Monday, 28 June 2010

Charles Spencer King, 1925-2010

Charles Spencer "Spen" King

It is with much regret that From The Captain's Chair announces the death of one of the most influential men within Rover and later British Leyland; Charles Spencer King. Spen, as he was known, was first apprenticed to Rolls-Royce in 1942, joining the Rover company under his uncles Spencer and Maurice Wilks in 1945, working upon the Rover gas-turbine projects.

A significant figure in the creation of the P6 range, King was effectively the man behind the legendary Range Rover project - a special edition of which bore his initials in 1990. His input into the Maestro and Montego during the early stages of development ensured the car's simplicity. Freely admitting to copying the basic principles of the VW Golf, King eschewed the Hydragas and box-in-sump layout of previous BL mid-range cars for both ease of maintenance and customer familiarity - there was no need for anything more complicated, so he advocated the use of a simplistic design.

As Chairman of BL Technology in 1979 he was responsible for Leyland's ECV projects to investigate efficient and green technoology - some thirty years before the rest of the planet became interested. Many of the features of the Design Award-winning K-series stemmed from research done by BL Technology during his tenure as Chairman. He resigned from BL in 1985 at the age of sixty.

He died last weekend as the result of injuries caused by a cycling accident 2 weeks ago, from which he did not recover. Spen was an influential man, and contributed to many of From The Captain's Chair's favourite designs. He will be sorely missed.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

I've been driving in my car.

There have been several debates; on telly, the radio, in the pub, even in the car itself - about what the best driving song on the planet is. I myself have a number of suggestions - though many would argue my music taste is dire. But what really makes a good driving song appeal to us, and can music really change the way we drive?

This, I felt, was a topic worthy of further investigation. But being a man, and biased because I were to be the driver in the experiment, I couldn't really evaluate my own findings - we all are worse behind the wheel than we like to admit, even if we are the world's greatest drivers. As such, finding the flaws in my own driving would have been a near impossible task. So I took a passenger with me.

The passenger I chose was my mother. As somebody who drives in utter silence, and whose nerves since two non-fault accidents have caused her to become a tad... jumpy when being driven, she would be the perfect person to assess the effect of different music upon my driving style. And following a bribe in the form of a picnic in the countryside on a sunny afternoon, I'd convinced her to take part in the experiment.

Not wishing to push things too far either towards lunacy or lethargy, I selected something with a high pace and upbeat rhythm and something smooth and refined as my 'test tracks' - Rio by Duran Duran and Avalon by Roxy Music. The New Wave beat of Duran Duran would be the perfect contrast to the debonair electric Lounge Lizard that is Mr Ferry, and conveniently I carry both a Duran Duran cassette and a Roxy Music cassette in the Peugeot at all times. To start, out came the album I'd been listening to before, and into the Blaupunkt cassette player went the "Rio" album.

"Her name is Rio and she dances on the sand!" One of my favourite New Wave tracks by one of my favourite New Wave groups, ideal music to drive to on a summer day. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and it served as a reminder of just how sweetly the 306 handles. The weather was perfect, the birds were chirruping, and it felt superb. The track ends, the Bryan Ferry compilation album I have is slotted into the stereo, and even I can feel things slowing down a little. There is something about Bryan Ferry's voice that instantly makes you feel like Mr Cool, for whom everything in life has turned out well, who can afford to take things easy - and just relax. Especially the later Roxy stuff, as per the title track of their last album in 1982; the Ferry take upon the New Romantic era was to revisit the days of people like Crosby and Sinatra, a soothing alternative to the more contemporary collections heard elsewhere.

Testing over, we found a charming little spot at the side of a quiet country road to have our little picnic and reflect upon the results of the experiment. The music described by one of Duran Duran's contemporaries as 'bumpy bumpy bump' music seemingly did little for my driving style - whilst it was conceded that I'm not the sort of arrogant prat you find behind the wheel of most Bee-Ems I was told that Le Bon was not Le Plus Bon vocalist for passenger satisfaction. Roxy Music, it seemed, had the same effect upon my helmsmanship as it did on my mind. Everything was so much smoother, more relaxed, and I was told I seemed pretty much to trained chauffeur standards when listening to soothing music.

So what does this teach those who actively try to improve their driving? Simple. For the majority of the time listen to smooth and soothing tracks - if Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music aren't for you, try someone like James Blunt. On the occasions where you're either doing sporting B-road blasts or in areas with higher speed limits, listen to the faster paced stuff - my personal preferences are things like Phil Collins and Duran Duran, but a lot of pop would fit into this category. And if you want to listen to rap music that everyone can feel as you drive by - you're clearly a mentalist. Go away.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

The money of colour

Jaguar's X300 - doesn't look so bad in odd colours as you'd think.

Just had a text message through from my old mate Jon Sellars. Regular readers of the blog and website will remember Jon as a chap with a taste for all that's classy about British motoring, and a chap also who'd offered me a go in his borrowed Jaguar X300 XJR if we got an opportunity. Sadly, the key word in that sentence is 'borrowed'. The keys are due to go back tomorrow and I'm not able to get down and see him beforehand. Sadly, this means that I'm not going to get a spin in the ultimate supercharged six cylinder rocketship in the near future.

I tried thinking of things to make the pain of losing an XJR drive go away. The Rover Sterling I've been offered a spin in, for example. Remembering the SD1 VP EFi I recently borrowed. Looking forward to potential future Jags of my own. But none of it really managed to take the twinge of regret away - until Jon's second message told me what the rocketship's replacement was likely to be, sparking an intriguing train of thought.

An XJ8 4.0 Sovereign LWB in Royal Blue. Just as quick a car, but with more of a walnut and leather 'Gentleman's club' feel than the overtly sporting XJR. Very much, I thought, a car that would suit Jon. But his preferred choice of colour was the bit that gave me food for thought.

You see, I'm a fan of what we could call 'obtuse' colour schemes - let's face it, any man who wants a brown Bentley with a tan interior isn't quite right in the head. And whilst I appreciate the subtle class of a Royal Blue Jaguar with cream leather, it's a bit... I don't know, on the acceptable side. You see, there are some less established shades that really work on Jags, but are a bit too Marmite for most people's tastes.

Jon's suggestion of a V8 Sov got me thinking of an Alpine Green car I spotted for sale the other day in that spec. Alpine Green is a slightly musky pale metallic silvery-green colour with a hint of gold, which in the right light really manages to look the part on the leaping cat. I know what you're thinking, it sounds awful - a car dealer associate had an Alpine Green S-Type on his lot for months with little interest. However, something inside me really wants an Alpine Green Sovereign or Daimler, as it looks upmarket, slightly tweedy, and very 'old-money' to my eyes.

Signal Red also works on the X300 shape, somehow. I've seen one or two - OK, only one - Sovereign in Fire Engine red, and I desperately wanted it. I thought that somehow, despite the blatant wrong-ness of the idea, it worked surprisingly well. It especially would with a black interior; which on a Jaguar is like ordering ice cream with your roast beef. So rare are they, however, that I had trouble finding a pic to head this article - a lengthy root through my archive yielded the original ad. Sorry for it's less-than-perfect quality on-screen, the original was barely two by one inches.

I may have a soft spot for dodgy colour schemes, but everyone else would be sticking their fingers down their throats as I wafted past in complete serenity. They'd think me mad to have chosen such an emetic shade for my upmarket British barge. And because several people are of this mindset, the red Jag at the top of the page - and any car in the 'wrong' colour - is worth less than many others. More desirable colour combinations - dark blue or green with a cream interior, say - attract a premium. As a Yorkshireman, I'd never buy a brand new car for depreciation's sake, so the whims of fashion ensure I save money on my purchase by choosing a less widely revered shade.

Perhaps this is the root of my love of brown cars, as well. My wallet is covered in moths and dust, such is the rarity of it's emergence from the black hole I call a pocket. So by choosing the ones no-one else wants I could save a fortune. The only problem is when I tired of my questionably coloured possessions, nobody would want to relieve me of them without a huge discount. But so what - if I like a car, chances are I'll keep it a fair while. And even if I did sell at a loss, the saving I made initially would mean I'd had a better spec car than I could have afforded had I played it safe in the first place.

Vive le difference!

Thursday, 17 June 2010

A mistake for Morgan?

Morgan's EvaGT teaser shot.

Just checked my e-mail inbox, and one's popped in informing me of a new Morgan. The EvaGT is said to be a 4 seat coupe, based on the Aero 8 chassis, and is to be a limited run model only. The company have released a teaser sketch - one of those that barely shows you anything. But what it does show is pure pornography - rather like a coupe version of the unique Wallis Special Austin Seven, built by Wing-Commander Ken Wallis, but swoopier.

If it's based on an Aero 8 it should drive well enough, but I'm concerned about the idea of departing from the true Morgan formula. The last time Morgan did this was with the Plus Four Plus. This was another of my favourite Morgans purely for oddball value, but when it was new it bombed - just twenty eight were made.

The figures look promising though - a 300bhp BMW 3.0 straight six, 0-60 in under 5 seconds and 40mpg. Predicted top speed is in the region of 170mph. It shouldn't be cheap though - if the price tag isn't six figures I will be surprised.

I might be concerned about the idea of a 'modern' Morgan, but I'm even more concerned about their brand plan overall. Sources close to the factory have suggested that due to their size Morgan hope to launch a new car every 2 years or so - hybrids, track cars, electric cars and more. This will undoubtedly offend the purists - I am by no means a Morgan Nazi but I'm stunned it's even being contemplated. The appeal of a Morgan is that they've been round since slightly before the Ark, and are a taste of England As She Used To Be. If the Plus Four Plus of the 1960s was such a flop, then how do Morgan think their traditional clients will react to an electric car or a Westfield-esque track car? And who else would want to buy into the brand - say you have a Morgan and it's a Plus Four being driven by Brian Blessed in a flat cap. What bright young playboy would want to be associated with that?

I like the Morgan range as it is - I'd adore one of those Aeromax Coupes, and I suspect that the EvaGT will be even better as far as I'm concerned - like an old school Bristol for those to whom the Fighter doesn't appeal. But Morgan are taking a huge risk with this change in direction - I have my fingers crossed it'll pay off, but the doubt's still there.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Torino, twinned with Detroit.

Lancia's Delta, soon to be offered with a Chrysler badge.

I understand, from the popular motoring press, that the FIAT/Chrysler merger means the end of Chrysler in Europe. Their models will be rebranded Lancia, and Lancia models branded Chrysler for non-European markets. Strangely, however, the UK market will recieve the Chrysler branded cars, not those bearing the more evocative Lancia nameplate.

I'm not sure that any of this is a wise move, mainly because I'm not convinced that Lancia and Chrysler do good bedfellows make.

I've had a good crawl over a current Delta, and in all honesty the car managed to impress me considerably. Yes, it looks a little bit squirrel-esque when viewed from head on, but the interior is a genuinely pleasant place to sit. Like all Lancias (Especially the Lybra - what a shame that car wasn't available in RHD) it not only looks classy but feels truly upmarket; the plastics are nice to touch, the seats are firm, and it all feels RIGHT.

Now compare this to, say, the interior of a Chrysler Sebring. It's grey, with pretend aluminium and equally plastic wood. There is nothing (admittedly from photos, I've never so much as seen a Sebring to compare the Delta to) to draw one's attention, the plastics look to be of inferior quality, and the outside of the car is to my mind a bit of a mess. How such a thing could ever be branded a Lancia is beyond me, unless some work is put into refining the interior decor big style.

However, it's not all doom and gloom. Renderings of the next generation Chrysler 300C show a far more pleasant interior than any of the current lineup, and a Flaminia GT style grille complete with huge Lancia logo would suit the big C no end - add a bit more chrome, some less brash colour choices (The Thesis was available in a lovely metallic rust colour - quite apt given the rumours that drove the brand from these shores) and some typically Italianite alloy wheels, and the package could work. Only just.

Working the other way round is a move I'm equally unsure about. Nice though the Delta is, with Chrysler badges and attendant grille it borders on the ridiculous. What previously seemed a little odd yet fundamentally pretty looks as a Chrysler to be quite ill-judged. Chrysler do, however, get an improved interior ambience from a tie-in with the Lancia division of FIAT, which is more than my experience suggests the Italian division will recieve. Looking on the bright side for we Europeans, though, the SRT range would make superb Lancia HFs...

My main reason for being dubious, however, is that I have been eagerly awaiting Lancia's return to the UK for the past 2 or 3 years. The worldwide recession put paid to the reintroduction when it was meant to happen, and as such it was postponed. But for the reintroduction of one of motoring's most evocative brands to be made with a whimper, under the name of a somewhat less interesting (to my mind) American marque, borders on the tragic. If such a match must be made, then give us back our UK Lancias along with it. We're asking very nicely.


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