Opinion

Morgan – a very British success story

SUPPOSE Donald Trump – a US president who, whether you love him or loathe him, once vowed to sort out North Korea by chomping on cheeseburgers with Kim Jong-un – starts a nuclear war.

Without wanting to go all Where The Wind Blows on you, I reckon there’s a fair chance all of us would be completely obliterated in the subsequent missile exchange – except, of course, the cockroaches.

And Morgan, I’d like to bet. Even in the most ridiculously over-the-top post-apocalyptic scenario I reckon there’ll still be a queue of people cheerily lining up to buy a Plus 4, completely unmoved by whatever’s going on in the wider world because they’re delighted that there’s no longer a seven-year waiting list. The Malvern sports car manufacturer just quietly got on with doing its bit through two World Wars. It shrugged off The Great Depression, the Three Day Week and The Credit Crunch. Where Armstrong-Siddeley, Austin-Healey, Alvis and Ascari have all come and gone (and those are just the defunct Brit carmakers beginning with ‘A’), Morgan’s just carried on regardless.

Which is why I suspect, that in a week when Nissan announced it was pulling X-Trail production from Sunderland, Jaguar Land Rover posted a £3.4 bn quarterly loss and Ford’s global profits dipped by 50 per cent, Morgan’s announced record profits for the third year running. Despite, at it turns out, actually making fewer cars than it did a year ago.

All this even though there are many people – including lots of devoted car nuts – who hate Morgans. There are plenty of perfectly normal, well adjusted people who just don’t understand why you’d spend the best part of forty grand (and that’s the starting price for a 4/4 these days) for a creaky throwback of a car that’s been in production since 1936 and has bits of wood in its construction.

But there are, as it turns out, an equally sizeable army of driving die-hards who really, really love Morgans – me included. If I ever won the Lottery (which is extremely unlikely, given that I don’t play it) I’d be straight on the phone with an order for a 3 Wheeler and a Plus 4. Chances are they’ll be outhandled by any contemporary hot hatch, but that’s missing the point – where else are you going to find a car that feels quite so organic to drive? Morgans are old-fashioned and make you work for your thrills, but that’s why people find them so endearing.

It could happily churn out Plus 4s for the next 1,000 years and people would still be sticking orders in, but instead it’s busy working on a new model – the new ‘wide bodied’ car, which will fit in where the old V8 models left off last year.

I’m glad that Morgan’s on a roll. As long as people are queuing up for quirky sports cars with ash frames, you just know that everything else will be alright…

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Why closed roads motor sport would be a win for West Lancashire

I WOULD love to see the day that Lord Street in Southport – which is almost exactly, give or take a few yards, a mile long – is used as a drag strip.

Before you start hammering the keyboard with an indignant email to The Champion’s letters page, expressing your outrage at the sheer stupidity of an elegant shopping thoroughfare being temporarily used for such a low-brow, knuckle-dragging excuse for a weekend’s fun, it’s worth pointing out that Brighton’s been using its seafront for just such a purpose for decades.

What’s more, it’s been much easier to do this sort of thing legally for about two years, since the Government introduced a law allowing event organisers to temporarily close off public roads and use them for motorsport. At the time it was even championed by David Cameron (remember him?), but very few people have taken advantage of it.

But – if a conversation I had the other day with the organisers of the Ormskirk MotorFest was anything to go by – Aintree Circuit Club could be about to. It’s already proven with its annual visit to Ormskirk that people (roughly 15,000 of them, if official counts are anything to go by) are more than happy to watch E-types and Ferraris doing laps of a one-way system, but now it wants to up the stakes and have a fully-fledged, competitive event where cars will really be able to strut their stuff.

It’s not been decided where such an event should take place – although it’s likely to be somewhere a bit quieter than Ormskirk’s one-way system, for all sorts of logistical reasons – but I reckon a properly managed, safety-assessed bit of driving against the clock would be a great way of putting the North West on the petrolhead map. Remember I said that very few people have actually used that change in the law? A couple of event organisers down south and over in North Wales have put their own events on rather successfully, but the only comparable example I can think of is the Coventry MotoFest, which used parts of the city’s ring road for timed sprints. From what I gather, it was a big hit, but there’s nothing in this part of the world that’s comparable.

I can see all sorts of applications (and, if you’re the shy and sensitive type, I suggest you skip this bit and go straight to the Sports page). Half Mile Island in Skem would be perfect – would it possible, given sufficient skill and a tuned Nissan 370Z, to drift it in its entirety in front of a mesmerised audience? Or what about Parbold? The Parbold Hill Climb has a lovely ring to it – in yer face, Shelsley Walsh!

Obviously, I fully suspect that anything that does materialise will be at least a little bit more sensible (and fully risk assessed, of course). But anyone does have a valid economic case for closing off Lord Street for the afternoon – and a burning desire to find out whether a Nissan GT-R would be quicker than a 911 GT3 RS in a straight line – just tell them that I sent you…

Why the mid-sized Vauxhall you need isn’t this one

IF YOU’RE reading this in The Champion – as opposed to having it beamed into your eyes by a laptop or smartphone – then you’re already way ahead of me. There is still a sizable constituency of normal people who like doing things the old-fashioned way, and that includes getting your weekly motoring fix through a proper, printed newspaper.

There are plenty of us who still prefer to ring people up rather than WhatsApping them, bemoan the fact that Tesco is trying to ditch its deli counters and were quite happy with just the four channels on their analogue TVs (I suspect there are still a few poor souls out there still trying to tune into Channel 5, even now).

I know this because at the last count, when it comes to Europe-wide sales that include both Vauxhall and its continental Opel cousin, the Astra still comfortably outsold the Mokka. Which, on the face of it, shouldn’t really make sense.

The Mokka X, to give it its full name, is Vauxhall swiping right at just about every Millennial would-be buyer it finds – it’s a petite crossover with the same sort of cutesy styling that makes the Corsa such a big hit with younger drivers, it’s easy to park and get in and out of, and it has the sort of high driving position and bags of interior space that make its Juke and Captur counterparts such big sellers. The Astra, on the other hand, is the seventh generation of a sensible family hatchback that’s been around since The Jam’s Going Underground was top of the charts. Your dad probably had an Astra. And your granddad too, for that matter.

But having spent a couple of days driving around in both it’s not hard to suss why more of you are still driving around in Astras. It’s a better car.

I know that, yes, technically the bigger and newer Grandland X is the closer relative to the Astra, but it’s also more expensive – whereas the Astra and Mokka I drove both had turbocharged 1.4-litre petrol engines, similar equipment levels and cost a shade under £22,000. The Mokka X is the more 2019-relevant of the two, but the Astra has a bigger boot, a smoother ride, better composure through the corners and is much nicer to drive. It’s also easier to see out of – Vauxhall evidently listened to everyone who moaned about the enormous A-pillars on the outgoing Astra – and, for what’s supposed to be a dowdy old five-door hatch, it’s still rather easy on the eye.

I know that crossovers are meant to be the future but I reckon you ignore the good, old-fashioned Astra at your peril. I’m sure it’ll still be around in another 39 years’ time. As will The Champion, of course…

£1000 workplace charges are a great idea – if you live in London, and that’s about it

THERESA May is definitely the most Prog Rock Prime Minister that Britain’s ever had. Regardless of whether you voted Remain or Leave you’ve got to hand it to her; the outro for Brexit is way longer than anything Genesis or Pink Floyd could have rustled upSo I’m mightily relieved that over the weekend – day 4,372,918 of discussions over the nation’s EU departure, to be exact – the national press had something other than Theresa’s comeback gig to tune into, and just to get things off politics it was motoring-themed, too.

Nope, not whether it’s right that a 97-year-old who pulled out in front of some suspecting drivers should be told off for being spotted not wearing a seatbelt barely a day after being involved in a horrendous collision. Or the shock discovery that the husband of Her Majesty the Queen is given a Land Rover Freelander – a car that’s been out of production for nearly five years – to tootle about in.

In fact, the thing that got quite a lot of people wound up was some AA research revealing that at least ten local councils are considering introducing charges on workplaces with more ten parking spaces that works out roughly at a grand a year, per person. It worked a treat in Nottingham – so now Edinburgh, Glasgow and parts of London are playing with the idea too.

Go for it, London – you can handle it, if your swanky DLR, Crossrail and Croydon tram network is anything to go by, and I reckon Glasgow and Edinburgh are well connected enough to make it worth their while, too. But I can’t imagine that the mate of mine who drives half an hour from Birkdale into Rainford every morning would be terribly thrilled at having to fork out an extra £1000 for the privilege – or face a journey that’s three times longer, massively more expensive and which he has to take all his tools on the bus with him. Equally, I’d love to take the train rather than the car into work from the quiet market town where I live – if trains and buses ran that early.

Parking levies only work if people have a realistic choice in the matter. I’m sure it’s fine if you live in Bootle and work in the middle of Liverpool, but what if you live in a small village in one of the remoter bits of West Lancashire? The AA called the plans a Poll Tax on Wheels but I’d go further than that – it’s picking on people who, I’d put my not-terribly-well-connected house on, are driving into work because that’s the only option they have.

The only crumb of comfort is that it’s something that’s only being considered by individual councils rather that being a nationwide, blanket charge that’s been dreamt up in Whitehall – but then I suspect that the Government’s a bit busy with other things right now.

Like reminding Prince Philip that it’s about time for him to replace his Freelander with a Discovery Sport, for starters…

Why I’ve ruined 2019’s most exciting new car

IT’S A SLIGHTLY strange child who gives the Ford Puma pride of place on their bedroom wall, beside the Ferrari F355, Lamborghini Diablo and TVR Cerbera.But this isn’t just any old bedroom wall – it’s mine, circa 1996. I mention this curious gallery of petrolhead goodness, where even a Wannabe-era Geri Haliwell didn’t make an appearance because there were so many cars to peruse, since price, fuel economy, MPG and insurance groups didn’t matter one jot. A car just had to look great and have a certain panache about it, so a tiny Fiesta-based coupe which later developed a horrendous reputation for wheelarch rot made it up there.

But were I to have a pint-sized Simister nurturing a passion for cars I’m not sure any of today’s more affordable offerings would qualify for a few inches of bedroom wall real estate. I had a look through some of the new cars due to hit the showrooms later in 2019 and once you dip into the real world realms of cars that aren’t an Aston Martin Valkyrie or Aventador SVJ there’s an endless succession of anonymous crossovers. Even the Polestar 1 – which looks like a posh Volvo, because essentially it is one – is expected to cost upwards of £100,000

But there is one that I’m really, really looking forward to. The Honda Urban EV has a delightfully Ronseal name – it’s an electric city car made by the chaps who brought you the Jazz – but it’s so much more than that. When it struck a pose at the world’s motor shows about 18 months ago it made so many jaws drop that it was promptly named as 2018’s World Concept Car of the Year, and since then Honda has said that it’ll appear, virtually unchanged, in showrooms here as a fully-fledged production model.

Good. There are plenty of electric cars out there that’ll do everything you ask of them (which is why UK sales were up 69 per cent in 2018), but only the endearingly bonkers but utterly impractical Renault Twizy and the lovely-but-pricey Jaguar I-Pace have even registered on the Simister want-one radar. With the Urban EV there might be a third, because it looks like it’s escaped from the set of Ready Player One.

It has that reimagined Eighties look that’s so in vogue at the minute completely nailed; take the ‘H’ badge off it and I’d swear the chunky, bluff-fronted grille, round headlights, skinny window pillars and tight proportions screamed MkI Golf. In fact, I can just imagine the Urban EV with a red stripe around the edges of the grille and a GTI badge on the back! Inside it’s brave too – two benches instead of individual seats, and a huge, touch screen slab rather than a dashboard.

In fact, there’s only one problem – the Renault Wind, Toyota IQ and Nissan Cube were also uncompromisingly brave small cars that won me over, and none of them were exactly sales hits here. So I’ve essentially, if precedent for praising small cars in these pages is anything to go by, just given the Urban EV the kiss of death.

Sorry about that, Honda. I really hope I’m wrong this time!

There’s one problem with dashcam clips – the people filming them

MY COPY of Ronin on DVD has gathered a bit more dust. The repeats of The Sweeney on ITV4 have missed out on another viewer. Everything but the omnipresent reruns of Top Gear on Dave have been given a miss in the long week between Christmas and New Year – because I’ve discovered dashcam videos on YouTube instead

Which is a shame, because as automotive action goes they’re almost always terrible. There is no Robert De Niro shooting at baddies from the sunroof of a Mercedes 450SEL 6.9 or Steve McQueen looking surly at the helm of a Mustang GT390 – but there is a clip of a chap in an MoT-expired BMW 318i driving the wrong way around a roundabout in Essex and brake-checking the film car because he’s having an industrial bout of road rage.

Then there are the Vauxhall Insignias that sweep across all three lanes of a busy M6 without looking, the dented Peugeots that pull out in front of cyclists and the near-misses on country lanes. A couple of years ago I wrote about how YouTube was overflowing with Russian dashcam clips and that it’d only be a few years before Britain followed suit. Well, now it has, but there’s a key difference between what passes for in-car terror in Moscow and automotive indignation in Maghull.

Watch the Made In Russia clips enough and you wouldn’t be surprised if the Lada in question was taken out by a freak meteorite or an angry farmer branding a Kalashnikov, but I reckon in at least half of the UK clips the driver doing the filming is at least partly responsible. Our not-entirely-thrilling car chase with the BMW started because the 3-series pulled out a junction – but rather than slowing down, the driver with the dashcam puts his foot down, gets dangerously close and then blasts his horn. What happened to just muttering under your breath that he’s a bit of an investment banker and getting on with it instead?

There are plenty of clips involving the camera car ploughing into a roundabout at 40mph and the driver screaming in pent-up rage because someone then pulls out in front of them – surely, you shouldn’t be doing that speed into them anyway? Same goes for all the ones involving a heavy dose of country lane ABS because there just happens to be a tractor on the other side of the bend. In the past you’d be lucky to escape the encounter with a light telling-off, but nowadays you can turn the tables and stick the entire episode on YouTube instead.

Read the comments and the vast majority of the wrong ‘uns get taken to task almost immediately, but I do genuinely wonder whether these clips – which are supposed to be sorting out insurance disputes, anyway – are making the problem worse, not better.

You could spend the £100 a half-decent dashcam costs making your own driving a bit better, but that won’t get you a thumbs up on YouTube. Or a thumbs down, for that matter.

So a supercharged 4×4 can outdrag a 30-year-old Audi. Excuse me while I look surprised

AS YOU read this week’s Champion two classic festive hits are thundering their way up the charts. With a bit of momentum behind them either Wham!’s lovable Yuletide ballad, Last Christmas, or Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You could finally snatch a UK number one – but I’d understand if Ariana Grande holds the top spot for yet another week.

Sorry for going all Top of the Pops on you, but at least you’ll understand if something released two or three decades ago doesn’t quite match the performance of something that’s brand new. It’s just a shame that Jeep, if its latest publicity stunt is anything to go by, clearly doesn’t.

It lined its Grand Cherokee Trackhawk – an off-roader packing a 710bhp, 6.2-litre V8 – up against a TVR Griffith and an Audi quattro in a quarter-mile drag and then stood back, trying not to look surprised, when the monster-engined SUV won. That’s right – a sports car introduced in the early Nineties and a coupe so old that Gene Hunt used one in Ashes to Ashes went up against a brand-new car with an enormous supercharged engine, and lost.

All of which is about as useful as sticking The Shard next to Liverpool Cathedral and declaring the showroom-fresh skyscraper as the tallest or pointing out that a shiny new iPhone can run rings around a Nokia 3210. Jeep freely admits it’s all a bit of Top Trumps-inspired fun, of course, but I suspect the real reason why it wasn’t put next to something a bit newer is because it would’ve been humiliated.

Had Jeep been able to haul out a can of whup-ass on something from the class of 2018 – an Audi RS6 Avant Performance, for instance – then I suspect the petrolheads in every pub from Crossens to Crosby would’ve sat up and taken notice. That was what made the original Range Rover Overfinch such a big hit – not only could it outrun a contemporary Golf GTI up the straights, but Mr Hot Hatch wouldn’t have been able to shake him off in the corners, either. There is something very lovable about big, chunky off-roaders being made to do daft things – and no, the new Cupra Ateca and Skoda Kodiaq vRS don’t count.

I like the vaguely bonkers premise of the Grand Cherokee Trackhawk – if not the £89,995 price tag – but what this test doesn’t tell you is what it’ll be like on a greasy British B-road. Which is where a proper performance car, like the quattro and Griffith are, really comes to life.

I can’t tell you who’ll bag this year’s Christmas number one but I can reveal, in news that’ll shock precisely no one, is that a 710bhp Jeep costing nearly ninety grand will outdrag a 30-year-old Audi away from the lights. Who knew?

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?

Why the Renault Captur made me learn to love buttons

BUTTONS. Until this week I didn’t realise how fundamentally important they are to my happy, wholesome life – but an outing in a Renault Captur changed all that.

Not only are buttons fairly important in keeping my shirts intact and preventing any unfortunate colleagues from being treated to an Austin Powers-esque helping of unwanted chest hair, they’ve also given their name to one of my favourite chocolate snacks. Buttons also provided the premise for the brilliantly barmy spacefaring children’s show Button Moon – admit it, you watched it too – and allow you to switch everything from calculators to Sony Playstations on and off.

But the Captur – and to be fair, just about every family hatchback on offer these days – doesn’t have nearly enough of them, because it relies on an infotainment system with a touchscreen to manage all the vaguely important stuff. Which is great when you want a screen with satnav directions built into it, but an utter nightmare when you’re trying to do anything remotely complicated.

I was in the passenger seat when a colleague asked me to switch off the Captur’s audible speed camera alert. Its occasional beep is a useful feature to have, but on a stretch of the M1 with a camera seemingly every three feet Radio 2 was being drowned out by what sounded like a drunk communicating in Morse code. Shutting it up should’ve been a simple task, but the Captur’s infotainment system is so complicated that I ended up buried in sub menus of sub menus, desperately tapping every option to stop the incessant beeping.

I opened the glovebox up to find an empty space where the owner’s manual would normally live; it later turned out this would’ve been useless anyway, because while a handbook deciphering the infotainment system’s various modes does exist it wouldn’t have been supplied with our car anyway.

So I ended up looking online, finding the Renault Captur Owners’ Club – no, really – and learning, after scrolling through many pages on its advice forum, the correct way of navigating the system’s labyrinth of options to turn the speed camera alerts off. Success, but it’d taken nearly 20 minutes and every ounce of my concentration to crack it. Had I’d been driving, I’d either be dead or somewhere near Dundee by now.

The other problem is that I have no problem with swiping through the touch screen on my smartphone because it isn’t attached to something that’s jolting its way down a badly surfaced motorway at 70mph. There are lots of different systems plumbed into all sorts of cars nowadays – I drove a Peugeot 308 last weekend for instance, which was fine – but the Captur’s controls made things surprisingly tricky. Not great on a car that has quite a choppy ride to begin with.

The Captur has many things to commend it, but most of all I applaud its ability to make me appreciate buttons. Buttons are underrated, and don’t take 20 minutes to work out. And anyway, can you imagine your kids watching Touchscreen Moon?

I would love the Alpine A110 to be European Car of the Year – but history is against it

ONLY in an age of boss of Nissan-Renault being under arrest, Volkswagen suggesting cable ties as a fix for broken seatbelts and a former Top Gear star vowing to quit TV for good if he wins I’m A Celebrity can European Car of the Year be considered a bit ho-hum.

The seven-strong shortlist was announced on Monday and – from what I could see, at least – seemed to barely register a faint blip on the nation’s motoring radar. Part of me likes to think it’s because fewer of us care what motoring experts in Sweden or Spain make of the continental car choices when we’re busy trying to order a Full English Brexit, but I suspect it’s got rather a lot more to do with history not being in their favour. The Renault 9, the 1982 victor which is all but forgotten now, being a prime example.

There are many, many examples of the 60-strong panel of motoring writers – proper, learned scholars of the profession who fuss over mid-range torque and intuitive infotainment systems in the same way I worry about MGs with dead batteries – getting it right. They called it right on the first Focus, a genuine game-changer among family hatchbacks, for instance, and the Rover P6 that won the contest’s very first outing is fondly remembered as a brilliant bit of British design. But every time I look back at the Peugeot 307 picking up the plaudits in 2002 or the me-too VW Polo beating the radical Toyota IQ to the top spot in 2010, I cringe a bit, because it just smacks of going for the best all-rounder rather than the one that genuinely moves the cause of the car forward.

This year’s contenders are – deep breath – the Alpine A110, Citroen’s C5 Aircross, Ford’s latest Focus, the Jaguar i-Pace, the Kia Cee’d, the Mercedes A-Class and Peugeot’s 508. I would love to see the 60-strong jury devour a crate of wine between them, throw all caution to the wind and go for the sports car, which is what they did 40 years ago when the Porsche 928 won. But I’m happy to bet that won’t happen (and I’ll happily write a column in The Champion eating my words if it does and the Alpine does a Leicester City).

If it were up to me it’d be the I-Pace strutting home with the silverware, because it’s an eco-friendly, on-message electric car that just happens to look and handle like a Jaguar should, and to hell with the fact you need the thick end of £60,000 to afford one. But it isn’t, so I reckon the smart money’s on either the Aircross or the 508, both of which are perfectly worthy but a bit forgettable.

Whatever happens, we’ll have to wait ‘til next March to find out the winner. In a TV special presented by Noel Edmonds, I’d imagine…