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My petrolhead New Year’s resolution for 2019

595A6064 psSPACE, Renault once reckoned in one its old ads for the Espace, is the ultimate luxury.

Nonsense. If the Mini Cooper, increasingly petite smartphones and Rutland – which manages to pack a lot of cracking roads, beautiful countryside and a rather impressive reservoir into England’s smallest county – are anything to go by you can squeeze rather a lot info a something that isn’t exactly abundant in it. In fact it’s time, especially in a Britain of 50mph average speed cameras and cities where anything slower than 5G on your mobile simply isn’t good enough, that’s been really precious throughout 2018.

And I haven’t spent nearly enough of it on my own cars, sulking at me in the garage. I’ve spent plenty of time looking at other people’s prized petrolhead possessions, having visited something in the region of 30 car shows over the past 12 months, but as a result my trusty Mazda Eunos Roadster has chalked up a pitiful 2500 miles in that time. Admittedly most of those were glorious afternoons exploring sun-kissed B-roads – the sort of thing MX-5s were invented for, then – but more often than not it’s been left at home because I’ve been off exploring a show some far-flung corner of Britain instead.

It’s the same story with the Classic Car Weekly Reliant Robin; admittedly it spent most of 2018 sulking at various garages while it was having its rotten undersides remedied, but in the time I’ve had it back it’s barely done 300 miles. Not because I don’t want to drive it – if anything, it’s a right giggle to run about it – but because I’ve invariably been off doing things that require something a bit more sensible than an 850cc three-wheeler. The MGB GT, meanwhile, decided to go on strike, eating through its battery and developing a fuel leak while being sat unloved.

So my New Year’s resolution is a simple one – I love going out and enjoying classic cars, but I really need to spend a bit more time messing about with the ones under my wing.

Including one I’m shopping around for and hoping to finally get behind the wheel of in early 2019. Watch this space…

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Why I’m sad that the Manchester Classic Car Show is no more

IT’S the most wonderful time of the year. For wandering around exhibition halls looking at old cars, that is, because it’s too cold and miserable to be doing it outdoors.

The big one for anyone into Jaguar E-types, Triumph Stags and the like is the three-day show down at the NEC in Birmingham, but I’ve long advocated doing your homework, booking a budget flight and checking out the foreign ones, because there’s so many of them. A couple of years ago I had a great weekend wandering around Barcelona’s big classic show – and a bit of sightseeing, of course – because it was cheaper to hop on a big silver bird at John Lennon than it was to spend a weekend going to many of Britain’s bigger car shows. Paris’ Retromobile and the big German shows are just around the corner. Top tip if you’re looking for a Christmas present with a difference!

But I’m saddened this week that the North West’s entry in this big round-up of indoor shows is no more. Over the weekend the organisers of the Manchester Classic Car Show, held every September at Event City by the Trafford Centre, said it won’t be returning in 2019 due to rising costs. Or in “the foreseeable future” either, according to the organiser’s official statement. Which is a shame, because it was a proper, petrolhead day out that dialled down the hog roasts and live bands because it knew everyone wanted to look at Triumph Dolomites instead.

The frustrating thing was that, confronted with rising costs at Event City, the organisers had nowhere else to turn to, because no other venue in the North West can stage a big, indoor car show (neither Manchester Central nor the Echo Arena in Liverpool have that sort of floorspace, since you’re asking). Over in Germany virtually every city has a Messe – a trade fair, or in other words a massive indoor venue geared up to holding Crufts-sized mega-shows, so there are loads of options if you want to put on a car show. But in the UK you’ve got the NEC, ExCeL down in London’s Docklands, Event City – and that’s about it. Even rosy old Earl’s Court, which I loved going to as a kid, is under some swish new housing now.

Which is frustrating, because I know from the sheer volume of cars that turn up to the North West’s many outdoor shows that there’s an appetite for at least one decent indoor one, which we can all enjoy when it’s tipping it down with rain.

Maybe it’s time for a new venue altogether. Anyone got a disused aircraft hanger or an unfeasibly large warehouse going spare?

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.

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…

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…

Suzuki Swift – superb, but where’s the fun?

Suzuki has made its Swift better than ever - but not as much fun
THE OTHER night a couple of us went for a meal in Southport where the service wasn’t great – so much so that one poor bloke actually started bellowing rather loudly, in a fashion not at all inspired by Jeremy Clarkson, about his lack of freshly cooked steak.

I’ve had many more evenings out that’ve run more successfully, but I know already that it’ll be this one, and the one at the Yorkshire pub where a cold ciabatta arrived covered in hair and the Aberystwyth café where what arrived wasn’t even close to what we’d ordered, that I remember when I’m old and grey. It’s weird – but you tend to forget things that run smoothly.

So maybe it’s not a good thing that I have such vivid memories of the old Suzuki Swift – and particularly, its go-faster Sport sibling. Long-time Life On Cars readers will know that I’ve long had a soft spot for this petite Oriental offering precisely because it feels like a supermini from the old school – what it lacked in gadgets it more than made up for with its revvy engines, scrabbly handling and general sense of not being an ounce heavier or an inch wider than it needed to be. If you ever misspent your youth in an early Fiesta or a Vauxhall Nova, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Even in non-Sport form I had a real fondness for the 2005-generation model and for its 2011 successor, so I was genuinely excited when I was chucked the keys to the latest version. Having now spent a weekend with the S-ZT model I can report that it’s much better than the outgoing car – and bizarrely, slightly worse.

I am, for instance, a big fan of the three-cylinder BoosterJet one-litre petrol engine beneath its bonnet, which might only have 109bhp to hand but it uses a turbocharger and an insatiable appetite for revs to really make the most of it. It only weighs 925kg too – 200 less than an EcoBoost Fiesta – so it always manages to feel sprightly heading away from the lights.

I like how roomy it is inside too, particularly in the back, and how much more refined it feels on the move, particularly on motorways. It’s also pretty generously equipped too, with an infotainment system and heated door mirrors on the one I tried, and it consistently returned a fairly impressive 55mpg. Even with my right foot doing the bidding.

But – and I know this will sound like the moanings of that miscontent bloke who’s missed out on his dinner – it feels as though in making it ever more refined Suzuki’s somehow managed to engineer a lot of the fun out. Chuck it into a corner and there’s plenty of grip, and it’ll go where you want it to, but the sense of mischief the old models had is gone. It’s as though the Swift has reached the point the Golf did 20 years ago – it’s a thoroughly grown-up car that you really can’t knock, but maybe, just maybe, it’s got a bit sensible in its old age.

I am prepared, of course, to reserve all judgement until I’ve tried the latest Swift Sport, though. Watch this space…

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.

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.