Why I reckon motoring TV is about to change

NEVER has the sale of a secondhand tent seemed quite so emotional.

If you haven’t watched the last episode of The Grand Tour yet(and you don’t mind forking out for Amazon Prime) then you might want to put your copy of The Champion down for an hour, watch it and then come back, because it’s really worth catching up with. In a nutshell, the motoring telly giant that was the Clarkson/Hammond/May trio came to an end – except it sort of didn’t.

After an extended piece bemoaning the Ford Mondeo’s steady slide from the top of the car sales charts a genuinely emotional Jeremy announced that there would be no shows involving him taking the mickey out of the latest motors alongside his two mates in front of a studio audience, either for The Grand Tour or back on Top Gear. An extended montage of what they’d been up to on both shows followed – including everything from Richard Hammond’s many crashes to the Reliant Robin space shuttle – duly followed, giving the trio’s work the sort of send off a certain incident involving cold meat and a late night at a hotel a couple of years ago denied them.

The only snag is that it was all much ado about nothing, because the three of them then went on to say they are going to carry on working together on The Grand Tour, albeit in a new format that focuses solely on their big globe-trotting adventures. Read between the lines, though, and I reckon that there’s a wider truth; that the studio-based school of motoring telly they pioneered is finally on the way out.

I’ve written before that a lot of Top Gear now feels tired trying to hang on to elements popularised more than 15 years ago and that I’ve already predicted the next series, fronted by two celebs who aren’t practised motoring writers, is going to be awful. Which is a shame, because the one that’s just finished was one of the best yet, and that includes comparing it to ones presented by the old trio.

But in a streaming-obsessed world where you can watch everything on demand simply rocking up in an old aircraft hanger and then packing in an audience around a few strategically-parked supercars just seems a bit, well, a bit old hat now. I’ll happily predict that Top Gear will eventually follow suit and go for a rethink in a few years’ time, and might even be parked up altogether.

Saying that about a car show that I’ve grown up with, from crackly early Nineties episodes of a fuzzy-haired Clarkson moaning about mid-sized Vauxhalls to Chris Harris doing balletic mid-corner routines in McLarens, is a bitter pill to swallow, but I also loved Top of the Pops and Tomorrow’s World, and the world moved on from both of those too. Personally, my own prediction is that the massive motoring juggernauts that are Top Gear and The Grand Tour won’t be replaced by something equally big but several slicker, smaller shows, covering exactly what you want, when you want. Petrolhead paradise on demand. My vote’s with a show packed with old TVRs and Morgans.

I could be completely wrong of course. Maybe no-one wants to buy a secondhand tent and, stuck with it, they’ll have a rethink of the rethink…

The Ford Puma is a 1990s classic, not a boring crossover

FORGET Piers Morgan. Forget endless rolling news about Brexit. In fact, forget all of the Saturday night talent shows, vapid shopping channels and Love Island. The one thing that really, really annoys me on TV are adverts that use rubbish remakes of hit songs I grew up with.

So far, I’ve counted Everybody Wants to Rule The World, The Power of Love and Somewhere Only We Know ruined by slowed-down, breathy-voiced cover versions of the kind popularised by the John Lewis festive ads, but the one that’s really got my goat is the Lloyds ad with all the horses running down the beach. Not because it has over-indulgent amounts of equine-themed feelgood factor, but because it takes Olive’s excellent 1997 dance hit You’re Not Alone, and ruins it. A part of my formative years – and a UK number one, don’t forget – utterly trashed because someone thought a commercially-minded makeover was a cracking idea.

So it goes with the Ford Puma. For the first time in 18 years you’ll be able to buy a brand-new car bearing that name from showrooms across the North West, but don’t for a moment think it’s going to be a small, two-door coupe with various bits borrowed from the Fiesta. Not a chance, because the new Ford Puma is a five-door crossover.

Stuart Rowley, Ford’s top man in Europe, reckons we’ll love it. “Innovatively engineered and seductively styled, we think Puma is going to really resonate with compact-car customers in Europe,” he told car nuts when it was first announced. “If you want a car that can turn heads on Friday night, and swallow your flat-pack furniture with ease on Saturday afternoon, then you’ve found it.”

He’s bang on, of course. If the number of people buying Nissan Jukes is anything to go by, people are going to love it, and unlike its 1997 namesake the new car really will laugh in the face of a trip to IKEA. Chances are it isn’t going to suffer from crusty rear arches or steering wheels with disintegrating trim five years down the line, either – but the telling thing is that Ford’s own press release on the new Puma made precisely zero references to the original.

I’ve no doubt that it will be fun to drive, effortlessly practical and – thanks to its hybrid tech – kind to the environment, but couldn’t they have picked another name? To me, and a lot of other people who really love cars, the Puma is all about zingy, Yamaha-tuned engines, beautifully balanced suspension and cramming your mates into some tiny back seats. It had styling by the same chap who did the Aston Martin DB7, but it was buttons to buy, run and insure. It was, like the song from the Lloyds ad, a timeless classic.

Only now it’s been given the breathy-voiced cover treatment. I’m sure the new car will be a fantastic Ford, but a Puma? I’ll stick with the original, thanks.

The real threat of EU speed limiters is to older cars

BACK to the Future might have ended a bit differently had Doc Brown ventured a few years further. Rather than only time-travelling as far as the heady, pre-Brexit days of 2015 and returning with a flying DeLorean capable of running on household waste, he might have found himself dealing with EU-mandated speed limiters instead.

It would have been a fairly rubbish ending, with our time-travelling star stuck in the 2020s because it’s no longer allowed to power up to 88mph (although it would’ve spared everyone the third film, which perhaps isn’t such a bad thing). Yet for all the hysteria you might have read in the tabloids about new cars having their velocity vetoed by Euro-approved intelligent tech, I reckon the real risk to the cars we know and love today lies much further down the line.

There is a lot in the European Commission’s rules for new cars post-2022 that make sense. Would I have a drowsiness-detecting sensor jolt the driver in the other lane back into action, rather than him drifting into my path? Most definitely. Help with braking in emergencies and better seatbelts? I’m down with that. There are suggestions too for tech that prevents you from driving if you’re plastered, which is long overdue.

It’s not the principle of the tech that troubles me, but the logistics. If all cars in a decade’s time have their speed controlled intelligently, then there has to be some sort of communication between their internal electronic trickery and whatever roadside gantry is beaming the signals out. This isn’t the stuff of Tomorrow’s World, as it was trialled down in Kent last year, but if you want to drive something older than a brand-new Audi you might find you’re at a disadvantage – or not allowed altogether.

Put it this way – I spent last weekend driving around in a 29-year-old Mitsubishi which, with a bit of TLC, could probably reach the same age again. It saves all the environmental grief of making a brand-new car from scratch, but because an electric sunroof and a radio/cassette is about the height of its gadgetry it would be a nightmare to retrofit with intelligent speed limiters and data recorders. The long-term risk is that it, and thousands of older cars cherished by their owners for all sorts of reasons, won’t be allowed onto our increasingly smart roads because they’re too analogue.

The challenge for the powers-that-be is working out how to move with the times without inadvertently legislating all of our Triumph TR4s, our MG Midgets and – in my case – our 29-year-old Mitsubishis off the roads.

Otherwise I’ll be asking Doc Brown if I can hitch a ride.

Why the Ford Probe is finally a classic car

I’M NOT sure if Gareth Cheeseman – the egocentric salesman character created by Steve Coogan years ago – reads The Champion,but he’ll be delighted by this week’s revelation if he does. The Ford Probe is a classic car.

Yes, the Ford Probe. Remember it? It was the Nineties’ belated follow-up to the Capri, but for all sorts of reasons it never really caught on in the same way that the automotive star of The Professionals did. After just three years and a little over 15,000 sales it was quietly dropped in the UK, making way for the Mondeo-based Cougar that arrived just a few months later. That was way back in 1997, but 22 years on the Probe seems to get an excitable flurry of likes and retweets every time it pops up online.

In many ways it was entirely the wrong car to follow up the Capri – it was front-wheel-drive, so any cheeky opportunities of getting the tail out on wet roundabouts were dashed from the off, and its TV appearances with the aforementioned Cheeseman on the excellent Coogan’s Run killed its street cred in an instant. It also arrived just as two-door coupés were all the rage, so it had a lot of competition; not just from obvious rivals like Vauxhall’s Calibra, but real eye-grabbers like the Alfa GTV and Fiat Coupé too.

But look at one now, when there are fewer than 500 left on the UK’s roads – making it a far rarer beast than the Capri – and with Nineties nostalgia all the rage, and there’s something really compelling about it. For starters, if you get the 24-valve version you have a silky, 2.5-litre V6 beneath the bonnet, delivering mid-range torque in a way that the turbocharged three-cylinder engines of today just can’t match. For me, the thing I love about the Probe is the way it looks, with those full-width rear lights and concept car profile. And pop-up headlights, of course. Any car with pop-up headlights is, I’ve always thought, automatically cool simply on account of having them. Why can’t we bring them back?

The Probe might have had a silly name, an unfortunate on-screen fan and the misfortune of following a motoring cult hero, but I reckon its time has finally come. I’m just glad that Instagram – rather than Gareth Cheeseman – seems to agree.

Aston Martin Rapide E – licensed to be sensible

SPOILER alert – by which I don’t mean the enormous thing you’ll find sprouting from the back of Honda’s Civic Type R. The next Bond movie is the one where 007 finally settles down for a lifetime of school runs and trips to Sainsbury’s.

Forget any rumours you might have read about the next cinematic outing for Britain’s top MI6 operative being a modern-day retelling of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Or that its working title, Shatterhand, alludes to a SPECTRE mastermind previously only mentioned in the books and thus sets Bond up for a showdown with Blofeld’s right-hand man. Nope, the 25th film in the series is the one where 007, having chatted up Madeleine Swann in the last movie, gets married, takes her on a honeymoon to Prestatyn and they have kids a year or two later. Awwww, Daniel Craig’s take on the orphaned assassin has finally grown up!

I know this not because I’ve got pals at Pinewood Studios, but simply on the choice of car that’ll he be driving in the next film. Elsewhere in the press you might have read about how the new Aston Martin Rapide E is the first time that a 00-agent has been assigned a zero emissions car – nothing wrong with that, of course – but the thing that grabs me that, no matter how cool it looks, it’s a four-door saloon.

A four-door saloon. It’s only the second time in the entire history of the Bond films that’s happened, and on the last occasion it was an Avis-rented BMW that Pierce Brosnan promptly did the right thing to by sending it straight off the top of a multi-storey car park. The fact that 007’s next set of wheels is an Aston Martin, of course, is entirely right. But why does Bond need an extra set of doors? Has he been told that the Ministry of Defence, due to ongoing budget cuts, is insisting on car-sharing with colleagues and that from now on, he’s going to have to give 004, 006 and 009 lifts to their next missions?

I know that Aston Martin is very keen to, er, plug its first all-electric model on the big screen but James Bond is the sort of bloke with no need for a big boot and decent rear legroom – in other words, he needs the newly-launched Vantage, which thanks to its Mercedes-sourced, twin-turbo V8 is not only more sensibly reliable than the Astons of old but looks the part and sounds great too. It has room for our plucky Brit, a femme fatale, some concealed weaponry and nothing else. Now that’s a Bond car.

That’s why I can only assume that Bond’s married-with-children in the next film, because the Rapide’s more B&Q than Q-branch. That, or they’ve picked completely the wrong car.

Ferrari F8 Tributo – terrible name, very important mission…

YOU might not believe it, but a hefty new Government report that’s officialdom’s equivalent of a ticking-off from a stern headteacher and the new Ferrari are setting out to do roughly the same thing.

Yep, Public Health England are tackling the same case as the chaps at Maranello – but from wildly different perspectives. Both, you see, are trying to win over the hearts and minds of the next generation of petrolheads – by convincing the next generation of motorists-in-the-making that cars aren’t their enemy.

Whitehall first, then. I’m not entirely sure about its suggestions for scrappage schemes in its new report, but I’m actually in agreement with the idea that cars sat idling outside schools is not a good thing. In fact, I’d go even further than their suggestion of fining the culprits and let local authorities do their utmost to prevent children from being chauffeured to class in a never-ending slew of Audi Q5s and BMW X3s. I’m happy to go on record as saying that proper investment in getting kids to school on buses, not cars, is the way forward (and the fact it’ll make my commute much quicker has nothing to do with it, honestly). Why? Because in the long-run a school run devoid of oversized diesel off-roaders will weaken the argument that cars are the enemy.

That’s the stick out of the way – which is a good thing, because Ferrari and Aston Martin have some particularly fresh-looking carrots, if this year’s Geneva Motor Show was anything to go by. Kia, Hyundai and Skoda did turn up with some new stuff, of course, but the recurring theme at the latest outing seems to be that mid-engined supercars are back in fashion. I’m not sure if they ever went out of fashion in the first place – and my baggy t-shirts, Tears for Fears albums and side-parting mean I’m not exactly in a position to judge anything fashion-related – but there are definitely plenty of carmakers giving them another crack.

Let’s skip straight past Bugatti’s Voiture Noire, billed as the world’s most expensive car, despite the fact it’s only made one and it’s already sold anyway. Aston Martin have decided to ditch decades of tradition and launch its new Vanquish not as a front-engined GT, but as a mid-engined Ferrari rival, and it looks fabulous.

Which is where we get to Ferrari, of course. Forget the fact that its new F8 Tributo has a terrible name – Tributo, translated from Italian in Layman’s English, means ‘Tribute’, as in Ferrari’s tribute to how marvellous its own award-winning V8 engines are. Look past the new arrival being a heavily updated version of the outgoing 488 GTB, too, and the fact that it contributes precisely nothing to the hybrid/electric conversation because it has a 710bhp twin-turbo V8 that relies on setting things alight to do its business.

None of this matters a jot because it looks utterly mesmerising – the F40-aping heat vents in the rear window, especially – and sounds like a Ferrari should at full chat. It is unapologetically bedroom wall stuff – which fills me with hope, because what tomorrow’s petrolheads need are things to stick on bedroom walls.

That and a school run that isn’t choked up with diesel fumes from cars sat idling outside the front gates, of course…

Why I’m glad that the Jaguar I-Pace is European Car of the Year

BIT disappointed that yesterday didn’t begin with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight thundering through the skies overhead.

Church bells across the country would’ve rung out in unison, followed by politicians of all parties breaking off from the Brexit negotiations to offer congratulatory speeches, and schoolchildren would’ve been invited to send in their drawings and paintings marking the big moment.

Perhaps I’m over-egging it a bit, but a panel of motoring experts have finally freed themselves from the shackles of sensibleness and voted in a Jaguar as European Car of the Year.

It’s an historic moment – although probably not one that requires the entire nation to break out the Union Flag bunting and hold street parties in a patriotic frenzy – because never before has a Jag won. You might find it hard to believe, but the original XJ6 didn’t even come close. Nor did the XK8. In fact, the only Jaguars that got within sniffing distance were the X-type (beaten by the erm, Peugeot 307), and the XE two years ago, which finished third.

So I’m glad that the I-Pace has finally walked off with the silverware, and not just because it gives a manufacturer staring in the face of 4,500 painful job cuts a much-needed shot of adrenaline. It shows that, for a change, the collective opinion went with the car that genuinely moved the game on the most, as the I-Pace has done with zero-emissions electric cars what the Mk2 did with stuffy small saloons. Made them genuinely, want-one desirable.

The other big surprise was that – had it not been for a pre-agreed clause in the rules – it would have been joint winner with a sports car, in the form of Alpine’s A110. In other words, a panel of judges that has a habit of picking family hatchbacks as worthy-but-boring winners gave a £46,000, two-seater Cayman rival what would be a contest-winning amount of points. The last time they did anything that brave was more than 40 years ago, when the Porsche 928 won.

What all that means is that European Car of the Year just got interesting again – finally it feels like there’s a realistic chance that a Porsche or Lotus might walk off with the coveted rear window sticker, rather than being relegated to third place by a brace of hybrid hatchbacks. Imagine if the new TVR Griffith won it next year? It doesn’t seem so far-fetched anymore.

In the meantime, it means that the I-Pace is not only a proper Jag that just happens to be zero-emissions too, but it means that a bunch of motoring writers far better than this one agree that it’s award-winningly good too. Makes up for the Peugeot 307 winning, and all that…

What the Reliant Scimitar taught me about MoT exemption

A VALIANT quest I set out on last November is nowhere near journey’s end. Over the past few months I’ve been on what feels like an epic voyage through the classified ads – and I still haven’t found the right Reliant Scimitar.

It’s not even casual browsing this time; it’s the serious, hardcore end of the car buying spectrum. I’ve sat for hours on end in front of computers, poring over the tiniest details in online ads. I have gone out and been on test drives. I’ve even, and this is a genuine top tip for anyone thinking of buying an old car, pre-emptively joined the owners’ club to get their help. It’s been three months, and yet I still haven’t found the right one.

I reckon having the patience of a saint and the persistence of a right pain in the proverbials will eventually get me there, of course – but it’s got be the right one. It has to an SE5 or SE5A-series GTE in any colour other than red or black, and it’s crucial that it’s one that’s been cared for.

Nor can it be the one I gave a miss the other day, which proved that changes to the MoT test last summer are a bit of a double-edged sword. Browse the ads for old cars at the moment and there are plenty being advertised as being not only tax-free, but exempt from the annual visit to the garage too. The idea is that it’s a good way of saving money on a car that you might only take out on a couple of sunny Sunday afternoons a year, and no MoT is one less thing to faff with.

So it sounds like it’s a bit of a sales pitch – but it’s also the reason why I gave one Scimitar a swerve entirely. These days you can pop virtually any car registration number into a Government-run website and it’ll tell you all of its mechanical misdemeanours, going back years at a time. It’ll tell you, for instance, that my MX-5 picked up two advisories when it was tested last month and that my Toyota Avensis needed its brakes tweaking, but for the car I checked out there was nothing. Not only no records of previous faults, but no records of it being tested at all. Anywhere. Ever. This, on records going back 15 years.

Don’t get me wrong – it could be a bit of a hidden gem with impeccable underpinnings (in which case, it should have no problem earning an annual ticket anyway). But, given the choice between one old car that’s been looked at on a ramp and has a record of all its little foibles, or one that doesn’t, which would you go for? I didn’t think rolling MoT exemption was a great idea when it was first announced 18 months ago because of all the safety implications, but on this occasion it’s about appealing to my wallet, rather than my conscience. An old car with an MoT, to my mind at least, is better value than one without.

So I’ll continue with my adventures through the car ads for now, thanks. Speaking of which, anyone thinking of flogging a Reliant Scimitar?

New Defender interior leaked – but not in the proper Land Rover way

AS BIG motoring stories go, this was no damp squib. It’s still another couple of months before we finally get to see Land Rover’s new Defender – but the interior’s leaked.

A slew of shouty headlines from the motoring magazine websites said it all; NEW DEFENDER: INTERIOR LEAKED AHEAD OF UNVEILING, LEAKED: NEW LAND ROVER DEFENDER INTERIOR, and, perhaps most promisingly of all, 2020 DEFENDER INTERIOR LEAKED FULLY. As someone who spent most of his childhood in the back of old Land Rovers and still reckons a Series IIA isn’t really complete unless its cabin comes with a slighty musty, countryside-ish whiff, this was great news, because it meant someone at Solihull had really been paying close attention to what old Land Rover owners are used to. If the new Defender’s interior has leaked before it’s even been launched, it’s still a proper Land Rover!

Unfortunately, the story the motoring mags had, er, splashed with referred to a leak of the metaphorical rather than literal sort, and for legal reasons I’m obliged to point that there’s no indication that Solihull’s next mud-plugger will actually allow in the occasional dribble of rainwater every time you take it off-roading. But, if the latest images are anything to go by, it looks like Jaguar Land Rover have spent a lot of time getting the mix of chunky, hard-wearing plastics and the details that are bang-up-to-date, like the neatly-integrated digital dash display, right. A copy-and-paste of the Discovery’s cabin it ain’t.

It’s had to tread a very tricky tightrope with the new Defender – it is, after all, the direct descendant of 1948’s Series I, so it’s got to look, feel and sound like a Landie of the old school while simultaneously meeting all of today’s safety regulations, doing more than 25 to the gallon and comfortably sitting at seventy on the motorway. I’ll happily accept that the farming set have all moved into Nissan Navaras and Mitsubishi L200s now, but the new Defender’s also got to hit it off with those vastly different swathes of people devoted to the old one – so that’s the British Army, Kanye West and the entire readership of Your Horse. Tough call.

But I’m keeping my fingers crossed, largely because JLR (which has just cut 4500 jobs) could use a lucky break, and because the precedent set by the Jaguar XJ nine years ago shows that it is possible to reinvent a British icon that everyone previously declared impossible to reinvent. The new Defender won’t please absolutely everyone, but I’d rather that than there be no new Land Rover at all. Whatever happens, it’ll still be devastatingly effective off-road and bang up to date.

Probably better built than the old one, too. Although if the interior leaks, at least you’ll know why…

Morgan – a very British success story

SUPPOSE Donald Trump – a US president who, whether you love him or loathe him, once vowed to sort out North Korea by chomping on cheeseburgers with Kim Jong-un – starts a nuclear war.

Without wanting to go all When The Wind Blows on you, I reckon there’s a fair chance all of us would be completely obliterated in the subsequent missile exchange – except, of course, the cockroaches.

And Morgan, I’d like to bet. Even in the most ridiculously over-the-top post-apocalyptic scenario I reckon there’ll still be a queue of people cheerily lining up to buy a Plus 4, completely unmoved by whatever’s going on in the wider world because they’re delighted that there’s no longer a seven-year waiting list. The Malvern sports car manufacturer just quietly got on with doing its bit through two World Wars. It shrugged off The Great Depression, the Three Day Week and The Credit Crunch. Where Armstrong-Siddeley, Austin-Healey, Alvis and Ascari have all come and gone (and those are just the defunct Brit carmakers beginning with ‘A’), Morgan’s just carried on regardless.

Which is why I suspect, that in a week when Nissan announced it was pulling X-Trail production from Sunderland, Jaguar Land Rover posted a £3.4 bn quarterly loss and Ford’s global profits dipped by 50 per cent, Morgan’s announced record profits for the third year running. Despite, at it turns out, actually making fewer cars than it did a year ago.

All this even though there are many people – including lots of devoted car nuts – who hate Morgans. There are plenty of perfectly normal, well adjusted people who just don’t understand why you’d spend the best part of forty grand (and that’s the starting price for a 4/4 these days) for a creaky throwback of a car that’s been in production since 1936 and has bits of wood in its construction.

But there are, as it turns out, an equally sizeable army of driving die-hards who really, really love Morgans – me included. If I ever won the Lottery (which is extremely unlikely, given that I don’t play it) I’d be straight on the phone with an order for a 3 Wheeler and a Plus 4. Chances are they’ll be outhandled by any contemporary hot hatch, but that’s missing the point – where else are you going to find a car that feels quite so organic to drive? Morgans are old-fashioned and make you work for your thrills, but that’s why people find them so endearing.

It could happily churn out Plus 4s for the next 1,000 years and people would still be sticking orders in, but instead it’s busy working on a new model – the new ‘wide bodied’ car, which will fit in where the old V8 models left off last year.

I’m glad that Morgan’s on a roll. As long as people are queuing up for quirky sports cars with ash frames, you just know that everything else will be alright…