Saturday, 24 September 2011

Dear all

Dear all members and reader of From The Captain's Chair.

Since this site was founded in 2007 I have enjoyed making the odd contribution, be it a back to back of cars from the armchair or a report of an old heap from behind the wheel. However, I have increasingly found that maintaining a website and a blog seperately was unviable, and frankly there are better ways of integrating the two than I managed to achieve here. As such, I have moved the majority of this website's content across to the new From The Captain's Chair Wordpress site, the rest to follow when suitably formatted.

However, if I am to only update the new Wordpress site, I run the risk of losing readers who see this and assume I have forgotten or lost interest in the old blog. As such, from the beginning of October I shall be redirecting the site feed (for followers) to my new website, if I can work out how!

The new website can be found at People are more than welcome to subscribe using the widgets on the side - and if the notification feed doesn't change then please do let me know!

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Death of a MONGO

MONGO in happier times

Those fans of Top Gear and similar programmes will understand, admittedly at second hand, the appeal of what could be called a cheap car challenge. Indeed, I've had confirmation from friends who compete in banger rallies - the idea of buying a cheap car and expecting a lot from it can result in a lot of fun.

A couple of friends of mine took a Rover 827 limousine to Rome last year - and grew so fond of it in the process that it still survives, despite bowing in the middle and being undrivable without a lot of work. So, with this in mind, when I came across a 1990 Montego 1.6LX in our Classifieds for £250, I promptly sent it to Brasov.

Strange concept, I know. Not everybody sees a cheap car and decides it has to go to Eastern Europe. But my friends Alex and Rhyds were looking for the car they were taking on this year's banger rally, and as a representative of the Maestro and Montego Owners' Club I was keen to demonstrate the capabilities of even an end of life example. Two hundred pounds later, the car was in Devon with Alex.

On a few, ahem, Welsh rally stages, both Alex and Rhyds pronounced the car good, and fit for the trip. I was secretly rather pleased that the deal had been done - knowing Alex and Rhyds as devout fans of BL, I knew the car would get the best chance it could on a banger rally. My justification was that a £200 car wouldn't really be bought to cherish, and this way it could prove itself. And with three subwoofers, a guest from another team, and three men's luggage for a fortnight, the car now known as MONGO set off in a cosmetically challenged state.

Regular updates via Twitter and Facebook convinced me the car was right for the job - and whilst Alex moaned about it's lack of power, a 1.6 Montego with such a load will feel slow to a man used to 4.0 Jaguars. Upon it's arrival in Brasov I felt it's future was assured - Alex had told me that if it failed it would be ditched, but to have made it there the return journey should be a piece of cake. We were even discussing the possibility of keeping it as a demonstration at shows of the dependability of the Montego.

But last night, trouble struck Team Now We're Motoring (Or MONGOing, as they became known). A failed water pump outside Nuremberg, and the lack of a spare, spelt game over for the MONGO. A Nuremberg scrapyard later, the Now We're MONGOing clan hitched a lift back in a 216GTi driven by AROnline editor Keith Adams.

And you know what? Whilst this £200 car managed 10 days and 3000 miles of sheer abuse, I can't help but feel sorry it has gone. Even Alex, whose moaning about a lack of power on the trip meant he was considering breaking it anyway, has said he's already missing it. Whilst it lit nobody's fire particularly, it did what was asked of it without complaint, and it was only on the return leg that it started to falter. Given the spares, it could have been bodged and repatriated, but circumstances dictated that it be abandoned to the crusher's mercy in Germany. I feel a bout of guilt about the car's fate - firstly as a club official; as someone devoted to the furtherance of a model it doesn't do to get one scrapped, and secondly it had done it's job so well it deserved to make it home. Far from it letting the team down, I'm wondering if perhaps I let IT down by guiding it on such a perilous journey. I knew that banger rallies were car-breakers, but I sent it out there. And it paid the ultimate price.

The one small comfort I can draw is that I know another team were after this car - and, indeed, I had been offered it for nowt after the rally if I collected it from Brasov. But a team that leaves their car behind is unlikely to treat it as well as one which wants to repatriate their steed. So I'm wondering if I gave the old girl her best option - MONGO made it half way home before expiring - a thousand miles or so more than had I simply stayed out of it. And was the honourable death due to water pump and petrol tank failure perhaps a better course than to abandon ship in Brasov?

A certain Mr. Clarkson once said he pitied Concorde - because following the last Concorde flight it was simply shut away. No men tending to it, no visitors, jaws dropped with anticipation, not even any crowds to come and gawp. If, he said, machines have a soul, what torture must this abandonment be inflicting upon the poor Concorde? Maybe MONGO was the same - better to die fighting than to be abandoned. My tortured soul is trying to decide whether what I did was right - and when I myself am old and decrepid, maybe I will know.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Back To The Future

Rolls Royce Phantom, in brown with a brown Everflex roof. STOP IT!

It's odd that a man who secretly thinks we're still living in 1987 has become a style and fashion guru. And believe me, it was entirely unintended - whilst I own silver suits and red braces, I don't parade the fashionable streets showing off, I've never contributed to fashion boards, and I let so few people photograph me I'll never become a pin-up.

My style icon status hasn't even been personal - for which I suppose the masses should be glad, though a return to the days of shoulder pads and perms needn't be a bad thing. No, my impact has been felt in the world of motoring.

You might recall my jubilation last year in discovering my first prediction had been right; that brown has returned as a colour option in many companies' motoring palettes. At the time I was unused to this sensation; having been right when predicting the return of a left-field choice many would rather forget. As such I focused my sights on the one item I genuinely thought would be left hidden at the back of the design cupboard of much shame in the stylists' sitting rooms.

But no. I've been proven right again to my eternal dismay. The vinyl roof, for so long considered passé, consigned to the history books and the world of the Las Vegas Limo, is starting to make a comeback.

We saw elements of this earlier in the decade with the Audi TT quattro Sport, with it's gloss black roof serving no purpose than to trumpet the return of vinyl-style contrat roofs. The Jaguar XJ's misguided black D pillar was strangely reminiscent of the P6 Series 2, too - that was the point at which I made my ridiculous prediction. But now two more manufacturers have come out in blatant support of the Everflex roof - and annoyingly both are REAL vinyl rather than a coat of paint.

Rolls Royce have offered vinyl roofed Phantoms for a fair few months now, including the Saudi spec Baynunah pictured above. And now Mazda have joined the act with the Mazda2 Black - complete with, you guessed it, a black vinyl roof.

What I'd normally have done at this point is blithely predict the return of the Ro-Style wheel or something like that. But I'm concerned I'm becoming something I hoped never to be. The trouble with fashion icons is they're revered briefly, then cast aside like the plastic seat protectors in a brand new Royce. I've always hankered after style, which is permanent but less adored. This explains my love of the Rover Sterling, the XJ40, and various old bits of tin from Crewe. Before long we'll be looking at cars like the M3 decked out in brown with a tan vinyl roof, and I'll have to become a hermit until all the fuss dies down. God in heaven, it'll be awful.

But what I am going to do, despite that rant, is make further predictions. We've seen the return on the Polo Bluemotion of Austin Rover economy spoilers as seen on all the best Metro and Maestro HLEs. I think that in these days of eco-friendliness we shall see more tributes to economy from the back catalogue of motoring. Let's see what we can suggest.

Clearly, first to go will be the large diameter, wide wheels. These only increase rolling resistance, meaning greater amounts of fuel are needed for propulsion. They'll have to go, bringing the pleasant side effect of less road noise. I predict that with them will go the craze for the alloy. Small steel wheels are bound to be lighter than anything sporting could ever be - readers will note that most sporting additions to cars make them heavier. All the toys will go, the quest for saving weight and thus fuel will put an end to on board computers, standard electric mirrors and windows, air conditioning and many more items. We'll end the craze for tall cars too, the lower a shape the better it cleaves through the air, and thus the better it'll be on fuel.

There. Four predictions for cars of the future that are unlikely to happen. And if they do, I'll give up and find a job in IT.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Railing against motorway miles

As I write, I'm on a train somewhere between Chesterfield and Derby. And I'm wondering if the environmentally friendly leftist public transport types might not have a point.

SHOCK HORROR! A petrolhead praising public transport? Stop pinching yourself; it's true. But I'm not about to start a soliloquy about the bus, nor shall I wax lyrical on the virtues of the tram. The train is my one public transport weakness.

Of some 13000 miles travelled in the last twelve months, I would estimate that about 5000 have been by train. And there's a good reason - in fact, there are a few. I've just hit Derby, thirty minutes after putting down a pint glass in Sheffield. In just over two hours from the point of writing I shall have hit Bristol, where my journey will break for the evening. I've listened to half of the Rio album, but then I could have quite easily done that on the M1 in a Rover Sterling. Big deal. Show me the motorist, however, who has had time to read the Telegraph between Sheffield and Derby. In return, I'll show you the motorway barrier he crashed into. I also have copies of The Times and Private Eye to entertain me on my journey - motorway man has not.

I shan't pretend that train travel is cheap - a standard class ticket from Meadowhall to Bristol Lawrence Hill is the nasty side of fifty quid even at student rates. But consider my taste in tin - how many old Jags, big Rovers or Merc W124s can cover 200 miles on fifty quid, let alone do the return leg for just 25p more?

It's also rather comfortable - my handwriting isn't legible but the ride of this train at least ensures it's less illegible than it would be when written in the back of a chauffeured XJ40. I'm over six feet tall, yet the only encumbrance to space is the overnight bag I have wedged behind my legs. This could have gone in a luggage rack but I prefer to keep smaller items of luggage with me. So as far as provisions go, it's excellent.

I have access to food and drink too - not hastily snatched like a sausage roll from a motorway service station. I also can't leave crumbs in the car if I'm on the train. Try that in your S320. I know it's hardly a la carte but the only time you get that in a car is if you're Ian Richardson in the Grey Poupon advert.

But the key benefit is that things GET DONE on the train. I make no apology for having a schedule that calls for multitasking whilst travelling, but consider this; if I'd taken the car, another week would have gone by without a From The Captain's Chair update.

The downside is it's not really fun to get on in one place and just get off in another. It's the real-life equivalent of a matter transference beam. But consider the alternative, for the trip I'm making. M1, M42, M40, M5, M32. Is that REALLY such fun> Motorway driving requires just enough concentration to stop you reading something awful like the Guardian, yet returns just enough boredom to make you long to.

For long haul dull trips why take the car? If, like me, you find motoring an art and pleasure, what is motorway work but the eternal scratching of infinite nails down the blackboard of your own despair? If Toad Hall had been just off the M4, would Toad have enjoyed screaming POOP POOP! long enough to get locked up? I don't think he'd have bothered.

So why should you?

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Watching car credibility go down the pan.

Having seen the television campaign for the new MG6, I'd like to talk about car ads. How they're meant to inspire us to go and exchange lots of shiny coins and well-thumbed notes for a lump of metal with a wheel at each corner. Those printed and televisual feasts that plant the concept into the subconscious. There have been good ones, and there have been bad. And I reckon MG's latest offering falls into the latter camp.

One of the best I've seen is the billboard advert for the MG Maestro Turbo, which listed the supercars that couldn't keep up. This bullish attitude to sales is part of what makes the Maestro Turbo such a cult car - that, the low numbers built and the frankly blistering acceleration. In fact, Austin Rover in the late 80s were quite good at ads - remember the Sterling owner who had to take his baby son out in the car every night because the excellent ride was the only way of inducing the kid to nod off? The 'Up Where We Belong' R8 ad? The German Vitesse owner who demonstrated why he had bought British in preference to numerous Mercs, BMs, Audis etc was a low point though - few would have seen that translation about the quality ("I just like the way it's put together") without erupting into cacophonic hysteria.

But for the most point the ads were good. The low point of advertising for me was revisited earlier when watching something I taped ten years ago: THAT Kia Rio advert. It started with a Liverpudlian woman whinging about congestion on the school run, before showing us the car. A boast that the Rio could take thirty kids in one go was impressive... until she revealed that the reason was that Kia gave every Rio buyer the kid to set up a walking school bus for their area. The strapline for this ad? "Think before you drive."

So what were Kia trying to say? "Buy a Rio, and you'll want to walk everywhere", "Think before you the Kia dealership", and "We have to say something that sounds good but that means we can't mention the car" all spring to mind. What the ad actually told us was that nobody would buy a Rio purely because they lusted after one, and this is why in the last decade I have seen a solitary example on my local High Street.

Back to the MG6. Despite saying that they were going to sever heritage connections and sell cars on their merits, the cars are called the MG6GT and MG6 Magnette. The ad, and indeed the brand video, feature MG sportscars. It's overdubbed with a more exciting engine note, and not only are the plates reversible for foreign shoots, they are poor copies of UK plates in the wrong font. No expense spent, clearly.

Pity, because it's quite a nice car. Of all the cars under 5 years old I've driven, it's the one I fancy the most. But because people base their opinions on what the press say (mediocre) and the adverts (Low rent) I cannot see many people being tempted to part with £15495 for the boggo model, let alone nineteen grand for the one worth having. If they must play the heritage card, then they could do worse than to look at Vauxhall's latest. Bits of ads from the last 50 years, accompanied by the boast that they've just been getting better and better.

Take note, Longbridge.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Back In The Saddle

Will Riley and his second attempt to recreate the MG SV

It has been far, far too long since I wrote anything for From The Captain's Chair. And I'm sorry about that. Because I have this page pinned to my menu bar in Firefox, it stands proud whenever I open my web browser, looking at me and asking "Am I not good enough?" "Have you lost interest?" "Don't you love me any more?" - and making me feel guilty as hell in the process. I've considered unpinning it from Firefox, but that would only be hiding what gnaws away in my head.

I owe the website, and myself, a damn good reason. And I have one - the second year of a BA in Politics leaves one surprisingly little in the way of free time, especially in it's latter months. In focusing upon education I've lost sight of my passion, and it's not good enough. A balance has to be made.

So now I'm back - however briefly before the next essay, the next exam, the next article tearing me from this screen - I may as well talk cars. Tempted as I am to discuss the MG6, I shall be deferring such joys for the foreseeable future. I am in the middle of lining up a test drive, and it would be unfair to review it before I have done so. The bankruptcy of Bristol Cars would be tempting but that's rather old news now. I think the most interesting story of the last week is the news that Will Riley, descendant of the founder of Riley Cars, is again trying to relaunch the MG SV.

Last time, the name posed an issue. MG X-Power was deemed to be too close to the original MG name, which the Chinese are using themselves. He does not have the rights to the riley name - to the best of my recollection BMW retain that title. So he's delved into the past and resurrected the secondary brand Riley launched in the 1930s for wildly upmarket salooon cars. Autovia.

My friend Robert Leitch is a tad hacked off by this. He's been writing an alternative history of British Leyland, which makes extensive use of the Autovia name. Riley has rather stolen the march on Robert's efforts; the latter lamenting his failure to register the Autovia trademark in his name. I personally don't think he has anything to fear; for I think the project is doomed to failure. Few wanted the SV when new, and any attempt to remarket the car will be seen as a cheap rebirth of a supercar generated a decade ago (Remember the Qvale Mangusta underpinnings). Honourable as it may seem to create another British car to beat the world, I personally think that this attempt will meet with much the same success as Will Riley's last.

Sorry, and all that.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Humbug; a winter's tale of public transport

Let me make something clear now, in the first sentence, at the top of the article. I hate snow. It's cold, wet, white, icy, cold, snowy, slippy, and cold. I also hate ice, for much the same reasons. In all honesty I get a bit 'bah, humbug' around this time of year anyway; people anticipating Christmas at the end of November or beginning of December wind me up; it's far too early. So clearly I've been really enjoying myself the last few days; cold, icy, snowy hell that it has been.

It highlighted an interesting problem though, and one which in it's conclusion will have you wondering if this is really a car website. I'm about to advocate the improvement of public transport.

Yesterday, I slept on a friend's sofa - weather conditions were awful, and as I needed to be in university again today anyway to present my radio programme, I stayed where I was. The weather did it's thing, and it was clear that if I didn't make an attempt to return home today I'd probably not get back until Easter. So attempt I did.

Huddersfield to my home in northern Sheffield involves three trains, if the direct route is cancelled - or if for snow reasons you don't fancy risking being stuck in a small village in the back of beyond. So I went via Leeds, Wakefield, and the Meadowhall shopping centre. The finale to this hellish journey (Class 142 Pacers are awful trains at the best of times) was a two mile uphill walk in a foot of the godawful white stuff. Arrived home rather drained and on the chilly side.

My point is this; not only do we need to overhaul our public transport system, but we need to ensure that it functions when weather conditions aren't ideal. During my two mile walk not a single bus passed me, and not one of my trains was on time. I may like my car, but I appreciate public transport - if you can't drive, are prevented from driving by conditions, or can't afford to drive, it's a vital part of the infrastructure. But it needs to be a part of the infrastructure people want to use all year round. Tonight, I'd have killed for a bus, or for a half decent train. But most of the time we couldn't car less because we don't use them. The green mob desperately want us to leave our cars at home, but on the few occasions we have to we see nothing to encourage us to do the same voluntarily. If in 2900 a Class 142 carriage were to be found by some great great great (insert many hundreds of 'greats') grandchild of mine, he or she would instantly assume that in the Noughties being five feet in stature qualified a human to consider himself tall. At a good fifteen inches taller, I can confirm that modern trains have no legroom. Buses are almost as bad, and are noisy and not comfortable.

Now step back forty, fifty, a hundred years. I'm a frequent visitor of the Worth Valley Railway, and the type of train you'll certainly find there is spacious, comfortable, and has tables to put your paper or your pint on. Travel further back and you get leather and velvet upholstered drawing rooms with en-suite private facilities.

I'm not stupid, I do realise that to travel to university in an Edwardian living room would cost me about four times what I currently pay. But we could certainly do with more space on commuter lines (A bar/buffet would be good too). And wouldn't it be great to reinstate the ways of the past for long term travel?

Let's start though, by getting the nations trains and buses running in winter. I'm not the only one to want it.