The Champion

Mini prices have changed a lot in ten years – but this Champion column hasn’t

A LOT can happen in ten years.

Think back to what was happening back in September 2009. Gordon Brown was running the country, Dizzee Rascal was at number one and people were starting to get panicky about swine flu. Oh, and a motoring column popped up in The Champion for the first time, written by someone whose chief transport to our Lord Street offices was a rust-ridden Mini.

I re-read that first column the other day – which covers the tried ‘n’ tested petrolhead game of having a ten-car garage, but a budget of just £10,000 to fill it with – and it surprised just how much some of them have moved on in price. There’s no way, for instance, that you’d be able to pick up a Jaguar XJ6 Series III (even a really ropey one) for under a grand now; these days, you’d be looking at its Nineties equivalent, the X300, and you’d be better be prepared to tackle some rotten sills and tired electrics while you’re at it. The days of Fiat Coupés being readily available for buttons are gone too, and as much as there are still cheap Alfa 156 Sportwagons out there you’ll have a job finding one. Even the Renault 5 that I ran for a few months during this column’s early days has gone up in price – argue all you like about whether it’s a classic car yet, but simple market economics dictates that with the few people wanting one being greater than the number now on sale, you’ll struggle to get one for under a grand now.

But the one that’s more surprising to look back on than any other is the Mini I regularly needed Triple Plus Members’ Club Platinum Premium levels of breakdown cover for – I thought I’d done well selling that admittedly tired Mayfair for £800, but these days that wouldn’t even get you a non-running project. It would’ve been a bizarre thing to think back in 2009, but nowadays the cheapest route into Mini ownership is by picking up one of its flashier, BMW-engineered Noughties successors.

For all the talk of bloated Countryman models and pizza dish-sized speedometers I reckon it’s now a lot of car for the money, and the interesting thing is how big a part the 2001-on model played in the Mini’s 60th anniversary celebrations. I went to the International Mini Meeting in Bristol a few weeks ago and the newer models were absolutely everywhere, and the hostility that I remember from the Mini die-hards of only a few years ago seems to have subdued. It’s worth remembering too that the original Mini’s landmark 5.3m production run is set to be beaten by the BMW-engineered model at some point next year, so it’s not as though the nation hasn’t taken the new car firmly into its bosom.

You’d need the best £3-4k to pick up a decent classic Mini these days but play it smart and you can have a BMW-generation Cooper, with an MoT, for well under £750. I suspect it’d rather better at getting me to work in the mornings, too…

Why the Ford Probe is finally a classic car

I’M NOT sure if Gareth Cheeseman – the egocentric salesman character created by Steve Coogan years ago – reads The Champion,but he’ll be delighted by this week’s revelation if he does. The Ford Probe is a classic car.

Yes, the Ford Probe. Remember it? It was the Nineties’ belated follow-up to the Capri, but for all sorts of reasons it never really caught on in the same way that the automotive star of The Professionals did. After just three years and a little over 15,000 sales it was quietly dropped in the UK, making way for the Mondeo-based Cougar that arrived just a few months later. That was way back in 1997, but 22 years on the Probe seems to get an excitable flurry of likes and retweets every time it pops up online.

In many ways it was entirely the wrong car to follow up the Capri – it was front-wheel-drive, so any cheeky opportunities of getting the tail out on wet roundabouts were dashed from the off, and its TV appearances with the aforementioned Cheeseman on the excellent Coogan’s Run killed its street cred in an instant. It also arrived just as two-door coupés were all the rage, so it had a lot of competition; not just from obvious rivals like Vauxhall’s Calibra, but real eye-grabbers like the Alfa GTV and Fiat Coupé too.

But look at one now, when there are fewer than 500 left on the UK’s roads – making it a far rarer beast than the Capri – and with Nineties nostalgia all the rage, and there’s something really compelling about it. For starters, if you get the 24-valve version you have a silky, 2.5-litre V6 beneath the bonnet, delivering mid-range torque in a way that the turbocharged three-cylinder engines of today just can’t match. For me, the thing I love about the Probe is the way it looks, with those full-width rear lights and concept car profile. And pop-up headlights, of course. Any car with pop-up headlights is, I’ve always thought, automatically cool simply on account of having them. Why can’t we bring them back?

The Probe might have had a silly name, an unfortunate on-screen fan and the misfortune of following a motoring cult hero, but I reckon its time has finally come. I’m just glad that Instagram – rather than Gareth Cheeseman – seems to agree.

Why closed roads motor sport would be a win for West Lancashire

I WOULD love to see the day that Lord Street in Southport – which is almost exactly, give or take a few yards, a mile long – is used as a drag strip.

Before you start hammering the keyboard with an indignant email to The Champion’s letters page, expressing your outrage at the sheer stupidity of an elegant shopping thoroughfare being temporarily used for such a low-brow, knuckle-dragging excuse for a weekend’s fun, it’s worth pointing out that Brighton’s been using its seafront for just such a purpose for decades.

What’s more, it’s been much easier to do this sort of thing legally for about two years, since the Government introduced a law allowing event organisers to temporarily close off public roads and use them for motorsport. At the time it was even championed by David Cameron (remember him?), but very few people have taken advantage of it.

But – if a conversation I had the other day with the organisers of the Ormskirk MotorFest was anything to go by – Aintree Circuit Club could be about to. It’s already proven with its annual visit to Ormskirk that people (roughly 15,000 of them, if official counts are anything to go by) are more than happy to watch E-types and Ferraris doing laps of a one-way system, but now it wants to up the stakes and have a fully-fledged, competitive event where cars will really be able to strut their stuff.

It’s not been decided where such an event should take place – although it’s likely to be somewhere a bit quieter than Ormskirk’s one-way system, for all sorts of logistical reasons – but I reckon a properly managed, safety-assessed bit of driving against the clock would be a great way of putting the North West on the petrolhead map. Remember I said that very few people have actually used that change in the law? A couple of event organisers down south and over in North Wales have put their own events on rather successfully, but the only comparable example I can think of is the Coventry MotoFest, which used parts of the city’s ring road for timed sprints. From what I gather, it was a big hit, but there’s nothing in this part of the world that’s comparable.

I can see all sorts of applications (and, if you’re the shy and sensitive type, I suggest you skip this bit and go straight to the Sports page). Half Mile Island in Skem would be perfect – would it possible, given sufficient skill and a tuned Nissan 370Z, to drift it in its entirety in front of a mesmerised audience? Or what about Parbold? The Parbold Hill Climb has a lovely ring to it – in yer face, Shelsley Walsh!

Obviously, I fully suspect that anything that does materialise will be at least a little bit more sensible (and fully risk assessed, of course). But anyone does have a valid economic case for closing off Lord Street for the afternoon – and a burning desire to find out whether a Nissan GT-R would be quicker than a 911 GT3 RS in a straight line – just tell them that I sent you…

An electric car game-changer is nearly here

It is likely carmakers like Tesla will use the new technology first

ANYONE who grew up watching Space 1999 needn’t feel disappointed. We might not be living on the Moon and eating everything in pill form, but the world today’s a lot more advanced than it used to be.

You can tap your finger against a handheld electronic screen and a van carrying your shopping rocks up a couple of hours later – and chances are that’s only because the supermarket isn’t allowed to deliver it by drone yet. We have trains that go under the sea and stealth fighter planes that fly above it. It beats driving home in your Morris Oxford and watching Terry and June over a bowl of Angel Delight, that’s for sure.

Just about every conceivable piece of technology has come along in leaps and bounds – with the exception of two things. You might not have noticed that the fastest transatlantic flights of today are a lot slower than Concorde could manage, but you’ll almost certainly have noticed that phones can barely manage a day before running out of breath. If you’re reading this on your smartphone via Champnews.com it might not even make it to the end of this article.

But an Israeli company that reckons it might have cracked the problem of rubbish smartphone batteries might have inadvertently created a genuine motoring game-changer. The smart money is that as of next year you’ll be able to use its tech to charge your phone up in a few minutes – and because electric cars run on the same sort of batteries it figures that it should work equally well on those too. Perhaps not unsurprisingly half the car industry’s keeping a very close eye on how StoreDot’s boffins are getting on.

Don’t expect it to revolutionise the roads overnight. It’s worth remembering that while nearly 100,000 plug-in cars were sold across the UK in 2016 that’s still nowhere near the number of Golfs or Focuses you all buy. It’ll also make sense that the most expensive offerings will be fitted with quick-charging tech first, so it’ll be a while before it filters down to the Nissans and Mitsubishis that dominate the ‘leccy car market.

But once it does break through to the mainstream the issue of battery anxiety – and the main reason you wouldn’t buy an electric car – will disappear. The cars themselves are absolutely fine, but no longer will you have to worry about an eight-hour wait if you start running low in deepest Snowdonia. You’ll be able to pull into a filling station and be on your way a couple of minutes later.

That idea might catch on. Eating food pills on the Moon it ain’t, but it’s a brave new world all the same.

There are some amazing used car deals out there

Look carefully and there are plenty of great deals at nearby car dealerships

SAUSAGES, beer and the Mercedes-Benz 190E. It’s clear the Germans do some things brilliantly, but on the evidence I saw the other night motoring telly isn’t one of them.

While holed up in an Essen hotel room I ended up watching what can best be described as Germany’s answer to Wheeler Dealers. It involved slightly cocky petrolheads going out to some car dealers and trying to buy as much car as they can, but minus any of the messing around with welding machines or Top Gear-esque challenges afterwards (although there was a lot of sitting around with serious expressions and discussing things).

The programme was about as much as fun as reading a Dusseldorf railway timetable on a wet Wednesday morning (I should know – I tried it the following morning). But the show’s basic premise of finding as much motoring fun for about £15k at a nearby car dealer sounded like a laugh.

It turns out that the idea of scouring the region’s car dealerships translates perfectly well into English.

Within striking distance of The Champion’s offices I found all sorts of sub-£15k bargains, starting with a Bentley Eight with 29,000 miles on the clock and full service history. That’s 6.8-litres of craftsmanship for less than a mid-range Focus. Should you not fancy being bankrupted by a Bentley’s fuel bills there’s also a one-owner-from-new, 14-reg Golf GTI, a five-year-old BMW Z4 with just about every option imaginable thrown at it or a Jaguar XF with the 3.0-litre diesel that’s just about frugal enough to stop you weeping at filling stations after a long drive.

All of these cars, and all the Peugeot RCZ, MINI Cooper S and Volkswagen Scirocco deals I found while I was at it, all have one thing in common. They can all be found at car dealerships that are within half an hour’s drive of where you live. Play it right and you could pop out in the morning, have a look around some cars and end up with a shiny slice of petrolhead fun on your driveway that afternoon. Do your homework first, go in with a clear head and you’d be surprised at what you can find.

Unless you’re a German motoring telly presenter of course, in which case I’d recommend you spend it on sausages, beer and Mercedes-Benz 190Es instead.