I’ll admit it – driving in Scotland is fun

David was able to enjoy Scotland safely in his Mazda MX-5

IT’S BEEN a while since I’ve had a pen pal but I seem to have picked one up at Classic Car Weekly. He doesn’t write often but the topic’s always the same – I’m apparently guilty of glamorising driving dangerously on rural roads.

So he’ll no doubt be writing in when he discovers I’ve just spent a weekend driving around the Scottish Highlands, not to visit a distant aunt in Fort William, but for fun. I’ll admit it; I did nearly 1000 miles over four days for no good reason other than to drive on great roads simply because I enjoy doing it.

We’ll start with the location. Pick up any of the glossy travel mags and they’ll tell you that the A82 between Glasgow and Glencoe is Europe’s best stretch of road but this simply isn’t true – you can’t enjoy driving it because you’ll be stuck behind a lorry winding its way up to Inverness, and you can’t stop to admire the view because all the laybys are full of Dutch motorhomes. But the A87 and the A887 are utterly wonderful. Set off from Southport tomorrow morning and you’ll be there by mid-afternoon, and because you’ll want to stay overnight you’ll be giving the Scottish economy a helping hand, too.

But the real joy is you can do all of this without going anywhere remotely near a speed limit. Yes, I’ll freely admit that there were far too many people up in the Highlands driving dangerously in BMW X5s and doing silly overtakes in Honda Civic Type-Rs, but that’s something you’re as likely to see in Parbold as you are in Pitlochry. The trick is to drive around in a car that thrills at real world speeds.

I spent the weekend up there in my Mazda MX-5 but you’d be just as happy in any MG, Caterham, Lotus or Alfa Spider – and if you do need something with an extra set of seats, anything vaguely old with a Peugeot, Ford or BMW badge up front should suit the bill. Some of the best drives I’ve ever done have been at the helm of a derv-driven Peugeot 306 and a 15-year-old Ford Mondeo, so don’t knock ‘em until you’ve tried them!

But the end result is always the same; you emerge with a smile on your face, the Highlands economy gets a boost, and – unless you really do drive like a berk – Police Scotland don’t have to deal with unnecessary paperwork. Drive sensibly of course, but freely admit that it’s something you enjoy, like playing a piano or going fishing.

I might even arrange for my pen pal to go up there and for there to be an Austin-Healey 3000 waiting at the other end. Chances are, I suspect he’ll enjoy it…

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The Ormskirk MotorFest is great – but it could be even better

The MotorFest has evolved into a real success story for Ormskirk

YOU CAN’T help but love a show that picks a Vanden Plas Princess – basically a posh Austin 1300 – above a Ford Mustang, Opel Manta and Rover P5 as its concours champion.

Even the 1957 Vanwall Formula One car in which Stirling Moss won that year’s British Grand Prix briefly had to step aside while the beautifully polished BMC baby hogged the limelight. It was a crushing victory for the plucky underdog (and its owner, of course), and one of the many reasons why I loved last weekend’s Ormskirk MotorFest.

I go to far too many car shows for my own good and all the best ones have a single snappy nugget of brilliance that sums them up neatly in a nutshell. Le Mans is a big Brit petrolhead party – that just happens to be held in France. The Goodwood Revival is an overdose of 1960s nostalgia. The NEC classic show is Britain’s big season-ender. And the MotorFest?  Your chance to see the world’s coolest cars parading around Ormskirk, of course. It’s a winning formula that seven years on is still packing the crowds into West Lancashire. Job done.

But even if it ain’t broke there’s still ample opportunity to muck about with it, of course. There was nothing wrong with the original 911 but it’s a far cry from the tarmac burners Porsche puts in its showrooms half a century on.

Which is why the formula’s changed ever so slightly since Ormskirk’s first MotorFest outing back in 2011, even if you hadn’t noticed. An autotest’s been tried to add a little tyre-screeching drama, there’s now a concours for anyone who cherishes their Vanden Plas Princess, and for anyone who (like me) preferred Top Gear 20 years ago the event now comes with added Steve Berry.

But what I think it needs more than anything else are the long gaps between the parades filling in. It’s time to nick a page out of Goodwood’s book and send all those lovely cars out one at a time, so there’s always something doing the rounds on Ormskirk’s big day.
I’d love to see Steve Berry and motor sport commentary legend Neville Hay bringing all those Astons, Jags – and yes, the bubble cars – to life as each heads out around the one-mile circuit. You’d get to see a lot more, as long as nothing breaks down there’d be no awkward gaps, and hopefully you’d learn a few pub facts about the Ferrari F40 while you’re at it.

The MotorFest is a superb event that does Ormskirk proud, but I reckon it can be even better still. Oh, and more Vanden Plas Princesses, please!

Bring back the Land Rover Defender – before everyone else ruins it

Production of the Land Rover Defender ended last year

ABOUT a year or so ago Britain made an historic – but rather controversial – decision. It decided to terminate its decades-old relationship with an international institution.

Since then crime’s increased, prices have gone up and there are mutterings from our friends in the farming fraternity over what they’ll turn to now for support. There have also been heated debates in pubs up or down the land over whether pulling the plug was the right decision, but my mind’s firmly made up.

We definitely need to put the Land Rover Defender back into production.

Since Britain’s best 4x4xfar by far exited the stage last March there’s been a weird void when it comes to truly hardcore off-roaders – and no, the Ford Kuga you have parked outside isn’t going to fill it. For all its terrible handling and lack of shoulder room it had a curious role in keeping rural Britain ticking, and ever since it departed the stage some very unfortunate things have been happening.

For starters crime really has been going up. With no new Defenders to buy people have simply been nicking the old ones, so much so that NFU Mutual is now reporting that thefts are up 17 per cent over the past year. The lack of supply also means that people prepared to pay for legitimate examples are having to stump up more for the privilege; a Defender bought brand new by Rowan Atkinson two years ago has just been sold on for a £20,000 profit, and that’s unlikely to be down to simply having a famous name on the logbook.

But worst of all is that in the absence of any brand new ones the Land Rover’s hard-earned reputation is being trashed by the tuning brigade. Every week I’m sent press releases by companies specialising in aftermarket cosmetic kits for Defenders, and they’re all absolutely dreadful. But people who normally buy Audi TTs and BMW X5s are signing up, turning the poor old Landie into a bit of a glorified tart’s handbag. One of only four or so cars to have made it onto the Sub Zero section of Top Gear’s Cool Wall is now a bit of a fashion victim.

Clearly, the only answer is to put the Defender back into production and restore order.

Forget all those emissions regulations getting in the way. Theresa May needs to instigate a special Defender Reintroduction Bill in the next Queen’s Speech, and make it her top priority once Britain leaves the EU.

In fact, let’s sneak this one in early!

Separated at birth – the story of two very different Peugeot hot hatches

Peugeot made one of the greatest hot hatches in the 205 GTI - but prices now can vary wildly

WILLY Russell fans might want to stick around for this week’s motoring musings. It’s essentially Blood Brothers in four-wheeled format, albeit starring a couple of old Peugeots rather than two Scousers separated at birth.

Our two protagonists both happen to 205 GTis, born in the same French factory and fitted with the same delightfully revvy 1.9-litre, 105bhp engine. They were even painted the same shade of Alpine White, and both were welcomed into a world where excitable road testers thought the 205 GTi was the best hot hatch ever made. With the exception of not quite having the same birthday – oh alright, one’s three years older than the other – they’re pretty much identical.

Except, as anyone familiar with Liverpudlian musicals will testify, they really aren’t.

Our two go-faster Peugeots, having led very different lives once they’d left the factory, both happened to go under the hammer at two separate auctions within 24 hours of each other recently. The younger of the two, which had done 103,000 miles but definitely wasn’t a shabby example, was yours for a shade under six grand. That’s a lot more than they used to fetch, but even in 2017 not exactly verging on unreasonable.

But then its older brother stepped into the spotlight. It was a 1988 car that had been given away in a competition – to a winner who couldn’t drive – and as a result still has fewer than 6000 miles on the clock. It’s also been wrapped up in cotton wool every night and doted on for the past five years by a Peugeot evangelist, so you’d expect it’d fetch a little bit more at auction.

It ended up selling for £38,480. That’s 15 grand more than you’ll pay for a brand new 208 GTi, which has airbags, traction control and a warranty.

Obviously just about everyone ended up fixated on what was a phenomenal result for a 29-year-old hot hatch, but if you live in the real world it’s the first price that’ll bear more relevance. Old cars with minimal mileages and unblemished panels come out of the woodwork every so often and go for some eyeball-grabbing price, but it doesn’t suddenly make that old Golf GTi rusting away at your mate’s garage worth a million quid. Only last weekend a Vauxhall Nova with a particularly exciting backstory sold online for £65,000 – that’s Porsche Cayman money – but it doesn’t mean the one you used to own is worth the same.

Blood Brothers ends of course with both protagonists getting shot – something which probably won’t happen to either of our elderly Peugeots. But if you believe the hype and spend over the odds on some vaguely trendy bit of 1980s motoring, you might end up shooting yourself. In the foot, of course…

Capri – A holiday paradise weirdly lacking in fast Fords

It seems residents of Capri haven't taken to the car named after their island

CAPRI. Sideways urban streetfighter, Seventies touring car hero, star of The Professionals, the car you always promised yourself, and today’s hot topic when it comes to classic car prices.

Oh, and it’s a sun-kissed island in the Mediterranean, which I ended up exploring the other day. Given Ford’s coupé was made right here in the North West for much of its life – and if you don’t remember growing up with it, you’ll almost certainly know someone who does – it seemed rude not to take up an opportunity to look around the place that lent its name to Europe’s answer to the Ford Mustang.

Obviously as the ferry lumbered into the dock I was excitedly expecting a pristine Capri RS3100 mounted on a plinth to greet visitors, reminding anyone embarking upon this beautiful island of its historic connection to one of Europe’s greatest cars. But there wasn’t.

There wasn’t even a shiny 280 Brooklands – the name given to the last Capris, which are hugely valuable these days – in a glass case to highlight Capri’s connection to the Capri, or even a rental firm based in the town centre chucking tourists the keys to a slightly tatty 1.6 Laser. There are a couple of museums on the island but they’re all dedicated to Roman artefacts, the various things that grow nearby and the works of the various artists and poets who lived there, but the car named after it warrants barely a footnote.

I’d suggest finding one of the few Capris that isn’t worth £20,000 and sending it over as a permanent tribute to the island’s contribution to motoring history, but it appears you aren’t even allowed to do that. You’re not allowed to take cars onto Capri during the summer months, unless you’re a resident who already owns one. Guess what? None of them have a Ford Capri.

But despite not offering the eponymous car a single mention there are a few things worth heading over for, if you ever end up holidaying in this stiflingly hot part of Italy. The residents-only rule mean that while there aren’t many cars a fairly high proportion of them are Fiat 500s (of the proper variety, not the modern hatchback). Then there’s the endless two-stroke clatter of people wobbling around on Vespa scooters, but the best thing of all are what they use for taxis. You’d probably forgotten the Fiat Marea exists but the people of Capri haven’t; they’ve stretched it, chopped the roof off, and fitted it with a wooden steering wheel, red leather seats and orange door handles.

Fiat Marea taxi in Capri

Even on an island surprisingly lacking in Fords that’s worth the ferry ticket alone.

The Government ban on petrol and diesel in 2040 will be fine for new cars. It’s the old ones I’m worried about

Cars like the BMW i3 have made zero emissions motoring more fashionable

APOLOGIES to Mark Twain’s estate for having to shamelessly pilfer one of his better-known quotes. Reports of the car’s death – which you’ve probably read over the past week or so – have been greatly exaggerated.

Chances are you’ll already be aware of the Government’s intention to ban sales of new petrol and diesel cars as of 2040, which a million internet bores instantly took to mean the death knell for motoring fun as we know it. The party that Karl Benz and his pals threw back in 1886 is finally over, because we all overdid it and got drunk on AC Cobras and Range Rover Sports.

But calling it quits isn’t really doing us as a species, particularly those of who love cars, much credit. Ever since we figured out that we had opposable thumbs and could light fires we’ve been pretty good at working out answers to things, and even by the Government’s own prescription we have roughly 23 years to solve this one.

I’m not going to get into how we make the clean energy that propels a zero emissions car but the end result’s a lot better than it used to be. Seven years ago I drove an electric MINI that had a battery so huge it took up the back seats, a range of barely 100 miles and engine braking so severe you could pull up at roundabouts without touching the middle pedal. It only took another two years for the motor industry to invent an electric car that was fun to drive – take a bow, Renault Twizy – and fast forward to 2017 and the charging points at motorway service stations are crammed with Nissan Leafs and Teslas. If we’ve made it this far in seven years, you probably won’t need a diesel Golf as a new car in two decades’ time.

The bit I worry about is what happens with all the old ones. The more intelligent people at Westminster have already said that banning them isn’t the answer, partly because outlawing the MGB is a bit like banning Buckingham Palace and more importantly because the nation’s classic car hobby is worth £5.5 billion to the British economy (and it’s still growing). Horses have been old hat to commuters since the Austin Seven showed up, but they’re still allowed to use our roads.

But the thing with horses is that you only need straw, carrots and a decent vet to keep them going. If everyone else is driving electric cars in 2040 will there still be petrol stations to fill up the MGF or the Peugeot 205 GTI? Or places that can do a new battery for an Audi TT?

The car, I honestly reckon, will live on. It just might be a bit trickier than it used to be.

Mercedes X-Class – the perfect car for Southport’s golfers

The new Mercedes X-Class could be the wheels of choice for the next Open

IT FEELS like the population of Southport’s halved over the last few days. Apparently all the people who’ve just vacated the resort were here for something called ‘the golf’ – and I don’t mean the Volkswagen hatchback, either.

The one thing that did strike me during the North West’s moment in the international sporting spotlight was that virtually everyone seemed to travel to the Royal Birkdale in either a series of commandeered Stagecoach double-deckers, or in a black Mercedes. It felt like every other car was a black E-Class with tinted rear windows.

The Benz blokes have obviously thrown a lot at The Open, which is why it surprised me enormously that it didn’t bring along its latest model. It claims the X-Class is the first pick-up truck from a premium manufacturer, but that’s not entirely the case.

Firstly, the posh pick-up from a luxury carmaker isn’t a new idea, because both Cadillac and Lincoln have already tried it (albeit with virtually no success, which is why they never sold them over here). Secondly, the trimmings might be Mercedes’ finest but the bones most definitely aren’t; keep it quiet, but the X-Class is essentially a Nissan Navara. So I suspect all the building site operatives who actually buy pick-ups are probably going to stick with the cheaper Japanese original.

So who’s going to buy the X-Class? Originally I’d suspected it’d be perfect for anyone who appears in or produces hip hop videos, but I can’t imagine there are too many of those in Formby or Parbold (Straight Outta Crosby does have a nice ring to it, though). Nor is it going to appeal to the sort of managing director types who normally go for big, German off-roaders, because the ML-Class already does it without relying on pick-up truck underpinnings.

But – and this is why I think Mercedes missed a trick at The Open – it has plenty of potential as a golfer’s chariot of choice. It has a sufficiently posh badge to mix it with the Jaguars and BMWs in the club car park, more than enough room inside to take four of your chums out for a quick round, and with it being a pick-up there’s plenty of room out back for all the sets of clubs you’ll ever need. Pack carefully and you could even bring your own golf buggy with you!

I can’t wait for the golf to come back to Southport, because the resort is going to be rammed with X-Class Mercs.

BMW make a great 1-series – it just isn’t this one

BMW has made the 1-series brilliant on B-roads, but not so great everywhere else

BARBECUE envy is a bad thing to suffer from at this time of year.

Essentially it involves dragging your rusty old bit of al fresco cooking equipment – inevitably bought at a supermarket for about £30 five years ago – in preparation for a lovely evening with your friends and family. It’s only then you find you’ve been upstaged by an irritating mate/relative/colleague with three grand’s worth of Napoleon Prestige in their garden. You can’t help but marvel at all the polished stainless steel, backlit controls and ceramic plating – but it’s all a bit over-engineered for burning burgers on Britain’s ten hot days each year.

It’s not unlike the BMW 1-series I’ve just spent a weekend with, because it manages to be just a tiny bit too brilliant for its own good. Can a car be too, er, good for its own good? If the 116D is anything to go by, the answer’s an emphatic yes.

If you’ve never driven a 1-series then you won’t appreciate that for all its slightly awkward hatchback proportions it is a proper BMW of the old school, focusing on engineering above all else. So it has a delightfully smooth engine (even for a diesel) up front, all the power heading to the back, and perfect weight distribution in the middle. As a result it’s a real joy to drive, with beautifully balanced steering, a low driving position and a slick gearchange. No bad thing if you’re up in North Yorkshire, where I was working over the weekend.

But once you peel off the B-roads and back into the real world it’s not so impressive. The reason why the rest of the world stopped making rear-drive hatchbacks once the Vauxhall Chevette disappeared is because you have to send all the power down a propshaft to the back wheels, which in a low-slung car like the 1-series robs space. As a result the footwell is cramped, there isn’t much rear legroom and the boot isn’t exactly commodious.

The sharp suspension that proves such a joy on country lanes translates into a firm ride once you’re on the motorway, and I now understand why 1-series drivers never indicate. The flickers seem incapable of self-cancelling, so why bother using them?

This is normally the point where I’d recommend buying a cheaper, roomier Golf that’s very nearly as fun, but I can’t because I know deep down that the 1-series is a truly capable bit of kit that just needs more BMWness to work. It deserves to be ordered in full fat M140i form rather than the apologetic fully skimmed offering you get with the 116D.

I can fully approve of a car where going for the turbocharged one with 335bhp represents the sensible option. Let’s face it, you were only going to spend three grand on a barbecue anyway.

Fair play to Ford for making the Mustang safer

The pre-facelift Mustang was criticised for its poor crash rating

SUPPOSE you opened a posh restaurant specialising in the sort of gourmet grub that’d make Jamie Oliver envious.

It doesn’t take long to pick up rave reviews aplenty from the foodie set, but a council inspector smells a rat (quite literally) and slaps a poor hygiene rating on the door for the standard of the kitchen. It’s a serious dent in your reputation – but you’ll do everything in your power to put it right again.

Which is pretty much exactly the place Ford’s found itself in with its latest Mustang. Reviewers loved it – me included – for its V8 soundtrack, tempting prices and pert good looks, and it was wonderful to have the American motoring institution over in Blighty for the first time, officially sold through nearby Ford dealers with the steering wheel on the correct side.

But even though you could escape the reality of commuting through Crosby or Crossens on a wet Wednesday morning by turning up the Beach Boys CD in your American muscle car, there’s no way you could get around its fairly dismal safety rating. Regular readers might recall that earlier this year it was given just two stars by the crash test experts at Euro NCAP, in an age where anything less than five stars on your new family saloon is considered a disappointment.

But it’s fair play to Ford for actually listening and doing something about it. It can’t go to all the expense of completely re-engineering the Mustang’s crumple zones, but it’s responded to the criticism by bringing out a lightly facelifted version with vastly improved airbags and a lane assist system as standard.

Naturally the crash testers responded by immediately shoving it face-first into a concrete block – and hey presto, the two-star Mustang is now a three-star Mustang.

Okay, so a three-star rating still isn’t amazing, with Euro NCAP’s boss calling it “unexceptional” but it does show that one of the car industry’s giants cares about your safety. It also proves just how seriously the powers-that-be take crash test results. Two decades ago the Metro scored so poorly it was promptly taken out of production altogether after sales dried up, but the small cars of today, including the latest SEAT Ibiza, are routinely picking up top marks for their teacher’s pet approach to safety.

So the Mustang’s a lot safer than it was before. Which means we can get back to enjoying why we came to that metaphorical restaurant in the first place – four courses of V8 muscle, with the engine for the Focus RS as the vegetarian option. Where’s a waiter when you need one?

Good news 007 – even Aston Martin is downsizing these days

Even Aston Martin realises that we live in an age of austerity

M PAUSED reflectively for a moment. “The latest figures from the Minister of Defence have arrived. I’m afraid there are going to have be some changes for the 00-section”.

There was a brief silence as the assembled MI6 bigwigs braced themselves for the bad news. They knew all along that austerity had been a fundamental part of Government policy for years, but they’d never expected it to hit Her Majesty’s flagship network of foreign operatives directly.

“I’m terribly sorry, but if we’re going to meet all these spending targets then agents are just going to have to start flying Easyjet and Ryanair, like everyone else,” M sighed with resignation. “And 007’s certainly going to have to stop ordering all those blasted vodka martinis. Doesn’t he realise that he shouldn’t be ordering all those drinks on expenses?”

Q Branch, for all its years of jetpacks and exploding pens, was right in the firing line. There’d be no laser-equipped watches when the shop up the road from MI6 was selling perfectly good Casios at a tenner a pop. Certainly there wouldn’t be any more jet packs, stealth boats or exploding pens.

But M drew a line when he picked up the Aston Martin brochure. The battle against SPECTRE, the depressed-looking faces in the room were surely about to reason, could just as easily be fought with a Dacia Sandero or Skoda’s new Citigo. But MI6’s top man was having none of it.

“Happily, Aston Martin has realised budgets here are a little tighter than they used to be,” he announced. “The DB11 was beginning to look a little unfeasible, but thanks to the changes they’ve made I think we might just be able to afford it.”

M pointed out that for the past year or so the DB11’s only been available with a twin-turbo 5.2-litre V12, accompanied by a rather hefty starting price of £157,900, something which even those pesky world domineering sorts with their hollowed-out volcanoes and white cats are baulking at these days. But now there’s a new version which comes with a smaller engine that’s kinder to the environment – a 4.0-litre V8, no less. It’s still equipped with two turbochargers and pumps out 503bhp but it’s still cheaper than the full fat DB11 – it’s now £144,900.

Okay, so a 13-grand saving isn’t a lot but it does make DB11 ownership that tiny bit more affordable. It’s also lighter than the V12 car and, Aston insists, better through the bends as a result, which counts for a lot when you’re attempting to outrun the bad guys.

Which means that even in Theresa May’s era of austerity Bond can have a decent company car. Good to see 007 doing his bit to help the nation’s finances…