British Leyland

You wouldn’t settle for an old motor – so why should rail commuters?

LUCKY YOU. You did well at school, landed a decent job, worked your way up to managing a small team of talented colleagues…and you can finally afford BMW’s new 1-Series.

It’s an exciting prospect. The 1-Series might have traded in its party trick – being the only rear-driven kid in a class of me-too hatchbacks letting the front wheels do all the work – but it’s better packaged, better built and very nearly to nice to punt down a sweeping B-road as the old one. It’s also, at £279 a month on personal contract hire for a 118i Sport, tantalisingly within reach.

But imagine if, having stuck down your deposit, the sharp-suited man from the BMW showroom dropped off an Austin Maestro instead. Yes, the five-door hatch that took the fight to Ford’s Escort and Vauxhall’s second-generation Astra, and endorsed 35 years ago by a youthful-looking Noel Edmonds in some rather excitable TV ads. You’d be pretty peeved, right?

“Ahhh, awfully sorry sir”, the chap from BMW might say. “Your new 1-Series isn’t quite ready yet. It’ll be ready early next year, we can assure you, but we wanted to make sure you can still get to work in the mornings. Yes, we know it went out of production 25 years ago, but it’s still a five-door, front-wheel-drive hatchback, and it’s great on fuel.”

“But it’s a Maestro, for heaven’s sake,” you protest loudly. “It’s nothing like a 1-Series….and more to the point, I’m paying £279 a month for it!”

The response is polite, but firm. “It’s all we’ve got, sir.”  

“Haven’t you got a MINI Cooper – you make those as well, right? What about an old 3-Series? I used to have a secondhand 335d, and I loved it. Couldn’t you get me one of those instead?”

“I’m sorry, sir. All of our other BMWs and MINI Coopers have been reserved for people in London and the South East. You live in the North of England. All we have for people in the North…are Maestros.”

It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that this would never, ever happen at your nearest BMW showroom…but something not entirely dissimilar is happening to a lot of people who, for whatever reason, choose to commute by train rather than at the helm of a new 1-Series. They’ve been promised new trains to replace the frankly rubbish ex-British Rail Pacers on their regular journeys into work – and now they’ve been told they have to put up with them until at least early 2020, and probably longer.

In much the same way that I actually rather like the Maestro but would understand entirely that you wouldn’t want to trade in your Golf GTD or Audi A1 for one, the Pacer deserves recognition for propping up rural communities a generation ago, and a genteel retirement on a heritage railway line somewhere. But to continue inflicting them on people who think an iPhone 6 is old hat is just mean. Especially when they’re paying for something newer and better.

As much as I love old British Leyland engineering it winds me up immensely every time I see one of these noisy, shaky, cramped and non-wheelchair-friendly excuses for a train creaking into a station in front of a crowd of depressed-looking commuters.

This, or a 1-Series? It’s a no-brainer. In fact, given the choice, I’d take the Maestro over a Pacer too…

MoT exemption for classic cars is madness – here’s why

Classics like this MGB GT V8 will no longer need an MoT

“IT’S ABOUT the Toyota,” the voice on the other end of the line crackled. “I’m afraid it’s going to need a bit of work.”

The news from the garage came as a bit of a shock. The 1998 Avensis that I’ve been running around in for the past few months isn’t particularly renowned for its country lane prowess, and it’s so dull that I can’t even recall what it looks like, but it is the single most reliable thing I’ve ever owned. I’d also checked it fastidiously before it visited the MoT station, so I wasn’t expecting it to fail.

In the end I coughed up to have a sticky rear brake sorted and I was back on the road an hour later, but if the same problem pops up on my 1972 MGB GT next summer I needn’t bother. As of next May if my 19-year-old Japanese repmobile develops a glitch I’ll have to fix it before it can earn its annual ticket, but my 45-year-old piece of British Leyland heritage won’t legally be required to go into the garage at all.

Which – and I choose my words carefully, lest I be whisked away in a mysterious car belonging to the Department for Transport – is complete madness.

The aforementioned Avensis has never broken down, shed any of its components or so much as hiccupped over 12 months, but the fact that the MoT testers picked up the sticky brake on one of their machines means they were able to spot something I’d have missed otherwise. If a bombproof motorway cruiser (with a fresh set of tyres, belts and barely 30,000 miles on the clock, before you ask) can fail, then what horrors is my MGB or any other forty-something classic car harbouring?

Nor do I buy the Government’s argument that we’ll still be able to take classic cars in for inspection voluntarily; owners of pre-1960 cars, which have already been exempted for the last five years, simply don’t bother. The Department for Transport’s own figures show that only 6% of them take their old cars in for an MoT, given the choice.

The upshot is that this time next year there’ll be quite a few Ford Cortinas, Austin 1100s and MG Midgets rattling along Britain’s roads with no MoT whatsoever – and the thought of one of them suffering some critical component failure at the wrong moment troubles me. The Government reckons the risk involved is very, very small, but I’d rather there’d be no risk at all.

My MGB won’t be among that number, and if you own a tax-exempt classic car I’d urge you in the strongest possible terms to carry on getting it checked. Even if that means getting a few unexpectedly expensive phone calls…