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

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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!

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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…

Volkswagen’s new camper van is massive – but that’s a good thing

The VW Grand California is a lot bigger than its more fashionable brother - but that's not a bad thing

REGULAR readers will know that earlier this year I bought a house for the first time – but I’m beginning to wish I’d gone to Volkswagen rather than my local estate agent.

That’s because for all the fanfare over finally making a GTI version of the Up and the new engines being fitted to the T-Roc and Touareg off-roaders the Germans have finally given their official backing to something the aftermarket modifiers have been doing for years. They’ve turned to the biggest van they make as the basis for their latest campervan – and the result genuinely sounds like something that should be next to The Champion’s property ads rather than popping up here, in a column about cars.

Having driven the latest Crafter a couple of times I can confirm that it might as well be a Passat-on-stilts once you’re behind the wheel, but you’d be better off arranging a viewing of the Grand California, which goes on sale here next January, than taking it for a test drive. It has – deep breath – a double bed, bunk beds for the little ones, two skylights, a front door with an electrically-operated step to help you get in and a mosquito net to keep unwanted visitors out, Bluetooth speakers you can control with a smartphone, a separate bathroom with motion-activated lights, a solar panel on the roof, a satellite dish and a WiFi router. And a cuddly toy. Probably.

But the reason why it catches my eye – even in a week when a Welshman got into serious trouble for breaking 33 speed limits in a rented Lamborghini while on holiday – is because it surely is a much better bet for travel lovers than its smaller California sibling. Forget the fact that the older offering’s a bit of a campsite fashion statement and the direct descendant of the hippy-endorsed VW campers of the Sixties, because the brutal truth is that it’s still bit cosy if there are more than two of you staying in it.

Basing the Grand California on the rather larger Crafter – so essentially, it’s a Mercedes Sprinter van given the full Kirsty ‘n’ Phil treatment – sounds like a much more sensible idea, because you’ll be able to chill out in your air-conditioned rear quarters and catch up with Netflix while folk in smaller VW campers are still banging their heads on the roof.

The only thing Volkswagen hasn’t announced on the Grand California is the price – but you can expect it to be rather more than the £46,625 its smaller brother starts at. Maybe I can apply for a mortgage to cover it…

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

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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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.