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.

The Porsche 911 makes no sense – and as a result makes complete sense

There have been many different 911s over the years - and none of them truly make sense

WHO remembers Cheesy Peas?

It was a fictional delicacy popularised on Nineties funny-fest The Fast Show – and, to my mind at least, shorthand for anything that sounds inherently wrong but actually ends up working unexpectedly well. Go on, admit it. Cheesy Peas sounds like a stomach-churning concept but I bet you’d happily wolf it down if it was served with sausage and chips after a cold November night out. It makes about as much sense as Dolly Parton’s Nine to Five being played over a fight scene in Deadpool 2 or Jeremy Clarkson being given Chris Tarrant’s old gig on Who Wants to be a Millionaire – yet all these baffling concepts somehow work.

The Porsche 911 is very Cheesy Peas. Any car nut who knows their stuff is educated from an early age that a sports car has its engine up the front, some wheelspin at the back and a driver grinning childishly somewhere in the middle, yet the chaps in Stuttgart decided to launch one with all the important gubbins at the rear. It’s all out of sync, yet in Porsche’s 70th anniversary year it went so far to refer to the 911 as “our icon” in its own business assessment.

Having now driven one for the first time, I have to agree. There have been all sorts of 911s over the years but the car I was entrusted with was a 1970 model, which represents a sweet spot between Porsche realising it’d cocked up the original car slightly but before it started adding turbos, four-wheel drive, wider bodywork and water-cooled engines into the mix. So it has a 2.2-litre flat six rather than the two-litre, and a slightly longer wheelbase to tame the original’s appetite for lift-off oversteer.

It is the oddest sports car experience, yet it really works. With no mechanicals weighing down the front wheels the steering feels super-light, yet it’s packed with feel, and while it’s a bit weird hearing a boxer engine fire up behind you, it’s hard to deny that it revs beautifully and pulls – sorry, pushes – really well. You also sit far too close to the windscreen, the steering and pedals are offset, the dashboard layout is a complete mess, and yet it all adds up to a package that’s weirdly addictive.

So I’m not even remotely surprised that for all the attempts to replace it with the 928 and decades-long process of little improvements that Porsche’s mainstay is still a car that has a boxer engine slug out miles between some barely usable rear seats. Sometimes things don’t have to make sense to be enjoyable, and long may it continue sticking two fingers up at motoring convention.

Stranger things have happened, after all. Cheesy Peas have been made into a Jamie Oliver-endorsed real-life recipe, for instance…

Advertisements

Why the Citroen C4 Picasso makes total sense in today’s Britain

The C4 Picasso might not be the sharpest MPV through the bends, but David thinks it's all the better for it

I DON’T mind saying it. I’m a bit slower than I used to be.

Not in the sense that I’m no longer any good at the brainteasers Channel 4 chucks at me during the commercial breaks on Countdown or that I no longer know how many were going to St Ives – but that it takes longer to cover ground, no matter what the car. Regardless of whether I’m in a Suzuki Celerio or the new McLaren Speedtail, the age of 50mph average speed restrictions that go on for ten miles at a time have seen to that.

Not that it matters one jot, because speed isn’t the luxury it used to be. Do the one percent jet across the globe in three hours on Concorde? Nope, because these days they can do it overnight in an A380 first class cabin that’s better equipped than most hotel suites. The sleeper trains to Cornwall and the Scottish Highlands have been kitted out with more upmarket furnishings because the operators know plenty of folk are happy to fork out for the hotel-on-rails experience. Making the journey more enjoyable, rather than quicker, is where the smart money is these days.

Which is probably why I emerged from Citroen’s latest C4 Picasso with a content smile the other day. It might be a distant relative of the Peugeot 5008 that I tried a few months ago, but unlike that car it doesn’t pretend to be a chunky off-roader – this unashamedly sets out its stall as a people carrier, and feels all the better for it.

Nope it’s not the most razor-edge family bus through the corners but it handles capably enough, with the reward instead being a soft, supple ride. Visibility is excellent – no turgid, safety-paranoid A-pillars here – and the full-length panoramic glass roof makes it feel like something like out of Grand Designs inside. You can slide the sun visor mountings back into the headlining too, to give you even more light through that massive windscreen.

Kevin McCloud would approve of how avantgarde and well appointed it is inside too – I love the dashboard plastics and the way all the dials have been moved into a single digital slab on the centre of the dashboard, including a strip-style speedometer reminiscent of what your granddad had in his Rover P6. The seats heat up and give you massages too – and the front passenger one comes with a leg rest not entirely like something you’d get on a living room recliner.

I even like the way it looks – those headlights make it seem like it’s squinting at you with faint disapproval, as if to say you’re an idiot for buying an SUV instead. In fact, the only real chink in its armour is that something this massive really ought to have seven seats – for that you’d need its Grand Picasso sibling, which doesn’t look as good.

So there you go – I’m championing an MPV because I think it’s a bit of a looker. Maybe I am a bit slower than I used to be…

The new Top Gear presenters? I’d rather have Chris Evans

Chris Evans fronted Top Gear for a single season but was already known for organising the CarFest shows 2.jpg

PADDY McGuinness and Freddie Flintoff presenting Top Gear? Yeah, right.

The fact that I initially responded to this week’s big news – admittedly delivered secondhand by a mate rather than through any vaguely official news source – as someone taking the mick pretty much sums up what I made of the situation.

Yet there it was on the programme’s official website, complete with a photo of the pair posing with Chris Harris and a freshly polished Porsche 911. Obviously, it was some elaborate publicity stunt by the Beeb, and there’d be a hyperlink somewhere directing me to that ancient internet meme with that shot of Leonardo DeCaprio from The Great Gatsby, winking smugly at you as he clinks a glass of Martini. ‘ONLY JOKING!’, it’d scream in enormous white lettering, and we’d all have a good giggle.

Except it didn’t. I’m sure that Paddy and Freddie are both entertaining blokes who’d buy you a pint if you bumped into them a pub and asked them nicely enough, but that shouldn’t be nearly enough to land them the biggest gig in petrolhead-dom. I can only assume that the Take Me Out star has an innate knowledge of lift-off oversteer and the ability to make variable valve timing sound interesting, because Britain’s biggest motoring brand is about to take a massive hit on its credibility if he doesn’t.

It matters because, for all its form for deliberately setting caravans on fire and cartoonish mystery racing driving drivers, Top Gear is still a respected name with clout with the people who make cars, people who work with them and yes, you, the people who buy them. It’s no longer be the place to go if you want to know if the current Astra’s any good but it can still do authoritative as much as entertaining – and that’s because the people fronting it had genuine credibility.

In its mid-Noughties heyday it was fronted by a bloke from Performance Car, a chap who used to present Men & Motors and someone who once got fired from Autocar ­– yep, that’s Clarkson, Hammond and May. You might have found Chris Evans annoying in his single series at the helm but he’s a classic collector who founded and organised his own car show, and Chris Harris has been writing for evo and putting together YouTube clips on cars seemingly since time immemorial. Even Matt LeBlanc has spent an eternity collecting cars and hanging around F1 races.

So I worry that putting two presenters who are massively popular but don’t appear to have any motoring background – even the best thing the official Top Gear statement could reassure us with is that McGuinness is “a massive fan” of the show – is a step entirely in the wrong direction. The next season is the last with the current LeBlanc-led presenting trio, but with Paddy and Freddie taking over and the excellent Rory Reid demoted back to the Extra Gear spinoff, Chris Harris will have a lot of work to do to convince people it’ll still be a show that deserves to be taken seriously.

Me watching it? Yeah, right.

We’re the fastest nation on earth. £25m is a small price to pay to keep it that way

If successful Bloodhound SSC will be the first vehicle to be driven at more than 1000mph
I’M SURE that by the time you read this, Richard Branson will have saved the day.

Or perhaps Simon Cowell could do the honours – he likes cars and isn’t short of a few quid. Maybe Jeremy Clarkson could chip in. Either way, I’m sure someone’s about to step up and stop Britain’s land speed record bid from stalling on the final straight.

You might have seen in the news that the team behind Bloodhound SSC – that’s SSC as in Supersonic Car – have had to call in the administrators, who are calling on someone, anyone, to step in with £25 million to make sure the nation’s bid to be the world’s first to crack on 1000mph without taking off goes ahead as planned.

Yet the administrators’ statement is about as far from, say, a department store going bust as it’s possible to imagine.

“Bloodhound is a truly ground-breaking project which has already built a global audience and helped to inspire a new generation of STEM talent in the UK and across the world,” said joint administrator, Andrew Sheridan, who went on to say that while bankrolling Bloodhound will cost a fraction of what it’d take to run a rubbish F1 team anyone who does so will leave “a lasting legacy”. Not exactly the sort of thing the administrators said when Woolies or BHS went bust.

The fact that even the suits with the red ink talk about Bloodhound in such evocative terms goes to show you what Britain loses if – as is widely feared – the project runs out of money in the next few weeks. The land speed record is an area in which Britain is indisputably the world champion, and the new project was being backed by big business and government ministers alike to inspire a new generation of science-loving speed freaks. Yes, I know it’s been promising big things for over a decade, but when you’re planning to propel a bloke along the ground at Mach 1.3 you can’t afford to fluff it up.

Which is why I really hope that a country that’s somehow managed to keep Aston Martin going through seven bankruptcies and rescued Lotus from oblivion seemingly every other week will find the £25 million – to put that into perspective, £18.7 million less than what Liverpool paid for Fabinho – needed to make sure Britain’s the fastest nation on earth. Even if the money comes entirely from Ronan Keating record sales, it’d be worth it.

But then I hope that by the time you read this someone really has stepped in and that all this is entirely redundant – in which case, I’ll happily run a correction in next week’s Champion.

Over to you, Richard.

The new London taxi – probably the best car you’ll never drive

It might look traditional but the new black cab is very high tech

AWFULLY sorry, readers. I’ve quite openly failed this week to provide the sort of sensible consumer advice The Champion sticks up for – because the most eye-opening car I’ve driven in years is one which you’re unlikely to ever hop behind the wheel of.

Not that it’s some decadent chunk of carbon fibre supercar or a leather-lined saloon fit for the reserved spaces in the company, although it does cost £55,500 – about the same as a high-end E-Class or A6. In fact the reason why you’re unlikely to ever end up in the front seat is that the whole point is to experience it from the back – because it’s the new London taxi.

Apparently there are three LECV TXs plying their trade on Merseyside but the London Electric Vehicle Company – as the black cab’s makers are now officially known – is already ramping up production, so chances are that one will end up ferrying you home after last orders in the near future. Even if you’ve had an entire evening’s worth of real ale, the back’s a nice place to be, with a panoramic glass roof, in-built WiFi zone and a little gadget to accept contactless card payments without having to stretch towards the driver. It’s also the first black cab that allows wheelchair users to sit facing forward rather than sideways – the sort of stuff that matters when it’s a tenner a ride.

But it’s actually at the business end where things get really clever. The new arrival only weighs 100kg more than the outgoing TX4 black cab but it’s stuffed full of batteries and electric motors rather than a clunky old turbodiesel. It’ll glide about for 120 silent miles, so that any conversations you force on your passengers about how the country’s going to pot won’t be interrupted.

What about the chap in the suit who wants you to drive him to Leeds – and to hell with the cost? No problem – there’s a petrol-powered 1.5-litre engine for back-up, and although it sounds a bit like a very quiet air con unit when it kicks in it’ll still plod happily up the M62 at 70mph. You can also charge the batteries up to 80 per cent in just 25 minutes – and reassuringly, it still looks like a black cab.

Yet the reason why it’s such an eye-opener is because no car the size of a Range Rover Sport should have a turning circle that’d make a Smart owner jealous. You hop in and you have the sort of high-up driving position you’d expect from a Transit van, and yet everything feels light and effortless. It’s quiet, handles far better than anything its considerable size really ought to and the way the electric motor and petrol-back up works feels wonderfully natural. Get the hang of the engine braking and you can almost drive it using one pedal.

Back in the day you had to be either a fully-fledged cabbie or Stephen Fry to want to spend hours at a time driving a black cab. But even without a single fare to pick up I’d happily have the new one – it’s that good. That’s sensible consumer advice, surely?

Why I want Lotus fighting our corner for the future of motoring

David is hoping for Lotus involvement in greener motoring - and more cars like the Evora

THERE were a couple of confused-looking faces in the audience as Lotus’ new boss laid out his plans.

Last weekend I was at the company’s factory in Norfolk for its 70th anniversary party – and while the place was packed with Esprits, Elises and Evoras the focus was just as much on what the new chief exec had to say about the sports car specialist’s future. Feng Qingfeng has been instilled at the top of the Lotus tree by its new Chinese owners – and they’ll be investing heavily in making sure it carried on innovating. In clever design, hybrid technology, and, er, autonomous driving.

The sports car faithful shrugged their shoulders at that last bit. Why would the company that brought us the Elan Sprint – and the Europa Twin Cam, the Esprit Sport 300 and the Evora S for that matter – be ploughing its know-how into cars that do the fun bit for you?

I scratched my head a bit too. Chucking an Elise at a corner and marvelling at how wonderfully connected its steering and suspension make you feel to the action is just about as petrolhead as you can get. The one thing that defines every Lotus is how all that clever tech makes it revel in a decent road. Which, actually, is why you’d want Lotus to stick its oar in when autonomous driving’s concerned.

We’re on the cusp of an era of electrically-powered cars that are entirely different to ones a lot of us have grown up with, but while they’re safer and cleaner than ever before they’re also heavier, bulkier and as a result more dim-witted when conditions get a bit dicey. If we aren’t careful we’ll end up sleepwalking into a world of technologically brilliant, but tremendously dull, plug-in hybrid crossovers that have engineered all the enjoyment out.

In the battle for clever, greener motoring I’d definitely want the chaps who brought us a 170mph Vauxhall Carlton fighting our corner. When Lotus weren’t racing in Formula One and building Emma Peel’s wheels of choice they were sprinkling their engineering know-how into everyday cars, and I reckon they’ve got a big part to play in making sure that tomorrow’s cars go around corners properly. So please, Mr Qingfeng, let’s get Lotus doing its bit.

Although a new Esprit would be lovely too, now that you mention it…

Jaguar has upped the electric car ante – by driving to Brussels!

Jaguar has shown that all-electric cars can now manage big journeys
A DRIVE of just 229 miles – that’s The Champion’s offices to Birmingham, and back again – could prove to be a bit of motoring history in the making.

That’s how far Jaguar’s just sent its new I-Pace, a plushly-trimmed crossover that could be yours for a shade under £59,000, on a fact-finding test drive. Only it didn’t go anywhere as boring as Birmingham, and set off instead from London’s South Bank, not stopping again until it’d reached the centre of Brussels. I really do mean it didn’t stop at all, because there was no switching it off and letting a ferry or Eurotunnel carry it to Calais. The Channel Tunnel’s operators gave Jaguar special permission to drive through their service tunnel, so it really did do the entire journey in one hit.

Oh, and I forgot to mention that the I-Pace is an electric car. Which didn’t have to stop to top up its batteries once on its emissions-free adventure over three countries.

Jaguar’s neatly executed foray across French soil is, of course, a carefully choreographed bit of carmaker PR to plug (sorry) the I-Pace, and I’ve no doubt that it could just as happily cruise 229 miles somewhere a little less exotic. Birmingham, perhaps. But the nice ring to the achievement – and what it means for zero emissions motoring in general – reminded me of the oldest car event of the lot.

The London to Brighton Run can trace its roots back to 1896, when the requirement to drive behind a bloke waving a red flag was lifted and Britain’s petrolhead pioneers could power towards a brighter future. It’s marked every year by pre-1904 cars heading from the capital to the south coast and it’s still a hugely significant event, because it celebrates the beginning of British motoring as we know it.

London to Brussels, with a bit of careful nurturing, could become just as symbolic. I can genuinely imagine an event in another 100 years’ time, when pre-2019 electric cars set off from the South Bank and retrace Jaguar’s route, disappearing into that service tunnel, and popping out the other side to cheering crowds on their way to Belgium. It sounds fanciful now, but the feat of driving an electric car all that way and underneath the Channel through a very lonely-looking tunnel could well become this century’s London to Brighton moment.

Why? Because it neatly sums up what electric cars are finally capable of – if one can get from London to Brussels, it’ll also certainly survive your morning commute. I remember barely a decade ago driving an electric car for the first time and emerging thinking that it was awful. I wouldn’t have trusted it to take me to Liverpool and back without leaving me stranded with a dead battery, let alone making it to Brussels.

That electric cars have gone from this to the I-Pace in under ten years is nothing short of extraordinary.

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?

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…