ferrari

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!

Advertisements

The Nobe electric car looks cool – but not enough to invest in

The Nobe 100 is an eco-friendly electric car inspired by small 1960s cars(1)

IT’S NOT every weekend that you get asked to help put a car into production.

Don’t worry, nobody from Vauxhall has rung me up, asking whether – as that bloke from The Champion – I have any tips on what I’d like to see in the next-generation Adam. Nor am I loaded enough to be one of those lucky souls invited to, er, help Ferrari develop its next model by paying for a one-off track-day special that you’re only allowed to access three times a year.

But some Estonians have asked me to bung them a couple of quid to help get their retro-styled electric three-wheeler off the ground. They obviously haven’t approached Deborah Meaden and Duncan Bannatyne yet, but as a car nut I’ll save them the trouble.

Nobe – an eco-friendly start-up specialising in microcars, not a mis-spelling of Leicester-based supercar maker Noble – is using a crowdfunding site to attempt to secure £800,000 for the new car. Apparently the thing that’ll excite Greenpeace types is that it’s zero emissions and easily recyclable, but the bit that grabs me is that it looks good. The front end looks like it could’ve come from a shrunken Borgward Isabella (you’ll have to Google it), the way the rear end tapers to a set of full-width lights is lovely, and the delicate chrome details between the two are distinctly 1960s. Oh, and there’s a very faint whiff of Jensen Interceptor about that rear glass treatment.

It’ll also has room for three, will sit at 70mph happily enough and promises a two-hour charging time, but I’m not exactly going to be taking out a second mortgage or hounding my bank manager any time soon. There have been plenty of miniscule motors over the years, from Messerschmitts and Minis to modern day Smart cars, and none of their creators needed to use a crowdfunding site. The asking figure of £800k also sounds a bit far-fetched, when you consider that Aston Martin apparently had to raise £200 million to help develop their new DBX off-roader, likely to be called the Varekai when it makes production.

All this coming from someone who’s owned two Minis, once bought a Renault 5 for £100 for a laugh and is currently restoring a Reliant Robin. I completely get the point of cars that offering up motoring fun in pint-sized packages, but if the Nobe’s that clever an idea I’d expect Dragons’ Den types would be queuing up to invest in it.

Best of luck, chaps, but I’m out.

You don’t need a Porsche to make motoring fun

You don't need a 911-sized budget to make motoring fun
PORSCHE is, I’ve long reckoned, is the only supercar maker that just about everyone can afford to dabble in.

The days of 944s for under a grand and air-cooled 911s for Mondeo money might be long gone but you can easily pick up an early Boxster for less than the price of a secondhand Astra – try doing that with Ferrari or McLaren. I was at a huge Porsche event over in Llandudno and that’s definitely the vibe I picked up from the people taking part. Sure, there were managing directors flying the flag in brand new Caymans, but there were also plenty of petrolheads who just love their cars, even without the enormous budget, and were just as happy to be there.

Except for one chap, who I can only assume was a member of the public who’d got lost. “I dunno, I don’t get what all the fuss is”, he seethed to his other half as he glanced over 650 of Stuttgart’s sports cars, proudly lined up along a North Wales promenade.

“They’re just cars, aren’t they? A means to an end. As long as it’s got a tow bar for my trailer and starts up in the morning, I don’t give a fig”. Only that last word was something else beginning with ‘F’, of course.

For a moment I thought I’d overhead someone who sees cars the way I see football – but then for all the moments I can feel my eyes glazing over every time I head the transfer window being discussed loudly in a pub, I can at least look back at all the few times I’ve been to see Southport play and ended up cheering them on. This bloke, on the other hand, had no time for cars whatsoever.

His loss, especially when you bear in mind that you don’t have to have a Porsche and that motoring fun can be had in just about any form at every budget, taking virtually no effort to attain. A secondhand Mondeo can be picked up for a few hundred quid and they can be very sprightly through the bends. Gently expand your used car budget and the Golf GTI is your oyster. A mate of mine bought a RenaultSport Megane not long ago – 225bhp and finely honed French suspension for just four grand.

Still not convinced? You could snap up a secondhand Land Rover Discovery and have all the space and countryside chic you could ever ask for, or match family practicality with a healthy dose of B-road prowesss with a 5-Series that’s barely in. Even the most sensible family car I can think of, the Skoda Octavia, can be had in smile-inducing vRS form from about £2000 upwards.

All of these cars, of course, can be fitted with a tow bar and will start up a treat first thing in the morning. Not bad for a means to an end.

Pininfarina – a genius new name for Mahindra’s European offerings

Pininfarina turned the Peugeot 406 into a truly stunning coupe

A PAL of mine is currently perusing the classifieds for a Peugeot 406 Coupé. Hopefully, by the time you read this, he’ll be the proud owner of one of these gorgeous Gallic two-doors.

Apparently Ford’s Cougar, Vauxhall’s Calibra, the Mercedes-Benz CLK and Volvo’s C70, which all convoy four adults with a reasonable amount of shove in the same sort of two-door package, didn’t even make it onto the shopping list, because there’s one thing that even today sets a 406 Coupé apart. It’s the same thing that makes you lust after a Ferrari 458 Italia and why the Alfa Romeo 164 was always such a head-turner. It’s also what makes my MGB GT so well proportioned.

It is – and petrolhead bonus points if you’ve already guessed it – having Italian design house Pininfarina sprinkle its magic on the cosmetics. Think of it as a sort of automotive Armani, turning the humdrum into handsome and making things of downright desirability when given a free hand. It’s even had a hand in building cars, including Ford’s StreetKa, but thanks to a tie-up with an Indian conglomerate it now wants to be a carmaker in its own right.

The business side of it makes sense. Mahindra is a big player in motoring but in the UK it’s best known for its dreadful Jeep knock-offs – it has the money to take part in the increasingly lucrative market here in Europe for luxury offerings, but not the street cred. Citroen, for instance, has decided to take on BMW and Mercedes by creating its DS sub-brand, whereas Chinese conglomerate Geely have gone for the Blue Peter ‘Here’s one we made earlier’ approach by snapping up Volvo and Lotus.

But launching a brand with a name already associated with Ferrari’s better-looking offerings is bordering on genius. All it has to do now is the opposite of what most glitzy product launches manage. Make sure it has the style to match the substance.

Automobili Pininfarina hasn’t put out any pictures of what its new car looks like yet but if it’s anything other than jaw-droppingly amazing I’ll be disappointed. This is the name that not only turned the repmobile Peugeot 406 into one of the best-looking cars of the Nineties, but it’s also behind the Ferrari Daytona, Testarossa and F355, the Lancia Montecarlo, the Fiat Dino, the Alfa Romeo GTV and the Jaguar XJ6 Series III. With a blank slate and Mahindra’s money behind it, Pininfarina’s first production car really ought to be so pretty that you leave it your phone number rather than drive it.

If it pulls that off than it might just pull you away from the pile of brochures you have for the C-Class, 3-Series and A4. Or you could save yourself about 20 grand and get the same sort of visual sparkle from a 406 Coupé. See, we’re full of useful consumer tips at The Champion

Why I’m looking forward to Cholmondeley supercharging its Power & Speed event

Cholmondeley has plenty of supercars - but not enough variety

I’VE DECIDED to dispense with New Year’s resolutions this year. It’s largely to avoid the pain of stumping up for a gym membership that’ll inevitably expire of own accord by about February, but mainly because I’d much rather work on the goals I’ve already got, thanks.

Goals which probably ought to include not spending so much of my summer sauntering around the grounds of stately homes in Cheshire. The sort of places I used to dread going to on school trips are now familiar stomping grounds because they’re where car shows are held every other weekend during the summer, and I almost certainly spend far too much time at them.

But I genuinely wonder whether Cholmondeley Castle is going to be one of them. What was once openly touted as the North West’s answer to Goodwood took a breather last year because its organisers were having a long, hard think about the event and – at the time of writing at least – no firm announcement about whether the Power and Speed event will be back for 2018.

I went religiously for at least five or six years and loved the spectre of Ferrari F40s and Jaguar D-types being punted angrily up the Marquess of Cholmondeley’s garden path. Nor was it just cars; the howl of the Avro Vulcan’s Rolls-Royce turbojets as it flew over the 2015 event was one of my all-time favourite moments of any car show I’ve been to. What originally started out as the Pageant of Power had momentum aplenty behind it, but even by the time it was renamed two years ago jaded old scribes – like me – were moaning it was getting a bit staid.

For years I could take you to an event and tell you roughly where all the cars would be on display and which ones would be taking part in demonstrations, because year-on-year virtually nothing changed. It was still a superb mix of cars, but it was one we’d all sampled before. So seeing it being rested altogether last year wasn’t that surprising.

Yet I really hope that while the Cholmondeley show’s been off the road it’s been given a thorough service, a bit of a valet and fitted with a turbocharger, because the likes of you and I shouldn’t have to go all the way down to Goodwood to hear what a Bugatti Chiron sounds like at full chat.

Let’s hope the organisers make it their New Year’s resolution to freshen it up, get some new cars in and change things around a bit in time for this summer. It’s better than a gym membership you give up mid-February, after all…

The new TVR Griffith is mad. Which is why you should love it

TVR chose to launch its new Griffith at the Goodwood Revival last weekend

THE NEW Ferrari FXX? Sorry, not really that fussed. The Aston Martin DB11 was lovely, but hardly astonishing. And I was a bit ‘meh’ about the McLaren 570S, to be honest.

I’m sure all three are resolutely thrilling on the right bit of racetrack but it’s entirely forgiveable to be a bit blasé. We’re used to seeing shiny new supercars from all three, all of which are a modicum more impressive than the last one. It’s a bit like Liverpool doing rather well in the Premier League – just like they did last year, and the year before that.

But a new TVR is more like Leicester thundering in and unexpectedly snatching all the silverware, against ridiculous odds. The latest Griffith is the car that so many of us wanted to see, but none of us really believed was ever going to happen. Only that last Friday, after more than a decade of waiting, it did.

Barely a week in and there have already been plenty of comments that it doesn’t look bonkers enough to be a TVR – even I think it’s got shades of Jaguar F-type, but that’s hardly a bad thing. It’s also been fitted with ABS and a sophisticated power steering system but otherwise it’s business as usual for a carmaker that’s crafted its reputation on being ballsy where everyone else plays safe.

It has a V8 not a million miles from what you’ll find in a Ford Mustang but it’s been breathed on by Cosworth so it’s developing something in the region of 500bhp, with a Porsche-troubling power-to-weight ratio of around 400bhp per tonne. Gordon Murray – of McLaren F1 and Mercedes SLR fame – has helped out with the underpinnings, so it shouldn’t drive like an old-school TVR. It’ll be much better than that!

Even the Griffith’s launch makes it loveable. TVR could’ve done the sensible thing and flown out to Frankfurt, where everyone else is unveiling their new metal at the moment, but it decided instead to do it at the Goodwood Revival, a classic car event known for being consciously stuck in the 1960s. It’s emphatically not the place to launch a brand new car – but TVR did it anyway.

In fact the only thing that’s missing from this curiously British resurrection is the old Blackpool factory being brought back into action and giving Lancashire its sports car crown back, but that would be far too predictable for the new boys at TVR.

So they’ve decided to build it in a small town in Wales instead. There you have it – Ebbw Vale is Britain’s answer to Maranello…

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!

Bloodhound SSC – inspiring the next generation of Blue Peter doodlers

Bloodhound SSC is aiming to break the world land speed record

WHEN I was about ten I entered a Blue Peter competition that involved sending in drawings of Britain’s biggest and boldest achievements.

Everyone else sent in pictures representing the Millennium Dome and the World Wide Web – which is hindsight is weird, because the former was lambasted a colossal waste of public money and the latter is now used for amusing cat videos.

But my rather badly scrawled doodle depicting Andy Green at the helm of Thrust SSC, correctly predicted that Britain would ace the world land speed record. What I didn’t realise was that the 763mph record would still stand today, two decades later. Which is why my inner schoolchild beamed with excitement this when I heard that Thrust SSC’s successor is finally ready for its first outing.

For starters it has an equally brilliant name – Bloodhound SSC – but the stats sound like they belong in an episode of Thunderbirds. Try 0-60mph in less than a second. Barely a minute later it’ll be doing 1000mph.

On its low speed demonstration runs later this year it’ll comfortably keep pace with a Ferrari F40 at 200mph or so, and run on tyres borrowed from a Lightning jet fighter. But when the big day comes it’ll have no rubber at all, because there’s no tyre in existence that can cope with a wheel spinning 170 times every second.  Some of the numbers that come with Bloodhound SSC’s record attempt boggle the mind.

Why does it matter, particularly since this project’s been nearly a decade in the making and so far hasn’t moved beyond static displays at car shows? Because it shows we Brits can still do all the ballsy and brave stuff when we aren’t making Range Rover Evoques and Vauxhall Astras. In the same way that the British motor industry rallied behind Donald Campbell and his Bluebird record attempts half a century ago, the Bloodhound project is being used to get schoolchildren excited about engineering and technology.

I really do hope that when the blue and orange streak of flag-flying tech finally does those demonstration runs in Cornwall later this year – followed by 800mph and then 1000mph runs on the salt pans of South Africa – it’ll inspire some bright spark somewhere to get inventing. You never know, they might even enter a competition run by a children’s TV show.

Oh, and I never did get my Blue Peter badge.

Lotus – The Movie! Why it won’t happen anytime soon

Lotus makes some of the best handling cars on the market today

IF LOTUS were a bloke he’d have had his life story turned into a Hollywood movie by now – probably with Christian Bale playing the lead role.

It’s a compelling enough tale. A troubled young individual who grew up on a farm in Norfolk ends up hanging out with the world’s F1 stars, James Bond and that bloke from The Prisoner. Then he ends up falling in with a dodgy American entrepreneur and narrowly avoiding jail, losing loads of money in the process – before bouncing back spectacularly by winning Britain’s petrolheads over with his charm and character. But then he gets big ideas of taking on Ferrari, ends up cocking it up again and annoys his accountants.

Lotus has all sorts of baggage attached to it but none of it matters a jot when you’re at the helm of one on an open road. I’ve driven a couple of Hethel’s products over the years and they’ve all – from the 1970s Elan +2 to a brand new Evora S – been pretty much unbeatable when it comes to ride and handling. Even the 1990s Elan, which plenty of pub critics will kid you is a bit rubbish because it’s front-wheel-drive, was years ahead of its time when it came to mid-bend agility.

But the really important thing about Lotus isn’t all those dusty old F1 trophies or the pictures of the (now late) Sir Roger Moore posing next to a white Esprit; it’s all the work its engineers do behind the scenes on ordinary, everyday cars. Vauxhall and Proton are just about the only ones who’ll admit to having Lotus experts work on their cars’ handling but there are plenty of others who use its services; if your car doesn’t corner like a drunken tea trolley then it’s probably down to Lotus know-how.

Which is why I’m glad that a majority stake in Lotus has finally been snapped up by Geely, a Chinese manufacturer. You might not have heard of them but they’ve owned Volvo for the past seven years, and the Swedes seem to be doing rather well out of it.

I’m optimistic that Lotus will be allowed to thrive with a new influx of cash, rather like Jaguar Land Rover has under Indian ownership. For too long it’s depended on the Evora, a model launched back in 2008, and the Elise, which can trace its roots back to the early 1990s. Both are brilliant, but with the right investment Lotus should be able to develop some world class cars.

Starting with a new Elan, hopefully. Maybe the movie script writers should put their pens down for now…

The Skoda Yeti is a hard act to follow

Skoda put substance ahead of style with its Yeti

IN A WORLD of Jukes, Capturs and Mokkas the Karoq is a good thing; a proper, evocative car name of the old school.

Not only is it drawn from the language of a remote Alaskan tribe but you can just imagine it being slapped across a supercar’s rump. A Maserati Karoq has a certain ring to it.

But this name isn’t going on some Italian slingshot; it’s going on Skoda’s new baby off-roader, which looks great and should sell like Ed Sheeran tickets when it goes on sale here later this year. I’ve no doubt it’ll be an accomplished all-rounder (especially if its Kodiaq big brother is anything to go by) but it means Skoda’s existing baby off-roader, the Yeti, will be quietly put down.

Which is a real shame because I still reckon it’s one of the most talented tiny off-roaders out there. In fact, it’s one of the best motoring all-rounders, full stop.

I remember road-testing it for The Champion in 2010, not long after it first arrived in the UK, and thinking how willfully different it was from the rest of the Qashqai-alikes out there. It eschewed trendy styling and clever in-car infotainment for slab-sided proportions and minimal overhangs for better ground clearance – just like you get on a Land Rover Discovery. It even had the same sort of chunky buttons and indestructible interior plastics as most off-roaders, so that even the clumsiest of schoolchildren or the hungriest of Labradors wouldn’t be able to ruin it.

But best of all it had that rare thing missing from so many of today’s off-roader-esque family cars; the prowess to match the proposition. One of the cars we occasionally use at Classic Car Weekly for photoshoots is a 13-reg Yeti, and no matter what we throw in its direction it always emerges totally unflummoxed. On one jaunt back from the Goodwood Festival of Speed we actually took it green laning to avoid the traffic jams and it dealt with the muddy ruts and rocks superbly – and as a result, it was faster than every Ferrari, Porsche and M-badged BMW within a ten-mile radius.

For a five-door hatchback that kicks in at a shade under 18 grand it is supremely talented, and definitely something that even in its twilight years I’d thoroughly recommend. I can only hope the new arrival picks up the Yeti’s baton of being something you can count upon in a muddy field, rather than following the me-too route of looks over all else.

It does at least have a cool name, though, which is a good start.