Opinion

Why I want Lotus fighting our corner for the future of motoring

David is hoping for Lotus involvement in greener motoring - and more cars like the Evora

THERE were a couple of confused-looking faces in the audience as Lotus’ new boss laid out his plans.

Last weekend I was at the company’s factory in Norfolk for its 70th anniversary party – and while the place was packed with Esprits, Elises and Evoras the focus was just as much on what the new chief exec had to say about the sports car specialist’s future. Feng Qingfeng has been instilled at the top of the Lotus tree by its new Chinese owners – and they’ll be investing heavily in making sure it carried on innovating. In clever design, hybrid technology, and, er, autonomous driving.

The sports car faithful shrugged their shoulders at that last bit. Why would the company that brought us the Elan Sprint – and the Europa Twin Cam, the Esprit Sport 300 and the Evora S for that matter – be ploughing its know-how into cars that do the fun bit for you?

I scratched my head a bit too. Chucking an Elise at a corner and marvelling at how wonderfully connected its steering and suspension make you feel to the action is just about as petrolhead as you can get. The one thing that defines every Lotus is how all that clever tech makes it revel in a decent road. Which, actually, is why you’d want Lotus to stick its oar in when autonomous driving’s concerned.

We’re on the cusp of an era of electrically-powered cars that are entirely different to ones a lot of us have grown up with, but while they’re safer and cleaner than ever before they’re also heavier, bulkier and as a result more dim-witted when conditions get a bit dicey. If we aren’t careful we’ll end up sleepwalking into a world of technologically brilliant, but tremendously dull, plug-in hybrid crossovers that have engineered all the enjoyment out.

In the battle for clever, greener motoring I’d definitely want the chaps who brought us a 170mph Vauxhall Carlton fighting our corner. When Lotus weren’t racing in Formula One and building Emma Peel’s wheels of choice they were sprinkling their engineering know-how into everyday cars, and I reckon they’ve got a big part to play in making sure that tomorrow’s cars go around corners properly. So please, Mr Qingfeng, let’s get Lotus doing its bit.

Although a new Esprit would be lovely too, now that you mention it…

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Jaguar has upped the electric car ante – by driving to Brussels!

Jaguar has shown that all-electric cars can now manage big journeys
A DRIVE of just 229 miles – that’s The Champion’s offices to Birmingham, and back again – could prove to be a bit of motoring history in the making.

That’s how far Jaguar’s just sent its new I-Pace, a plushly-trimmed crossover that could be yours for a shade under £59,000, on a fact-finding test drive. Only it didn’t go anywhere as boring as Birmingham, and set off instead from London’s South Bank, not stopping again until it’d reached the centre of Brussels. I really do mean it didn’t stop at all, because there was no switching it off and letting a ferry or Eurotunnel carry it to Calais. The Channel Tunnel’s operators gave Jaguar special permission to drive through their service tunnel, so it really did do the entire journey in one hit.

Oh, and I forgot to mention that the I-Pace is an electric car. Which didn’t have to stop to top up its batteries once on its emissions-free adventure over three countries.

Jaguar’s neatly executed foray across French soil is, of course, a carefully choreographed bit of carmaker PR to plug (sorry) the I-Pace, and I’ve no doubt that it could just as happily cruise 229 miles somewhere a little less exotic. Birmingham, perhaps. But the nice ring to the achievement – and what it means for zero emissions motoring in general – reminded me of the oldest car event of the lot.

The London to Brighton Run can trace its roots back to 1896, when the requirement to drive behind a bloke waving a red flag was lifted and Britain’s petrolhead pioneers could power towards a brighter future. It’s marked every year by pre-1904 cars heading from the capital to the south coast and it’s still a hugely significant event, because it celebrates the beginning of British motoring as we know it.

London to Brussels, with a bit of careful nurturing, could become just as symbolic. I can genuinely imagine an event in another 100 years’ time, when pre-2019 electric cars set off from the South Bank and retrace Jaguar’s route, disappearing into that service tunnel, and popping out the other side to cheering crowds on their way to Belgium. It sounds fanciful now, but the feat of driving an electric car all that way and underneath the Channel through a very lonely-looking tunnel could well become this century’s London to Brighton moment.

Why? Because it neatly sums up what electric cars are finally capable of – if one can get from London to Brussels, it’ll also certainly survive your morning commute. I remember barely a decade ago driving an electric car for the first time and emerging thinking that it was awful. I wouldn’t have trusted it to take me to Liverpool and back without leaving me stranded with a dead battery, let alone making it to Brussels.

That electric cars have gone from this to the I-Pace in under ten years is nothing short of extraordinary.

Tailgating – the radical ideas the Government would NEVER use

Nigel Mansell definitely won't approve of you driving this close to the car in front

TWO seconds. It might not seem that long as increments of time go but it’s a surprisingly useful way of measuring things.

It is, for instance, how far I’ll get into each episode of Bodyguard before I’m completely and utterly lost trying to work out what’s going on. It’s also roughly how long I can listen to any Black Eyed Peas song before wishing for a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. It’s also, if Tesla’s own claims are to be believed, how long its new Roadster will take to thrust you to 60mph from a standstill.

But it’s also a short space of time I see being routinely ignored every time I hop into the car and go to work – yes, extra petrolhead geek points if you already knew that it’s the time you’re supposed to leave between your own car and whoever’s up front. The road safety mantra’s the same regardless of whether you’re pursuing a tractor or the new TVR – only a fool breaks the two-second rule.

Which is why I’m glad that the man who briefly made moustaches cool in the early 1990s, Nigel Mansell, is giving his backing to a new campaign to stop people tailgating. The 1992 Formula One world champion reckons it’s an ‘utterly deplorable habit’ that does precisely zilch to make you a better driver. I’m glad that he’s involved, because none of my more radical solutions would’ve got past the Department for Transport’s sense checkers.

My initial idea of having snipers on motorway bridges with their crosshairs trained on tailgaters obviously wouldn’t have worked – if only because every time someone cuts into your safe space, they briefly make you the tailgater until you hit the brakes, and the last thing you’d want in that tense moment is a bored ex-squaddie shooting out your front tyres.

Then I thought about having some sort of bendy metal pole that shoots out from your rear bumper, and extends and retracts according to your speed, so its length always corresponds to that safe two-second gap. It’d be rigged up to some highly charged battery, so that any German saloons that dare venture too close are briefly treated to 50,000 volts.

However, I can’t see either of these ideas making into commuting reality, so how about treating the ‘utterly deplorable habit’ the same way the Government already does with smoking? It’s simple – every car is fitted with a TV screen embedded in its bootlid and a rear-facing radar scanner, not unlike the ones already used for parking sensors. Get too close and the screen would show you images of cars that have totalled by tailgaters – and Mr Impatient Sales Rep backs off. If it works with cigarette packets, why can’t it work with Ford Fiestas? Failing that, how about some sort of front-mounted radar sensor that automatically shuts the throttle if you edge too close?

I suspect roughly none of these ideas will make it even close to reality, but as someone who’s had a car rear-ended and written off by a BMW-driving sales rep you can probably understand my frustration with impatient clots who drive too closely.

Nigel Mansell is definitely a step in the right direction, though. If he can make moustaches cool, who knows what he can do for road safety?

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…

Forget the weather – the Ormskirk MotorFest had all the right cars

rhdr

IT’D TAKE more spin than a wayward TVR to pretend otherwise, so I might as well deal with the rather damp elephant in the room first. Last weekend’s Ormskirk MotorFest was a bit of a washout.

West Lancashire’s Bank Holiday homage to horsepower has had it lucky right from that inaugural outing way back in 2011 to last year’s event, becoming Ormskirk’s single biggest trading day in the process, but the winning streak with the weather had to run out eventually. The town centre displays looked as striking as ever but the crowds that turned out to see them were rather smaller than in previous years, and during the afternoon parades what would normally be heaving crowds behind the barriers turned out to be a  gathering of brolly-wielding onlookers braving the awful weather. Turnout was down too, with some car and bike owners deciding it wasn’t worth the soaking.

But if you didn’t go you missed a treat, because on a day defined entirely by the downpours there were plenty of rays of automotive sunshine.

There was, for instance, Pauline Ryding’s delightfully daft Dodge Viper GTS, which I admired principally because it attempted to deafen me every time it thundered past the commentary box – but even that wasn’t a patch on the stock car parade, the most vocal of which had Chevy and Chrysler V8s doing their bidding. I also couldn’t help but smile when Ian Williams’ Triumph TR3A and David Grant-Wilkes’ MG TC whizzed their way around Ormskirk’s one-way system, roofs down despite the constant downpours, because that’s how leaky old British sports cars are supposed to be driven. Then there were the concours entrants, which fellow old car nut and motor sport commentating legend Neville Hay and I had the joy of judging over a rather damp two hours. George Cross’ meticulously maintained Ford Escort – which has covered just 12,000 miles in 41 years – was a deserving winner, but I couldn’t help having a soft spot for Tony Bates’ Datsun 260Z and Damian Lynch’s Ferrari 330.

But the one that really caught my eye, even in a show dominated by the plucky and British, was something chic and French. Edward Bernand’s 1965 Panhard wasn’t only wonderful to look at but the culmination of a 32-year-restoration, courtesy of an owner who’s cherished it for 50 years. What’s more, because Edward finally finished restoring the car last year this was its first-ever outing in Ormskirk – for me, it was the star of the show.

So even when the MotorFest doesn’t have the weather on its side it can still chuck a few genuinely exciting cars in Ormskirk’s direction. As for next year, maybe if we all chip in we can get the council to stick a giant umbrella above Coronation Park. Just a thought!

The Fiat 500 might be showing its age, but it still makes sense

The Fiat 500 might be showing its age, but it's still thoroughly likeable

EVEN if you don’t read the rest of this week’s column you can have this nugget of motoring knowledge for nothing; the country that gave us the Ferrari Daytona and Lamborghini Miura once proclaimed the, erm, Rover 75 to be the world’s most beautiful car.

Which reveals not much about the Rover 75 but says an awful lot about how Italy, deep down, is obsessed with English heritage. They adore Earl Grey and reading about Wills ‘n’ Kate.

In return we’re a nation deeply in love with our trattorias, linguine and Lambrettas (well, I am, anyway). We know that their coffee’s better than ours and that the stuff being strutted down the catwalks of Milan is considerably more chic than anything we show off in London. Most tellingly of all, we as a nation are still infatuated with the Fiat 500.

It is, despite a 2016 facelift so delicate that you wouldn’t notice, essentially the same car introduced 11 years ago, and yet it’s still Fiat’s biggest seller here. Fiat 500s are the snowflakes of motoring – and I don’t mean that they’re easily offended. When they’re around they’re lovely to look at and hardly ever identical, despite there being millions of ‘em.

I can also say that strap me into an Abarth version with the 170bhp Essesse kit and I’ll squeak like an excited kitten, but having spent a weekend whizzing around in a 1.2-litre Lounge model it seems that the dear old 500 might be showing its age a bit. Sure, it’s now got an infotainment system neatly integrated into the dash and the super-light steering when it’s in City mode is genuinely handy, but head onto the motorway in one and it’s a noisy companion. It’s not the 70bhp engine that’s the issue, just that you notice the wind and tyre noise a lot more than you’d expect.

It’s also fair to say that a Renault Twingo’s more fun to drive, a Volkswagen Up feels better built and a Ford Ka+ is a lot more practical, but that’s a bit like saying you’d rather have a tap water than a glass of red with your friends on a Friday. Wearing my sensible hat I’d have to recommend that you don’t buy a 500 – but I know that you’ll ignore me, and I completely understand why.

I like the Fiat 500. With every facelift and new model the MINI seems a bit further removed from the classic that long inspired it, but the longer the Italians leave their baby alone the better the styling seems to work. I’m not a fan of the TwinAir, but I delight in the fact you can rev the nuts off the four-cylinder models and still get 45 or more to a gallon. And I especially like the fact that something with a respectable-if-not-brilliant Euro NCAP safety rating (three stars, since you’re asking) doesn’t weigh the same as a small moon and can easily slot into even the meanest of multi-storey parking spaces.

Not bad from a country that thinks the Rover 75 is the world’s most beautiful car. Not bad at all!

Going to a classic show in a dull car? Good luck finding it again

Toyota has made its Avensis Tourer very good at blending in - but our motors man reckons he has the answer
SOMETIMES the best places to go looking for cars aren’t the bustling shows taking place at stately homes most weekends – it’s the makeshift car parks next to them.
I was at one last Sunday and in the vast field given over to cars brought along by visitors I spotted a Jaguar XK150, a Ford Capri 3000XL, a Citroen CX GTI and a particularly well restored Hillman Super Minx. All of which were, lovely, of course, but the car I really wanted to see was a silver, 18-reg Toyota Avensis 2.0 D-4D Tourer. Largely because it’s the car I’d been lent for the weekend, and I needed to get home again.
Anyone who’s been to a big car show in something that isn’t a Triumph TR4 will have encountered this problem. After crawling through the grounds of a palatial country pile you’re directed into a nondescript field, where some volunteers – who always seem to be children drafted in from a local Scout group – beckon you into neatly organised rows of cars that aren’t terribly interesting. Normally, if you park up somewhere you’ll make a mental note of where you are – but because I’m a car nut with a short attention span my mind immediately zooms to what’s on the other side of the show entry gate, and I forget.
Which is great right up to the moment you emerge seven hours later and have to find your mid-sized family hatchback in a vast, nondescript field filled from front to back with mid-sized family hatchbacks.
If you’re lucky you might have remembered that you parked two rows away from a bloke in a Ferrari and that you can use his slightly dusty-looking F430 as a sort of homing beacon, but normally there’s a horrible moment when you realise you might never see your car again. I once spent two hours wandering around the peripheries of Goodwood trying to find a borrowed Skoda Fabia, which has six vast car parks given over to people who all seem to drive Skoda Fabias.
You might even end up doing the thing I do, which is to grab your car’s keyfob and point it in just about every direction imaginable, hoping that somewhere in the distance you might see the reassuring flash of indicators of a car that’s unlocking itself. It makes you look like someone who’s pulling shapes at an early ‘90s rave night, but it does on the odd occasion reunite you with your wheels.
I reckon the solution is for cars to be equipped with distress flares that can be activated remotely from the keyfob – especially for ones as visually anonymous as the current Avensis D-4D Tourer. As long as the car show isn’t held in a multi-storey car park this would work a treat, and you’d only have to look up to see in an instant where you’ve parked.
Or just turn up in something interesting, of course. I bet the bloke in the XK150 doesn’t have this problem…

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…

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.