Blogs : August 2006

29 August



BEING lucky to have what I reckon is one of the best jobs in the worlds has its perks – yeah, you could say that when I’m not busy driving classic Aston Martins or brand new Jaguars, I’m off jetting to some far flung corner of the world attending some exciting car launch. Well, of course the reality isn’t quite that sweet, but there are times when I say to myself, ‘thanks fortune for lucking me into it…’

I felt that way today. Not because I’d been spending a week behind the wheel of a MINI Cooper S Works GP – or even because it’s ‘fleet news’ day and I get to write about my collection of jalopies – but because a really brilliant and insightful book landed on my desk.

Apologies if this sounds like Payola Page – because it most certainly isn’t – but the book ‘Making Cars at Longbridge’ really is rather good, and even if you have a passing interest in the place (which I’m sure you don’t reading this site), it’s well worth tracking down a copy of the book and adding it to your collection.

Compiled by Gillian Bardsley and Colin Corke, the book is a visual feast, containing many before unseen images of Longbridge and the cars it produced. Okay, it’s not too word heavy (but there’s always Barney Sharratt’s book for that), but the pictures really are worth the asking price of the book alone, and that’s a mere £14.99.

With the destruction of the Longbridge Conveyor Bridge, and the almost daily reports of buildings being ripped down, a flick through this book is an enjoyable trip into past – happier – times.

If you’re interested in buying a copy, get in touch with Tempus Publishing ( – or buy it from Amazon for considerably less money…

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28 August



WHILE Alexander (below) has come to the conclusion that the only way the ‘classic’ Mini could have been replaced was by something altogther different in concept, I’ve decided that there really is a point where you can have too much of a good thing.

The 2001 MINI was a fantastic marketing exercise that thanks to strength in depth on the engineering side, has managed to maintain its success – and looks like it will continue to do so as BMW rolls out the V3.0 version at this year’s Paris Motor Show.

I’ve been enjoying the delights of the ultimate statement of the 2001 car – the MINI Cooper S Works GP – and I have to say that as much as I like the aggressive handling and spirited performance of the car, I can’t help but come to the conclusion that it’s a little on the contrived side for me. And the chances are that most of the 2000 produced will end up being cherished in personal collections, rather than used in real life on real roads.

You can try and use it in real life, of course, but with such a hard (abeit well-damped) ride and no rear seats, you’re not going to make many friends. ‘Ahh but it’s a track focused weapon’, I hear you cry. Well, maybe, but there are some odd inconsistencies on the spec sheet – such as air conditioning, and no rear wiper – which make one wonder whether it really was conceived with the track in mind. It’s also expensive for a 218bhp supermini at £22,000, and there are plenty of more effective ways of getting bangs for your bucks.

But I can’t help but love it. I’d not be able to live with it unless the resurface All of the UK’s roads – but my brief fling with it has proven that there are ways of getting effective throttle steer on modern cars, and that you can recreate the sound of A-Series TIS transmission whine with a supercharger.

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25 August

The spiritual new Mini?


THERE’S a new to hit the German market – and it has really raised my interest. Not that it should seems particularly inspirin: the new Daihatsu Trevis.

The thing that grabbed my intention was, that nearly every writer has drawn comparisons with the old, classic Mini. Have they just fallen for the looks, which certainly have taken some inspiration by Issigonis’ masterpiece, or is there more?

Small wheels on each corner, roomy interior, simple and effective – it’s an honest car, not one trying to be a ‘premium’ produce… Even the interior is of a no-frills simplicity – if slightly boring. So the ingredients are there, but would Issigonis have approved a car like that? And, what if Rover Group would have been taking a path like that to replace Mini and Metro in one go?

Surely Alec Issigonis would not have seen the need for electric windows or air conditioning fitted to a small car like that. But cars need to be sold after all, and people are expecting certain equipment on their cars today. But otherwise, it seems to me that this car follows the path the 9X would have taken as a five-door small family car: slightly longer then the original Mini, enough space to seat four adults in relative comfort, small wheels, and conventional suspension.

Small wheels on each corner, roomy interior…

Of course, many car makers have followed Issigonis’ formula of small cars by fitting transverse engines today. Also packaging is quite tight on many modern cars, so that no space is really given away. But it seems only Japanese manufacturers go the full hog by minimising overhangs, taking compact, small engines only and complimenting them with small wheels.

Would it have been possible for Rover to be successful with a similar car instead of what became the MINI under BMW at Cowley? Undeniable the MINI is a great success, so from a business point of view, the decision to make it like it is was right. In addition, the final versions of the Mini have moved quite far from its roots as a small, cheap to run and simple family car – they became rather expensive with nicely fitted with wood and leather. They also made a good fashion statement as second or third car for the people who could afford it.

Would replacing that with a sensible, practical small car have worked? I doubt it…

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23 August

The Remaining Remnants of BMC>Rover


IT seems 2006 will be the absolute final year of the BMC>Rover dynasty. This to me appears to have happened rather suddenly and has made me consider what we have lost so quickly. This year, we have seen LDV replacing the Pilot/Convoy models, Land Rover replace Freelander and delete the TD5 unit while BMW will replace the 75-based MINI. Last year we saw Jaguar replace the XK8, a vehicle which could trace it chassis routes back to the XJ-S. We could not expect these models to continue forever, progress must be made and we should applaud that in every case mentioned above, it has. Of course, the real body-blow was the demise of MG Rover. There we lost the MGF/25/45 and 75 series cars along with the K- and L-Series engines.

What this all means is the demise of the DNA run from what was BLMC all the way through to Rover Group. To us enthusiasts of this Great British dynasty, this appears to be the end. One might argue this is the year ‘The Class’ finally stopped to be manufactured in its homeland.

Quietly disappearing along with the cars, were several associated supply and engineering firms. Many went during BMW ownership and latterly through the administration of MG Rover. Sadly, much of the engineering talent now goes unused and infrastructure from these vital and under appreciated firms appears to be gone forever. A loss to British Manufacturing as a whole, I recently heard about a unique foundry closing to give just one example.

Sadly, much of the engineering talent now
goes unused and infrastructure from these
vital and under-appreciated firms appears
to be gone forever.

What is left for the die-hard BL fan then? Well, there is Unipart, although the health of this firm is in doubt. British Motor Heritage is holding up and keeping the more appreciated older vehicles alive and well. Of the cars, there is the evergreen, green lane icon, the Land Rover Defender. Land Rover has just announced a ‘new’ model for 2007 featuring a Ford-based engine. Interestingly, production runs behind demand for this handbuilt vehicle. Some may argue that the Defender is really a Rover from their independent post-war days, but the current Defender was largely redesigned in the late 1970s with BL funding liberated by Sir Michael Edwardes.

On the face of it then, that appears to be your lot. Or is it? Is there still some strand of the aforementioned DNA there that we can take comfort from? I think so, admittedly its no longer in British ownership but then, what is? Let us look back to BL Technology – the award winning engineering powerhouse set-up by BL at the Gaydon research facility. The enterprise was much vaunted in the early eighties, Harold Musgrove used it to recruit new talent, grab headlines and produce new ideas for the ARG generation. One product BL Tech product was the ECV3 Concept Car under the direction of Spen King.

This car featured two main concepts; the K series engine and bonded Aluminium construction. In an interview on this web site regarding that vehicle, King states when he left BL, he joined ALCAN whom he worked closely with during ECV3 to pursue the Aluminium construction ideas which this car demonstrated. He continues to say that ideas learned from that period are ‘directly borne out’ in what we can assume to be the current Jaguar XJ6/8 and indeed the latest XK8.

Could it be then, that this two car line-up, in addition to the Defender, will be known as The Definite BL line-up to us enthusiasts?

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22 August

How do you replace…


…THE Land Rover Defender?

Of all the classic, long lived designs, the Land Rover is the only one still in production. Other stalwarts of the late 1940s such as the Morris Minor, Citroen 2CV and the VW Beetle have fallen by the wayside. Even modern upstarts like the Mini have failed to last as long as the big Land Rover.

The current Land Rover may have a startlingly modern engine full of complicated electrickery but drive one and there’s no getting away from the staggering simplicity of the design. There are no compromises which is why it remains one of the best off road vehicles. The power from the modern engine is still sent to the wheels in a very simple way. No electronic traction control or hill descent here. Just a huge gearbox powering all four wheels with a lockable centre differential.

In fact, the only big changes to the design over the years were the introduction of coil spring suspension and permanent four wheel drive in 1983. In fact, with the huge chassis, virtually unchanged bodywork and the Meccano-like construction, it really is a vehicle which has remained true to the original ideals. Farmers still do use them and so do the military.

The big problem for Land Rover is how to go about replacing such a design. Already, there has been some backlash against the newer engines which remove some of the ‘fix-it-anywhere-with-anything-ability’ of previous models. If Land Rover fit other complexity, it is bound to alienate customers further. The Defender is a bit rough and ready for most people in the market for a 4×4 but that’s entirely the point. The Defender is the last bastion for people who just want a simple, tough off roader.

The massive trend for off road pickups proves the point. People started to go crazy for the no-frills pickups as they were simple, tough and not filled with silly toys. Now, they are starting to look very odd indeed and are so kitted out that the original design brief has gone out of the window. Now, I fail to the the point in them at all. A Discovery or Land Cruiser does a much better job than a specced up Mitsubishi off roader.

Which leaves the Defender once more still proving popular due to the pureness of the design. Ford must be very careful in the way they choose to replace it. I do not envy them.

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21 August

Fit for a king


I ACQUIRED this beauty last week, a 1982 Princess 2.0HLS. This is a very late car; in fact it was registered six months after the Ambassador had gone on sale and nine months after Princess production had ceased! It could well have been one of the last off the line.

It was bought for £600 with six months MoT and a few months tax and only 61,000 genuine miles on the clock; you have to admit that being distinctive doesn’t come much cheaper than this. You could easily go out and buy a ten-year old Mondeo for this money, but where would be the fun in that? And there are no reliability issues. I’ve been using Wedges for over four years and over 10,000 miles and they have never let me down, and as an everyday car they really are hard to fault.

I guarantee that one drive of this car and you’ll be scouring the classic classifieds doing Wedge-shaped shopping!

But be warned: wherever you go in a Princess you have to allow extra time, because there’s always someone who wants to strike up a conversation about them. And I’m always happy to oblige.

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18 August

How times are changing


SOMETIMES the smallest things can be poignant or thought-provoking – and although the huge vehicle tunnel that cuts across Bristol Road is far from small, its removal from the Longbridge skyline is a grim reminder that the factory as we once knew it is no more. Thanks to Richard Porter’s piece on its demise, at least we’re marking the occasion for posterity – but by the look of the sign above (another of Richard’s pictures), it would certainly seem that not all the locals share our dewey-eyed sentimentality for the factory. Or perhaps they just want closure on the sad, sad state of affairs and move on.

Either way, seeing how times are changing is not the shock it used to be – because just like a boxer on a losing bout, we’re getting slightly more desensitized to each successive blow of bad news.

…it seems that not all of the locals share
our dewey-eyed sentimentality for the

We don’t yet know what will get knocked down, and how much of the factory’s historic buildings will remain, but we’re hoping that the more memorable ones will. After all, the Round House at Q-Gate, the Product Development Centre, the ‘Kremlin’, and the Elephant House are indelibly marked in the minds of enthusiasts – as well as the many workers that came through the gates over the years. I spent some time working in the offices that line the Lickey Road, and always thought they had a certain something about them, and would love to see them remain, too – walking up that tree-lined avenue, those offices looked good to me.

I guess that’s nostalgia getting in the way, though.

I suppose I just hope that once the re-development is underway, and Nanjing has decided what it’s going to need to built its 15,000 MG TFs, it would be nice to think that St Modwen will be sympathetic to the site’s history – and the signs are that they will be.

One last throught – when you leave the factory via Q-Gate you’re greeted by the splendour of Cofton Park. Is there any other car factory in the world that offers its workers that same visual pleasure every time they leave?

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YOUR piece about the poignancy of the demise of the Longbridge we knew has echoes of the past for me.

You see, I guess I came to know Longbridge fairly late – having greater family connections with Canley, Cowley, Swindon and Abingdon meant that those were the sites where I knew the factories rather better. My earliest memories of Abingdon, for example, are of MG and Austin Healeys going out of the factory gates on test up the Marcham Road and back. At Cowley, you could see serried rows of the local BMC produce nestling in the big car park as you whistled by along the bypass, with Pressed Steel on one side and the old Morris works on the other.

Nowadays, half the vast Cowley sprawl has gone, overtaken by Tescos and housing developments where the people inside go about their business having never known anything of the blood sweat and tears that used to be split where they walk. What is left has been smartened up, anaesthetised and wrapped up in BMW-funded MINI-ness.

At Abingdon, just about all that is left is an MG Car Club plaque, and where MGB bodyshells used to go into the factory is an odd looking building which is the local police HQ. Even more ignominious is the nasty little prefabricated McDonalds across the way. Inside the latter, parents and their children tuck into their handy gobbets of cholesterol blissfully ignorant of what used to happen within yards of where they are sitting.

I never thought I’d see the MG factory go, but it did. And I’m sorry to say that much of Longbridge – with all its heritage – will soon go the same way.


17 August

The dust is settling…


SO, both SAIC and NAC’s plans are coming together rapidly. As predicted on this website last year, it looks like SAIC will win the race to get its version of the 75 on sale – and that it’ll be a straight MG vs Rover fight in the Chinese marketplace.

And just to clarify the situation – NAC owns and will be building MGs, and SAIC owns and will be building Rovers.

Obviously SAIC had a headstart, and right now, ex-MG Rover engineers, working for Ricardo 2010 are based in Xiangfan, somewhere in the mid-east of the country, are honing the chassis settings of these re-vamped cars, but NAC will be catching up fast, thanks to the efforts of other ex-MG Rover engineers.

The question I asked the other day was simple – will these cars be ‘British’ enough in their DNA to be palatable in the export markets? Will the ex-MGR engineers be enough to instill enough of the old company’s thinking into these remixed packages to allow their owners to feel that they’re buying into the same strain of cars they did in the past few years when they visited their local MG Rover dealer and parted with their hard earned?

It’s an interesting question – and putting aside the issue of the style and ability of these cars, will potential future owners buy into the cars feeling that they’re buying something British (even if that veneer is tissue thin), and the security of the company building the cars looks a little more firm than it had been in the Phoenix Four era? Or will they be just another cheap far-Eastern import?

Another intriguing possibility for me is that two rival factories will be producing ostensibly the same product – does that bring back memories of Cowley/Longbridge rivalries of the past to you, too?

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16 August

Congratulations, CAR magazine…


ONE pleasant aspect of going on holiday is catching up on a little light reading. As it’s impossible for me to escape the lure of the motorcar, that reading inevitably comprises of car books and magazines I don’t normally get a chance to digest properly at home.

One magazine which has always meant the world to me is CAR magazine – and any magazine that can call on Blain, Nicholls, Setright, Bishop, Llewellyn, Bulgin, Bremner and May for its heritage has an essential role in my life… and I suspect the lives of many, many other committed petrolheads.

So, when I picked up the latest facelifted issue – it was with a sense of unease. CAR has been through many transformations in recent years, and that has led to some up-down issues – and there have even been times when I’ve even turned my back on it in favour of that upstart, Evo magazine.

I’d always said that CAR should be offering a similar mix of ideas to what it did in its heyday of the 1970s and 1980s, but it’s impossible to be seen taking a ‘backwards’ step in the publishing world – and doing that might have been just that, despite all of its ‘thirtysomething’ readership clamouring for a return to its old ways.

Leafing through the pages of the new format issue, it was clear that loads of thought has gone into it, and that the editorial team has decided to concentrate on what CAR does best – great drive stories… with a twist.

For me, its embracing of the power of the Internet is the significant step forward – scoops in magazines are a dying phenomenon thanks to all those great websites out there, so why not use the mag’s own website for the ‘hot’ news, freeing up those all important editorial pages for the more lasting stuff. It’s a risky strategy, but one I hope works well for CAR – innovation was always its major strong point.

Of course, that has meant GBU has been moved sideways to the website, but I suspect it’ll make a return to the mag… it always does.

Well done guys, and keep up the good work…

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I AGREE wholeheartedly with you about the importance of CAR getting it right. I’ve been reading the magazine since the early 1970s, and like you became intoxicated with the variety of quality writing by Setright, Bishop, Bulgin and many more besides.

The forays in contemporary supercars were exciting (although the ‘supercars’ that did it for me were from the previous decade) but the best bits were the ‘Scoops’ and the ‘Inside Industry’ columns, sometimes written by shadowy pseudonyms like the chauvinistic Pierre Beauregard. They often got it wrong (they used ADO88 photos for their Metro scoops, and predicted Hydragas for Maestro) but they were always ahead of the weeklies, which they regarded with disdain.

They were editorially dominated by Australians (Steve Cropley came there after writing for ‘Sports Car World’ in Oz) and this brought a breath of fresh air to the hitherto stuffy respectfulness of many UK motoring magazines. That frisson of irreverence has always been part of the appeal of CAR to me.

The latest facelift looks good, even if the odd size is misjudged: unusually sized magazines often get lost or badly displayed at newsagents – exactly what happened with the early issues of CARweek in 1994. Similarly, the website this past week has been bustling with daily updates: I hope that they can maintain this while bringing in more print subscribers. Maybe this will be the way forward for quality car magazines: as you know from your own experience with your own website, print edition ‘scoops’ rapidly become old news in this age of instant information, but good quality writing and stunning photography is ageless.

I still refer to my old copies of CAR and hope that I’ll be re-reading issues of the magazine for a good few years yet.


15 August



I GO away for a few days and suddenly the world goes mad with news – and I’m working my fingers to the bone trying to make sure I get it on site as quickly as possible… it’s a good job, I’m recharged and relish the challenge – and love what I do.

So, the main news for the rest of the world’s media will be the first official pictures of MINI v3.0, but I have to say there’s nothing that we don’t already know, although it’s nice to put a little more flesh on the bones of the MINI story. No, for me, it’s the fascination that is the SAIC/Rover story, and how it all seems to be coming together for the Shanghai company.

A new car has surfaced, engine and spec details have leaked – and although, again, there’s nothing us spoilt cynical Europeans to get excited about, it’s hard not to be impressed by how quickly the project is being turned into a production reality – from what many might think is little more than a set of blueprints and some Intellectual Property Rights.

Okay, the styling looks a little odd and unresolved in these early pictures, and there’s a question mark over those engines, but it’s an impressive effort all the same. However, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, and to truly know the effectiveness of the new Chinese Rover 75, we’ll need to get behind the wheel and take it for a spin. Preferably up some bumpy, ill-finished roads. Until that point, the jury must remain firmly out on this car…

And that’s before we get into whether it’s really a Rover at all – DNA is a funny thing in cars, and will a British design executed in China wearing a British badge exude enough of our national identity to count as a member of the home team? Or will it become just another budget brand – something to fit in where Kia and Hyundai left off when they went all respectable? I suspect it’ll be the latter.

We’ll know soon enough.

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14 August

Actively better


THERE’S nothing like hypocrisy. I may have found myself admiring the French for their nationalistic buying habits, while criticising the Brits for their predilection for foreign cars, but I’m a guilty party myself, having driven over to France in a Citroen Xantia.

In my defence, I’ve never hidden the fact that I love Citroens of all sorts – and everything from the 2CV to the SM falls firmly on my radar. However, in the weeks leading up to my annual trip, I found myself wanting a family to take abroad – and knowing that I wanted a roomy family hatchback that would eat up motorway miles, while retaining the spark of interest that keeps me sane, I opted to go for a Xantia.

Okay, there’s a perfectly capable Saab Aero (and an 800 Coupe in need of ‘bits and bobs’) in my garage, but wanting to slow down the onset of high miles, it seemed logical (in my twisted world) to spend £500 on an unknown quantity – my new car – and then sell it when I get back home. Logical? Hardly. Interesting? Absolutely.

In the mid-1990s, Rover offered the excellent 600 – a car that combined Japanese reliability with a splash of English style and ambience – but having now spent time in both Honda and Rover-powered forms, I’d come to the conclusion they’re not quite for me. It’s not that the 600 isn’t a great car – it’s just that it lacks that certain sparkle – something the uglier 800 managed to possess in bucketloads. And that meant it wasn’t shortlisted.

As I said, I’m not a logical person.

Compared with Rover’s offering in the class, the Xantia was always a bit on the plasticky side. Comfortable and stylish, but ultimately a little lacking in class. But the one thing it always had in its favour was its high-pressure interconnected Hydractive suspension system. For me, this alone pushes the Xantia above the 405/Mondeo/600 in the charisma stakes. That, and its neat Bertone-penned styling…

Anyway, having decided to go for an unknown Xantia to take on a 2000-mile round trip abroad, I decided to go for the most complex of the lot. Yup – Hydractive suspension wasn’t good enough for me – I wanted Activa…

All of a sudden, you start noticing how
other cars heel over in corners, and how
silly it all looks. But more than that,
it hits you – a roll-free car simply
feels composed and natural.

For those that don’t know, the Xantia Activa possesses a wonderful reactive suspension system that only allows the car to roll 0.5 degrees in any given corner (effectively no-roll). In other words, it remains all but flat in any given corner.

I’ve always been fascinated by ‘active’ suspension systems ever since I clapped eyes on Lotus’ groundbreaking work in the 1980s, followed by Williams-Renault’s race-winning cars in Formula 1 1991-93.

If a car doesn’t roll in corners, the tyres always maintain the optimum contact patch under lateral load – and most importantly, the driver feels more in command, as that lurching you get in bends – no matter how well-suspended your car is – is eliminated. Well, all I can say is that in practice, Citroen’s system works fantastically well in the Xantia Activa – it may have lost a little of the standard car’s loping suppleness, but it’s a worthy pay-off when you consider the sheer stability in corners.

All of a sudden, you start noticing how other cars heel over in corners, and how silly it all looks. But more than that, it hits you – a roll-free car simply feels composed and natural to drive. After a week’s mixed motoring in France, I’m convinced that anti-roll suspension is the way forward, and I’m asking myself why the hell no-one bothered to follow Citroen’s lead until quite recently.

In fact, Citroen itself dropped the Activa system when the Xantia went out of production – and even that technical tour de force, the C6 rolls in corners…

Perhaps it’s the complexity that killed the system – the Activa has two hydraulic rams, ten suspension spheres and a computer to control it all. That’s a lot of hardware… There was talk about driver errors and crashes with owners emboldened by the system – but I reckon the real reason it was dropped was cost, and buyer suspicion.

Interestingly, Rover engineers at Gaydon worked on a similar system in recent years, based around the Hydragas system for the Range Rover, but the system was never developed to fruition – instead the more conventional anti-roll system was adopted successfully.

Of course, BMW and Audi now offer similar systems on their air-suspended models, but one can’t help thinking that reactive/active suspension should be made available for all – because it really does enhance the driving experience. Perhaps it will in time…

Anyway, now the holiday is over, the car’s for sale (£400, if you’re interested)… and I’m seriously considering buying another – newer – one as my daily transport.

Here’s to no-roll suspension!

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13 August

Back in the UK


BACK in the UK after a week in the wilds of France and one thing that strikes me is just how patriotic a bunch of car buyers the French are. You have to hand it to them – despite some seriously talented new cars out there, they still buy predominently Peugeot, Renaults and Citroens; and I have to say I admire them for it…

Say for instance you’re looking for a new car in the medium sector – in the UK, the default choice seems to be the Ford Focus, VW Golf or Vauxhall Astra, but in France that becomes the Citroen C4, Renault Megane or Peugeot 307. Don’t get me wrong, the French trio are very fine, but are they really better than the three default UK choices?

Well maybe not, but when one factors in thousands of dealers and service agents, and the comfort of knowing you’re driving the same car as everyone else, and all of a sudden, the French nationalistic buying habits begin to make sense. In a way, a drive through rural France puts me in mind of all those ‘Memory Lane’ pictures you see published in the excellent Practical Classics magazine – the ones that show Britain in the 1950s and 1960s full of nothing but domestically-produced cars.

…it didn’t stop me rueing the death of
our own industry…

Was it really such a bad state of affairs?

When I got back into the UK this afternoon, I decided to play a game with my two sons – the first one to spot a British car Built in Britain on our side of the M20 would win a Quid, and their choice on the iPod… Do you know it took at least ten minutes for the first Rover 75 to come sidling past? It kinda hit home, too, waiting in the queue to get on the ferry – surrounded by UK-registered BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes that we really aren’t a patriotic bunch of car buyers at all…

Of course, it could be argued that we tend to buy what’s best, and that’s a good thing of course, but it didn’t stop me rueing the death of our own industry…

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11 August

Saving Jaguar


WITH Bill Ford hiring Kenneth Leet, a former investment banker and merger-and-acquisition specialist at Goldman Sachs and Bank of America, as a ‘strategic advisor’ – all signs point to the Ford Motor Company getting ready to jettison a brand or maybe even two from its ill-fated Premier Automotive Group because of its relentless unprofitability. Prime target on the hit list is Jaguar, the once-heroic British brand that had the misfortune of falling into the wrong hands, in this case the stumbling, bumbling and flat-out incompetent managers assigned by Ford to ‘right’ the company, but who instead damn near ran it right into the ground with a series of missteps, ill-conceived strategies and rampant cluelessness.

What happened to Jaguar should be a cautionary tale in the now frenzied movement to foster alliances in the burgeoning global automotive landscape. It should be, that is, but then again, automotive managers around the world have demonstrated time and time again the propensity to screw things up in the name of economies of scale or acquiring instant ‘prestige’ – which is exactly what happened to Jaguar.

Simply one of the greatest automotive brands of all time, Jaguar – though a tarnished and a bit woebegone from years of doing things “like we always did” when the automotive world changed rapidly around them – was a wildly attractive brand ripe for the picking when Ford acquired it in 1989 for $2.5 billion. Who knew back then that the initial purchase agreement would be the high point of the association?

Ford made all the right noises at the time of the purchase, talking about ‘protecting and nurturing’ the brand, while insisting that they knew and understood what they had in Jaguar and would act accordingly. They then, of course, proceeded to embark on a strategy that was so wrong-headed and so off-target that they’ve left the brand in tatters, despite their latest attempt at marketing their way out of their mistakes with a new advertising push and a freshened XK luxury sports car.

Ford managers looked around them at the time of their purchase and saw BMW, Mercedes-Benz and the emerging Lexus, and decided the only way to take Jaguar forward was to expand its lineup and aim straight for the sinkhole of modern automotive branding – the dreaded ‘near luxury’ market. The ‘near luxury’ market is the $30,000-$40,000 segment that is absolutely irresistible to today’s automakers, although if they do it wrong, there are severe penalties to pay. It’s like the scene at the end of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ when the bad guy opens the chest declaring, “It’s beautiful!” – only to discover that he’s unleashed the wrath of hell (and gets his face melted off for his trouble).

No, no one got his or her face melted off at Ford, but they unleashed the Jaguar X-Type into the market, a warmed-over Ford Mondeo wearing Jaguar accoutrements designed to make the brand more “approachable” and, oh yes, by the way, spike the Jaguar volume, which would in turn make big profits.

At least that was The Plan, anyway.

Instead, we all know what happened. Saddled with the weight penalty of all-wheel-drive and an anemic V-6 engine, the only thing even remotely Jaguar about the X-Type were its leaping cat emblems. The car was simply not ready for prime time, especially when its competitors in the pseudo-luxury segment were better by virtually every possible measure.

What happened to Jaguar should be a
cautionary tale in the now frenzied
movement to foster alliances in the
burgeoning global automotive landscape.

Jaguar volume did, in fact, go up, as Ford abandoned any shred of common sense left and increased production of the X-Type to meet the perceived demand from dealers clamouring for more – a frenzy brought on by their new-found glee of finally having a volume Jaguar to sell. And in the process, Ford managers presided over an almost criminal destruction of Jaguar’s brand image. Jaguar ads were soon touting $199 discount leases, and dealers resorted to ‘Come on down!’ marketing as the initial consumer interest cooled. And in no time at all, the X-Type was dead in the water.

In the ensuing melee, Jaguar’s image took a near-fatal hit, as the distinctive brand that once symbolized grace, performance and a different drummer-like exclusivity, and that once thrived on its oh-so-British heritage, was now relegated to the dust bin of mediocrity – brought down by an egregious combination of serial marketing incompetence and unbridled arrogance by a bunch of hacks in Dearborn who should have known better, but who clearly didn’t have a clue.

Now, Ford is in the throes of a new marketing and product campaign designed to right the severely listing Jaguar ship – and ironically, in so doing, make the brand attractive to global auto industry players. And even though the XK is a credible effort (although not nearly as good as the gushing buff books would have you believe – after all, they’re loath to utter a discouraging word about any luxury performance car these days in fear of having their free foie gras rations terminated), the damage to Jaguar is done.

So, my advice to the suitors who will line up to pursue the possibility of acquiring Jaguar? Immerse yourselves in the tradition of the brand – and if you don’t know where to look, it can be found in the magnificent C-Types, D-Types, XKSS’s and E-Types from the 1950s and 1960s. And if after studying those fantastic automobiles, you still don’t get it, please move on, because you’re not worthy.

Whoever ends up with Jaguar needs to understand one fundamental, High-Octane Truth about what Jaguar needs to survive and hopefully thrive from this point forward – an iconic Jaguar “statement” car must be created for the future. No, I’m not suggesting yet another retro-mobile, but I am suggesting a design for a lightweight, two-seat sports car that embodies everything that Jaguar stands for with sensual, if not outright sinful styling, cat-quick agility and riveting performance. It must look like it is a continuation of the greatness of Jaguar’s heyday – and it must exude the very essence of Jaguar.

Ironically, even Ford almost snatched victory from the jaws of defeat several years ago when it stunned the Detroit auto show with its F-Type Concept. It captured the essence of the Jaguar brand, and it was definitely on the right track, but they didn’t have the cojones to build it, instead hinging the success of the brand on the ill-fated X-Type – and thus losing their grip on Jaguar altogether. It’s funny – and sad – because Ford did a similar thing with the Lincoln brand several years ago. They showed a stunning Lincoln Continental Concept, which would have saved that brand from the bland, also-ran mediocrity it enjoys today – but they didn’t have the sense to do that car either. A distressing pattern, to be sure – and why Ford is forever taking three steps forward and five back at every turn).

I sincerely hope that whoever takes Jaguar off of Ford’s hands has the common sense to do right by the brand.

Anything less – and it will ensure the death-knell for one of the great automotive brands of all time.

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12 August

You can’t polish a turd…


I PICKED up this Princess recently; it’s a 1979 Princess2 1700L, which was the entry-level model in the range. These basic models are quite rare now, as no one really wants the bottom of the range – it has to be an HL or HLS to catch buyers.

I managed to thrash it all the way back from Kidderminster to Southampton and it never missed a beat. In fact it kept up admirably with all the traffic on the M5 and M4 and overtaking never required more than a blip of the throttle. Some people in their flash new cars must have felt pretty choked when they saw this flying turd flashing past. BMW X5s? Pah!

These basic models are quite rare now, as
no one really wants the bottom of the
range – it has to be an HL or HLS
to attract buyers.

Anyway, it gave me a chance to marvel at the inherent qualities of the O-Series 1700 engine, which is a lot sweeter, refined even, than the 2000 thanks to its shorter stroke. And performance wise you’d be hard pushed to spot the difference between the two. The 1700 seems to go about its business with a lot less fuss than the 2-litre; one wonders why BL bothered with the 2-litre at all.

Ride handling and comfort wise it’s exactly the same as all the higher spec Wedges; in fact I reckon that when these were new the 1700s were probably the best models in the range.

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6 August

600 Coupe – the ultimate pipedream


SEEING the picture of the Rover 600 Coupe mock-up sent me out to my archive to recover a copy of Issue 1 of the short-lived ‘Carweek’, an offshoot from the monthly CAR intended to compete with Autocar and AutoExpress (the latter had been launched in 1988). The issue was dated 25th August 1993 and the Rover 600 Coupe ‘scoop’ was the main cover picture, with an article on pages 2 and 3.

Honda was not convinced that it wanted
to widen the 600 franchise any further

The guilty parties included Hilton Holloway, now better known for his sterling scoop work at Autocar. ‘Stunning 2-door 600 set for ’94 launch’ we were told, and it was suggested that the 600 coupe would superseded the Tomcat. As we now know, it was all a pipedream: Honda was not convinced that it wanted to widen the 600 franchise any further.

But it’s nice to dream…

It so happens that Auto Express Issue 1 in 1988 (I dug out my copy of that too out of interest) also opened with a feature about the then still secret R8 – they dubbed it ‘Rover’s Montego’. In those far off days, a ‘scoop’ about Rover seemed almost guaranteed to make the cover of a weekly car mag. Now we have to depend on for our fixes!

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5 August

Marina – the British Leyland Q-ship


Many people think of the Marina as a perfectly named car, as it flopped about on the road like a small boat on big waves. It has to be said that several competitors of the day weren’t much better. But the Marina could be modified to devastating effect.

My best friend at the time, Andy, owned two Marinas – a 1.3 then a 1.8. The 1.8 had been used for towing a caravan, and wore out an engine, a gearbox, a differential, and the front suspension trunnions all too quickly. By the time we had replaced all those and a rusty fuel tank, we had a mechanically reconditioned car, with a hot engine. Andy had neatly adapted the 1.3 radiator grille to flush-fit two spotlights. He fitted this grille to the 1.8; so quite by accident, it looked like a 1.3. Quite by accident, I stress.

Now let us assess the handling as standard. The front lever arm shock absorbers were slow to notice that a corner had arrived, so the car lurched about a couple of times before actually going round the corner. Solution: a telescopic front shock conversion. This led to normal behaviour. The rear leaf springs were so soft and loosely located that even a 1.3 would do big power oversteer on wet roundabouts. (The South Wales police used to use an Ital as a skidpan car at their Bridgend headquarters, commenting cheerfully that unlike other cars, treadless slick tyres were not necessary to allow major skids) Nick Fell, recently a top manager at Rover Group and then LDV, once mimicked a Marina driver: “Driver to back axle, what is your current location?”

The Marina 1.8 would oversteer spectacularly and suddenly on dry roundabouts. Solution: towing assisters – supplementary springs, bolted between the chassis legs and the leaf springs – they look like solid rubber balls. These stiffened the springs nicely, leading to later, and less lurid skids.

The unfortunate tendency of Triumph Dolomite Sprints to disintegrate prematurely led to a ready supply of leather wrapped steering wheels and alloy wheels with low profile tyres, which would both bolt straight onto any Marina.

Equipped with the suspension and steering wheel described above, but not the alloys, Andy and I were approaching a small Worcestershire town some twenty years ago, when we were spied by a local lad in his Escort GT. Aha, he cried, a Marina 1.3, easy meat! But actually, it was a modified 1.8, and he couldn’t catch us. Very entertaining for Andy as the driver, less so for me as the passenger, as the seat rocked to and fro on its mountings on every bump and corner.

So if you see an ancient Marina being driven sedately, beware! It could be a closet GTi! (especially if it is the Ital estate seen by a former colleague, uprated with a 200bhp T16 engine)

(Incidentally, Andy’s 1.8 eventually succumbed to rust. One morning I asked him what was sticking out from under the rubber mat in the passenger footwell. I don’t know, he said – have a look. I found a six-inch long mushroom growing across the rust-hole-dampened carpet – then another one growing in the opposite direction. They don’t make cars like they used to – fortunately)

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3 August

It’s that time of year again…


WHY do my holidays always seem to coincide the annual BMC/BL Rally in Peterborough? It’s a question I find myself asking again this year – and I can’t actually work out why, other than I didn’t check the calendar when I booked my holidays. But there you go…

If you’re looking for information about the site, or fancy submitting a blog, or an article for the Have Your Say section of the site, sending an email to me won’t ellicit a response until sometime after the 20th August. But never mind – if you want to get in touch, you can email either Alexander Boucke or Brian Gunn and they will be able to upload new features to the website, or help with any other issues you might ordinarily think of sending to me.

See you soon, and enjoy the Peterborough show!

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2 August

Death of the magazine?


SOMEONE asked me recently whether it’s about time we had a dedicated Rover magazine, similar to MG Enthusiast but dedicated to Rover, obviously. The thing is, as the website has such a rich resource of articles and images that is regularly updated I don’t really see why any magazine should be necessary.

As an example, Auto Trader, Britain’s leading classified new and used car magazine has seen steadily declining sales since 2003. It seems that rather than spend £2 to scour pages of cars that are only in a 50-mile local radius, buyers prefer to search across the nation for their specific car from the comfort of their home via the AutoTrader website, which is free!

The great thing about the Internet is that if you like something you can print a copy of it or save it, if not, leave it. That way you don’t have to throw anything away, reducing waste.

Basically instead of placing articles in magazines, publishers could place articles on the title website and readers could pay to download each article as required.

Then again if you visit any newsagents you’ll be amazed by the sheer amount of magazines on sale, sometimes whole walls dedicated to monthly and periodicals for all kinds of peculiar hobbies and interests. Is there enough cyberspace for all of them?

All this is assuming, of course, that everyone has a computer…

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1 August

Ahh well…


IT never ceases to amaze me just how long a memory some of our readers have. Recently, I explained how a picture of a Rover 600 Coupe landed in my inbox without any explanation other than what library it came from.

It was a reasonably nice looking rendition, but obviously not enough to peruade the company to build the real thing and put it into production. I kinda figured it wasn’t the real thing, and I had a sense of deja vu when I saw it, but I simply couldn’t place it.

It never ceases to amaze me just how long
a memory some of our readers have…

Chris Chapman, a regular correspondent came to the rescue. “I think the picture comes from the launch issue of Carweek, although from memory originally it was red = former weekly paper like Auto Express published by EMAP – a scoop to launch the paper about which nothing more was heard.”

As one of the poor people who read every issue of Carweek and enjoyed its approach, I’m kicking myself for not remembering myself!

Chris added: “Maybe Rover remembered the spectacular failure of the 800 Coupe and Jaguar XJ5.3C – big coupes have a very limited market. Honda’s engineering input on the 600 was very significant apart from the later Rover engined versions.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Shame, though…

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JUST read your latest stories about the 600 Coupe and 75 4×4. The picture of the coupe you’ve published was from one of the mags wasn’t it? I’m sure AutoExpress were, in their Mac manipulation loving way, always fussing about with speculation on such things.

Actually, perhaps in this case it was Carweek, that somehow rings a bell.


REGARDING the 600 Coupe ‘spoof’ – don’t forget that it already half-existed, in the Accord Coupe of the time. Someone somewhere has probably already converted one into a 600 Coupe, just as those two Rover 45 ‘Tourers’ were converted from Honda Civic Aerodecks.


Keith Adams

1 Comment

  1. Love that mock up photo of the R600 Coupe. The 600 was one of my favourite Rovers and all credit due to Richard Woolley in his “Roverisation” of the Accord. Pity it didn’t reach production.

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