Blogs : July 2004

30 Jul 2004

Bye for now!

There’s nothing like doing a “cut and run”. No sooner are the results in for the vote to find the greatest BMC>Rover, than I am dashing out of the country to remain incommunicado for two whole weeks. So, were they that bad that the only sensible thing to do was run away? Of course not. Here at www.austin-rover.co.uk, we like to think that our readership marches to the beat of a different drum than other “classic” car magazines and websites. After all, we cover the entire spectrum of the BMC>Rover story, not just the “classic” sector of it. The results prove that the people who use this website are an open-minded bunch.

The results did throw up an interesting range of anomalies, which had this been specifically a “classic” car site, would perhaps not have happened.

The results prove that the people who use
this website are an open-minded bunch.

For one – the MGB isn’t in the top ten. It did get a few votes, and ended up eleventh in the list for the greatest car. However, it also received quite a few nominations as the worst car. Interesting, that. Does the austin-rover.co.uk readership see past its “classic” kudos, and see a moderately sporting, ill-handling, past-its-prime car? For fear of invoking the wrath of the MG community, I’ll leave that one for you to decide.

Other interesting ones to ponder: the SD1 out-performed the P6. Think about that: the former probably did more damage to the Rover marque than any other car before it, whereas the latter revolutionised Rover and brought it to the head of the class. The Range Rover is another interesting one: it only placed tenth in a list that included the Dolomite and the Rover R8. And there were a few much-hyped cars that did not make it at all: the Princess (which actually received more votes against than for), the Maxi (the Issigonis recipe brought to its conclusion?), the Triumph Stag, the Austin/Morris 1800/2200… the list goes on.

I hope that if nothing else, this list invites discussion. After all, it does appear that one or two pre-conceptions have been blown out of the water for good.

See you on the 16th August!

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29 Jul 2004

Where are they now?

Has anyone noticed how quickly our old cars are disappearing off the road? Driving into work this morning, I ended up behind a J-registered 214Si, and I thought to myself (as I always do with R8s) how good the car still looked. Glancing in the mirror another R8 had polled up behind me. It was a G-reg (nice and early) and was in the classic British Racing Green-over-grey colour scheme. Both cars were clean and in good condition, and encouragingly, both appeared to be driven by under-30-year olds.

Then, a worrying thought struck me, though: these cars now stand out (to me, anyway) and the reason for this must be that they are rapidly disappearing off the roads. And why is this? Because relative to income, new and nearly new cars are cheaper than they have ever been. The evidence of this is there to see wherever you look: households usually have one car per adult, and as buying a new Ford KA or CityRover can be achieved for little more than £100 per month, why bother with an older car?

Look in the scrapyards now, and perfectly serviceable cars have been left there because financially, there’s little point in repairing them. All of a sudden, a £200 bill to get your N-registered Rover 216 through an MoT makes no sense when it’s trade value is £300. The garage man will tell you that spending 66 per cent of a car’s value to keep it on the road for another year is mad.

But is it?

Look in the scrapyards now, and perfectly
serviceable cars have been left there
because financially, there’s little
point in repairing them.

Said owner of Rover 216 is probably going to spend a couple of hundred quid a year on servicing, then maybe another chunk on its MoT. Compare that with CityRover owner, who has no MoT costs, comparable servicing costs, and the not inconsiderable matter of a monthly payment. What does one get for their monthly bung? A newer ‘plate, some peace of mind (questionable) in the reliability department and the backup of a main agent.

Anyway, the lure of the new car really seems to have captured the imagination of the British. We buy over two million a year, and thanks to a good and stable economy, this tally looks set fair to rise year on year. With all these new cars coming on stream, the pressure has been well and truly put on the older car. Essentially very few people want them. And as a result, anything over ten years old, without a premium badge can be bought for a song. And that is why these are now disappearing off the roads.

Back in 1990, it was still perfectly acceptable to pay good money for a ten year old Rover. Even as recently as, say, 1998, it was possible to spend £3000 on a 1990 Rover R8. Now, the idea of spending more than about £500 on a 1994 Rover would be laughed out of court by most traders, and even a nice eight-year old example would struggle to reach four figures. That’s a massive change… and one that could well be difficult to sustain.

EU legislation coming our way will dictate that each manufacturer will be responsible for the disposal of all its old cars. That could be tragic for MG Rover. In the UK, it sells about 100,000 new cars a year, but could well be liable for the disposal of twice as many every year. Scary. Especially, given its current cashflow situation. It will be interesting to see how this pans out.

One thing is for sure, if you want to help MGR’s survival, but can’t afford a new car, do the best thing, and save an old one from extinction.

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28 Jul 2004

The greatest are almost upon us…

The votes are counted and the stories have just been told. In another 24-or-so hours, we will finally be releasing the results of the vote to find the greatest BMC>Rover of all time. Of course, these kinds of polls are always just a bit of fun and given the vague brief, “what is the greatest car?”, people will interpret the question in any one of a number of ways.

Some people took the approach of “greatest” meaning the car that affected the history of the company the most. Others were happy to report back which BMC>Rover meant the most to them, whereas others were less pragmatic and simply went for their personal favourite. None of these approaches was an incorrect one, and the reason I kept the question deliberately open was simple: people would supply a wider variety of votes.

After all, it could be argued that the greatest cars are those that sold the most. Millions of customers can’t be wrong and all that. The problem with this approach is that whilst some multi-million sellers, such as the Model-T Ford were important within automotive history, (because it brought mass production and all of its side benefits to the industry), others like the Toyota Corolla or Ford Escort were bought mainly on cost and availability grounds. Does this mean that just because they are numerous, they are great cars? No comment.

...these kinds of polls are always just a bit
of fun and given the vague brief, “what is
the greatest car?”, people will interpret
the question in any one of
a number of ways.

Personal reasons are always the most interesting ones: be it a car owned by a parent, or the one you learned to drive in, sentimentally always leads to odd choices. One statistic worth repeating here is that as many people counted the Allegro as the greatest car, as those who thought the MGB was the worst. Is this sentimental voting at its best? It certainly looks that way, when one considers the damage the ugly little pudding did to BL’s market share after 1974. Of course, I’m being unfair on the Allegro, but then again, we are talking subjectively, here…

As for the people that voted for their favourites, the votes were aimed at a particularly narrow band of cars – and generally specific models within their ranges. It does not take a genius to work out what is going on here. BL’s cars always looked their best in top-of-the-range High Line trim, and this is equally true for most of the cars that made the top ten. Personal favourites reveal a lot about a person, and those that voted this way, the overriding impression is that the enthusiasts enjoy a souped-up drive.

So, it was all a bit of fun then. Just sit back and enjoy the read. The pages will go live at Midnight on Friday morning. Remember, though, the running order was defined by you, the reader. So don’t shout at us, if you disagree. Put pen to paper and tell us what you would change…

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27 Jul 2004

Infamy at last…

It took a lot of hard work, but I’ve finally realised one of my childhood ambitions. No, I’ve not piloted a jet plane or scaled Mount Snowdon without the aid of a steam train… I’ve not even managed to find an XX-flavoured Rover 800 without rust. Nope, I have had a piece published in AUTOCAR magazine. Now, I imagine to many, this fact could well be accompanied with a “so what?”, but to me, it really does mean a lot.

Allow me to explain: I’ve been reading Autocar magazine since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, and although I used to dislike the crappy paper it was printed on, and how there were pages of classifieds in the front of the magazine before the news pages, it became a weekly staple for me all the same. Back in the 1970s, growing up, as I did, on a Council estate, our local newsagent never stocked such esoteric things as car magazines, and therefore, to get a copy of Autocar meant a long walk into town. It was invariably worth it.

After a three-mile walk into Blackpool town centre, I’d go into WHSmith, buy Autocar (I couldn’t afford Motor as well on my 50p per week pocket money), have a look at CAR and WHAT CAR? and then carry it home again. I would always resist the temptation to read it on the way back. Why? I didn’t want anyone from school spotting me, and thinking I was “different” (even though I obviously was – and probably still am).

...growing up, as I did, on a Council estate,
our local newsagent never stocked such
esoteric things as car magazines.

Once home, each issue would be pored over for new information – if there was a new car launch that week, all the better. The lead-up to a new car launch was always exciting – the black silhouetted picture promising something the in the previous week’s mag – and this was always a big, big tease. Back in the 1970s and 80s, there was little in the way of humour – the product mattered – and it wasn’t until later that this aspect of motoring journalism became widestream, so I always assumed that in order to make it as a motoring journalist, you had to be a good road tester. As a teenager, then, I used to write my own car magazines, “testing” various new cars, illustrating them with my own drawings. My sketching became more widespread, and before long, I was creating my own “future cars”. In 1984, I designed nice 3-door Montego-based sports estate, followed by a Golf-class Audi hatchback – the absurdity of it!

So I wanted to be a car designer, right? Not a bit of it. I wanted to be a motoring journalist. By my late-teens I was boring anyone that would listen: motoring journalism was where I wanted to be. However, there was a flaw to this ambition: my English teacher thought I was no good, and a career in something more pragmatic was what I should be trying to pursue.

Having had all of my confidence taken out of me, I finished school, went to college, and never again did I entertain the idea of writing.

A reasonably lucrative career in IT followed, and then austin-rover.co.uk…

And as we all know, the website built up a small but enthusiastic audience. Including some of the motoring journalists I so admired as a youngster. I remember the first time, a journalist e-mailed me – it was almost like meeting a hero. It seemed they liked my work. Contact was made. The word spread, and after a little while, I was corresponding… The next step came, when I met the guys at Autocar, and before too much longer I had talked Richard Bremner into taking one of my stories.

The result, you can read in the magazine, but be prepared, it is not about Austin-Rover. Maybe the next one will be. If there is a next one. I hope so. Having seen my name in print once, I quite fancy seeing it there again.

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26 Jul 2004

Peterborough’s moment of glory!

By RICHARD GUNN

I live in Peterborough. This isn’t something to get particularly excited about. It’s not that it’s necessarily that unpleasant a city to live in, because it isn’t. I can think of worse places, especially in the Midlands. But nothing much ever happens in Peterborough. It’s one of those places that major events just seem to bypass. Oh sure, somebody tried to burn down the cathedral a couple of years ago, which got us on the national news. And we’re very proud that we reputedly have the world’s largest Tesco’s as well. Which makes up for the fact that we once used to have Mary, Queen of Scots buried here. They may be able to relocate a Queen easily enough, but they’ll never take our gargantuan grocery outlet! There are too many cans of baked beans to move for starters.

But once a year, one summer weekend, something extraordinary happens to Peterborough. Well, it does if you’re a British Leyland enthusiast. The more normal residents of the city may not notice it, but the local roads suddenly become infinitely more fascinating. Look, there’s a purple Allegro! Followed by a yellow Princess. And isn’t that a brown Maxi coming the other way? Good lord, there’s an orange Marina over there, broken down at the traffic lights. And you don’t often see many early Metros any more, but there’s a whole convoy of them driving past. I particularly like the brown one, with the partially collapsed Hydragas suspension.

...there’s probably no better way to see
hundreds of our favourite cars all in one
place. Well, you could fit a flux capacitor
to a Rover 800 and go back in time to
Birmingham circa 1979. But it would
probably break down sometime around 1992.

Peterborough is used to Maestros, Montegos and all manner of Eighties and Nineties products. They seem to like it here because the salty sea is far, far away and there aren’t many challenging hills in this part of Fenland. Diesel Maestros and Montegos put in an especially healthy showing, which I’m sure is nothing to do with the fact that the Perkins company built their Prima engines here. But all the same, the sheer amount of vehicles from Austin, Morris, Rover, MG and other related marques that suddenly flood into the city is unprecedented. And, for those of us who appreciate such things, vaguely wonderful.

The reason is the annual BMC/BL Rally and Spares Day. Held at Ferry Meadows, a big park to the east of Peterborough, this event brings a feast of motoring delights to Peterborough. BMC/BL Day is has grown to be special in the eyes of those of us who drive the unsung heroes and fledgling classics of the motoring world. Over the decade it’s been running, it seems to have expanded every year and there’s certainly little sign of the enthusiasm ending. Hundreds of vehicles now usually attend, and there’s probably no better way to see hundreds of our favourite cars all in one place. Well, you could fit a flux capacitor to a Rover 800 and go back in time to Birmingham circa 1979. But it would probably break down sometime around 1992. Many clubs now treat BMC/BL Day as a national event, particularly those of the Leyland persuasion. Where else are you going to be able to breeze around dozens of Allegros, then nip across to see a similar number of Marinas via an impressive collection of SD1s and Landcrabs? Are all those Maestros, Montegos and Metros really lovingly cared for, polished and proudly being exhibited? Such are the sights you certainly won’t see at the vast majority classic car events you might go to this year. All manner of BMC/BL and Rover life is to be found here.

This year’s happening is just a few days away, on Sunday, August 1. If you haven’t been before, it’s well worth a visit. Not just to marvel at the assembled masses of BMC, BL and Rover vehicles – although marvellous they are in many different ways – but also to appreciate the friendly atmosphere, the extensive autojumble and the eclectic cocktail of highs and lows that will make up the www.austin-rover.co.uk stand.

It’s the most interesting Peterborough will be for a long time. Well, at least until the same time next year. Or until somebody moves Mary, Queen of Scots back here…

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23 Jul 2004

Volunteers, please…

That time of year is almost upon us. You know the one: the time when your colleagues hate you, your work never gets done, and you end up completely borasic (skint, broke, penniless) for two weeks…

Yep, it’s holiday time.

Well, not quite. As of the 30th July, I will be out of contact with the real world for two whole, glorious, stress-free weeks. The Alps are calling again, only this time we’re heading towards Switzerland. Sadly (depending on your point of view), I’ll be taking the Vitesse Sport Coupe again, which means no interesting drive stories upon my return, as to do another on the Vitesse would be incredibly dull for you, the reader. Unless some kindly soul wants to lend me their SD1 Vitesse, ZT or 75, of course…

There is a downside… I’m going to miss Peterborough, and our late entry to the austin-rover.co.uk stand: the SD2 prototype

I’m going to miss Peterborough, and
our late entry to the austin-rover.co.uk
stand: the SD2 prototype…

So, what I am looking for are submissions for this page. 500 words or thereabouts on any subject (related would be nice) that comes to mind. Preferably one you are passionate about, and one that you think our readers would like to hear about. If we get a number of submissions in, then we can carry on and look “current” without my being here. We can’t offer payment, but what we can offer is exposure – it seems that quite a few people in “the business” dip into this page, so if you feel you have a flair for writing, this could be an opportunity to get one of the heavyweights to see your work.

So – if you have opinions on motorway driving, MG Rover’s future or even want to comment on the site, drop me a line. If you do this after the 30th, please send the e-mail to my partner in crime, Declan Berridge.

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22 Jul 2004

One step forward, one step back…

As promised by John Towers back in March, MGR has finally added a fifth member of the board. New non-executive board member Nigel Petrie has been appointed with the intention of ensuring that the there is a move to “to improve oversight of its board.” The “Phoenix Four”, as they were nicknamed, sparked controversy over their £12.95 million personal pension fund allowance. The press had a field day over the matter, and in the end John Towers was asked to explain the company’s actions to a Westminster Parliamentary Select Committee. One of Towers’ statements was that in order to ease public, press and union concerns over the board members’ actions, Phoenix would appoint an “overseer”. Welcome, then, to Nigel Petrie.

So what will Mr Petrie do for MG Rover, apart from collect a £50,000 per year salary? More than anything else, it seems that his appointment may well be simply to appease those doubters out there that feel the “Phoenix Four” are not looking after the company’s interests, but merely feathering their own nests. And that being the case, his appointment is a brilliant one, because a cynic would say that for £50K per annum Phoenix has bought itself a nice deflector shield for the management. Certainly, the Unions are pleased by his apppointment: Dave Osborne of the Transport and General Workers Union stated, “We believe the appointment of an independent non-executive director will assist the company in restoring the confidence of workers, customers and investors.” In other words, the unions are onside…

Personally speaking, the cynical view is not the right one: the Phoenix board looks to all intents and purposes like it genuinely wants MGR to succeed, and Nigel Petrie’s appointment is a public affirmation of this view.

…a cynic would say that for £50K
per annum Phoenix has bought
itself a nice deflector shield for
the management

So it makes for positive publicity for the company.

Sadly, this announcement came around the same time as MGR annouced that it would be making compulsory redundancies at Longbridge. This is in direct breach of a High Court ruling, and the original “jobs for life” agreement penned years before the current incarnation of MG Rover was formed. This contract is a hang-over, and in 21st-Century Britain, something of an anachronism. However, whether that is the case or not, MG Rover could have timed the announcement with more skill: it is a business, and it needs to make decisions beneficial for the long term success of the company, but an element of PR also needs to be taken into consideration. So, several contracts are being terminated at the end of July, and some white collar workers are being made jobless. Sad news for the workers, but MG Rover is showing that it is prepared to act in the typical post-union way towards its employees…

Whether the decision is right or wrong is irrelevent; the fact that this has gone public at the same time as Mr Petrie’s appointment shows, yet again, that MGR’s PR department needs to work harder. One bad piece of news always more than cancels out a good one.

MGR: Why didn’t you wait until the end of August? D’oh…!

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21 Jul 2004

Advertising again, high-performance Rovers and Gen 2

By MARK BOARDMAN

Received a mailshot from MGR the other day enclosing the Anniversary supplement. It made me think about the long-standing and persistent difficulties in advertising Rover. It struck me there are lessons from Graham Day’s tenure which continue to cast a long shadow.

First is the recognition early in his tenure that a lack of advertising of the Mini over a prolonged period meant there was a perception that the model had ceased production. The response was the ‘Minis have feelings too…’ campaign, and a series of special editions culminating in the return of the Cooper badge. Something for which BMW will no doubt remain forever grateful! Fast forward 25 years, and the lack of effective advertising easily translates to “Do they make Rovers anymore?”

Second is ‘Roverisation’, applied with such Soviet-style vigour that if it wasn’t a bus, truck or Land-, then it must be a Rover. This led to the perverse situation that having rescued the Mini “classic”, R6 was not branded Mini-Metro, which would have provided a progression for Mini owners when something bigger was needed; moreover, the opportunity to develop a fun, stylish persona for R6 was missed. We all know the outcome – the Rover Metro/100, which streched the brand, effectively creating two sub-brands: on the one hand, we had the youth-orientated Metro/100, and then later the R3 200, while on the other, the more traditional image was retained for the remainder of the range (400/600/800). There was no coherent image that could be projected – a problem that persists today.

Fast forward 25 years and the lack of
effective advertising easily translates
to “Do they make Rovers anymore?”

However MGR have created the solution (although I suspect accidentally) – CityRover, which despite the difficulties of the current model, has the potential to embrace the 25 replacement as well. CityRover can be developed into a brand of its own to rival Smart and MINI. With its own look, it could keep the new generation badge, whilst the 45, Gen.2, RD/X60, 75 and V8 revert to the previous version as the image of those models becomes more focused (and not for the first time: remember how the SD1 V8S heralded the return of the traditional Rover shield). At this point the ambiguity about performance Rovers can also be resolved. Hopefully the new V8 is a recognition that there is a place for a British, luxury ‘Q car’, and that can be mirrored in the other model ranges alongside the performace/competition-inspired MG range. The difficulty is to effectively promote the brand in the meantime, until it can be split. Probably the best option is for some advertising with attitude, as outlined in Blogs on 6 July 2004.

I never remember Benetton being damaged its perennial referrals to the Advertising Standards Authority for its campaigns. In fact it just seemed to gain a lot of free publicity!

This could also be backed up by a series of show cars. Why not give McNeillies a commission to produce a Vanden Plas-badged limousine with the forthcoming supercharged V8, to rival Jaguar’s ‘Concept Eight’ model shown at New York. Now the deal with SAIC is agreed, there the must be an opportunity for showing TCV2 in alternating Rover and MG guises, as a way of keeping interest alive and affirming that the new model is on its way.

Talking of new models, I was concerned by the the report in CAR magazine (August 2004) that all work on the Rover version of Gen.2 had stopped, although it wasn’t clear if this was because of contractual difficulties with Proton, or an overstreach within MGR’s engineering resources. Does anyone out there know more?

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20 Jul 2004

What to do?

A question I sometimes ponder is what would life be like without MG Rover? It has been said many, many, many, many times since 2000, that the company was heading for implosion and its only available future would be found within the pages of RETRO magazine. However, like the stubborn thing that it is, Rover simply refuses to curl up and die.

The immediate aftermath of the BMW sale had us wondering what on Earth Phoenix would be able to pull from up its sleeve. We would not have to wait long… the MG “Zeds” quickly appeared, which were an obvious and clever ploy to stem the company’s falling sales. Thanks to attributes that young people like (big wheels, loud colours, lowered suspension), sales took off, and quite handily, they did cover the shortfall in the sale of Rovers.

Beyond that came the TF roadster, a car substantially re-engineered. Then, MGR put the 75 Tourer into production – after delays during the BMW era. Then it announced the Qvale buy-out. Exciting times lay ahead, and it made us wonder how resourceful top management was to be able to pull these surprise and delight projects out of a bare cupboard. My admiration remains to this day; and the SV and ZT260 perfectly demonstrate the inventiveness of the new regime.

However, the ZT260 and SV are two niche products – cars that will sell in their dozens, and although they are high-image, it is hard to imagine that they will be bringing in massive profits to the company. And it does sometimes feel as though MGR has stalled a little bit. But has it? The answer to that question will not become apparent for some time, but one thing is for sure – give the company’s limited resources, it appears from this vantage point as if it cannot develop more than one new project at any given time, and that means that RD/X60 is the only new car for the foreseeable future.

And because this project has had its fair share of set-backs, it has suffered the kind of delays that simply would not affect a company with more money. A policy employed by the company is outsourcing (something learned during the BAe era), as this means that internal resources can be focused more effectively. What it does mean is that the MGR is reliant on the fortunes of the outsourced company – so in the case of TWR, when it went bust, MGR had to deflect valuable internal resources in order to cover TWR’s work. Finance was always an issue, and the RD/X60 was frozen time and time again, whilst negotiations with potential suitors followed their courses. Not a comfortable situation to be in.

Should we now be considering
life without MG Rover?

An indicator of how tough times are is the sale of Longbridge and XPart to outside interests. In both cases, they are subject to buy-back deals, but the bottom line is that two valuable resources are now in the hands of third parties.

So, mid-2004, what are we left with? A freshly facelifted line-up of cars aged between nine- and five-years old. Then there’s the TATA, Proton and SAIC tie-ups. There’s the spectre of a deal in Iran. There’s the Powertrain business. But beyond this, there seems little. Is MG Rover staring at the precipice?

Should we now be considering life without MG Rover?

It is something I think about from time to time. What would I have to write about? What would constitute the “home team”? In the end, I bury the thought, and think about the positive aspects of what’s left.

Proton owns Lotus, and there is a nice synergy between the two companies… Gen.2 looks promising, and given a lick of paint, new set of seats and some subtle restyling, it could prove to be a very effective mid-sized car for the company. I have made analogies between this and the Triumph Acclaim, but actually it needs to be a lot better than the Acclaim ever was, simply because standards are so much higher. However, painful lessons were learned with CityRover, and I am sure MGR would be keen not to repeat them.

SAIC is a big player in China, and although it builds VW and GM cars, MGR offers something subtly different: the chance for SAIC to be involved with the design of a new car, the RD/X60. It also will have enough influence in the arrangement, that it can influence the direction of the car, something it would never be able to do with a more straightforward CKD arrangement. This car is one that I am genuinely excited about because it will allow MGR to express itself, and finally rid itself of its 1990s Honda roots (as worthy as they are). A mini-75 is a lot to hope for, but it is an attainable target. Just as long… please… drop the retro brief, for good. The P6 and SD1 weren’t retro, and they went on to do pretty well, despite problems.

TATA. Lots of potential there, but what is needed is something more collaborative. CityRover could have been a storming success, given a new interior and the option of K-Series engines. Sadly, cost cutting drove MGR away from this ideal situation. Rumour is that the two companies will try harder next time.

Personally speaking, given all the upcoming positives, the future looks bright. All it needs to do is tread water for another year to eighteen months. And I believe that’s all the facelift cars have to do. Despite what Clarkson says, they’re not that bad – and they have their fans. They will keep selling enough. Anymore than eighteen months though, and it could be over. But we won’t talk about that.

So… life without MG Rover? I just can’t see it.

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19 Jul 2004

Heartbreak at Gaydon.

The Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon is one my favourite places in the whole world. Where else can you immerse yourself in such a cornucopia of Leyland related etherea for the price of a meal at Bernie’s Steakhouse? Things have changed in the past couple of years, for sure, but all in all, we have little to complain about, as Ford’s entries to the museum have been an appealing mix: a base-spec 1976 Fiesta, a GT40, an RS200 and a host of Jaguars and Aston Martins. As I say, nothing at all to complain about.

Obviously, the Leyland exhibits have thinned out somewhat, but it is nice to know that what they have there is safely tucked away for posterity.

At the moment, it feels as though I live in the place, though; I have been every other weekend for a couple of months now for one reason or another, and I am sure that most of he staff there know me by my first name. I don’t know whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. Probably good, as most of the staff are ex-BL and invariably have some interesting tales to tell. The bad bit is me not seeing my kids as often as I would like…

...after I had finished on business there, and on
my way out, I passed a rather interesting
parked car around the back.

Anyway, this weekend, I got lucky. After I had finished on business there, and on my way out, I passed a rather interesting parked car around the back. The Princess based Triplex 10-20 Glassback was stood out a mile, and forced me to stop. After all, it was out in the open, so presented a wonderful photo opportunity. As I walked over, I spotted other interesting cars: a Mini Cord, the SD2 prototype, a plastic bodied ADO16, and a previously unseen (by us) LC10 mule. Wow. Talk about lucky. Thankfully I had my camera with me, and you can see the results via the Latest Updates page.

The staff there were also very helpful: when asked about photography, they were happy to move the cars around for me. That’s definitely good service.

Despite this, it was not quite the joyous occasion it could have been. What did upset me, was how these “priceless” cars, were parked out the back, in the open, in many cases with their windows open. I was told that these cars were being moved from one storage space to another and that’s why they were out. However, in spite of this reassurance, some of them did look surprisingly weatherbeaten.

The Triplex car looked particularly sad, thanks to its Hydragas having lost pressure, which left it forlon-looking sat on its bump-stops. The vivid blue paint job looked dull under a layer of grime, and the interior was also suprisingly dirty. I suspect none of this apparent neglect was intentional, but from my perspective it was particularly upsetting to see, as one has an image in one’s head, that these cars are loved, cared-for and in pristine condition all the time. Sadly, real life is not like that, and I know Gaydon has a fairly large collection on its hands.

Having said that, perhaps it’s time that austin-rover.co.uk lobbied Gaydon for the semi-permanent loan of one of its prototypes: I’d love to get SD2 or the Triplex Princess running… I can see myself in either one of those.

Feedback:

I am astonished that all of those museum cars are seemingly left to the elements, and more dissapointed that the 10/20 Glassback is there with them. The Glassback belongs to Triplex but I suspect that, as it’s getting on for 28 years old now, they’re not really interested in it. So, Keith, I see no reason whatsoever why the 10/20 can’t be registered and used by you as a showpiece for our Club. Failing that, they could donate it to the PAOC. I think it’s an absolute waste really that cars like that are left to fester in a museum rather than be enjoyed out on the road.

I guess there are plenty more cars in the collection that you’d like to own (SD1 estate, last Wolseley) but have to make do with just gazing longingly at them. I know exactly how you feel.

KEVIN DAVIS

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16 Jul 2004

Lap of a god.

It doesn’t happen often, but for 25 minutes last night, I was rendered speechless. What, you wonder had such an effect? I had the pleasure of watching the in car footage from Tony Pond’s 100mph lap of the Manx TT track in the Isle of Man.

Back in 1988, Rover wanted to ensure that the newly-launched 827 Vitesse would have some sporting kudos, given that its predecessor, the SD1 was known to be a little handy on a race track in ETCC trim. Because the 800 was front wheel drive, it was never going to make an effective circuit car, and Rover marketing needed to find another way to prove its new car’s mettle without going head to head with other cars.

The idea of going for the Manx lap was a straightforward one, but at the same time extremely clever. After all, at that time, no production car had yet to officially lap the 33.75 mile long track at an average speed of over 100mph, but it was eminently attainable, all the same. There were several pieces that needed to be in place to go for the record attempt, not least finding a driver mad/capable enough to rise to the challenge. After all, the 800 Vitesse is over 15-feet long and weighs about the same as a small bungalow.

Tony Pond pretty much chose himself, as by this time, he was a semi-official “works” driver; called in whenever Austin-Rover motorsport needed a consistently fast driver to hand. His experience in the development of the 6R4 and his popularity with the press were positive assets. Like all the best racing drivers, the affable persona disappeared once he slipped behind the wheel of a competition car: he became a demon…

Ultimately the 1988 effort failed, missing out on the target by 1mph. To say that Pond and Rover were disappointed was an understatement. The resolve was there to put it right though, and although the Manx TT circuit beat them once, they would be back.

After all, the 800 Vitesse is over 15-feet long
and weighs about the same as a small bungalow.

And this is where my video comes in: two years later, they returned to get the job done properly. And Pond’s 1990 lap of the TT citcuit captured by in-car camera. 25 minutes of gripping, scary, exhillarating footage, which I challenge anyone to watch without saying, “shiiiit”. It’s impossible. And I did try. What marks this video out for me was the sheer brilliance of Pond’s driving on the world’s most demanding track. Ahhh there are lots of speed videos out there, I hear you cry. Yes, perhaps, but as anyone that has seen the Manx TT track will tell you, the sensation of speed is somewhat heightened by the proximity of roadside objects.

And by that, I mean houses, lamp posts, trees, that sort of thing. Objects that if you hit – even in a big car like a Rover 800 will kill you. Walls, trees, people flash by so close to the car you wince, expecting an impact that never comes. And we are talking BIG speeds. On a couple of long straights, a box-out would appear with a speedo display: 150mph. Impressive. Especially as the Vitesse used for the stunt was pretty much road standard apart from slick tyres, a roll cage and racing seats. The exhaust was obviously more open than standard, but that simply heightened the glorious Honda V6, which sounds wonderful at high revs.

The piece de resistance of the video has to be Pond’s deadpan commentary, though. He would say things like, “here we are flat through the corner at 140mph to keep up momentum…” or “it got a bit slippy down here and I had to apply opposite lock at 120mph…”, as if mere mortals like us could relate to such genius.

And, boy, he must have worked hard for that lap. You can see his hands see-sawing at the tiller-like 800 wheel, which as we all know, was allied to ridiculously over-assisted, undergeared Honda PAS. There is no way on Earth, Pond would have had any idea how the road felt, because the wheel wouldn’t be telling him anything whatsoever… again, his genius or big balls got him over that problem.

It is videos like this that prove that racing drivers are a breed apart from us – something that the sanitised world of Formula One can allow us to forget from time to time. Tony Pond: what a hero. He is sadly missed.

I won’t spoil the ending of the video, but will simply say that if you want to see some compelling in-car footage of a man and car on the limit, get over to Amazon and buy yourself a copy. I did.

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15 Jul 2004

It doesn’t get any better than this


Photo: Brian Gunn

Spent yesterday afternoon in a hot and crowded aircraft hangar watching some TV filming taking place. For some reason, my SD1 was chosen for filming on BBC’s Top Gear programme, and I felt obliged to let them use the car. Well, it would be rude not to. Not to make a big deal about the thing seemed to be the best plan of action, and up to this point, I had managed to keep pretty quiet about the whole Top Gear thing.

However, like all good plans, it came undone…

Like all car enthusiasts, I have my heroes. Many of mine tend to originate from the motoring press, as I have been an avid reader of the magazines since the age of eight. I should really blame my junior school teacher – Mr Gittins – for that. He saw I had a talent for identifying cars and thought it would be good to feed my passion (affliction?) by bringing in his old issues of WHAT CAR? magazine. Being an eight-year-old meant that I had a voracious appetite for all new information, and I must have read each issue from cover to cover and absorb everything within. Even today, I can still recite list prices, engine specs and test dates of just about any car from 1978-1980. Sad, but true.

Anyway. Heroes. I soon outgrew WHAT CAR? and moved onto the harder stuff: CAR, Motor and Autocar became my magazines of choice, and as these were more character-driven publications, I soon found myself following the trials and tribulations of the various regular contributors. I think my earliest journo-hero was undoubtedly George Bishop. Even in my tender years, I revelled in his tales of times gone by: boozy product launches and entertaining car descriptions allied with his passion for a money-pit Lancia Gamma. The joy of Bishop was that he could really tell a tale, and each new issue of CAR was greatly enhanced thanks to his column.

As the 1980s progressed, journalism changed for the better. The character driven format pioneered by CAR was imitated by weekly rivals, which led to a rash of columns – some good, some less so – allowing us to get more of an insight into the minds of the guys who drove the cars. Two names appeared around this time which fall into the hero category: Russell Bulgin and Richard Bremner.

Bulgin was an absolutely riveting writer. The
effect of his writing was this: no matter how
mundane the subject, he could take it and
pump 10,000 volts into it.

Bulgin was an absolutely riveting writer. The effect of his writing was this: no matter how mundane the subject, he could take it and pump 10,000 volts into it. First qualifying at a wet and washed out Imola in April..? a piece of cake: Bulgin would make it entertaining. His car tests were equally amusing and incisive, and I’ll never forget his experiences with the Metro based Midas long term car. In 1988, he moved to CAR and was given the monthly column he so richly deserved, and in his time he touched on some off-the-wall subjects: the tactility of Japanese switches and the coolness of running a fan club about the Marina were two that instantly come to mind. He was the first motoring journo (I think) that enthused about the Playstation game Gran Turismo in print. And in his usual style, it was a brilliant descriptive piece. Sadly, he succumbed to cancer a few years back. One of life’s regrets for me is that I only met him once.

Bremner, I’ll gloss over to spare his embarassment (assuming he reads this), other than to say that his Testarossa to the Sahara story, which appeared in CAR in 1995 is probably my favourite ever magazine article. It rates as highly as Mel Nicholls’ “Convoy!”

The 1990s saw another great columnist join CAR magazine: James May. An unashamed patriot, James May had (and still has) the uncanny ability of making me laugh out loud, simply through the quality of his writing. Trust me, to produce funny copy on tap as he did takes prodigious talent. I will never forget his exploits when practicing for his motorcycle licence. If anyone here watches Top Gear and likes May’s delivery, just imagine his sitting astride a Honda C90 “step through” revving it up in order to make it go rin-bin-bin. Trust me, it was funny when he wrote it. Anyway, he soon became another of my heroes…

When he joined Top Gear for the second series, I was delighted. With James May, we finally got our foil for JC. And – sure as eggs are eggs, in the first programme he appeared in, he gave as good as he got. How refreshing. Not that the first series wasn’t good… it’s just that Hammond and Clarkson weren’t supported enough by that third bloke (can anyone remember him?) who used to give out used car advice (which, I am sure was borrowed from that week’s Autocar).

So, yesterday, thanks to my car’s appearance on Top Gear, I met one of my heroes. After the show recording had finished, I was getting into the SD1 to take it home, and James May came up to me. “Would you mind if I had a little drive…?” he asked. Would I mind? How could I refuse. Sadly, I was slightly in awe of the man, so mumbled something incomprehensible to him as I handed over my keys. I watched him drive onto the Top Gear test track and it was Richard Porter who summed things up perfectly: “Even when he is driving a car, he looks stately”. Indeed.

So my SD1 has now been driven by two of my heroes: Spen King and James May. There was no way I was going to be able to keep that under wraps. Who’s next for the SD1 treatment, I wonder?

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14 Jul 2004

Learning the proper way

Often when driving driving long journeys in a dull car, I like to dream up silly schemes or odd theories in order to while away the motorway tedium. Most of the time such reveries do what they’re supposed to – make that lone trip more interesting. However, unlike all of the great philosophers, my one-man theories tend to be a random jumble of undisciplined rubbish: unlike Aristotle, who changed the course of Western thinking with his great work, The Organon or Francis Bacon, who mused, “A wise man will make more opportunities than he finds“, the Adams brand of philosophy extends little further than, the “What ifs?” of motoring life. And as I said, most of these “What ifs?” are complete crap.

One such “What if?” I dreamed up was what would happen if the law was changed so that all holders of provisional licences were forced to learn in a car with no less than 200bhp. Now, hear me out. Think about it – accident rates broken down into age ranges have – since time immemorial – shown that 17-24 year olds are the most likely to get into a prang. And why do they get into the scrapes that they do? More often than not, young people crash because they fail to read the road ahead. Be it, a corner that surprises them or the hidden dangers of a busy junction, lack of anticipation is often the reason.

Misuse of speed is another big issue right now, and it has to be said that statistics do seem to suggest that recenly-qualified drivers do drive too fast. But is that neccessarily down to the enthusiasm of youth?

What if instead of a fleet Vauxhall Corsa 1.2s,
BSM were to buy MG ZT 260 V8s?

What if instead of a fleet Vauxhall Corsa 1.2s, BSM were to buy MG ZT 260 V8s? In all honesty, which is easier to drive? The MG. of course. But not only that, learning to drive in the sweet Yank-powered saloon would prepare any newly qualified driver for the move to solo driving in their own car. I know it may sound a little mad, but remembering all those years ago to the (black and white) day I passed my test, my first thought was to go out in my own car and drive “properly”.

And by that I mean – fast. I am sure I was not alone in this thought, too. And because any 2-litre family car built after 1990 is probably capable of dashing from 0-60mph in under 10 seconds, whilst topping out at over 120mph, that would be a massive jump in power from that little Corsa/206/Clio. And that’s where problems must surely begin. A new driver could quite easily jump into their parents’ Cavalier 2.0GLi – a car twice as powerful as a bottom line supermini, and go and have some fun. Just how long said driver would take to get into trouble is anyone’s guess, but factor in a few college mates, it would surely not take long at all.

However, if said driver had already learned in an MG ZT 260, then they would already understand about driving a car with torque, they would fully understand that implications of being cack-handed with the throttle, as well as learning about reading the road properly (improved acceleration has you looking further ahead). I guess it comes down to respect, and if you respect the car you learn in – truly understand what it is capable of – you would drive in a more responsible manner. And let’s face it, most young uns have already hooned all sorts of exotica around the world’s race tracks on their PS2s and XBoxes anyway…

So, 200bhp-plus L-Driver cars for all..?

As I said, my “what ifs?” can be questionable at the best of times, but in my own little world, this one has legs…

Feedback:

Well, this raises all sorts of issues.

First of all, who’d be able to afford to pay for the lessons, bearing in mind the extra cost of the cars and the massive insurance premiums that would doubtless apply? Not to mention all that fuel the ZTs would get through…

Next, who’s to say that your average driving instructor is actually capable of teaching a newcomer how to handle a high-performance car? I’m sure that a large percentage of them have merely mastered enough of the “mechanics” of driving to be able to get someone through the test. I seem to remember that my instructor’s primary skills were whistling out of tune and screaming “Holy sh1t!” every few minutes…

Moreover, what would be the point of teaching everyone to drive in something so powerful? I mean, how would you get them to grasp the concept of leaving enough roadspace when overtaking in a lower-powered car, when all they’d know is that if they put their foot down they’ll get past an artic quicker than they can say “mirror-signal-manoeuvre”? And how do you teach them to cope with the kind of handling/suspension set-up they’re going to encounter when they climb into their bog-standard hatchback? “I just don’t understand it, officer! I could always get round that bend flat-out in my driving school car…”

Wouldn’t it make more sense to place limits on the type of car that can be driven depending on the level of driver education? For instance, if you’ve only learned to drive in a bog-standard hatchback, you only get to drive, say, normally-aspirated cars up to 1.5 litres. Pass an approved advanced driving test, and you get access to cars up to 2 litres. Anything more would require you to pass a high-performance driving test in a suitably powerful car, having been taught/assessed by a suitably skilled instructor.

The small print: Common sense would dictate that the limits should be related to something other than engine size (eg: power output, or maybe power-to-weight ratio, or some sort of accelleration index), but AFAIK the DVLA only hold data on engine capacity. Gotta be practical…

And what about your idea that it makes sense to learn in a car that’s easy to drive? I’ve always thought pretty much the opposite. I remember raising an eyebrow at the idea of motoring schools running cars with PAS/ABS, bearing in mind that (in the early days, at least) many of the learners would have migrated to cars without these features once they’d passed their test. If you can teach someone how to drive well in a very basic car – and especially, one that’s a bit awkward to handle – surely they’re more likely to be pretty accomplished in something more capable?

Anyway, what’s this I hear about your having recently taken an ADI exam? Why is it that I get the sneaking suspicion that this is some sort of ruse to ensure that the next car that graces the drive Chez Adams will be a V8-powered ZT? After all, it’s not for you, it’s for the business…

DECLAN BERRIDGE

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13 Jul 2004

Voting for the best

Well, the voting is in, and the counting is to come: we will soon know what is the greatest BMC>Rover car (according to our site visitors, the readers of Classic Car Weekly, the forum members at Autocar magazine, as well as those at mg-rover.org and xpower-mg.org). It is not a definitive poll by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a nice snapshot of the opinions of those that matter: you the car enthusiasts.

The winner and loser will probably shock no-one, but there do seem to be one of two surprises amongst all those e-mails.

The winner and loser will probably shock no-one,
but there do seem to be one of two surprises
amongst all those e-mails.

I am looking forward to announcing the results on the 29th July, and I hope that the exercise proves controversial enough to get you (figuratively) putting pen to paper. It’s your input that counts; that brings the whole exercise to life.

Now I must now go and write the bloody thing!

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12 Jul 2004

100 not-out

Spent Sunday in a field. Well, it was that or go to Silverstone. As it happens, things worked out OK, but given McLaren’s re-emergence as a fighting force in F1, part of me wished I’d trekked out to the airfield near Towcester. Maybe next year, eh?

So why was I in a field. There’s not much of interest to see there, after all. Au contraire, if that field is full of a huge number of Rovers dating from 1904 to the current day. Yesterday, Ragley Hall played host to the Rover Sports Register‘s annual get together. The event was sponsored by MG Rover (unlike this website), and as a result of massive pre-event publicity meant that the turn-out was fantastic.

Like all of these “club” events, the cars on display were sectioned off into classes, and as a result, P1s, P2s, P3s etc., ended up parked together. This resulted in some mouth-watering displays, which were enough to warm the cockles of my heart. The sight of over thirty P5s and P5Bs together was almost too much to bear. The same could also be said of the P6s… gorgeous one and all. Sadly, beyond the P6s, things seemed to go a little awry.

When I booked in, I was asked to choose the class I would be entering in: looking down the list, things seemed logical to begin with, but I must admit that as I neared the bottom of the list, my heart sank. Why? Group 12 (my group) was to comprise of the following cars: Rover SD1, 200, 400, 600, 800. After the symmetry of the earlier groups, this seemed more than a little silly.

The sight of over thirty P5s and P5Bs together
was almost too much to bear. The same could
also be said of the P6s…
gorgeous one and all.

So, next door to the line-up of P6s, there was a complete mish-mash of models, which was not only not that visually appealing, but gave the impression that MGR or the RSR do not really give a damn about the newer cars (which I know not to be the case). it also meant that the lineup of 80s and 90s cars was overly long. Why the SD1s didn’t deserve their own aisle/row (call it what you will), I will never know. MGR’s official line-up of historical cars didn’t even have one. Encouragingly, it did have a 1989 214GSi (with the wrong wheeltrims), which means that the company has not entirely washed its hands of its Anglo-Japanese heritage.

This is a minor gripe, actually, and it was really a very, very good day – and an encouraging sign that there are still plenty of people out there that care about Rover and its future propspects. Also, that MGR became involved in this club event at a corporatre level was a very encouraging sign. The new V8 version of the 75 aroused massive interest, and it was perfectly possible to see that some of the more well-heeled attendees were looking at this as a serious purchasing proposition.

Personally, I loved the mixed nature of the attendees: young enthusiasts with their tuned-up 200s rubbed shoulders with older gentlemen and their pre-War models. One moment, I was discussing the technical merits of converting a 420 Tourer into a Turbo Tourer, the next I was chatting to a guy that used to lunch with David Bache at Solihull. Brilliant stuff.

At the end of the day, we staged an impromptu photoshoot of all the 800 Coupes at the event (eight of them!), which made for a gratifying sight at my end. The fact that several of the cars owners had heard of www.austin-rover.co.uk was also extremely pleasing. The word is getting out…

Full show report to follow.

Feedback:

I think that the organisers were genuinely surprised at the number of more modern Rovers attending. Originally there was a combined class for SD1s and the “hundred series Rovers” as they described it, but so many hundred series attended they decided to split the class. Great to see so many. If I remember correctly last years 75th RSR Anniversary had about 4 hundred series Rovers in attendance. A slightly higher number appeared yesterday. (Probably the biggest class).

Eric

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09 Jul 2004

Monkey magic

A monkey. £500 to anyone outside of Mockneyland. What can that buy you these days? A week in Lanzarote. A widescreen TV. A weekend’s stay in a four-star hotel. Not a lot basically. If, however, we are talking Rovers, £500 can actually buy rather a lot. A work colleague of mine has just found out for himself exactly how much, thanks to the wonders of eBay…

To non-car people, the 800 Coupe is one of those cars that is impossible to guess the price of. When I bought my own K-registered Coupe last summer for £500, my colleagues could not believe just how cheap it was. After all, it looks good, it is extremely well-equipped, and it has an interior as visually appealing as a Bentley – a model of restrained British opulence.

One particular work colleague became so taken with my Coupe that he decided that he wanted one as well. I did explain that they don’t usually come in as cheap as £500, but they do turn up from time time. The idea slowly germinated in his mind, and although nothing happened for months, I could tell that he was still thinking hard about it. A ride in my Vitesse further solidified his resolve to buy a Sterling Coupe. For him, it was the relaxed nature of the car, its silent Honda V6 engine and generous equipment level that made this his car.

The fact that my V6 never suffered any breakages, probably helped a great deal too.

As the auction time flashed “30 seconds
remaining”, I placed a bid: £550. The
wait for the page seemed interminable.
By the time the page updated, the
auction was over. My
god, we won it!

A few weeks back, I pointed out a particlarly pretty Coupe in Nightfire red, which at the time resided on eBay for a couple of hundred quid. OK, it had a short MoT and the description listed a number of electrical gremlins, but it was in a nice colour and sounded honest enough. We agreed that it might be worth a speculative punt on…

Luckily for us, the auction end time was at 9:30 in the morning, and I could place a last-second bid on it at the last moment. I don’t think either of us really expected that this car would go for a reasonable sum of money, but it was a nice diversion during a boring morning at work. I kept tabs on things – waiting for the end to come. As the auction time flashed “30 seconds remaining”, I placed a bad: £550. The wait for the page seemed interminable. By the time the page updated, the auction was over. My god, we won it! No-one was more surprised than my mate…

£550. Not a lot, then. But in our case, it bought a 135mph, 177PS, V6 engined super-coupe. Talk about persepective. A set of tyres for my Vitesse Sport Coupe cost more – but here we had a more refined, better equipped and (arguably) more rugged Coupe. I can’t pretend I wasn’t a little jealous. Even though I already have two.

A few days later, Chris went to pick it up. And the ride had been pleasurable for him. The following morning, he was still grinning. He loved his new toy. Welcome to the world of Rover ownership then…

He’s bought cleaning products and has a flat-cap in his glovebox. The tartan travel rug surely won’t be far behind. Is Chris a typical Rover owner? Under thirty and actively into outdoor activities – probably not. So what? It never harms to break stereotypes.

So there you go. £500 buys quite a bit of happiness. Long may it continue.

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08 Jul 2004

Diesels

Aren’t modern diesels good these days? Having just driven the BMW 330D, I can safely say that it is now completely possible to buy a quick(ish), nicely set-up car, with the potential to deliver well over 40mpg on an average basis. When getting in, there is very little to tell the driver that this car is powered by the smelly stuff, and it would take an eagle-eyed driver to spot that the red-line on the tachometer is lower on this car than its petrol counterpart.

Once underway, it is a similar story. There is a degree of (soft) combustion chamber clatter on cold start-up, but once there is some warmth in that straight-six, it is very difficult to tell aurally that this is a diesel engined car. Cruising on the motorway, it is all good news again – quiet, refined and long-legged. Dial-in positive steering and efficient brakes and a feeling of imperturbability seldom found in a medium-sized car, and we are looking at a very accomplished all-rounder.

So, diesel is the way forward for all of us, then?

In the Rover 75/MG ZT range’s case, the diesel version also makes a compelling case for itself. Straight line performance may not be top drawer (even in the 131PS version), but it more than holds its own, and in true diesel style, it sits on the motorway beautifully. The 70-90mph slog sees the Rover bang in the middle of a sea of boosted torque, which is nice… the upshot of which, is a sense of security and the ability to accelerate cleanly without changing down. Because the 75’s USP is that of a relaxing car to drive, that whole diesel ethos fits in well with it, although the engine note does jar at low speeds (if you’ve experienced the V6 model beforehand).

As for day-to-day running, the cost and taxation advantages of diesel powered cars has been documented enough elsewhere not to need to discuss it here. Needless to say, where a 2-litre petrol Rover 75 V6 would average 26-30mpg in daily use, a 75 CDT would attain nearer 40mpg. Over the course of a year, that really adds up.

…the whole concept of changing up at
4,500rpm – just when an engine should
be getting interesting – is not
really the trait of a
performance car.

So, it all points to the diesel being the car for everyone…

…in a way.

Perhaps I am old fashioned, but everyone I speak to who raved about their diesel engined cars tend to hurl superlatives at their cars’ economy or cruising ability, then mention performance and driving pleasure second (if they mention that at all). And that’s the thing. Yes, diesels are quick enough these days (a Golf GTi PD150 will pretty much stay with a ZS180), but they seem to lack that final finesse that marks out a “proper” performance car.

Which is why I have a problem with the concept of a “performance diesel”. Yes, they hurl you forward thanks to all that torque, but the whole concept of changing up at 4,500rpm – just when an engine should be getting interesting – is not really the trait of a performance car. There’s also the on-off nature of the modern turbo diesel, which means that accelerating smartly from the lights involves dialling 2,000rpm and acting like a boy racer. If you try it with less, it tends to chug-chug-boost-accelerate-next-gear-please, which is not my idea of fun.

Then there’s the in-gear progress you get when accelerating from, say, 40mph in third: boost-boost-4,500rpm-another-gear-please-boost-boost-4,500rpm-another-gear-please. I am not saying it’s not effective, but it’s simply not that pleasurable. You will never wind-up a diesel simply for the pleasure of it, or enjoy the linear power delivery of an effective normally aspirated petrol engine. But you would drive one fast, and not really get the sensation of speed. Where’s the fun in that?

Don’t get me wrong, I like diesels – I’ve driven a few I really like, such as the Rover 75 CDT, which in objective terms, is the best model in the range. And there is a sense that you’re beating the system when you travel 600 miles between fill-ups. And you can go fast in the better examples of the breed. But so what? Follow a swiftly driven Golf TDi or BMW 330D and there’s nothing more off-putting than seeing an ugly cloud of black soot coming out of the exhaust, as the car over-fuels yet again. So, diesels are worthy enough, and I admire those marketed for what they are: low-consumption cars. Those marketed as performance cars are where my objections lie: you can have a quick diesel, but don’t kid yourself it’s a performance car.

It isn’t one, and it never will be.

Feedback:

I agree completely with you about the “Perfomance Diesels” issue. About 65% of the total number of cars sold in Spain are diesel powered; you can see them cruising on the motorway at 100mph, all day, being driven by reps (Xsaras and 406s), families (Mondeos, 3-series) or boy-racers (Ibizas, Golfs). Their owners are so proud of their 45mpg cars and they feel sorry about people like me that chose to drive a big engined petrol car (that struggles to get 28 mpg). But you know what? When I´m stretching the legs of my car, changing gears at 5500 rpm, there is a tremendous pleasure; a pleasure that a diesel driver can´t get when he´s doing 100mph at 3000rpm in sixth. Any weedy four-cylinder petrol engine has a better exhaust note than a 3-litre, in-line six diesel. For me, this is another proof that performance and plain speed are not the same thing, because sensations and sounds are what makes a sports car.

Rafael Neira Márquez

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07 Jul 2004

Bring it on

By DECLAN BERRIDGE

Yesterday evening I felt myself inexorably drawn to Regent Street in London’s West End.

As many of you will already know, the thoroughfare better known for its world-famous shops – such as Liberty’s and Hamley’s – played host to a group of Formula 1 cars representing eight of the ten teams, including Ferrari, BMW Williams, McLaren Mercedes and Jaguar; the first time such a spectacle has ever been seen on London’s streets.

Arriving at Lower Regent Street, just down from Piccadilly Circus, at around twenty past four, there were already thousands of people lining the pavements. Still, my mate and I managed to find a decent vantage point by the roadside, with a clear view of the “circuit”. As we stood there, chatting and generally observing the scene, it seemed that all we had to do now was to stand our ground to be assured of a first-hand viewing of this unique event.

Then, in the blink of an eye, the kerbside barriers were dragged forward to the centre of the road, seemingly drawing the throng with them. Except us: with our path impeded by an assortment of street furniture, by the time we’d moved forward a few seconds later the crowd was already at least six deep, and any chance of seeing through them had evaporated. We decided to move back down the way we’d come, searching for some means of getting a height advantage. By this time, there were people standing on litter bins, hanging from lampposts and sitting on the roofs of telephone kiosks, while the resourceful had brought their own stepladders; there was even one adventurous young lady on a pair of very high-tech stilts. But there was nothing left for us.

As we stood on the kerbside, facing the general direction of the circuit, we looked up enviously at the people watching from windows, balconies and rooftops above. Nothing ventured, nothing gained: I bounded up to the reception desk of the building we were standing outside and politely asked whether there was any way they could let us access the seemingly unoccupied first-floor balcony. The answer was the one I had expected, if not the one I had hoped for, and I got the impression that I was not the first person to have asked that day…

…we accepted that we were not
actually going to see a great
deal, but there would at least
be something worth hearing.

In our frustration, we came up with a few hare-brained schemes, ranging from the fanciful (deploying sleeping gas on the crowd immediately in front of us), through the plain silly (crawling between their legs and standing up when we got to the front) to the asking-for-trouble variety (hanging from a couple of insubstantial-looking building numbers mounted halfway up a wall). We abandoned the idea of joining the hundred or so people who had decided to climb onto some builders’ scaffolding, as it was a fair bet that it had not been intended to take that kind of static load.

In the end, we accepted that we were not actually going to see a great deal, but the sonorous V8-roar of the Mercedes pace car running up and down the circuit every now and then reassured us that there would at least be something worth hearing. From time to time, a cheer would go up; the first one we noticed was in honour of a brave soul who had scaled the front of a building across the road, to perch himself somewhat precariously on a first-floor ledge. Rather him than me…

The six o’clock start time came and went, with no sign of anything but the pace car doing its rounds, but the mood of the crowd remained good natured and orderly as the expectation built. Then, at about ten to seven, another roar went up – this time for a fleet of road-sweeping trucks which had taken to the circuit: a sure sign that some serious activity was nigh. Next out was the pace car again, making a final charge up the circuit, before the air was cracked by the sound of the first F1 car to leave the pits – a Toyota driven by Christiano da Matta. Moments later, we were savouring the intoxicating aroma of the racing fuel which lingered in the air after the car had sped past us, and we knew for sure that we had experienced something special.

Within minutes the car had completed its brief circuit, giving us a further blast of sweet-smelling octane as it returned to the pits. We decided to wait for the second car to make its run before heading off, as we both had other places to be. This was scheduled to be Nigel Mansell in a Jordan, but someone with a better view than us called out that it was actually the BAR Honda (driven by Jenson Button). We took his word for it…

Although we hadn’t actually seen either of the cars that had passed by, just being there and soaking-in the atmosphere had been enough. London clearly has a knack for hosting events that capture the public imagination, as evidenced by the recent Olympic Torch celebrations and the not-so-recent Queen’s Golden Jubilee, to name but two. But being held on a weekday evening made this one extra-special.

The event was officially billed as a prelude to this weekend’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone, but the open subtext was to declare that by 2008 the streets of London could themselves be playing host the race. Monaco is the obvious precedent, and if even a tenth of the glamour of that fixture can be reflected in a London-based Grand Prix, then the capital can only grow in stature as result. It’s going to take enormous political will to pull this off, especially as it would effectively mean closing off the heart of the West End for a week (if not more), but I for one hope that it becomes a reality.

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06 Jul 2004

What are they playing at?

Advertising is a funny old game. To pitch your product correctly must take immense skill and judgement. Not only is it about producing a snappy, memorable advert, but what appears on the screen should also look classy. There’s also the small matter of producing the killer strapline…. and there have been a few:

“The Ultimate driving machine”: BMW
“Engineered like no other car”: Mercedes-Benz
“Your mother wouldn’t like it”: MG
“The car you always promised yourself”: Ford

BMC managed to produce a few corkers in their time, but it seems that it lost its way in more recent years, with only one or two honourable exceptions to this. These exceptions have generally been for landmark cars: “Tomorrow, today” for the Rover SD1 back in 1976 hit the spot for the futuristic new Rover. A suitably forward-thinking ideal for a forward thinking car showed that British Leyland had a great deal of confidence in the car – optimism that was completely justified, only to be undone by the workers at Solihull.

Then there was the Austin Metro… anyone over the age of about thirty will have no trouble recalling the advertising campaign for this car. The television advert was a classic: a fleet of Metros storming through the English countryside to meet a cargo ship about to dump its load of imported superminis onto the beach. The Metros assembled at the top of the cliff as the Renault 5s, Ford Fiestas et al decamped, scaring them so much they scampered back aboard.

The strapline that adorned this patriotic advert was brilliant, tapping into the mood of the time: “miniMetro. A British car to beat the world”.

After that, things seemed to go off the boil. Maestro, Montego and Rover 213 were pretty forgettable, and things never really recovered until hatchet man Graham Day was on board. Then things improved, peaking with the brilliant “Britische Architekt” Rover 800 Vitesse and Graduate-inspired “Up Where we belong” Rover 214/216 television adverts. Sadly, Rover was not quite where it belonged, and although the late 1980s and early 1990s proved that marketing could drive the company forwards, its products were not quite strong enough. Towards the mid-1990s, the advertising went distinctly downhill and never really seemed to have recovered.

“Life’s too short not to” is where
MG is at now, and this attitude-
laden campaign seems to perfectly
dovetail with the cars’
in-your-face badness.

MG on the other hand, has done well. Since the company’s rebirth in 2000, the “Zed” models have been skillfully marketed and as a result, have carved themselves quite a niche in the “drivers’ car” market. “Life’s too short not to” is where MG is at now, and this attitude-laden campaign seems to perfectly dovetail with the cars’ in-your-face badness. One only has to look at the bodykit of the 2000 MG ZS and that lovely I-don’t-care rear spoiler to see where they are coming from.

So if MGs can be marketed so well, why can’t Rovers? I guess it comes back to the company not having found its place in the car market. Rover doesn’t have a USP, and marketing seem not have yet dreamed up one. And that’s a shame. Because Rover is suffering. MGR has graced the television in the form of a couple of eye-wateringly bad adverts (the “three years of freedom” one starring Matthew Pincent was terrible), but the latest one (click here to see it, thanks to mg-rover.org) is even worse. All it seems to do is tell us that buying an MGR is good for the economy and helps safeguard the 6,000 jobs at Longbridge.

What it is trying to do is sell the company to us: the message seems to be, “Buy a Rover and you’re helping us stay out of the shit”. This may be true, but history shows us that these campaigns plugging the company are, quite simply, not successful. During the 1970s, BL did it, during the 1980s, Austin-Rover did it… both companies lost ground. OK, advertising is not the only reason why these two incarnations of BMC>Rover struggled, but it should be a warning to the current marketeers.

No, what we need are strong campaigns pitched at selling the cars, not the company. My mate Richard Porter, better known as SniffPetrol could do worse than take a pay-cut and join MGR as its marketing director. Look at this, and tell me that it is not memorable!


Picture: Sniffpetrol, used with permission.

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05 Jul 2004

The old girl still roars

Spent the weekend getting re-aquainted with my 1978 Rover 3500. As you may or may not know, this car spent most of the 1980s and 1990s lying in a barn, before being thoroughly recommissioned back in 2000. I bought it from journalist David Price back in 2002, and it has been criminally under-utilized since then. This weekend changed all of that…

In the space of two days, my faithful old bus racked up 500-miles, many of which, were driven hard and as it should be. It all looked so different, as a week previously, it stuttered and coughed all the way back from Devon, thanks to its dying Lucas Opus distributor. Thanks to Brian Gunn, this has been changed to a Mallory system, supplied by RPi Engineering, which has had the effect of restoring the SD1 into a dependable barnstorming motorway bruiser of the old-school.

And perform it did… It happily handled a trip to Gaydon, followed by a high-speed dash to Snetterton race track at speeds which cannot be mentioned here. High speed stability is still good, and although 1970s aerodynamics lessen its effortlessness at speed, it is still more than capable. Unlike modern cars, it is not saddled with ultra-low profile tyres, which allows it to remain undisturbed by motorway ruts and changes in camber, whilst maintaining a soft and compliant ride. Soft ride? Yes. Although it was considered sporty enough back in 1976, to drive one now, the overriding impression is one of well damped, ride compliance – chassis set-up the Spen King way.

Accelerating away, you cannot
help but notice that deep V8
rumble, which still sounds
melodious and soulful…

We have not touched on the engine yet: it starts-up with that typical V8 “bark”, but soon settles to an even and quiet idle. Yes, the V8 engine that powered the nation’s specialist industry, is actually quiet and reasonably refined when installed in the SD1. Accelerating away, you cannot help but notice that deep V8 rumble, which still sounds melodious and soulful, but once cruising, it remains quiet. In fact, all of the noise put out by the car seems to come from the tailpipe – an odd situation given that most cars produce their din up front. This was also borne out when standing by the side of the road watching it pass: you see it coming, but all you hear is the rushing of air and tyre noise. As it passes, there is not so much a Doppler effect, but a transformation: the rush of air is transformed into the soft rumble of V8. Lovely.

So, thanks to Brian Gunn’s engineering skills, and John Capon’s spraying skills, the 3500 not only performed well, but turned heads wherever it went. Was it reliable? Yes. In a way.

When I say “in a way”, I mean that at the end of the weekend, as I pulled into my home village, the water pump cried enough. Do I care? No. Why? Because it’ll be changed, and then I have one less thing to worry about. Yes, the SD1 reminded me of why I love it this weeekend, and never, ever, ever could I be parted from it… So don’t even try, as refusal often offends.

Feedback:

Can’t you mention that the water pump is more than likely 26 years old? And we all know water pumps that stand around unused fail eventually! I know it’s a silly thing, but the engineery bit in me says “that’s pretty bloody good, really, and you’ll bet it wasn’t in the engineering brief of the pump”.

BRIAN GUNN

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02 Jul 2004

Morning glory

By DECLAN BERRIDGE

This morning I sampled the sublime delights of a Wolseley Imperial.

To the car enthusiast this will no doubt conjure up an image of a Nuffield-Rootes merger that never quite happened, yet I was not in a car but in the glorious surroundings of The Wolseley café and restaurant in London’s Piccadilly, where I had popped in for breakfast. The Imperial, incidentally, is their to-die-for speciality espresso, subtly laced with Mandarin Napoleon and cognac, and topped-off with chocolate and whipped cream. Pure indulgence…

The Wolseley opened for business just about a year ago, since when it has carved out an enviable reputation. Last month began with it being placed amongst the 50 best restaurants in the world, no less, by an international panel of over 300 chefs, proprietors, critics and journalists, and ended with the announcement that it had been voted London’s best new restaurant. Hardly surprising, when you consider that it is the brainchild of renowned restaurateurs Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, whose previous ventures have included such glitterati magnets as The Ivy and Le Caprice.

Indeed, The Wolseley has wasted no time in attracting a similar A-list clientele, including pop idols (George Michael, Sir Elton John, Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant), thesps (Sir Michael Caine, Nigel Havers, Joan Collins) and catwalkers (er, Kate Moss). It has to be said, however, that some lesser mortals have sensed something of a “them-and-us” approach, particularly in the supposedly egalitarian seating arrangements, while further criticism has been levelled at the less-than-adventurous menus.

…the Wolseley name is once
again on the lips of London’s
polite society…

The choice of name was no mere whim. The Grade II listed building which houses the eatery was originally commissioned by the Wolseley Motor Company as their flagship London showroom. Standing adjacent to The Ritz, it was designed by the architect and artist William Curtis Green (1875-1960), whose other works include The Dorchester’s Art Deco embellishments and interior. The showroom opened in 1921, but remained in Wolseley’s hands for just five years, by which time the company’s deteriorating finances had forced them to let it go.

The building’s elegant, Neoclassic façade is defined by three Roman arches (repeated on the side elevation) at ground level, with four pairs of Corinthian columns extending upwards from the first floor. Inside, Art Deco was once again the order of the day, with lavishly applied, Japanese-themed lacquer-work complementing the mesmerising black-and-white tiled floor. The building was highly praised, winning a RIBA award in 1922, and much work was undertaken immediately prior to last year’s opening to restore the interior to its former glory.

Sitting at the breakfast bar, making short work of my scrambled eggs, smoked salmon and brioche, it’s rather hard to imagine that this space was once occupied by cars and salesmen. Still, as we approach the 30th anniversary of the marque’s demise, it’s somehow good to know that the Wolseley name is once again on the lips of London’s polite society…

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01 Jul 2004

Are we becoming a victim of our own success?

Back in 2001, when I hit upon the idea of starting up austin-rover.co.uk, I never for one moment considered the implications of the thing. For one, I completely underestimated the level of interest in the subject: I had a feeling that there may have been a few anoraks out there with a passing interest in the subject, but never did I even imagine that a large amount of people would be visiting the site on a regular basis. I suppose I thought that one or two people would find it interesting in the way that some onlookers like gawping at car crashes. After all, the site’s content is rather heavy on the bad news…

Still, it grew and grew, and continues to grow at an alarming rate. In the early days, the site resided on free webspace hosted by UKOnline, but within a few months we outgrew this ISP, and became part of the mg-rover.org family, hosted by UKWebsystems. We have been happy here, and although the costs have risen as a result of the massive increase in usage, it has been a good arrangement.

However, austin-rover.co.uk continues to grow, and so its running costs continue to rise.

According to the webstats for June, the site generates a LOT of traffic:

Successful requests: 5,486,366 (1,245,099)
Average successful requests per day: 182,900 (177,871)
Successful requests for pages: 338,304 (74,124)
Average successful requests for pages per day: 11,278 (10,589)
Failed requests: 70,456 (15,777)
Redirected requests: 15 (3)
Distinct files requested: 9,570 (8,309)
Distinct hosts served: 28,350 (6,668)
Corrupt logfile lines: 4
Unwanted logfile entries: 2,785
Data transferred: 37.81 gigabytes (8.62 gigabytes)
Average data transferred per day: 1.26 gigabytes (1.23 gigabytes)

Not sure what all of that means – and would appreciate it if someone could tell me – but the implication of the figures is that costs are going to ramp up significantly. And that means that we are at a crossroads: do we start to carry advertising on the site (which I personally do not feel comfortable with), do we try and encourage someone to sponsor the site (BMIHT, Unipart, MG Rover?), or do we sell it and move on..?

Whichever way we go, I still find it totally amazing that in just over two short years it has gone from zero to hero.

I wonder if it will continue to grow? I know that had it not been for this site, my own life would probably be looking considerably different right now…

Feedback:

Hmm..

I think this wonderful site should not disappear, with all the cr*p we see on the internet these days an info-mountain like yours should not go to waste.

Advertising may be the way to go, think it is inevitable that costs overtake everything as things grow, try Unipart, Caterpillar and how about MG-Rover themselves?

May be a pro-Rover dealer group like Mantells or even the subsidiary Phoenix, I’m sure when someone who has put such passion into this subject like yourself will be rewarded!

Keep it up!

JIM WARNER

I am one of those people who for no logical reason are -I suppose ‘fond’ is the right word – of Austin Rover and its antecedents. I also believe that we should buy British if it matches or exceeds competitions products (as an aside I have great sympathy for all those Vauxhall workers and suppliers who have suffered because of trendy bad mouthing by Jeremy Clarkson re the Vectra). My wife has a Rover 75 Tourer which is a better, cheaper and more trouble free car than the Audi A4 Avant that preceded it. I have an XJ8 that is now 5 years old and (dangerous words) never goes wrong. I also have a Wolseley 4/44 and an AH 3000.

When I was Finance Director back in the 80’s I instituted a buy British cars policy and inflicted marinas, Itals and Allegros on the staff. The Princesses (I had 2 of those) and MG Montego’s were good though.

However, none of that answers your question. Perhaps Rover would sponsor the site, after all it promotes goodwill for their products, and seems to get huge traffic. I suppose advertising would be the next choice, being a necessary evil.

GEOFF MARKHAM

Posted in: AROnline Blogs
Keith Adams

About the Author:

Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007. Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Clsssics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent... Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasable adventures all across Europe.

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