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…
IF YOU want to know who the gatekeepers are when it comes to what is – and what isn’t – a classic car you have to think literally. Often, it’s the people in hi-vis jackets manning the entrances at your nearest car show.
Normally if I’m approaching in my MGB, I could put my house on being waved through with a warm smile (unless it’s a show catering solely for hotted-up Subarus, of course), but I’ve approached in many a car where it could go either way. At one show I was given an appreciative nod because I’d shown up in an MG ZR, which for all its rock-hard suspension and mesh grille is basically your mum’s Rover 25 with a snazzier badge. Yet barely a week later a Ford Puma, a swoopy coupe that did wonders for Ford’s image when it was new, met with a solemn expression and an outstretched arm pointing me in the direction of the public car park, alongside all the Vauxhall Insignias and Kia Cee’ds.
So what advice could I give the chap who emailed from Crosby the other day, pondering whether his beloved Volkswagen Lupo GTI has made it to classic car-dom? This petite hot hatch is essentially the early Noughties predecessor to today’s Up GTI, and shares its no-frills, lightness-added sense of fun. A lot of what made the original Golf so much fun lives on in both.
It has an awful lot going for it, but because it’s the equivalent of an 18-year-old queuing up for a nightclub with a freshly-shaven face, wearing trainers – I wouldn’t be surprised to see it being turned away at the door. The Lupo GTI has a few years yet before it’ll be accepted just about everywhere – turn up at Goodwood or Brooklands in one, for instance, and the gatekeepers will probably laugh – but show up to one of the many Veedub-specific shows across the country this summer and it’ll be met with appreciative nods and quiet mutterings of what a corking – and rare – car it is.
Despite the Government’s best efforts there is no hard and fast rule as to what constitutes a classic car, and I’m glad that there isn’t. One of the questions my Lupo-owning friend pondered was whether cars made between 2000 and 2010 now count as classics, but it’d be too simplistic to argue that a mid-spec Toyota Auris, for instance, is one simply because it was made in the same era as the little GTI. The Teletubbies got to number one barely a few weeks after The Verve’s Bitter Sweet Symphony didn’t – but does that mean it’s stood the test of time?
Some things become classics overnight, and for some it’s a slow-burning process that takes decades. I’ve always reckoned the most important thing is how much time and love people put into them – and it’s the same for VW Lupos, Morris Minors, Triumph motorcycles, steam locomotives, and copies of Bitter Sweet Symphony.
Just be prepared for a man in a hi-vis jacket to disagree with you.
When you name your new model after the world’s biggest diamond it’s inevitable that it’s going to end up with rather bling connotations, even before it’s launched. But then that’s the Rolls-Royce Cullinan all over – it’s a Range Rover for people who consider the Range Rover a bit too common. It’s an off-roader with a whisper-quiet V12 where the establishment makes do with ‘just’ a supercharged V8. A toff-roader, if you will.
It is a completely pointless, jacked-up Phantom that in reality will never venture any further than a slightly damp stretch of field immediately outside Aintree Racecourse or the Royal Birkdale – in fact, you’re more likely to see one appearing on MTV Base alongside someone whose name begins with K.
But that doesn’t stop me liking it. Bentley and Jaguar doing posh mud-pluggers just doesn’t sit right with their carefully honed collective heritage as custodians of well-heeled driving fun, but a Rolls-Royce off-roader is so delightfully silly that it might just work. It’s Kingsman in automotive form; still refined enough to insist that you call its offerings motor cars, but in the background it’s teaming up with The Who’s Roger Daltry for its charity ventures, letting grime artist Skepta spec up the speakers on its one-offs and allowing its older cars to take part in marvellously OTT displays at the Goodwood Revival.
So the idea of taking your Cullinan to the Arctic Circle and lording it over everyone slumming it in Toyota pick-ups – and Rolls-Royce has been testing the new car there, just to make sure it’ll cope – fits in perfectly with the manufacturer’s softly spoken sense of fun. If it can haul itself up the same mucky hill as a Range Rover, but in a much more needlessly expensive way, then so be it. The one per cent have been doing pointless things with Rolls-Royces for generations, and the Cullinan fits in perfectly.
And if any pub bores do wander over (and it’ll be a very upmarket pub, presumably) and start piping up about how Rolls-Royce shouldn’t be doing off-roaders, then you can point out that it was taking on remote places and winning long before Jeeps and Land Rovers were even conceived. In the 1920s farmers used to travel around the Australian Outback in Silver Ghosts because they were the toughest things on the market. So the Cullinan does have off-roading pedigree.
So I like Rolls’ toff-roader because it’s a completely needless car that I’ll never be able to afford. Unless I change my name to one with beginning with K, of course…
THIS TIME last week there was a joke doing the rounds in the bars of Helsinki about our recent spate of bracing weather.
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.
IT’S THAT time of year again; yep, the one where you encourage an elderly bloke you’ve never met to wobble around on your icy rooftop in the middle of the night, having helped themselves to several glasses of sherry. What could possibly go wrong?
Assuming our red-jacketed chum manages to do all his festive deliveries without slipping and plunging into some poor soul’s back garden there’s a fair chance we’ll have a few presents to open on Christmas morning. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of you unwrapping Star Wars merchandise and shiny smartphones, but I think I can safely predict that even the richest of festive recipients won’t be getting a lovely new Fiat Punto as a present.
That’s largely because – despite Fiat’s efforts to jazz it up over the years – it is a 12-year-old design, meaning it comes from an era when watching Lost and having the Crazy Frog as your ringtone were all the rage. So you’d have to be a brave buyer to go for one over a much newer Fiesta, Corsa or Polo.
We already know that the Punto is looking a bit ancient – which is why Euro NCAP’s decision to put it through a crash test it’s already conducted has left the car world a bit baffled. The safety boffins have made a fairly big deal about the fact it failed to score a single star in its safety test in a world where five is the norm these days. It’s a product that is well past its best-before date, at the expense of the unsuspecting car buyer. Not my words, but Euro NCAP’s.
Anyone who remembers what happened when the Rover 100 picked up a dismal score will know that this might as well be the kiss of death for Italy’s favourite supermini – but it’s worth remembering that in 2005 the same generation of Punto picked up a five-star safety rating. So which is right, and where does it leave all of us who can’t afford to drive brand new cars?
It’s laudable that Euro NCAP wants to raise the bar when it comes to safety but retesting an existing model and giving it a completely different rating runs the risk of rendering all the other old results meaningless. I’m sure all of you out there driving about in Fiat Puntos – or just about any other car over about three years old – must be thrilled. Why not just set a benchmark for all cars to achieve and keep it there, so it’s easy for normal people to understand how much safer cars are getting?
I’m looking forward to driving home for Christmas in my three-star Toyota Avensis. Which is either a car with decent – but not brilliant – safety, or a deathtrap so dangerous I might as well wobble around on an icy rooftop afterwards.
WHAT were you doing back in 1998? Chances are if you weren’t listening to Aqua CDs or scrawling on the France ’98 wall chart you got free with The Champion then you’d have been busy fiddling with your Nokia 3210. For such a recent bit of our illustrious history it’s beginning to feel like a very long time ago.
So you’d expect a car from that era to feel positively Palaeolithic by today’s exacting standards of Bluetooth, infotainment consoles and adaptive cruise control, but the S-registered Toyota Avensis I’ve been running around in for the last few months doesn’t. Unlike the flyweight two-seaters I normally run around in this four-door slab of Japanese (albeit Derbyshire-built) anonymity does absolutely nothing to raise the pulse, but on a cold, rainy day there’s a lot to be said for a quiet, repmobile that just starts up and does everything in a discreetly and free of drama. Not bad for something that you can pick up these days for well under a grand.
It is so quietly accomplished that I’ve let it crack on with all the dull jobs without barely warranting a mention here before – but when I ended up being chucked the keys to its 2017 equivalent last weekend I couldn’t help comparing the two. The winner in this case is definitely the Avensis – but I just wasn’t sure which one.
To join the class of 2017 – in this case the mid-range Business Edition, equipped with Toyota’s torque-rich 1.6-litre turbodiesel – you need £22,855, and in return you get plenty of gadgets and safety features that my Mk1 model can only dream of. It’s still very much an Avensis in that does everything in a quiet and not terribly exciting way, but the clearest indication of two decades’ worth of progress is just how much quieter it is. The older car’s not exactly raucous by any means, but the latest Avensis makes you feel like you’ve pressed the ‘mute’ button on entire motorways. As long as you don’t put your foot down it is eerily silent.
It’s also smoother, sharper through the bends and far roomier on the inside. The latest Avensis comes out on top in just about every aspect but you’d be surprised at how well the Nineties original copes with the competition – not bad for a car that costs just a grand, remember. It’s the same with all the big family cars from the turn of the century. Find a good one that’s been looked after and it’ll be just as good a companion as a brand new one.
Certainly it’s a better slice of 1998 nostalgia than digging out that dusty Nokia out from its cupboard. And we’ll give the Aqua CDs a miss…
THE GREATEST car you’ve never heard of has just been dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. But you wouldn’t know it just by looking at it.
The Toyota Century is that awkward relative who cracks awful jokes, dances badly at weddings and dresses like Alan Partridge. It is, with its ridiculous V12 engine and gaudy ‘70s Lincoln looks, the Monkey Tennis of motoring. Which is precisely why I’ve always found Japan’s most extravagant bit of automotive engineering so weirdly endearing.
But now the awkwardly outdated wedding guest has been given some snappy new clothes and been informed that Taylor Swift is a pop starlet, not a brand of caravan. Well sort of, because while the new model’s been given an eco-conscious hybrid powerplant in favour of the old V12, Toyota’s also insisting that it has “a simple and modern aesthetic”. Which it doesn’t.
Not that I (or any of the Century’s customers, for that matter) care remotely. In a world full of me-too sports activity vehicles and drearily understated executive saloons there is something wonderfully refreshing about a brand new saloon that looks exactly like a car that Huggy Bear would drive.
It’s aimed at the sort of people who’d normally go for an S-Class or an Audi A8 but it’s also the only luxury offering that eschews leather seats (although you can still order them) in favour of wool-trimmed thrones. There’s also an LCD panel that allows the managing director to control all the interior settings – including those for the driver’s seat – while slouching in the rear seat. That’s exactly the sort of unapologetic luxury that you just wouldn’t get in a 7-Series.
Toyota has absolutely no plans to bring it to the UK, partly because it’d trod of the toes of the Lexus LS, an equally lavish saloon developed by the same manufacturer that just happens to look like it belongs in 2017. But it’s good to know that when it isn’t churning out Prius hybrids the world’s biggest car manufacturer has something genuinely a bit bonkers up its sleeve.
I really hope the new Century’s a raging success because it’ll prove that there’s a market for luxury waftmobiles that look they belong in the late 1970s. Hopefully it’ll encourage Jaguar to get on with making a new version of its Daimler Double Six Vanden Plas. Just a thought…
“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…