Blogs : August 2004

31 Aug 2004



Some weeks on from the suprise announcement that another independent British specialist car producer had passed into foreign ownership, it seems opportune to remember how since the early 1980s Peter Wheeler had given TVR its gretest period of sucess, often acting in a manner that defied the industry ‘experts’ – a trait shared with MGR!

The most spectacular act of definance must be the formation of the TVR Power engine division, at a time when it was deemed that no specialist firm could afford to design its own engines. Yet TVR now have there own in-line 6, V8 and sometime V12, the division cut its teeth on working-over the Rover V8, increasing its capacity to the full 5.0 litres and creating what in time will probably become known as the ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger’ version of this legendary V8.

This is were both the reality and myth the history of TVR and MGR overlap. While it is a fact that the Rover Group made the V8 available, I recall the pre-launch press coverage for the MG RV8 saying one option would be to specify the TVR Power V8 in lieu of the standard unit. Sadly – or possibly thankfully, depending on your view point of the RV8 chassis and suspension – this never happened!

Fast forward a decade and there was the flurry of speculation when MGR officials were seen onsite at the Blackpool factory leading to speculation that MGR were going to buy TVR. However the reality was again linked to MG: this time the SV and discussions about sub assemblies.

What has crossed my mind is that in the SV is a chassis able to handle up to 1000bhp, so when the current SV finishes its production run, why not create a model powered by the TVR 7-litre V12, a British-built engine, if now foreign owned. Why not go further and commision an MGR-only V10 and V6 of this modular unit and use it in the ZT. An MG ZT V10 versus the BMW M5 V10 – now that would be an interesting contest!

30 Aug 2004

BL Closet-case


No-one in my family knows about my liking for British Leyland cars. They know I’ve a passing interest in older cars, but have no idea about the Dolomite I’m saving up for, my P6 fancy, nor do they know of BLtin.

Is that odd?

My dad thinks that any car over five years old should be forcefully towed away and crushed. Only BL car he had was an Austin 1100 as a first car, and when asked, always points out that it was the worst car he ever owned.

He thinks I’m saving up for a 1998 Ford Fiesta.

I went to a classic car show with him at the weekend, and we arrive at the Allegro Club International stand. He gave me a potted history of the Allegro, which was nice (if wildly inaccurate). Little did he know that I knew the correct facts, I knew the names of half the people involved in the development, and many of the figures to accompany the story.

That’s just sad.

He doesn’t understand why I was interested in the brown 1850HL next to the Jaguar! Just an old car to him!

Damn right!

And late at night, when they think I’m looking at dirty magazines, they’re half right – but my dirty magazines are oil-stained Haynes manuals, or the AA Book of the Car, so I’ll know the thoery when my Dolly brakes down.

Oh, Haynes.

Friends talk of Clios and Corsas, but little do they know.


One day, one day, one day. Soon.

Peter runs the excellent BLtin website

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27 Aug 2004

The time that land forgot


Oxford is world famous for the dreaming spires of its university, its rowing team and its English dictionary and yet for most of the Twentieth Century the largest employer in the county (with close to 70% of the population at its peak) was the motor works in Cowley.

I came to Oxford in 1990 when the sprawling factories were just about still intact. Then British Aerospace started the demolition and selling off everything to the west of the ring road, starting with the famous Cowley bridge that linked the Pressed Steel site to the Morris Works site. During the past ten years that immense amount of land has become home to the massive new glass fronted head offices of Blackwells, Harley Davidson, Oxfam, the Post Office sorting office, a David Llloyd Racquets Centre – and a retail park with a Tescos supermarket on the site of the Austin-Rover paint shop.

In 2000, the large burgundy Rover logo came down to be replaced with the BMW circle and the new MINI badge. I find it interesting that the road signage now states ‘BMW Plant, gate 3’ where as before the enormous site was only ever referred to as ‘Works’. Get any Ordnance Survey map pre-1994 and you’ll see most of Cowley covered with the anonymous word ‘Works’…

So is there anything left in Oxford of Lord Nuffield’s magnificent achievements? The hospital set up by his trust still bears the Nuffield name, as do the flats that were converted from what was originally the old Military College and latterly the Nuffield Press (where all our BMC>Rover brochures were once designed and printed). If you go into the city centre you’ll find a Bullnose Morris radiator in the window of what was Morris’s original workshop on Longwall Street. In the Oxford musuem there’s still a scale model of the Maestro production line, a gift from Austin Rover in 1983 (labelled ‘Modern car production’), a token gesture from the museum, tucked away in the corner of the bicycle display room.

On the site of the original Morris factory was built a Travel Inn and a pub/restaurant called ‘The Longwall’ – harking back to Morris’s original site. Why the pub’s name couldn’t celebrate the much more successful and productive complex which it actually stood on is a mystery. Until recently the pub had an attractive painted sign showing Morris cars outside the Longwall workshop, while inside, the walls were decorated with Morris memorabilia, photographs and car parts. Sadly, in June this year the pub was stripped of all reference to the car industry and became another featureless, nameless part of the Beefeater chain. Most of the Morris memorabilia was saved, however, and made its way to the Oxford bus museum. I wonder if the Morris Minor Owners Club will bother to return to this now almost irrelevant site again next summer?

BMW cut large, square windows in
the side of the factory so you can
see MINIs being made…

The first thing BMW did when they got the remains of the factory to themselves was to knock down more old Morris buildings (most dating back to 1926), put attractive facades on all the Sixties office block buildings and cut large, square, silver-framed windows in the side of the factory so you can see the MINIs being made while you wait at the roundabout. I heard someone say once that wasn’t it good and nice of BMW to invest so much money and tidy up that grubby Rover factory. I didn’t bother pointing out that they waited six years before they spent a single penny on the plant.

So what mark has Morris, BMC, BL and Austin-Rover left in Cowley? What can we see that tells us that this was the place where millions of cars were made, to be sold all over the world; from every car that bore the proud name Morris, through the dark days of the Princess and SD1, the renaissance of the Triumph Acclaim, Maestro and Montego until finally the Rover 600 and 75? In 1976 a tiled mural was erected on the west entrance to the Cowley Centre shopping centre, built in 1965. It depicts events in Cowley from the Middle Ages up to the formation of the car industry and shows at the far right the side profile of an MG from 1929, a Mini Clubman and a Princess.

But if you’re looking for evidence on the site of the mighty Cowley works themselves, turn off the ring road at the MINI factory into Garsington Road and Oxford Business Park (even the Cowley name is now redundant). Look closely at the roundabout in front of the Harley Davidson offices and you’ll see an sandstone obelisk (pictured above) that has a ridged grill running around its base. Inset is a familiar emblem of a ox, crossing a ford.

Across the road, hidden in bushes, is a small plaque which says “The Nuffield Needle was commissioned by Arlington Services Plc* to commemorate William Morris, Lord Nuffield and the Morris Motor Works which formally stood on the site. This plaque was unveiled by Eddie Jordan of Jordan Racing on 3rd July 1995”.

* NB: Arlington Services Plc (currently trading as Arlington Securities Plc) was the property development subsidiary of Rover’s former owners British Aerospace (BAe), which handled the sale of much of the Cowley site. BAe is still listed as one of Arlington’s “partners”.

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26 Aug 2004

Ever fancied a Chinese takeaway?


The other evening I began pondering the possibility of a Chinese takeaway, something that I normally enjoy spending hours choosing, only to end up with exactly the same thing as I usually order.

However this Chinese takeaway was a little different. For one thing even if it was edible I would probably have suffered chronic indigestion. You see there was only one thing on the menu: Rover. And no, that’s not my neighbour’s pet dog.

It all started innocently enough at around 6pm when I thought I’d have a quick look to see if there was anything new on the website, and the first thing I saw was a forum posting by jimsheph, outlining the rumours surrounding SAIC and MGR.

In fact thanks to Jim’s clear-cut post, it became immediately obvious not only is a Chinese takeaway popular fast food in this country, but some feel a Chinese takeaway is also the best solution for solving the MGR problem. The sources quoted in the article are apparently insiders at SAIC and MGR, which probably means nothing, and some thought appears to have been given on the basics of how a potential deal between SAIC and Phoenix might be struck, and on what terms MGR would be sold off.

What the sources apparently haven’t taken into consideration is the wishes of the current MGR management, who have issued a very strong denial, with both John Towers and Peter Beale stating that they have never at any point considered selling any amount of shares to SAIC. This doesn’t of course mean that they haven’t considered selling any shares to other parties, or won’t in the future decide that SAIC offers them a level of protection that they need, but for now I for one certainly believe them when they say Rover won’t become a Chinese takeaway, for now at least.

SAIC might offer MGR a brighter
future through increased
investment and resulting stability.

The stories regarding SAIC and MGR have been published with some interesting timing however, not least when one considers that MGR’s intended partner for sourcing their next generation of cars, Proton, has announced that they are no longer interested in dealing with MGR, a few days before announcing the UK launch of the Gen-2 which had been the much lauded Rover 25/45 replacement.

So is it coincidence?

Well, providing that there is no legitimacy to the story about SAIC buying MGR, and the fact that it was published over a week after the Proton pull out, I might be forgiven for thinking that Proton were unhappy about some other aspect, and as insurance had the Gen-2 ready to announce for UK launch, something which they would have done anyway much like Honda did with the Concerto and Ballade.

In the end it doesn’t look as though I’ll be seeing Rover as an option on the Chinese takeaway list any time soon, even though it probably remains a possibility for the future. That said, perhaps it does have its advantages in that the absence of Proton input from the model development strategy does mean MGR seriously need to replace the 25 & 45, and will need help in doing so. SAIC might also offer MGR a brighter future through increased investment and resulting stability.

After all, the reports stated that SAIC would like to make Rover a premium brand and as a result continue to produce MGR products at Longbridge, with SAIC producing their own branded cars in China. This would make MGR the R&D division in effect, with relatively small scale production, though possibly no worse than at present, which is a little reminiscent of the situation at Lotus, who of course are Proton owned.

Whatever happens I’d still rather MGR become a Chinese takeaway than a Malaysian one.

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25 Aug 2004

The last time machine


I recently sent a press release to the local paper promoting my creativity workshops. I received a call back from the editor who had picked up on one line in the press release saying that I was the proud owner of a Princess 1800 HL. What with the car having been made in Cowley, only a few hundred yards from where I live, he’d seen a golden nugget of a local interest story. It was great seeing the car in print. The photo was taken in a field in Garsington, overlooking the Cowley factory (after we’d been quizzed by a bemused farmer and the police).

The Princess falls into an interesting gap in the hazily remembered history of British motoring being nowhere near as widely known as the Allegro, Marina and Maxi with their overused retro tag. So much so when a good example is seen it actually looks like a new car. Park yours next to an old Ford Focus to see what I mean. With so much of Sixties and Seventies culture so easily available and fully explored, there are only a few things left that work as real emotional time machines. I believe the Princess is one of them. People turn there heads, mouths open, as I drive past. I’ve walked into the kiosk at petrol stations to find the entire queue talking about the car. They will not have seen one of these cars since that day back in 1979 when life was simpler, summers were longer and the snow was deeper. In an instant they remember dad coming back from work, the bloke next door meticulously polishing his on a Sunday or that familiar sound of the engine ticking over outside the school gates on a frosty morning.

People will not have seen one since 1979,
when life was simpler, summers were
longer and the snow was deeper.

This raises an issue, that’s been mentioned on these pages before, that MG Rover should take note of: people under forty have no recollection of the problems or bad feeling towards the BL cars of the seventies. They either love them (“wicked cool, man”, “It’s a ****ing Princess!”) or remember fondly a relative or neighbour having one. These are the future MG Rover drivers, not the forty-something drivers who have already jumped on the anti-Rover bandwagon, driving their boring plastic Bavarian boxes.

Perhaps MGR have already realised this. Have a look at the 2004 corporate brochure that showcases the new Rover and MG cars alongside a P5, an SD1 and a vintage TF. Used in this way, linking up to the glories of the past, time travel is a very good thing.

Anyway, if the build quality on those Seventies cars was so bad how come my Princess is still in perfect condition 28 years later?

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24 Aug 2004

Was it really worth it?


It is perhaps arguable that Len Lord and his fellow authors of the 1952 merger between Austin and the Nuffield Group, which resulted in the creation of BMC, didn’t truly realise exactly what is was that they were letting themselves in for.

At inception the newly formed company became the largest and most powerful of the British motor manufacturers, who were collectively going though what is now considered to be something of a golden era in the industry, driven by the shortage of new vehicles and relative lack of choice post World War Two. For nearly twenty-five years BMC/BMH/BLMC succeeded in becoming and remaining one of the largest motor manufacturers in the world, yet it would quickly become a seemingly never-ending tale of woe.

The first really all-new car offered by BMC was the 1959 Mini, followed by the 1100 in 1962. So far so good, with two best sellers that everyone wanted. But already problems were brewing, in the forms of the upcoming 1800 and – not least – the lack of profit on every new Mini and 1100 sold. By the late 1960s, things were obviously beginning to go seriously wrong for BMC, and this was perhaps the perfect opportunity to start asking some harsh questions. Like just how did a manufacturer of three of the most popular cars of the time manage to lose so much money. Or better still, how exactly did they arrive at the 1800. By the 1970s, BMC had lost the fight, Leyland had taken over to form BLMC and the trouble was really about to start. So was the amazing catalogue of missed opportunities, and ideas which must have seemed right at the time.

Yet whilst the 1970s could so easily be written off as being a decade of failure and despair, there were many potentially important opportunities, such as developing the Maxi into something more desirable, or introducing a sleek new 5-door hatchback to replace the 1100, beating the Golf to the mark, instead of the Allegro. Even an Allegro-based supermini would have been an expedient method of gaining a new car and creating more resources for replacing the larger cars.

The 1980s could so easily have heralded the turnaround of BL, with a great start to the decade thanks in no small part to the Metro. Its only a shame that the Maestro and Montego never really managed to maintain the momentum, that the Metro didn’t receive the investment that it so richly deserved and that to all intents and purposes Austin-Rover came to rely solely upon Honda for its new cars.

…the Rover Group’s hard-fought-for
success was in fact built upon
foundations of sand.

The revitalised company suddenly gained many more opportunities throughout the 1980s, which really could have set Austin-Rover on the path of sustained success. For example, a completely re-bodied Metro would probably have taken the market by storm, especially with the K-series power train. A Legend Mk2-based Rover 800, especially fitted with the old V8 engine would have lifted the company into a different league altogether. Perhaps an 839i (840i is a BMW after all) would have been just the thing for official duties!

By the early 1990s, it ought to have become obvious that the Rover Group’s hard-fought-for success was in fact built upon foundations of sand. That so many of the opportunities of the previous decade had been abandoned in favour of other, less costly alternatives would prove difficult for the company in the future. By the end of the decade Rover had killed off its only supermini, the by now essentially 18-year-old Metro/100 and was facing similar problems with its executive flagship 800 model. In the end the decision was made to replace neither of these cars and instead to rely upon a three-model line up, with two of these being heavily reliant upon Honda technology. In fact, the BMW era saw little real progress for Rover itself, with only the 75 to show for over six years of ownership.

In all, BMC>MGR manages to amaze and anger many in equal proportions, having passed up many golden opportunities and yet have achieved so much from so little, like with the MGF and (hopefully) with the upcoming MGR-developed 45 replacement [RD/X60]. That MGR can still develop a new car is truly amazing in itself.

So, was the merger between Austin and Nuffield was really worth it? In forming an opinion, it might be worthwhile asking whether they knew what they were creating. In a way, I would hope not; otherwise surely Len Lord and his contemporaries would have saved the many employees and others related to BMC>MGR all that heartache. If Austin and Nuffield hadn’t merged, perhaps the two companies would have gone to the wall sooner; or maybe one – or possibly even both – of them would have survived to this day, giving us a British alternative to PSA or Fiat.

We’ll never know.

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23 Aug 2004

Meeting Minis…


The International Mini Meeting (or IMM for short) is an annual event where fans of Alec Issigonis’s greatest hit can congregate.The event has been going since 1978 and the first five IMMs were held in Germany; indeed the Germans seem to have hosted most of the shows, revealing how popular this most British of cars is in the home of BMW, VW, etc. In continental Europe an IMM is a mere car journey away. This year, however, IMM2004 was hosted by the Anglian Mini Club and the venue chosen was the Norfolk showground near Norwich,a mere 30 minutes from my home.

Although I was only going on the Sunday, most visitors camped on the showground from Friday onwards. I arrived at around 9am yessterday morning and parked my car on the stand of the Norfolk Mini Owners Club, for which I am the membership secretary. Although most of the cars there were from the UK, it was the continental cars I had come to see. There were Minis from all over Europe, from as far east as Poland, from Norway and from Spain, Portugal and Italy, including Turin – setting for “The Italian Job” movie. There were Authi and Innocenti Minis and the Portuguese were there in force with their home-grown Mini Mokes. The Danish Mini Club had several Mini Mascots, for that is how the car was badged in their country, and one car was fitted with an AKM 7-port cylinder head.

“Doris” was a Mini Clubman fitted with
a fuel-injected Rover V8 mounted
atop a wedge Princess gearbox!

One was able to travel across the showground courtesy of a Rover Mini pulling a trailer, but this was no mere case of badge engineering. “Doris” as she was known was a Mini Clubman fitted with a fuel-injected Rover V8 mounted atop a wedge Princess gearbox!

There were many other weird concoctions: Mini limosines and even a 6-wheel Mini. There were trade stands selling every conceivable part for the Mini. I thoroughly enjoyed myself with the variety of cars there. One thing did occur to me though. How many Europeans’ first experience of a BL car was a well-built Mini made at Seneffe in Belgium or by Authi or Innocenti, as opposed to a badly-built one made at strike-torn Longbridge?

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21 Aug 2004

The dream car


Two-and-a-half years ago I had a think about what car I would actually want if I could have any from any time, spurred on by the excitement of the early pages of I imagined finding a secret showroom that had been sealed up with my dream car, immaculate, inside. The car I imagined was a Princess. Call it luck, the power of visualisation or serendipity, but out of the blue, a friend saw a shiny black Princess 1800 HL in Autotrader, of all places. I suddenly became the owner of my dream car.

My Princess became a metaphor for having what I want in my life. The car is amazing and has such a fun, smooth ride. Rarely does the wedge look so wonderful as it does in black with all that chrome, blue velour, tinted windows and space-age series one silver dash – certainly not the car for mister average.

It couldn’t have arrived at a more pertinent time either. The following day I got together with the girl whom I’m marrying in September this year (naturally the car will be the wedding car. I’ll arrive at the church in my TR7, but that’s another story). My monthly comedy stand-up routine had the car as a centrepiece for quite a while. Well, there was such good material there – all I had to do was read a few passages out from the handbook and those fantastic 70s brochures. I’m now carving out a career as a motivational speaker and again the car crops up in my talks.

Rarely does the wedge look so wonderful
as it does in black with all that
chrome, blue velour, tinted windows
and space-age series one silver dash

My next door neighbour peered over the fence, looking at my Princess and said, “but it’s just an ordinary saloon”. There lies the boundary, the great divide between us and the Top Gear lot. My love for the car is obviously more than just a mode of transport but more importantly it is not about ‘performance’ (the fact that you can want to drive anything less than a pretend racing car seems lost on those people). I was always interested in the body design, not what was under the bonnet. I was also only ever interested in mass production cars, the ones people actually drove. Even my Corgi collection reflected this – my bedroom proudly exhibited a miniature Austin-Rover dealership.

So I’ve got my dream car. Ferraris? Porches? BMWs? I can’t help smirking when £70,000 worth of supercar pulls up behind me in a petrol station. My dream car cost £300.

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20 Aug 2004

Future classics

The debate as to what constitutes a classic car has being going on for years now, and here is probably not the best place to enter that argument, but one thing we can be sure at here at is that out of the cars we currently cover, we have an abundant supply of classics.

One only needs to look at the BMC>Rover Top Ten to see what I mean. There are the undeniable all-time classics, such as the Mini and Range Rover, as well as the thinking man’s classics, such as the Dolomite and ADO16. So we know the 70s and 80s stable is littered with interesting and desirable cars, and that there’s a wealth of classics here, but what about the future? What cars from the more recent stable are destined for classic status, and what would you get from owning one?

It is probably best to work in equivalency. In other words, what is the modern equivalent of specific cars in the range..?

…the 220 Turbo was (and still is) a
vividly quick car. The path to such
performance was no act of rocket
science, though…
Stick a lumping great engine into a
small car, and then bolt a turbo on
for good measure.

One car that springs to mind as a pukka classic right now is the Triumph Dolomite Sprint. This car was named by many people who took place in the “greatest” poll, and one can see why. Classy styling, thanks to Michelotti, a genuine wood-lined interior experience, but to top off the experience, a 127bhp 16 valve power unit. Bearing in mind, we’re talking about a 1973 car, such technology seriously stood out in the era of overhead valve engines and live rear axles. So, it was an intriguing package, but what really draws enthusiasts to it was its exceptional performance.

Fast forward twenty years, and what car in the Rover range offered the same blend of qualities? How about the Rover R8 2-litre turbo. Offered in three- and five-door hatchback form, the 220 Turbo was (and still is) a vividly quick car. The path to such performance was no act of rocket science, though… stick a lumping great engine into a small car, and then bolt a turbo on for good measure. Maybe not the ingenious solution Spen King came up for the Dolomite Sprint, but effective nonetheless. And what marks it out as a future classic is that it is rare, quick and in the case of the 220 and 420, living in the shadow of the more glamorous Tomcat Coupe.

What else? Where if you want a modern Triumph Stag, look no further than the Rover 800 Coupe. However, as I have covered this car widely on the site, further discussion is probably not needed.

75 variations that will achieve classic status? The Vanden Plas versions and (obviously) the V8 versions (MG and Rover). Anything else less than obvious springs to mind..? I look forward to your suggestions.

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19 Aug 2004

Urban myths

Saw a shocking sight this morning. A Rover 75 on the hard shoulder of the M1, bemused owner, stood outside obviously waiting for the AA to turn up and put things right…

Knowing modern cars, this means the car will be going home on the back of a flatbed, and the owner will be taking up the AA’s Smart car offer.

And that got me thinking. When was the last time I had seen a 75 or MG ZT broken down at the roadside? I racked my brains for a moment and realized that I never actually had. Yes, during the last three or four years of being really Rover-aware, I am pretty sure that I have never seen a broken down 75/ZT. So, what about all these stories of blown head gaskets, then? Well, obviously, these failures cannot be as widespread as the press like to make out. Either that, or a HGF-affected 75 is still completely driveable…

So, we can ascertain that Rover’s finest is not an unreliable car. Or perhaps, more correctly, from my very subjective experience, it does not tend to blow up on the side of the motorway. Which as anyone who has suffered a motorway stoppage will tell you, is a very good thing…

So is Rover’s average reputation
for reliability an urban myth,
then? From my experience,

So is Rover’s average reputation for reliability an urban myth, then? From my experience, absolutely. Taking this idea one step forward, one starts to take more notice of stricken “premium” cars on the side of the road. Start looking for them, and they are easy to spot: the sight of an immobile BMW 3-Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class is not an uncommon one, by any means. Passats and Audis seem similarly fickle. The same cannot be said for Honda, Toyota or Nissan, though.

Draw your own conclusions from that…

Whilst on holiday, I also saw another Rover-related first: a 75 towing a caravan!. God knows where the the notion that the 75 and caravan ownership are mutually exclusive… perhaps it is an expectation borne out of the public’s perception of the image of both groups of owners. It just shows how wrong these perceptions can be.

Either way, it is bad news for Rover. Because once a marque gains a negative image, it is bloody hard to shift.

Still, there is hope. MGs do not suffer from the same fate, and if the MGR can turn around this marque’s image (remember what Joe Public thought of the MG Maestro?), then surely the same can be done for Rover. It might take the RD/X60 to effect a major image shift… but it must be done. Thankfully, looking at AUTOCAR‘s Photoshopped images published this week, the product looks more than strong enough. Which is good, because Rover’s future depends on it.

Oh, and incidentally, when I took a second glance at the stricken 75, something really simple had immobilised it: a flat tyre.

So my faith in the 75 remains intact…

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18 Aug 2004

Back to the future

One welcome item of news to land in my inbox whilst I was out of the country was that Hydragas guru Dr. Alex Moulton is working with Toyota on future projects. Not that the press release specified what these projects are, but one can reasonably confidently predict that it could well be tied in with the suspension system of one of the company’s upcoming small cars.

Think about that for a moment. Hydragas may make a return.

It deserves to. The system did seem to be tarred with the “BL” brush during the 1970s, and it was a reputation that was in no way deserved. Many people out there may not be able to recall the Princess or Allegro without raising a smirk, but what they forget is that both cars possessed a ride quality that far exceeded the expectation of the class that they competed in. Don’t believe me? Take a drive in an Allegro up any average (that is to say, broken and pock-marked) British A-road, and try to remain unimpressed with the ride quality of the thing. Push moderately, and you’ll find that it is also blessed with precise steering and relatively low-roll cornering.

…what people forget is that
the Allegro and Princess both
possessed a ride quality that
far exceeded the expectation
of the class that they
competed in.

OK, a Focus or Rover 45 would murder it overall, but you cannot take it away from the Allegro: for such a small, light car, it rides impressively.

And that’s the thing with interconnection: correctly set-up, it can give a supermini the ride quality of a medium sized car. Rover found this when developing the R6 Metro/100, and it now seems that Toyota have woken up to the fact too. And given Moulton’s messianic belief in interconnection, and his abilities to prove the system, one cannot see the venture failing.

Ironically, the system’s benefits seem to be negated, the larger the car it is applied to. Take a Citroen C5 down a challenging road – and it is difficult to find any obvious advantages over its steel sprung rivals. In fact, if you were then to take a Rover 75 down the same piece of road (as I recently did), you will find that the Rover absolutely destroys the Citroen. Who would have thought that a few years ago: a Rover out-riding a Citroen?

So let’s hope that Toyota gain some of that Moulton Magic in its next small car… what it doesn’t need is a Hydragas Avensis.


Have to say that, unlike Keith, I felt disappointed when I learned that the good doctor is now working with Toyota.

It’s because I’m a hopeless nostaligicist.

It’s because his systems were such an important part of BMC history.

It’s because I find the exodus of British inventions overseas very depressing.

And it’s because I am a nutter.

Most of all, though, it’s the thought that BMC etc. had Hydragas in its hands but ignored its potential until it was too late. I have an MGF.

Enough said.

Of course, Dr Moulton has the right to collaborate with whomsoever he chooses, and as Keith says, his principles of interconnection deserve a wider audience. Indeed, I’ve always found it surprising that he stood by BLMC and its successors when the company seemed to treat him so shabbily.

Having said that there are legions of folk who don’t understand what he was trying to achieve, there are scores of people (jim shephs) who regard Hydrolastic/Hydragas as a joke, but I’m guessing they will be be the very same people who will praise any future interconnected Toyota to the rafters.

And I suspect that we can expect the usual bococks from the press. “New Yaris: the most significant small car since the Mini”; “The world’s most advanced small car”; “Shock! The new Supermini that rides like a luxury saloon”, etc. ad bloody nauseaum.

When, in reality, it’ll be conceptually little different from the 1962 Morris 1100.

And I can’t see any earthly reason why a big car couldn’t profit from such an arrangement.


First of all, I find it a good and interesting move from Toyota to approach Dr. Moulton. I wonder why none of the European ‘prestige’ car makers were there instead of Toyota. But in the end this is another sign how far Toyota have caught up to not only produce reliable and affordable cars, but also refined and technically advanced ones.

Is Hydragas still technically advanced after all these years? I do think so! It offers more then just the interconnection…

You tend to take modern Citroens as a measure for interconnected suspensions in comparison with classic setups today. Of course there is not much choice otherwise. But the Citroen setup – although basically the same as Hydragas – has one major difference that could affect the ride/handling to a good degree. There is nearly no progressiveness in the Citroen system. Only the stronger compression of the gas cushions with higher load on the car give a little (very little) higher stiffnes rate, probably even less then the progressive springs in todays steel-sprung suspensions give. This also means that the suspension stays quite soft when cornering, which meant the introduction of these massive anti-roll bars some years ago. Also – mainly due to wishes of the German market (or press?) – the damping rate was raised over the years to a level on par with other modern cars. So, where is the difference to steel sprung cars today? Due to the interconnection there should be advantages regarding the pitching movement over bumps (probably negated with strong damping anyway), and the car stays soft and comfy on high loads (here again: probably too soft due to damping and springs not very progressive).

Hydrolastic and Hydragas deliver even more – and did move far into a field that is approached by active suspensions today. Ever wondered why a heavily loaded Hydragas or Hydrolastic car feels so stable and rock solid on the road? Why are even soft cars as the 1100 so nimble and quick around corners?

The main reason in my eyes is the cone acting on the displacer. The further the cone gets pushed in, the stiffer is the ‘spring’ AND in the same moment the damping gets higher rates, too! This means that a Moulton-system suspended car will gain stronger damping when loaded, when cornering (on the outer side) or when driving fast over very bad roads which cause a lot of wheel travel. But when driving along straight, even roads low damping rates, soft springs AND – on top of that – the interconnection mean a very comfy ride. (Here is also the reason why Hydrolastic in paricular seems to crash on heavy potholes sometimes, and why this is more a problem affecting the comfort and not the handling/safety.) Basically, this is very similar to what active suspensions try to achieve….

On a big car the pitching rate are naturally quite low, due to the overhangs and weight of the car. But why shouldn’t a properly developed Hydragas bring advantages here? Just imagine – one of my favourite themes – the SD1 on the chassis of the 3-Litre, properly developed into using Hydragas for more responsiveness. Imagine that BL would have had as much money at hand back then as they spent on the Rover 75…

The problem is: Although Hydragas is very simple in the basic working principle, it is not simple to set up, since it is working in a highly non-linear fashion in all it’s functions. Back in the 60s and 70s a lot of ‘feel’ was needed to set these up properly, and certainly the team around Moulton and Issigonis knew what they were doing (e.g. the VP 1300 received slightly different cones to care for the higher weight). Although still not a simple problem, todays computing power might help to find the ‘perfect’ setup. Although in my honest opinion, the 3-Litre was very close already.

I wonder if I will be driving a Toyota in years to come?


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17 Aug 2004

WWW hiccoughs

So, I wonder how many people are actually reading this? As of today, we are no longer clients of UKWebsystems. After a couple of years of excellent service, I decided that it was time to make the painful decision to move the site to a different provider’s server. This is not because of any problems with the service I have received from the company, but simply because I had to take a more cost-effective solution.

So, that means that we are no longer linked (materially) to and its organizer, Steve Childs. As I have said before, bandwidth useage seems to have become the site’s problem – as in, we’re so successful that people can’t get enough of us. During July, 52Gb of data was transferred from by some 30,000 users. That’s impressive, but it also means that when you’re paying for bandwidth, it’s rather costly. In fact, for July, site hosting charges amounted to £90.00, which, when there’s no income coming in, is rather a lot of money.

So, for the moment, the site is now housed by Streamline on an “unlimited” package. Posterity will tell us if this approach is the correct one, and whether the quality of the service has been affected or not. But unless you lot tell me, then I’ll be none the wiser.

Rover’s engineers could stick
the 75 V8 on castors and still
manage to make it ride and
handle well…

On a more positive note, I went over to Longbridge today for a chat with the company’s PR department, and very productive it was, too. More of this, to come, but what was interesting was that I spotted the production version of the Rover V8, and I have to say that sitting on its customer-spec 17-inch wheels (as opposed to the 19-inch “bin lids” of the Geneva car), it still managed to look great. There’s still some discussion going on as to whether the 17- or 18-inch versions will be the standard fare. Given Rover’s commitment to provide legendary ride quality and chassis refinement, the obvious choice would be the smaller wheels, but customers are now demanding increasingly big wheels…

I suspect Rover will bow to customer demand and go for the 18s. As I said to them, “Your engineers could stick that car on castors and still manage to make it ride and handle well…” I wasn’t joking, either.

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16 Aug 2004

Back in Blighty

It’s good to be back in the UK. I ruminated on this very thought as I drove through the night to get home on Saturday. After two weeks of generally good European motorway lane discipline, it was business as usual on the M20/M25/M11, where, more often than not the outer two lanes were busy with drivers intent on proving the size of their engine/manhood/ego (delete where appropiate) by not wishing to move over into that empty inner lane. Ahh well.

Forgive me whilst I indulge myself here, but us Brits do seem to drive in a certain way. Well, it appears that way when you see us driving abroad. There’s motorway lane discipline, for one thing: we like to make sure that we’re in the overtaking lane nice and early to get past the slower moving vehicle ahead, and if there’s another one a quarter of a mile ahead, then we remain out there to overtake that – regardless of the flow of the traffic behind. Invariably, this brings down the speed of everyone else, bunching up the surrounding traffic, making us even less inclined to move out of that overtaking lane.

It’s a classic case of passive aggression really. Well, passive until those in the inner lane are moving faster than those in the outer lane. Then it becomes an aggressive lane-changing free-for-all. Still, at least we’re a consistent bunch.

Now, take the French (please take the French… just kidding). They have the luxury of living in a country with five-times the land mass of the UK, and an evenly spread of town and cities. This means their roads are lightly trafficked and more often than not, lightly policed. On the Autoroute, though, they seem to understand the demands of traffic flow, and even though they need it less than us, they work hard to keep the overtaking lane free for that – overtaking. This leads to some disconcerting driving (from the British perspective), and it’ll scare you witless the first time you see a faster drivier whizz up to the back of you only to swerve out at the last possible moment. Whatever, it does seem to work effectively indeed.

The Italians are different
again. God knows what they
feed their cars on down
there, but it isn’t petrol.

The Italians are different again. God knows what they feed their cars on down there, but it certainly isn’t petrol. Seicentos are driven the same way that Golf GT TDIs are here in the UK (only faster), and everyone seems to want to race you. Well, they wanted to race me, anyway… Unlike in France, where your cards are marked as a “rosbif” (from “roast beef”… it is a term of endearment, in the way that “frog” is here in the UK) the moment you trundle out of Calais, Italians don’t seem to want to run us off the road. In fact, from what I saw, all they wanted to see was how fast my car could go. Forza Italia!

And the Swiss… ooh well, they are a rich bunch. Look around Geneva, and the Audi RS4 and RS6 seem to be as common as the Mondeo/3-Series is here in the UK. Porsches and Ferraris are pretty common as well. The average Swiss seems to drive an E-Class/Audi A6, and one can see why, given, the country’s fantastic roads. Except. Except that they don’t seem to speed at all (unless they’re somewhere else). All these powerful cars, and no will to use them. Well, it looks that way, but the real reason for this lack of verve behind the wheel seems to be down to the GATSO factor. Switzerland is littered with the things, and as a result, everyone drives well within the limits.

And in a way, these national traits of our European kinsmen make one realise that things are not all that bad in the UK. The motorways may be crowded and slow here, but if you’re not in a rush, at least they can be relatively stress-free. And unlike France and Italy, we do not have tolls. Maybe that’s the reason their motorways are so clear… maybe not. And we can moan all we want about Speed cameras in the UK, but at least the authorities warn us of their presence… for goodness sake, they paint them luminous yellow – if you get caught by one in the UK, you’re obviously not concentrating on your driving. In France, Germany and Switzerland, on the other hand, they are hidden in the most devious places imaginable…

Nope, I said it before and I’ll say it again… it’s good to be back in Blighty.

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13 Aug 2004

Déjà vu


If a recent article in Auto Express is to be believed, it won’t be too long before MG Rover Group will be able to offer up a broad new range, allowing them to replace the rapidly ageing 25 and 45, and to a lesser extent the less-than-popular CityRover. There are also plans to replace the 75, which must be considered to be a pleasant change from previous management’s attitudes, whereby if a model was deemed successful a replacement wasn’t planned until it was absolutely necessary.

So, perhaps it’s finally time for MGR’s fans to rejoice in the news that there is indeed to be a future for the company. It must be true, as it has been discussed on this site’s forum (mainly in the Proton thread) for many months!

Just one small point: looking at the plethora of past articles regarding BMC>MGR, perhaps it’s a little bit early to be cracking open the champagne just yet. After all, we’ve all heard about BMC>MGR’s amazing comeback plans that never quite materialised, such as the proposed China Brilliance deal.

That said, the thought that the current cars may not be around for all eternity has lent renewed vigour to my hobby of spotting MG Rover products. So much so, that seeing 75s – and to a lesser extent, 25s and 45s – is now an everyday occurrence, while my tally of CityRover sightings is now over 50. Providing, that is, its not the same few being frequently spotted on the amazingly patriotic roads of the ‘Black Country’, where ‘The Rover’ is still considered with some regard.

Despite the sales figures suggesting that there are fewer new MG Rover products on the road each year, on average, the numbers spotted do seem to increase. It may just be that as there are fewer around, I have become more aware of them; or perhaps the West Midlands area just has a greater concentration of people who still buy MGR products.

…offering fresh, modern
and competitive cars
might help…

Again MGR’s imminent death appears to have been overstated on the whole, even though the Rover brand in particular appears to be treated as something of a joke by the motoring media, and is believed to be in a very sorry state by many potential buyers. If the next generation of cars is to succeed, they don’t only need to satisfy existing customers, but clearly need to attract new ones. It’s open to debate as to how this could be best achieved, however offering fresh, modern and competitive cars might help…

Being an eternal optimist I still believe that MG Rover can improve their current situation. The problem is that it’s the general public and potential customers who need to believe it; or rather, they need to be made to believe it can be done. This doesn’t necessarily mean lots of brand-related marketing or lots of media hype, but a little confidence in the current products and enhanced image through improved (existing) products would probably work wonders, and help the new cars on their way – providing that they ever arrive.

The only potential problem appears to be that the car buying public’s patience and resolve have been tested (to the limit?) by BMC>MGR through the many false hopes and promises that they have been offered. Every time it looks as though the company might pull something off, they inevitably don’t quite succeed. A good example of this was the ADO16, which really had the potential to breed a great line of small family models to keep Longbridge and Cowley at full capacity for years. This wasn’t really followed up convincingly until the Metro and then R8, neither of which was convincingly replaced.

Again, the potential for disappointment is probably as great as ever, but hopefully with a more sympathetic management team in place, it’s possible that we will at least see the likes of the R8 200 series once more.

So, can sustained success be achieved? That probably depends upon one’s definition of success and the scales that we are talking about. Perhaps shoring up the company’s domestic operations and finding some new international sales would be sufficient. Maybe just enough revenue to keep things ticking over and have enough money rolling in to fund new models.

In the end, even those who believe in MGR probably don’t believe that sustained success is likely, mainly due to the actions taken by the company in its previous incarnations rather than through any fault of the current team.

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12 Aug 2004

Routemaster reflections


Realisation that the days of Routemaster bus operation in London are now finally numbered is bringing forth the inevitable rearguard action to save this so-called ‘icon” of the capital and its transport. Sentiment or common sense?

Let me make one thing clear from the start. I am as much a fan of the Routemaster as the next man (or woman). One of my earliest primary school memories is being let out of class early to ride on the first Routemaster in trial service on route 2 in the spring of 1956. At my insistence, my father had contacted Cricklewood garage to extract from an official there the details of RM 1’s runnings, so that we did not waste unnecessary time waiting at Baker Street station for the bus to appear. As a young bus enthusiast, I watched and recorded the entry into service of the first thousand or so deliveries, as the Routemaster replaced trolleybuses across London. (Now there was a real loss, but I’ll resist the temptation of that potential digression!)

Joining London Transport as a school leaver in 1963, one of my first jobs was to work on comparative analyses of the Routemaster against other types of bus, with doors and front entrances, that were then being introduced in cities outside London .So even then the knives were being sharpened against the Routemaster, but it was to see off all challengers for many more years yet. When I was accepted on to a management training scheme in 1967, I spent a few happy months as a bus conductor; so I got to know the Routemaster from that perspective, as well as that of passenger, which I have been throughout the Routemaster’s forty years in front line service.

But let’s pause there. Forty years. That’s well beyond the natural life of any bus. It’s thanks to the Routemasters’ robust design and construction that they have lasted that long, albeit with new engines and substantial refurbishment. But in that time the world has moved on. There is properly much more concern for the plight of people with mobility problems. By that I don’t mean specifically people in wheelchairs; but the wide range of travellers in our aging population who are less nimble than they used to be. For them, the move to buses with a totally flat floor has been a boon; as it has to mothers with baby buggies and anyone with similar encumberances.

Why have two members of
staff on a bus, when you
really only need one?

We have belatedly discovered other means of fare collection apart from paying a cash fare each and every time we travel. Travelcards started the trend to pre-payment; now you can readily buy a Bus Pass, carnet ticket book or single ticket before you travel. So who needs a conductor? They are so helpful, we are told. Helping people on board, giving advice and generally being a cheery chappie. Is this really the reality? Or just our rose-tinted, wishful hope of things as they might have been but seldom were. I can certainly recall some excellent conductors of the ‘old school” for whom nothing was too much trouble; but equally I have seen some really sloppy ones who would sit on the long rear seats at the back of the lower deck and try to supervise passengers boarding and alighting from there. No wonder there were some nasty – sometimes fatal – accidents from the open rear platform.

In the final analysis, you cannot ignore the economics. Why have two members of staff on a bus, when you really only need one. Or put another way, which is the better way to use two members of staff? To drive two buses, so doubling the service frequency, or crew only one?

So often we read in the press about how efficient public transport is in cities abroad. Much of this is based on myth, but no major city in the world (or any other in the UK) now relies on conductors. They have all discovered, as we belatedly did, better ways of collecting fares. If the Routemaster had not been so robust we might have seen the light much earlier.

So let’s treasure the memories of a vehicle that has faithfully served London for over forty years. Keep a few in service, as is intended, on a tourist route to allow us to relive the experience of 1960s’ bus travel, much as I enjoy my Morris Minor. But I use my Morris for occasional fun, not for the serious business of daily travel. So should it be with the Routemaster. There are other, more modern red double-deck bus types, to which the Routemaster can pass on its iconic status.

Barry LeJeune is Chairman of the Omnibus Society, a national body for people with an interest in the history and current operations of the bus and coach industry. The views he expresses here are his own.

Following the trial-running of four prototypes between 1954 and 1957, the Routemaster bus was built by AEC Ltd at their Southall factory in west London between June 1958 and March 1968. In 1962, AEC’s parent company ACV merged with Leyland Motors Ltd. The factory continued in operation as part of the Leyland group until its closure in 1979, which also marked the demise of the AEC marque.

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11 Aug 2004

End of an era


Those of you who like Rover 800s will have probably read about my exploits with an ex-Rover Group Sterling saloon on the website.

Not a normal Sterling, it has a VIN number that’s several thousand cars too early to be a ‘Mk1c”, yet has all sorts of later wiring and some rather odd hand-made bits here and there. Having led a very eventful life; it appears to have been crashed into during its first year, being repaired by Rover. Later on in its life it had been left un-serviced for approximately five years! And yet it still managed to run in fairly rude health, providing plenty of driver enjoyment. There’s no doubt that this is due to the manual gearbox and the full-fat 177PS Honda V6 engine. No Rover engine would stand such abuse and still come back for more.

This particular car has provided much amusement for me over the past 8 months, being full of the usual niggles that ravaged any ‘normal” 800. Wiring faults galore, some corrosion issues to deal with (from the ‘professional” Rover repair), but it still MOTd with very little drama. We were in business – driving what can only be described as a real ‘yob’s” car. Hooning around with that glorious V6 was a sheer delight, well worn (190,000 mile old) suspension components providing plenty of ‘amusement” – AKA – unpredictability on bumpy London roads.

This was improved by the fitment of Vitesse Sport springs and dampers, which transformed the car, lowering it by 25mm, providing a compliant, yet well controlled ride. Now it actually held the road – and provided some serious fun!

…my question was answered
by a rather well timed offer
from Keith Adams…

However, all good things have to come to an end, and the age old subject of economics comes into play. I could quite easily have spent thousands on the car; stripping it down, repainting it, re-trimming the interior to make it look how it should. The engine really needed rebuilding; to get the car to the standard I would desire would take months of work, and lots of cash – was it really worth it? I thought long and hard, very nearly taking the plunge – but my question was answered by a rather well timed offer from Keith Adams: would I be interested in his partner’s Sterling Coupe for a very good price?

And I think you know the answer to that question. So I’m a Sterling Coupe driver now. However, what happens to G46 JOX?

Do I sell it, only to find that the next owner runs the MOT out, and then scraps it? Or someone crashes it? Or it’s stolen? That would break my heart – so there was only one option; I take the car apart myself, safe in the knowledge that anything useful will go to a good home. And that brings us to today: where I start taking parts off the car.

So there we have it – thank you G46 JOX for providing hours of enjoyment and pleasure, occasional frustration and the odd cut or bruise. Honda we salute you for providing engineering that can take every bit of punishment meted out to it, yet still come back for more! And Rover, thank you for creating a stylish, charismatic car, that never failed to amuse!”

And one final thought; I wonder if I’ll be able to acquire a 14 year old Rover 75 in years to come that can take the same abuse?

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10 Aug 2004

Old men’s cars?


The other day I had to stop and wonder. Am I an old man?

I like Rovers, I like their style, grace and serenity, which to me is especially evident on all of their larger cars both past and present. The 75 exemplifies what a car is all about: travelling in style, grace and – in the V6/V8 versions – pace. Somehow they just look right. Most of my (adult) experience of a Rover is thanks to a second generation 800. Now that really was a car that I liked, or dare I even say enjoyed?

And this is where the problem lies.

Rovers are often proclaimed to be ‘uncool’ old men’s cars, the 800 especially so. Yet in a straight line I have left more than the occasional ‘chav’ choking on my nice (clean) exhaust fumes. Even the bends are fun once you understand understeer, and get over the feeling of sea sickness.

In effect I am still in awe of the old girl, despite her propensity to take off on a speed bump even at a moderate speed and the rain-sensitive electrics, where being rain-sensitive meant I couldn’t get a window to close once it had started raining – unfortunately a common occurrence in North Wales, as were wet laps…

My liking of Rovers appears
to make me an old man, but
I’m not yet twenty-four.

Despite what my head and experience tells me, I’m still a Rover fan and can see past most faults. I really do like Rovers. And now we come to the crux of the problem.

My liking of Rovers appears to make me an old man, but I’m not yet twenty-four. I dislike BMWs, Mercs and Audis (etc) as I feel they are too flashy and don’t really serve the purpose (of getting from A-to-B) any better than say a Focus or 45. This might make me an Issigonis-style puritanical thinker, who believes that cars should be efficient and purposeful.

So how can I justify all I’ve just said about Rover? Perhaps its because I like their easy-going and somehow charming character, that sense of calm and perhaps ‘serenity’ that somehow makes them a little more relaxing and marks them out among the millions of BMWs and Fords out there. Although I still believe that Rovers offer blend of traits that somehow make them a nicer place to be, this doesn’t seem to be what people want anymore. If people wanted nice, would they buy a BMW? After all its an (aggressive) ultimate driver’s machine.

In the end, I suppose you could say all of the reasons why I like Rovers are what make me an old man, and in turn are what makes Rovers old men’s cars. It’s a shame really, as surely the roads would be a little better if they were full of contented Rover drivers. But it really doesn’t matter too much what ‘old men’ like me think; we’ll undoubtedly be ridiculed by Top Gear and Rovers will continue to be ignored by the majority of the car buying public.

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9 Aug 2004

I wish they did


Returning home from work this evening, among all the usual junk mail and rather depressing letters such as bills, I had a rather nice surprise waiting for me.

No, not two free tickets to the Motor Show at the NEC. That’s long past, although I did thoroughly enjoy it and the free tickets.

Instead I received an invitation to take an extended test drive of two cars at Bruntingthorpe Aerodrome at the end of this month. Not only that, but I could choose any two cars from the range and drive them for 30 minutes each on a mixture of country lanes and A-roads surrounding the aerodrome.

So does MG Rover Group deserve the victory for this little marketing coup? I wish they did, however the honour falls to Renault.

In days gone by, I hated popping into my Renault dealership due to the fact that I would inevitably be met with long delays and an indifferent attitude from the service department. The sales department by contrast was always more welcoming, but seeing as though they need to speak to customers in order to sell to them that’s no great surprise.

…if Renault deem me to be
worthy of such a treat, then
perhaps Rover should as well.

On the other hand, things always seemed to be the other way around at the Rover dealership, who where pretty courteous and helpful when it came to maintaining the car, but less so when I wanted to buy one. Hence the invitation to the Renault day out…

It may be an age thing: perhaps Rover don’t expect their customers to be under 25, since I was completely ignored when attempting to buy a new Rover a few years ago.

Getting back to the point, I have received excellent service over the last two years from Renault, yet not a word from Rover. Perhaps they telepathically knew the 800 had gone to a better place. Either that or they didn’t care…

Which all goes to make me think that, if Renault deem me to be worthy of such a treat, then perhaps Rover should as well. If they were to do so, I’d be off like a shot. While with Renault I’m less than sure, as I don’t intend to buy another one, yet I can never quite resist an offer like that.

On balance the Renault day out looks pretty inviting, combining the choice of two cars from a total of seven, plus being able to put a few cars through their paces on the aerodrome itself and being able to sit in the car with one of Renault’s drivers, followed by practising some moves such as understeer control. Oh, and did I mention the F1 cars?

In the end this all looks like a pretty impressive yet low-key PR exercise for Renault, and this combined with a gradually improving customer service not to mention mass marketing and new models, begins to put the likes of MGR into the shade.

Its not as though MG couldn’t and – for all I know – don’t do something similar; I wish they did, but if they don’t perhaps they should, as I for one am a pretty satisfied Renault owner right now.

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5 Aug 2004

Pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap


My wife has a theory about cars. And for once it’s quite plausible, posing the question: ‘Which shop would sell which car?’

Marks and Spencer is easy, she says – they’d stock BMWs.

Tesco? They’d concentrate on Rovers, Fords and Vauxhalls.

And that’s it, short and sweet – if only all her theories were…

But it got me thinking – if Tesco Value sold cars, would they even consider the CityRover? You never know, if they offered them on a BOGOF (buy one, get one free) deal, it could work.

Truth is, the far-from-cheap yet cheerful(ish) CityRover is not one of MG Rover’s better products. Still, I suppose for the company which gave us the Mini and Metro, two out of three ain’t bad. Regulars may remember I was underwhelmed by a dealer demo Sprite I drove a few months ago from a Kendal garage (sign of the times – said garage is now selling Renaults). Like Chris Harris in Autocar, I appreciated the sprightly performance from the 1.4-litre engine but criticised the appalling interior finish of the car where ‘good’ is just not good enough – have a look at rivals from Hyundai, Ford and Suzuki to see what I mean.

Anyway, a request for a test car from the MGR press fleet was finally granted and in mid-June, a cherry red Sprite was delivered. (If it was by the driver who revealed the car’s name after he saw them prior to the launch photoshoot, I owe him one. That tip earned me £50 from Auto Express.)

…the car is not entirely bereft
of character – and is a great
conversation starter…

Arriving home from work gave me a quick chance to have a walk round the car, poke around in the cabin, savour the new-car smell and peruse the handbook. First remarks on my test notes were all positive, thanks to a lustrous paint finish, excellent exterior styling which the CityRover need not be ashamed of, and a good amount of cabin space with room in the rear for the remaining two children at home.

That night I took the sporty variant of the new range (for “sporty” read front foglights, alloy wheels, and side sill extensions) for a short run to get an initial feel for it. After putting it through its paces I was pleasantly surprised by the car’s pulling power, flexibility and good brakes, although the patchy gearchange (smooth when mastered but annoyingly notchy at times), hard ride, quirky dashboard and some of the cheap trim unfortunately merited nil points.

I’m sorry to have to report that a week behind the wheel was largely forgettable, although the car is not entirely bereft of character – and is a great conversation starter. For instance, one wag asked if its name should really be spelt with an ‘Sh’ replacing the ‘C’ and an extra ‘t’ in the middle…

So, will the CityRover make its mark in the supermini class? Considering that just 4,000-odd have been sold so far, my fingers – and a lot else besides – are still crossed. Certainly, the MGR press office is bullish about its prospects, yet the only ones I have seen have mainly been bought by, ahem, people of a certain age who once would have had a Metro or Rover 100. Whether they much care where the car is made, the degree of opprobrium it has attracted from some of the motoring press (James May? Never heard of him…) and the fact it is outclassed in several key areas by much of the competition is open to debate. And what the resale value will be when they come to sell it is an unknown quantity so far (though I for one am not too optimistic). For many of them, the fact they might turn a few heads at the whist drive or WI meeting by mentioning that they drive the new baby Rover will be enough.

Meanwhile, rumours that the car is receiving, among other things, an urgent interior makeover are as yet unconfirmed. For the time being, here’s my theory on how to get sales moving: cut prices of each model by £1000 and be really radical by standardising power steering on the Solo and pricing it at £4,999. Use it as a “loss leader” to simply buy market share – it’s what the supermarkets do, and if it’s good enough for Tesco then why not for CityRover?

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4 Aug 2004

It was 20 years ago today


Back in August 1984 my father and I travelled from the village in Bedfordshire where we lived to the Mini 25 festival at Donington race circuit, in AKX 611F – a Tartan Red Morris Mini 1000 Mk2. AKX 611F was my first car, and it was my pride and joy, although truth be told it was in the final stages of decomposition: 100,000 miles on the clock, a thirst for oil and water and the dreaded rust. Yet I was proud to be a Mini owner and stoutly defended the car against those who thought it was a relic of a bygone age, and that it had been superceded by the likes of the Mk3 Ford Escort, Metro, Sierra, Cavalier and other 1980s kings of the road.

This was 1984, the year of George Orwell’s novel, the year of Thatcher, Reagan, the miners’ strike, Duran Duran, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and when millions of pre-pubescent girls still thought of George Michael as a ladies’ man… The compact disc had just been launched and this writer remembers Judith Hann on BBC TV’s Tomorrow’s World demonstrating how it could still play even when coated with marmalade. As the vinyl era faded, one of the best selling artists was Phil Collins. Nowadays buying Phil Collins’ records is like breaking wind: no one admits they’ve done it!

Back in 1984 the biggest threat to Western civilization was seen as Soviet communism. Now it is obesity and the giant corporate fast food outlets, or so we are led to believe.

But I digress.

I devoured everything I could get hold of about the Mini, and even memorised facts and figures about the car. Like the fact the Cooper S boasted some 76bhp, could do 0-60 in 11.2 seconds and had nimonic valves and a nitrided crankshaft! I became a card-carrying member of the Alec Issigonis fan club, applauding the incredible space efficiency of the Mini and his other designs – the 1100/1300 and the 1800 – while looking disdainfully at other cars which crammed their occupants in like sardines.

Mind you, I can’t say I particuarly enjoyed the journey to Donington. A 1960s Mini is not the most comfortable form of transportation; it’s noisy, and the standard seats tend to induce lumbago (which I think was also the name of the new Austin saloon – or was that Montego?) We cruised along at around 60mph, well within the car’s 75mph top speed (although I once managed an indicated 80mph, downhill).

Harold Musgrove wanted to kill the
Mini because he felt it was taking
sales away from the Metro.

Once at Donington we found lots of other Minis, including ex-works examples, though of course the club scene didn’t exist back then. The tannoy informed us that this or that Mini personality was there. The whole event was organised by Austin Rover, as they were then called. We now know that Austin Rover boss Harold Musgrove wanted to kill the Mini because he felt it was taking sales away from the Metro. The latest Mini at the time was the appropriately named Mini 25, a special edition complete with disc brakes! WOW! The drum brakes on AKX 611F tended to fade rapidly.

There was also Mini racing. One of the participants lived in the same village as me, a lady called Barbara Cowell. Where are you now? There was a delay in starting the race as aimless Joe Public couldn’t be persuaded of the importance of not standing on the racetrack during the race! We took plenty of photographs and on our return we sent them off to be developed. We are still waiting for them to come back…

AKX 611F lasted another two years. I wanted to fit an engine from a 1300GT saloon to it, and obtained some 1275GT disc brakes, but I didn’t have the expertise to complete the job and realise my Cooper S fixation. I fantasized about having a red Mini with a white roof, a mega-tuned 1275cc engine and wide wheels. Eventually the Hydrolastic suspension collapsed and AKX 611F was no more. I moved on to a 1981 Metro 1.3HLS, and then a 1995 Metro 1.4 GTa before seeing the light and returning to the Mini.

From the demise of AKX 611F in 1986, it wasn’t until the 2004 Himley Hall show that I saw another Morris Mini Mk2 saloon. They seem to be a very rare beast, yet some 206,000 were manufactured as opposed to 145,000 Mini Coopers of all types. Is that because they have all been converted into 1960s Mini Coopers and sold on to gullible punters for £10,000 plus?

Oh and two more things. I now have that red Mini with a white roof, mega-tuned 1275cc engine and wide wheels, and I am once again a big fan of Alec Issigonis’s car designs. Modern cars just don’t have any room in them.

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3 Aug 2004

How did we get here, from there?


The British motor industry began in earnest at the start of the last century.

Initially it could have been described as little more than a cottage industry, with literally hundreds of home-grown specials, and manufacturers setting up small workshops and buying in many component parts. However there were a few notable early efforts, including Lanchester, who have the honour of producing the first British car, and Daimler, who despite initially being related to their German namesake quickly started producing their own designs.

Whilst initially there was the potential for a large number of small-scale manufacturers, it quickly became apparent that economies of scale were of increasing importance, especially combined with more intense competition from larger-scale operators such as Wolseley and later on Austin and Morris.

By the time the First World War had ended, there were fewer manufacturers than there had been a mere decade before, and those that were still in existence needed to grow in order to survive. This phenomenon continued apace right through the 1920s and up to the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression of the 1930s. It was by this stage becoming obvious that only the successful and wealthy could hope to compete, and mass production was becoming more commonplace, thereby further increasing the manufacturing set-up costs.

In effect after the Second World War, the smaller players would either be priced out of the market due to the costs of developing new models and putting them into production (much like Jowett in 1954), taken over by the bigger players or just simply unable to compete with the ever-stronger competition. Whilst these factors acted in the favour of Austin and Morris right on up to the 1952 merger, they still continued to affect the car industry, with even the more successful of the independents like Standard-Triumph and Jaguar succumbing to the larger players.

The 1960s looked promising for
BMC… By contrast, the 1970s
only proved disappointing.

The 1960s looked promising for BMC, with the launch of several important new products, but that did not stop it being taken over by Leyland. By contrast, the 1970s only proved disappointing: BLMC continued to grow weaker throughout the decade, although the launch of the Metro in 1980 afforded some new hope. But by the mid-1990s even the last bastion of the (volume) British-owned motor industry had been lost. Not for long, though: emerging bruised and battered after a difficult marriage and an even more difficult divorce, MG and Rover were once again free from BMW.

The continuing decline of BMC>MGR isn’t unique within the British motor industry. In fact, the company’s fortunes appear to perfectly chart those of the industry in general, with its successes and failures playing an important role. Indeed, MGR could now be described as the industry.

From the perspective of the early 21st Century, it’s quite amazing to be able to look back over more than 100 years of history, and realise all that is now left of the British motor industry is MGR. Even counting small-scale or foreign owned manufacturers, you may come to ask yourself: How did we get here, from there?

From among the many BMC>MGR marques (including Lanchester, Daimler, Jaguar, Standard, Triumph, Rover, Alvis, Wolseley, Riley, MG, Morris, Austin, Trojan, Authi, Innocenti, Vanden Plas, Land Rover and Austin Healey) only MG and Rover remain in British ownership. MGR is the latest – and some might say the last – incarnation of the BMC>MGR saga, and come to that of the entire British motor industry itself.

At least there is still something left, and surely that’s worth fighting for.

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2 Aug 2004

Get lost


My sense of direction has never been brilliant: I can guarantee that any journey by car to a place I haven’t visited recently will involve at least two or three wrong turnings, no matter how well I prepare for it. The now-annual trek to the Ferry Meadows showground in Peterborough to attend the BMC/BL day is a case in point.

For my first trip in 2002, I was very careful to check the route at (even putting the directions up on this website). I printed off large-scale maps of the final approach route and also took copious written notes. Yet as soon as I’d left the straightforward security of the A1(M), I found myself bewildered by the profusion of multi-exit roundabouts and stretches of road that seemed to bear no relation to anything I’d printed out. After driving around aimlessly for a while in the general vicinity of the showground, I spotted a late-Seventies Triumph Dolomite whose driver seemed to know where he was going, so I decided to follow him. He knew where he was going all right: he was going home. Which just happened to be in a cul-de-sac. I sheepishly reversed out again, and continued to wander around aimlessly until I finally spotted some signs for the show.

…with each circuit of the roundabout
it became harder and harder to keep a
straight face…

Last year was different. I’d taken the precaution of meeting up with John Capon and Dale Turley in a lay-by just off the M1, and from there we went in convoy to meet up with Keith Adams a few miles further on. What with Keith and Dale being virtual locals (relatively speaking), getting there would be plain sailing. Well, getting to Peterborough itself was a piece of cake, but finding the showground once we were there was a bit more challenging. It seems that Dale, who was leading, had had a similar idea to mine from the year before: just get to “Peterborough”, and then follow the most likely looking BL classic he could find. Except before long, we found that a number of likely looking BL classics were actually following us! A comical situation became almost surreal at the point where our string of BMC>Rover machinery entered a roundabout without having a clue as to which exit to take, so we just kept going round. And round. And round. On each circuit, we could see the same cars waiting to join the roundabout, but not having any chance of doing so while we were monopolising it. And with each circuit it became harder and harder to keep a straight face, especially when it occurred to me that at least some of those drivers waiting to join the roundabout were in Maestros, Montegos and the like, and might therefore be our best bet for actually getting to the showground. Unless, of course, they were also forlornly hoping to follow our group…

But yesterday morning, for the first time in three years, and without the merest hint of preparation, I managed to arrive at the showground in Peterborough without putting a foot wrong: no U-turns, no head-scratching stops in lay-bys, nothing. Admittedly, I was following a friend in his MGF for the last 50 miles or so of the trip, but his sense of direction is even worse than mine. Except that now he’s got sat-nav, and it worked a treat.

So, is sat-nav taking some of the fun out of motoring? Is it undermining those countless opportunities for serendipitous discovery? What about all those tales with which we’ve regaled our friends over the years: “Well, we took a left turn and ended up in a… dead-end/field/quagmire/charming village/different time-zone.” Being guided effortlessly to your intended destination is undoubtedly a dream come true for some, especially those who drive for a living, and I have to say that I was very grateful for it on Sunday. But I couldn’t help feeling that – somehow – I’d been robbed of a story…

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1 Aug 2004

The sun always shines on Peterborough


OK, the locals might take issue with the above assertion. But if, like me, you tend only to visit Peterborough once a year for the annual BMC/BL Rally, you could be forgiven for believing it. Both this year and last, the event has been blessed with scorching temperatures, making red-hot bonnets and tomato-red faces the order of the day.

One visitor to the stand said that it was a bit
like seeing the company’s ups and downs
over the years laid out before him…

The stand was pretty hot, too. This was our biggest year so far, with some twenty cars gracing our stand. Of course, it was a foregone conclusion that the SD2 prototype would attract the most attention, but it’s fair to say that all the cars on the stand found their admirers, with many people simply starting at one end and working their way around the lot. At least one visitor to the stand commented that it was great to see such a variety of cars in one place, rather than just a row of variations on the same model. Another said that it was a bit like seeing the company’s ups and downs over the years laid out before him…

A fuller report of the show, with photos of all the cars on our stand, can be found here. But for now, a big thank-you must go to all those who helped to make our presence at the show the success it was, and especially to Alexander Boucke, who booked the stand and facilitated the sale of merchandise; to Dale Turley, who prepared the laminated showcards for each car; to Kevin Davis, who brought along the flags and banners; to Keith, for booking the hire of SD2; and of course, to each of our exhibitors, without whose cars we wouldn’t have had a stand in the first place. Thanks also to everyone who purchased merchandise from our stand.

Keith Adams

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