Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Bangernomics in practice.

Oli's mega mile Rover - for next to nothing it's impossible to go wrong.

Trying to navigate whilst speeding along a dual carriageway at something a tad illegal, I noticed too late the street we were aiming for. 'Bugger' was my response, to which my chauffeur braked hard, knocked it into second, and hurled the car round a 90 degree right turn across 2 lanes of traffic, tyres squealing like something from the Professionals. Such was my first experience of R404SPR back in August, from a rather cramped back seat.

I'll begin with an admission. I loathe the idea of a diesel engine. To me, they are clattery, sound like a Transit or a tractor, and tell everyone within sensory range that you're either a Scot or a Yorkshireman when it comes to counting the pennies. I've never heard the term dieselhead used to refer to a car nut, not is there a car satire site called SniffDiesel. So I didn't expect to be greatly impressed by the daily hack of my best mate, Oli South. The car is a Rover 420 SLDi he bought in June last year with 159000 miles for £350 or so, and now has done just shy of 190000 miles. In the time he's owned it it's not exactly been his pride and joy (That's his Maestro VP) - it's been a workhorse; driven daily, used for work, dented, scuffed, and with an interior that would give an OCD sufferer a multiple heart attack. However, I fancied a quick spin, and upon expressing this desire he chucked me the keys.

To begin with, at fairly moderate speeds it seems unnecessary to use the accelerator. The car will set off from a standstill and build to a decent town speed on the clutch alone - making this the first car I've driven that seems entirely impossible to stall unless the driver is being a prat. The seats were still supportive after thirteen years and 190000 miles, the steering light and without any free play that I could detect.

However, it was a tad light for my taste. I wasn't overly impressed with the ergonomics - I'm sure that by spending ages fiddling with the seat I could have got into a position where nothing was a huge stretch, but given that I didn't test the car on the public highway and that the position everything was at suits Oli and his fiancee, I didn't like adjusting the seat too much. My other major criticism was that rear visibility is limited due to the high bootline, narrow rear screen, and thick rear pillars - the light steering also meant that looking backwards whilst reversing, I had no idea in which direction the wheels were pointing until the car was moving.

Yet despite my dislike of diesel, the poor rear visibility, and the overly light steering, I can't honestly say it's a bad car. It was dirt cheap, has been driven the equivalent of three years' mileage unserviced since last June, and does not look or feel like a car that's travelled nearly a hundred and ninety thousand miles. Had I been looking for a car when R404SPR was for sale, I can't say that I'd have ignored it given the abuse it's taken and the stupidly low purchase price. As a daily hack, it's unbeatable.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

A car for the Connoisseur

Rover 75 - a bargain not to be missed

My good friend Jon Sellars offered me a spin, back in November, in his XJR. Like me, he's a BL man with a fondness for Jaguars, and like me, he's young enough to defy the 'old man' image. However, unlike me, he's of sufficient age to be able to insure pretty much what he wants. At the time, the Jag was back at his home and we were in Birmingham at the NEC, but he offered to let me have a spin next time he, the car, and I were in one place. I met up with him at the Pride of Longbridge rally last weekend, which he attended in his Rover 75. Such a car was more in the spirit of PoL than the big cat, he said, before asking if I'd like a go in the Rover whilst it was there.

Not an offer that I, as an admirer of the 75 and British car fan in general, could decline. Jon's 75 is one of the most desirable in the range; a 2.5 V6 Connoisseur SE automatic saloon in royal blue with cream leather. Save the colour combination, the one I'd buy - and I'd not mind the shade he chose if my preferred Primrose wasn't available.

Unlike previous big Rovers, the 75 feels hemmed-in - it's by no means claustrophobic or cramped, but there is no sense of complete and utter space. Instead, the car seems to shrink around you from the moment you shut the door. Survey the dash, and it's more than pleasant - call me old fashioned but walnut, leather, and magnolia dials comfort me in a car. The seats are well shaped and legroom and headroom - even in the back - are more than adequate for a long legged beanpole like myself.

Put the car in 'D' and you hit the only real flaw I managed to find. The plastics on the gear selector didn't feel quite as upmarket as the rest of the car would make you think. I expected nicer, but then I remembered that the car as a whole looks and feels more upmarket than it really is - was the fault with the car or my perception of how it should ? Set off, and the atmosphere is one of utter serenity. It's a soothing and relaxing car to drive - partly, I suspect, due to BMW's desire to avoid in-house competition - with a near silent V6 at town speeds. The suspension is more than capable of dismissing anything so undignified as a bump and twirling the near-vertical steering wheel provides effortless changes of direction. That's not to say the car detaches you from the outside world - it's fairer to say that the 75 cushions it's occupants from any undue discomfort or effort.

I could quite easily live with a 75 - especially given that current prices are the stuff of wild dreams for we Yorkshiremen. The 75 wasn't particularly expensive for it's class when new, and today it represents an even better used car bargain. Even if you're picky and want the best spec, you can find a 75 for very little. I found six 2.5 Connoisseur SE autos for under £1500 with just five minutes on Auto Trader's website. Search around and one can be yours for under a grand - a further five minutes turned up a few low spec cars and high mileage cars starting at about £800. For that sort of money, find me something better.

Rover 800 Revisited

Rover 827Si in Wales; pic by the car's owner Richard Clements.

As regular readers will know, this isn't the first 827 I've reviewed in From The Captain's Chair. I drove a Startins Regency back in October, and liked it a lot. I praised it's light steering, and it's feel of effortlessness. However, at eighteen feet long it was just a smidge too long for me to get a true impression of the car, so when Rich Clements passed me the keys to his 827 Si manual, it would have been rude of me to not try it out. It was also a manual, which made things more interesting - 827 manuals are rare, and having declined an offer of a manual Sterling a few weeks earlier for insurance reasons, I wanted to see what I was missing.

Rich warned me that the clutch wasn't great, thus nominating himself for 'Understatement Of The Year' award. The bite point was at the furthest prod of the pedal - to the bottom of it's travel and then slightly through the floor. But when this was mastered, the car leapt away like a car that leaps away well. Into second and again the Honda V6 was raring to go, begging me to bury my right foot into the carpet. But not in someone else's car. Not on grass. And even disregarding those points, not until I'd more experience of the car in question. Turn-in is sharp, with wonderfully sensitive steering reacting you the slightest flick of the fingertips, and the supportive leather seats hug you - the overwhelming impression the 827 manual gives is of an unfeasibly large sports car. It's not surprising that Rover chose an 827 manual for the Isle of Man TT lap record in a production car - an achievement I have on video and that to the best of my knowledge has remained unbeaten.

What surprised me was how different in feel the car was from the Regency automatic I drove last year. Granted, it's lighter and two and a half feet shorter, but that doesn't account for the difference in power delivery. The automatic was turbine-like and almost stately. The manual, whilst still smooth, felt more like an unfeasibly big sports car than a little limousine.

In summary then, the Rover 827 is quite a car with a manual gearbox. It's certainly a car that should satisfy the keen driver, and doesn't pay for this by being unduly harsh in ride, either. In having to turn down the Sterling I was offered, I know I have missed out on a car I would have adored, that would have served me well and probably economically - on petrol as well as LPG - on my commute. But it wasn't to be, thanks to the insurance tickboxes. When driving Richard's Si I found myself wishing all forms of pestilence upon insurance brokers and all they hold dear, for denying me the ability to put an 827 on my driveway.

Criticisms? I had two. Firstly, that clutch - but I'll forgive it that on the understanding they're not all as bad as that one. Secondly, Rich's choice of in car music - local radio - wasn't to my liking. The car itself was excellent.

Buy one. I will, as and when I can.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

A dream realised

Written for AROnline

The SD1 of motoring journalist Keith Adams

My very first memory, earlier even than family events such as holidays and birthdays, is of my father's old SD1 Vanden Plas. A V8 automatic Series 2 in Moonraker metallic, it imprinted itself firmly upon first my young retinas and later my developing mind. I am sure that this car is responsible for my love not only of British Leyland, but of cars in general. Since these memories, maybe from the age of four, I have longed to drive an SD1 V8. And I didn't think my chance would come until I was at an age when I could insure one.

I tried doing so. On the Skelton 'Cars I talked of Buying' list there is an SD1. A Vanden Plas EFi that was being sold locally by a friend. I was close to enquiring before I got an insurance quotation. Suffice it to say I was quoted miserable. So I thought that losing my SD1 virginity would have to wait - that or I'd have to start with a little engined car. However, I'd reckoned without Keith Adams.

Keith is, as I'm sure readers of the site know, a huge British Leyland fan, who has recently had his V8 Series 1 restored in Poland. He's also a generous and big hearted chap, who knew of my reasons for loving SD1s. I was discussing SD1s with him last year, and he commented "Play your cards right, and you can have a go in mine when it comes back." And so it was that on the 17th of April 2010 I found myself behind the wheel of a V8 Rover, about to realise the ambition of some thirteen and a half years.

The first thing to strike me as I entered was that it's a wide car. A very wide car. My mother had commented that upon passing her test and getting straight into an SD1 2300, it felt like an airliner - such was the feeling of width in the cabin. I mocked her when she first told me, but she wasn't far off the mark - the handbrake was a fair way over to my left, as was the gearstick. I turned the key, and felt a slight shiver down my spine as the big Buick V8 burbled into life. In gear, and off we went.

So what's it like? I'd append 'on the road' but I was in a field. Well, first impressions were favourable. Looking down the creased and sculptured bonnet, which I had long admired from all angles but this, I felt that the SD1 disproved the old adage that one should never meet one's heroes - very much my kind of car. Big, quite lazy, yet with the feeling that had I put my foot down it would have gone like a scalded cat. The steering was assisted to the point of feeling easy, yet retaining plenty of feel - and I also relished my first go with a quartic wheel. There was only really one fly in the ointment - Keith mentioned that there was a screeching fan bearing, which seemed at it's worst when letting in the clutch. Having not driven a manual any great distance since passing my driving test (I'm a convert to the lazy life), there was the constant nagging question in the back of my head - was the noise my lack of competence or the bearing?

Pulling back up beside Keith, I switched off the rumbling V8, and emerged from the Pendelican powerhouse a far happier man. As I shook his hand, I thanked him for helping me realise an almost lifelong dream. Would I have one? As a hobby car, of course I would. Like a shot. But as a daily, I don't think I could. I'd forever be hoping that tomorrow wasn't to be the day that the V8 rumble became somehow ordinary, or the day upon which I stopped feeling childishly thrilled at the thought I had my own SD1. Given the fond memories I associate with them, I'd rather the magic remained.

But don't let that stop you.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The brown-aissance

A Bentley GTC in brown - am I the only person to like it?

Back in October I wrote an article which subsequently appeared on the website of Practical Classics magazine, lamenting the disappearance of brown from the colour charts of most manufacturers. At the time I could think of just Toyota and MCC Smart as examples of companies which produced cars in the hue so reminiscent of Princesses, Maxis and Cortina Mk3s. Brown interiors are even more scarce – even these companies choose to team their brown bodies with conservative cream or grey interiors.

But since then, brown has undergone something of a renaissance. Porsche, Audi, BMW, and Jaguar offer shades of brown in at least one of each brand’s respective model ranges. Peugeot offer brown too, for those with somewhat slimmer wallets. And for those with money to burn, I found a chocolate coloured Bentley GTC for sale yesterday with a tan leather interior to match its walnut dashboard. And a selection of single and duo-tone brown options are available on the Mulsanne, for the most well heeled in society.

And I’m pleased to say that my prediction; that brown would suit these cars amongst others, was correct. We’ve already seen the return of yellow on cars such as the BMW Mini (which can be purchased in brown with a brown pair of stripes), the SEAT range, and on the defunct MG range. MG’s reincarnation brings with it another example of the vivid orange Ford reintroduced with the Focus ST.
We’re stepping away from a world of sober blues, reds, greens and blacks. Showing silver the door. 2010 heralds the birth of a decade in which, I predict, the spectrum sees fit to revisit the roads of the world. Could this partially provide the return of the individuality I crave on the highways?

I think so, but there’s another item from the dustbin of automotive history I’d like to see reborn. The vinyl roof. Alright, the idea of the vinyl roof being made from vinyl is a touch passé. A roof covered in leathercloth was not only a little bit outdated by the 1980s, but if the roof was damaged water could get between the roof and covering – and as leathercloth is waterproof the water became trapped between the two. This is an open invitation for rot. In any case, I can’t see many people today wanting to boot polish the roof of the new car to keep it looking swish.

But a roof which contrasts in appearance from the body is something I should like to see return. Jag have the right idea on the new XJ, in part. Paint a brown, beige, or black (or any colour) ‘vinyl’ roof or D-pillar onto a car – the Jag’s roof is the wrong shape for a contrasting D-pillar but a VW Jetta, say, would look rather good with one. Solid paint on a metallic car body would achieve the suitable differentiation on, say, a black car with a black roof. We needn’t even stick to traditional vinyl roof hues, although it would be advised to choose a colour which doesn’t clash with the interior. Audi did something similar with the last few TT MK1s in 2006; red or silver cars with black roofs. It looked excellent, although contemporary reports felt it spoiled the lines somewhat.

I personally think my Brown Car Appreciation Guild achieved its aim – being responsible for convincing manufacturers we need more brown cars. Next up, the Vinyl Roof Appreciation Guild, perhaps?