Rover 75 – where others fear to tread

I love reputations. People get all sheep-like about cars at times and some very dumb theories abound. Believe the hype and you’d think that Volkswagens never break down (tell that to someone who’s six-speed gearbox has fallen to bits), any K-Series engined Rover is a headgasket failure waiting to happen and that an Alfa Romeo will only lead to heartache.

Today, I swapped one reputation for another. My Range Rover had the OMG SHYTE ENGINE VM turbo diesel. Believe what you read on forums and you’d think it is the worst engine ever built, only a matter of minutes from complete failure. Sure, having four separate cylinder heads can be a pain, but I thought the engine pulled really well, and never suffered any head gasket woes.

I swapped it for a Rover 75. These are seen as desperately uncool and only fit for grandads. Well, Grandad might well be on to something because the Rover 75 is great! Developed when BMW was in charge of Rover, the no-expense attitude meant that here was a Rover that WAS nailed together properly, and which proves very reliable in use. Yes, there are issues with the K-Series engines, which are very likely to blow head gaskets, but the BMW diesel is the natural choice. Ironically, this engine is actually more reliable in the Rover than it was in BMW’s own 3-Series. In the Beemer, it proved very problematic with all sorts of induction woes. So, BMWs aren’t always problem free either. Another myth busted.

Rover tourer

Ian's bucked the trend again, with good reason!

The drive home in my new motor was very pleasant indeed. Don’t get me wrong, I was quite sad to wave goodbye to the Range Rover. I had a lot of fun in that car and it proved very useful at times, such as when collecting my Citroen BX project. However, with a non-working heater, it wasn’t quite the ideal winter vehicle it first seemed.

Contrast that to the Rover, which has (almost working) air-conditioning, with different temperatures possible each side of the car. It also has gorgeous, heated leather seats, electrically operated and heated door mirrors and rain-sensitive wipers. I think that latter item will be especially useful in Wales!

Does it have any issues? Well, naturally, as is almost always the case with sub-£1000 ‘bangers,’ there are some faults. The not-cold air conditioning is one, the gearbox that crunches into third is another – I’m hoping gearbox oil will help here. The brakes feel slightly juddery too, so new discs may be in order fairly soon. I like it a lot though and hopefully it’ll prove to be an ideal winter vehicle. If I’m feeling flush, I might even consider some winter tyres…

Reliant cherry popped

Yesterday was a very important day for me. I popped my Reliant three-wheeler cherry! And how.

Thanks to Joe Mason at Reliant Spares, I finally experienced the slightly-unbalanced world of plastic Staffordshire motor cars. I enjoyed the experience very much indeed.

Regal three-wheeler

Perhaps Del Boy chose well...

We began with a Reliant Regal. Makes sense. This car was an enormous leap forward for Reliant, with pretty Ogle-designed plastic bodywork and Reliant’s own four-cylinder, all-alloy engine. The engine was necessary so that Reliant could finally move on from using licence-built Austin Seven side-valve units. Knowing that low weight was essential, the company bravely decided to opt for an all-alloy construction – very brave at a time when most other British car manufacturers were nervous about using even just an aluminium cylinder head.

What struck me about the Regal was how iffy the build quality was – the doors banged on every bump – but also how perky and stable it was. With such light weight, power just isn’t necessary. It was also very noisy – the result of the engine effectively sitting in the cabin. The rear-ward mounting of the engine is one thing that helps keep the car stable.

We then moved up to a Robin, which felt very different indeed. Quality was definitely improved and the tiny steering wheel made it feel somewhat like a dodgem. It was much quicker too and thankfully also quieter. I was entirely charmed. Within a mile, you forget that you’re in a ‘different’ car, well apart from the expressions on the faces of people coming the other way. You don’t have to constantly worry that the car might fall over though. They really are stable and capable of cornering much more quickly than you expect.

The only problem seems to be that Reliants aren’t cheap anymore. I should have bought one years ago!

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.

 

An Oxford Six nearly kills me

To be a classic motoring journalist, you need driving skills like no-one else. You must be able to jump from one classic to the next and quickly adjust – well, you can’t go around pranging people’s lovely classics because you didn’t know where the brake was.

Ergonomics were yet to be discovered even as late as the 1950s. Take a Citroen DS, Ford Zodiac Mk2, Daimler Conquest and Austin Westminster A90 for example. All were in production in 1956 and the differences are staggering. Sure, the DS was quite unlike anything else at all, but let’s focus for the time being on gearchanges.

DS semi-automatic

Baffling controls an everyday challenge for the motoring journalist

On the DS, you move a small arm that sprouts from the top of the steering column in its own quadrant. The car looks after the gearchange and clutch operation for you – you just tell it what gear to be in. The Daimler uses a pre-select gearbox, so while there is a ‘clutch’ pedal, you don’t use it as one. To move away, just select first and raise the revs – the fluid flywheel transmit the power. Select  the next gear using the column change and operate the pedal when you want it to engage.

In theory, the Ford and Austin are much closer. Both have a column gearchange to a conventional gearbox – the Ford packs three cogs while the Austin manages four. But consider how you select first. On the Ford, you push the lever away and down, the Austin away and up. Second? Towards and up on the Zodiac, but straight down from first on the Westie.

It’s learning to adjust to these differences that enables us to do our jobs quickly and without breaking stuff. Yet there’s always one that nearly catches you out.

Austin Sevens I always find hard work. The clutch is a button with about an inch of travel, the steering is exceedingly vague and the brakes – especially on earlier uncoupled versions – are horrifically poor. I always return with a smile on my face though, even when one recalcitrant Ruby conked out on my test drive and only came back to life after vigorous hand-cranking. A journey in a Seven is never dull.

But it was a Morris Oxford Six, dating from 1933, in which I almost came a cropper.

1933 Morris Oxford Six

This 1933 Morris Oxford Six proved a challenge! A beautiful car however

For a start, the pedals are in the ‘wrong’ order. The throttle is in the middle, the brake where the throttle would normally be. The gearbox thankfully had synchromesh – I had driven an earlier Oxford without it and found coming down the gearbox a real challenge. What I didn’t know is that it had a freewheel! You can picture the scene as I come down a hill towards a red traffic light. I’m already focussing my mind on the pedals, so I don’t accidentally accelerate. My foot is right down and not a lot is happening  – brakes weren’t very good in the 1930s. To make matters worse, there is no engine braking as the car is now freewheeling down the hill!

My heart was truly in my mouth as I sailed just past the stop line. I’m very glad brakes have improved since then! While it may have scared me, it was a beautiful car. It had a top speed of barely 60 miles an hour, but sounded absolutely beautiful. While it came close to killing me, I still did rather like it!

V8 Conundrum

If you’ve read my blogs, you’ll know that in December, I bought a Land Rover 90 V8. A childhood dream realised at last!

Yet there’s a feeling of ‘don’t meet your heroes’ that has crept in of late. Don’t get me wrong, I love V8s, and this is my second car equipped with Rover’s ex-Buick engine – the first being a Rover P6B. But I don’t think it’s the right engine for a Land Rover.

To me, Land Rovers are agricultural – trucks with just about enough comfort to make them realistic as road transport, albeit nowhere near as competent as an actual car. I love them for that. But you don’t get many trucks with a V8 engine do you?

No, they employ diesels both for economy and because when it comes to low down dirty grunt, a heavy oil burner has it by the bucket load. Yes, the V8 has a remarkable amount of torque for a petrol engine, but having twin carburettors and an ignition system, it doesn’t have that serene pull of a diesel at lower revs.

But then, if I wanted a diesel Land Rover, I’d find there’s quite a premium to pay – especially if I got my hands on the one I really want. That’s the TD5. It’s an engine with a rather poor reputation, yet my neighbour’s Discovery has clocked up 225,000 without significant fault. It’s a great sounding engine too – a hint of five-cylinder warble and the growl of an engine that knows how to do its business.

Oh well. Can’t afford one anytime soon, so I s’pose I’ll have to make do for now. Or sell it and buy something completely different…

Van Damned

A press shot of an LDV Maxus because Ian's own shots are rubbish

Just closing the door told me all I needed to know about the potential of this machine. The clang instantly told me that yes, this vehicle was a pared down Korean design, nailed together using the thinnest metal possible in Washwood Heath, Birmingham.

The dashboard, with its many missing blanking plates ticked boxes in my head. Those boxes were cheap, nasty and beyond-basic. After being warned not to lean too hard on panels for fear of denting them, I was nervous as I reversed my steed out of a tight space, not helped by the warning that I should avoid using too much strength when changing gear for fear of ripping the delicate linkage apart. Well, yes, that might be nice but this gearchange has all the smoothness and ease of progress as that of an Austin-Healey 3000. At least I didn’t have to use two hands.

It didn’t seem a very good van, but then I guess it didn’t need to be. After all, in 2004, this model replaced both the Pilot and Convoy. The Convoy was a derivation and enlargement of the basic Sherpa theme, launched in the early 1980s as the Freight-Rover 300. The Pilot was effectively a Sherpa, first launched in 1974. The cutting edge these vehicles were not, despite a sporty engine line-up that included the MGB engine (Sherpa) and Rover’s V8 (optional on the 300).

I once owned a Leyland-Daf 400 (a tidied up 300) Beavertail, with the Peugeot turbo diesel engine, and it was a fine old beast – slogging on despite the exhaust falling off and a geyser-like oil leak. It didn’t have power steering, so was rather hard work, but you didn’t mind, as sticking to 70mph seemed like rather hard work for the poor truck. A few years later, I drove a Convoy (a tidied up 400 but with an even cheaper interior and a Transit engine) and it was dreadful, with such wear in the kingpins (yes, a vehicle built after 2000 with kingpins) that the steering wheel threatened to give me vibration white finger.

I digress. The point is, the Maxus didn’t have to be good. The thing is though, I was fast discovering that this failed Daewoo (well, technically, Daewoo failed the Maxus by going into receivership – the joint project with LDV was taken over fully by the British firm) was actually not a bad old thing. The Italian VM engine produced a wonderful wall of low-down torque that made acquiring a naughty amount of speed almost Merc Sprinter easy. It handled too, thanks to front-wheel drive.

Switchgear leaves a lot to be desired

I wasn’t the only one impressed either. The Maxus really didn’t sell too badly at all, with Royal Mail buying up hundreds of them. It even won awards! Sadly, it wasn’t enough for LDV, a troubled company dogged by funding issues from the very first Sherpa. In 2009, administration beckoned, though it’s likely that the Maxus will be reborn in China. Can then make it even more tinny?

Back to the drive. A 200 mile trip from Wales to Cambridgeshire to collect the last of our belongings beckoned. Yet, it was remarkably pleasurable. At motorway speeds, the van tears along quite happily. You might even call it refined. At least you don’t have to change gear much on motorways, so that’s one weakness temporarily banished from my mind.

Loaded up for the return trip the following day, the gutsy engine barely noticed the payload. Even in the ‘mild’ 95bhp form here, there’s a stonking 250Nm of torque available at a mere 2000rpm. Handling was still assured and I had to be careful not to destroy a completely unnecessary amount of flowerpots through the bends.

You know what? I was actually a bit sad to take the van back to the rental centre after our 400 miles together. It was very capable, sipped fuel like a child sipping mummy’s wine and despite a rather bland appearance, I think it actually had some character.

And that ties it in with all the other commercial vehicle products of Washwood Heath, Birmingham. It could very easily be argued that this factory didn’t build one good one. Yet there’s a willingness to deliver that shines through, just as the monotonous accent hides the willingness of Birmingham itself to please.

Victor Victor!

The Vauxhall Victor FE. A bit like a weak cup of tea

The Vauxhall Victor FE represents the last slice of hope for Vauxhall as an independent entity within General Motors. Sure, the basic structure was shared with the Opel Rekord, but Vauxhall still had an opportunity to style its own nose and use its own running gear.

Sadly, the nose they chose was frankly, a bit hideous – rescued only by the quad-lamp attractiveness of the hotter VX4/90. Sales were not a huge success – even when the ageing victor name was tossed aside for the much more exciting VX1800 and VX2300 – and it proved the final nail in the coffin of Vauxhall’s independence. Well, unless you include the Chevette, which was just an Opel Kadett with an ancient Viva engine stuffed in.

Compared to other European express arrivals during the 1970s, such as the formidable Citroën CX, Lancia’s wacky Gamma, Rover’s SD1, Ford’s Granada and the futuristic Princess, the Victor really did look a bit lame and very much of another, older era.

Still, an opportunity to take a 1975 Victor 2300S on a trip to Devon was not to be missed, especially when said car belonged to Vauxhall itself – part of the impressive Heritage Collection housed in Luton. Sadly, by this stage, the overdrive option had been removed. Did Vauxhall up the gearing to compensate? Well, no. They didn’t really.

But we jump ahead of ourselves. The Victor is sitting all shiny and beautiful on my driveway – let’s take a closer look.

With only 12,000 miles on the clock, it’s every bit as immaculate and tidy as you’d expect. Already, fear was starting to mount. I lived in East Anglia at the time and had to drive this beautiful machine to Devon and back – a round trip of some 500 miles. I may have said ‘eep’ when this struck my mind.

The metallic blue paintwork is rather fetching, allowing the eye to almost ignore the slab-like snout and rather feeble grille. Stepping inside was a wise move, with delightful seats finished in that fake cloth that was everywhere during the Seventies. Finished in blue, the seat trim is matched by blue wooly carpet smeared all over the centre console, why a slab of fablon fake-wood stretches across the dashboard.

At rest in Devon, during a 500 mile roadtrip

There’s plenty of space, front and rear, and the driver sits low, which gives a surprisingly sporty feel. Mind you, this is a 2300S which means there are twin-carburettors bolted to that familiar 2247cc four-cylinder engine. This unit is a touch raucous perhaps, but has oodles of grunt, making progress rather effortless. All of which shows up the low gearing even more alarmingly. Motorway progress is hard work, because the engine is spinning so frequently that any attempt at relaxation is met with the same success as trying to sleep upon a washing machine.

Head off the motorway, and things improve. The rack-and-pinion steering was not shared with the Rekord and is light and accurate, if a touch devoid of feel. The suspension is soft though, and this car doesn’t really beg you to enjoy the corners, rather it just eases you through them. The low gearing is a positive boon on twisty roads as due to the torquey engine, downchanges are rarely required. That’s a good thing as the long lever, angled towards the driver, is not particularly pleasant to use.

Yet the car made the 500 mile journey without issue and certainly without causing its driver to break out in a sweat. Ventilation is good and the weather was horrible – mind you, this was British summertime.

Overall then, this is a car that doesn’t excite, but at the same time is a very acceptable way to travel. It certainly doesn’t disgrace itself, but nor does it make the driver eager to head back outside for another drive once the destination has been reached. In other words, it’s like a cup of weak tea – does the job, but rather forgettable and a little disappointing.