Author: David Simister

Editor at Classic Car Weekly and Motoring Correspondent at The Champion newspaper. Addicted to car shows. Loves driving great cars - and buying rusty ones.

Noise-sensitive cameras? Look elsewhere, TVR owners…

I STILL haven’t finished writing my letters of apology to the neighbours yet. I own an old car that’s a bit noisy – and I had to fire it up at 5am the other morning.

It’s a Reliant Scimitar GTE with a hulking great V6 at one end and some ‘cherry bomb’ exhausts at the other and – being fully aware of its Pete Townshend-esque vocal qualities – I tend to restrict its outings to Sunday afternoons, when everyone’s either filing out of churches or heading into pubs. But on this particular occasion, following an incident where it cut out in some motorway roadworks and a subsequent 12-hour AA breakdown recovery, I had to briefly start it up so I could nurse it from the recovery truck and back into the garage. For all the poor folk who had a Ford-powered wake-up call as a result – I’m sorry.

But what’s worrying me, and a lot of other TVR, hot hatch and motorbike devotees, is something that the Department for Transport’s trying out at the moment; noise-detecting numberplate-recognition cameras.

I completely understand why they’re being trialled, particularly because I live on a busy residential thoroughfare where lads barely beyond their GCSEs blast past at stupid ‘o’ clock on two-stroke bikes that sound worse than Madonna’s recent Eurovision performance. Not only are these oiks thoroughly annoying everyone else, but the DfT’s worried that the resultant noise levels are actually breaking the law, because the bikes have been modified illegally. Fair enough.

But what I am worried about are people like my TVR Chimaera-owning mate getting stick from the locals if said trials are a success, and there being a slow but relentless sleepwalk into any legal-but-loud vehicle being condemned because it’s got an exhaust that’s a bit shoutier than normal. I’ve already mentioned that – emergency breakdown recovery aside – I self-police the Scimitar’s start-ups to avoid winding the neighbours up, but what if I want to take it out for a run to a country pub one evening? Could I, in a not-so-distant future, earn an ASBO simply for driving it back home again?

This isn’t about defending people who ride illegally-modified motorbikes around late at night, but making sure anyone who owns an older (and slightly noisier car) isn’t caught out. Same goes for anyone with a cherished Moto Guzzi in their garage or a prized Lambretta taking up residence in their living room – and don’t get me started on my various mates who own old buses! All of which are machines that might not pass noise regulations designed for brand new cars, but passed every law when they were new and are owned completely legally by law-abiding taxpayers who just want to get on with their hobby.

The Department for Transport is playing a tricky game here. It’s doing the right thing by going after the folk who keep everyone else up at night with stuff that isn’t even legal – but I dread the day that law-abiding chaps and chap-ettes in their TVRs are vilified too.

BMW has made the 1-Series a bit worse – by making it a lot better

WHAT you’re looking at here – well, at least it would be, in some weird parallel universe where BMW had done things a bit differently – is the latest Rover 45.

The reason I mention BMW’s ill-fated six-year ownership of the West Midlands’ biggest carmaker is because that was originally going to be Munich’s way into mass market cars, with the 75 topping off a range of hatchbacks and saloons that would’ve taken the fight to Ford, Vauxhall, and so on. But it wasn’t, Rover is long gone, and instead it’s the 1-Series that picked up that baton instead.

This week BMW’s started taking orders for the all-new, third-generation model, which hits the company’s UK showrooms in September. It could be a pivotal moment in BMW’s gradual quest for world domination (which, bizarrely, also includes teaming up with direct rivals Mercedes to develop electric models), because it’s having to drop something that’s at the heart of everything BMW stands for in order to make it a better car.

Rear-wheel-drive. BMW used to bang on in its adverts about how sending all the oomph to the back wheels made their cars better balanced and that little bit more satisfying to drive than their front-hauled rivals – and if all the ones I’ve driven over the years are anything to go by, from 320Ds to M5s, I’d have to agree. But BMW’s insistence on fitting its smallest offering with it too meant it was offering the first rear-drive hatchback since the Vauxhall Chevette went out of production – and they were compromised cars for much the same reasons.

In a big, powerful saloon it makes sense to send all that horsepower to the back, but in a smaller hatchback the propshaft robs space from the interior, which is why the outgoing 1-Series always had a chunky transmission tunnel between the driver and passenger and felt oddly cramped in the back. The new, front-wheel-drive 1-Series is a lot roomier than the outgoing car, which for the families who actually live with them day-to-day are really going to appreciate.

The bit that BMW are going to have be spot on with, though, is their claim that it’s more agile and fun to drive than the old 1-Series – which was a right laugh on a quiet country road – was. Get it right, and make it feel like a properly sorted BMW should, and it’ll have a generation of faithful customers who value that sort of thing hooked for years. It’ll particularly matter when it eventually brings out a go-faster 1M model – a lot of people who own these take them on track days and want to drift delicately around corners, and it’s going to be tricky to pull that off in a front-wheel-drive hatchback.

Get it wrong and BMW will be accused of selling out by going front-wheel-drive. In which case it might as well have stuck with the Rover 45.

You can relive a bit of British Grand Prix history – in just about any car you like

Whether your car is a MINI or a 911 - it can take part in events at Aintree circuit

IT’S NOT often that you can say a Fiat Stilo is as good at something as a Porsche 911 is – but then it’s not every day that parts of the old Aintree race circuit are opened up for go-faster fun.

No, not that Aintree circuit – if you’ve ended up here by mistake because you’re actually looking for The Champion sports pages then I’m afraid to say that there are no jockeys, highly decorated ladies’ hats or whinnying thoroughbreds here. Nope, this particular course is the one famed for racing of the motor variety, including the very first British Grand Prix won by Sir Stirling Moss. He tackled it in a single-seater Mercedes W196 – but if you wanted to follow in his tyre tracks last weekend then all you needed was a racing helmet and a secondhand hatchback.

Liverpool Motor Club holds a couple of track days a year on the surviving bits of the track – and for a fiver to spectate I reckon it’s a bargain-priced way of spending a couple of hours listening to screeching tyres and watching all manner of motors scrabbling for the best lines through the sweeping right-handers. I popped along last Saturday during the Bank Holiday weekend and the thing that surprised me was the mind-boggling variety of what was out on track. Sure, you’d expect Elises, 911s and Honda Type-Rs on a track day, but I wasn’t expecting the next car to barrel into the first corner to be an 05-registered Fiat Stilo. Or a TVR Tuscan virtually unchanged from when it took part in the bonkers Tuscan Challenge race series 20 years ago. Or an Opel Manta, for that matter.

It’s good, old-fashioned car-related fun that doesn’t get hung up on who’s got the priciest entry or the quickest lap time – there was a chap with a Lister ‘Knobbly’ continuation racer, for instance, but the chaps taking part in Ford Fiestas had equally big grins on their faces after venturing back into the paddock.

More importantly, it keeps part of the North West’s motoring heritage alive – yes, I know that the full Aintree circuit that Sir Stirling would’ve diced with Fangio on closed in the 1960s, but by having Porsches and Lotuses screeching around the club circuit it keeps the idea that Aintree isn’t just about horse racing in the wider public imagination.

And any element of keeping history that involves hoofing about in a Fiat Stilo has got to be worth it for the amusement factor alone. Count me in.

The BMW 7-Series is a cool car – shame about the new front end

I’M GOING to stick my neck out and say it; I reckon that the 7-Series is the only truly cool car in BMW’s current range.

There are plenty of exceptionally talented all-rounders – take a bow, current 5-Series – donning the blue-and-white propeller atop their bonnets but nowadays they’re a bit too everyday, especially when you consider that the 3-Series outsells the Ford Mondeo. The M2 is a properly focused performance hero of the old school, but it’s also a bit obvious, and while the i8 comes close because it’s a hybrid that just happens to be a supercar with butterfly doors, it’s also a bit too look-at-me to be considered cool. Oh, and there are plenty of BMWs that don’t even come close. Who, at a company that’s built its entire reputation on perfectly balanced rear-drivers, though the 2-Series Active Tourer was a good idea?

But wafting about in a needlessly big, £70,000 BMW, especially when the 5-Series and the X5 off-roader already do everything it can for less, takes a particularly devoted sort of owner. To drive a 7-Series – and you invariably will, because owners tend to take the wheel rather than being chauffeured – you have to walk past the S-Class in the Mercedes showroom over the road, forget the roomier digs of the Range Rover and dismiss everything made by Jaguar, Lexus and Audi for this sort of money. It’s also the getaway car of choice in Bodyguard, for added petrolhead points.

But why – and I’m not sure if anyone at BMW’s headquarters in Munich gets The Champion delivered – did they have to give the latest version that massively oversized radiator grille? BMW itself describes it as ‘significantly larger’ than the double-kidney grille fronting the outgoing 7-Series, and points out that it’s now fitted with clever electronic flaps that can open up to give the engine – be it the V12 or, far more likely, the six-pot diesel – an extra hit of cold air when things heat up. It just about worked on the new X7 off-roader but on here it looks as though someone at BMW spent ages crafting a beautiful radiator grille, phoned over the details to the chaps working on the rest of the car but then got cut off just as he was about to relay over the dimensions.

So it’s a definite nein on the front end but I’ll happily have the rest of it. While I’m tempted to say the range-topping M760Li is the coolest of the only truly cool car BMW currently makes, simply because no one really needs to have four-wheel-drive and a 6.6-litre V12 with 585bhp, I think the one to go for is the 745e. That’s the model where you’ll get a petrol-powered straight six – the sort of engine Munich does better than anyone else – and a hybrid electric powerplant, so you can enjoy beautifully balanced BMW handling and glide happily into low emissions areas because you’ve got a hybrid.

You’ll just have to hope that nobody’s looking at that front-end, that’s all.

Why Peugeot buying Jaguar would make sense

HERE’S a priceless bit of pub trivia for you. Europe’s biggest producer of pizzas is based not in Naples or Milan, but on an industrial estate in Leyland, and owned by a thoroughly sensible German conglomerate.

Yet the grub, even though it’s proudly made by Lancashire folk and bankrolled by the Dr Oetker corporation, is unmistakeably Italian. In much the same way that I took my other half out for a spaghetti carbonara made by a bloke in Lincolnshire and created from UK-sourced ingredients, but the enormous Italian tricolore over the restaurant’s front door said all you needed to know about its national identity.

So it shouldn’t bother you even slightly that the new Land Rover Defender is going to be made in Slovakia, by a company that’s owned by an Indian conglomerate. Or – scratch that last part, if the latest rumours are correct – by a French conglomerate. Specifically, the one behind the Peugeot 308 and the Citroën C4 Cactus.

Jaguar Land Rover, at least at the time of writing, has been swift to deny any talk of its Indian owners at Tata selling up after a decade in the leather-lined driving seat, but I don’t actually reckon it’s a bad thing. Largely because Peugeot and Citroen have tried for years to blag the golf club parking spaces so typically bagged by BMW, Audi and Mercedes models – and never really nailed it.

Readers with particularly long memories might recall that Citroën owned Maserati for a bit, which resulted in the wonderful SM coupé but not much else. Then it tried a succession of big-engined four-doors under its own names – the Citroën XM and Peugeot 605 spring to mind – but the vast majority of would-be buyers outside of France shrugged and bought BMWs anyway. More recently, it’s tried doing what Toyota did with Lexus by spinning Citroën’s more upmarket models into its DS brand – but why go to all the bother when you can simply buy out the people who brought you the Range Rover and Jaguar XJR?

I’m still not entirely sure why Peugeot-Citroën bought Vauxhall but snapping up JLR makes complete sense, as it gives it a foothold in all those markets where brand prestige matter. I just hope that they give it the same autonomy that Tata and – to a lesser extent, Ford before it – did, allowing the experts behind Land Rover’s clever off-roading tech and Jaguar’s beautifully honed suspension to get on with what they know best.

Do that and they’ll still be the Dr Oetker frozen pizzas of the car world – it won’t matter who funds it and where they’re built, because the people who really matter, the people buying them, will think of them as brilliant British cars.

Get it wrong and it’ll be hotpot and Sauerkraut on the same plate. Yuck!

The Ford Capri – even a broken one is better than a Dacia

POOR old Dacia. I’m sure it meant well with its latest online ad campaign, but from what I’ve seen it seems to have backfired a bit.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, there’s an ongoing campaign to promote the Sandero Stepway, a shortened version of which dripped into my Instagram feed the other night. It shows a group of lads gathered on a driveway around an immobile Ford Capri, before another chap – this time with a big smile – beckons you towards a shiny, fully-functioning piece of reasonably priced Romanian hatchback. The inference being that you can have a brand-new car, complete with three-year warranty, instead of Ford’s malfunctioning old one. So far, so good.

Except that not a single one of the comments underneath it seemed to agree. Once you’d got past the swearing the executive summary of just about everyone went something along the lines of; “Actually, chaps, we’d still rather have the Capri, even if it is a broken one. It’ll be worth more, too”. One of them was so offended he referred the manufacturer’s ad to the chaps at Classic Ford magazine.

I suspect that if Dacia had picked any old car there’d have been an outcry of some form – Richard Hammond’s decision to attack an Austin Allegro Estate with a crowbar on the last episode of The Grand Tour met with a similar response – but what it has done is shown just how much the Ford Capri is part of Britain’s national character. Picking on it was never going to be a smart move.

The Capri – which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, incidentally – is one of those cars that has a UK following that borders on the fanatical. Even when it was still a current model in Ford’s range it was lapped up by us long after it had been deleted from other European markets, to the extent that all of the cars coming out of Ford’s Cologne factory headed straight over the North Sea to UK dealers. There are clubs and car shows across the UK dedicated to the car – and you can’t say that about the Sandero Stepway. What’s more, I reckon that while you can still (just about) buy a broken one for less than the cost of a new Dacia, you’d struggle to do the same with a working one, with a V6 version setting you back something in the region of £10,000, and the Tickford and Brooklands versions considerably more.

Why? Nostalgia. If you didn’t know someone who had a Capri back in the day, then you probably knew someone who lusted after one. With that pretty body draped over sturdy – if not exactly space age – Cortina mechanicals it made perfect sense, which is why it made regular appearances in the list of Britain’s best-selling cars throughout the Seventies and early Eighties.

I’m sure that, looking at logically, the Sandero Stepway is a better, safer, more reliable car that spends less time at the pumps and is easier to live with. But I know which I’d rather have.

How my MX-5 helped to break two world recordS

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LAST weekend I broke a Guinness World Record. Well, me and 1,543 other people, from all walks of life and every corner of the country.

What did we all have in common, other than all happening to be on the same windswept airfield in North Yorkshire last Sunday? The Mazda MX-5. You won’t have seen it because all the news cameras were down in London focusing on some running event that took place the same day but the result was spectacular; a convoy of sports cars stretching as far as the eye could see, all moving in unison. It was spread across four lanes of cars taking up the entire length of Elvington’s three-kilometre runway and back again, plus the taxiways linking it all together. So there you have it – the world record for the biggest ever parade of convertibles now belongs to a load of us who own Mazda MX-5s (and the record for the biggest ever parade of Mazdas too, for that matter).

There were MX-5s everywhere, but if you’d have been in for a bit of a shock if you think that once you’ve seen one MX-5, that you’ve seen them all. Sure, there were shedloads of bog-standard cars, but there were also super-rare BBR Turbo models and RS models shipped in specially from Japan. There were lads who tricked theirs up with big alloys and bodykits, and a lady who’d given hers some TVR Tuscan-esque flip paintwork. And, of course, mine; a Eunos V-Spec with lots of little luxuries that were never offered here on the UK MX-5s. Say what you like about the world’s best-selling sports car being fitted with an auto box, but I’ll have the wood, leather and air con any day.

But the really big shock was getting out of Yorkshire and back to reality. Head out in an MG or an Alfa Spider and you’re virtually guaranteed a cheery wave if you pass a fellow owner coming the other way, but in an MX-5 it’s a rare occurrence, and even now, three decades after the MkI was originally launched, you’ll still get occasional sneering comment if you take one to a classic car show.

Which is all Mazda’s fault, of course. Had it made the MX-5 a bad car that breaks down all the time, fewer people would’ve bought them and wouldn’t have been inclined to use them as daily drivers. I know plenty of people who still use MX-5s fast approaching their 30th birthday as everyday cars – which means you see them more often, and that sort of takes away the novelty. Which is why, I figure, most of them don’t wave.

I reckon it’s time they started giving those cheery waves in the same way other owners of old cars do – and that they get their names down next time there’s another attempt at the record. At the last count there were 26,438 MX-5s on the UK’s roads – a​nd I’m sure a few of the 95% who didn’t take part last weekend would be another go.

They’re going to need a longer runway next time.

Why the MG Hector needs to be a sales hit

HECTOR was – according to Government’s own statistics – the 90th most popular name for baby boys in Britain back in 1905. After that it dropped out of the top 100, and has never reappeared since.

So I can safely say that there are few Hectors to heckle me if I declare that it’s just about the worst name to give a new car. Yet that’s genuinely what MG is calling its latest model. The MG Hector. Say that again. The MG…Hector?

The name’s apparently taken from a World War II biplane – the Hawker Hector, which itself was christened in honour of a mythical Trojan prince – but this isn’t anything like the Triumph Spitfire or the Bristol Blenheim. Those were cars that lived up to their aeronautical namesakes by being sleek, agile and proudly British. The MG Hector, which is about to go on sale in India, but has no planned UK launch yet – is a rebadged version of a rather bloated-looking Chinese 4×4, the Baojun 530. Not since the Mazda MPV has a carmaker got a badge so depressingly spot-on. The new MG actually looks like a right old Hector.

Yet I want it to do fantastically well. Forget the MGB selling half a million units and becoming Britain’s best-ever selling sports car; ideally the Hector, even if it doesn’t come to the UK, needs to snapped up by roughly a quintillion eager buyers each year.

It’s perfectly equipped to pull off such a feat, especially in its core markets of India and China. The one thing the Chinese love even more than Britain’s heritage is copious amounts of rear legroom, and the MG Hector has ample amounts of both. If they released a long-wheelbase version and called it the William Wordsworth Special Edition, they’d double sales overnight. This is the country that called one of its cars the Byton – with no sense of irony whatsoever – simply because its name sounded English and imposing.

It’s also offered with a sensible choice of a 1.5-litre petrol and choice of Jeep-sourced diesel engines, and MG – over there, at least – is selling in on its equipment levels and how it’s constantly connected to the internet. It is perfect for the Chinese market, and I really hope that they sell every single one.

I mean it. Every single one, because the money MG makes from Hector sales is what it needs to finally fund the new sports car the rest of us have been crying out for. Sports cars don’t have a great reputation for powering profits – which is why Porsche makes the Cayenne, and why BMW reportedly sold every Z8 it ever made at a loss – but they’re crucial when it comes to building exciting brands. MG desperately needs a new Midget. Or, at the very least, a proper sporting saloon or hot hatch that lives up to everything the two most evocative letters in motoring stand for.

If the business case doesn’t stack up on its own then it’ll just have to be subsidised by all those people buying Hectors. Even if it means having to bring it to Britain, I reckon it’ll be a price worth paying.

Just change the name. Apparently Hunter – which is also the name of an old aircraft – is back in the top 100 names to give your child. An MG Hunter? Now that’s more like it.

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.