Back seat driving

Had an interesting and revealing pub chat with a few mates the other evening, regarding fully autonomous cars, all triggered by one of the lads having watched a segment on the Discovery channel.  Turns out that he was so appalled at the prospect of having to ditch his driving freedom, he switched the TV off through fear, half way through the show.


So many of us have cars sporting semi-autonomous systems as it is; adaptive cruise control, lane departure tech, driver alert monitor, self-parking etc, so it’s surely just a matter of time before everything is bunged together to create the self-driving steed.  Mate this to the mooted next generation of ‘talking’ cars and it would seem a dead cert.  And you know what, I’d personally love it. 

It would be difficult to imagine how on earth the system could be integrated (and funded) initially, but for the sake of argument let’s say it happens and it’s 100% computerised.  There would never again be another traffic jam.  Ever.  Think about that for a second.  You could start a journey at 5pm on a wet Friday evening and know exactly what time you would be at your destination.  You’d never have to travel in the dead of night to go to Cornwall, could leave work on time and head onto the M25 and never again have to consider queues and delays.

You’d gain years of cumulative time to do work, sleep, read, watch films or do anything, limited only by the size of a car interior.  It’s not as if driving on the motorways is fun in the slightest any more, so why not sit back and relax?  Cars could become completely different, resembling pods, without the need to seat occupants forwards and with all safety gubbins binned, because we’d never see an accident again.   Nor a speeding ticket.  Would we even need a licence?  Just imagine the efficiency gains…

Remove the sweaty emotional blob that is the human-being from the equation, and everything would be infinitely easier.  Future generations would laugh hysterically at the notion of us having had to sit at the wheel, concentrating and physically controlling a car for hours on end.  The thought of there ever having been even a slim chance of death on a journey would bewilder and shock them beyond comprehension.

Of course we’d all lament the death of the car as we know it, a machine to pilot and enjoy, but keep hold of the 205 GTI because the track-day industry would quite possibly explode.  To quote one of the chaps in our discussion, “maybe this is the golden age of motoring after all.”

Down, but not out

I had a rather melancholic motoring experience last Saturday whilst collecting an eBay purchase from Chesterfield, an hour’s easy cruise away through the Peak District.  A cheeky bid on Friday night and collection just hours later.  Perfect.

However the seller insisted on a midday collection.  So as I sat in a snake of cars, trucks and buses dawdling up hill, down dale with no option to overtake and unattainable 50mph limits, the realisation that this would continue for the next hour was exceptionally frustrating.  Steering wheel-punching frustrating.

As I finally hit Chesterfield and sat there gridlocked for half an hour thanks to the collective genii of the town-planning department, it sunk in that motoring was no longer enjoyable.  It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Driving had now become a daily uphill battle and I’d even grown sick of manually changing gear.

I mentally planned a phonecall to my pal Graham who puts Cat Ds back on the road and listed my requirements; automatic, old tech, non-turbo diesel, small wheels, comfortable, low power.

There and then as I sat and watched the traffic lights cycle dozens of times, I packed in motoring, stopped caring about enjoying the drive and became an ‘A-to-B ‘, 40mph-everywhere kind of guy.  Game over.  The return journey became a mirror image, with the added slab of misery that is a major trunk road closure and a sign-less diversion through a web of country lanes.

It ruined my day frankly, the sheer fruitlessness of an utterly shambolic journey.

I followed up on my promise and called my pal to start the ball rolling.  The truth is, I hit a brick wall and couldn’t come up with any suggestion that would better the feel, balance and dynamic excellence of the trusty Mk1 Focus I pootle round in.

It would appear that anyone who enjoys motoring could never accept a comfy, wallowy old boat (even to save money and lower stress levels) if feel and sharpness are compromised, even at low speed.

The car simply has to be an integral part of the driver.

Zero option

English: Vodafone mclaren mercedes f1 logo Pol...Mercedes GP

As Lewis Hamilton crossed the finishing line in Korea two weeks ago in a lowly 10th position, his championship hopes  and the astro-turf both in tatters, it dawned on me why he took the seemingly strange decision to join Mercedes. 

Put simply, McLaren hold Lewis back and cost him point scoring opportunities through less than optimal tactical decisions and general screw-ups.  Sure he might get another championship or two with them were he to become a ‘lifer’ but perhaps he needed to move on to quell the growing sense of frustration and mounting mistrust. 

Step forward Ross Brawn.  Perhaps Lewis sees himself doing a Schumacher under Brawn’s stewardship, dominating the championship for years on end as the Mercedes team grows around him and cash flows in from Germany. 

The world and F1 have changed just a little since those heady days, so surely they can’t ‘do a Brawn’ and leapfrog McLaren, Ferrari and Red Bull overnight, let alone Renau… sorry Lotus.  They’re virtually level-pegging with Sauber as it is.  Their mutual hope is that the 2014 regs will enable them to do just this.  And Adrian Newey is going to be doing what exactly over the winter of 2013, sledging and necking mulled wine?

As a Hamilton fan, I had pinned my hopes on Lewis replacing Webber at Red Bull in 2014 as I’m sure this would be his and any other driver’s ambition; to race the latest double (probably triple) world champ in the best car on the grid.  That this didn’t happen can mean one of two things; that Vettel really isn’t going to Ferrari in 2014 and the Red Bull PR machine doesn’t want to even attempt to placate the desires of two of the three world’s best drivers in a confined pit garage, or that Red Bull just don’t want him full stop. 

Too much of a liability in the commercial world of fizzy energy drinks where everything is chilled, cool and rad, though I’m sure Lewis’ Gangsta Rap would sound great booming out of the Red Bull hospitality suite.  Sticking it out at McLaren for one more year to land THE plum job would surely be preferable to years in the midfield at Mercedes, so those ‘casual’ meetings with Christian Horner must have proved fruitless.

I’m a little confused about Red Bull’s potential 2014 line up if Vettel skips off to Italy and Webber to Queensland.  Surely Red Bull need one of the top 3 in the team to maintain the flow of good results and associated positive PR.  If not, which two likely lads will be drafted in? 

Perhaps Alonso will swap seats with Seb.  Don’t rule it out, peculiar things happen in F1.  Lewis may even win a race next year.

Here to stay

Lots of negativity surrounding Aston Martin at the moment, on the back of the recent launch of two cracking cars.  The Vanquish and DB9 are highly rated by the media yet the attached caveat stipulates that it can’t last forever.

The lack of confidence regarding modest sales and future finance is understandable but remember that these new Astons are excellent to drive, sound glorious and look more beautiful than any other car produced today.  Mate that to a brand image second to none, in the luxury goods market not just high end car market, and you have a marketing dream.  Dynamite.

Cars at Aston’s level are generally aspirational and emotional purchases, usually City boys with bonuses to fling at whatever car looks best, makes them look good and raises their status.  Cue Aston Martin.  I would even suggest that many high value fashion buyers don’t even have much knowledge of cars, only what is perceived as ‘must have’ and acceptable.

They’ve weathered the worst recession the world has ever seen and emerged with a world class line up to boot.  Sure, a tie-up in the future would be beneficial but it will happen only after a long process of seeking out the right partner/buyer, when Bez feels the time is right. 

So who could offer Aston a crutch?  Mercedes SLS underpinnings could be a fantastic basis for the future range, though I feel JLR stewardship would be preferable, especially given that the forthcoming Jag SUV could be jointly developed as an Aston, presumably based on the new Range Rover Sport.  Don’t rule out the ever circling VW whose knack of funding and steering purchased minnows would benefit Aston hugely, in a Lambo way, though perhaps not in a re-skinned Phaeton way…

So ease off Aston please, it’ll be fine.

My favourite, definitely

English: 1986–1987 Honda Prelude Si coupe, pho...

Ask your friends and family to pluck a favourite car from their motoring past and 90% or so will undoubtedly select a steed from early in their motoring lives.  Why so?  You can only assume that access to freedom and coming-of-age plays a part in linking positive thoughts with crap cars.  It was the same for me, having learnt to drive in a hand-me-down Honda Prelude, passed on thanks to my Dad’s company car insurance policy offering blanket policies to all staff, their partners and offspring.  Lucky me then at age 17, in a wonderful car of its era, and my clear favourite of all time.

Spring forward a decade and a bit to my first house purchase.  I faced a mud bath ear-marked for driveway development and a Nissan 200SX with baggy shocks, a perforated fuel tank and a quote for repairs to make a Samaritan weep.

Ebay Motors, mated to a dab of subtle truth-bending did me a favour there, the house was completed and my second favourite of all time, gone.

Armed with the mantra of James Ruppert’s excellent ‘Bangernomics’ theorem, our search for cheap wheels ended during a chance meeting with a friend’s acquaintance, leading to the purchase of a Peugeot 106 Diesel, of alarming vintage.  And colour.

You see, the seller had a bizarre car collection consisting of a new Range Rover, Ferrari 360 and the 106, which he’d ‘customised’ with the obligatory blanked off radiator grille, and a ‘flip’ paint job so odd it could only be described as a mix of metallic rust and burnt brown.  He claimed he had toyed with the idea of bolting Saxo rear panels on to create a weird PSA hybrid, before wagging his outstretched finger at it and proclaiming, “it’s part of me that is”.  Then he left, with his £500, visibly upset.

The following couple of years saw the most unexpected motoring pleasure obtained from the wee 106.  Not only did it handle like nothing else on the road, it returned such stunning fuel economy from its 1.5 that long weekends away could be achieved for a total fuel cost of around £15 – £20.  You could get another quarter of a tank in the neck alone, keeping the needle jammed at full until a hundred miles had past.

Regular trips through Snowdonia followed a trend: powerful German saloons appeared rapidly in the mirrors on the straights, then vanished as the Pug maintained any speed you fancied through the twisty sections, only to steam up again on the next straight, drivers confused and probably ashamed when they heard the vocal diesel lump idling at the next junction.  The ride was sublime, and clearly from an era when Peugeot had a clue about dynamics, therefore rendering long journeys a delight.

It also developed a metallic whistle through the perforated exhaust as the revs climbed, mercifully heightening the sensation of acceleration.  Momentum driving was therefore the order of every journey, a real skill that focused the mind and raised concentration levels.

You could leave it anywhere you wanted without a care, open doors onto walls, stack boxes on it and most important of all, service it yourself with a simple manual.  My girlfriend even (belatedly) learned to drive in it, ramming into the front of the local Spar whilst attempting to park.  There followed hysterical laughter, a second-hand headlight, twenty minutes with a lump hammer, and life was sweet again.

Inevitable downsides included a poverty-spec interior with a broken tape player, poor radio reception (thanks to a pointless conversion to a 6 inch welded-in bee-sting aerial), a lack of power steering mated to the heavy 1.5, and of course, the ignominy of driving around in a Chav-special.

The obvious time to sell arrived when it began dripping oil from numerous areas, the tax and MOT expired and bits began falling off.   I parked it outside the house with no preparation, with a cardboard sign in the windscreen begging for £265.  Ten minutes later as I turned the shower on, the phone rang, “How much will yer take for the car mate”?

Twenty minutes after that, the doorbell rang and an excited young lad and his Dad took it, there and then, with a generous £15 knocked off.

“Take care of it mate”, I shouted after him, “it’s part of me that it is”.

A blast from the past

I remembered an amusing if infuriating chat with an ex-girlfriend I had a few years ago about the dastardly polluting ways of 4×4 vehicles.  She was from a trendy, misguided ‘green’ family who attended an annual ‘No Nukes’ protest in Parliament Square, walked to the local shops instead of driving (except when raining) and ate bird feed instead of chips.  That was the long and short of it.  She berated anyone who used a 4×4 and said she felt guilty even sitting in my old man’s Range Rover.

I asked her how polluting the Rangie was.  “Very” was her response.  I then asked if she meant C02 or pollutants.  She looked pretty vacant after that one.  And so it went on.  She did know that hot engines pumped out less of whatever she didn’t know, than cold ones, which rocked me a bit.  I enquired as to how she could slam all 4×4 owners when she, and her knit-wearing rosy-cheeked family hadn’t a clue how harmful they were, even in relation to other cars on the road.  She squirmed and raised her voice.

I then suggested that Mr Photocopier Rep who drove an Eco Focus  40,000 miles each year, polluted far more than Mr Retiree who drove his V8 Range Rover 5,000 miles each year.  No matter how I explained it, with arm gestures, pen and paper and 3D modelling, she simply couldn’t grasp that.  I suspect that if she did, everything her parents had drip-fed her over the years would suddenly mean nothing and then where would the anger be channelled?

I eventually proved my general point to her, entertaining myself in the process, but it’s always the same with the anti-SUV crowd.  They’ll happily pluck the most convincing statistics without fully understanding them and ram them down everyone’s throats for eternity until long after it becomes moot.  They’ll actively chase poor Mr Bumworthy down the street throwing eggs at his Discovery, whilst the empty number 67 chugs past un-impinged.

It’s a self-satisfying protest.  Backslapping all round after a thirty second appearance on the 6 O’clock news hoisting placards aloft outside the factory gates, whilst engineers the world over work tirelessly to improve each engine generation and seek out efficiency gains.

You can guarantee that the next generation Range Rover, with over 400kgs shed from its waist, stop-start and eventual electric running, will be hounded in exactly the same fashion.  They don’t understand and possibly would prefer not to.

Oh, you might be wondering what my ex’s family pootled around in when “absolutely necessary”…. A 20 year old Nissan Patrol.  Priceless.

Think, biker!


I’ve becoming increasingly irked this month by the manner in which the majority of bikers treat other road users.  It’s been said before, followed by mass denial by bikers, but it would appear that speed limits and driving etiquette simply don’t apply if you’re straddling a fuel tank.

I’ve never ridden a motorbike, except for my mate’s scooter, and that doesn’t really count.  So I can’t comment apparently.  That’s what I’ve been told.

Imagine the scenario, which you will have witnessed at some point, of a motorway steadily flowing in all three lanes.  A motorbike appears in lane 3, undertakes to lane 2, overtakes between lane 2 and 3, then swerves into lane 1, floors it up to about 100mph, and continues weaving.  A motorist checks their left hand mirror, indicates and moves over back into lane 1 after a safe gradual overtake.  Said motorbike suddenly appears in lane 1 alongside, travelling about 30mph faster having undertaken all lanes.  Rider furiously gesticulates with his right arm at the audacity of the driver who did everything right, only to be greeted by a bike undertaking well over the limit.  Rider accelerates back up to 100mph shaking his head for a quarter of a mile.

It deeply angers me.

I’m not anti-bike by any stretch and acknowledge the motorbike as a machine unrivalled for thrills and speed, and the skill required to ride them well, but what’s with the complete lack of respect for others?  Ask a biker what the biggest risk is on the road to them and they’ll immediately cite ‘the driver who doesn’t look’.  True, many drivers have little awareness, but why on earth should car drivers in general keep their eyes glued to their mirrors to placate the wild actions of bikers who break most motoring laws on every journey?  Deep arrogance.

Or put it another way; when did you last see a biker content to progress with the flow of traffic?

Maybe one day I’ll get on a bike and see for myself.  Or maybe I won’t.  Couldn’t trust myself.

National speed remit

  Interesting situation regarding the implementation of a 40mph national speed limit where local councils see fit.  The thing with councils is that they become incredibly blinkered about their own ideas, ignore any common sense advice and pretty much refuse consultation with groups who have the knowledge.  They will initially suggest that the narrowest, bendiest, victim-riddled roads will be cut down but within time you can guarantee there will be a move to reduce as many limits on roads as possible, to raise funds through fines primarily.  Watch how the quotient of ‘Speed Partnership’ liveried vans rises as the limits tumble…

Mate the lowering of the national speed limit to the continued introduction of 20mph urban zones and those of you well over 100 years old will sense a touch of déjà vu.  An article in Autocar (Seven of the best, 29th August) states that in the early 20th century ‘the UK’s tiny car industry was being hampered by a national 20mph speed limit.  There was literally nowhere to test production models at speed’.

If the 40mph limit became widespread, would the UK remain a test venue for the world’s manufacturers to develop chassis settings on our challenging surfaces?  No.  Would JLR for one retain its engineering centre in the UK?  No.  And would the British performance car buyer still have an interest in driving for sheer enjoyment?  No. 

The motoring media wouldn’t gain much feedback testing cars at 40mph and could possibly base their road test departments in Europe where the performance car market would be more influential.

Imagine the tailbacks on cross country routes resulting from these lowered limits.  The sense of getting nowhere dawdling along at little more than the pace of a fit cyclist, in a rigorously developed, highly capable 21st century car.  It’s patronising and plain weird.  Slower journeys stuck in a 2 mile snake of traffic can only result in a loss of concentration and massive frustration.  More accidents will result.

All in the interests of safety?  Highly unlikely given that the government’s motoring proposals are always reactive and never ever proactive.  Every professional motoring body and industry cries out for better driver training.  It’s so simple and obvious that the refusal to acknowledge it can only suggest dark agendas driving these mad-cap alternatives.

Of course we don’t know for sure what will happen and naturally assume the worst.  We could all be blown away by the subtle yet effective way it’s implemented.  Fat chance, but we’ll wait and see.

Three Amigos – Lotus to JLR?

Every publication at the moment reveals the latest rumours regarding the demise at Lotus.  Truth is, no one has a clue what’s going on, but just as they were beginning to show signs of real progression, with new, improved models and model lines, everything seemingly goes wrong.  To us at least. 

Image     Image

So what next?  DRB-Hicom appear to be spinning plates until someone comes up with an answer, hence the radio silence.  But I have a remedy.  It’s a long, long shot, but a JLR purchase of Lotus could benefit all parties.

Firstly, the idea of mating another historical British brand to those of Jaguar and Land Rover is appealing from a PR perspective, if merely a romantic notion.   With three brands covering different markets, and demographics to a large extent, JLR ‘lifers’ could be gained. 

Tata has turned JLR around relatively quickly maximising profit margin from relatively modest sales compared to the giants.  That would be the only way to keep Lotus successful without going more mainstream, and JLR’s ability is proven.  Lotus would fit under the JLR global umbrella well with such a prestigious name and would gain long term credibility through association with its big sisters, not to mention the ability to stroll through open doors to new markets already forged.

The two companies already share a future vision, of lightweight aluminium technology, not to mention previous collaboration on various projects including Lotus electric range extender technology, which currently resides in an XJ.  In addition to this, both companies place ride and handling as their dynamic priorities, a shared ethos which would see them slot together without much change in direction.

As for model synergy, the Jaguar C-X75 could provide modular elements of its mid-engined hybrid set up to a new Esprit, should it be required, as per McLaren with their one-size-fits-all monocell. The forthcoming F-Type could even provide the basis of a new Elan, more stripped out, harder, lighter and cheaper.

Lotus would have the opportunity to dump the Toyota lumps and use the new JLR supercharged V6 and turbocharged 2.0 I4 tweaked to suit their driveability targets.  If a front engined Rapide-style Lotus GT was ever to surface, they could mix-and-match any of Jaguar’s current or future platforms.

I believe the next big step after a merger could involve the creation of a city car, to be developed by Lotus who have consultancy form, and possibly seeing a new brand name as to not dilute either brand.  And no, this would not be a re-skinned IQ.  The very thought…..

So, you read it here first, Lotus to JLR.  And they wouldn’t even have to change the name.

Goodwood Good Bits

This year’s Festival of Speed was quite possibly the finest I’ve ever been to.  Aside from the obvious collection of machinery on show, other aspects stood out for me, more than in any other year.  Here’s why…

Absorbing the atmosphere

I must admit to feeling a real sense of excitement when parking up on day one.  I tend not to look on the website at the listings of competing machines and drivers, just to enjoy the surprise.  Walking from the car park into the event, hearing engines being warmed up and clouds of invisible fumes rolling towards you makes you walk that bit faster to avoid missing something.  More so when you’ve been absent for the last two years. 

Being seasoned FOS-goers, we took the kitchen sink with regard to comfort items; full waterproofs, chairs and supplies.  To sit in comfort trackside, whilst all around us fled the changeable weather, was immensely satisfying and left us feeling really rather smug.  


Electric dreams

The commercial motor show side of Goodwood enables us punters to get up close and personal with the very press cars we’ve just read about in the mags.  Renault lined up a gaggle of electric Twizys outside their stand like a load of BMXs in bike racks. 

Curiosity can often land you in schtuck, as proven by my getting trapped in the rear ‘seat’, entangled in the seat belt, knees round my ears.  With a cackling mate ramming the driver’s seat into my battered limbs, repeatedly, whilst  a rather serious suited looking chap waxed lyrical about this very example to a group of foreign student types, it wasn’t a great advert for the wee machine.  Still, credit to Renault for taking a punt, though I can’t see it becoming more than a rich man’s plaything.  Image

I later spied Autocar’s Steve Cropley entering the Renault stand, passing a partition, and not coming out the other side.  On closer inspection there were no hidden doors, corridors or mirrors, so where did the great man go?  Shame really as I wanted to get his opinion of what on earth was going on at Lotus.


Air time

The appearance of the Eurofighter Typhoon was jaw-dropping.  Announcing itself on Friday and Sunday with a series of low loud flypasts, punctuated by a display of physics-bending manoeuvring that would see Isaac Newton go back to the drawing board, it captivated the crowds like a Mandela speech.

Everyone, to a child, stood silent and motionless, necks craned upward and heads rolling with every howling, air-crackling pass.  Even the scream of F1 burnouts were ignored by all.  Magic.


Building momentum

Perhaps even more astounding than the Typhoon was Bloodhound SSC and its 1000mph mission.  To think it’ll pack even more power than the ‘plane is incredible but to see the bigger picture under that marquee was fantastic.  The Bloodhound ethos, to get Britain engineering again by inspiring youth, rang loud and reasserted the notion that the Land Speed Record is just something that Britain does.

Noble and Green were getting stuck in, approaching families and even lone folks, with the enthusiasm of a team who’d just had a eureka moment.  These two are made of something very special indeed.

I didn’t get the chance to speak to either as they were busy bees, but I’d love to know if they’d be disappointed should they hit ‘just’ 999mph.  Having read Richard Noble’s book, I’m sure (and hope) they would.

Rising above

As the weekend was interspersed with sharp showers, the track rarely dried out completely resulting in a lot of tip-toeing up the hill.  Understandable given the risk and trust involved, yet the few who did push in the damp conditions really stood out and let’s face it, no one pays good money to watch people pussy-footing up to the finish line. 

I don’t believe Rod Millen has ever given it less than 100% in his Pikes Peak Tacoma.  It’s thrilling to watch him wrestling the beast all over the course, using grass either side of the tarmac.  Kenny Brack driving the Shelby Coupe was also a consistent lead-foot, as was Gary Ward in the F1 Leyton House, Quick Nick in the F1 McLaren and Anthony Reid, as always.  There were others of course, but these guys really impressed.


Magnificent 7

For the last few years I’ve tuned in to Radio 2 on the morning of Chris Evans’ sojourn with successful charity bidders who secured their seats in his collection of stunning Ferraris.  I’d somehow missed them at Goodwood each time they appeared, so this year took the time to seek them out and spend time poring over their details.

All fantastic of course, but the F40 really did it for me.  The poster boy of my youth.  From the embossed ‘F40’ on the rear wing supports, to the louvered rear window and fabric coated dash, its intent is even more clear in the metal (or carbon fibre).  The SA Aperta however, whilst awesome, appeared bulbous, over-styled and at odds with its stable-mates.  A backward step in Ferrari design in my opinion.  In contrast, the 250 SWB was staggeringly beautiful.