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.

Top Gear needs to lose its test track – and The Stig

The Track-tor is one of the hlghlights of the latest Top Gear series

SO Whitehall bureaucracy has succeeded where the Argentine government, the Mexican embassy and the Daily Mail have failed. Even a late-night platter of cold meat – served in a North Yorkshire hotel, of course – tried to finish Top Gear off, but if you believe the tabloids then it’s a dispute over building houses that’ll finally force the Beeb’s motoring juggernaut to pull over.

For those of you haven’t had your head buried in the newspapers over the Easter weekend then it essentially boils down to this; the site where both the TG studios and the infamous test track are located have been earmarked for more than 1000 new homes, and last week Housing Secretary Sajid Javid ruled in the developers’ favour. Perhaps in a few years’ time Surrey’s first-time buyers will be snapping three-bed semis in Hammerhead Close and Gambon Grove.

But even if it does go ahead, will it kill Top Gear off? Not a chance. In fact, I reckon it’s exactly the shot in the arm that the show needs.

I reckon that with every series under the Harris/Le Blanc/Reid premiership the show’s steadily getting stronger, by gorging itself on a diet of properly done, serious car reviews. The bits that are funny are the bits that don’t feel forced; the hilarious segment with the V8 tractor worked because Matt Le Blanc really does have an infectious enthusiasm for farm machinery, owning four tractors in real life. And watching Chris Harris performing all those balletic mid-corner routines is wonderful because he’s clearly in his element doing it.

But the bits that really grate are the ones the trio have inherited from the old Clarkson/Hammond/May era. Specifically – and forgive the very old TG reference – they need to find another old Jaguar, stick The Stig in it and fire him off the end of an aircraft carrier for good.

The Stig – invented by Clarkson and now Grand Tour exec producer Andy Willman to avoid having a dull racing driver setting the lap times – feels like a groupie who’s outstayed their welcome, or that episode of I’m Alan Partridge where the protagonist awkwardly hangs around a funeral trying to convince someone important to give him a job. If the BBC won’t allow the not-so-mysterious racing driver to rejoin his old chums over on The Grand Tour then he really ought to be quietly pensioned off, so the show’s real stars can get into their stride. It was side-splitting when The Stig arrived in an Isle of Man-based TG episode on the baggage carousel at Douglas Airport, but now the character is baggage of an entirely different sort.

If Top Gear loses its test track it’ll be a great opportunity to relocate the show, keep the good bits and dump all the bits that started wearing thin a decade ago, including the tame racing driver. Some say that he’s no longer funny…

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Milton Keynes is the venue to win motoring hearts and minds

Ford has developed technology that can sense empty parking spaces
A LONG time ago the blistering heat of the California desert or a fortnight spent in the bitter cold of the Arctic circle were what counted when it came to developing your new car. But it turns out that the latest battleground for motoring supremacy is… Milton Keynes.

Ford dispatched a fleet of Mondeos fitted with some very clever experimental equipment there and – in the best traditions of Tomorrow’s World – a man with a beard and a tweed jacket to attempt to explain their cunning new plan. Essentially, they’ve sent a team of drivers out into this glorious 1960s vision of a New Town and asked them simply to park somewhere. Which, if you’ve ever been to Milton Keynes on a busy Monday morning, can be easier said than done.

If all goes to plan, the Fiesta or Focus you buy in a few years’ time will be able to scan the car park quicker you can, letting you know exactly where that elusive empty space is before the irritating birk in the BMW 1-Series swoops in and steals it at the last second. It’s important stuff; apparently most of us motoring types lose a day a year looking for parking spaces.

Naturally, Volkswagen wasn’t going to let Ford take all the credit for solving our parking problems forever, and just a few days later put out a press release pointing out that it’s been honing its Park Assist system for more than 20 years across three generations of tech, and is now working on an app that’ll talk to your Golf and let you know where all the empty – and better still, cheap – spaces are.

The fact that the combined brainpower of at least two motoring giants is finally being applied to making parking less irritating is wonderful, but what I’m really looking forward to is seeing the Fiestas and Polos of a decade’s time solving the really annoying problems of car parks. Wouldn’t it be great, for instance, if they could fire lasers at all those off-roaders parked diagonally across three spaces? Or have anyone who clips your bodywork with a carelessly-opened door automatically arrested on the spot and sentenced to four years’ hard labour for automotive neglect? I’d go out and buy a new Golf tomorrow if it knew what to do when the ticket reader at a multi-storey stops working, leaving you trapped with six impatient shoppers stuck behind you.

What I’d suggest to Ford is that carries on its important research in the interests of helping the British public by moving its crack team of Mondeo-driving scientists a bit further north than Milton Keynes.

If they – or Volkswagen’s researchers, for that matter – can solve the stresses of parking in Southport town centre or the Skelmersdale Concourse for good, then their millions will have been worthwhile.

Cars might fly – if they weren’t so expensive

PAL-V has launched its Liberty as the first production-ready flying car

KEEN students of irony will surely remember the past week as a pivotal week in Europe’s transport. In the same week that Chris Grayling announces that it won’t be too tricky to police Britain’s borders post-Brexit some Dutch blokes decide to launch a production-ready flying car.

But I wouldn’t get too worried about the prospect of unchecked immigrants zipping straight over the customs booths at Dover while border officials look on helplessly from the ground, perhaps wondering whether some sort of giant net needs to be built from the white cliffs upwards. If you’ve genuinely trekked halfway across Europe in search of a better life in Blighty you almost certainly aren’t going to spend Lamborghini Aventador money on the new PAL-V Liberty to get there.

That’s what this new three-wheeler, which has been claimed as a world first at this year’s Geneva Motor Show because its makers are taking orders in readiness for a 2019 launch, are asking.

For your £290,000 you get a mid-engined two-seater which uses not one, but two engines to rustle up 400bhp. The top speed’s 100mph in the air and slightly more on the ground, and once you take off it’ll be able to cruise for about four hours and roughly 300 miles before you need to fill it up again. And it runs on good old fashioned petrol, since you’re asking.

It is the closest stab anyone’s made so far at making a flying car that works, largely because its makers have realised that trying to mate an aeroplane or helicopter with a car always ends up being crushingly expensive to buy and run. So they’ve based it on an autogyro instead – a petite flying wonder with wings that fold away and tiny, lightweight petrol engines. Sean Connery managed to fight off an entire squadron of helicopters with one in You Only Live Twice, so they can’t be that bad!

But until someone invents a flying car that doesn’t require a Lamborghini price tag and 35 hours of flight training I don’t think they’re going to take off (sorry). Only when it offers Ford Focus-rivalling levels of practicality, an Audi A4-sized price tag and the intuitive driveability of either will we all be hopping into PAL-Vs and soaring through the skies to work. We’ve reached an age where we can wirelessly download Bruno Mars’ entire back catalogue onto a mobile phone in a matter of minutes, but a vision of commuting imagined in The Jetsons still seems hopelessly distant.

If you are serious about using the heavens over the M57 as your route to work I’d suggest a secondhand helicopter instead – the good ones start at about £50,000, which is a big saving over a PAL-V.

For everyone else it’ll have to a Golf, Astra or Focus. Sorry, traffic jams are here to stay…

Why the Range Rover SV Coupe proves that less is more when it comes to luxury cars

The SV Coupe revisits the idea of the original two-door Range Rover from the 1970s

FORGET everything you’ve ever learned about quality over quantity for a moment. When you wade into the world of the fabulously wealthy, less is usually a lot more.

The price you’d pay for a truly palatial pad in Kensington, Liverpool, for instance, would barely get you a one-bed flat in its London namesake. A main course at an upmarket restaurant in Marylebone or Mayfair costs more than I’d normally spend on a couple’s three-course night out in this part of the world. And don’t get me started on £6 pints.

It’s the same with cars too, as anyone who’s ever ordered a Porsche GT3 and traded rear seats for roll cages and stereos for stripped-back carbonfibre will know.

Which is why I have to admire Land Rover for unveiling its new, ultra-luxury spinoff of the Range Rover at the Geneva Motor Show last week. There’s lots of “contemporary design” and “up-to-the-minute technology” breaking up the slabs of wood and acres of leather you’d expect on the inside, and they are only building 999 of them, but what you can’t fail to notice is that for your £240,000 asking price you get two fewer doors. Automotive proof that less really is more in the world of cars, too.

What it does prove, however, is that if the money’s there then it’s not impossible to convert a five-door car into a three-door one; which makes me wonder why three-door cars much further down the pecking order are all being quietly killed off. The RenaultSport Clio – a car you’d expect to arrive sans rear doors, because that way the body’s stiffer – is now only available in five-door form, and it’s the same story with the Ford Focus, and the Honda Civic. Word has it that the three-door version of Audi’s A3 is being pensioned off, too. Which is a real shame, because for all the awkward fumbling you have with sliding seats forward and climbing through narrow gaps there is a youthful sense of fun about three-door hatches, and it’s sad to see it slowly disappearing.

The Peugeot 205 GTI just wouldn’t have had the same frisson of mischief had it been equipped with five doors, and nor would Renault’s Clio Williams or Citroen’s AX GT. They all had five-door cousins, of course, but it was worth eschewing the practicality for a stiffer bodyshell and cleaner looks. Surely if the argument works for the Range Rover all these years later – especially being positioned as a luxury spinoff – it’ll work for the next Ford Focus RS or Honda Civic Type-R, too?

It’s exactly the sort of petrolhead argument I’m hoping to win next time I visit the pub. Anyone got six quid they can lend me?

Don’t panic about snow – learn to drive on it!

More should be done to prepare motorists for coping with snowy conditions

THIS TIME last week there was a joke doing the rounds in the bars of Helsinki about our recent spate of bracing weather.

The English called the weather front, on account of it sweeping across the North Sea straight from the chillier bits of Russia, The Beast From The East. The Dutch dubbed it The Siberian Bear. Even the Swedes got a bit over-excited and labelled it The Snow Cannon. But the Finns called it… Wednesday.
It’s a bit of a harsh observation, but when it comes from a country that’s produced seven world rally champions there is an element of truth in it. We Brits just aren’t too hot at coping with extreme cold.
I can understand the schools closing for the day and the train operators finding things a bit tricky – but all those warnings about not travelling unless it’s absolutely necessary rang a bit hollow. Okay, so horsepower hedonists like me who venture out simply because it’s fun had to hang fire on getting their MX-5s and M3s out for a few days, but everyone else who’s vaguely normal only ever travels because it’s necessary. You might be lucky enough to work from home or to have a boss nice enough to deem your drive in non-essential, but for the rest of us we’re on the roads not to be annoying, but because we have to be.
Which is why there really ought to be more emphasis on learning what to do when you have to go out in the snow, so you don’t have to stay in and listen to people on the news telling you how treacherous it is out there. If you woke up to a genuine ten-foot high snowdrift than fair enough, but you’d be surprised at how far you can get on the white stuff in a car that isn’t a Land Rover Discovery if you drive sensibly. Even on quiet roads that hadn’t been gritted my 20-year-old Toyota Avensis managed to cope admirably, and one pal of mine managed to overcome just about everything in a Fiat Cinquecento. Neither had chunky winter tyres or fancy traction control systems – but they did have decent rubber, a lack of weight and some careful driving in their favour.
But far too few drivers I encountered during Snowmageddon seemed completely clueless about what to do when you get that horrible moment when the steering goes light on an icy patch or what to do when the back end snaps out of line on a slippery bit of snow. I’m not suggesting that we’re sent on weekend breaks to Finland to learn how to drive a Mitsubishi Evo VIII rally car on a frozen lake to sharpen up our skills (although I’d be more than happy to volunteer!), but I’m sure that equipped with some snow-driving knowledge the recent conditions wouldn’t have been as ominous.
Let’s stop panicking about the snow and learn to drive on it instead. Then the Finns might stop taking the mickey out of us…

The big surprise about driving a massive van

The extended Vauxhall Movano David used dwarfs other vans

PLEASE don’t tell me what Chris Harris has been powersliding lately. Or what car that bloke from Friends has been bigging up. The world’s biggest car show is back on our screens – but I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet.

When Top Gear returned to the nation’s living rooms last Sunday night I’d only just settled into mine after moving house, which means that as I write any means of watching it was still sealed neatly away in cardboard boxes. It’s funny how relocating forces you to live on the bare basics. No seeing The Stig drifting BMW M3s for me, then.

But what I did get to do was add another motoring superlative to my repertoire during the house move, because the massively extended Vauxhall Movano I used for the job is easily the biggest vehicle I’ve ever been given the keys to.

There doesn’t seem to be an official term for it but the rental firm that entrusted it to me refers to it as a Maxi load, although it’s about as far from the old British Leyland hatchback as Donald Trump is from a sensibly written tweet. It’s a bit bigger, and considerably longer, than a normal Luton van, which means that once you get behind the three seats you have a load area that’s bigger than a typical student flat.

As a result its road presence is vast. Yet it’s all uncannily normal to drive.

Once you get used to what feels like a precariously high driving position – from the helm of a Maxi load you’re looking down on Range Rovers and workmen in Ford Transits – it feels like you could be driving the latest Astra. The steering’s a little vague but it’s light and does everything you ask of it, the six-speed manual does a fine job of keeping the 2.3-litre turbodiesel in check and it’ll tootle along at 60mph while barely breaking a 2000rpm sweat. The fact it can do all this while conveying an entire three-bedroom house’s contents and not creak at the seams, I reckon, is truly remarkable.

The only thing you’ve got to watch out for is just how generous its proportions are; I thought it’d be the width that’d catch me out but in fact it’s the lengthy stroll between the front and rear axles that kept me on my toes throughout my weekend with it. But once you get used to thing it’s surprising how something so enormous can feel so reassuringly normal.

I don’t think the Movano Maxi load will ever earn itself a mention on Top Gear, but in its own unapologetically useful way it’s just as impressive.

Fast Fords at bargain prices – hot hatches that don’t cost a fortune

Ford is pulling the plug on its Focus RS after just two years

IF YOU crane your neck a little and listen carefully you might just be able to hear the sobbing from pubs and supermarket car parks across the land. The Focus RS is about to read its last rites.

Anyone who read last week’s Champion might recall me lamenting the lack of new hot hatches but Ford’s now managed to go one better by culling the fastest of its current five-doors. It’ll be making 50 Heritage Edition-badged cars, and in true Max Power tradition they’ll all be finished in a retina-scorching shade of orange. Yours for £39,895, seeing as you’re asking.

It’s also a fair bet that Fast Ford fetishists are going to spend the next 30 years fighting over the good ones, just as they did with the Escort Mexico, the RS Turbo and the RS Cosworth. In fact, I’ve spent so long writing about old cars with Blue Ovals on their bonnets picking up hair-rising prices at auction that I was beginning to wonder if there are any cheap ones left.

So I went window shopping – with a strict budget of just a tenth of what a Focus RS Heritage Edition costs. I’m delighted to report that you can still pick up blue oval-badged performance cars at blue collar prices.

The chief contender for this sort of money is the Focus ST – in fact, for a few quid over the budget I found one that’d been chipped and is knocking out 260bhp, which is a lot of motoring mischief for under four grand. If it were my money I’d go for its smaller Fiesta ST sibling, which might only serve up 150bhp but the cars out there seem to have lower mileages and be in better condition. Both seem to have fallen into that awkward gap in petrolhead-dom where they’re a bit too old hat to register with today’s go-faster motorists, but they’re too youthful and common in number to end up on the radar of classic car fans. Which is exactly the time to snap the good ones up.

It’s also worth giving the Mondeo ST-220 an honourable mention too, because it really is an astonishingly accomplished ground coverer for the money. It was cruelly snubbed by far too many buyers for the BMW 3-Series when it was new, but nowadays you can get 224bhp, room for five adults, bags of boot space and some finely-honed cornering sparkle in the same package for well under our £4k budget. Job done.

Unless of course, you want a proper Fast Ford of the RS-badged variety, that is. In which case I’ll point you in the direction of the Escort RS2000 of the Nineties – they’re few far and between, but keep looking and you can still get them at sensible prices.

You know you want to. Just don’t paint it orange…

The only way is Up – if you’re looking for a small hot hatch

The Up GTI is the smallest hot hatch Volkswagen makes

IT’S THE sort of late landing an Irish budget airline would be proud of. There’s arriving fashionably late – and then there’s the Volkswagen Up GTI.

Connoisseurs of pint-sized and spiced-up hatchbacks might have already read that as of this week the smallest of Wolfsburg GTI-badged wonders has just gone on sale across the UK. You might have also read in the motoring mags about how it copes tremendously with tight turns, and seen James May making excitable squawking noises while driving it on The Grand Tour. But the fact remains that Volkswagen first started promising us a spruced-up version of the teeny-tiny up way back in 2013, at a time when I was actually using a bog-standard Up as a company car.

I can only assume that Volkswagen was being considerate by teasing us with it in concept car form – albeit missing that elusive third letter and badged as just the GT then – so it could give press-on drivers like me the chance to save up for it. Which is a good thing, because even in the poverty spec guise I reckon the Up’s the best car VW currently makes (especially now that the Scirocco has been pensioned off).

But all those years of teasing car nuts with the idea of an Up with added oomph has given the rest of the motoring world time to catch up. For a few hundred pounds less, for instance, you can have the Renault Twingo GT, which follows roughly the same formula but sticks the engine behind the rear seats and spits all the power out through the rear wheels. So basically it’s a Porsche 911 that’s more practical and easier to park. There’s also the Smart ForFour Brabus, which uses the same engine as the Twingo in a much heavier package and slaps on a £20k price tag for the privilege. Erm, and that’s about it.

Sure, there’s a new Suzuki Swift Sport on the way too but it’s astonishing that there’s no Sport spinoff of Ford’s Ka+ and that Vauxhall’s VXR boffins haven’t got their hands on an Adam. There’s no GTI twist on Peugeot’s 108 or a VTS variant of its sister car, the Citroen C1. Even VW hasn’t extended the GTI fun factor to the Up’s extended cousins – why isn’t SEAT doing a Mii Cupra, or Skoda Citigo vRS?

Hot hatches inject a sparkle of excitement into the all-too-often anodyne world of front-wheel-drive supermarket companions, and the smaller and lighter they start off the more fun and immediate they end up being in GTI form.

Come on carmakers, let’s have some more! Until then the only way is Up, even if it is five years late. Or to a Twingo GT, if you’re being awkward.

Lister is back to doing what it does best – OTT Jaguars

The Lister Thunder is essentially a heavily reworked Jaguar F-Type

IF YOU’RE under the age of fifty then chances are that Lister is the protagonist of spacefaring sitcom Red Dwarf. So that means copious amounts of curry, brilliant putdowns and laundry baskets ignored for so long that they’ve developed their own ecosystems.

But if you grew up in the era of Sir Stirling Moss giving Johnny Foreigner a thoroughly good drubbing on the world’s race circuits and grainy mono newsreels, then Lister was a force to be reckoned with in sports car racing. It dominated the Sports Car Club of America’s national championships in 1958 and 1959, for instance, but unless you’ve been to the Goodwood Revival lately I’d understand if you failed to bat an eyelid.

But there is another side to Lister’s history – one which, I’m delighted to say, is about to make a comeback. The one which involves giving Jaguars monstrously powerful engines and wonderfully unsubtle bodykits.

Nearly 20 years ago I was actually lucky to visit Lister’s old factory and was completely won over by  the line of black Jaguar XJSs that’d been kitted out with 7.0-litre V12s and huge spoilers. Its star offering at the time was the faintly ludicrous Storm, a GT racer that battled Ferrari F40s and McLaren F1s for race victory but cost so much in roadgoing form that the company made a whopping four for very rich (and very brave) petrolheads.

You’d think the Storm would’ve put Lister off making flashy new cars – for the last few years it’s been building recreations of its 1950s classics instead – but now it’s giving it another go by cranking the Jaguar F-Type’s performance up to cartoonish levels. Not only has it given the svelte two-seater the much cooler Lister Thunder moniker, but it’s also treated it to plenty of custom-made carbonfibre bits, a cabin retrimmed in leather even more expensive than the stuff Jaguar uses, and the supercharged V8’s been tweaked and fiddled with to the point that it now pumps out 666bhp. So obviously the performance is going to be demonic.

What that means is that for your £139,950 you get an F-Type that’ll keep up with a Ferrari 488 to 60mph and go on to more than 200mph – but what it excites me is that it finally gives the F-type the edge that it’s always lacked, even in R form. The Thunder’s being limited to 99 cars, but the good news is that if your wallet’s hefty enough Lister will fit all of its really aggressive add-ons to your F-type anyway.

The Thunder’s a bit like Red Dwarf  – I’m fully aware that it’s a very acquired taste and that half of my mates hate it, but I’m completely hooked. It must be a Lister thing.

Smart motorways aren’t so smart if you get a puncture

Changing a tyre is frustrating at the best of times - but it could even be dangerous on a motorway roadwork

IT’S AMAZING how much motoring tech has come on in the past decade or so – but I’m not entirely convinced it’s always a good thing. Particularly when a little orange light starts to play tricks on you.

The nifty little illumination in question is a dashboard warning light VW fits to its more recent offerings – and many an Audi, SEAT and Skoda, for that matter – that lets you know its on-board tyre pressure sensor thinks you’re about to encounter a puncture. Having had a Golf give me advance notice of a flat tyre on an outing last year I know that it works tremendously well – except when it doesn’t, because the person who borrowed the car before you admitted to kerbing an alloy a few hours earlier.

In the end it turned out said colleague’s parking ineptitude had knocked the sensor out of sync, everything was fine and I was able to get off scot-free for the rest of my 200-mile journey, but it’s where the light came on that really unnerved me. Anyone who regularly ventures down the M6 will know there’s a stretch just south of Thelwall Viaduct that’s being upgraded into a smart motorway, and it feels like it goes on forever.

It’s frustrating enough when you’re forced to sit at fifty while all the lorries thunder past obliviously, but when you’re suddenly alerted to the possibility of an imminent puncture and realise there are still several miles of roadworks before you can pull over safely that you start to get worried. Especially when you remember the car you’re in isn’t even fitted with a space saver. The idea of tackling a dead tyre on an open motorway with only a can of gunk to help is mildly terrifying.

My fear of breaking down on one of these not-so-smart motorways isn’t unjustified, either; only last week a family gave permission for a rather harrowing 999 call which captures the moment their stricken people carrier was punted up the backside by an HGV to be made public. Properly managed motorways can cope with using the hard shoulder as a fourth lane, but it’s the horribly narrow ones that are still being built that worry me. There were proposals a while ago to limit these stretches to a more palatable two miles long – rather than the 15 or so the longer ones are now – but it seems to have quietly disappeared under the hazy fug of Whitehall bureaucracy.

I’ve always hated the roadworks leading up to smart motorways because they’re the very opposite; with their average 50mph limits that people routinely ignore, constructions sites that are hardly ever frequented and unbearable length they’re anything but clever. But – if that 999 call is anything to go by – they could even be dangerous. Fingers crossed I don’t get a real puncture, then…