off-shoring move. Pininfarina has a great pedigree both as a designer and maker of fully-built cars. Karmann and Magna have also assembled specialist models for prestige manufacturers such as Mercedes, including, in Karmann's case, cars with such challenging features, from a design and manufacturing point of view, as folding metal roofs. Valmet, of course, has produced a very large proportion of the Porsche Boxsters on the road today; as far as I know, nobody has ever suggested that these Finnish-built cars are not as good as their German-made counterparts. On the basis of these companies' track records, I have no doubt Aston will be able to get the Rapide built to the required standard. As I've mentioned here before, some of Karmann's big contracts for fully-built cars are running out over the next year or so, so this company will especially welcome the chance to bid for Aston work.

Free trader that I am, though, I still feel very slightly uneasy about Astons being built abroad, simply because Britishness is such an important part of their identity. Mind you, nobody seems to get too upset at the German Ford-built engines fitted to some of the current models, or the sought-after Zagato cars that have featured in Aston's range in the past.

So if cost isn't the main reason for this possible outsourcing of Rapide production, what is? It looks like capacity constraints at Aston's existing UK facilities are the main reason - the current models are selling very well, and deservedly so.

I think the next UK manufacturing operation to bump up against capacity constraints is likely to be BMW's MINI plant at Oxford, where the new Clubman has joined the standard model and the convertible on the production line. Once again a manufacturer will have to try to judge whether the appeal of a quintessentially British product is likely to be fatally undermined if it is actually built outside the UK (for better or worse, I suspect the answer to that question is a resounding 'no').

Talking of the Clubman, I have now got my hands on this at last, which is the second car I'm testing during a busy two-Verdict weekend. More on that later.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

What's outside today 31 - Volvo V70

Volvo's big new estate.

I must admit I rather like modern Volvos' styling - the strong shoulder line inspired by that on the old 140/240 mixed with smooth curves produces a look that's both handsome and distinctive.

Not sure about the back end though, which looks a bit awkward.

Still, as I discovered on my recent trip to Gothenburg, there's no better car than this to have a crash in. Heading west with this one for the Verdict.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Mr Darling's Hyundai Sonata

During government crises, the 24 hour news channels follow the main players' every move - that includes hanging around just to get a shot of, say, Mr Darling getting into his car outside 11 Downing Street for the short journey to Parliament. Completely pointless in terms of advancing anyone's understanding of the real story but moderately interesting for the automotive anorak.

As chancellor, Gordon Brown seemed to stick for ages with a maroon metallic '51' reg Vauxhall Omega. That looked to me like a not so subtle attempt to highlight his supposed modesty and parsimony with the public purse by way of contrast with you-know-who next door at Number Ten.

Anyway, yesterday, I couldn't help but notice that Mr Darling was being shuttled about in, of all things, a Hyundai Sonata. I can't think of any other country in the world where the finance minister would be issued with what amounts to a Korean-built minicab as his chauffeur-driven car, but the more I think about it, the more I like the idea. The Sonata says 'I've got nothing to prove' and also demonstrates Britain's commitment to free trade and the genuine openness of its public procurement policies.

It would be nice if the Rover 75 were still available or if the budget would stretch a Jaguar S-Type or XF, but I wouldn't like the UK to be like protectionist France, where the car manufacturers seem to feel obliged to produce big, crap, unprofitable cars that don't sell, just so that French politicians can travel in a home-produced vehicle.

Actually I have to admit I quite like the Sonata. Apart from the rather vague steering, it's a fairly good effort - although the one I saw Mr Darling getting into on the telly yesterday was only about the second or third I've come across since we featured this model on the Verdict over two years ago. And the Treasury could have saved even more if it had gone for the Sonata's cheaper sister model, the Kia Magentis.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Car of the Year

The European Car of the Year rankings are great fun but the organisers' insistence on using a large, diverse international jury has produced some very strange results indeed over the years.

Nobody could complain about the NSU Ro80 (1968), Peugeot 504 (1969) or the Citroen GS (1971), but what about the Talbot Horizon (1979) or the Renault 9 (1982)? Mercedes has only won once in the CotY's history while BMW has never won at all - barmy.

I haven't yet driven this year's winner, the Fiat 500. Anyone who likes cars will want it to succeed in order for Fiat to have a secure future but I still have a few doubts. The 500 probably has even the BMW Mini beaten for cute retro looks, but it will struggle to match the Mini on the road. Unlike that car, which is based on an expensive bespoke platform, the 500 shares with other small Fiats. Then there's the ownership experience; will the 500's quality levels and Fiat dealers' performance be able seriously to compete with the proposition offered by the Mini - just about the best resale on the market and staggeringly cheap multi-year servicing packages? We shall see.

Of the other cars short-listed this year, I particularly liked the new C-Class (brilliant steering - the thing everyone keeps mentioning) and the Kia cee'd - a great car with keen pricing and a fantastic warranty. But the new car that really got under my skin this year didn't even make it onto that short list. I'm talking about the Land Rover Freelander 2. Normally I think of soft-roaders as being a particularly pointless class of car, and the first-generation Freelander scarcely registered with me at all. But the all-new model is a supremely polished product. Subtly improved styling, a great diesel engine, a beautiful interior and a commanding driving position surprisingly reminiscent of that offered by the larger Land Rover models. Great stuff.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Jaguar XF - again

Last week, at the MPH section of the Classic Car Show, I had the chance to sit in the new XF. If there are any doubts at all about the exterior styling, there can be no concerns about the XF's cabin, which is stunning. Like the interiors of older Jags it contains a fair amount of wood, but it's not remotely pipe and slippers.

The big reservation I still have about the XF is not whether it will turn out to be fantastic (I suspect it will be) but whether its market positioning is correct. Mercedes spins the fabulous CLS off the high-volume E-Class; Jaguar has produced a car that's a CLS competitor but without that E-class volume - and therefore cost - advantage to back it up.

Look at the engine options, which only compete with the upper end of the E-class range, or the CLS. What's really needed is a convincing XF version fitted with the 2.2 litre diesel from the Freelander 2 to go up against the 520d and E220 CDI.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

2007 Classic Car Show at the NEC

An absorbing few hours at this year's show. It's been ages since I attended any event at the NEC. I think the last thing I went to there was the last of the Birmingham motor shows before the shift back to London. Then, the NEC was very old and tired but now it seems to have had some sort of makeover - I have to say, I was quite impressed.

Hundreds of cars and a similar number of photos - hope to come back to some of those later. I'll just mention two highlights for now: the first was seeing the expensive sister model of the 1977 Capri II I've had on test lately, the 3.0 Ghia. As well as having a lot of extra kit and a motor that actually fills the engine bay, it had the one thing the 1.6L lacks that I couldn't really do without - head restraints, in this case built into the seat backs.

The other was an intriguing story about the return to production of a car that has always interested me and which I narrowly missed the chance to drive when it was still a current model. A possible for the Verdict, or maybe a feature, I think. As always with such shows, the entrance fee was worth it for the work ideas and leads generated - quite apart from pleasure of seeing the old cars of course.

Friday, 9 November 2007

What's outside today 30, Blast from the past 11 - 1977 Ford Capri 1.6L

A fine example from Ford's own collection.

Apparently it was donated by the proverbial one careful lady owner, and it's done only 25,000 miles from new.

Verdict testing this weekend in - where else - Essex.

From a driving point of view, the Capri really shows its age - especially where the brakes are concerned - but it has a certain charm, nevertheless. This 1977 model just predates the facelift that produced what was widely but unofficially known as the Capri Mk III, the one that featured so heavily in The Professionals.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Lord Drayson goes racing in the USA

Lord (Paul) Drayson's departure from the government in order to concentrate on motor racing is widely covered in today's newspapers. I spent a fascinating day at Brands Hatch earlier this year interviewing him for an Independent feature about his racing career, which was topped off by a few laps of the circuit passengering Jonny Cocker - Drayson's talented young co-driver - in the peer's bioethanol powered racing Aston.

Some reports have suggested that there may be more to this development than meets the eye, but for me, the reason he gives for this change - that he wants to further his motor racing career while at the same time promoting the use of renewable fuels - rings true. When I interviewed him, he spoke openly about his desire to race internationally with the ultimate ambition of competing at Le Mans with a bioethanol-powered car.

As a motoring enthusiast and a firm believer in the benefits of biofuels, I can only wish him well in his campaign. As a UK taxpayer, I hope that his departure from government - described officially as leave of absence - doesn't turn out to be permanent. Defence procurement and supply, the area for which Lord Drayson was responsible, is a notoriously difficult part of the MoD, and with his strong business and engineering background, he seemed to be one of the few recent holders of the defence procurement post who was up to the epic financial and technical challenges involved.

One area in which he expressed a particular interest when I spoke to him was the possibility that the defence industry, with its very long lead times, might learn from Britain's successful motor racing sector, which innovates very rapidly and routinely incorporates these innovations almost immediately into its products. About a month ago, it was reported that the first meeting of UK motor racing firms and defence contractors had taken place - it will be interesting to see whether this initiative now continues and bears fruit.

Incidentally, the defence procurement job seems to attract motoring enthusiasts. The late Alan Clarke (of diaries fame) was one - Lord Drayson was another. I've got no idea whether the new minister, Ann Taylor, is a closet petrolhead, though.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Wheelwobble Wallflowers 3 - Fiat Croma 2

Snapped this one when I was in Italy a month or two back. You hardly ever see them in the UK and they're fairly thin on the ground in Fiat's home market, too.

Once again, an example of a car that's perfectly adequate but which, because it doesn't have a fancy badge, is completely ignored by most buyers. Actually what's under the skin is pretty good - the GM Epsilon platform that's shared with cars such as the Saab 93 - and the semi-MPV body is roomy and practical too. The only drawbacks I recall from our Verdict test of the Croma were the surfeit of light grey plastic in the cabin and the rather bland styling. I have to confess to rather liking it once I'd put in a few hundred miles behind the wheel.

The Croma was removed from the UK price lists earlier this year, although I think officially it's still available to special order.

Fifty years of Trabants

Tomorrow is the fiftieth birthday of the former German Democratic Republic's most famous automotive product, the Trabant. This gives us a useful reminder that while capitalism isn't perfect, it at least provides us with an enormous choice of excellent cars at reasonable prices. Imagine being a car enthusiast in the GDR and having to wait years - or even decades - for the privilege of handing over your life savings for a piece of crap like the Trabant.

That said, it should also be borne in mind that the makers and designers of cars in the old planned economies of Eastern Europe operated under severe constraints. Access to certain materials and mainstream western parts suppliers was limited, while funding was restricted to what could be squeezed from the latest five or seven year plan in a system that emphasised the collective and communal over the sort of individual aspiration and ambition represented by car ownership. I still think that the Skoda Favorit, for example, which appeared in the then Czechoslovakia in 1987, and in western markets from 1989, was a remarkable achievement, given that it was close to being competitive with western cars of the time, despite being developed under these limitations. Certainly, it was good enough to get Volkswagen interested in the company, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Of course, what made the Trabant famous wasn't its qualities as a car but its starring role in the film footage of the night the Berlin Wall came down - celebrated in this commemorative model, which I am sad to say, still sits on my mantelpiece gathering dust almost twenty years after the event.

Nevertheless, it's a pity that the grotty Trabant got the limelight when there were so many more interesting GDR vehicles - nothing you'd actually want to to have owned at the time, of course, but more interesting nevertheless. The Wartburg 353 for example, wasn't too bad when it was introduced in the mid-sixties, although it was hobbled by its two-stroke engine. The Barkas van occupied the same popular role in the GDR as the Ford Transit in the UK or the VW 'Bulli' van in West Germany, while East German trucks such as the IFA W50 and the smaller Robur were widely used not only in the domestic 'market' but in the Third World as well. The only East German brand that wasn't absorbed or closed after the Berlin Wall came down was Multicar, a manufacturer of very small vehicles for municipal use such as street sweeping. Anyway, more on some of this interesting stuff another time.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

What's outside today 29 - Honda CR-V

This is broadly comparable with the Chevrolet Captiva and the Land Rover Freelander 2 which have featured on the Verdict over the last few months.

The Freelander represents a particularly interesting comparison. The first Freelander and the first CR-V had fairly similar styling, which was hardly surprising given that Honda and Rover would still have been close partners during the early part of the two cars' development, although AFAIK they never actually shared any parts.

Honda has just launched the third generation of CR-V - the car tested here - while the Freelander is just into its second model generation, which gives you some idea of the funds available to the two manufacturers for new development.

The two cars are now very different in appearance; Land Rover has very successfully kept the best elements of the first Freelander's styling while at the same time linking its smallest 4x4 more directly in visual terms to its more expensive models such as the Range Rover. Honda's car looks good but a bit anonymous given that it doesn't have sixty years of 4x4 design heritage to tap and therefore has to do its own thing. The Freelander's interior is a lot classier as well, in my opinion.

The CR-V is very car-like to drive - there's very little roll on corners for example - although I'm not especially keen on the steering. Diesels work best in something like this, and Honda's petrol engines, which tend to be revvy with a strong top end would normally be the exact opposite of what you'd want, but the petrol unit in our test car worked reasonably well.