Motoring News

Bloodhound SSC – inspiring the next generation of Blue Peter doodlers

Bloodhound SSC is aiming to break the world land speed record

WHEN I was about ten I entered a Blue Peter competition that involved sending in drawings of Britain’s biggest and boldest achievements.

Everyone else sent in pictures representing the Millennium Dome and the World Wide Web – which is hindsight is weird, because the former was lambasted a colossal waste of public money and the latter is now used for amusing cat videos.

But my rather badly scrawled doodle depicting Andy Green at the helm of Thrust SSC, correctly predicted that Britain would ace the world land speed record. What I didn’t realise was that the 763mph record would still stand today, two decades later. Which is why my inner schoolchild beamed with excitement this when I heard that Thrust SSC’s successor is finally ready for its first outing.

For starters it has an equally brilliant name – Bloodhound SSC – but the stats sound like they belong in an episode of Thunderbirds. Try 0-60mph in less than a second. Barely a minute later it’ll be doing 1000mph.

On its low speed demonstration runs later this year it’ll comfortably keep pace with a Ferrari F40 at 200mph or so, and run on tyres borrowed from a Lightning jet fighter. But when the big day comes it’ll have no rubber at all, because there’s no tyre in existence that can cope with a wheel spinning 170 times every second.  Some of the numbers that come with Bloodhound SSC’s record attempt boggle the mind.

Why does it matter, particularly since this project’s been nearly a decade in the making and so far hasn’t moved beyond static displays at car shows? Because it shows we Brits can still do all the ballsy and brave stuff when we aren’t making Range Rover Evoques and Vauxhall Astras. In the same way that the British motor industry rallied behind Donald Campbell and his Bluebird record attempts half a century ago, the Bloodhound project is being used to get schoolchildren excited about engineering and technology.

I really do hope that when the blue and orange streak of flag-flying tech finally does those demonstration runs in Cornwall later this year – followed by 800mph and then 1000mph runs on the salt pans of South Africa – it’ll inspire some bright spark somewhere to get inventing. You never know, they might even enter a competition run by a children’s TV show.

Oh, and I never did get my Blue Peter badge.


Lotus – The Movie! Why it won’t happen anytime soon

Lotus makes some of the best handling cars on the market today

IF LOTUS were a bloke he’d have had his life story turned into a Hollywood movie by now – probably with Christian Bale playing the lead role.

It’s a compelling enough tale. A troubled young individual who grew up on a farm in Norfolk ends up hanging out with the world’s F1 stars, James Bond and that bloke from The Prisoner. Then he ends up falling in with a dodgy American entrepreneur and narrowly avoiding jail, losing loads of money in the process – before bouncing back spectacularly by winning Britain’s petrolheads over with his charm and character. But then he gets big ideas of taking on Ferrari, ends up cocking it up again and annoys his accountants.

Lotus has all sorts of baggage attached to it but none of it matters a jot when you’re at the helm of one on an open road. I’ve driven a couple of Hethel’s products over the years and they’ve all – from the 1970s Elan +2 to a brand new Evora S – been pretty much unbeatable when it comes to ride and handling. Even the 1990s Elan, which plenty of pub critics will kid you is a bit rubbish because it’s front-wheel-drive, was years ahead of its time when it came to mid-bend agility.

But the really important thing about Lotus isn’t all those dusty old F1 trophies or the pictures of the (now late) Sir Roger Moore posing next to a white Esprit; it’s all the work its engineers do behind the scenes on ordinary, everyday cars. Vauxhall and Proton are just about the only ones who’ll admit to having Lotus experts work on their cars’ handling but there are plenty of others who use its services; if your car doesn’t corner like a drunken tea trolley then it’s probably down to Lotus know-how.

Which is why I’m glad that a majority stake in Lotus has finally been snapped up by Geely, a Chinese manufacturer. You might not have heard of them but they’ve owned Volvo for the past seven years, and the Swedes seem to be doing rather well out of it.

I’m optimistic that Lotus will be allowed to thrive with a new influx of cash, rather like Jaguar Land Rover has under Indian ownership. For too long it’s depended on the Evora, a model launched back in 2008, and the Elise, which can trace its roots back to the early 1990s. Both are brilliant, but with the right investment Lotus should be able to develop some world class cars.

Starting with a new Elan, hopefully. Maybe the movie script writers should put their pens down for now…

An electric car game-changer is nearly here

It is likely carmakers like Tesla will use the new technology first

ANYONE who grew up watching Space 1999 needn’t feel disappointed. We might not be living on the Moon and eating everything in pill form, but the world today’s a lot more advanced than it used to be.

You can tap your finger against a handheld electronic screen and a van carrying your shopping rocks up a couple of hours later – and chances are that’s only because the supermarket isn’t allowed to deliver it by drone yet. We have trains that go under the sea and stealth fighter planes that fly above it. It beats driving home in your Morris Oxford and watching Terry and June over a bowl of Angel Delight, that’s for sure.

Just about every conceivable piece of technology has come along in leaps and bounds – with the exception of two things. You might not have noticed that the fastest transatlantic flights of today are a lot slower than Concorde could manage, but you’ll almost certainly have noticed that phones can barely manage a day before running out of breath. If you’re reading this on your smartphone via it might not even make it to the end of this article.

But an Israeli company that reckons it might have cracked the problem of rubbish smartphone batteries might have inadvertently created a genuine motoring game-changer. The smart money is that as of next year you’ll be able to use its tech to charge your phone up in a few minutes – and because electric cars run on the same sort of batteries it figures that it should work equally well on those too. Perhaps not unsurprisingly half the car industry’s keeping a very close eye on how StoreDot’s boffins are getting on.

Don’t expect it to revolutionise the roads overnight. It’s worth remembering that while nearly 100,000 plug-in cars were sold across the UK in 2016 that’s still nowhere near the number of Golfs or Focuses you all buy. It’ll also make sense that the most expensive offerings will be fitted with quick-charging tech first, so it’ll be a while before it filters down to the Nissans and Mitsubishis that dominate the ‘leccy car market.

But once it does break through to the mainstream the issue of battery anxiety – and the main reason you wouldn’t buy an electric car – will disappear. The cars themselves are absolutely fine, but no longer will you have to worry about an eight-hour wait if you start running low in deepest Snowdonia. You’ll be able to pull into a filling station and be on your way a couple of minutes later.

That idea might catch on. Eating food pills on the Moon it ain’t, but it’s a brave new world all the same.

Why one ruined Metro made your car safer


NORMALLY saving lives involves noble things like vaccinations, charity fundraising and the Heimlich Manouvere. But you wouldn’t think deliberately destroying a Metro would have the same effect.

20 years ago that’s exactly what happened, when some chaps with clipboards and clever cameras gave one (well, a Rover 100 if we’re being picky) a 30mph introduction to a concrete block. Not for a laugh, but in the interests of scientific research. What they discovered sent shockwaves through the car industry.

The car wreckers in question belonged to an organisation called Euro NCAP, which has just celebrated its 20th birthday. Their mission was to mark as many new cars as possible with independent safety ratings, and they gave the poor Metro a miserable one star out of five. The resultant drop in sales meant Rover dropped it altogether a few months later, and ever since Euro NCAP’s findings have been taken very seriously indeed.

The results kept coming. 1990s Volvos weren’t as indestructible as pub wisdom had long dictated. The original Ford Focus wasn’t as good at protecting pedestrians as the Escort that preceded it. The old Chrysler Voyager was a deathtrap, and the G-Wiz electric car might have as well have been made out of cardboard after its appalling crash test performance. Even today Euro NCAP is still unafraid of ruffling the car industry’s feathers, giving Ford’s latest Mustang a dismal two stars when five is increasingly the norm.

But your car’s almost certainly safer as a result. Ever since Renault picked up the first five star rating for its Laguna back in 2001 – and paraded it on every TV, magazine and newspaper ad it could as a result – manufacturers have engaged in a sort of safety arms race to ensure they’re top dog. 

Multiple airbags, ABS, autonomous braking, whiplash-responsive headrests and cleverly designed crumple zones are no longer novel additions to car brochures. They’re everyday motoring addenda, and anyone who doesn’t offer them is shown up in the test results as cheapskates who aren’t that bothered about customer safety.

It’s impossible to calculate how many lives Euro NCAP’s boffins have saved by forcing car companies to smarten up to avoid embarrassing crash test results, but it’s fair to say you stand a much better chance of surviving a 30mph shunt in a new Clio (a five star car) than you would in its 1997 equivalent (just two stars).

So it’s worth thinking about Euro NCAP’s experts next time you go out for a spin. They’ve genuinely moved motoring on – and all it took was one utterly ruined Metro.

Why Zenos deserves to make more British sports cars

the-zenos-e10-is-a-two-seater-sports-car-powered-by-the-ford-ecoboost-engineIT’S happened again. A company specialising in plucky British sports cars has gone into administration.

This time it’s a tiny manufacturer based in Norfolk and best known for its flyweight two-seaters. No, not that one. This time it’s Zenos, which barely a few weeks after getting its rev-happy E10S onto The Grand Tour has had to bring in the suits and a steady supply of red ink.

All of which makes it a proper British sports car – and I love proper British sports cars.

History is littered with examples of blokes mixing mainstream motoring engineering – regardless of whether it’s an old A-series lump or the nifty Ford Ecoboost engine you get in the E10 – with neatly styled roadsters designed to be enjoyed al fresco. But for every Morgan or Lotus you end up with countless others going out of fashion. All those Elvas and Austin-Healeys. Marauders and Marcoses. Gilberns and Gordon-Keebles. The list goes on.

But I wouldn’t write the Zenos E10 off as another entry in the I-Spy book on Obscure British Sports Cars just yet. Partly because it’s been picking up some pretty good reviews – including from James May in its aforementioned telly appearance – but also because the thing Brit sports car firms do really well other than going into administration is bouncing back.

Fellow Norfolk firm Lotus has a long history of being in trouble – but they’re still going strong after nearly 70 years. Aston-Martin spent decades struggling to make a profit before Ford took it under its wing and launched the DB7. TVR is due to relaunch later this year and even AC – which can trace its roots all the way back to 1901, despite going bust a couple of times along the way – will still sell you something that looks vaguely like a new Cobra. 

I reckon the E10, with its not massively unobtainable £27k pricetag, familiar Ford engines, glowing reviews and a ready-made audience in Britain’s booming track day industry deserves another crack. 

I love proper British sports cars like the E10. Says the man who’s on his second Mazda MX-5…

Learner drivers on motorways? About time


A YEAR or so ago I ticked off another entry on the petrolhead bucket list; I maxed a car on a limit-free stretch of German autobahn.

Two things stick out from that afternoon somewhere near Stuttgart. The first is that as it was a Skoda Fabia Estate with four hefty Brits and their luggage aboard, the point at which it physically wouldn’t go any faster wasn’t actually all that quick. Secondly – and more importantly – the discipline of other drivers meant it felt far safer had I attempted to do the illegal thing and pull off the same trick on the autobahn’s British equivalent.

I’ve long moaned about what motorway driving’s all too often about. Impatient sales reps in Audi A4s driving inches off your back bumper. Lorry drivers sauntering through 50mph average speed zones at whatever speed their Scania feels happiest. People who cut across all three lanes sans indicator to make their turnoff at the last possible moment. Oh, and the chap in the battered Peugeot 206 who was so incensed by another driver he decided to stop in the middle lane of the M6 before lowering his window and flicking another motorist the finger.

Motorways are the fastest roads in the UK yet – in my experience at least – home to the worst driving. So plans to let up ‘n’ coming motorists learn how to use them are well overdue.

It defies logic that when I passed my test a couple of years ago I was able to jump into my 998cc Mini Mayfair – a car barely capable of the motorway speed limit – and drive down the M57 on a shopping trip to Warrington. Yet while the current theory test does touch on motorway driving, it seems silly not to go over it in the practical tests at all.

Obviously this does pose one big problem – although not one that’ll affect you in the North West, where lots of motorways criss-cross the M6 as it snakes its way up the country. If you live in Norfolk, Cornwall, or the far-away bits of Scotland and Wales, there are no motorways.

Perhaps we could either set up a scheme that allows learners to travel over and spend a day learning these roads, because it is important that the next generation of drivers knows that there is no such a thing as a slow lane on motorways and that those chevrons painted onto the roads on the busier bits haven’t been put there for fun. It also seems a bit bonkers that you need no practice whatsoever before being allowed to slot a family hatchback into a 70mph torrent of busy traffic.

The fact is the speed I cracked in a borrowed Skoda in a foreign country felt safer than the M62 does most nights. Making people learn the ropes is long overdue.

Why Volkswagen is investing in a car-free future


IT’S potentially the biggest shake-up in motoring since Henry Ford set up shop. Yet its instigators would rather you didn’t buy the cars it’ll create.

MOIA might sound like a Radio 2 newsreader or one quarter of Irish folk band Clannad but it’s actually the Volkswagen Group’s latest company, putting it alongside Audi, Bentley, Porsche and Skoda. Except that MOIA isn’t a car company. It’s – and you’ll have to imagine me waggling my fingers as I say it – a “mobility services company”.

Brilliant, I initially thought. Europe’s biggest carmaker has decided to help The Champion’s more mature readers by using knowhow from the Golf and Passat to reinvent the mobility scooter. No longer will looking cool while wobbling about 8mph be the preserve of pensioners travelling in those tiny three-wheelers styled to look like Harley Davidsons – I can just imagine a Golf GTI-inspired mobility scooter with a golf ball gearknob, subtle go-faster stripes and clever traction control.

But I was wrong. Apparently MOIA is aimed not at the over-65s, not even at Ford and Vauxhall, but at Google, Apple and – more imminently – Uber. The whole concept of how we get around is changing, and Volkswagen is determined to be all German about it and lay its towel down before anyone else does.

Unless you’ve been in a cave for the past year you’ll already know that Google has managed to find enough time away from making search engine cartoons to create a car. Only a few months ago Ford acknowledged Apple is now one of its big rivals. And just about every cabbie from Liverpool to Louisiana is feeling a tad cross with Uber muscling in on their turf.

At the moment MOIA is all about car-sharing and ride-hailing apps but don’t be surprised to see it dipping into Volkswagen’s vast parts bin to rustle up a car or two of its own. Nor should you raise an eyebrow when Toyota, Renault and everyone else follow suit. When cars are banned from the big cities, it’ll be whoever wins the mobility-sharing race that rules the roost.

There will be a time in a distant future when moving about in Liverpool involves hailing a ride with some likeminded mates in a vehicle none of you own – but I don’t know if it’ll be VW, Apple, Google or Uber supplying it.

As long as it isn’t a mobility scooter styled like a Harley Davidson I won’t mind too much.

The new editor of Classic Car Weekly? That’d be me

AT THE END of this week I’ll be taking on the biggest and most exciting challenge of my career – I’ve been appointed as the new editor of Classic Car Weekly.
It’s been three-and-a-bit years since I arrived at CCW‘s offices and passed what I’m still sure was some sort of unspoken initiation test on only my second day – handling the stress of breaking down rather conspicuously in an E-type in Southampton’s rush hour. Since then I’ve worked as both its news editor and features editor and loved every minute of it.

Obviously the drive up Blackpool’s seafront in a Corvette Stingray, lapping the Nürburgring in my Mazda MX-5 and a wonderful afternoon with a Ferrari Testarossa on the North Yorkshire Moors stick out in the grey matter, but more importantly I really enjoy just chatting to people who love old cars and immersing myself in a world of chrome bumpers, tail fins, Bakelite steering wheels, GTI badges, go-faster stripes, chokes, evocative exhaust notes and folding chairs in the grounds of stately homes. Always have, always will.

What an exciting time it is to take over the reins at my favourite motoring publication. You only have to look at the findings of the latest National Historic Vehicle Survey in today’s issue to see how important Britain’s classic car owners – and the jobs and shows they support – are to the nation’s heritage.

There’ll be more of the cars and events you love in CCW’s pages, and more news stories on the issues that affect them. I’d also like to thank outgoing editor Keith Adams (yes, him of the not-at-all-addictive AROnline) for the hard work he’s put into Classic Car Weekly over the past two years, and wish him all the best in his new role as editor of used car bible Parkers.

And Life On Cars? That’ll continue as always – and feel free to share your thoughts and ideas about Classic Car Weekly in the comments.
For more see today’s issue of Classic Car Weekly (19 October, 2016)

What does your car do to the gallon? The answer may surprise you


APPARENTLY I have a knack for extracting big numbers from fast cars. Only they’re not the figures you might be expecting.

Take the 22-year-old Jaguar XJR I was lucky enough to be lent a couple of weeks ago. Teaming a 4.0-litre straight six up with an Eaton supercharger means it’ll kick 315bhp through its rear wheels – most of which I used on a glorious day cruising up the A1 and then hoofing around the Yorkshire Dales. Even today it’ll crack 60mph in under 6.5 seconds and theoretically race to 150mph, but the number that impressed everyone when I returned home was the 26mpg I’d somehow suckled out of it.

It’s the same story with an equally ancient Mercedes-Benz S280 I borrowed for a trip to Devon not long ago. You’d think having the a smallish V6 thrashing about beneath the bonnet of something the size of my old student flat would be a fuel economy nightmare, but it very nearly managed 30mpg. 

Yet I’ve never been able to pull off the same trick in what’s meant to be a champion of petrol abstinence – the Ecoboost-engined version’s of Ford’s Focus. On the many occasions I’ve driven them I’ve never bettered 37mpg – a long way short of the 56mpg it’s claimed to be capable of.

Sound familiar? Well, some scientist types noticed that lots of you have the same problem of buying cars and then spending rather more at the pumps than you’d originally expected and decided to do something about it. After driving for what must have felt like an eternity they’ve managed to come up with real world figures for pretty much every car you can buy today – and they make intriguing reading.

Not only was their Focus Ecoboost result virtually identical to mine, but they also failed to match the fuel economy of cars marketed as being some of the nation’s most frugal. The Fiat 500 TwinAir gave them 39mpg, making it in their books less economical than the bigger 1.2-litre engine you can buy in the same car. The Golf Bluemotion was 23mpg short of the 74.3 claimed in Volkswagen’s figures. Don’t think buying a hybrid’s a get-out-of-jail-free card either, because the Prius’ shortfall was virtually identical.

But don’t take my word for it – have a look at the Equa Index website and see how your car does. The one constant factor is that the bigger the engine, the less dramatic the shortfall. Buy a Porsche 911 Carrera S and the shortfall is only 3mpg – and chances are if you’re in one of those you’ll be able to afford the difference.

Obviously I’d be more than happy, Porsche, if you’d like me to put the 911 Carrera S through the Simister fuel economy test that so clearly suited the XJR and S-Class. Just leave the keys on The Champion’s reception desk…

The Morgan dealer that’s still in business NINETY YEARS later


IF ONLY car dealerships could talk. I suppose if they did, the one I popped into the other weekend would be able to regale you with some brilliant anecdotes.

I was there for a 90th birthday party – and while it’s entirely reasonable for any 90-year-old to be taking it easy over a glass of sherry this one was surrounded by nightclubs and scary three-wheeled sports cars with motorcycle engines (I should know, I’ve encountered both). Lifes Motors could’ve sloped off to a retirement home decades ago, yet it’s still very much alive and kicking.

All of which makes this showroom on one of Southport’s quieter streets the oldest Morgan dealership of the lot. Not just in the North West or even in Britain, but the whole world.

What’s more, the 90th anniversary is only of it selling a certain brand of ash-framed sports car from Worcestershire; if you count its history of selling motorcycles, it’s actually 93 years old.

It’s hard to believe that the same dealership was operating at a time when televisions hadn’t even been invented and most families’ idea of motoring was a motorcycle and sidecar combination, as the Austin Seven would’ve been too newfangled and expensive.

In the nine decades since car showrooms have sprung up all over the North West, switched franchises a few times and then slowly sloped off the mortal coil; only the other week I was sad to see Formby Ford closing its doors for the last time, after decades of selling cars with blue ovals on their snouts and Austin Rover and BL products in the years before that. Yet this one dealership just keeps going, powered by cars that to the untrained eye look exactly like the ones it was selling half a century ago.

That’s the thing with Morgans. Whether yours was made in 1926, 1966 or 2016, it’s a safe bet that it’s exciting and prompts conversations with bystanders at whichever pub car park you take it too. I know plenty of people – particularly ones who work in or around cars – who hate Morgans, but the ones who appreciate them really love them for what they are. I’m definitely one of the latter, and smile whenever I hear the bass-heavy thump of a Plus 8 babbling past or see the wind-battered smile of someone clearly enjoying the elements in a Threewheeler.

I’ve no doubt it’ll still be trading sports cars that look vaguely the same when the centenary comes around. In fact, it’ll probably still be doing it long after you and I are consigned to the scrapheap!