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.

Tailgating – the radical ideas the Government would NEVER use

Nigel Mansell definitely won't approve of you driving this close to the car in front

TWO seconds. It might not seem that long as increments of time go but it’s a surprisingly useful way of measuring things.

It is, for instance, how far I’ll get into each episode of Bodyguard before I’m completely and utterly lost trying to work out what’s going on. It’s also roughly how long I can listen to any Black Eyed Peas song before wishing for a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. It’s also, if Tesla’s own claims are to be believed, how long its new Roadster will take to thrust you to 60mph from a standstill.

But it’s also a short space of time I see being routinely ignored every time I hop into the car and go to work – yes, extra petrolhead geek points if you already knew that it’s the time you’re supposed to leave between your own car and whoever’s up front. The road safety mantra’s the same regardless of whether you’re pursuing a tractor or the new TVR – only a fool breaks the two-second rule.

Which is why I’m glad that the man who briefly made moustaches cool in the early 1990s, Nigel Mansell, is giving his backing to a new campaign to stop people tailgating. The 1992 Formula One world champion reckons it’s an ‘utterly deplorable habit’ that does precisely zilch to make you a better driver. I’m glad that he’s involved, because none of my more radical solutions would’ve got past the Department for Transport’s sense checkers.

My initial idea of having snipers on motorway bridges with their crosshairs trained on tailgaters obviously wouldn’t have worked – if only because every time someone cuts into your safe space, they briefly make you the tailgater until you hit the brakes, and the last thing you’d want in that tense moment is a bored ex-squaddie shooting out your front tyres.

Then I thought about having some sort of bendy metal pole that shoots out from your rear bumper, and extends and retracts according to your speed, so its length always corresponds to that safe two-second gap. It’d be rigged up to some highly charged battery, so that any German saloons that dare venture too close are briefly treated to 50,000 volts.

However, I can’t see either of these ideas making into commuting reality, so how about treating the ‘utterly deplorable habit’ the same way the Government already does with smoking? It’s simple – every car is fitted with a TV screen embedded in its bootlid and a rear-facing radar scanner, not unlike the ones already used for parking sensors. Get too close and the screen would show you images of cars that have totalled by tailgaters – and Mr Impatient Sales Rep backs off. If it works with cigarette packets, why can’t it work with Ford Fiestas? Failing that, how about some sort of front-mounted radar sensor that automatically shuts the throttle if you edge too close?

I suspect roughly none of these ideas will make it even close to reality, but as someone who’s had a car rear-ended and written off by a BMW-driving sales rep you can probably understand my frustration with impatient clots who drive too closely.

Nigel Mansell is definitely a step in the right direction, though. If he can make moustaches cool, who knows what he can do for road safety?

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Vinfast – great looks, shame about the name

No, it's not a new Tesla or BMW - but Vinfast would be flattered if you thought it was
VINFAST. It sounds like the name of some nasty new energy drink or a pill you’d pop to cure ingestion – but it’s actually a new range of cars dreamt up over in Vietnam.

The new wave of carmakers not-so-quietly plotting on world domination in Asia have never been terribly good with names. The first one I can recall coming over here was the Great Wall, a double-cab pick-up truck from China which not only referred to a mighty landmark but also the vehicle’s aerodynamic and performance qualities. Then there’s the Byton, which its makers said was meant to sound well-heeled and vaguely aristocratic but just reminds me of four children and a dog going on adventures.

But one thing Vinfast definitely didn’t get wrong was the styling. I actually did a double take when they sent me the first pictures of their two debut models because I thought they’d mixed up with a press release from Tesla or BMW – but no, the first Vietnamese car company to have a crack at winning over cynical Brit motorists have utterly nailed it in the looks department.

It’s early days so there’s no word on what sort of engines its new off-roader and saloon will have under the bonnet, whether you’ll be able to plug them into a three-pin socket in your garage or if they’ll be able to navigate Switch Island on a busy Friday night autonomously, but they have at least revealed how they managed to make their new offerings look so good. They didn’t – they gave the job to some Italian blokes instead.

If you’ve got this far down this week’s column without giving up and heading straight to the Champion’s sport page then you won’t need me to tell you who Pininfarina is, but it’s worth remembering that they did the Ferrari F355, the Peugeot 406 Coupe, the Jaguar XJ6 Series III and the original Fiat 124 Spider. So it should be no surprise that with a new carmaker eager to get peoples’ attention paying the bills and no previous history as baggage that the Italians would be able to turn a blinder – and they have. Okay, so the V-shaped logo on the radiator grille smacks of late Nineties Vauxhall, but the rest of it is as good as anything you’d find coming out of Turin or Stuttgart.

So you’ll be able to buy it here next year, right? Erm, nope. Despite Vinfast launching its cars at the Paris Motor Show next month it says it wants to play it safe and focus on selling cars back home – and it might launch them here in a couple of years, by which time they’ll be starting to look a bit dated. It’s a shame, because on looks alone I reckon it’d do well here.

Still, at least it’ll give ‘em time to come up with a better name!

The Ford Mondeo still has its fans. Me, for one

The Mondeo might not be a bestseller any more, but it still has plenty of fans

THE Grim Reaper will have to pop round another time. Contrary to what you might have read elsewhere the Ford Mondeo is alive and well, and I reckon it will be for a while yet.

The car’s makers have been forced to defend its family favourite this week, after a financial analysis suggested that it – and the Galaxy and S-Max people carriers too, for that matter – be quietly pensioned off (with a few thousand job cuts too, unfortunately). The Mondeo, it says, is a core part of its British range, even if when you look at the sales stats its spot in the bestsellers list has clearly been snatched by the trendier Kuga.

It’s also abundantly clear that the family saloons the Mondeo traditionally squares up to are a bit of a dying breed. Brits can no longer buy a brand-new Nissan Primera, Citroen C5, Renault Laguna, Honda Accord or Toyota Avensis. Rover and Saab are long gone. Vauxhall is still doing admirably well with its Insignia, VW offers a triple whammy with the Passat and its Octavia and Toledo cousins, there’s the Peugeot 508 and Mazda6 – and that’s about it. Mondeo Man has either moved up to an A4 or 3-Series, or ditched saloons altogether for SUVs. Both, whichever way you cut it, have rather more panache than living in the past with the poor old Mondeo.

All of which makes me a bit sad because it reminds me of a bit of a recurring car nut truism; everyone I know who really, really likes cars rates the Mondeo. I have many fond memories of stuffing unreasonably large amounts of IKEA clobber into the back of an ST TDCi Estate and then blasting up the M57 on its seemingly endless reserves of mid-range torque. Or that time I drove 2.5-litre V6 Cougar – the Mondeo’s short-lived coupe cousin – and being so impressed that I nearly bought it. Or the time I tried a 2001 Ghia X and was so won over that I actually did buy it. It’s the same with all my petrolhead pals – almost of them have owned a Mondeo at some point, because they do everything you could ever ask a family car to while still being a joy through the bends.

The Mondeo’s a bit like Three Lions – inescapably associated with the Nineties, but on the right day and with a suitably optimistic bunch of England fans it can still top the pop charts in 2018. There’s nothing wrong with Calvin Harris and Ariana Grande, of course, but I think I’ll stick with the Lightning Seeds…

Forget the weather – the Ormskirk MotorFest had all the right cars

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IT’D TAKE more spin than a wayward TVR to pretend otherwise, so I might as well deal with the rather damp elephant in the room first. Last weekend’s Ormskirk MotorFest was a bit of a washout.

West Lancashire’s Bank Holiday homage to horsepower has had it lucky right from that inaugural outing way back in 2011 to last year’s event, becoming Ormskirk’s single biggest trading day in the process, but the winning streak with the weather had to run out eventually. The town centre displays looked as striking as ever but the crowds that turned out to see them were rather smaller than in previous years, and during the afternoon parades what would normally be heaving crowds behind the barriers turned out to be a  gathering of brolly-wielding onlookers braving the awful weather. Turnout was down too, with some car and bike owners deciding it wasn’t worth the soaking.

But if you didn’t go you missed a treat, because on a day defined entirely by the downpours there were plenty of rays of automotive sunshine.

There was, for instance, Pauline Ryding’s delightfully daft Dodge Viper GTS, which I admired principally because it attempted to deafen me every time it thundered past the commentary box – but even that wasn’t a patch on the stock car parade, the most vocal of which had Chevy and Chrysler V8s doing their bidding. I also couldn’t help but smile when Ian Williams’ Triumph TR3A and David Grant-Wilkes’ MG TC whizzed their way around Ormskirk’s one-way system, roofs down despite the constant downpours, because that’s how leaky old British sports cars are supposed to be driven. Then there were the concours entrants, which fellow old car nut and motor sport commentating legend Neville Hay and I had the joy of judging over a rather damp two hours. George Cross’ meticulously maintained Ford Escort – which has covered just 12,000 miles in 41 years – was a deserving winner, but I couldn’t help having a soft spot for Tony Bates’ Datsun 260Z and Damian Lynch’s Ferrari 330.

But the one that really caught my eye, even in a show dominated by the plucky and British, was something chic and French. Edward Bernand’s 1965 Panhard wasn’t only wonderful to look at but the culmination of a 32-year-restoration, courtesy of an owner who’s cherished it for 50 years. What’s more, because Edward finally finished restoring the car last year this was its first-ever outing in Ormskirk – for me, it was the star of the show.

So even when the MotorFest doesn’t have the weather on its side it can still chuck a few genuinely exciting cars in Ormskirk’s direction. As for next year, maybe if we all chip in we can get the council to stick a giant umbrella above Coronation Park. Just a thought!

The Fiat 500 might be showing its age, but it still makes sense

The Fiat 500 might be showing its age, but it's still thoroughly likeable

EVEN if you don’t read the rest of this week’s column you can have this nugget of motoring knowledge for nothing; the country that gave us the Ferrari Daytona and Lamborghini Miura once proclaimed the, erm, Rover 75 to be the world’s most beautiful car.

Which reveals not much about the Rover 75 but says an awful lot about how Italy, deep down, is obsessed with English heritage. They adore Earl Grey and reading about Wills ‘n’ Kate.

In return we’re a nation deeply in love with our trattorias, linguine and Lambrettas (well, I am, anyway). We know that their coffee’s better than ours and that the stuff being strutted down the catwalks of Milan is considerably more chic than anything we show off in London. Most tellingly of all, we as a nation are still infatuated with the Fiat 500.

It is, despite a 2016 facelift so delicate that you wouldn’t notice, essentially the same car introduced 11 years ago, and yet it’s still Fiat’s biggest seller here. Fiat 500s are the snowflakes of motoring – and I don’t mean that they’re easily offended. When they’re around they’re lovely to look at and hardly ever identical, despite there being millions of ‘em.

I can also say that strap me into an Abarth version with the 170bhp Essesse kit and I’ll squeak like an excited kitten, but having spent a weekend whizzing around in a 1.2-litre Lounge model it seems that the dear old 500 might be showing its age a bit. Sure, it’s now got an infotainment system neatly integrated into the dash and the super-light steering when it’s in City mode is genuinely handy, but head onto the motorway in one and it’s a noisy companion. It’s not the 70bhp engine that’s the issue, just that you notice the wind and tyre noise a lot more than you’d expect.

It’s also fair to say that a Renault Twingo’s more fun to drive, a Volkswagen Up feels better built and a Ford Ka+ is a lot more practical, but that’s a bit like saying you’d rather have a tap water than a glass of red with your friends on a Friday. Wearing my sensible hat I’d have to recommend that you don’t buy a 500 – but I know that you’ll ignore me, and I completely understand why.

I like the Fiat 500. With every facelift and new model the MINI seems a bit further removed from the classic that long inspired it, but the longer the Italians leave their baby alone the better the styling seems to work. I’m not a fan of the TwinAir, but I delight in the fact you can rev the nuts off the four-cylinder models and still get 45 or more to a gallon. And I especially like the fact that something with a respectable-if-not-brilliant Euro NCAP safety rating (three stars, since you’re asking) doesn’t weigh the same as a small moon and can easily slot into even the meanest of multi-storey parking spaces.

Not bad from a country that thinks the Rover 75 is the world’s most beautiful car. Not bad at all!

Going to a classic show in a dull car? Good luck finding it again

Toyota has made its Avensis Tourer very good at blending in - but our motors man reckons he has the answer
SOMETIMES the best places to go looking for cars aren’t the bustling shows taking place at stately homes most weekends – it’s the makeshift car parks next to them.
I was at one last Sunday and in the vast field given over to cars brought along by visitors I spotted a Jaguar XK150, a Ford Capri 3000XL, a Citroen CX GTI and a particularly well restored Hillman Super Minx. All of which were, lovely, of course, but the car I really wanted to see was a silver, 18-reg Toyota Avensis 2.0 D-4D Tourer. Largely because it’s the car I’d been lent for the weekend, and I needed to get home again.
Anyone who’s been to a big car show in something that isn’t a Triumph TR4 will have encountered this problem. After crawling through the grounds of a palatial country pile you’re directed into a nondescript field, where some volunteers – who always seem to be children drafted in from a local Scout group – beckon you into neatly organised rows of cars that aren’t terribly interesting. Normally, if you park up somewhere you’ll make a mental note of where you are – but because I’m a car nut with a short attention span my mind immediately zooms to what’s on the other side of the show entry gate, and I forget.
Which is great right up to the moment you emerge seven hours later and have to find your mid-sized family hatchback in a vast, nondescript field filled from front to back with mid-sized family hatchbacks.
If you’re lucky you might have remembered that you parked two rows away from a bloke in a Ferrari and that you can use his slightly dusty-looking F430 as a sort of homing beacon, but normally there’s a horrible moment when you realise you might never see your car again. I once spent two hours wandering around the peripheries of Goodwood trying to find a borrowed Skoda Fabia, which has six vast car parks given over to people who all seem to drive Skoda Fabias.
You might even end up doing the thing I do, which is to grab your car’s keyfob and point it in just about every direction imaginable, hoping that somewhere in the distance you might see the reassuring flash of indicators of a car that’s unlocking itself. It makes you look like someone who’s pulling shapes at an early ‘90s rave night, but it does on the odd occasion reunite you with your wheels.
I reckon the solution is for cars to be equipped with distress flares that can be activated remotely from the keyfob – especially for ones as visually anonymous as the current Avensis D-4D Tourer. As long as the car show isn’t held in a multi-storey car park this would work a treat, and you’d only have to look up to see in an instant where you’ve parked.
Or just turn up in something interesting, of course. I bet the bloke in the XK150 doesn’t have this problem…

Volkswagen’s new camper van is massive – but that’s a good thing

The VW Grand California is a lot bigger than its more fashionable brother - but that's not a bad thing

REGULAR readers will know that earlier this year I bought a house for the first time – but I’m beginning to wish I’d gone to Volkswagen rather than my local estate agent.

That’s because for all the fanfare over finally making a GTI version of the Up and the new engines being fitted to the T-Roc and Touareg off-roaders the Germans have finally given their official backing to something the aftermarket modifiers have been doing for years. They’ve turned to the biggest van they make as the basis for their latest campervan – and the result genuinely sounds like something that should be next to The Champion’s property ads rather than popping up here, in a column about cars.

Having driven the latest Crafter a couple of times I can confirm that it might as well be a Passat-on-stilts once you’re behind the wheel, but you’d be better off arranging a viewing of the Grand California, which goes on sale here next January, than taking it for a test drive. It has – deep breath – a double bed, bunk beds for the little ones, two skylights, a front door with an electrically-operated step to help you get in and a mosquito net to keep unwanted visitors out, Bluetooth speakers you can control with a smartphone, a separate bathroom with motion-activated lights, a solar panel on the roof, a satellite dish and a WiFi router. And a cuddly toy. Probably.

But the reason why it catches my eye – even in a week when a Welshman got into serious trouble for breaking 33 speed limits in a rented Lamborghini while on holiday – is because it surely is a much better bet for travel lovers than its smaller California sibling. Forget the fact that the older offering’s a bit of a campsite fashion statement and the direct descendant of the hippy-endorsed VW campers of the Sixties, because the brutal truth is that it’s still bit cosy if there are more than two of you staying in it.

Basing the Grand California on the rather larger Crafter – so essentially, it’s a Mercedes Sprinter van given the full Kirsty ‘n’ Phil treatment – sounds like a much more sensible idea, because you’ll be able to chill out in your air-conditioned rear quarters and catch up with Netflix while folk in smaller VW campers are still banging their heads on the roof.

The only thing Volkswagen hasn’t announced on the Grand California is the price – but you can expect it to be rather more than the £46,625 its smaller brother starts at. Maybe I can apply for a mortgage to cover it…

Running a fleet of old cars is big fun – when they work

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THE CAR in front – to paraphrase an old TV ad slogan – is my Toyota. Only it isn’t going anywhere, because the vehicle hailed as the nation’s 31st most reliable when it was new has decided to come over all unToyota-ish and break down.

An hour later and the verdict is in from the AA – the ignition contact switch, after nearly 20 years of being flicked back and forth on commutes, is finally on the way out and needs a £20 replacement to make sure I can get to work on time. This sort of thing shouldn’t be a problem if you’re sensible and employ a vaguely new car to do your bidding – but if you aren’t and rely almost entirely on old ones, the next few paragraphs are probably going to sound painfully familiar.

At the moment I have four cars at my disposal, and that’s not for pub bragging purposes, seeing as they collectively cost less than a year’s depreciation on a new 5-Series to buy. It’s a bit like having a 72-piece cutlery set from an upmarket department store – you might not use all the bits all the time, but for whatever you’re cooking up you know you always have the right equipment handy.

Which in the event of the Toyota suddenly being out of action means turning to the Mazda MX-5 that I normally keep for holidays and visits to sun-kissed car shows, but unfortunately that’s already at a garage, having its radiator looked at after getting all hot and bothered in 30-degree heat on a classic car run.

No bother. I’ll just turn to the rather unlikely set of wheels I’ve been tasked with running for a year by my colleagues at Classic Car Weekly – a Reliant Robin that I snapped up last Christmas for £600. Alas, that was out of action at roughly the same point Big Ben chimed in New Year, after a couple of mates and I discovered that its front crossmember was made largely out of rust and needed a total overhaul. We’ve been tinkering with it ever since.

All of which leaves just one car in my life that I know I can rely on – my MGB GT, built 46 years ago by British Leyland. Despite its rather faded paintwork this is usually one of the few cars I own that I can normally depend on to fire up, its B-series humming excitedly in anticipation every time I hop in. Or at least it would do had I not left it for ages and let its battery go flat because I’d been too busy breaking down in the other cars.

They don’t build ‘em like they used to – they build ‘em a lot better. Feel free to think I’m a bit bonkers for putting up with four old cars as opposed to one vaguely decent one, but they’re all brilliant. When they work, that is…

Motorway service stations are awful – except one

Motorway services are great for charging up electric cars, but they're hardly enticing destinations

FASHION, fancy food, and – dare I mention it – football. There are plenty of things the French do better than us at the moment, but I can happily confirm that the motorway service station isn’t one of them.

Every services I’ve ever pulled into on the other side of the Channel has always been a distinctly bleak affair, and usually offers a single stall selling baguettes, a shop selling novelty biscuit tins in the shape of Citroen H-vans and six petrol pumps lined up outside, five of which are taken up by surly-looking truckers. Our service stations, on the other hand, are much better – but they’re still far from perfect.

You might have seen in the news that travel consumer group Transport Focus named Norton Canes – the M6 Toll road’s sole service station – as the nation’s nicest motorway stopoff, with Thurrock Services on the M25 being given a pasting for keeping just 68 per cent of drivers happy. My own personal favourites include Forton (sorry, Lancaster) chiefly because the tower looks like it belongs in an episode of Thunderbirds, Stafford because it has such a wonderfully twisty access road, and Killington because it has its own lake and a name that’d be perfect for a horror film.

But in truth they’re as vaguely awful as one another, with their indifferent décor, limited shop choices, and insistence on two hours’ parking tops even if you need to stop for a nap on a long journey – and don’t get me started on the loos. In a year when the UK celebrates 60 years of motorways, we’ve managed to reduce the services from somewhere when wide-eyed Sixties motorists went for days out to somewhere you dart in and out of as quicky as possible, and only because you’re desperate for a pee.

Just about the only exception that I can think of is Westmoreland Services as you head up the M6 past the Lake District, which is full of freshly prepared farm produce and delightful-smelling cheeses from across the prettier bits of Northern England. It is a charming, daringly different island in a sea of bland mediocrity.

But you don’t have to be in the Cumbrian hills for inspiration – you only have to look at airport departure lounges to see how a transport-related locale that everyone ventures out of necessity can be vaguely bearable. Where are the trendy designer shops at motorway services? Why aren’t there decent restaurants? And why – especially when today’s services seemed to be stuffed full with Tesla charging points – aren’t there any posh executive lounges?

I reckon a country that’s come up with the Range Rover Evoque and Aston Martin DB11 can definitely come up with nicer service stations. We’ve got a long way to go – but at least they’re better than the French ones.

Every car nut has a Morris Minor story. Here’s mine

The Morris Minor might be 70 years old but it still has legions of fans to this day

MORRIS Minors. I feel like I’ve spent the past few days living and breathing them – but that’s no bad thing.

I’ve been helping to put together a 12-page newspaper supplement to mark the Moggy’s 70th anniversary, and apart from my eyes going square from all the proof-reading in front of computer screens a couple of things have really jumped out.

Chiefly, it’s one of the few truly old-school classic cars (by which I mean ones with chokes, chrome bumpers and an appetite for Castrol 20w50) that you can still pick up for buttons, and it’ll be welcomed into virtually any car show across the land. The other thing is that because it was the first British car to sell over a million, and with roughly 14,000 of them still on Britain’s roads today, virtually everyone with even the vaguest interest in old cars has a Morris Minor story. Including me.

Even though I’ve never owned a Moggy, I very nearly bought one at the age of 16 – well, technically we very nearly bought one, as I would have been part of a car-loving consortium of petrolheads too young and too skint to know any better.

The Morris in question was a slightly crusty two-door 1000, being advertised by a chap in Ainsdale for ‘offers’. Four of us got distracted enough from our GCSE revision to seriously think about sticking in an offer for it, and things ended up going far enough that two of us ended up going to view the car, without a clue about remedying rotting sills or replacing its kingpins. It was almost certainly a long and expensive restoration in waiting, but in my head it’d be up and running in six months, perhaps with its 1098cc A-series lump replaced with an MG Midget’s engine and some electronic ignition to make it go as well as it’d eventually look.

In the end the logistics of sharing a car between four people – namely, whose name would go on the registration document – undid the deal long before we put a proper offer in and the car went to someone older and more sensible, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the Moggy ever since. It is one of those cars that seems to go on and on, propelled by a legion of people who love fettling with them on Sunday mornings and taking them to shows.

Anyone see that scene in Blade Runner 2049 where one person still has a Volkswagen Beetle in an impossibly futuristic Los Angeles? I imagine it’d be the same if they’d set it in Liverpool, only with a Morris 1000, of course. Probably with me still trying to buy it.