Blogs : May 2008

29 May

Bangernomics, part deux


A LITTLE while ago I submitted a blog waxing lyrical about banger economics and my purchase of a Fiat Marea… yes it’s the five-cylinder job with cracking straight line speed and iffy suspension.

Well, another drawback of the Marea, in the form of not so good brakes, recently came to the fore when I ended up using the rear end of a Vectra SRI (ironically my previous car) as a means of stopping my very slow progression down the M62. It’s not hard to imagine: rush hour, traffic is crawling for no reason then speeds up before slowing right down. I got caught out with not leaving enough of a gap and slowly went into the back of the aforementioned Vectra.

Did I mention that the shunt was in the outside lane? Well, this little bump ended up causing massive tail backs and the abuse some other drivers were hurling at me and the Vectra’s driver was appalling. The Vectra driver was a pleasant woman who was a bit shaken – hardly surprising as you don’t really expect a plonker to go into the back of you. The Police didn’t turn up – the ‘traffic wombles’ (aka Highways Agency) took half an hour to arrive and then stopped the traffic in the other two lanes which allowed us to move both cars onto the hard shoulder before leaving us to it.

At this point the lady drove off – I don’t really know why she hung about as the damage to her car was not too bad… but no doubt the insurance company will disagree. As for the Marea, well it did not look good – the pool of water from a bust radiator, the bent bonnet, wing, bumper, smashed headlight all lead me to conclude that the car was quite badly bent… as for being able to open the driver’s door… not great.

However, after taking the car back home on a flat bed truck and getting underneath it, I started to think it might be okay. The radiator was not terminal as what had, in fact, happened was that a pipe had split. My future Father-in-law came to assist and the Marea was taken up to his farm workshop whilst I priced parts up.

I managed to obtain a new wing and bumper along with a second hand bonnet and headlight for the princely sum of £130. The headlights usually go for in excess of £60 – I reckoned that was a result but then realised that a bracket was missing. Fortunately, a little bit of good old fashioned bodgery secured the headlight properly. I quickly realised patience is the name of the game, particularly in sourcing parts over the Internet – the first bumper to arrive turned out to be the wrong one as well.

The car is now back together and awaiting a front-end spray. I have roped a neighbour in to do that for me and so the total cost of putting the Marea back on the road should be around £200. The insurance company would have written the Marea off and paid me a grand total of about £700 if the car had been insured with Fully Comprehensive but what have I learned?

I certainly couldn’t afford to have paid for a professional to repair my car even after sourcing all those secondhand parts – the wing was a bad fit and required a lot of fettling in order to achieve a half-decent result. However, I like the Marea, which has been both nice to drive and very reliable, so reckon that the car is worth considerably more to me than the paper value a garage/insurance company would offer.

Do I regret buying the car and running on third party insurance? Not really – it’s infinitely more interesting that way and, if you are choosy, you can get a car that lasts without costing the earth.

27 May

Kinky Claire


FOR Bank Holiday I switched from Being Mad Car Obsessed Woman to being Mad Kinks Obsessed Woman and took another trip to North London to see the Kast Off Kinks’ farewell concert (a tribute band featuring one original member and two members from the ‘70s), and along the way had my photo taken outside Konk Studios (irritatingly now featured on the Kooks latest album).

Ray Davies is renowned for his ‘Englishness’ and so much of the inspiration for his songs come from the surrounding areas; Hornsey, Crouch End, Fortis Green and Muswell Hill all feature in one way or another.

Having trekked past the studio, we arranged to meet in a little greasy spoon caff a few hundred yards up Tottenham Lane, which was photographed for Ray Davies’ latest album ‘Working Man’s Café’. Now, anyone who knows me will know I like my food…

Yes, I admit to being a food snob. I love gastro pubs and can barely believe the huge change in catering in the last thirty years or so. The décor was a bit tired and dated and the Greek Cypriot owners possibly took the café on around 1974 when there was a huge exodus into Hornsey from Cyprus, as a result of the troubles there. The café probably hadn’t changed much, nor had the menu, yet there was something deliciously quaint about the café which, on a Bank Holiday weekend Sunday, was bustling. The café will probably go on for a few years yet but unless it reinvents itself it will probably start to fade away.

Seeing as this is a motoring website, I had better not wax lyrical about John Dalton’s final performance or how the Kast Offs were joined by ex Kinks Bob Henrit and Ian Gibbons, or about the cheese and bacon omelette I enjoyed at the caff.

The idea for this blog came as I was driving to work this morning in my worthy but dull Vectra, and passing an earlyish Montego. Both cars are from manufacturers with heritage as long as their arms; brand values aligned to solid tradition but not aspirational in the slightest. Austin was deemed to be an irrelevance by Graham Day; probably a huge mistake as it diluted Rover brand values. Vauxhall has continued, like Ford struggling to sell anything bigger than a rep-mobile and seeing market share slip as people move to Audi, BMW and the like.

It is breakfast time as I write this and so my thoughts come back to food. Austin and Morris brand values now look stodgy and traditional; meat and two veg, pudding and custard, whilst the modern interpretation by Vauxhall and Ford must be really quite similar, maybe even a doorstep sandwich with cheddar and pickle and maybe a small salad garnish as a nod to modern times. Audi and BMW reflect modern aspirational tastes with a duck and hoi sin sauce wrap with plenty of lollo rosso and a balsamic reduction.

Personally, I would take a well made simple product at an enticing price every time. That UK consumers do not has to explain the reason so many traditional brands (cars and otherwise) have disappeared or abandoned their roots and that multi nationals such as GM and Ford now struggle in the UK.

I hate lollo rosso by the way!

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26 May

MINI: The brand that goes from strength to strength


WHEN the new MINI first appeared 2001, I was one of those who poured vitriol on it, it was too big, was more of a sporting car than an economy car, a fashion trinket and not in the tradition of Alec Issigonis’ original. Some of these beliefs may well still hold true. But one thing is also true, the R50 MINI and now the new generation R56 have been a runaway sales success that has benefited employment at Cowley, Hams Hall and the British economy in general. When was the last time a British car sold so well, both home and abroad?

The other factor in the MINI’s success is that BMW got the intended market slot exactly right. The men in Munich realised that the kind of budget economy car that the original ADO15 Mini was, and the type of vehicle Rover wanted had to compete against a new generation of far eastern superminis with improbable Latin sounding names like Suzuki Syphilis and Hyundai Halitosis, well you know what I mean. Such vehicles were and are manufactured in low cost economies and retail for well under £10,000.

…the R50 and now the new generation R56 have
been a runaway sales success that have benefited
employment at Cowley, Hams Hall and the British
economy in general.

Had the new European built MINI competed in this sector, competition would have been cutthroat and profits, if any, minimal. The budget supermini is the type of car favoured by retired people who now devoid of dependent children want to downsize to a simple, reliable and economical car.

By aiming the MINI at the more fashion conscious, younger, sporting motorist and selling the car at £10,000 plus, BMW have hit the jackpot. The MINI as a brand has only two real rivals for consumers affections, Fiesta (Ford) and Micra (Nissan) and neither of those has the sporting cache associated with MINI, both being seen as economy cars.

So the MINI is now on its third generation, the R56, and has now established itself as a profitable and renewable franchise, something the original ADO15/20 never was, which in my opinion was the major reason for the collapse of BMC/BLMC.


25 May

To think, it’s just over ten years ago…


READING through my back issues of CAR Magazine to research a feature about the Jaguar X300, I unearthed a brilliant piece that I’d forgotten all about. Back in 1994, TV journalist Michael Kirsch had trekked into the war zone of Bosnia-Herzegovina to extricate three locals who’d saved his life a year previously and subsequently become his friends.

I won’t spoil the story for you – and you can click on it here to read it for yourself – but it certainly brings into focus just what a troubled past we’ve had in Europe. The Balkan conflict was a long way from being resolved when this story was published in November 1994 and, for me, it’s amazing and incredibly sad to think that this was going on – on our doorstep – less than a decade ago.

However, it’s equally uplifting to see just how far Europe’s progressed since the dawn of the 21st century. There’s complete freedom of movement within the European Union (EU27) and it’s largely peaceful and conflict-free now. It would be nice to think that commercialism has won over the idiocy of religion and politics, and that people Europe-wide will be able to enjoy the freedom we now take for granted for all the future…

Oh dear, that sounds like some socio-political rant. So, er, sorry about that.

That aside, I also began to wonder whether we’ll ever see stories like this again in mainstream motoring magazines? Could you imagine the super-slick media and PR-savvy CAR Magazine running a story with a rusty Marina in it like this – despite the amazing story underpinning it? There’s no supercar content, and the driver of the car wasn’t enjoying the benefits and safety of a manufacturer-supplied new car (and back-up crew) to see him safely to his destination. The fact is that Michael Kirsch could have died on that trip…

To give you an example of the road trips CAR‘s running now, you need only look here… Maybe times have changed, and I’m just old now.

Is it me, but isn’t a really good road trip all about overcoming adversity and meeting all kinds of weird and wacky characters along the way? You could hardly imagine these chaps flagging down a local to help repair a damaged sump on the Phantom. Anyway, enjoy the story, and if you want more back-catalogue stuff like this uploading in future months, I’m always happy to take suggestions.

23 May

Sir William Lyons


I HAVE just finished reading Sir William Lyons – The Official Biography by Philip Porter and Paul Skilleter, a book I thoroughly recommend. What struck me was that William Lyons had to fight against constant adversity to build up Jaguar into a world class company.

He had to battle against stop-go government economic policies and an indifferent workforce prone to unofficial strikes that gained nothing except lost production and lost pay. In order to build up Jaguar to record breaking production and profits by the time of his departure in March 1972, Lyons had to micro-manage and work long hours, something other managers past and present would not do, because he felt he could not rely on others to do the job properly.

He had to deal with hassles on the shop floor involving demarcation disputes, inter-union rivalry and piece work rates, the kind of aggravation that would have resulted in many other executives opting for the quiet life. Also the build quality of many of the cars he took home was not up to scratch, causing him more headaches as he had to devote time to chasing up those responsible.

The Government took more than half of Jaguar’s profits in tax, money that was needed for investment. Lyons invested as much profit as he could. Yet because he owned the majority of Jaguar shares until 1966, he perservered. From the mid 1960s, he began to suffer from severe headaches, something relatives thought was brought on by stress.

By the time Sir William Lyons retired in March 1972, many of his top knotch collegues like William Heynes, Walter Hassan and Arthur Whittaker had also retired and with them Jaguar’s momentum stopped in its tracks. Lofty England succeeded Lyons as Chairman, but whatever his abilities, he was unable to stop a ten-week official strike at Jaguar from August 1972 that marred the XJ12 launch.

Some authors have commented that if Lyons had still been in charge, the dispute, which was the longest motor industry strike of 1972, would have been resolved sooner. Lord Stokes draughted in Geoffrey Robinson, which resulted in the hasty exit of Lofty England in January 1974. Robinson had ambitious plans for Jaguar involving raising annual production to 50,000 cars, but quality began to slip.

Following nationalisation, Robinson was succeeded unofficially and then officially by Bob Knight. Bob Knight may have been a brilliant chassis engineer who is credited with keeping Jaguar’s engineering department intact, but quality nose-dived further under his regime. Elsewhere in British Leyland the required grip to get well built cars into the showrooms was also lacking.

If only the Princess and Rover SD1 had been built properly, then British Leyland would have triumphed. But no doubt many executives baulked at the challenge, and were not prepared to work like a dog in the thankless task that was running BL in the 1970s and who can blame them?

Sir William Lyons created a world-class brand in Jaguar by sheer hard work, but the road to the TATA takeover began on the day he retired because no one else was prepared to endure the stressful lifestyle required to move the company onwards and perhaps that explains why modern tycoons tend to avoid manufacturing industry.

22 May

What’s in a name?


READING in What Car? of the new replacement for the mediocre Vauxhall Vectra, it made me wonder why a name that had replaced the Cavalier moniker in 1995 was being phased out. Is a name change the recognition that a brand has been tarnished by a mediocre product? I still refer to my Vectra as a Cavalier, possibly due to positive feelings about two mid-1980s and one mid-1990s model I have owned. Other explanations are that I am prematurely old and so I still refer to Starburst as Opal Fruits and Cif as Jif.

The Cavalier name was tarnished by the Mk3 revamp in 1988 and, what was meant to be a new start in 1995, was such a small move forward that it took many years to establish any brand capital. The 2002 model Vectra was a move in the right direction, but again has never truly troubled the Mondeo in terms of overall appeal. We can see a similar pattern with the Ford Escort brand which was dropped in 1998 for Focus.

While it is admirable that Ford finally moved away from a girly mag’s title for the name of its then new car (Rover Razzle anyone?), for some the 13 or 14 years of world class rallying success the Escort enjoyed still provides an incredible halo effect. For others, the awful 1990 version added as little to the world as the first Vectra. The Escort was much improved with its final major revamp of 1995, but that it shared so much with the 1990 model was probably enough to kill the brand.

This leaves a chicken and egg type question: do brand values just become tired over time or are they tainted by dull cars? Are new, superior models not sufficient to rejuvenate a sagging brand?

If you take a look at Volkswagen and BMW they seem to have unerring faith in their core model designations that have persevered for many model series; in the case of the Golf since 1974. While both German makers seem to have a golden touch many now regard the early 1990s 3-Series and the Mark 3 Golf as poorer than they should have been, and yet, the names continued. In any case, both brands seem utterly set in stone as icons and maybe this explains how or why the model names have continued unchanged for years; a small hiccough in popularity can be weathered by BMW and VW whereas it causes major concern with Ford and Vauxhall.

Finally, a point about the name chosen for the Vectra replacement: Insignia. How many millions have been spent on branding a car as an underarm deodorant or a team from the TV series The Apprentice? Call it something decent like Victor, Ventora or even Cavalier!


21 May

Déjà vu


READING recent editions of car magazines, the rise in popularity of fuel-efficient versions of mainstream cars is plain to see. Major manufacturers are giving us ECOmotive, Bluemotion, ECOnetic and Greenline. Modifications generally include aerodynamic improvements, gearing changes, tyre size and composition changes, and modifications to engine management. Hang on… haven’t we been here before?

A quick look at the ‘Miracle Maestro’ launch brochure gives me the answer. The Maestro HLE could in some ways have come out of a 2008 brochure. Tyres? Yes, low rolling resistance tyres were used (Goodyear Grand Prix E to be precise). Aerodynamics? Yes, horizontal and vertical rear spoilers, and an omitted passenger door mirror, to reduce drag. Gearing? Yes again, widely spaced gear ratios allowed the HLE to chug along in third at 75 without difficulty. Engine management? Yes, with the (admittedly challenging) electronic choke among other tweaks (along with the flashing light ‘Economy Gauge’).

This isn’t the first time I’ve been reminded of the Maestro by much more modern cars. A couple of years ago I was reading a review (I think it was a Seat) and the polystyrene insert in the spare wheel for tools was listed as a thoughtful feature. I just thought: ‘And? Austin-Rover had those in 1983’. Around the same time my father-in-law bought a Citroen C3, and splashed out on the Citroen accessory flat floor, a plastic insert which gave you a boot floor the same height as the hatch lip, with a secure stowage box underneath. Yet again… ‘You could get that for the Maestro…’. Unipart would do you one for your shiny new Austin.

The Maestro: styled for the late 1970s designed for the 21st Century?

20 May

A near miss, I reckon


LUCKY me again. A trip to the workshop to shuffle round some cars, and to escape the office proved a bit of a shocker. Having picked up the CzechWrecks Skoda from the Bauer car park, I cruised up the A1, wondering what the nice hot smell coming from my vents was.

After a few miles the smell seemed to ease off, and I went about my business as normal. Come 5.30pm and home time, Neil and I left at the same time – with him following me in his Peugeot 106, and me in the Felicity. All was going well until we took some corners at an enthusiastic pace – the aftermath was a plume of blue smoke, inside and out. Time to slow down, take stock and see what the problem was. When I get to the next set of lights, I take a glance at the front wheel and see that not all’s well.

There’s plenty of smoke now and, when I run my finger along the tread, I feel an inch wide gouge, and the stickiness of melted rubber. Oh dear. Sticking my head under the arch, I am confronted with this…

Still, at least it didn’t happen on the motorway… or the Stelvio Pass on the way to Prague!

I called my friend Steven Ward to tell him what had happened, and he said that the trade is currently inundated with cars needing their coils repairing… citing what he reckoned was the sheer number of speed humps on our roads these days. It would be interested to hear from anyone else who has suffered similar failures, and to see if there really is a trend that we should be worrying about…

19 May



LUCKY me. I spent a day at the Beaulieu Autojumble on Saturday, and although I didn’t get to see much of the show itself, it was good to be out and about, seeing classic cars in the flesh again. However, I hate to say it, but one thing really did grind my gears about the whole day happened right at the end… it made me wonder what was going on in the mind of the driver, and had me doubting his sanity…

What was it you’re wondering? Or maybe not, looking at the picture above. But, yes, a 1970s classic, four up, with mum and dad in the front, two kids in the back – and no seat belts for the rear seat passengers. Okay, the car in question wouldn’t have had these safety devices fitted as standard from new, but is it unreasonable to expect a responsible parent to retro-fit a pair in order to protect their children?

Volvo, after all, first fitted seat belts as standard equipment back in 1958 – extending the idea copyright-free to the rest of the world at the same time. Since then, countless lives have been saved by their use – although the UK was quite late in making the wearing of them obligatory (in the front) in 1983. So, why on earth the owner of any classic car would decide not to extend the same safety to his or her own kids is beyond me. Perhaps, in this instance, the chap reckoned that his kids’ safety was less important than maintaining his car’s original specification or was even just plain lazy.

Either way, it’s reprehensible. Let’s hope lady luck smiled on that family on the journey home…


16 May



ONCE again trawling through my picture archive I find something that I should have uploaded to AROnline absolutely ages ago. The car you see parked outside the Kremlin at Longbridge is the Issigonis XC9001 prototype, and it’s probably not escaped your attention… but it’s in colour. I actually took this picture at the Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon in 2007 during the re-opening ceremony. Okay, I don’t mean I took this picture, but I snapped a picture of a picture tucked away on a wall as part of the Issigonis anniversary celebrations.

Issi allegedly hated this car because it was rear wheel drive, but it’s interesting to see that the basic Mini/1100 style was already taking shape in 1957/58. The proportions look a little skew-whiff, but other than that, there’s a certain appeal about this vehicle that perhaps the Landcrab lacked, despite its neat and tidy Pininfarina detailing. The project was put on ice because the Mini became a top priority… and when a Issigonis turned once again to a larger sized car, he’d dropped the idea of RWD, plumping instead for the ADO17.

But do let us know what you think – should BMC have built this? Was being sidetracked by the Mini a good thing?


15 May

Tell us what you think


OH DEAR… the forum’s undergoing growing pains again, and while it takes its merry old time to be sorted out by AROnline’s service providers, site feedback is looking a little bit sparse. So while I wait for the database to be transferred, and then for the rigmarole of sorting out the mess, I thought it would be nice to start adding the option of feedback of everything added to the website.

So, as I don’t have a call centre stocked full of smiling ladies willing to gather your thoughts on the latest updates, I thought that the next best thing would be to incorporate a ‘leave your comment’ function. As you can see, there’s one at the bottom of this blog – and the one before it as well as all the most recent new additions to the site.

If you read something and fancy having your say, then stick your comment in. It’ll save you the hassle of emailing me, and if you don’t feel like going to those lengths, just add a rating. Hopefully your input will allow me to tailor the site’s content to what you actually want to see here. Give it both barrels and have some fun…


14 May

Peaked Gold Cap Award


MY exhaust snapped like a twig on Wednesday, straight across just before the silencer. Sounds like a tractor, and with a two and a half hour drive in Friday rush hour traffic left to do, I thought I should see about getting it bodged and at least secured in case it starts drooping.

So, without sat nav (no ciggy lighter in an A40), I went in search of a friendly garage. Alas all I could find were a Kwik Fit and a National Tyre Centre. With heart dropping by the second, I approached the reception and see the look of terror mixed with disinterest when I mention it’s an old Austin. At least the first place was willing to try their depot (which would be fruitless – if they didn’t stock ‘em in 1985, they sure as hell won’t now) but I gave up when it became clear that the only person allowed (yes allowed) to call the depot was tied up trying to sort out a psychotic customer. Quickly moving to next door, bloke comes out, looks at car and comes out with the immortal lines ‘we can’t try and secure the exhaust or weld it. What would happen if something flew off and hit another car. We would be sued”.

Being a serene individual I flew into a little purple rage and told him he was a Jobsworth, jumped into my little car and accelerated very hard out of there (imagine the noise).

I’ll pop in unannounced to Dave, my hairy, oily regular mechanic on the way home. He smokes roll ups in his garage in spite of the smoking ban and laughs in the face of such modern concerns. Why does modern business have such a disdain for anything non textbook; is it simply that they hide behind product liability simply because they have such a low skill base? I would have signed a waiver acknowledging that they had attempted a temporary repair and that it may fail again at any time. Does make me wonder what they would do if I collapsed on their forecourt clutching my chest….

13 May

SAIC Motor: off to a Sterling start?


A RECENT exchange of emails with a reader has prompted some of us at AROnline to ponder on which, if any, of the Nanjing Automobile (Group) Corporation (NAC) owned BMC legacy brands might now be revived by SAIC Motor Corporation Limited (SAIC Motor).

Tata Motors Limited (TML) will acquire the IPRs to the Rover brand (and, apparently, to the traditional badge) upon the completion of the company’s purchase of Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford Motor Company. The deal should be completed within the next six weeks or so but AROnline believes that TML may already be evaluating whether or not to revive the Rover brand and reckons that the chances of a European market, Rover-badged, re-styled and re-skinned, version of the Tata Indica V3 appearing at the Geneva Motor Show in March, 2009 are probably better than even.

Auto Express reported last week that ‘SAIC-NAC are looking to form a UK Roewe Dealer Network in 2010” but, if that report proves to be accurate, such a move might well prompt potentially costly and lengthy IPR litigation between SAIC Motor and TML/JLR. AROnline thinks that any such IPR litigation would, more likely than not, have an adverse impact on both parties’ commercial credibility and so surmises that SAIC Motor may well now be giving active consideration to the replacement of the Roewe brand with a BMC legacy brand in Britain and Europe if not in China as well.

A quick check of the Intellectual Property Office’s website provides full details of all the BMC legacy brands etc. vested in NAC. However, although the AROnline reader who initiated our discussions advocated an Austin revival, to my mind a pretty persuasive business case can be made for replacing the still embryonic Roewe brand with the Sterling marque:

1. Austin and Morris have always been what would now equate to Tier 4 Value brands in the “Global Automotive Brand Hierarchy” proposed in ‘Tiers for all: an OEM hierarchy?” (Blogs: 13th February, 2008).

2. Roewe appears to be positioned as a Tier 3 Premium/Luxury brand in China and would, in any event, probably occupy that slot in Europe by competing against the likes of Saab, Volkswagen and Volvo. Austin and Morris would not, given their historical positioning, really be appropriate for that role.

3. The IPO’s website confirms that NAC owns the IPRs which permit the company to use the Wolseley badge and brand on motor vehicles but there may still be potential legal issues which might preclude the Wolseley name from appearing on a re-branded Roewe. See the following links here and here.

4. Most commentators appear to agree that the impressive Roewe 550 represents a clear evolution of the design direction initiated by the Rover 75. Indeed, in my opinion, both the Roewe 550 and 750 models feature too many Rover brand design attributes for them to wear, say, an Austin or Wolseley badge with any real credibility.

5. The Rover brand cannot be an option and, of all the other BMC legacy brands, Sterling has the strongest historical connection with Rover. The Sterling badge remains, to the best of my knowledge, the only alternative badge to have been used on an otherwise unaltered Rover model.

6. SAIC Motor’s Brand Development Strategists might also favour replacing Roewe with Sterling in Britain and Europe (if not in China as well) simply because of the latter brand’s relative lack of negative historical associations. Many MG Rover enthusiasts have fond memories of the likes of the Austin Allegro and Morris Marina but, as members of today’s British and European car-buying public, they are probably in a minority…

7. The Sterling brand (if used in place of Roewe) would, therefore, have the twin advantages of giving a respectful nod to those knowledgeable MG Rover enthusiasts and also of being perceived by the vast majority of the World’s car buyers as a new global automotive brand.

8. The IPO’s website reveals that NAC not only owns the IPRs to the Sterling brand but also those to the accompanying Rover-shaped badge. The original Sterling and Rover badges were, of course, interchangeable. The Roewe badge appears to be the same shape so the adoption of an updated (if necessary) version of the Sterling badge would obviate the need to redesign items such as bonnets/grilles and bootlids etc..

9. Sterling badges might, in those circumstances, even be officially retro-fitted to the 15,600 plus Roewe 750s sold in China to date by SAIC Motor’s Roewe Dealer Network there! Indeed, given the Chinese people’s apparent predilection for ceremonies, a formal ‘Re-Badging Event” at each Dealership might even be a cost-effective way of creating Sterling brand loyalty from the outset…

The Roewe 550 was, of course, conceived by former MG Rover Designers and Engineers now employed by SAIC Motor UK Technical Centre Limited (SMTC) at Leamington Spa in Warwickshire and, on reflection, perhaps they are better qualified than anyone else to decide which, if any, BMC legacy brand should replace Roewe.

A final point: NAC MG UK Limited, HFI Automotive Limited and Healey Automobile Consultants Limited announced a JV on the 12th June, 2007 which committed all three companies to the development and marketing of (inter alia) a new ‘big’ Austin Healey. The Designers and Engineers at SMTC may now, therefore, have the chance to play a role in the development of an Austin Healey-badged, junior Aston Martin V8 Vantage-like, V6-engined rival for the BAW 700R and Geely GT/Tiger which were both displayed at last month’s Auto China 2008 in Beijing…

That would probably be the most appropriate and exciting way to revive the Austin brand!

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12 May

When a Rover turns into a Skoda


SO, there I was telling everyone that I was looking forward to Rover 800 ownership after a period in the wilderness (see my blog further down). The car in question, offered to me gratis by sometime site contributor, Achim Kuepper, looked honest enough – and although he warned me that there was a fuel leak and a couple of other bits of heritage, I was more than pleased with my choice to ditch the Primera and re-join the Rover bangwagon.

An early start on Saturday morning is in order – I live in the East Midlands and the 800’s up in Whitley Bay, north of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. No worries, some things are worth it, and I get a chance to spend time in the family Citroen BX. So, a leisurely run up the M1 and A1 saw me hit the coast at 11.30, and minutes later I was chewing the fat with Achim about his BL collection (of which you could say there’s quite a bit), before swapping paperwork on the Rover 827.

The car in question looks the business, and purrs like a kitten, and apart from a slow puncture, the dreaded fuel leak, and an ABS light that stays on, it’s sound, and looks straight. We jump in the 827, stick a snifter of fuel in, and head South towards Washington, and a date with the ramps at Village Lane Garage. However, I know it isn’t going well before we get to the Tyne… yup, as I pull away from the petrol station and join the grinding South-bound traffic queue the strong smell of petrol seems to stick with me.

Ah. Still, that could be something on my hands…

The tunnel tolls, and irritatingly, the machines don’t give change, and I have to pull in to the lay-by and grab some coinage. The now hot 827 is idling smoothly, albeit with a manly exhaust rasp, but the rapidly growing puddle underneath confirms my worst fears – this is going to be one expensive trip home.

With Achim ahead of me in his Maestro Automatic and a family member acting as rear gunner in the BX, this was one class car caper that must be turning heads in the Teutonic dominated traffic queue. I figure that with fuel leaking at a rate, the best thing to do is put my foot down, and get there as quickly as possible. I snicked the 827 into Sport mode, and made liberal use of the loud pedal – and after weeks of 1.6-litre power, it was a wonderful experience, soundtrack enhanced by the blowing exhaust, and being pushed into the back of that supportive driver’s seat. I love that V6, I really do.

I figure that with fuel leaking at a rate, the best
thing to do is put my foot down, and get there as
quickly as possible.

Anyway, my sat/nav guides me into Washington’s village centre, and I meet up with VLG’s man, Steven Ward. He whips the 827 on to the ramp, and the prognosis isn’t good – not only is the tank seam leaking, but one of the pipes has almost turned to dust. The fuel is now almost gushing out, and Steven’s mechanic condemns the fuel system on the spot. ‘How far do you need to go,’ he asks… ‘Oh, only about 230 miles,’ I reply. A laugh is his retort, followed by the statement, ‘not in that car’.

Ah well. And to make matters worse, with the Primera now sold, and happily being punted by its new owner, I’d be without wheels next week. Eeek.

However, Steven smiles knowingly, points to an old Skoda sat in his yard… and mentions the CzechWrecks event I’m signed up for. ‘Take the Felicia home, and get it ready for the event,’ he laughs. Shaking my head, and trying to ignore the inevitable social death and weeks of being in a car I really don’t want to be in – again! – I reluctantly agree.

So, it’s an amble home in another 1.6-litre car that I can’t summon up any enthusiasm for (and I like Skodas a lot – it’s too new to be interesting, and too old to be any good) – and regrets over my 827 that couldn’t be. Still, as the miles roll on and the A1 gets quieter, the Felicia manages to do a reasonable job – and although it’s gutless, and getting more so with each passing mile (that noisy camshaft will need to be replaced as well as the binding brake that needs sorting), I have to say that it’s a reasonable travelling companion, and it should be a laugh forcing it over the Stelvio Pass on two wheels.

Read more of that in coming weeks, assuming I don’t kill the engine in the meantime.

What of the 827, I hear you ask… well, it’ll be fixed, and I’ll make another trip to go and fetch it. And do you know what, I’m still looking forward to collecting it, and the ensuing adventure. Whoever says that Rover 800s are boring needs their bumps feeling.

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8 May

Who’d drive a classic?


USUAL routine; alarm off at 5.15, hurried shower, out on the road before traffic builds to ensure I am 103 miles away in Peterborough before 8am. This morning it’s no different, except my capable, dull, modern Vectra has a badly cracked windscreen and so I’m using Nellie, my 1965 Austin A40 Farina.

The A40 has been languishing unloved for the last few months as I am working away but yesterday was different; new battery, MoT, oil change, steering adjusted, chassis greased, electronic ignition conversion fitted. Today, therefore is celebration time; the token big trip to mark its MoT and another year on the road.

While my 75 mile fast A-road and motorway commute to Northampton felt easy, the last time I did it in a classic (another A40), it dropped a valve on the way home. So, with more than a little trepidation, I set off. The oil change marked the end of running in for my pukka, newly rebuilt 1098cc Midget engine and so I was determined to push it a little.

No sixth gear, not even a fifth, a distinct lack of interior trim and gearing shorter than 16mph/1000 revs means this would not be an exercise in serene relaxation. But on we push…a steady 60 means being hassled by HGVs so up goes the speed and into lane 3 and touching 87; a great achievement for a still tight engine being strangled by the standard A40 carb and exhaust. M42 and M6 survived, A14 passes without incident and on to the A605 a slow poodle behind HGVs and, lacking the grunt of a modern turbo – diesel it took until the crawler lanes to haul the speed back up.

But….triumph, the edge of Peterborough arrives and we push on to the penultimate road…and it dies. Bonnet up, a loose lead…hurrah…but that’s not it. It’s got petrol but no spark and now it ain’t those pesky points. Await recovery truck and mind working overtime how to get sorted; no knowledge of Peterborough garages, of Peterborough public transport and how to get to a friend’s nearly 40 miles away in Northamptonshire.

I shamefully made a damsel in distress type call and had the reassurance of help if I needed from AROnline’s very own Keith Adams (although I am sure this is not a widely advertised service). However, breakdown truck arrives and for once the driver is clean, friendly and older. ‘My first car was an A40 you know’. Music to my ears….And with that he sets to find out what is wrong rather than load the car on to the truck. A chance wiggle when replacing the cap reveals that the dizzy itself has worked loose. In spite of its 1980s style modern enhancement (and no doubt caused buy its fitting), a simple slackening of a couple of bolts has halted progress.

This incident really summed up classic ownership for me; it’s tough on the streets but a loveable older car and a bit of patience was rewarded with help above and beyond the call. Only two and a half days until I get home with the old girl and I’m looking forward to all 250 of those remaining miles.

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7 May

Visualising the TA/350… sod’s law strikes again


It began with a light-hearted challenge to Sam Skelton, whose lightning-quick Photoshop images have graced the AROnline forum pages on many occasions. Would it be possible to create a visual reconstruction of the Alvis TA350, the enigmatic, technically advanced and, for BMC if not for Alvis, highly significant V8 engined saloon designed under Alec Issigonis’s direction between 1952 and 1955?

The real spur for the exercise was that every written account I could find suggested that no photographs of the car survived, and that the sole running prototype was destroyed in 1964. The TA350 had thereby attained the quality of a mythical beast, existing only in the living memories of a tiny number of people. The photoshop was therefore created from a composite drawing by John Sheppard, body designer for the project, some archive sketches, and descriptions, such as this by Gerald Palmer in his biography Auto-Architect: “Issigonis kindly invited me to see the prototype at the Alvis works. My vague recollection is that it was not particularly striking in appearance, rather like the current Morris Oxford Series II and not likely to appeal to traditional Alvis clients.”

The exercise progressed and this convincing image evolved. As it was being finalised, Sod’s law struck in the most unexpected manner when we were alerted to the appearance of a photograph of the prototype in the May 2008 issue of Classic and Sports Car, with the promise of yet more to come.

Our first thought was that this was a disastrous blow to our small project – hours of work now without purpose. The reality is that the discovery of photographs nearly 53 years after the TA 350 project was abandoned is excellent news for anybody interested in this period of British automotive history and the Issigonis continuum which remains alive today in the Cowley-built MINI. The real disaster is that the Alvis management could not have swallowed their pride and donated the prototype to a museum, rather than airbrushing the episode from their corporate history in a truly Stalinist manner.

Looking at the pictures accompanying the article, I consider Gerald Palmer was being less than generous in dismissing the car as a reheated Morris Oxford. The turret is certainly similar, but the low waistline and wide-tracked stance, along with the tombstone grille to which Issigonis was so opposed, give the Alvis prototype real poise and a presence, suggestive of real power, that is far removed from the benign countenance of the utilitarian 1954 saloon from Cowley.

Without the photographs for reference, Sam’s first image took the Oxford as its template, but made it lower, and slightly wider, with some of the character of the Lancia Aurelia which provided the inspiration for the Alvis’s proportions and engineering design. When we saw the first teaser photograph early in April, the first thought was that the Photoshop reconstruction looked like a more convincing Alvis than the rather dumpy and unembellished prototype pictured – more like the sort of car Gerald Palmer would have designed if he’d been given the job rather than Issigonis.

It turns out that the most unflattering image was chosen as the teaser. The other newly discovered photographs suggest we were closer to the correct track than first thought. They show a far lower more, graceful car closer in proportions to Palmer’s Riley Pathfinder and MG Magnette ZA, and one which would not have been disgraced beside its hometown rival, the 1955 Jaguar 2.4 litre saloon which we have come to know as the Mk I.

This has certainly not been the first attempt to depict the car during its mythical era – here are some others, along with an undated Issigonis sketch.

Rendering by David Culshaw in his book ‘Alvis Three Litre in detail”.

Conjectural illustration from a 1990s issue of Classic & Sports Car.

Side elevation by Brian Hatton from Classic & Sports Car

Undated Issigonis sketch – makes an interesting comparison with the prototype.

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5 May

Ah, the curse of the free car…


I CAN see next weekend being one full of another Rover-related caper. You see, one of the delightful side-effects of running this website is the sheer number of free cars that get offered to me in the course of my day-to-day life. So when old friend, Achim Kuepper, got in touch saying that his recently MoT’d Rover 827 fastback was going begging, I thought it would be rude to turn down the chance of owning such a magnificent car for such a knock down price.

Yes, that’s right, Achim has offered me – or should I say AROnline – this car for free.

His missive gave me a clue… ‘After having spent £300 to get it through the MoT just two months ago, it has now developed some more bad habits – fuel leak, brake and ABS warning lights on, one tyre goes flat over the course of about one week, too sporty noise after being driven fast, A/C stopped working etc. I’d love to see the 800 going to a good home as it’s far too good to be scrapped.’

So I’m going to have to have it, aren’t I?

Of course, free cars are rarely free at all, and there’s pretty much always a catch. Take the M-registered Nissan Primera 1.6 I’m running around in at the moment – it’s trouble-free and pretty much faultless and probably has years of service left in front of it. But because its clutch is on it’s last legs, there’s a pressing need to put that right. But because it was free, the economics of a £35 clutch kit, and a morning in the workshop seem to take on a whole new slant. I mean, it’s not a lot of money, but it’s vastly more than I paid for it – so should I do it? Especially as I don’t really have any feelings for this finely engineered car…

I had decided to take the plunge and get it fixed, but when Achim made his kind offer, I knew that there was no way the Primera would be going anywhere near the workshop – as a V6 powered Rover with a barrel load of Heritage issues seems a damned sight more enticing. And because of that, I’ll be heading to Newcastle next weekend to pick up this sight-unseen 800… there’s nothing like a little of the unknown to get that excitement switch flicked.

So that leaves me with a Primera that I just don’t know what to do with. Because it was free, and given to me by a friend, the usual rules (see above) don’t apply. But at the same time, there’s no way I could let this car go to scrap because of the clutch – and as well as that, it was a present. So, what to do?

Head says weigh it in, but the heart clearly couldn’t let that happen…

So before I can take on one free car, I need to decide what to do with another one. Any suggestions?

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4 May

New motor? Er, no thanks…


I WAS driving along today, in my very-much un-BL 1982 Mercedes-Benz 300D so I’ll apologise now, and it really did strike me that this was one of the last great cars.

Why? Simplicity. Sure, it’s got a fuel injection system that I don’t really understand but while it’s a premium product, there isn’t much to it really. For a start, there is no air-conditioning – it doesn’t even have electric windows and while it does have central locking fitted, it doesn’t work.

That’s ok though because it has these quaint door lock knob things and key-operated locks that do the trick quite nicely thank you very much. Something that can not be said for all modern cars when the clever tricks malfunction.

Not one of these W123 Mercs ended up in a scrapyard because some clever box of kit suffered a sudden heritage issue or from dried up solder. Nor do they really wear out either – they’ll go on forever with even a Scooge’s smattering of service and care. They do rust, granted, but then I’ve always thought that it’s much nicer to pay skilled folk to repair rust damage than it is to line the pockets of a slimey main dealer salesman, or the finance fat-cats who simply adore cars on credit.

The above isn’t my main reason for driving classics though. No, that reason is because my Mercedes-Benz is clearly of that marque. My 2CV is unmistakably French and our Mini is unmistakably British. And that isn’t just because it doesn’t work in the rain.

These days, it’s all confused. The MINI is German, Skoda is German and Citroen seems to think that it is now German. Mercedes-Benz are rolling out cars with the sort of electrical gremlins that the French and Italians previously thought they were the masters of – and still are judging by recent reliability studies. So little separates manufacturers these days that an Audi seems very similar to a BMW – something that seemed impossible even in the 1980s when the two were very different.

These are cars designed more by marketing departments than by engineers and therefore, they have no character at all – certainly nothing that individualises them. No, that would be a disaster, according to some bloke who gets paid too much money for talking rubbish, and so we’ve ended up with automotive menu where every flavour tastes the same. One size to fit all.

Sod that. I like my cars with flavour and soul. Guess I’ll be saving a fortune in depreciation and staying resolutely classic then

Keith Adams

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