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.

There’s one thing worse than singing Angels while drunk – driving

This is the best choice of car for Friday nights - unless you fancy getting nicked

THERE are several things, I’ve long maintained, that I can do marginally better when I’m slightly smashed.

Singing Angels, for instance. There is not a chance on earth that I’d attempt the high notes on Robbie Williams’ teary-eyed ballad in the cold, sober light of day, but given a single malt or three I might just be tempted to belt it out in front of a pub full of strangers on a Friday night. I’m dreadful at pool too, but I remain steadfastly convinced that my ability to master a cue improves ever so slightly midway through pint number three.

But my control of a Citroen C1 – or any other car, for that matter – most definitely doesn’t, so I’m amazed that so many people still attempt it. In 2016, the most recent year for which figures are available, some 59,000 of us either took a breathalyser test and failed or simply refused to bother altogether. That means that on average there are at least 160 people a day taking to Her Majesty’s highway who are convinced that they are X Factor-worthy pool champions. If they drive as badly as they sing, that’s a terrifying thought.

Which is why the Department for Transport is cracking down on it by announcing a competition – and it’s not for who can down the most Frosty Jacks before hopping behind the wheel of a Volkswagen Polo. The £350,000 prize will go to whichever company invents a mobile breathalyser so accurate that it can determine your smashed-ness without a subsequent trip to the nearest police station, and have it fitted it to a police car near you within the next 18 months. The lucky few on the raggedy edge of being hammered will no longer be able to sober up in the back of a marked Vauxhall Insignia, en-route to walking (well, swaying) free by the skin of their teeth. It will mean you’ll be done for drink-driving, well and comprehensively, on the spot.

Bring it on, I say. I’ll defend to the death my right to wander into a nightclub while a teeny bit tipsy and dance to the Grease Megamix on a work night out in a way that I’ll almost certainly regret the following morning, but no one in that state should be behind the wheel. If more accurate breathalysers make it a cast-iron certainty that you’ll get nicked, then that’s got to a good thing.

And anyway, there are plenty of cars that you can happily commandeer if belting through Angels badly is your thing. They’re called taxis.

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The Nobe electric car looks cool – but not enough to invest in

The Nobe 100 is an eco-friendly electric car inspired by small 1960s cars(1)

IT’S NOT every weekend that you get asked to help put a car into production.

Don’t worry, nobody from Vauxhall has rung me up, asking whether – as that bloke from The Champion – I have any tips on what I’d like to see in the next-generation Adam. Nor am I loaded enough to be one of those lucky souls invited to, er, help Ferrari develop its next model by paying for a one-off track-day special that you’re only allowed to access three times a year.

But some Estonians have asked me to bung them a couple of quid to help get their retro-styled electric three-wheeler off the ground. They obviously haven’t approached Deborah Meaden and Duncan Bannatyne yet, but as a car nut I’ll save them the trouble.

Nobe – an eco-friendly start-up specialising in microcars, not a mis-spelling of Leicester-based supercar maker Noble – is using a crowdfunding site to attempt to secure £800,000 for the new car. Apparently the thing that’ll excite Greenpeace types is that it’s zero emissions and easily recyclable, but the bit that grabs me is that it looks good. The front end looks like it could’ve come from a shrunken Borgward Isabella (you’ll have to Google it), the way the rear end tapers to a set of full-width lights is lovely, and the delicate chrome details between the two are distinctly 1960s. Oh, and there’s a very faint whiff of Jensen Interceptor about that rear glass treatment.

It’ll also has room for three, will sit at 70mph happily enough and promises a two-hour charging time, but I’m not exactly going to be taking out a second mortgage or hounding my bank manager any time soon. There have been plenty of miniscule motors over the years, from Messerschmitts and Minis to modern day Smart cars, and none of their creators needed to use a crowdfunding site. The asking figure of £800k also sounds a bit far-fetched, when you consider that Aston Martin apparently had to raise £200 million to help develop their new DBX off-roader, likely to be called the Varekai when it makes production.

All this coming from someone who’s owned two Minis, once bought a Renault 5 for £100 for a laugh and is currently restoring a Reliant Robin. I completely get the point of cars that offering up motoring fun in pint-sized packages, but if the Nobe’s that clever an idea I’d expect Dragons’ Den types would be queuing up to invest in it.

Best of luck, chaps, but I’m out.

Lupo GTI a classic? You bet

Long before the Up, VW nailed the small hot hatch with the Lupo GTI.jpg

IF YOU want to know who the gatekeepers are when it comes to what is – and what isn’t – a classic car you have to think literally. Often, it’s the people in hi-vis jackets manning the entrances at your nearest car show.

Normally if I’m approaching in my MGB, I could put my house on being waved through with a warm smile (unless it’s a show catering solely for hotted-up Subarus, of course), but I’ve approached in many a car where it could go either way. At one show I was given an appreciative nod because I’d shown up in an MG ZR, which for all its rock-hard suspension and mesh grille is basically your mum’s Rover 25 with a snazzier badge. Yet barely a week later a Ford Puma, a swoopy coupe that did wonders for Ford’s image when it was new, met with a solemn expression and an outstretched arm pointing me in the direction of the public car park, alongside all the Vauxhall Insignias and Kia Cee’ds.

So what advice could I give the chap who emailed from Crosby the other day, pondering whether his beloved Volkswagen Lupo GTI has made it to classic car-dom? This petite hot hatch is essentially the early Noughties predecessor to today’s Up GTI, and shares its no-frills, lightness-added sense of fun. A lot of what made the original Golf so much fun lives on in both.

It has an awful lot going for it, but because it’s the equivalent of an 18-year-old queuing up for a nightclub with a freshly-shaven face, wearing trainers – I wouldn’t be surprised to see it being turned away at the door. The Lupo GTI has a few years yet before it’ll be accepted just about everywhere – turn up at Goodwood or Brooklands in one, for instance, and the gatekeepers will probably laugh – but show up to one of the many Veedub-specific shows across the country this summer and it’ll be met with appreciative nods and quiet mutterings of what a corking – and rare – car it is.

Despite the Government’s best efforts there is no hard and fast rule as to what constitutes a classic car, and I’m glad that there isn’t. One of the questions my Lupo-owning friend pondered was whether cars made between 2000 and 2010 now count as classics, but it’d be too simplistic to argue that a mid-spec Toyota Auris, for instance, is one simply because it was made in the same era as the little GTI. The Teletubbies got to number one barely a few weeks after The Verve’s Bitter Sweet Symphony didn’t – but does that mean it’s stood the test of time?

Some things become classics overnight, and for some it’s a slow-burning process that takes decades. I’ve always reckoned the most important thing is how much time and love people put into them – and it’s the same for VW Lupos, Morris Minors, Triumph motorcycles, steam locomotives, and copies of Bitter Sweet Symphony.

Just be prepared for a man in a hi-vis jacket to disagree with you.

You don’t need a Porsche to make motoring fun

You don't need a 911-sized budget to make motoring fun
PORSCHE is, I’ve long reckoned, is the only supercar maker that just about everyone can afford to dabble in.

The days of 944s for under a grand and air-cooled 911s for Mondeo money might be long gone but you can easily pick up an early Boxster for less than the price of a secondhand Astra – try doing that with Ferrari or McLaren. I was at a huge Porsche event over in Llandudno and that’s definitely the vibe I picked up from the people taking part. Sure, there were managing directors flying the flag in brand new Caymans, but there were also plenty of petrolheads who just love their cars, even without the enormous budget, and were just as happy to be there.

Except for one chap, who I can only assume was a member of the public who’d got lost. “I dunno, I don’t get what all the fuss is”, he seethed to his other half as he glanced over 650 of Stuttgart’s sports cars, proudly lined up along a North Wales promenade.

“They’re just cars, aren’t they? A means to an end. As long as it’s got a tow bar for my trailer and starts up in the morning, I don’t give a fig”. Only that last word was something else beginning with ‘F’, of course.

For a moment I thought I’d overhead someone who sees cars the way I see football – but then for all the moments I can feel my eyes glazing over every time I head the transfer window being discussed loudly in a pub, I can at least look back at all the few times I’ve been to see Southport play and ended up cheering them on. This bloke, on the other hand, had no time for cars whatsoever.

His loss, especially when you bear in mind that you don’t have to have a Porsche and that motoring fun can be had in just about any form at every budget, taking virtually no effort to attain. A secondhand Mondeo can be picked up for a few hundred quid and they can be very sprightly through the bends. Gently expand your used car budget and the Golf GTI is your oyster. A mate of mine bought a RenaultSport Megane not long ago – 225bhp and finely honed French suspension for just four grand.

Still not convinced? You could snap up a secondhand Land Rover Discovery and have all the space and countryside chic you could ever ask for, or match family practicality with a healthy dose of B-road prowesss with a 5-Series that’s barely in. Even the most sensible family car I can think of, the Skoda Octavia, can be had in smile-inducing vRS form from about £2000 upwards.

All of these cars, of course, can be fitted with a tow bar and will start up a treat first thing in the morning. Not bad for a means to an end.

Tesla tech I can trust – but Mr Middle Lane Hog? Not a chance

You might trust Tesla tech - not the other drivers passing you nearby
TESLAS can do all sorts of completely bonkers – and therefore, entirely brilliant – things that you didn’t know you needed or wanted from your next car.

There is no point, for instance, in it having something called a Ludicrous Mode that enables you to outdrag a Lamborghini Aventador from the traffic lights. Nor do you need an infotainment system that lets you pretend you’re Roger Moore, circa 1977, outrunning the baddies in an early Esprit, or a remote-control system that lets you move the car out of awkwardly tight parking. And you definitely don’t need your next purchase to fund a motoring tycoon who fires his own cars into space for fun. But this is Tesla, so you can do all of these things, and more.

But one thing you definitely can’t do – at least in the eyes of Hertfordshire Constabulary, anyway – is to show off its impossibly smug autonomous driving mode. You might have seen in the news that Bhavesh Patel has been banned from driving, because he decided to let his Model S have a go. Not on a private test track, but on the M1, while he was in the passenger seat.

The last thing I’d want to do is condone Mr Patel driving like a berk (or not at all), but what the incident does prove is just how much of a tightrope Britain’s powers-that-be and the world’s motoring giants are treading when it comes to autonomous driving. Tesla’s tech, weirdly, I think I’d have trusted with a not terribly interesting stretch of motorway, but would I have had an ounce of faith in the chap in the rented Insignia inevitably 200 yards up front in the middle lane? Not a chance.

I’ve said before that while I love driving, and will be a broken man if my right to enjoy it at the helm of an early MX-5 on a Welsh mountain road is ever taken away from me, there are plenty of occasions when in a distant future I’d happily retreat to a Tesla’s rear quarters. My current commute, for instance, is one long, straight flat road that has no overtaking opportunities and a lorry on it that’s inevitably doing 39mph – that’s an hour a day where I could be learning Italian or writing poetry while Elon Musk’s electronics strut their stuff. I know that I wrote in this very column 18 months ago about a self-driving Tesla that was involved in an accident, but technology improves and gets ever safer.

It sounds wonderful – but Britain would have to go autonomous in one huge, legally-binding lunge if it was to ever embrace it properly. Until then the road will be an unhappy mix of diehard traditionalists (that’d be me, then), the vast majority of people who’d love to have their cars do all the hard work but aren’t legally allowed to, and the dimwits in between, who are too busy cutting people up in their rented Insignias to care.

Until then I’ll happily enjoy the Model S’ other mad features. Any Aventador owners fancy a race, then?

Driving top-down? You can have too much of a good thing

Too much sports car fun can damage your health, as our motoring man has discovered

WINE, Italian cuisine and Queen’s Greatest Hits. As I know from painful experience with all three – which normally involves indigestion or annoyed neighbours banging on walls – you definitely can have too much of a good thing.

Unfortunately, I can now add enjoying a sports car, top down, in the spring sunshine to that list. It is, I reckon, exactly the sort of hedonistic petrolhead hoot that makes all those hours spent queuing in city centre traffic jams all worthwhile; the giddy thrill of going exploring in search of a country pub in something that puts the wind in your hair and a big smile on your face. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing it in a 1930s MG T-type, a Lotus Seven from the mid-Sixties or a brand-new BMW Z4, because even though their technology is wildly different, the results are always broadly the same.

This is exactly the sort of bright-eyed optimism I ventured out with over a glorious Bank Holiday last weekend in my own small sports car, my trusty (if slightly faded-looking) Mazda MX-5. For a 28-year-old roadster it still works a treat, happily hitting the high notes with its rev counter, time and time again, but unfortunately it seems there’s one component that just isn’t as well engineered for the task as all of Mazda’s double wishbone suspension and twin overhead cam engine trickery. Me, to be exact.

What I’d forgotten was that in blazing sunshine and 24-degree heat that human skin just isn’t as good at coping with hour after hour of top-down fun. I naively ventured out for a two-hour drive to see some old racing cars going sideways at the Donington Historic Festival, spent the day looking at Ford Capris and Jaguar D-types, and spent another two hours driving home again.

Driving with the roof down for hours at a time is deceptive, because the breeze blowing onto your face masks the fact that you’re slowly simmering like a barbecue sausage. It was only when I returned home eight long hours later that I realised my complexion looked like a curious blend of an Oompa Lumpa and a freshly grown tomato. No amount of after sun was going to remedy this one overnight!

So if you are lucky enough to have a two-seater convertible at your disposal, do make sure that you keep a bottle of sun tan lotion to hand so you can keep on applying it throughout the day (and not just first thing in the morning, which was my schoolboy error).

Play it sensibly and you might just be able to enjoy all three days with the top down, as opposed to spending two of them trapped indoors, nursing colossal sunburn.
Although it did give me a chance to crack open a bottle of wine and stick Queen on again, of course…

Why Honda has failed to make the Civic a proper four-door saloon

This new Honda Civic is just about the only small saloon you can buy new in the UK
ARE YOU the sort of tortured soul who gets all misty-eyed over the Ford Orion? Or that discerning driver who wishes that Vauxhall could bring the Belmont back?

Don’t worry, it’s not a trick question. I know that there really are people out there who thought both of these Eighties offerings were thoroughly sensible – if utterly style-free – small saloons that weren’t to be sniffed at. It’s only in the following decade, when the fat-bottomed brethren of the Escort and Astra became joyrider favourites and popped up regularly on Police, Camera, Action that they finally lost their appeal as unpretentious shopping chariots and slipped firmly into banger-dom.

But if you’re the sort of person who looks back fondly on the Triumph Acclaim and is utterly baffled by today’s fashion-conscious off-roaders when all that people should really want is a cheap, reliable saloon, then you’d be forgiven for wondering what happened to the Orion’s ilk. Ford hasn’t sold a Focus saloon for nearly a decade and Vauxhall gave up with booted Astras a long time ago. If you want a new car with a proper boot rather than one of these newfangled hatchbacks then you have to go up a size to the Audi A4s and Jaguar XEs of this world.

Unless, of course, you go knocking at Honda’s door in about two months’ time. Despite the best efforts of some Blade Runner-esque styling and a mad Type-R hot hatch version the Civic is still proving a hit with the sort of sensible Brits who just want a normal, reliable car. So introducing a four-door saloon version is a stroke of genius.

Unlike its hatchback cousin this new Civic isn’t being built at Swindon – it’s actually being bolted together at Honda’s Turkish factory – but otherwise it’s business as usual, with a 1.0-litre petrol or a 1.6-litre turbodiesel doing all the hard work beneath the bonnet. It’ll have the same boringly solid interior materials too, but because the new arrival’s longer and wider than the hatchback it’ll be even roomier on the inside. There’s no word on pricing yet, but if it’s anything like the five-door model you should be able to slip into one for under £20,000.

It’s just a shame that Honda’s fallen at the final hurdle. In order to be a proper small saloon the new Civic needed to look exactly like the hatchback with a really awkward boot grafted onto its rump, and only be available in beige, white, or grey. Instead they’ve made it given it a lovely, coupe-esque profile, set off by metallic colours and alloy wheels that set the shape off without shouting too loudly. Whisper it quietly, but I think it might actually look better than the hatchback it’s based on.

That, Honda, just won’t do. Back to the drawing board, chaps!

The new Ford Focus is great – but the 1998 original was the real revolution

The new Ford Focus range is available to order now
IF FORD’S new Focus drives anything like as well as it looks it should be one of this year’s big hits – but if you can save yourself roughly £17,000 if you want to drive a genuine game-changer.

Wander into a showroom with a blue big oval atop and you’ll be able to order the new kid on the block as either a five-door hatch or as an estate perfect for trips to the tip. It’s not only easier on the eye than the old Focus but cheaper too – £2,300 less to be exact, if you go for the entry model – and if you’re feeling flush there’s a plush Vignale model, with leather seats, a fancy radiator grille and electric everything.

But if you want something truly radical you’ll have to walk past the brand-new offering and go back in time. In fact, you’ll have to conveniently forget that there’s still one on every other corner and that you can pick them up for about 25p these days, because the original Ford Focus was a class act. In a way it’s a shame it sold so well because time and familiarity have dulled its impact.

Just think about what else you could’ve bought back in 1998. There was an Astra that handled neatly but looked about as interesting as a tax return, a solidly built but utterly boring Golf, the fantastic yet flaky Fiat Bravo, and a Peugeot 306 that handled beautifully but had a so-so reputation for reliability. Worst of the lot was Ford’s own Escort, which had been quietly getting better with every facelift but ultimately traced its lineage back to an iffy, me-too effort launched eight years earlier. If you wanted a family hatchback your choice was something that did one thing brilliantly or everything with a ‘that’ll do’ attitude.

So when the first Focus rocked up with its all-round independent suspension, its Punto-esque rear headlights and slightly mad angular headlights it’s hardly a surprise everyone sat up and took notice. It had lots of clever little touches – the boot badge that flips sideways to reveal the key slot, for instance – but the big change was just how well it drove. Every Focus I’ve driven over the years has been thoroughly entertaining on a quiet road and that sort of B-road sparkle is something you come to expect from Ford now, but it’s in a different league to the Escort it replaced.

No wonder it went on to become the nation’s best-selling car – and it’s because you still see them everywhere that we’ve all forgotten just how much it moved things on. I’m sure the new car will be a class act too, but it’ll never have the wow factor its (much) older brother did.

Pininfarina – a genius new name for Mahindra’s European offerings

Pininfarina turned the Peugeot 406 into a truly stunning coupe

A PAL of mine is currently perusing the classifieds for a Peugeot 406 Coupé. Hopefully, by the time you read this, he’ll be the proud owner of one of these gorgeous Gallic two-doors.

Apparently Ford’s Cougar, Vauxhall’s Calibra, the Mercedes-Benz CLK and Volvo’s C70, which all convoy four adults with a reasonable amount of shove in the same sort of two-door package, didn’t even make it onto the shopping list, because there’s one thing that even today sets a 406 Coupé apart. It’s the same thing that makes you lust after a Ferrari 458 Italia and why the Alfa Romeo 164 was always such a head-turner. It’s also what makes my MGB GT so well proportioned.

It is – and petrolhead bonus points if you’ve already guessed it – having Italian design house Pininfarina sprinkle its magic on the cosmetics. Think of it as a sort of automotive Armani, turning the humdrum into handsome and making things of downright desirability when given a free hand. It’s even had a hand in building cars, including Ford’s StreetKa, but thanks to a tie-up with an Indian conglomerate it now wants to be a carmaker in its own right.

The business side of it makes sense. Mahindra is a big player in motoring but in the UK it’s best known for its dreadful Jeep knock-offs – it has the money to take part in the increasingly lucrative market here in Europe for luxury offerings, but not the street cred. Citroen, for instance, has decided to take on BMW and Mercedes by creating its DS sub-brand, whereas Chinese conglomerate Geely have gone for the Blue Peter ‘Here’s one we made earlier’ approach by snapping up Volvo and Lotus.

But launching a brand with a name already associated with Ferrari’s better-looking offerings is bordering on genius. All it has to do now is the opposite of what most glitzy product launches manage. Make sure it has the style to match the substance.

Automobili Pininfarina hasn’t put out any pictures of what its new car looks like yet but if it’s anything other than jaw-droppingly amazing I’ll be disappointed. This is the name that not only turned the repmobile Peugeot 406 into one of the best-looking cars of the Nineties, but it’s also behind the Ferrari Daytona, Testarossa and F355, the Lancia Montecarlo, the Fiat Dino, the Alfa Romeo GTV and the Jaguar XJ6 Series III. With a blank slate and Mahindra’s money behind it, Pininfarina’s first production car really ought to be so pretty that you leave it your phone number rather than drive it.

If it pulls that off than it might just pull you away from the pile of brochures you have for the C-Class, 3-Series and A4. Or you could save yourself about 20 grand and get the same sort of visual sparkle from a 406 Coupé. See, we’re full of useful consumer tips at The Champion

A needlessly expensive Rolls-Royce off-roader? Sign me up

The Rolls-Royce Cullinan - seen here in prototype camouflage - is being launched later this year
I IMAGINE there are quite a lot of entries under ‘K’ on the waiting list for Rolls-Royce’s next model; Kanye, Kim, Khloe and Kourtney for starters.

When you name your new model after the world’s biggest diamond it’s inevitable that it’s going to end up with rather bling connotations, even before it’s launched. But then that’s the Rolls-Royce Cullinan all over – it’s a Range Rover for people who consider the Range Rover a bit too common. It’s an off-roader with a whisper-quiet V12 where the establishment makes do with ‘just’ a supercharged V8. A toff-roader, if you will.

It is a completely pointless, jacked-up Phantom that in reality will never venture any further than a slightly damp stretch of field immediately outside Aintree Racecourse or the Royal Birkdale – in fact, you’re more likely to see one appearing on MTV Base alongside someone whose name begins with K.

But that doesn’t stop me liking it. Bentley and Jaguar doing posh mud-pluggers just doesn’t sit right with their carefully honed collective heritage as custodians of well-heeled driving fun, but a Rolls-Royce off-roader is so delightfully silly that it might just work. It’s Kingsman in automotive form; still refined enough to insist that you call its offerings motor cars, but in the background it’s teaming up with The Who’s Roger Daltry for its charity ventures, letting grime artist Skepta spec up the speakers on its one-offs and allowing its older cars to take part in marvellously OTT displays at the Goodwood Revival.

So the idea of taking your Cullinan to the Arctic Circle and lording it over everyone slumming it in Toyota pick-ups – and Rolls-Royce has been testing the new car there, just to make sure it’ll cope – fits in perfectly with the manufacturer’s softly spoken sense of fun. If it can haul itself up the same mucky hill as a Range Rover, but in a much more needlessly expensive way, then so be it. The one per cent have been doing pointless things with Rolls-Royces for generations, and the Cullinan fits in perfectly.

And if any pub bores do wander over (and it’ll be a very upmarket pub, presumably) and start piping up about how Rolls-Royce shouldn’t be doing off-roaders, then you can point out that it was taking on remote places and winning long before Jeeps and Land Rovers were even conceived. In the 1920s farmers used to travel around the Australian Outback in Silver Ghosts because they were the toughest things on the market. So the Cullinan does have off-roading pedigree.

So I like Rolls’ toff-roader because it’s a completely needless car that I’ll never be able to afford. Unless I change my name to one with beginning with K, of course…