Saturday, 26 December 2009

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly of 2009

Retrospectively published by AROnline on 5/1/2010

Skelton's Car of The Year 2009, the Jaguar XJ

Right, time to be serious for a moment. 2009 is drawing to a close, and I think it's an appropriate time to list the year's good, bad, and ugly from the world of motoring.

I'll start with the things I've liked the look of, and want to explore further. And the biggest story here is the new Jaguar XJ. It's incoherent from some angles in some colours, it's big, and the back end is a tad bland. But it works overall in the right colour, it's modern, chic, and sure to be a hit. The interior is a departure for Jaguar, but it captures the moment, and will make the ownership of a Jaguar into something genuinely aspirational for the young professionals of today. As soon as my local Jaguar agent gets one in, I am going to go for a look at it. And be smitten at first glance, no doubt.

I don't have a local Bentley agent, so I can't do this with the new Mulsanne. I've always been a Bentley man, and whilst there are some questionable options upon the new car, in the right colour and spec it is a thing of overwhelming beauty and, doubtless, has a crushingly smooth driving experience and wonderful ride. I looked in vain at this year's MPH and Classic Car Motor Show for one, and none were in attendance. Another on my wishlist.

A wishlist which also includes the little Royce; the Ghost. I've been looking on Pistonheads, and these cars are being advertised at a premium; almost at Phantom prices. It is more elegant than it's big brother, and much as I love the Phantom for it's interior, the Ghost is more my kind of car. It's tricky deciding whether I prefer this to the Mulsanne, which is a compliment indeed to the Royce. I see a future head to head article for some magazine or another coming up...

...although what I'd pitch against Aston Martin's Rapide is a hard question. You could argue Porsche Panamera, but the proportions aren't as good and it's just not the same. Lambo Reventon? Nah. Maserati Quattroporte? Looking dated. The Aston's a superb car on the face of it, and one I really want to see in the metal. But what benchmarks are there to compare it against, really? It's a car I think will be great, but how can we quantify the greatness of a trend-setter?

Aston's other trend-setter, however, is a mess. The Cygnet is an ugly duckling that just is not necessary. Sure, I can see where they were coming from; a small prestige car is precisely the recipe that makes the work of Vanden Plas so attractive. But a Toyota with Aston badges just doesn't work in the same way that, say, a Jaguar badged Fiesta might have done. Aston's brand ethos is nowhere to be found in the Cygnet, and this makes it the year's biggest disappointment.

The MG6, I have to say, has left me cold too. It just doesn't seem to be as accomplished as it could have been, it looks bland, and lacks a sufficiently wide range. It's also too expensive, and in any case the Roewe is the one I want. Yet despite this, I want it to do well. I desire nothing more than for my opinion to be wrong - although it's Chinese it represents the last vestiges of our motor industry, and for this reason it deserves to succeed.

The tragedy of the year has to be GM's announcement that SAAB are going to be wound down. I've always rather liked what SAAB have done, so to hear that GM have decided to sell bits off to China and pack the rest up is frankly heartbreaking. One hopes a gallant saviour can step in before it's too late.

And the ugly? Well, that epithet can be applied to most cars in production today.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Baby Aston Revealed

Written for Octane

Aston Martin Cygnet.

Aston Martin's Cygnet concept , announced in June 2009, has been revealed in what seems to be production-ready form. When first revealed, Aston accompanied its press release with images of a part-completed clay model, based clearly upon Toyota's tiny iQ city car. Marek Reichman's team at Gaydon seem to have created a shape which not only draws from current Aston Martins, but retains the basic structure and underpinnings of the Toyota.

Aston design cues are liberally scattered upon it, from the boomerang rear lights to the twin bonnet vents of the V12 Vantage, yet the overall effect is somewhat cluttered and awkward of countenance. The interior, questionable colour scheme aside, seems to have been trimmed to Aston Martin's characteristically high standard.

No details have been released yet about the Cygnet's running gear, although it is presumed that it will be powered by the same 97bhp 1.3 version of Toyota's 1NR-FE engine that already powers top spec iQs and other Toyotas. The extra weight of the Cygnet's interior and gadgets would blunt performance, but it would be reasonable to expect 0-60 in around 12 seconds and a top speed of about 105mph.

Cynical observers would note that the car's low CO2 level, offset against those of Aston's current range, would lower the brand's average CO2 emissions. However, Aston Martin's CEO, Ulrich Bez, has denied rumours that this was the company's motive. 'This concept is akin to an exclusive tender for a luxury yacht,' claims Dr Bez. 'It allows us to apply Aston Martin design language, craftsmanship and brand values to a completely new segment of the market.'

Aston intends to sell the Cygnet - at around £20,000 - to existing Aston Martin customers only. However, the company expects sales of up to 2000 per year if they put the car into production, and may expand sales beyond Europe and even to people without a 'proper' Aston Martin if demand is high enough. The company are still trying to pretend that the Cygnet is a concept car, although on the strength of the images we feel that Aston are likely to market it given the resources used to create it.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Modern Classics

Retrospectively published by AROnline on 6/1/2010

Bristol's 411 Series VI - a modernised classic.

There seems to have been a craze in recent years for upgrading and modernising classic cars. Off the top of my head, I can think of a number of cars which could be revamped either by the factory or an outside company: all Bristols, the Jensen Interceptor, and a good few Jaguars (XJ S3, XJ-S, MK2 and XK150). That said, I suppose KWE would upgrade any of the 'Series' XJs, and that JD Classics would turn their hand to any 'MK2 family' saloon or any XK. I also seem to recall, although I'm not 100% certain, that Aston Martin offer a similar modernisation service to that of Bristol.

All in, there must be fifteen or twenty types of classic car which are available with all mod-cons in 2008. I'm torn as to whether or not this is a good thing. The personal appeal of an 'Arthur Daley-spec' mustard yellow Daimler Sovereign 4.2, yet with a Tracker, high intensity Xenon headlamps, and a modern radio is huge. The idea of a Bristol 412 with aircon, uprated brakes, and electric door mirrors appeals still more. But is it right to take something that's already acclaimed and change it?

It could be seen as cheating on the part of the owner; if you can't cope with a classic car's foibles or put up with it's lack of modernities, buy a Vectra and have done with it. Air con and digital radio do not belong in a Mark Two Jag. In fact, you could go further and say that when it's finished it ceases to be a MK2 any more.

However, to have that mindset is, I think, to miss the point of the conversion. It's not, and is not intended to be, a showpiece. Neither is it intended to be exactly as the original is in feel or experience. No, the appeal of a car like the V-Eight Jensen or Knowles Wilkins XJ-S is that you get the style of an old car but none of the drawbacks. It's rebuilt, modernised, and ready for all that daily driving and a high mileage can throw at it. What you are purchasing when you buy a JD Classics XK150 is a brand new car that looks like - and by and large should feel like - a classic car. It would be folly to say they're the same as the originals, but in a sense that's why they appeal. This sort of modification should give you the same sort of experience as you expect from, say, a Bristol 411, but with all the conveniences you'd get in your Mondeo. This makes it a genuinely usable classic car.

I only have one criticism of the idea, and it's this: all the cars that seem to be catered for by the modernisation market are niche cars; cars that for reasons of economy or space just wouldn't be practical for anyone on a budget. Add to this that their cost, although considerably cheaper than the modern equivalents, is by no means easy on the pocket. As a Yorkshireman, this lack of sensibility has led me to spot an opening in the market. So, which firm will be first with the modernised Austin Allegro?

Thursday, 26 November 2009

The way forward for the Rover brand.

Written for AROnline

As regular readers of this site will know, I'm a BL lover. I really should join BL-coholics Anonymous, but that's beside the point. The car that first sparked my love of old motors was a Rover SD1 V8 my father owned from my birth until when I was 5. This is, I'm sure, the car that also helped focus my love of cars mainly upon BL.

Back when the SD1 was current, Rover were seen as a premium brand still. Since the P4, Rover had been innovative, unusual, and forward thinking. However, from 1991 (The launch of the R17 800) the company decided to focus upon a slightly tweedy and British image, reinforced by lots of cow, tree, and chromery. And it is in this guise - a car for the elderly - that Rover ended it's existence in 2005. The Rover brand was the British BMW of it's day until the year of my birth, and following that it sought to carve a different path for itself. I would partially blame BMW themselves for this - the custodians of Rover for much of the Nineties were hardly likely to develop in-house competitors. This is evident with the 75 - where the 3 and 5 Series BMWs were sporting saloons, the 75 was a waft-mobile. The customers of one company were not thought to have been in the market for the other.

But politics have put those days behind us; ending the existence of the Rover brand in 2005 with the closure of MG Rover and the company's purchase by NAC and SAIC of China. Amid much to-ing and fro-ing, these companies have now readied a new car for the UK, to be built in Longbridge. However, that's not the focus of my article. What is, is the fact that MG-Rover did not own the Rover name. This was owned by BMW and licenced to MG-Rover, as part of the contract made with Ford when the Jaguar and Land-Rover brands were sold to the American giant. The Rover nameplate also was sold to them outright a couple of years ago, and thus moved to TATA with their purchase of JLR. This set me thinking.

Jaguar will not be replacing the X-Type when it is discontinued in the next year or so. They blame lack of sales for this, but I think the reason is that a small saloon simply doe not fit into Jaguar's new advanced and upmarket range. However, there is no denying that they would be sacrificing a huge sector of the market in not providing a 3-Series rival. And so my thoughts started to form into an idea...

Tata have the Rover nameplate, which was a leading premium brand during it's heyday. The company pioneered the idea of a large executive hatchback; a genre which is finding favour once again after a ten year hiatus. They need a car to take on the 3-Series and A4/A5. They have the accomplished X-Type and XF chassis. So why not create a new Rover to fill the gap? Looking at it, it isn't such a silly idea as it might seem at first glance. It's entirely possible to create a car which fits stylistically with the Jags, yet retains a Rover identity. The heritage of the SD1 can be used to bolster it in it's first stages of production. It's a more fitting use of the name than letting it die.

How can we do this? My idea is to do something retro yet modern - combining something unmistakably classic Rover with something modern and chic. So I've created a couple of quick mock ups, which show this in it's best light. The exterior is an unmistakably Ian Callum-esque take on the SD1 theme, with the interior being a modernised interpretation. So we replace the walnut of the SD1 VP with aluminium, we have an LCD dashboard, we retain the two spoke wheel but incorporate the airbag. The idea would be to use a modified XF floorpan, with 2.5 and 3.0 V6s, the 3.5 V8 used only in the X350 XJ, and the 5.0 supercharged V8 in a hairy one. If you like tractor engines, some sort of diseasal would also be available. Tata/JLR, I hope you're taking note of this idea.

So, would this work? There's only one way to answer that, and it's put it to a public vote. Who, having read this and seen the images, would buy one of these over a 3 Series, C Class, or Audi A4/5? And who thinks I'm a sentimental nitwit pining for the past? Over to you.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

International Classic Car Motor Show, 2009.

On Sunday 15th November I made the pilgrimage to Birmingham for the International Classic Car Motors Show. The show is special in my eyes for the variety of cars on show, and for the opportunities to experience them not only as static displays, but from the passenger seat also courtesy of the Sporting Bears Motor Club.

Exhibits this year ranged from a faintly ridiculous stretch VW to a sublime pair of Gordon Keebles, filling the first four halls of the NEC. The usual extras were in attendance too, ranging from classic car publications to a stall selling expensive but exquisite driving gloves. As usual, a good third of Hall 1 was taken up by dealerships - upon whose stands I found several cosmetically and aromatically appealing Daimlers and Jaguars. Smell is something Mercedes, despite mastering baroque style, never quite got right.

I shan't pretend I saw it all: too much to see and too little time. But a number of cars caught my eye and captured my heart.

First to tempt me was a sure-fire future classic: The Jaguar XFR. Comfortable, quick, and much more of a quality product than I'd expected given my experiences of recent Jags, that is a car which will grow old gracefully.

Footman James had a pair of 420s on their stand: one of which was a truly pristine Jaguar. But the smashed and stricken Daimler next to it was the one which wooed me - it's fall from grace was disheartening but it seemed beautifully original, and bar the misshapen rear in a usable rather than concours condition.

I was also really rather impressed with the Rolls Royce Phantom. I can't say that exclusivity comes as standard - there were 4 there and I saw two within 5 days of the show - but it's a high class product.

Car, and club, of the show for me go to the Gordon-Keeble Owners' Club. Not only did they display two of the 99 built, but the people on the stand were informative and pleasant to boot. I must thank them for allowing me to sit in a G-K: a once-in-a-lifetime and wholly magical experience.

But the cherry on the cake was the SD1. My very earliest memories are of my father's V8 VP which was sold when I was 5, and I am convinced that car is responsible for my love of old tin. One kind chap from the SD1 club let me sit in his S1 3500 - a misty eyed moment upon which to end the day.

As is, I understand, traditional, the horn of every car was sounded at 5.30pm to signal the end of the three day event. The symphony provided was aural heaven.

Thanks to Dan Pyke and Lindsey Smith for the lift down from Sheffield, and to both Richard Clements and Jonathan Sellars for putting up with me for the day. Thanks also to the many owners and enthusiasts willing to spend time chatting to me, and for making the day memorable. I can only apologise to those I meant to meet, but lacked the time to. There will be some other time.

Triumph's Herald hatchback prototype, fresh from restoration. The Coupe next to it is a faithful replica of the Brabham Herald prototype, sprting a private number plate just 2 digits from that of the original.

Plenty of XJ-S Jaguars on show, although none as nice as this car, updated using later XJS bumpers and wheels.

Another XJ-S; this time the rare and powerful Lister Le-Mans.

Our man Skelton with Jonathan Sellars and a Jaguar XFR.

The Rover SD1 Club put on a good show - and were cracking people to boot.

With thanks to Jonathan Sellars for the photos of the Lister Le Mans and Rover SD1.

Friday, 30 October 2009

The must-have Mulsanne

It was August when I first set eyes upon Bentley's new Mulsanne. I wrote about it on this very site at the time, saying I thought it too bling, too overt, too 'non-U' to appeal to we Bentley connoisseurs.

But I was wrong. I still stand by everything I said in August; that the wheels were too big and too chromed, that it was far too 50 Pence, P Diddly or Acorn for my liking. The chromed window surrounds were too heavy-handed, the colour didn't suit it, and it was not elegant. The biggest issue in my view was that the wide wings and grille, and single round headlights, made the nose look pinched.

Bentley's mistake was smaller than I first thought. The problem was to launch it at Pebble Beach in it's blingomatic guise, rather than in a more tastefully sporting spec. I've since seen pictures of the Frankfurt show car. In Neptune Blue and set upon five spoke alloy wheels, the car looks infinitely more upmarket than it did in Champagne and with 4 chromed dustbin lids masquerading as wheels. It also seems - though this could be a trick of the light at Frankfurt - that the chromed window surrounds are an optional extra.

But I've been playing around, as is my wont, in Photoshop. And in Brooklands Green, on those 5 spoke wheels, it looks damn good. Good enough, certainly, for me to change my mind and conclude that it really does look like a proper Bentley. The Frankfurt car also helped me see what is even more apparent in the recoloured car at the top of this article; just how close I got to the real thing in my pre-launch photoshop from early August.

Bentley seem to have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat here. But, in fairness, I can see why they did what they did. The fact is, most cars of the Mulsanne's ilk are bought by blingsters nowadays. Bentley were trying to sell the car to it's prospective buyers. We connoisseurs could wait, they must have thought, because we're more likely to buy them secondhand than new. I hope that Bentley see fit to display one at the NEC this year - I understand there is a hall for the high class modern stuff as well as for the classics - to give me a chance to judge it for real. But until I see it in the metal, I'm now happy with it.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

The camaraderie of classic car connoisseurs, and my first tastes of Leyland

Written for AROnline

Last Sunday I went to a Rover 800 forum and M+MOC forum meetup at the premises of my friend Mal Watson near York. I met up with several old friends, and met some new faces. However, I will remember the weekend mostly for two things. Mal's barn is on a farm, with several private roads, and I was lucky enough be offered the chance to try two cars I have never driven before.

Firstly, Chris from the Rover 800 board offered me a spin in his Startins Regency. For those who don't know, a Regency is a Rover 827Si with two feet added to the middle. I've always liked big cars, and the Rover 800 is an old favourite, so I relished the opportunity to drive my first 800. The first thing I noticed was that the steering is very light indeed - there is feel but it's a very easy car to drive. Secondly, the extra length didn't seem to adversely affect it that much - only when trying a three point turn - that became 5 due to the width of the roads - did I have any problems. It's also cemented my desire to own an 827 - although maybe not one quite that long to begin with.

Secondly, Ray Greenwood, who had given me a lift up from Sheffield, gave me the keys to his Austin Montego 1.6 Mayfair; the car I used to illustrate my last blog.. This was the first manual car I'd driven since passing my test, so my first thought was not to foul up and stall it before I'd set off. However, the gearbox wasn't a worry at all. What was a concern was the steering. Perhaps I'm a limp-wristed fairy nancy-boy, but I found the non-assisted steering unbelievably heavy - here is a car which needs power assistance. I'm assured by Ray that it frees up at speed. From a passenger's point of view, the car surprised me in it's civility. Even at motorway speeds it was relaxed and quiet; more so even than my father's 2001 Jaguar. A twenty-five year old design it did not seem. Again, I'm impressed enough to want one - although a Vanden Plas EFi auto is more my thing I think.

The event also taught me something that those into the old car scene will appreciate. It's not just about the cars, nor even the shows. It's about the friendships you form. This was the first time I had met Chris, and only the second time I'd met Ray. And yet both were willing to let me drive their cars; when neither had seen me drive before. It was only the second time I'd met Mal Watson, and yet he was kind enough to welcome me into his premises like an old friend. I knew a number of people from previous events, and some were new to me. Yet all of them greeted me as an old comrade, and made me feel at home. And because we are BL enthusiasts, there's no elitism such as you'd find in Mercedes, Jaguar, or Rolls Royce circles. It was the perfect way to end the show season.

Except that it isn't the end. In a fortnight I'm doing the NEC show, which should be just as good.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Back to

Written for Practical Classics

Forgive me if this blog doesn't seem to talk about cars that much - I accept that it doesn't. I have however got a point to make, so if you're not doing much - washing the dog, taking the dishes for a walk etc - stick around.

There is - or seems to be - a stigma attached to the colour brown. Don't ask me why, there just is. Brown is a colour that most of the fashionista would dismiss as just being uncool.

Why? Lots of nice things are brown. Cask ales are by and large brown. My old, worn, and much loved pair of shoes are brown. Dogs are brown. Wood is brown. And yet when somebody chooses brown from a list of available colours somehow he becomes a social pariah, liked only by those whose guide dogs cannot tell the difference.

As somebody who wouldn't know if Ralph Saint Laurent were doing anything new or daring this year (or decade), it will come as scant surprise to you that I rather like brown. I do. From here I can see my brown curtains, brown bedsheets, brown quilt cover and pillow, brown wardrobes, brown door and brown noticeboard. The eagle eyed may also have spotted that the titles of blogs here are picked out in Leyland Mace brown - a particularly questionable shade.

Which brings me onto a more relevant topic. Brown seems to have fallen from most car manufacturers' colour charts now. I can think of but a few cars I know can be ordered in such a hue. Toyota's Avensis and the new Smart are the most prolific examples. And the number with brown interiors is fewer still - cream doesn't count. I'm having trouble thinking of any cars from the last 2 decades with brown seats and a brown dashboard.

And yet in the right shade and application it can look sublime. I once saw a metallic brown Maserati Quattroporte which looked like it had just come out of the pages of a fashionable motoring magazine. Which was exactly where I saw it. The brown Montego Mayfair at the top of this article manages to look fantastic, even though it's brown. And a Montego.

Brown is due a comeback, and the cars we have today are ideal to do this with. The new Jaguar range. the Aston Rapide. Hell, even the new Bentley Mulsanne would look stunning in metallic brown. So I've decided to form a society; the Brown Car Appreciation Guild. This will serve not only to unite those of us with such taste, but to convince car manufacturers that there is a market for scatologically shaded saloons and sportsters. Who's with me?

Saturday, 26 September 2009

A new vehicle concept, 30 years ago.

Written for AROnline

I'd like to talk about Audis and BMWs in this blog. There, I've said it. Those who may be outraged by such talk on this site, please feel free to keep quiet. But I have a very good reason for doing so, and it involves possibly my very favourite of all BL's products.

Audi have recently launched their A5 Sportback, and BMW the competing 5-Series GT. These cars are both, as far as I can see, pointless. The Audi A4 and BMW 5-series are already available as a saloon, or for those who want a tailgate, as estates. So naturally, we need hatchback versions of both to plug the gap in the middle. Of course, I may be missing the plot spectacularly here - after all, German execs are not my thing. They might be aimed at someone wanting something more exclusive than an A4 or 5-Series, in which case they will achieve their aim. For about ten minutes, until everyone has them.

Alright, I'm being overly cynical. But this is because both companies, as far as I can see, cater for the markets these cars are aimed at already. The idea of a large and upmarket hatchback is one that appeals to me greatly. Which brings me nicely into the BL themed bit of the blog.

The point I'm making is this. Audi's press release states that the Sportback is "a new vehicle concept" and "setting new trends in vehicle design". BMW haven't been quite so fatuous as to assume that they originated the concept of an executive hatch - their press release bangs on about a cross between a classically styled GT and a saloon car. But in either case, it is implied that the concept is new. In 1976, Rover replaced the P6 range with the SD1 range. This was an executive hatchback; and unlike the Audi or BMW, it can rightly claim to be a first. And it was a hit - it was upmarket, and made by a company with a history of producing good executive cars (albeit under the umbrella of BL, so quality wasn't always quite right). It spawned many imitators, but the Rover is the one everyone remembers. It was replaced in 1986 by the 800 - available as a fastback by 1988. The 800 was a cop-out in my opinion; offered in saloon form for those who didn't see the appeal of a hatch, and thought was even given to market the hatch as an inferior model under the name of 600. With the exception of Vauxhall's Signum, executive hatchbacks pretty much died with the 800 in 1999. They didn't even bother by the time the 75 came along. Since then, the genre has more or less ceased to exist. And everyone else who tried seemed to fail in this sector. How many Renault Safranes, Fiat Cromas, Ford Granada MK3s, and Citroen XMs have you seen recently?

But the press will love the A5 Sportback and 5-series GT, stating that a large executive hatchback is a great idea. The reason? Because the 2 companies doing it are the darlings of the popular motoring press; Audi and BMW. Yet I doubt the idea will take off again, because they've done it the wrong way. Going back to the top of the blog for a second, both cars already have an equivalent saloon and an equivalent estate. And I am yet to work out quite why we need more choice than that. I mean, if neither an A4 or A4 Avant suits you, there are several other perfectly good executive saloons for similar money. If you want a medium sized Audi, what's wrong with the normal A4 or Avant?

Rover got it so right it was untrue in 1976 by launching their new executive car with this one body style. No choice, you took it or left it. And they cleaned up. And I'd even go so far as to say that had they continued with the theme of the large executive well-appointed hatchback - preferably V8 and RWD but it needn't even be that - Rover may well still be here.

Monday, 7 September 2009

New directions for Royce and Bentley

Written for AROnline

I’ve always been a bit of a Bentley man. Since Quentin Willson outlined just how inexpensive a Turbo R can be on Top Gear when I was seven , I have made it my ambition to one day own one of these cars. No mere Royce would do, it would have to be a Turbo R or RT. The immense power of these cars coupled to their girth and their splendour is, to me, an utterly irresistable package. Things are much the same when it comes to the Spirit/Turbo replacement, the Seraph and Arnage. I’ve always seen the Spirit of Ecstasy as a little nouveau riche when compared to the flying B. And yet the tables seem now to be turning - the bewinged lady seems to have become the beacon of good taste, and the B on the bonnet of a Bentley could now be taken to mean ‘brash’.

The Bentley Continental range just seems to lack the grandeur that a Bentley SHOULD have; the je ne sais quoi that appeals so in the older Bentleys such as the Arnage and the Continental R. And you see far too many Continental GTs, GTCs, and Flying Spurs pimped up to look like homages to bad taste and excessive wealth. The Mulsanne I wrote about some weeks ago seems to come pre-pimped, with wide chrome window surrounds, a tacky grille, and chrome dinner plates masquerading as wheels

I didn’t like the Phantom when it was launched some six years ago. I thought it was far too overt, too expensive, too tasteless for the true connoisseur. But, in a dark colour and on the right alloy wheels, it has matured into quite an attractive and restrained car. And Rolls-Royce seem to have pulled off the same trick with their new car; the Ghost. Set to retail at about £200000, the car is pitched at Bentley Mulsanne customers and at those seeking to downsize from a Phantom to a car which measures only 17′8″ in length.

The Ghost is based upon a BMW 7-series floorpan, and a 6.6 litre twin turbo version of BMW’s V12 is it’s powerplant of choice. This results in over 560bhp and 575 lb ft of torque - more than you get in the Phantom and about the same as the Mulsanne is predicted to have. Using an eight speed - three or four too many for my liking if I’m honest - automatic gearbox, the car should accelerate to 60 in 4.7 seconds, the same as a Bentley Continental. Cosmetically inside and out it’s basically a shrunken and slightly more sporting copy of the Phantom - not only more subtle than it’s larger sibling, but more subtle also than the new Mulsanne. Kit-wise, it’s unlikely potential owners will be left wanting - the electronic toys on offer include a 330-yard night vision camera and automatically dipping headlamps. The sound system has more speakers than my house, and a 12.5GB hard drive for your mp3s. No doubt it will also be iPod compatible.

Convertible and Coupe variants should be announced following the car’s appearance at next week’s Frankfurt Motor Show, and the saloon will go on sale in the not too-far-distant future. Pimps and rap artists need not apply.

Monday, 17 August 2009

The new Bentley; post-launch

Written for AROnline

What you see above is a genuine image of the new Bentley. I was wrong on some matters, yet not far off on others. The name, for instance, I got wrong. I suggested in this blog, twelve days ago, that the new car would be called the Eight. I was wrong; another moniker from Bentley's past is to be resurrected; Mulsanne. However, I was right about the technical aspects; it will use the Bentley V8 and sit on a currently bespoke platform; which, it is speculated, will be shared with a future four door Bugatti. I was also wrong about the rear of the car. I had assumed that Bentley would be conservative and stick to the same basic lines as all Bentleys since the T-series; those of a sensible, three box saloon of straight lines - my artist's impression is, for any interested parties, visible in my blog. No, I was barking up the wrong tree. They've gone further back, trying to update the lines of the S Series and Rolls Royce Silver Cloud. I'm not complaining, it works. Except that it doesn't.

You see, Bentley have designed this car, seemingly, after looking at what the kings and queens of bling do to their Continentals. So we have shiny chromed mesh grilles, chromed 21" alloys, and spangly lights. No no no no no, terribly non-U. What we SHOULD have recieved was a grille with chromed slats, smaller, less obvious wheels, and less of the fairy lighting at the front. I accept, daytime running lights are to become mandatory on new cars, which is probably the excuse for the lights. But where are the excuses for the grille and wheels? Bentley had the chance to produce something of breathtaking elegance and restraint, but they've fouled up in the details.

I am not saying I dislike this car. I am not saying I should refuse to buy one. I am saying that the concept is right but the execution has been slightly flawed. But it will grow on me, I'm sure - so long as Bentley offer some more conservative choices of wheel. After all, I saw a pic of a new XJ today in a dark colour which resolved every single criticism I made of it weeks ago. It's just that I expected Bentley to produce a universally and instantaneously likeable car, not something so, I don't know... overt.

Maybe I'm being too harsh. I do like the car; it's certainly the most attractive new shape I've seen in months. But then, it's hardly a new shape, is it?

I'll come back to this car, in two weeks or so, when I'm more used to the shape. Til then I'm not entirely satisfied with what I see.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The new grand Bentley - my thoughts

The new big Bentley is due to be unveiled next week, at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance in California. Above is my less-than-perfect artist's impression of how I believe the car will look. Speculation is growing as to the new car's name - but Eight seems the most likely given current evidence. Mechanically I can't see it differing too far from the Arnage, and it shares it's platform with a new Bugatti saloon due in the next few years. The interior should be similar to the Continental and the Arnage ranges; offering a more contemporary look than it's predecessor, yet I feel it will differ (albeit not by much) from that of it's cheaper sibling.

On a totally unrelated note, I was at BMC/BL day in Peterborough on Sunday, and I discovered to my immeasurable ecstasy that this blog has an audience (Well, besides those who I make read it). Jonathan Sellars, you made my day by telling me that. It's thus the least I can do to promote your blog in return - for any interested parties, click here.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Peugeot's 306 - the best banger for your bucks?

Between 1993 and 2002, Peugeot's 306 was one of the most popular small family cars available in the UK. A replacement for the Peugeot 309 (Does this make the 306 a Talbot Horizon MK3?), the car was styled by Pininfarina, based upon the Citroen ZX platform, and built at the former Rootes factory in Ryton. Engines spanned 1.4 to 2.0 4 cylinders, with a couple of popular XUD-based tractor powerplants thrown in for good measure. Two facelifts; one in 1997 and one in 1999, ensured that the car remained fresh until it's demise.

Yes, I admit it, the 306 is old news. The youngest of the cars is now seven years old, and its successor has also been replaced. But there is method in what seems like a mad choice of review. I've been running the family 306 now for a number of months, and as such I feel it's the perfect car upon which to cut my reviewers' teeth.

We've had the 306 in the family for about six years. It's a 1995 M plate 1.8 XT automatic, in Forest green with a beige velour interior. Due to a dealer error, we got it well below book - £1500, now worth between £500 and £700. And I genuinely think that at that money, it's a bargain worth investigating.

Let's start with the positives. The car is reasonably quick - although it's a little car with a 1.8 engine I'd expect the autobox to rob it of power. The car seems lethargic on paper, but unlike anyone else Peugeot measure these with fully laden cars. It handles well; the passive rear wheel steering conspiring with the excellent chassis to ensure that the car remains sure footed in any real world situation. The steering itself is well weighted, and spirited driving can put a smile on your face. The ride seems poor, but that can be attributed to the condition of Sheffield roads. If I'm honest, it's certainly no worse than, say, a Jaguar X Type. The car is comfortable, spacious (I'm 6'3", and have transported people of considerable girth in comfort - for people of a more orthodox size there is plenty of room for five), and with the beige interior, it's an airy and pleasant place to be. The radio in the car is a Blaupunkt unit, of a design exclusive to Peugeot, and whilst I've only ever used it to listen to Radio 2 I can confirm that it is a good unit; with superb sound quality. The boot is reasonable for the size of car, and on short local runs the car will return twenty miles per gallon. On a long run I am confident the car would return between 35 and 40mpg, which for a large engined automatic is by no means bad. And, purely from an aesthetic point of view, a day spent cleaning and polishing the car, and re-blacking the rubbing strips, can make it look almost new.

However, it's not all good. I have seen it said that French cars are essentially solid, but the 'tinsel' - unnecessary bits such as trim and toys - aren't of superb quality and will break. This is the case. The radio unit sometimes requires a restart before it will play anything, and even then on occasion it refuses to emit sound. The trim surrounding the sunroof switches is currently held in place by two blobs of Blu-Tack; the original clips having succumbed years ago. The trim piece on the rear ashtray is in the glovebox; several attempts to mend it having proved futile. And the steering wheel is made of a soft touch plastic which looks like elephant skin. It isn't, however, quite so resilient. Fourteen years of be-ringed hands upon it have left their mark - the top half feels as if it is made of sandpaper. And because ours has the rare beige trim, and a rare steering wheel design (In 1995 Peugeot must have used 7 different styles, one of which - ours - is like hen's teeth), we have been unable to source a replacement. I am, as such, actively seeking a set of driving gloves.

But these are but a few flies in what seems a very pleasant ointment. For £500, there are few cars that are so accomplished, and that I feel would offer the same amount of driver enjoyment and confidence. I am a Rover group fan, but I seriously doubt that either the R8 series 2/400, or the HHR series 400, is quite so accomplished for quite so little an amount of money. Buy a 306 if you're on a budget. You shan't regret it.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

And now for something completely different

Just been dared to post this. I wasn't told where I was to post it, so i thought I'd stick it here out of harm's way.

That is all.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

The Jaguar Mark X. J.

Last week, I wrote about the new XJ. I am sad to say that my last paragraph seemed awfully prophetic. I stated that it could well suffer the same fate as the Mark Ten; it could end up being too big, too vulgar, and too brash for Britain. It could also have suffered the same problem as it's ancestor; that of employing styling motifs not suited to a car of it's size.

I was only too right.

The front end is superb, sublime, and lots of other things beginning with S. However, I refuse to believe that the back of the car is Callum's work. That man can style cars - the back of the new Jag hasn't been styled. Behind the rear doors is all wrong - that boot is at the wrong level, the rear window extends too far, it's too slopey, and I've seen better arses on chimps. And I haven't yet seen Ray Charles credited for his hand in styling it; the black D-pillar. Ultimately, the problem is that it doesn't really flow. It's too fussy and disjointed to really look good from the rear - the rear window is far too shallow in it's rake, and extends too far towards the back of the car. Don't in any sense get me wrong, I love four-door coupes, but (and it does pain me to say this) even Merc's CLS is more coherent.

What Jaguar SHOULD have done is a swoopy three-box design. Leave it as it is to the back of the rear doors, and after, say, the foremost edge of the rear lights. But the bit between these should have been more restrained, more upright, more - dare I say it - like a proper Jaguar. Had they managed to pull this off correctly it would have sold like hot cakes on a cold November morning in the snow. But it was not to be.

The interior also represents a radical departure for Jaguar - and having conferred with a number of friends I have discovered that the walnut makes the dash. I'd quote my mate Will, but what he said regarding the Sport interior (which lacks the walnut and eschews cream leather for an all black, Germanic look) isn't really suitable for public consumption. All recognise it as a Jaguar - but then my tests were conducted with a standard interior. A de-tree'd and black interior would produce very different results.

So. Jaguar have cocked up. Let's hope there aren't too many of my mindset out there. But there's still a faint glimmer of hope. I do get the impression that it would look good in black. Let's pray it's the only shade they decide to offer it in.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Is Daimler dead and gone?

I write this, uncertain as to the fate of one of my favourite names in the history of motoring. Since 1969, Daimler has been effectively a trim level denoting the very best XJ-series Jaguar one could buy. Yet I don't see how this can continue. The next XJ is, by all accounts, a swoopy and low saloon - an XF taken to further extremes. To me, a Daimler is an upright, upmarket, wood-and-leather fest. I can't really see this working on the new XJ.

So, as I see it, there are 3 options open to Daimler. Firstly, a Daimlerised version of the new XJ - I will provide a digital mock-up when the XJ has been launched on Thursday. Secondly, Daimler produce a completely seperate car in a new class, utilising the XJ's platform. Thirdly, the Daimler marque; part of Britain's motoring heritage since 1896 and the manufacturer of our own monarch's personal car, is laid to rest.

Of the three, by far the most tempting is option number two. I can see it now almost - a retro-styled upper crust limousine in the same vein as the old DS420. Priced to compete with the next Bentley Arnage and the Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, it could share the XJ's platform and 5.0 supercharged V8. A new, DS420 evoking bodyshell with ample room for 5 + 2 occasional passengers, and a considerable boot, the car could even be built by hand if it could remain cost-effective to do so. I believe the car would sell - it's not flash like a product of Goodwood or of Crewe, yet it would be suitably upmarket for Mayoral transport and even for lesser royals. Certainly, it would be a good car to have if you were a chauffeur. And the name? I foresee a return to Daimler of that historic nameplate; Sovereign.

But I fear that the most likely outcome is option three. After 113 years, Daimler would become defunct. One of the few historic British (OK, Indian) nameplates we have left will cease to be - and our nation of once great marques the world over will take one step closer to becoming a production base for exclusively foreign metal.

Tragic, isn't it?

Thursday, 2 July 2009

The next big thing from the big cat

In just a few days' time, Jaguar will unveil the new XJ. We've seen the teaser pics, we've seen the photoshops, and within a week we'll have seen the finished article. And some aren't looking forward to it.

The general consensus is that it looks like an XF that's been scaled up, and this is the root of the problem. Many do not like Jaguar's 'new and bland' design direction. I beg to differ, and would argue that the current cars are the most Jaguar-like since the XJ40. I'm not saying they're perfect - XF, the clearest vision of Jaguar's future, is flawed. The grille should have been a cross-hatch grille like the first XJs. But that's really beside the point.

Jaguar have spent the last twenty years perfecting a 'retro' design theme which, many would argue, is the raison d'etre of such cars. But if you take a trip down memory lane, examining the MK2, the E-Type, the XJ-S, the original XJ, you find a stream of contemporary designs completely at odds with how we see Jag today. The XF, and new XJ, are no different. To satisfy those who crave nostalgia, the new cars even take design hints from these revered brethren. That hump over the lights on the XF? MK2. The general four-door sportscar lines? MK2. The face - a square grille with 4 round lights? Take a look at a Series 1 XJ. The hump in the bonnet? XJ-S. And the wide shoulders - remind you of something?

Will it be a success? To answer that, I think we should look again at the XF. You see several - certainly here in South Yorkshire I see as many as I do S-Types. It's been a big hit - capturing a new market for Jaguar and managing to retain a large proportion of their old customers. And I'm confident XJ can do that for the class above.

Ultimately, I suppose we shall have to wait and see. XF looks like a modern MK2, XJ is predicted as a modern Mark 10. That failed because it was too big for Sixties Britain. It's possible that in the recession-stricken 'Tens' which are to follow, the new XJ may well suffer the same fate.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

A gamble worth taking?

Written for AROnline

I’ve just seen pics of the next Aston Martin. It’s not, as you would be forgiven for thinking, a large and expensive GT car with a large V12. Instead, it’s the answer to a question nobody has ever asked.

It would seem that Aston Martin have done some market research, and found that many of their customers keep a small car - a MINI Cooper for example - for town use. The Aston only comes out to play on longer distance trips and nice days. Fair play to the owners; petrol’s £4.68 per gallon now, and I can’t see many Aston owners enjoying the frugality of 20mpg.
So Aston, in their wisdom, have decided to introduce a small car to replace the MINI in their customers’ portfolios. This car, the Cygnet, is based upon Toyota’s iQ. Little is known as yet, and Aston have not confirmed that it is anything more than a concept, so much of the next few lines will be speculation.

The car is expected to be launched towards the end of 2010 at a price of between £20,000 and £25,000. This should price it to compete with the MINI Cooper (after the prospective buyer has chosen options and option packs).

It should also undercut it’s only true rival, the Radford MINI Miglia, seen on AROnline. Toyota will import up to 2000 iQs for Aston per year, which will then be ‘finished’ at Gaydon. This ‘finishing’ consists of a remodelled nose (using the iQ’s own headlamps), new wheels, and an interior retrimmed in the finest hide, utilising the standard iQ layout.

It is possible that this heralds a new age of co-operation between Aston and Toyota - future Astons such as the proposed Lagonda 4×4 may use Lexus hybrid powertrains, but neither party has yet commented upon the potential for future marque interaction.

The whole concept of an exclusively styled and trimmed version of a small car appeals to me immeasurably - the project reminds me of Vanden Plas’ work in the 1960s and 1970s with the 1100, 1300, and 1500. But I cannot help wondering if it is a wise move for Aston.

Yes, the concept of a small Aston Martin for town use is a novel one, and initial exclusivity is maintained by the fact that Aston would only be offering them to existing owners in the first instance. But a £25,000 Aston city car could also ruin the brand’s cachet, and because of the brand it would cost much more to insure than the other upmarket city cars Aston are expecting to capture sales from.

The Cygnet could be the start of a new profitable market sector for Aston, but I rather feel the opposite could happen. Unless Aston Martin are very canny about what they choose to do, I believe that the ugly duckling Cygnet could well become the company’s swansong.
I know that my opinion is not shared by all. Steve Cropley, of the influential motor magazine Autocar, believes that the project deserves a fair chance and will do well. I sincerely hope he’s right. But I doubt he is. Aston look to be on the verge of taking their biggest gamble since the Lagonda of the 1970s, and it’s one that I for one don’t think will pay off.