motoring

Buying Vauxhall? Please don’t screw it up, Monsieur Peugeot

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THE TV news is full of doom ‘n’ gloom. The internet is creaking under the weight of patriotic complaint, and pundits everywhere reckon it’s all going to end in tears.

Nope, it’s not one of Donald Trump’s speeches, but the conclusion it’s all too easy to draw about what’s happening with Vauxhall at the moment. The Government is apparently keeping a close eye on talks some people from PSA – that’s Peugeot to you and me – are having with General Motors about whether it should flog off its European operations. In other words Opel over in Germany, and Vauxhall here in the UK.

There are two things to bear in mind straight away. Firstly, Vauxhall is as British as the Queen sat on a Range Rover’s lowered tailgate sipping Tetley – in other words, as British as a person of German descent drinking an Indian-owned beverage on an Indian-funded car. Vauxhall might still proudly manufacture its cars in the UK but anyone gasping in horror at the thought of it being taken over by a foreign firm should stick their Union Flags and Winston Churchill books back in their boxes. Last year I drove a Vauxhall T-type made way back in 1929, and even that had General Motors bits in it. Being foreign-owned, as Jaguar Land Rover can testify, is by no means a bad thing.

But that doesn’t make Peugeot the right parent. It’s stuck by Citroen for more than 40 years but the last British firm it snapped up – Chrysler Europe, which through lots of boring corporate takeovers had the rights to Sunbeam, Humber and all sorts of other wonderful names – vanished without trace. It also has form for closing down UK factories, calling quits on Ryton when it moved Peugeot 207 production to Slovakia.

I’d love to be proven wrong but I can’t help think Peugeot taking over Vauxhall is a bit like Manchester United being allowed to buy Liverpool FC – why would it be in the interests of one to allow one of its biggest rivals to thrive? Someone in France might have come up with some brilliant plan where the two brands compliment one another, in much the same way Peugeot already does with Citroen, but I have my doubts.

All this at a time when Vauxhall is making some genuinely good cars too; I understand entirely why Astra’s the current European Car of the Year, and the latest Insignia looks very promising. I might even forgive them the Mokka, because by and large it’s a decent range of cars that Brits rightly love.

If you are thinking of buying, Monsieur Peugeot, please don’t screw it up.

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Why one ruined Metro made your car safer

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NORMALLY saving lives involves noble things like vaccinations, charity fundraising and the Heimlich Manouvere. But you wouldn’t think deliberately destroying a Metro would have the same effect.

20 years ago that’s exactly what happened, when some chaps with clipboards and clever cameras gave one (well, a Rover 100 if we’re being picky) a 30mph introduction to a concrete block. Not for a laugh, but in the interests of scientific research. What they discovered sent shockwaves through the car industry.

The car wreckers in question belonged to an organisation called Euro NCAP, which has just celebrated its 20th birthday. Their mission was to mark as many new cars as possible with independent safety ratings, and they gave the poor Metro a miserable one star out of five. The resultant drop in sales meant Rover dropped it altogether a few months later, and ever since Euro NCAP’s findings have been taken very seriously indeed.

The results kept coming. 1990s Volvos weren’t as indestructible as pub wisdom had long dictated. The original Ford Focus wasn’t as good at protecting pedestrians as the Escort that preceded it. The old Chrysler Voyager was a deathtrap, and the G-Wiz electric car might have as well have been made out of cardboard after its appalling crash test performance. Even today Euro NCAP is still unafraid of ruffling the car industry’s feathers, giving Ford’s latest Mustang a dismal two stars when five is increasingly the norm.

But your car’s almost certainly safer as a result. Ever since Renault picked up the first five star rating for its Laguna back in 2001 – and paraded it on every TV, magazine and newspaper ad it could as a result – manufacturers have engaged in a sort of safety arms race to ensure they’re top dog. 

Multiple airbags, ABS, autonomous braking, whiplash-responsive headrests and cleverly designed crumple zones are no longer novel additions to car brochures. They’re everyday motoring addenda, and anyone who doesn’t offer them is shown up in the test results as cheapskates who aren’t that bothered about customer safety.

It’s impossible to calculate how many lives Euro NCAP’s boffins have saved by forcing car companies to smarten up to avoid embarrassing crash test results, but it’s fair to say you stand a much better chance of surviving a 30mph shunt in a new Clio (a five star car) than you would in its 1997 equivalent (just two stars).

So it’s worth thinking about Euro NCAP’s experts next time you go out for a spin. They’ve genuinely moved motoring on – and all it took was one utterly ruined Metro.

The Trough of Bowland – Lancashire’s bit of petrolhead perfection

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MY Modern Classics article on taking a TVR Chimaera to the Trough of Bowland – where the car was originally developed by the company’s test drivers – has prompted an interesting question.

Where is the best place to take your own car in this wonderful corner of Lancashire?

Craig Toone got in touch to ask about where to take his own car – a MINI Cooper John Cooper Works – in the Trough of Bowland, a wonderful stretch of exposed moorland not far from Clitheroe. There’s a good reason why TVR’s engineers used it to hone cars like the Griffith and Chimaera there a quarter of a century ago – it has a wonderful mix of different corners, cambers and gradients to really get the best out of a car, and (provided you stick to the speed limits and drive carefully) it’s great fun.

Normally I head north from Clitheroe, through Dunsop Bridge and out towards the M6 pas Quernmore, but there is a great circular route, which I’ve tried in my Minis, MX-5s and MGB in the past:

So if you’re in the North West, have a few hours to kill and revel in a good road I’d definitely suggest giving it a shot. It’s the sort of place that reminds you why we love cars in the first place.

David’s article on driving the TVR Chimaera can be found in the February 2017 issue of Modern Classics magazine.

The police have some great car tech. It’s time for the rest of us to catch up

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I’M SURE I’ll read this in 2027 and be acutely embarrassed but I’ll say it anyway; today’s technology is amazing. I’ve no doubt Champion readers of the future will look back at right now and sneer at our primitive Trump Age inventions, but I’ll happily defend them.

Last Sunday I was at a car show at Brooklands, more than four hours’ drive away in deepest Surrey. Yet by the powers vested in my smartphone I was able to snap an Austin Seven being driven in anger, and a few seconds later you could see it in all its hi-res, technicolour glory on Facebook. A few hours later my pocket-sized miracle worker was able to harness the might of 31 satellites in space to seamlessly guide me around the M25’s traffic jams. Oh, and you can ring people on it on as well.

Yet in this seemingly enlightened age you can still be asked to produce good old-fashioned bits of paper if you’re pulled over by the police and need to prove you have insurance or an MoT. Yet – and you probably won’t be the slightest bit surprised to learn this – record numbers of drivers simply don’t carry them around with them. 

The police have their own system to check on this – it’s called Automatic Number Plate Recognition, or ANPR for short. I’ve seen it in action and it’s brilliant. Even when they’re driving past another car at 50mph it can read your plate and in an instant deduce whether you’re a wrong ‘un or not, and whether you’re likely to appear in an upcoming episode of Traffic Cops.

But I reckon it’s time we, the ordinary motorists, caught up. We’ve already worked out how to do away with paper tax discs and paper driving licences, but surely it’s time to look at how we can do away with the other bits of paper that inevitably end up clogging up a box file in your study too? If we can manage paperless bank statements and paperless gas bills then doing the same – and securely – for registration documents, insurance documents and MoT certificates can’t be that tricky.

Surely giving your friendly constable chum a single card to swipe through on their system – or even a smartphone with a bit of electronically-generated code – would save plenty of trees and avoid the need to pop to a police station with said documents within seven days. Certainly it’d avoid the situation of record numbers of drivers not having their details to hand, for sure.

I can only hope in some sort of Skunk Works in deepest Swansea that the DVLA’s brightest minds are already working on just such a thing. Then they – like my future self of 2027 – can look back on this primitive age of paper-dependent motoring and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Why Zenos deserves to make more British sports cars

the-zenos-e10-is-a-two-seater-sports-car-powered-by-the-ford-ecoboost-engineIT’S happened again. A company specialising in plucky British sports cars has gone into administration.

This time it’s a tiny manufacturer based in Norfolk and best known for its flyweight two-seaters. No, not that one. This time it’s Zenos, which barely a few weeks after getting its rev-happy E10S onto The Grand Tour has had to bring in the suits and a steady supply of red ink.

All of which makes it a proper British sports car – and I love proper British sports cars.

History is littered with examples of blokes mixing mainstream motoring engineering – regardless of whether it’s an old A-series lump or the nifty Ford Ecoboost engine you get in the E10 – with neatly styled roadsters designed to be enjoyed al fresco. But for every Morgan or Lotus you end up with countless others going out of fashion. All those Elvas and Austin-Healeys. Marauders and Marcoses. Gilberns and Gordon-Keebles. The list goes on.

But I wouldn’t write the Zenos E10 off as another entry in the I-Spy book on Obscure British Sports Cars just yet. Partly because it’s been picking up some pretty good reviews – including from James May in its aforementioned telly appearance – but also because the thing Brit sports car firms do really well other than going into administration is bouncing back.

Fellow Norfolk firm Lotus has a long history of being in trouble – but they’re still going strong after nearly 70 years. Aston-Martin spent decades struggling to make a profit before Ford took it under its wing and launched the DB7. TVR is due to relaunch later this year and even AC – which can trace its roots all the way back to 1901, despite going bust a couple of times along the way – will still sell you something that looks vaguely like a new Cobra. 

I reckon the E10, with its not massively unobtainable £27k pricetag, familiar Ford engines, glowing reviews and a ready-made audience in Britain’s booming track day industry deserves another crack. 

I love proper British sports cars like the E10. Says the man who’s on his second Mazda MX-5…

Learner drivers on motorways? About time

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A YEAR or so ago I ticked off another entry on the petrolhead bucket list; I maxed a car on a limit-free stretch of German autobahn.

Two things stick out from that afternoon somewhere near Stuttgart. The first is that as it was a Skoda Fabia Estate with four hefty Brits and their luggage aboard, the point at which it physically wouldn’t go any faster wasn’t actually all that quick. Secondly – and more importantly – the discipline of other drivers meant it felt far safer had I attempted to do the illegal thing and pull off the same trick on the autobahn’s British equivalent.

I’ve long moaned about what motorway driving’s all too often about. Impatient sales reps in Audi A4s driving inches off your back bumper. Lorry drivers sauntering through 50mph average speed zones at whatever speed their Scania feels happiest. People who cut across all three lanes sans indicator to make their turnoff at the last possible moment. Oh, and the chap in the battered Peugeot 206 who was so incensed by another driver he decided to stop in the middle lane of the M6 before lowering his window and flicking another motorist the finger.

Motorways are the fastest roads in the UK yet – in my experience at least – home to the worst driving. So plans to let up ‘n’ coming motorists learn how to use them are well overdue.

It defies logic that when I passed my test a couple of years ago I was able to jump into my 998cc Mini Mayfair – a car barely capable of the motorway speed limit – and drive down the M57 on a shopping trip to Warrington. Yet while the current theory test does touch on motorway driving, it seems silly not to go over it in the practical tests at all.

Obviously this does pose one big problem – although not one that’ll affect you in the North West, where lots of motorways criss-cross the M6 as it snakes its way up the country. If you live in Norfolk, Cornwall, or the far-away bits of Scotland and Wales, there are no motorways.

Perhaps we could either set up a scheme that allows learners to travel over and spend a day learning these roads, because it is important that the next generation of drivers knows that there is no such a thing as a slow lane on motorways and that those chevrons painted onto the roads on the busier bits haven’t been put there for fun. It also seems a bit bonkers that you need no practice whatsoever before being allowed to slot a family hatchback into a 70mph torrent of busy traffic.

The fact is the speed I cracked in a borrowed Skoda in a foreign country felt safer than the M62 does most nights. Making people learn the ropes is long overdue.

Why Volkswagen is investing in a car-free future

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IT’S potentially the biggest shake-up in motoring since Henry Ford set up shop. Yet its instigators would rather you didn’t buy the cars it’ll create.

MOIA might sound like a Radio 2 newsreader or one quarter of Irish folk band Clannad but it’s actually the Volkswagen Group’s latest company, putting it alongside Audi, Bentley, Porsche and Skoda. Except that MOIA isn’t a car company. It’s – and you’ll have to imagine me waggling my fingers as I say it – a “mobility services company”.

Brilliant, I initially thought. Europe’s biggest carmaker has decided to help The Champion’s more mature readers by using knowhow from the Golf and Passat to reinvent the mobility scooter. No longer will looking cool while wobbling about 8mph be the preserve of pensioners travelling in those tiny three-wheelers styled to look like Harley Davidsons – I can just imagine a Golf GTI-inspired mobility scooter with a golf ball gearknob, subtle go-faster stripes and clever traction control.

But I was wrong. Apparently MOIA is aimed not at the over-65s, not even at Ford and Vauxhall, but at Google, Apple and – more imminently – Uber. The whole concept of how we get around is changing, and Volkswagen is determined to be all German about it and lay its towel down before anyone else does.

Unless you’ve been in a cave for the past year you’ll already know that Google has managed to find enough time away from making search engine cartoons to create a car. Only a few months ago Ford acknowledged Apple is now one of its big rivals. And just about every cabbie from Liverpool to Louisiana is feeling a tad cross with Uber muscling in on their turf.

At the moment MOIA is all about car-sharing and ride-hailing apps but don’t be surprised to see it dipping into Volkswagen’s vast parts bin to rustle up a car or two of its own. Nor should you raise an eyebrow when Toyota, Renault and everyone else follow suit. When cars are banned from the big cities, it’ll be whoever wins the mobility-sharing race that rules the roost.

There will be a time in a distant future when moving about in Liverpool involves hailing a ride with some likeminded mates in a vehicle none of you own – but I don’t know if it’ll be VW, Apple, Google or Uber supplying it.

As long as it isn’t a mobility scooter styled like a Harley Davidson I won’t mind too much.

Pre-registered cars? I can think of worse things…

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YOU’D be forgiven for thinking it’s worse than Donald Trump and Katie Hopkins getting together and having children, or finding out someone in the Government’s got their initials wrong and put the boss of BHS in charge of the NHS.

But pre-registered cars – despite being described by at least one of my one of my colleagues as a sort of automotive incest, because it involves the car industry effectively selling cars to itself – aren’t quite the malevolent motors some of the newspapers have made them out to be over the past few days.

In layman’s terms they’re cars that dealerships buy from the manufacturers, often at a hefty discount, and then sold on to you and me later on. In effect it means the first owners of these cars are the showroom themselves, and while it’s a handy way of bumping up the sales figures the net result to you and me are what are effectively brand new cars with sizeable discounts slapped on. How’s that a bad thing?

What I’d be more worried about is a used car scam that’s hitting the radar of trading standards organisations in other parts of the country, and it’s something to definitely watch out for next time you’re looking for a bargain. It has the two key ingredients of anything involving a bit of trickery – something that seems a bit too good to be true and people who are gullible or greedy enough to take advantage of it.

Here’s how it works. You’re online scouring the ads for a secondhand gem and you spot a car that looks like a great deal that isn’t going to hang around – but in all the pictures the registration plate’s been blanked out. You ring the seller to ask for the number, he happily obliges, and when you check it out the car in question has a backstory that checks out.

On that basis you stump up the readies, but it turns out the car you’ve bought is rather less savoury than the one you’d been saving up for. It’s the same make and model, of course, but the registration number’s completely different. The moral of the story is never to buy a car – especially a suspiciously cheap one – without seeing it first.

Pre-registered cars aren’t terribly sporting when it comes to car showrooms competing to have the best sales figures, but they are at least an entirely legal way of saving a few quid on a car. The sort of thing the trading standards experts are warning about is fraud. I know which I’d rather have.

A car to compare the Lynk and Co 01 to? That’d be the Daewoo

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THE OTHER day I drove a car that was 112-years-old. It was vaguely terrifying because it threatened to break your wrists every time you yanked its starter handle, the pedals made no sense and even at 15mph you never really had a sense of whether you’d arrive at your destination safely.

So it’s no bad thing that more than a century cars have evolved to the point where they’re roughly the same. Pass your test in a Ka and a Koenigsnegg shouldn’t prove too alien, because it’ll still have pedals that work in the same way and you know that the red triangle will always operate the hazards if things go wrong. It’ll have a key, and chances are you’ll buy it from a shiny building full of lots of other cars and a man with a neat suit over a cup of coffee.

But a new car company being launched by a Chinese conglomerate reckons it’s about to rewrite the rulebook. Not just any old outfit, either; you might not have heard of Geely Auto Group but it owns an up ‘n’ coming Swedish carmaker called Volvo. Apparently they do estates and safety tests rather well.

But Geely’s new kid on the block isn’t some Scandinavian load-lugger with a penchant for airbags (although it does share some bits with Volvo’s new XC40). It’s called the Lynk and Co 01, and it’ll be followed in time by the 02, the 03 and so on. What this new company lacks in imaginative names it replaces with ideas straight out of Dragons’ Den. You’ll only be able to buy it digitally for starters, and where most cars have a key this has an app that allows anyone you entrust with it to start it with their smartphone.

That sound you can hear right now is people on the internet oohing excitedly at the idea of cars no longer needing keys and being shared like messages on Facebook – but we’ve been here before. Geely’s already trying the technology out on Volvo’s more upmarket models, but they come with decades of hard-earned reputation of being safe, solidly built and – in the case of the 850 T5 – fun to drive. They’re good for being cars, not gimmicks.

It’s only fair to reserve final judgement until we discover Lynk and Co’s first model is brilliant to drive and utterly dependable, but the last manufacturer to try and break the UK with only one fantastic-sounding idea up its sleeve was Daewoo two decades ago. It took about five minutes for everyone to realise that revolution in car buying was yesterday’s Vauxhall Astra reheated in the microwave, and it all ended in tears. Same goes for the Saturns, the Edsels and DeLoreans of this world.

I really hope that I’m wrong and the Lynk and Co 01 is a decent product, but there’s a reason why all cars nowadays are roughly the same.

Why you really ought to do the Blackpool Illuminations in a classic car

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YOU DON’T have to venture far for one of Britain’s greatest drives. Blackpool’s Illuminations are big fun in the right car – as long as you’re prepared for it to average about three miles an hour.

I’ve ‘done the lights’ pretty much every year since I earned my licence and loved every minute. You can enjoy it in just about any car but to make the most of it bring a convertible that won’t overheat in prolonged stints of traffic, make sure it’s an auto so your left leg’s still working by the time you reach the Pleasure Beach, and tell your mates to wrap up warm because at no point will the roof be going up. Vauxhall’s Cascada, Mercedes’ E-Class Convertible and BMW’s 4-Series Cabriolet are pretty much perfect for the job.

The cars to cruise up the seafront and bask in the gaudy glitz of the lights and waft in the vinegary smells are better than ever. The only problem – if my last couple of trips up the coast have been anything to go by – the traffic management seems to have got worse.

Go on a busy Friday or Saturday night and you can expect to be queuing as you soon as you emerge from Lytham St Annes, sometimes with your engine off for 10 or 15 minutes at a time. That’s fair enough for one of the North’s most congested tourist hits, but what isn’t are the scary manouveres other impatient motorists pull to try and beat the queues.

On a visit last weekend drivers routinely drove up the wrong side of the road at well above the 30mph speed limit, usually with terrified-looking tourists heading straight at them in the other direction. For the best part of half an hour I watched as headlights flashed, horns blared and tyres screeched as people desperate to see the lights before everyone else caused other cars to career towards the kerb. It wasn’t just cars full of impatient Illuminations-watchers either; the single worst offender was a double decker bus, its driver thinking sticking his hazards on was enough to allow driving up the wrong side of a busy road.

Without wanting to sound like Alastair Stewart on some bad Nineties rerun of Police Camera Action it was some utterly appalling driving – but I reckon the ball’s in Blackpool’s court to sort it out. It’s great the Illuminations are hauling in the sightseers, but I suspect a massive accident caused by an impatient oik driving up the wrong side of the road won’t do the show any favours.

It’s a resounding A+ for the lights themselves – and I’d still recommend seeing them – but a firm ‘must do better’ on the traffic front. Same again next year?