Blogs : September 2005

22 September 2005

Bye for now!


TODAY sees us embark on our Allegro-shaped adventure to Naples. Yup, it came round really quickly, and although we did all we can, it still seems as though Declan, Alexander and I are horribly unprepared…

Molly has been serviced, had a couple of new CV joints and a clutch – and yet with a knock eminating from the gearbox and a developing shake, rattle and roll, I can’t help but worry about the trip down. Will we make it? Ask me that question a couple of months ago, and the answer would have been, ‘yes’. I mean, what can go wrong with such a mechanically basic car?

Well, we know the answer to that…

Ask me now whether we can make it, and the answer changes to a wobbly, ‘no, but I hope so’…

Anyway, follow our progress on the Staples2Naples page – we’re intending to keep an online diary of events!

Bottom line, I see this is going to be a challenging few days ahead – but wasn’t that what we wanted – a little excitement?

Wish us luck…

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21 September 2005

Run (on) flat


CAR design, manufacture and specifications have changed beyond recognition these past 30 years. The current Euro NCAP Five-star rating would have been unobtainable only ten years ago. But in the Sixties, safety was very much an afterthought. The active variety – handling, braking, steering response, acceleration – was the only kind of safety discussed.

Passive safety? Forget it.

For example, BMC’s A60 offered the following:

· no seat belts
· no airbags
· unyielding metallic surfaces, as well as projecting switches and door furniture
· absence of crumple zones
· decorative chrome bumpers — no impact absorption
· fuel tank at the rear of the car
· cross ply tyres
· drum brakes
· glass which shattered on impact
· no side impact protection
· no roll over stiffening — structure would collapse if vehicle rolled

So, what safety legacy was left by BMC>Rover? The Dunlop Denovo, that’s what – a revolutionary (for the time) puncture-proof wheel and tyre combination. Dunlop and BMC/BL worked closely throughout the Sixties and Seventies. Dunlop radial ply tyres (remember the twin central treads on the ubiquitous SP 41?) became standard issue, and they manufactured the Dr Alex Moulton designed rubber cone, Hydrolastic and Hydragas suspension units used on all BMC/BL front driven cars.

Punctures, although much less common than in the early days of motoring, still remained an alarming and potentially very dangerous threat and tyre makers were always investigating ways to produce a puncture proof unit. However, no matter what they tried, heat build up always defeated them. So, for example, tyres filled with latex foam were fine whilst the vehicle was stationary, but failed spectacularly at speed, as heat build up was not dissipated. The beauty of the Denovo system was that when the tyre was punctured at speed, special phials situated on the inside of the rim were broken, releasing liquid sealant which instantly closed the leak, as well as partially re-inflating the tyre, thereby allowing the wheel to run flat for 100 miles.

The wheel rim held on to the beading around the inside edge of the tyre, preventing it from pulling away once a puncture happened. Simple, reliable but expensive. The tyre was first offered in 1973 on the Mini 1275GT, and in 1975 could be specified on the new 18-22 Series as a £99 (plus VAT) option. However, customers were extremely underwhelmed and were not prepared to pay extra for the special Denovo wheel and tyre (identified by a thin, superimposed spoke design and flat, silver and grey wheel rims). Catastrophically poor sales meant that by the end of the decade another good British invention was consigned to the dustbin of history. Tilting Advanced Passenger Train anyone? Brilliant concept, but British Rail managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Fast forward 30 years and Goodyear is advertising its ‘Run on Flat’ tyre – I suspect the name ‘Run Flat’ is still under copyright. Bridgestone also offer a run flat option for Lexus. The difference this time around is that modern tyre carcasses are more resilient and it is just a special wheel rim keeping the carcass in place following a puncture, allowing the vehicle to continue its journey.

Another own goal by the British motor industry? I think that’s a resounding yes.

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have to disagree with Mike Goy’s thoughts on BMC/Rover contribution to passive safety.

When Rover designed the P6, it built in a number of very important safety features from day one in 1958 when the design effort began. The construction of the car had safety built in many years before Volvo took up the safety baton and proclaimed themselves ‘King of safety’.

Important feature is the unitary construction, a super strong base unit including important design features so the steering wheel went in towards the bulkhead in a frontal collision. At the rear, the petrol tank was protected by the rear bulkhead in the event of a rear end smash, the tank was not exposed during such a collision. Common sense today, revolutionary in 1963, the car’s launch year.

It was the first British car to run on radial tyres and it had servo assisted disc brakes all round. The De Dion rear axle configuration meant that power could be applied to the rear wheels equally during a turn and therefore much safer than the more common and primitive live axle of the day. Lotus and Maserati already used a very similar suspension setup in Formula 1. It’s a joy to drive but more importantly, difficult to over-steer. When braking the car maintains its poise, the anti-dip front suspension under braking does not greatly upset the centre of gravity of the car.

Inside the cab, it was the first British car to have seatbelts as standard, quite a few years before they were compulsory. Padded shin bins protected the front passenger legs and there is laminated glass all round. The ergonomics of the dash also were smart enough to allow touch and feel to operate controls keeping the driver’s eyes on the road.

Ralph Nader, the US environmental and safety campaigner, not known for his praise of the motor car said of the Rover P6 at launch in the US ‘all cars should be built like this.’

I have P6 crash test footage at MIRA taken in the late 1960s as the P6B underwent approval and the tests are impressive, key components of the car like the fuel tank and passenger cab surviving intact in 40mph front and rear collisions. Later series 2 cars had Denovo’s as an option and other safety improvements including passenger headrests to protect against whiplash and dual braking circuits were added. North American specification cars had an ‘Icelert” system that could monitor weather conditions to warn drivers of the potential of ice on the road.

Of all the P6 crashes, the most infamous is the death of Princess Grace of Monaco, driving her 10 year old 3500S with Princess Stephanie in the front passenger seat. The car came off the road and rolled 120 feet down an escarpment. Sadly Princess Grace was thought to have had a stroke at the wheel and died a day later in hospital whilst Princess Stephanie suffered only minor injuries. There are not many cars even today that could protect its occupants in such a crash.

In the BMC, BLMC and BL days this experience was lost in the rivalry between the marques. Rover had learnt a lot about safety, it is almost criminal that the other marques didn’t take Rover’s experience on board.


Mike has forgotten the P6…

Large numbers of Volvo’s recent saftey invations, including the much-vaunted SIPS of the mid-Nineties were present in the P6, it also had side impact bars, crash proetction for the knees, crumple zones and the engine/gearbox was designed to be pushed under the car rather than into the passenger compartment should the impact be large enough to move it.

The fuel tank was across the back axle out of harm’s way. Although passive saftey features of cars have contributed to a down turn in driving standards, It must be remembered that the most important safty device fitted to any car has remained unchanged for many years, the driver…


With reference to Mike Goy’s contribution dated 21st September 2005, he seems a bit harsh on the Austin A60, and makes a few too many errors.

To use his own list, in the order that it appeared:

‘No seat belts’: My 1962 A60 had seat belts in the front, as did the previous A55 Farina
‘Unyielding metal surfaces….. projecting switches’: The dashboard was capped with a crash pad material which projected well in front of anything on the dashboard.
‘Absence of crumple zones’: There was a long bonnet, and about 15 inches from the bumper to the radiator : these cars were very competitive in banger racing, and remained functional with massive apparent damage. The boot was large, and the rear passengers were at least three feet in front of the bumper.
‘Decorative chrome bumpers, no impact absorption’: The bumpers were not just decorative, they had a deep, strong section, and were mounted on irons which had a gradual curve to where they were fastened (very far in design from those on a Mini).
‘Fuel tank at the rear of the car’: The fuel tank was behind the back seat, and well out of harm’s way. ( On the Cortina, and others, the fuel tank WAS the boot floor).
‘Cross ply tyres’: Practically all British cars had cross-ply tyres: they were quieter than radials; Michelin’s X had a poor reputation for grip in the wet, Pirelli Cinturatos had extremely fragile sidewalls, but the Dunlop C41 of the day had a concave tread form, and ‘cling’ properties.
‘Drum brakes’: Few cars had discs, and some of the early examples of discs were poor at slow speeds. Amongst the last manufacturers to use discs were Rolls Royce and Porsche, for this very reason. The drums used on these cars would be difficult to match today, by anyone.
‘Glass which shattered on impact’: The only step forward has been the use of laminated screens, otherwise almost all cars have toughened glass everywhere else; it shatters.
‘No side impact protection’: No side impact protection was defined, but these were strong cars, even though they were terribly vulnerable to rust, there was an abundance of metal to protect
‘No roll over stiffening’: I have seen A60s rolled, but never with much distortion, the cars were not computer designed, and were not in any sense pared down to save weight. After an accident they were usually repaired, and very seldom written off.

It is difficult to relate that the lack of success of the Dunlop Denovo was an ‘own goal’ for British industry, when the public did the value engineering on it, and did not buy. Very unfortunately that is what has happened to British industry, and particularly the car industry, and that is why, for practical purposes, it has gone, and left to other countries to own what remains of car design and production here.


20 September 2005

Further musings on the R8


IT is already pretty well established that in 1989 the fruit of the ‘YY’ Rover-Honda collaboration tasted great. It was a huge step forward over not only anything BMC>Rover had made before, but most importantly over the competition. From the Sixties on, the varied names of the company had been losing out to Ford but with the launch of the 800 and 200 Rover had created something Ford could not – a premium image through superior products. It is doubtful this would have worked with the Austin marque, Triumph had pretty much vanished with the rather less premium Acclaim and Morris lived on only as a Metro van, but more realistically died along with the Ital.

There is no denying, then, Rover had something over Ford’s more comfortable rivals, Austin and Morris, and undoubtedly had the better image. When the 200 was released it became a fast best seller and rated as a superb success. The car introduced the new K-Series in 1.4-litre guise, and this engine I have certainly found to be pleasing. At that time, it was probably one of the most advanced engines ever to find its way into a production family car, and probably still doesn’t fall far behind these days. My personal experience of the Honda D16 SOHC 16-valve belongs to my Rover 216 Coupe, certainly a car of sporting aspirations, and with an official 0-60 time of 9.5 seconds, this is quick even for a sporty car, let alone in a five-door family carrier. The characterful Honda will spin to 7000 rpm with an instantly recognisable bark and growl as it travels up to the limiter.

It was the things that you don’t
instantly notice that made the R8
special though – the interior,
for example…

When Ford responded with its lacklustre Mk V Escort and Orion saloon it is hard to imagine what the reaction of anybody who had viewed the R8 previously must have been, underwhelmed I suspect. It was the things that you don’t instantly notice that made the R8 special though, the interior for example. Inside the R8 is a simple uncluttered exercise in design, genuine wood insert and the quality material. The glovebox has a gas damper and the seats hold you nicely in place, this is not just the Coupe, the Metro borrows the standard 200 seats. The door cards have vents for the side windows, and the rear foot wells also have their own supply of air. Rear seat belt buckles tuck neatly into the seat back and on the 5 door, the neat wood veneer follows you around on all doors on most models, often featuring electric sunroofs, electric windows, mirrors, four-speaker sound systems, remote boot pull and fuel cap.

As if this isn’t enough, the underside of the car featured all round independent suspension, many models with all round anti-roll bars and initially higher models with disc brakes. Ford, Volkswagen, Vauxhall, Renault, Citroen and Peugeot must have been very worried by the new rising European star. The car then went on the spout a saloon and an unconventionally attractive 3 door. For Rover this wasn’t enough when a new version appeared, a cabriolet, and this in turn gave rise to the now infamous coupe, known commonly as the ‘Tomcat’ and finally a five-door Tourer. Understandable then that bigger companies began to take notice. Whether you believe in conspiracy or not, a certain BMW must have noticed that these fine premium products were becoming almost a British BMW, not yet but in the near future.

The Rover R8 as a family car was finished in 1995, never really replaced by either the 200 or 400 having shown the world quite what a world-beater Rover could be. It certainly makes me wonder what could have been accomplished if the R8 had been kept in production in all profitable variants until 1998, to the same time as its contemporary, the Ford Escort.

I wonder if the situation with BMW would have been different and it had been a priority to replace the R8, with a real ‘Focus-beater’…

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Anthony Endsor makes a very good point in his R8 review.

The old 200 and 400 certainly had plenty of life left in them when Rover pulled the plug in 1995. It is a fascinating thought that if the R8 had enjoyed a Seven to Eight year lifecycle similar to its contempories, BMW would have prioritised its replacement rather than the 600’s.

History could have been very different. I always thought it was a pity that the R3 had not simply replaced the R8 with similar styling, but sized as a true family hatchback. I think this would have made a far better R8 replacement than the HHR at a fraction of the cost. It would have also created a nicely defined, and priced car range. Something Rover sorely lacked post 1995.


19 September 2005



HAD a week off last week and amid panic fuel buying and forecourts running dry, I decided to go touring around in the ZT 260.

I live in Northumberland which has some fantastic countryside and relatively empty roads, so I decided to head north up to Scotland and give the MG a good run in pursuit of the magic 25mpg. Once north of Morpeth the A1 is no longer a dual carriageway and is a single lane road most of the way to Scotland. Add to this the fact that there is a speed camera every mile or so, only a fool would drive this road any faster than 60. But churning along at 60 was exactly what I wanted to do, to see how many miles per gallon I could get on a good solid run.

The result? Great driving roads, great fun and some photos of the ZT up at Bamburgh (20 miles south of the border). 25mpg? No. I calculate about 23.5 mpg. I think the reason for this is that on the way back I gave the A1 a miss and took the costal route from Alnwick to Ashington. Its a great road and one that you cannot help – armed with a ZT V8 or not – putting your foot down. One things for sure though – driving a large executive saloon around twisty little roads shouldnt be as much fun as this. Thats what we buy these cars for.


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16 September 2005

LJK Setright


IT was with great sadness I recently learned that gifted motoring writer, LJK Setright passed away after succumbing to cancer.

For me, LJKS will always be one of the giants among British motoring writers, someone I’ve never spoken to, and yet I feel I knew, because he allowed his unique personality to shine through in the pages of CAR magazine.

Setright was one of the characters who I grew up with, and as an impressionable youngster reading (and cherishing) CAR magazine during the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, it took me a long time to penetrate his technically dense, yet erudite work. It was always worth the effort though, because once you found the way in, his writing was hugely entertaining, and would tell you all you needed to know about the subject in question.

LJKS will always be one of the giants
among British motoring scribes because
he allowed his unique personality to
shine through in the pages of
CAR magazine…

I always hoped that I would meet him, as we had a shared acquaintance in David Price, former owner of my old SD1, and editor of Hi-Fi World magazine – the journal LJKS wrote for in later years. David had a few interesting anecdotes, which revealed a lot about LJKS’ personality – such as his ability to produce work that would never need editing – and his uniquely quick and clinical driving style.

I spotting the unmistakable figure LJKS at the 2004 Birmingham motor show, and finding myself too nervous to introduce myself to him, I let him o by without saying a word. It is with great sadness that I realise I’ll never meet him now.

With the passing of LJKS, we have now lost the entire CAR magazine ‘dream team’ of columnists that I so found myself enraptured by in the late Eighties and into the Nineties. We’ll never again see the likes of Bulgin, Bishop, Setright and Llewellyn.

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15 September 2005

Clarkson gets it good


SO Jeremy Clarkson gets a pie in the face from an environmentalist, who doesn’t agree with the tyre shredding antics that go on at the Top Gear studio.

Do I think it’s a bad thing?

Certainly not – it’s an indicator that we live in a country that encourages free speech in all of its subjects, and Jeremy fell foul of someone’s distaste at what he says and does on the BBC’s excellent television programme. However, from my point of view, it was interesting to see how he handled the situation, and you have to say that in the environmentalist vs. petrolhead argument, JC came out ahead a country mile.

Why? because he responded with humour and made the said protestor look just a little foolish.

In fact, as an environmentalist PR exercise, it backfired.

It’s a shame that said ‘tree huggers’ couldn’t employ someone with a more inventive armoury to come up with an effective argument. After all, the ensuing publicity was managed by JC, and he played the situation beautifully. And now the die has been cast, Jeremy can now vent his distaste of the environmentalists a little more convincingly in future editions of Top Gear. Quid pro quo and all that.

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14 September 2005

Never rains, but it pours


IT MIGHT be all smiles on the picture, but worries are beginning to creep in with the Staples2Naples plan. For one, the Allegro 1500 seems to have a gearbox problem: you drive along, change from third to fourth gear, and all is fine – then you change from fourth into fifth and it makes no difference. Yep, someone at Longbridge decided to put two fourth gear cogs in my ‘box back in 1975, and we’re now limited to little more than 70mph…

I joke of course. But it does pose the question – what were they thinking of when they mapped out those gear ratios? To have four-and-a-half gears is a little frustrating when you have enough torque to play with to run higher gearing. Perhaps when the Allegro (or more precisely, the Maxi) was being designed, five speed gearboxes were something of a novelty, and designers may have doubted that people wanted an overdriven top gear, and that the concept an ultra-high cruising gear was beyond the grasp of most customers.

That might have been the case then, but it is proving nothing if not frustrating now…

I’ve grown rather fond of ‘Molly’…

Actually, we do have one genuine problem right now. I suspect the CV joint or driveshaft might be knackered, as we’re now getting all sorts of wierd knocking and clonking noises coming at random intervals from the left-front of the car. That, I can live with, but the incurable shakiness over 65mph, I cannot… So with a mere eight days to go, we’re now looking at stripping down the front and seeing what the problem is.

Let’s hope it’s just a CV joint, as new driveshafts seem to be impossible to get hold of in my neck of the woods. If I can fix or replace it, I then have a very difficult decision to make… do we dump plans to take Molly, and throw our lot in with my newly acquired (and largely untested) Vanden Plas? It’s a tough call – because I’ve grown rather fond of ‘Molly’, and I suspect ‘Nigel’ might not be quite a charismatic.

We shall see.

I certainly hope we can sort Molly.

But if you know of anyone with a nearside front driveshaft and CV joint littering their garage, or have one yourself, get in touch. We might need it!

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13 September 2005

Coupé crush


I THINK it’s fair to say that most drivers, after a couple of years of owning their trusty hack, think about replacing it for either something different or the latest model. I was no different; I was always thinking about what car I would buy next to replace what I had. But all that changed a couple of years ago when I bought my Rover 820 Vitesse Coupé.

As you know, I’m in the fortunate position of also owning two Princess ‘wedges’ which means I have a choice of cars that I can drive on any day, whatever takes my fancy. After a few days of driving the Princess, though, it’s always comforting to be able to slip back into the sumptuous leather interior of the Coupé, that’s probably why I’ll never get bored with it, and not only because I always have a choice.

The thing is, the Rover 800 Coupé is such a fantastic looking car the simple addition of six-spoke 17” alloy wheels on the Vitesse not only gives the car a purposeful stance when parked (it makes you wonder why anyone would want the rather soulless standard 16” alloys) it also gives the 800 Coupé something that Peter Stevens wanted when he was styling the MG versions of the 75 – outside lane credibility. It just looks fantastic on the move, squat and purposeful.

It just looks fantastic on the move,
squat and purposeful…

The 800 Coupé looks so right, and the reaction from others is equally positive. A Rover 75 owner stopped to admire my Coupé at the supermarket and agreed that the Vitesse Coupé is vastly underrated. Then there are the comments from work colleagues and friends who, even though they would never buy a Rover, all admire the styling, gleaming paintwork (I don’t polish it very often, honest!) and classy interior. If only they could have the opportunity to sense the 200bhp performance.

There are downsides, though. The driving position is a little too high (but I am 6’ 3” tall) and it’s not very versatile but hell, this is a sports Coupé!

It has been said that the 800 Coupé is already being heralded as a future classic and judging by the reaction of other people, it’s hard not to believe it. The image of Rover may be at its lowest ebb, but I hope the 800 Coupé will come through, like the 75, having the utmost respect for it. I think the pleasure of owning an Rover 800 Coupé is something the average BMW or Audi driver just wouldn’t understand.

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I have been a BL fan ever since my Dad bought a new XJ3.4 in 1978. I have two R8s (216 and 214) and a Frogeye. I am writing to you because I too have a crush on the Rover 800 Coupé and have promised myself that I will own one day.

I have never been able to buy a new BL/Rover car and this has been a source of disappointment ever since 1978. I remember hankering after the Allegro Equipe, Mini pick up and 1275GT, MGs, Rover 800s, 75s etc. I went strangely quiet after the events of April for a couple of weeks.

I like BL because it was a great British company which made fantastic cars. If someone criticises Rover cars I take it personally. Anyway, fantastic website (it’s my home page), keep up the good work. Long live ROVER. Everyone at my work knows that I am a complete Rover anorak.


12 September 2005

Fuel: don’t panic!


BEEN hearing all over the media today that drivers have begun to panic buy fuel after hearing rumours of 2000-style fuel blockades. I must admit that I did think about filling up the 75 and my two Allegros in order to see out any potential fuel crisis… then I thought, ‘why bother?’

I remember the last time this happened in 2000 – and was lucky enough to own two cars with large fuel tanks. These kind of protests had never been seen in the UK before, and most of us weren’t prepared for what was to happen in the coming week. We initally heard that a group of farmers and hauliers had blockaded all of the country’s depots in order to interrupt the fuel supply, but it was considered only a minor news story when it broke…

I first heard this on the Saturday evening, and decided to fill up the tanks of my two cars immediately. Back then I ran a Mitsubishi Carisma TD (please don’t ask) and an Audi 90E – the first was very frugal; the second wasn’t too bad on petrol, but also had a nice, large fuel tank. When I got to my local TESCO, there were no cars queuing, and I filled up without any problems at all – in fact, I felt a little foolish for overreacting.

At the time I was working in the City of London, and commuted by using my Carisma (lucky me). On Monday, there seemed to be a creeping realisation that something was happening – the blockades were holding, and were making the news. Petrol stations immediately became a whole lot busier, as drivers realised that they might not be able to buy fuel again for some time.

By Tuesday, all the Capital’s petrol stations were experiencing 1974-style queueing, and panic buying had definitely moved into overdrive. I remember seeing queues for filling stations which blocked the main roads that fed them – meaning the police were being called in to direct traffic, and in some cases diffuse violence between drivers. By this time, things were beginning to get a little scary.

When I got to my local TESCO, there
were no cars, and I filled up without
any problems at all – in fact, I felt
a little foolish for overreacting…

By Wednesday, my favourite radio station, Magic 105.4 (yeah, I know), was reporting that most petrol stations in London were now dry – and panic buying was now beginning to take hold in the shops as well. People were buying up all the bread they could get hold of, and the news was full of stories of desperate people who were now struggling to get on with their lives without petrol. I remember vividly looking down at my fuel gauge on the drive back that evening, and saw that it was now around the half way point – I also pondered how quickly society seemed to be breaking down. It had only been four days, after all…

On Thursday, things had become surreal. Driving home that evening, I was confronted by the most amazing sight during the rush hour on the M1. It was almost completely deserted. Magic FM announced there was still fuel at London Gateway services, and obviously, everyone headed there. At the time, there appeared to be no let up in sight of the fuel blockades, so I headed into London Gateway (yes, I know, the fuel gauge was nestling somewhere between half and a quarter, and I figured I could do with a top-up. Bad in retrospect) and joined the back of the queue. It was as I waited in a two-hour queue for fuel that something wierd happened – drivers got out of their cars and actually spoke to each other. We all chatted about the blockades, and voiced our concerns – and although we were being inconvenienced by them, we all supported the action. When I rejoined the motorway after taking on my £20 ration, I put my foot down – the motorway was almost deserted save for a number of repmobiles crawling along lane one at about 50mph… Almost perversely given the situation, I felt free; and steaming along at some silly pace (I didn’t know where my next diesel would be coming from, but I hadn’t forgotten my nice Audi at home, still brimmed), music playing, and feeling as if I had been part of something significant, I pressed on…

Just south of Bedford, I noticed blue flashing lights in my mirror – and yet, somehow I knew they weren’t for me. Sure enough, a convoy of at least a dozen traffic cars sped past me. A couple of moments later I realised why… we had caught a rolling blockade. At the next exit, I peeled off, pulled over on the motorway flyover and watched the convoy go by at a snail’s pace. It was at this moment that I realised that in less than a week, a handful of determined people had almost managed to bring our country to a complete standstill. By the time I got home, it was already clear the blockades were being disbanded, and by the following day, the fuel trucks were leaving the refineries they had been incarcerated in for five days… It was over – the point had been made.

Personally speaking, I actually genuinely admired the guys who came up with that plan – and then had the guts to execute it. They knew exactly how to cause disruption, but in a non-violent way that managed to keep the public onside. Perhaps if it had dragged on much longer, this might have changed – but in the end, they got what they wanted, and the policy of the ‘fuel duty accelerator’ had been abandoned.

This time round, the principal reason for spiralling fuel prices is not government policy, but the after effects of Hurricane Katrina, and spiralling demand for fuel in China. Crude oil costs have gone up significantly since 2000, and at $60 per barrel, oil has never been more expensive for such a sustained period of time. Yes, fuel duty is still excessive, and it really should be reviewed, but is recreating the 2000 blockades the right thing to do? Because of that, I’ve decided to refrain from panic buying…

As it happens, this probably won’t happen anyway – but the rumours doing the rounds over the last few days have served their purpose. Buyers are panic buying, and the fuel cost issue is on the agenda again.

Having said that, the £1 litre is probably here to stay for the forseeable future – perhaps we all need to start driving more economically in the future – I know I’ve already started…

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I’m not… LPG was available thoughout the last fuel blockade. It was worth the conversion costs just to have the roads to myself… and to see the questioning looks from stranded econobox drivers seeing my 2.7-litre Rover being driven every day.


8 September 2005

Another friend joins the fleet


DESPITE all the unkind things I have seen fit to write about the late lamented Allegro, I can’t help finding myself charmed by the damned things every time I drive one. Perhaps it’s that latent sympathy for these cars that ultimately led me to choose one to take to Naples in a couple of weeks – despite the advice of many others, who saw me better served in a Rover 827…

Either way, after the initial denial that I even owned an Allegro, I have embraced the thing into my life, even decorating it for its big trip in a couple of weeks.

Anyway, I’me certainly not alone in my field – there are many other motoring scribes who harbour a secret and shameful love of the Allegro, and although I don’t (yet) fall into that category (denial, you see), it would seem that because of my choice of wheels for Staples2Naples, I am becoming inexorably linked with this type of car. And that is why I now find myself in possession of a Damask Red 1980 Vanden Plas 1500…

Former AutoExpress motoring editor and Vauxhall PR Officer, Craig Cheetham owned a couple Allegros (his affair isn’t as secret as the other journos out there), and because of an impending house move found himseld needing to move on one of them. He and I got chatting about Molly, and before we knew it, I was offering to take his Vanden Plas (which he calls Nigel) off his hands.

After all the venom I have spat in the direction of the Vanden Plas 1500, you’d think I’d rather cut off my own hands than own one of these cars, but I guess there’s such a sweet irony in becoming the custodian of an Allegro shaped Vanden Plas, that I couldn’t help myself. I mean, what other car fuses misguided Seventies forward planning with traditionally honed craftsmanship to form the automotive equivalent of Captain Mainwaring in a shell suit. It is, without doubt, the most ridiculous looking car ever created by BL – and because of that, you can’t help but admire the sheer unlikeliness of the thing.

Still, the Vanden Plas isn’t that bad a car to drive – it’s sprightly enough thanks to the 1750cc twin carburettor lump under the bonnet. It’s also surprisingly quiet (obviously very well soundproofed), and amazingly comfortable compared with my 1500 Special. In fact, once you’re ensconced within, it’s not a bad place in which to spend time – but the greatest thing about driving the Vanden Plas is that you can’t see the styling.

I have to say that I may never come to terms with the grille and frontal styling – and if I decide to keep the car, it may have to receive a frontal facelift (and I don’t mean I’m going to crash it into a wall). But then again, if I don’t want to typecast as ‘Mr BL’ for the rest of eternity, I really should consider moving it on rapidly.

Decisions, decisions…

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7 September 2005

More development stories in the pipeline


THINGS have been a little quite on the development story of late. We’ve not really added anything new for quite some time, but you’ll be glad to hear that in time, we’ll be expanding that section of the site to cover some of your favourites.

Hardly a week goes by without me receiving an email from someone decrying’s lack of information on such cars as the Morris Minor, the Farina saloons and the Spridget sports cars. And it seems that thanks to the efforts of Ian Nicholls, we will soon be able to rectify the situation. If you’ve not encountered Ian’s work yet, then you should take time to read his argument that Stokes was not the sole reason for the decline of British Leyland, even though many would like to think he is.

He’s a free thinker who likes to test much of the accepted wisdom out there… Okay, development stories are not the place for raidcal arguments, but I’ve always been pleased to include a little honest contemporary appraisal of any car I’ve written about, and Ian is someone who shares that approach to historical reporting. We’re all supposed to love the MGB right now, but back in the latter years of being offered as a new car, it was seen rather differently – and we like to keep tabs with that kind of contemporary opinion…

Anway, we’ll keep you posted about the new development stories. As ever, watch this space.

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6 September 2005

Long gone, not forgotten


THIRTY years ago, on September 11th 1975, British Leyland killed off one of the best-known names in motoring history at that time – Wolseley. The wedge shaped 18-22 Series had only been launched in March 1975 as Austin, Morris and Wolseley. Post-Ryder Report rationalisation of all marques in the British Leyland stable meant there were casualties Wolseley was one.

The Wolseley ‘wedge’ was an excellent piece of badge engineering from BL. From its uniquely styled chrome grille, to its pert tail this car oozed class without even trying. In fact, the balance was so right, the 1975 Labour Government ordered 20 black Wolseley wedges for official Government duties.

The fact is, the Wolseley ‘wedge’ was a very successful model, and by the time BL killed it, over 3000 had found homes. As time moved on, Wolseleys became regarded as nothing more than a reminder of a bygone era, and only retained a certain novelty value. Throughout the Eighties, Wolseley was naff! Most were neglected and unwanted and, consequently, most were scrapped. I can remember visiting a local breakers yard in the mid-Eighties and seeing three Wolseley ‘wedges’ stacked on top of each other – hell I even scrapped two myself!

Harold Musgove said, “You ought to
look after that, it’ll be worth a
lot of money one day.”

One person told me he owned a Wolseley ‘wedge’ in the early Eighties, and used to work at the home of the then Austin-Morris chairman, Harold Musgrove. Mr Musgrove saw the Wolseley ‘wedge’ parked in his driveway one morning and said, “you ought to look after that, it’ll be worth a lot of money one day.”

Shortly after that, one of the Hydragas displacers collapsed, so the owner drove it to the breakers yard and had it crushed. Mainly because at that time, the cost of repairs was more than the car was worth. He’s kicked himself ever since, as have thousands of other Wolseley ‘wedge’ owners.

Whenever we have a Princess stand at a car show, we nearly always get asked if there are any Wolseley ‘wedges’ for sale. When we tell them, if there was they’d have to find around £2000, they are stunned. Today, it is believed only 25 survive, and only five are roadworthy. It is still surprising how many people remember the Wolseley version, despite its short production run.

I think it is probably because the Wolseley ‘wedge’ had character. The frontal arrangement of the grille, headlamps and bonnet made it special, it’s only cosmetic, but it was enough to make the Wolseley far more successful than its replacement, the Princess 2200HLS.

The car pictured is an ex-Governmental Wolseley, still turning heads at 30, and rightly so. It belongs to Alex Sebbinger.

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I liked the piece by Kevin Davis about the Wolseley wedge – it brought back memories of a family ride in one back in 1975, when my father was contemplating replacing the family Marina with one of the new Austin-Morris 18-22 range.

The dealer we went to (Busby’s of Fairford, Gloucestershire – both the dealer and his garage are sadly long gone to that franchise in the sky…) had a white Wolseley wedge automatic as his 18-22 demonstrator, and so that was the car in which we went out for a family test-drive. I was particularly keen to see what the new car was like, having first seen scoop images of what was to become the 18-22 series in CAR magazine the previous autumn. The performance, smoothness, space and ride quality were revelations – but then again we were using a Morris Marina as our yardstick!

Duly impressed, father placed an order for a Morris 1800HL in Reynard metallic – I can remember us looking through a book of translucent 18-22 shapes that were overlaid on paint samples – the height of 1975 technology!

We decided on the Morris because we thought that having the same bonnet shape as the Wolseley, and the twin round headlamps too, it looked a little more distinguished than the Austin version, with that version’s Peugeot-style trapezoidal headlamps. This would have been roughly June or July 1975, for by the time that ‘our’ car had arrived, it had ‘become’ a Princess 1800HL – with the round headlamps but without the bonnet hump or curious Morris grille. We’d ordered the optional full vinyl roof, and in hindsight perhaps it was the best looking of the Princess versions.

Kevin suggests there may only be 25 Wolseleys left on the road today – I wonder how many Morris 1800HL versions survive? My father’s love affair with Princesses continued for several years; he followed up the Reynard Princess 1800HL with a similarly hued 2200HLS (manual transmission – oh the driveshaft noise! How embarrassing when escorting overseas engineering colleagues round London…) followed by an automatic 2200HLS in Oyster metallic (I reversed it into my MGB – don’t ask…).

That last car was probably the best of the bunch, and for me (and dad) the Ambassador was a real come-down – he moved on to other models after that.

A final memory for you is my input to the Austin Ambassador customer clinic I attended in London. As my father had clearly been a loyal Princess private customer, he was invited to attend a special customer clinic on behalf of British Leyland. Now dad knew how interested I would be in such an event, and so he gave me his invitation to attend in his place. The fact that the latest issue of CAR magazine had included reference to a new ‘Austin Ambassador’ only added fuel to my interest.

So I duly turned up at a hotel in central London, to find myself by far the youngest ‘Princess owner’ present. The presentation was in the form of a question and answer session, seeking our views of phrases chosen to ‘represent’ the ‘values’ of the Princess. The culmination of the session was when some curtains were pulled back and an overhead projector displayed our first sight of a ‘new model’.

Our hosts were keen to see what we thought of this brand new revelation. “Oh,” I piped up, full of the impetuosity of youth, “is that the new Austin Ambassador?”. If looks could have killed, I’d have been dead that day…


5 September 2005

It’s what journalists call a ‘slow news day’…


..IN other words, it’s when there’s nothing in particular happening, and the merest hint of an interesting story sends the media pack scurrying for more.

It was a day like that back in the early Nineties when I was a Lancashire Constabulary press officer. It had been a slow news day for us too – that is until a rather fast story hit us right between the eyes…

Now, a collision between a sports car and a Metro in Garstang north of Preston would normally be no great shakes. That is unless the sports car’s a McLaren and the driver one Rowan Atkinson. You remember how Andy Warhol said everyone has fifteen minutes of fame? Well, it came true for the hapless lady driver of the Metro who didn’t know what hit her literally and figuratively after the collision on the A6.

I remember my boss ordering a virtual news blackout once he realised the implications of the story – all to no avail once a canny photographer from the local evening paper spread the word about an ‘interesting’ crash on the A6. It wasn’t too long before the red tops, aka the Sun, Star and Mirror all beat a path to our door demanding more info. Policy at the time meant we didn’t release any more facts than were strictly necessary and it was simply a case of confirming a two car collision that left a lady driver shaken but unhurt and the sports car driver uninjured.

Truth was that the Metro, a G plate ‘L’ in metallic grey if memory serves, suffered an almighty shunt up its backside after the elderly driver pulled into the path of the McLaren being driven ‘enthuasiastically’ – if you get my drift – by Atkinson.

For a brief few days, that Metro was
the most famous in the UK, if not
further beyond…

When the press arrived, a hapless road traffic officer did his best to bat them off, and by then Atkinson’s car, one of the first McLarens on the road, was shrouded in a sheet while the maunfacturers hurried north to collect it – it had, after all, been in a real life crash test. For a brief few days, that Metro was the most famous in the UK, if not further beyond… exit a chastened Mr Atkinson, who was not prosecuted, and a bemused Metro driver whose pride and joy was a write off.

Good car stories like that were few and far between. The only other ones I can remember included the Jaguar XJ220 driver who was escorted of the M6 after driving at 120mph plus to escape other drivers who gawped at his car (that story reached the heady heights of parliamentary question time after the local MP demanded to know if the French driver had escaped prosecution under special circumstances); the villains who knew how to tip over fully laden police Range Rovers by hitting them from behind in something like a Transit van; and the hapless auto electrician who had been asked by a Honda NSX owner to fit a new radio… curiosity got the better of him and he was involved in a spectacular crash near Formby, Lancs – his excuse was he was ensuring the audio characteristics of the car were correct at higher speeds, a likely story he had later to recount not only to the owner but also Ormskirk Magistrates!

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3 September 2005

Welcome to Nanjing…


PUBLIC RELATIONS is a funny business. I imagine it’s not the easy job we all crack it up to be. Certainly if the experieces of some of the Public Relations Officers (PRO) I’ve spoken to is anything to go by.

I won’t mention any names, and it’s no one near the current industry, but one ex-PRO once told me that dealing with the press became so stressful that he used to imagine all he was committing all kinds of punishable deeds to certain members of our esteemed media. “Keith”, he said, “when I was gardening at the weekend, I would find myself wishing it was a journalist I was pushing my fork into… not the top soil.”

Scary stuff…

Certainly, many commentators (myself included at times), used to find themselves baffled at some of the PR blunders and sheer incompetence of MG Rover. Either there was no communication, or too much… I suspect that it is easy to say such things when you don’t know the whole story, and in the case of MG Rover – ‘our’ company, remember – the PRO’s job must have been a bloody nightmare. Even when there was overwhelmingly good news, it seemed that a hostile press would gleefully find a negative slant to the story.

Nanjing (NAC) seems to have found the ideal solution. No PR, whatsoever…

Stories of doom and gloom abound in the press at the moment. What, with NAC installing dormitories for its workers, taking engineering drawings from the Product Development Centre (PDC) and planning its lift and shift operation, everyone out there is looking for an answer to the question of what exactly are NAC’s plans?

An inscrutable wall of Chinese non-communication seems to have built up, and it is not what Birmingham needs right now.

In my research to find the final MGs and Rovers to leave the production line at Longbridge, I’ve found that 25/ZR and 45/ZS production ended the day the line stopped back in April. A few TFs were completed while the company was in administration – the last coming off the line on the 7th June – and the Rover 75 continued to be (pretty much hand-) built until the middle of July.

Even when there was overwhelmingly
good news, it seemed that a hostile
press would gleefully find a negative
slant to the story…

A few Rover 25 line workers had been retained to finish the 75/ZTs in the system, and they did so. Each car was moved from station to station, and each stage of assembly was finished by hand. One can only imagine the morale of the workers who were tasked with this job – but you can bet they put all their effort into making sure the job was completed to the same high standard that every other MGR car had been finished.

The announcement that NAC had bought MGR’s remaining assets must have seemed like good news. The company had a saviour, and plans for British production were spoken about. Those line workers must have seen light at the end of the tunnel. However, on the day that NAC had been confirmed as the winning bidder, these workers were made redundant.

The question now remains: who is actually left at Longbridge now? What does the future hold? Why won’t Nanjing or the Great British Sports Car Company tell us what the plans are? Or at least drop some hints that there are plans. We’d like to hear something…

If NAC and GBSCC don’t have Public Relations, then maybe they should find some. I’ll even do it if they ask me nicely. Perhaps no one wants the job, or there’s no news to tell us. But NAC and GBSCC really need to start communicating with us.

Because right now, everyone is assuming that NAC=bad news for Longbridge.

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2 September 2005

Back to the future


WHEN the Princess was launched back in 1975, press and customers were not very complementary about its distinctive wedge shape. It was far too modern for them, with its sloping front and high tail and the waist line that rose towards the tail. Cars were not meant to be like that.

I remember Leyland’s adverts showing it going uphill, so the tail and the waistline looked level. Also, it is said, advertising designers and photographers insisted it had bags of sand in the boot for publicity photos – so the car again looked level.

That was 1975 and this is now. The current three-door Mercedes-Benz CLK, features semi circular headlights, sloping front and high tail and a waistline that rises towards the tail. Talk about copying a three-decade old style! But because it’s a Mercedes-Benz, the press and public naturally love the style.

Leyland was there three decades ago, but as usual it was ahead of its time. The market was not ready for that shape. We all know it should have been a hatchback, and it should have replaced not only the 1800/2200, but also the Maxi and Marina. It should also have developed three- and five-door hatchbacks, an estate, a saloon, and even a convertible – just like of your computer enhanced articles.

The styling even has that large ‘C’ pillar, and that is the trade mark style of the Volkswagen Golf – a design of car which is stil considered really modern.

What would the Princess look like with modern plastic bumpers and larger front and rear tail lights?

As usual, BL missed the boat.

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1 September 2005

Faultless after 7000 miles


IT has been 7000 miles and over a year in my ownership, and my ZT 260 is still faultless.

After having an unusually dry summer up in Northumberland, this car has really been a pleasure to own and drive. Becoming more of a classic every day, it draws looks and glances from most people who you drive past; from kids playing in the street, to the old bloke who came up to me at a petrol station. He told me: ‘I think your exhaust is blowing, mate’, before he climbed back into his VW Polo and drove off blissfully unaware that my exhaust was not blowing. It must have been the melodious soundtrack that accompanies my V8.

Its first service cost me a mere £77, which included tightening up the handbrake (which was coming up a number of notches, and due to the fact that my driveway is quite a slope, this needed to be sorted). Apart from that, the ZT260 has not cost me a penny (other than insurance and fuel). As the miles go by, the fuel consumption gets better. I am now regularly getting close to 20mpg overall – and remember this car hardly ever sees a motorway. All my driving is either cross country or round town.

I am really starting to dread the
time, when the decision has to be
made about what to do with the
ZT – how could I possibly sell it?

I am sure that on a decent motorway haul, I would see well over 20mpg, possibly in the region of 25.

In about 10 months I will have owned this car for two years, which is the point where I normally part company with my cars and move on. However, this time, I am really starting to dread the time, when the decision has to be made about what to do with the ZT. I am quite aware that it is a unique car, and part of British motoring history, so I don’t just want to sell it to anyone, or trade it in at the garage, when I buy my next motor.

I want it to go to an enthusiast, someone who will look after it like I have, and also to appreciate it for what it actually is (more than just a car). If I could afford it, I would put it into storage, and keep it as long as I could. Possibly re-emerging in 10 years or so for summer use only.

We shall have to wait and see.

In the meantime though, there are months of pleasurable driving ahead!

Keith Adams

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