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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…

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Toyota reckons the future of driving is a box on wheels – and that’s a good thing

The Toyota e-Pallette is quite literally a box on wheels - and a possible vision of our motoring future

TOYOTA seems to have forgotten that it’s a carmaker. Or at least that’s the impression you’d be entirely right for getting if its latest offering is anything to go by.

Just when I was readying myself to find out what it’ll be unveiling at this week’s Detroit Motor Show – a successor to the Supra, perhaps, or a long overdue rework of the C-HR’s rear end – it turns out that it’s gone to the Consumer Electronics Show instead, which is a sort of American tech-fest where everyone excitedly looks at laptops and smartphones.

Obviously it couldn’t unveil a car because that’s old hat, 20th century tech – a box on wheels, if you like. So the world’s biggest automotive giant decided to unveil just that. A box on wheels. And Toyota will thank me for calling it that.

The e-Pallette might look like something you’d attack with an Allan key after a weekend visit to IKEA but that’s exactly the point; it’s meant to be empty, and already there are various big names who are touting this autonomous cube as ideal tools for their business. Amazon likes it because it can be used as an autonomous delivery drone, and Pizza Hut reckon you could fill it up with chefs and ovens and dispatch it to wherever there’s a party packed with peckish students. Uber reckon it’ll take off because you can pack it with people (and not have to pay a driver to take them anywhere), and if you stretch the wheelbase it can even perform the sort of work long-distance lorry drivers are paid to do.

But whether I sign up as a fan depends entirely on whether it can fitted with a towbar, should it ever make production. Toyota has touted the idea of the e-Pallette being used as a hotel room on wheels too, but I’d be much more interested in sticking my MGB GT on a trailer, hitching it to the back and then using it as a sort of autonomous motorhome that transports me and my wheels on petrolhead holidays.

I’d love the idea of taking my pride and joy to, say, the Scottish Highlands without having to spend the first day of my holiday resting because driving up there in a 45-year-old sports car is so tiring. Or opening the door of my autonomously-driven luxury suite to discover I’m in the Alps or some sun-drenched bit of Spain or Italy. I love driving, but I’m sure even the most ardent petrolhead would happily let a machine take care of the M6 on a congested Friday night.

Toyota might actually be onto something with a car that’s a glorified box on wheels. The challenge now is to make sure we’re still allowed to drive all those wonderful cars that aren’t.

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…

MGB vs MX-5 – which would YOU take to Scotland?

IMG_8310THE MGB’s fresh MoT has just made one of my big motoring calls of 2016 that little bit harder.

In a few weeks’ time I’m going on a stag do with a petrolhead twist; driving around the glorious roads of the Scottish Highlands for three days. There’s an odd assortment of automotive gems going on the trip, ranging from a Hillman Imp and an MGB GT V8 to a Saab 9000 Turbo, a Mercedes W123 and a Mazda MX-5.

But – and most of the fellow stag weekend attendees already know this – I’m having a genuine dilemma over which of my two classics to take. MGB GT or MX-5?

Until this morning the Mazda had it in the bag. Drive any early MX-5 and you’ll know instantly why it’s such a masterclass in steering and handling – it genuinely is one of the great driver’s cars of the past 30 years, and yet you can pick ’em for under a grand. If I took mine up it’d be big fun on Scotland’s wonderful country lanes, and if the sun makes a rare appearance it takes all of two seconds to drop the roof down. It’s endlessly reliable too and it’ll easily eke 35 miles out of a gallon on the M6 on the way up there. The only slight snag is that my import-spec one’s been fitted with a three-speed auto rather than the snickety five-speed manual, but that’s a small price to pay for it being such a brilliant companion every day I’m not barrelling down a B-road.

Mazda Eunos Roadster - David Simister

But then last weekend I took the MGB out for a 250-mile trip to the Lakes and back for a Classic Car Weekly gig last weekend. And it was brilliant.

Yes it’s noisy, you have to work with the heavy steering to manhandle it through corners and it’ll do 25mpg on a good day, but it’s so much more of an event to drive. It involves you so much in the experience, and while it’s more tiring to drive on long motorway slogs it’ll happily pound along with the Audis and BMWs in the outside lane if it needs to.

I just assumed the MGB would be too unreliable to turn up and it’d fail its MoT – but having just done a faultless return flight to Cumbria and earned itself another 12 months’ ticket it’s time to think again. I love both cars and would happily take either up to the Highlands – but until I work out how to drive two cars at once, I’m going to have to make a tough choice.

Which would you go for?