Resisting the urge. Almost succeeding

Yes, there’s no fun in just having money sitting around, so like millionaire businessmen around the globe, I’m going to invest my vast wealth in a motor car.

I spent yesterday trawling around the local countryside for objects of desire. A Fiat Panda was explored, poked and rejected.

Panda fails to excite

Panda fails to excite

I’ve always liked Pandas, but this one just didn’t win me other. It’s hard to say whether it was the colour, the dirt or the ruddy great holes in the rear wheelarches and the fact it wouldn’t start, but I decided to look elsewhere. Then I had a look at a local City Rover. It had to be done. Surely the City Rover isn’t as bad as everyone says? Er, sadly, it is. While within it beats the heart of a willing and sprightly motor vehicle, the shoddiest interior plastics made me really quite depressed. Why? Because four money grabbing venture capitalists temporarily distracted themselves from creating lovely pension schemes for themselves and thought that rebadging a cheap, Indian-built hatchback was the way to save MG Rover back in 2003.

I found the car quite charming in some ways. The Peugeot four-cylinder engine delivers a good turn of speed, the handling is nice and the ride firm but not unacceptable. I’m very glad I wasn’t a dealer trying to sell one of these new though. The electric window switch fell apart in my hand, I almost cut myself on sharp edges and the bonnet release had all the structural integrity of mist. It was an interesting experience, but I don’t think it’s a car I’d want to own. Especially as the airbag warning light was on and the bonnet seemed to be rusting. The boot also smelt of Morris Marina. That’s ok on a Morris Marina. It’s not ok on a seven-year old car.

So, I got back to scouring Ebay and the classifieds, honing in on the sort of car I wanted. I got tempted by Ford Pumas, but managed to refrain from bidding on one. In fact, several cars including a Perodua Kelisa and a Rover 75 took turns to top my watch list before ending with no bids lodged by myself. I was frankly astonished at my newly-found powers of restraint.

In fact, so impressive are these powers that I’m leaping on a train tomorrow to view a car and may then buy it. I haven’t actually gone ahead with a blind purchase and am trying to tell myself that if there’s something I don’t like about it, I’ll just come home on the train.

I’ll give no further clues for now. You’ll just have to stay tuned. All I will say is that I’ve never owned anything made by this manufacturer before and that sadly, you cannot buy anything from this manufacturer new. It’ll be a tribute to the many names consigned to history in the name of motoring progress. A colourful tribute…

I R RUBBARSH. Sorry.

Yeah, I’m rubbish. Sorry. I got myself into a state of regular posting before Christmas, but that was over a month ago and I’ve posted twice since. Oops.

You see, the problem is that the good chaps at Classic Car Weekly have been giving me work to do. Yes, I’ve returned to the title on which my writing career began in 2007. It’s been a pleasant return, though I shall miss working with my chums at Kelsey Publishing.

With regular deadlines to hit – important ones that lead to money coming in – I’m afraid I’ve been rather distracted from the issue of Bloggage. It’s hard to say no to work when it pays for important things like fuel and car repairs. Oh, and meat. Hmmm. Tasty.

So, what have I been up to for the past month? Mainly driving my BX Turbo Diesel actually. It’s been very busy. Christmas saw us in Devon and in the past month I’ve been to Birmingham twice (about 3hrs away if you take the pretty roads like I do). Then it snowed. Brilliant! Having sold my 4×4 Ford Maverick, I was a little nervous about bad weather. I needn’t have been. Why? Because I had winter tyres fitted.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that fitting winter tyres is not some miracle cure, in the same way that owning a 4×4 doesn’t make you invincible. You may have noticed a lot of BMW 4x4s in ditches during the snowy times as their owners discovered that a 4×4 cannot overcome basic physics. As it happens, my old Maverick fell foul of the rather dramatic snowdrifts up here in mid-Wales with its new owner…

Citroen BX in the snow

Winter tyres. A very worthwhile investment!

Having helped dig it out (bloody good fun actually!), we decided that whatever your vehicle or its tyres, when the snow is blowing into 4ft deep drifts, the only sensible thing to do is chuck more wood on the fire, get the kettle on and stay at home.

But once things had calmed down a bit, it was a good opportunity to put the Riken Snowtime tyres on the BX TXD to the test. I was very impressed. Sure, wheelspin is still easily generated but drive carefully and it’s staggering what these tyres will pull you through. Handling seemed very assured as well. I could get it to understeer if I was really silly, but rein in the hooning and turning was very undramatic. However, the biggest revelation was braking. Try as I might, getting the wheels to lock up was very difficult indeed – don’t forget that the BX has a very powerful hydraulic braking system. I once managed a four-wheel lock-up on dry Tarmac. It really did take most of the stress out of winter driving. Not all of it – you always have to respect the conditions.

I know this far too well after getting caught out in the wintry conditions. A section of the A4120 between Devil’s Bridge and Aberystwyth is very open and if there’s snow, it always drifts across this section. Several days after the last snowfall, high winds had blown snow across the road. I came around a bend far too quickly to be met by icy snow from bank to bank. I hit the brakes hard but the road was curving stongly so I had to come off them again. I turned, the front end went very light. This was no time to panic, so I didn’t. I eased off the steering slightly and hoped I’d avoid the main snow drift. I did. Just. The back end also went very floaty but we got around it. Phew! I’m really not sure I would have made it without winter tyres. I could have proved it once and for all by returning home and dragging the other BX out, but decided to count my lucky stars instead…

To conclude then, unlike the idiots on Top Gear, I can wholeheartedly recommend winter tyres. They’re not just a gimmick to con you out of money and, based on my experiences since September, they’re far from hopeless when it’s dry. The Green Tiger BX could do with some new tyres, so now I’m struggling to decide what type to fit to it…

 

The last car built in Luton

Luton was once the home of Vauxhall, experiencing its best years before the consolidation of parent company General Motor’s European operations. From the start of the early 1970s, Vauxhall would lose out to German in-house rival Opel first losing design input, then losing car production at Luton altogether (though Vivaro vans are still produced there today – a joint project with Renault).

Vauxhall Frontera DTI

Yes, this is the very last Vauxhall Frontera. The last car built in Luton.

The last Frontera was built in 2004, and it marked the end of passenger car production at Luton (albeit at the former-Bedford factory rather than the main car production plant). Unusually though, it wasn’t an Opel design. In fact, it wasn’t very European at all. The Frontera began life in Japan as the Isuzu Mu (short wheelbase) or Wizard (long wheelbase). General Motors seemed to think that such a name made it unsuitable for Euro tastes, so launched the Vauxhall/Opel Frontera in 1991. The underpinnings were largely from an Isuzu pick-up truck, rebranded as a Bedford then a Vauxhall in the UK and used extensively by The AA.

Petrol engines were Vauxhall’s own 2.0-litre (swb) or 2.4-litre (lwb) but the lwb was also available with the 2.3-litre turbo diesel engine shared with the Carlton. Not one of the best. A facelift didn’t change an awful lot externally, but did replace the cumbersome rear leaf springs with coils. New petrol engines (2.0 and 2.2) were a boost, as was the fitment of Isuzu’s own tough 2.8-litre turbo diesel. It didn’t last long though. For some reason, GM opted to fit the VM 2.5-litre engine from 1996. This was an inferior engine in terms of refinement and reliability – it pops head gaskets (it has four cylinder heads) for fun if you neglect it.

1998 saw further improvements, with a more noticeable restyle, the 2.2-litre petrol carried over but a new 2.2-litre Vauxhall/Opel DTi diesel option and also a 3.2-litre V6 for those with no economy worries. By now though, the competition was moving on and the Frontera was feeling its age.

I know because I’ve driven the very last Frontera ever built and therefore the last car built in Luton.

Driving around on public roads in such a vehicle is really quite odd. No-one has any idea of the significance of it. Why would they? It’s just a black, bland 4×4 with nothing to distinguish its unique history. It is owned and maintained by Vauxhall’s Heritage team at Luton. They often use it to tow other classic Vauxhalls to various locations for displays and the like. This is a working vehicle. Yet when I drove it in 2008, it had less than 4000 miles on the clock.

I enjoyed driving it for a few days and took it as far as the Bromley Pageant of Motoring that year, where no-one paid it any attention, as you’d expect. I felt like frogmarching people up to it saying “Do you know how significant this car is?” But I rather feared I’d be taken away by nice people in white coats. Or at least the security guards.

Vauxhall Frontera rear

Last Frontera is very practical and often transports Vauxhall Heritage cars

Yet to drive, it wasn’t that enthralling. Sure, it was very competent in many regards, with fine poise, a quiet engine and good pulling power, but the ride was definitely on the firm side. It felt like the designers had decided that the only way to stop it falling over on bends was to weld the suspension up. On Fenland roads, it was horrific. On the motorway though, it was delightful – with enormous door mirrors making it very easy to keep an eye on traffic behind. Sadly, I didn’t get to put it through its paces off-road, but from what I’ve heard from others, they’re pretty good. After all, there’s a strong separate chassis and a proper low-range gearbox.

That was the problem. Like the Nissan Terrano II, the Frontera just wasn’t soft enough. New cars such as the Nissan X-Trail and the Vauxhall Antara proved that when it comes to 4x4s, the market wants a car that looks a bit chunky – they’re not really interested in actual off-road ability. Therefore the Frontera has another duty to perform. It must represent the end of an era too – the era when soft roaders were still actually good off-road. (Ok, it wasn’t the last. The Nissan Terrano managed to linger on for another few years but was killed off in 2007).

However, my work here is done. I have highlighted what the last passenger car built at Luton was, and it wasn’t the Vauxhall Vectra that most people expect. No, it was instead the Frontera. A car that enjoyed a 13-year production life. A car that deserves more credit than it ever receives. Especially the one I drove.

Winter Blunderland

I must admit that winter is not my favourite season. Yes, occasionally it gets livened up by having to remember how to drive in ice and snow, but generally, it’s cold, miserable and a dreadful time to be working on the car. Especially when you’ve lost the use of your garage due to an ongoing heating project on your home. We should have got that finished BEFORE winter really, but we didn’t. Bother.

Cars don’t enjoy winter either. They don’t seem quite so keen to fire into life, leak water everywhere (yes, every single one of our cars is as watertight as a paper teapot) and the regular attention that they generally like to receive doesn’t happen because frankly the idea of working on cars at this time of year, when it’s dark and damp and miserable is not really what I’d call appealing.

Mix in those big yellow trucks that throw rot-causing salt at them and you can see why cars would rather snuggle up in a nice, warm garage. In fact, last winter I semi-stripped a 2CV engine and fitted to Elly my 2CV. Yes, I was cold at times but working in the garage was absolute bliss.

2cv Tinkering

Not as dodgy as it looks. Working in a warm(ish) garage

This winter, the jobs have just ended up getting ignored. The 2CV really needs a service. The Mini really needs a service. The BX has a To Do list as long as several arms. The Peugeot needs a degree of fettling. Yet, having been treated to a garage, now it’s out of use I find myself not doing very many of the jobs at all. I just about forced myself to grease up the 2CV’s suspension the other day, and I encouraged myself to tackle a problem with the Peugeot’s exhaust – largely because it had fallen off and I really had to. It’s not good enough really. The 2CV has a very lumpy idle at the moment, caused most likely the exceedingly old spark plugs that are currently fitted. I’ve a feeling that one of them came with a cylinder head I fitted, so gawd knows how old that is.

What makes winter even more unbearable is that driving is no frequently not at all fun. First, you need to try and demist the thing – this winter has boasted some of that super-steam up effect that makes it look like your car has been parked in a stream for several days. The BX and Peugeot have typical French, asthmatic heater blowers. The Mini has a heater blower that just makes more noise than not having it switched on and the 2CV’s heater blower is the engine fan, so revs are needed to clear the screen. Then there’s the aforementioned leakage issue. The Mini and BX have soaking carpets. The 2CV leaks water straight into my shoes. The Peugeot prefers to dump it straight onto your head.

The roads aren’t fun either, being coated in greasy mud and horrible salt. It’s dark too much of the time as well. In short, I’m fed up and enjoying the fact that very slightly, the days are once more getting longer. With winter banished – and I’m very aware that we’ve got a good couple of months to go – I can start getting on top of the fleet once more AND start enjoying time at the wheel again.

Next winter, I just plan to hibernate from about mid-November. The big bonus there is that it’s a good way of avoiding bloody Christmas songs.

Happy New Year. Sort of.

35 years of the Ford Fiesta

This isn’t one of the ‘big’ anniversaries of 2011 – most people are focussed on the Jaguar E-Type – but the Ford Fiesta is arguably much more important.

Fiesta L

Yes, it really has been 35 years since the Fiesta was launched

Launched in 1976, the little Fiesta was the  first front-wheel drive Ford to be produced across Europe (Germany had experimented with the front-wheel drive Taunus as early as 1962) and the Blue Oval’s first supermini. It was rare for Ford to move so quickly to jump into a market – conservatism generally ruled the roost, as would be proved by the Ford Sierra remaining rear-wheel drive into the 1990s. In 1976, the supermini market was still really finding its feet. The Fiat 127 and Renault 5 were early pioneers, but British Leyland did not have anything in this class, and nor did Vauxhall/Opel.

The Fiesta used a transverse engine mounted transversely, with the gearbox on the end of the engine and unequal-length driveshafts powering the front wheels. This was the classic layout used to such good effect by Dante Giacosa first with the little-known Autobianchi Primula, then the Fiat 128 and 127 saloon and hatchbacks. The engines were modified versions of the Kent engine first seen in the Anglia 105E and even the 957cc version gave perky performance and respectable-if-busy motorway ability. A ‘dead’ rear beam axle used coil springs to offer good handling and ride while the obligatory hatchback made this a practical little car indeed. The world was fast learning that a small car needn’t be as cramped nor actually quite as small as a Mini…

UK sales did not actually commence until January 1977 but the Fiesta was arguably Ford’s first ‘world car.’ Built in Spain and Germany as well as Great Britain, the Fiesta would even find itself sold in America for a time. This helped it reach the magic million as soon as 1979.

The Ghia was surprisingly plush for a small car, with tinted glass, alloy wheels and velour seats, but enthusiasts were enamoured by the XR2 of 1981. With a 1.6-litre engine and 100mph+ performance, it was an excellent hot hatch. Mk1 production came to an end in 1983 with the mildly facelifted Mk2 taking over for the next five years.

Engine bay

'Valencia' engine mounted transversely

The BX hits the road

With the BX home, I could crack on with the most important jobs. The new radiator was fitted and I managed to free off the reluctant rear seat belts. Other than that, I thought she stood a pretty good chance of passing an MOT, though not being a tester myself, you never know what might be discovered…

As she sat on the ramp and I got my first proper look at the underside, it was pleasing to see how solid she was. There was a touch of softness in the sill – not near anything critical thankfully – but it’s the nearside sill, which has a ruddy great dent in it anyway. It will be replaced at some point. However, the tester spotted what looks like a serious leak from the water pump. I’d spotted this myself at home and had hoped it was something else.

BX is on the road!

It may be battered and bruised, but the BX is now road legal!

That’s not a real biggy – if you’re changing the timing belt, it’s sensible to fit a new water pump at the same time anyway. If the pump seizes, the belt will rip and the valves of the engine will meet the pistons. Bad news indeed. Parts are on order so look forward to a report on how the change went.

Amazingly though, I got my MOT pass! Or rather the car did. Yes, she looks dreadful but as I thought, she’s actually a good, solid car beneath all the dents. As she’d been in regular use before being stored (and stored pretty well) she feels ready to go.

I’m under no illusion that this project is a long way from over. There is considerable expenditure on bodywork to occur at some point, and the to do list remains sizeable. The priority, as ever, is to get her in regular use and hopefully tackle some of the major bodywork projects next year.

 

The New Range Rover

Well, it’s new to me anyway!

Having decided that the Scimitar wasn’t really my kind of car, I went out and bought something that I thought might be closer to the mark. With the plastic fantastic from Tamworth sold, I stuck true to my Midlands roots and bought another Land Rover.

I owned a 90 County V8 last winter, but it didn’t take long for the ridiculous fuel economy – 15mpg – to get a bit much. So it had to go, turning in a handy profit. Rare for me. The 90 wasn’t very practical either – the loadspace is remarkably short.

But I wanted something else from the Solihull firm. It was time for my first Range Rover.

I had my school work experience at Land Rover, as a very lucky 15 year old, and I’ve long had an affinity for their products. The Range Rover has become just as much of an icon as the original Land Rover, though prices haven’t yet caught up. Not by a long way.

I went to view a Range Rover V8 on LPG, but it was an absolute dog that couldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding. It also had a really bad exhaust leak, on the manifold I think, an LPG tank taking up most of the boot space and some serious cosmetic issues. It was so bad that even I managed to walk away.

I then checked out a Range Rover diesel.

Ian's new buy

It was advertised as a Tdi but I got so distracted when I went to view it that I failed to notice that it was actually a VM diesel engine. Idiot! However, it drove very well indeed, so I still agreed to go ahead – albeit paying a few hundred pounds less. Still, it was a gamble. £1000 for a Range Rover on French plates (but with a British ID as well) with no MOT. With the much-derided Italian VM diesel. What could possibly go wrong?

The gamble does seem to have paid off though – I was rewarded with a total MOT bill of just £245 including two new tyres and number plates. That didn’t seem too bad to me.

And it really isn’t too bad. Sure, the engine is a bit laggy, it’s a bit scruffy and the previous owner left it filthy and smoked in, but it drives very nicely, seems remarkably solid in all the important places and should prove just the vehicle I need while we make some home improvements.

There are some niggles – only the driver’s electric window was working, though one of the rears is now playing ball after a fuse change. The headlining was sagging as well, so I’ve removed it while I decide whether to fit a new GRP one or to re-trim the original. There is a slight leak from one of the front hubs and the heater blower doesn’t operate – I’ve ordered a new resistor pack to cure this.

I love it though. The price paid doesn’t seem much for an absolute icon. Sure, an earlier one would have more appeal, but these later ones are much more refined – even when fitted with a rattly Italian diesel engine.

Brushes up alright on her British plates, don’t you t