Opinion

Running a fleet of old cars is big fun – when they work

cof

THE CAR in front – to paraphrase an old TV ad slogan – is my Toyota. Only it isn’t going anywhere, because the vehicle hailed as the nation’s 31st most reliable when it was new has decided to come over all unToyota-ish and break down.

An hour later and the verdict is in from the AA – the ignition contact switch, after nearly 20 years of being flicked back and forth on commutes, is finally on the way out and needs a £20 replacement to make sure I can get to work on time. This sort of thing shouldn’t be a problem if you’re sensible and employ a vaguely new car to do your bidding – but if you aren’t and rely almost entirely on old ones, the next few paragraphs are probably going to sound painfully familiar.

At the moment I have four cars at my disposal, and that’s not for pub bragging purposes, seeing as they collectively cost less than a year’s depreciation on a new 5-Series to buy. It’s a bit like having a 72-piece cutlery set from an upmarket department store – you might not use all the bits all the time, but for whatever you’re cooking up you know you always have the right equipment handy.

Which in the event of the Toyota suddenly being out of action means turning to the Mazda MX-5 that I normally keep for holidays and visits to sun-kissed car shows, but unfortunately that’s already at a garage, having its radiator looked at after getting all hot and bothered in 30-degree heat on a classic car run.

No bother. I’ll just turn to the rather unlikely set of wheels I’ve been tasked with running for a year by my colleagues at Classic Car Weekly – a Reliant Robin that I snapped up last Christmas for £600. Alas, that was out of action at roughly the same point Big Ben chimed in New Year, after a couple of mates and I discovered that its front crossmember was made largely out of rust and needed a total overhaul. We’ve been tinkering with it ever since.

All of which leaves just one car in my life that I know I can rely on – my MGB GT, built 46 years ago by British Leyland. Despite its rather faded paintwork this is usually one of the few cars I own that I can normally depend on to fire up, its B-series humming excitedly in anticipation every time I hop in. Or at least it would do had I not left it for ages and let its battery go flat because I’d been too busy breaking down in the other cars.

They don’t build ‘em like they used to – they build ‘em a lot better. Feel free to think I’m a bit bonkers for putting up with four old cars as opposed to one vaguely decent one, but they’re all brilliant. When they work, that is…

Advertisements

Motorway service stations are awful – except one

Motorway services are great for charging up electric cars, but they're hardly enticing destinations

FASHION, fancy food, and – dare I mention it – football. There are plenty of things the French do better than us at the moment, but I can happily confirm that the motorway service station isn’t one of them.

Every services I’ve ever pulled into on the other side of the Channel has always been a distinctly bleak affair, and usually offers a single stall selling baguettes, a shop selling novelty biscuit tins in the shape of Citroen H-vans and six petrol pumps lined up outside, five of which are taken up by surly-looking truckers. Our service stations, on the other hand, are much better – but they’re still far from perfect.

You might have seen in the news that travel consumer group Transport Focus named Norton Canes – the M6 Toll road’s sole service station – as the nation’s nicest motorway stopoff, with Thurrock Services on the M25 being given a pasting for keeping just 68 per cent of drivers happy. My own personal favourites include Forton (sorry, Lancaster) chiefly because the tower looks like it belongs in an episode of Thunderbirds, Stafford because it has such a wonderfully twisty access road, and Killington because it has its own lake and a name that’d be perfect for a horror film.

But in truth they’re as vaguely awful as one another, with their indifferent décor, limited shop choices, and insistence on two hours’ parking tops even if you need to stop for a nap on a long journey – and don’t get me started on the loos. In a year when the UK celebrates 60 years of motorways, we’ve managed to reduce the services from somewhere when wide-eyed Sixties motorists went for days out to somewhere you dart in and out of as quicky as possible, and only because you’re desperate for a pee.

Just about the only exception that I can think of is Westmoreland Services as you head up the M6 past the Lake District, which is full of freshly prepared farm produce and delightful-smelling cheeses from across the prettier bits of Northern England. It is a charming, daringly different island in a sea of bland mediocrity.

But you don’t have to be in the Cumbrian hills for inspiration – you only have to look at airport departure lounges to see how a transport-related locale that everyone ventures out of necessity can be vaguely bearable. Where are the trendy designer shops at motorway services? Why aren’t there decent restaurants? And why – especially when today’s services seemed to be stuffed full with Tesla charging points – aren’t there any posh executive lounges?

I reckon a country that’s come up with the Range Rover Evoque and Aston Martin DB11 can definitely come up with nicer service stations. We’ve got a long way to go – but at least they’re better than the French ones.

Every car nut has a Morris Minor story. Here’s mine

The Morris Minor might be 70 years old but it still has legions of fans to this day

MORRIS Minors. I feel like I’ve spent the past few days living and breathing them – but that’s no bad thing.

I’ve been helping to put together a 12-page newspaper supplement to mark the Moggy’s 70th anniversary, and apart from my eyes going square from all the proof-reading in front of computer screens a couple of things have really jumped out.

Chiefly, it’s one of the few truly old-school classic cars (by which I mean ones with chokes, chrome bumpers and an appetite for Castrol 20w50) that you can still pick up for buttons, and it’ll be welcomed into virtually any car show across the land. The other thing is that because it was the first British car to sell over a million, and with roughly 14,000 of them still on Britain’s roads today, virtually everyone with even the vaguest interest in old cars has a Morris Minor story. Including me.

Even though I’ve never owned a Moggy, I very nearly bought one at the age of 16 – well, technically we very nearly bought one, as I would have been part of a car-loving consortium of petrolheads too young and too skint to know any better.

The Morris in question was a slightly crusty two-door 1000, being advertised by a chap in Ainsdale for ‘offers’. Four of us got distracted enough from our GCSE revision to seriously think about sticking in an offer for it, and things ended up going far enough that two of us ended up going to view the car, without a clue about remedying rotting sills or replacing its kingpins. It was almost certainly a long and expensive restoration in waiting, but in my head it’d be up and running in six months, perhaps with its 1098cc A-series lump replaced with an MG Midget’s engine and some electronic ignition to make it go as well as it’d eventually look.

In the end the logistics of sharing a car between four people – namely, whose name would go on the registration document – undid the deal long before we put a proper offer in and the car went to someone older and more sensible, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the Moggy ever since. It is one of those cars that seems to go on and on, propelled by a legion of people who love fettling with them on Sunday mornings and taking them to shows.

Anyone see that scene in Blade Runner 2049 where one person still has a Volkswagen Beetle in an impossibly futuristic Los Angeles? I imagine it’d be the same if they’d set it in Liverpool, only with a Morris 1000, of course. Probably with me still trying to buy it.

Peugeot 5008 – better as an office than a car

Peugeot has kept enough MPV tricks in its 5008 to keep our motors man happy
I DON’T know what your office is like at the moment, but mine’s verging on the unbearable.

Every afternoon the temperature inside soars into the high twenties – and sometimes higher – and the air conditioning system struggles to cope with the task of keeping 300 people working at 300 computers cool. An armada of electric fans have been drafted in to help but they’re not much either; the one I borrowed a few days ago lasted two hours before it conked out spectacularly, its malfunctioning motor sounding like a misfiring Transit as it cranked inelegantly to a complete halt.

Happily, I’ve found a workplace far better suited to the searing summer heat – Peugeot’s 5008.

Treat it as a car and it’s perfectly well accomplished, if a bit too clever for its own good. The chief culprit is the electronically-operated tailgate on the GTLine version that I tested, which is marvellous when you emerge from a supermarket weighed down with six bags of shopping and it raises up majestically at the touch of a button. The only problem is that when you just want to nip in and out to grab something quickly – particularly if you’re pulled over at the roadside – it resolutely refuses to let you open or close it quickly yourself. It’s the same story with the digital dashboard, which let me choose between having my dials presented to me in five different ways. Very swish, but a traditional set of dials can present everything I need in just one way a lot more clearly.

Treat as an office – as I did at a car show last weekend – and it’s absolutely tremendous, though. Peugeot’s been making lots of noises about this latest 5008 being a trendy SUV but look closer and the spirit of its predecessor – which was unapologetically a people carrier – lives on. There are seven seats (with the two at the very back folding into the floor) and inside there’s lots of room for children and little cubby holders to stash their stuff. Most importantly, it has two fairly hefty tables that fold out from behind the front seat – so once I’d set my laptop up on one and positioned the front passenger seat just so, I could clamber into the rear and get to work.

It was – sorry, folk at Classic Car Weekly – way more comfy than my office at work once I’d parked up in the shade, settled into my leather throne and flicked on the air con. I could even have the windows open to let a breeze in, but with Peugeot covering each up with nifty little nets none of the bugs outside could fly in, and there was even a brace of cupholders to stop my can of Diet Coke from sliding off and making a mess of the carpets.

Normally I think firmer suspension or a turbocharger can improve a car, but in the 5008 it’s WiFi and an on-board fridge.

Review – Lydiate Classic Car Show

Lydiate stars included
THE HOTTEST thing in Lydiate last weekend wasn’t its full-to-bursting classic car show – it was my rather reddish mug afterwards.

With temperatures knocking at the door of 30 degrees Celsius and bright, unwavering sunshine throughout even a liberal dolloping of factor 50 and a hat that in my head was modelled on the one worn by Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark (but in truth looked a dodgy knockoff of the one sported in Peter Davison-era Doctor Who episodes) wasn’t going to protect me from a spot of sunburn.

But the cars were most definitely worth it. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve last ventured to this one-day bash, held in aid of North West Cancer Research, but it’s really grown in stature and variety since then. The venue – the field immediately behind the village’s parish hall – hasn’t magically increased in size, but the organisers seem to have packed in more variety this year than I ever remember the event having in its early outings.

There was, for instance, a 1910 Sunbeam whose brass plating beamed in the summer sunshine, and forever seemed to be attracting a small crowd on account of it easily being the day’s oldest entrant. Then there was Kevin Price’s magnificent Volvo P1800 – one of the actual cars used in the filming of The Saint, complete with a cardboard cutout of Sir Roger Moore himself. Then there was a 1960 MGA, owned by Southport car nut Peter Bowen – and has been for the past 50 years. This year’s show managed to pack a lot of fascinating motoring stories into a surprisingly small space.

But my favourite, for all the E-types, TR6s and MGs packed in behind the parish hall, had to be the show’s 1947 Singer Super Ten. There are plenty of people who want to enjoy Austin-Healeys and Triumph Spitfires, which is why there are so many of them on the roads at this time of year, but for what would’ve have been a fairly unremarkable machine when new to have survived more than 70 years – thanks largely, to a succession of devoted owners – is an achievement in itself. It probably hasn’t been that long since you’ve seen an MG or old Jag zip past – but when was the last time you saw a Singer Super Ten?

Unless you went to the show last Sunday, of course. In which case, I apologise for the hat.

Why the Le Mans Classic should be on every petrolhead bucket list

Ford won Le Mans four times in the 1960s - a time when you could buy one for the road too
THE FERRY tickets are booked. A phrase book allowing the ordering of baguettes from service stations in broken Franglais has been purchased. Oh, and a boot’s worth of all the safety-related clobber that only the French seem to insist on has been ordered.

All of which can only mean one thing – it’s time to head off to Le Mans. A couple of colleagues and I have just serviced a slightly tired-looking Rover 216 Coupe, and the big plan is to venture down to Portsmouth and hop on an overnight ferry. All of which means we’ll be able to watch Porsches thundering around the world’s greatest race track barely a day later.

I know what the race fanatics are thinking already – that I’ve got my dates spectacularly wrong, because the Le Mans 24 Hours race was a couple of weeks ago. You know, the one where Toyota spectacularly snatched victory after decades of near-misses? When effectively Fernando Alonso was the winner, because you couldn’t remember the names of anyone else driving the car that came first?

Ahhh. Actually the one I’m on about is the Le Mans Classic, which isn’t actually one long race but lots of short ones, and is dedicated entirely – as the name suggests – to machines that pounded the Mulsanne Straight decades ago. I love it not only because it involves pretending to go camping but actually sitting outside your tent with a beer watching some Group C cars doing some night racing, but because classic Le Mans racers actually look vaguely like normal cars.

Think about it. Toyota will spend the next year going on about how winning Le Mans will somehow make the next generation Auris a bit better, but when was the last time you saw anything even remotely like its LMP1 racer on any sort of road?

A Ford GT40, on the other hand, was designed to humiliate Ferrari – which it did four times on the trot – but it still looks like a GT40 a very rich bloke might drive to the shops. Same with the Jaguar C-type of the 1950s, and if you don’t live in a world of Pathe newsreels, it’s worth remembering that the McLaren F1 that won in 1995 was based on a road car. The world’s fastest and most expensive road car, of course, but one that genuinely had as much luggage space as a contemporary Fiesta.

Maybe it’s time they revisited the rules at Le Mans to make the racers a teeny bit more relatable to normal people who aren’t Fernando Alonso – if it can’t be driven legally through, say, Crosby on a Friday night, then it ain’t going to Le Mans. It might mean the cars don’t look as bonkers, but it’d give hope to the rest of us that we might see cars vaguely like it bringing joy to people stuck in Volkswagen Passats.

Or just drive to France in a secondhand Rover and look at some old ones. You know it makes sense.

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.

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.