Project budget 4×4: Stuck in the mud

I seem to have found the limits of the Maverick, in some very muddy woods in Carmarthenshire.

Maverick off-road

Oops. Maverick gets stuck!

I had concerns about taking the Maverick to a Pay and Play site. I’ve been to a couple before and found them rather a challenge for vehicles in stock form. Bodywork damage seems inevitable, as does getting stuck as a lot of the trucks there are very much modified – which means deeper ruts than a stock vehicle can cope with.

And that was the undoing of the Maverick. I was amazed about how a friend’s near-stock Defender coped in the same conditions. That extra ride height, axle articulation and some proper mud-terrain tyres kept it going where the Maverick failed. Which was good as it rescued me several times!

But, it’s ok. I accept that the Maverick was always a compromise that put road manners ahead in priority terms of something as skilled off the road as a Land Rover. I found the limits, scratched the bodywork in quite a lot of places and impressively filled the front end of the Maverick with lots and lots of clay! I also learnt a lot about vehicle recovery…

But, the Maverick is happily proving more than just an off-road toy. It’s also been busy hauling wood about. It’s nice that I can chuck 300kg of wood in the back and it barely notices. If anything, it stops better because a load sensing valve increases rear brake pressure – which makes the rear shoes work harder. That has to be good for them. A loss of brake fluid, which stopped the rear brakes working altogether, has caused some concern. I’m monitoring to see if it drops again, in which case I think one or both rear wheel cylinders could be to blame. There was so much mud and water in there when I cleaned it all up at the weekend that I couldn’t tell if there was a leak or not.

I still plan to take it laning later in the year too, though I might pass on any more Pay and Play action for the time being…

Road Test: Mitsubishi Delica L400

EDIT – Video Review now available!

I’ve always loved off-roaders, though I’m very quick to distance myself from those who go tearing around the countryside upsetting ramblers, churning up byways and going where they like.

Nor am I particularly interested in getting stuck and needing thousands of pounds of kit to get me moving again. Pay and Play sites can be fun, but there’s a bit too much focus on driving like an idiot for my liking.

Mitsubishi Delica L400

Delica. No award winner for beauty!

No, to me, an off-roader is a car you use like a car, but which you also use for heading off the beaten track when needed. This brings me neatly to the vehicle tested here. It’s a Mitsubishi Delica L400, owned by someone for whom a 4×4 is essential. It gets used to drive across muddy fields to collect wood and even the chap’s driveway is a struggle at times. A 4×4 isn’t a nicety – it’s essential really.

A great off-roader isn’t enough though. Occasionally, it gets used as a tour bus for his musical endeavours, so the six comfortable seats it has are also necessary. As is the ability to eat up a lot of miles in comfort and relative quiet – something the traditional Land Rover is not exactly known for.

It was people carrying duty that gave me a healthy dose of wheel-time in this hard-worked steed. A 230 round-trip to North Wales gave me plenty of time to acclimatise. The first thing that strikes you about the Delica is how ridiculous it looks. She’s no beauty, and it looks  a bit like a home-brew attempt to make a monster truck out of a van. They’ve always looked rather precarious to me, so I was interested to discover how it behaved.

Clambering aboard, which is a bit of a challenge at first, I was struck by the typical Japanese ergonomics. There are buttons all over the place, though this example is further ‘enhanced’ by a large section of missing trim, some buttons that fall off when you press them and a cork that replaces the missing overdrive switch on the column-mounted gear lever. Oh yes, a column mounted lever! Just like the old days.

Cork gear lever

Well, if it works, why not?

The floor is quite high, so you don’t sit in quite the impressive manner of a Range Rover. Your view is certainly impressive however. Forwards at least. Large door mirrors aid rear visibility, which is good as ‘privacy’ netting rather restricts vision through the windows themselves.

On the move, it all feels rather tight and not as wobbly as you might expect. There’s very little bodyroll and while the ride can be crashy, it’s not uncomfortable. The steering is nicely weighted and accurate too. We suspect the transmission wasn’t in finest form on this one as it did a peculiar thing when it reached top gear, and actually accelerated despite lower engine revs. The ‘automatic with overdrive’ is a novelty too, but does mean low-rev cruising. Pulling the cork out turned the overdrive off and gave the engine an easier time when coping with gradients. Incidentally, FX4 Taxis with the automatic gearbox usually have a similar overdrive system.

While this certainly isn’t a fast-accelerating machine though, it does build up speed nicely – which is what you want when carrying passengers. You don’t really want neck-snapping power. It did feel like it could really pick-up pace if you wanted to, but it did also suggest that doing so would generate an awful lot of engine noise and cause the economy to suffer to a very large degree!

So, best to sit back and enjoy. It’s quite relaxing, which is good as 230 miles on Welsh roads is exhausting! Especially when it rains and gets dark. Overall though, I enjoyed my time at the helm. It’d be good fun to put one through its paces off-road next…

Yet another new motor – Peugeot 309

It’s been a good couple of months since I last bought a car, so thought it was about time I had a change-around. The Rover 75 joined the fleet with perfect timing, proving just the tool for trips to Croydon, Sussex and Birmingham over the space of a few weeks. However, it needed a few things seeing to and risked becoming yet another project – the two Citroens are more than keeping me busy (and skint!) on that front.

Almost a Talbot

Ian's latest motor is simply delightful. Or is that simple and delightful? Maybe both

A deal was arrange that saw the Rover being swapped for a Peugeot 309 and some cash – the latter being handy as the BX is going in for Stage 1 of welding soon. The Peugeot is everything I love about older cars, especially compared to the Rover. Open the bonnet and you can actually see an engine and gearbox and from the driver’s seat, you can actually see out! If you suffer from claustrophobia, modern cars must be a nightmare.

The Peugeot has a 1254cc Simca-derived engine that is low on technology and high on torque. It even retains overhead valve gear, just like the Mini and the 2CV. None of this timing belt rubbish! No multivalve head either, and that means that the engine pulls well from low revs in just the way that modern petrol engines (and even some diesels!) don’t. Despite the low-tech engine, there is a five-speed gearbox. That’s about it on the toy count though. Keep-fit windows and steering and arm-stretch door locking and mirror adjustment will hopefully prove that there’s simply less to go wrong, while dashboard switches are restricted to just the hazard lights, heated rear window and rear fog light. Brilliant. I much prefer the low-tech life!

Yes, ok, perhaps on such a chilly day, I was missing the Rover’s heated leather seats, but I had a sunroof now, and it’s a clever one. A hidden switch operates a vacuum when the roof is closed, sucking it down to the seal to ensure a water-tight (and pretty air-tight too) fit. It uses the vacuum built up by the brake servo. Clever stuff – AND it still works!

Progress is quite swift too.  While the acceleration is boosted by much lower gearing than the Rover – 60mph has gone up from just under 2000rpm to getting on for 3000 – the engine is undeniably lusty for its size. Low weight helps. No toys keep things from getting heavy. That’s just as well as the unassisted steering was a bit of a shock to the system. After so long driving cars with PAS (I don’t include the Mini and 2CV in this as they’re proper old in design terms!), it’s unusual to once again be able to feel what the front wheels are doing, and feel the steering load up as cornering speeds increase. It’s good though. Much more reassuring. It stops you going too far with chucking it around, as you have a much better feel for when you’re going a bit too quickly – though the bodyroll alarms you as well. The ride is firm, but very composed. It doesn’t crash over bumps, but it’s also good in the handling department – typical French then really. It was also nice that it wasn’t a rattling nightmare of cheap interior parts. The Mk1 was, but this one feels nicely together, especially given the fact that it has clocked up over 120,000 miles.

There are some minor issues to sort out – the ignition timing needs checking, the speedometer cable needs connected up and the wiper blades are horribly smeary – but as a winter hack, it couldn’t be more ideal.

Some history for those who haven’t fallen asleep yet. The 309 wasn’t meant to be a Peugeot at all – which is why it doesn’t fit into the -05 numbering of the time (ie 205, 305, 405 etc). It was actually developed as a replacement for the Talbot Horizon, and was known as the Arizona during development. That’s why this one has a Simca engine as Simca was absorbed into Chrysler Europe, which Peugeot took over (applying the Talbot badge to what had then become Chryslers). At almost the last minute, Peugeot decided to kill off the Talbot marque and decided to badge the Arizona as a Peugeot. 309 was chosen as all the other -05 codes had already been taken. It will be interesting to see what Peugeot replace the 308 with…

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!

Civic reception

The brilliant thing about having my own blog is I can prattle on about all sorts of crap cars that magazine editors would tell me are ‘not suitable.’ A case in point is the 1991 Honda Civic I owned a few years ago. It was a 1.4GL and despite being built by the Japanese in the early 1990s, still had a manual choke and twin carburettors.

Honda Civic and 2cv friend

A much-loved Honda Civic (right) alongside a much-loved 2CV

Yet it was astonishing. For all the world, the engine felt like it was fuel injected. I loved it. In typical Honda fashion, it was a revvy little thing, not really waking up until 4000rpm. Insane fun yet I was also rewarded with 40+mpg. Now that’s my kind of car.

I bought it locally when we lived in Cambs, for all of £195. It needed new CV joints, as they clacked like a footballer’s rattle on sharp turns, and had rather serious rot in the left-hand rear wheelarch. I wasn’t going to complain at the price and I clocked up a good few thousand miles in it before flogging it while it still had MOT.

What I really liked about the Civic was that you could still feel the soul of Soichiro Honda in the very design of the thing. It was light, you sat low and the engine screamed like a starving baby. The bonnet was so low that you felt you could use it to stop a trailer rolling away on a hill – you wouldn’t sit on it because it seemed as low as the ground. Wonderful engineering shone out of every pore – from those achingly efficient carburettors to the fresh air vent on the driver’s side of the dashboard – rare to have a fresh air feed on such a modern design, but really rather good.

Naturally, the electric windows and sunroof worked perfectly and the only negative point about the driving experience was over-light, feel-less power steering. Once I fitted budget tyres, this lack of feel became quite an issue on wet roundabouts. It had all the directional stability of a shopping trolley full of bricks. Lesson learnt – don’t buy cheap rubber!

It all went a bit downhill from here for Honda. The Civic gained weight until it became the monstrosity that wears the badge today – relying on quirky looks rather than clever engineering, and a form-before-function mentality that poor Soichiro would never have been able to relate to.

PS – before you ask – yes, I did put the bonnet stripes on it. Me and my wife were the only people in the world (apart from the chav who bought it from me) who thought it looked cool. And don’t ask why I have a picture of it in a car park in Peterborough alongside my 2CV. I’m still struggling to recall exactly how I took two cars to work that day.

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!

Classic bed test

Better than a tent?

How does the BX estate handle, when asked to be a bed?

I’ve just returned from a weekend of camping with 2CV chums in Derbyshire. The weather this weekend has been rather horrid, and the idea of pitching a tent just for a few hours kip, then dealing with the soggy, mud-strewn thing the next morning was not appealing.

Therefore, a plan was hatched to turn my Citroën BX estate into a bed. After all, it is just about long enough.

I started by removing the rear seat base and folding the rear seat backrest down. This allows me to stretch my entire 5’9″ out. A self-inflating mat was added to provide some modicum of comfort. Pillows and a thick duvet completely the facility.

I must admit, after a drive across Wales and England on some very, very damp roads, it was nice to arrive at the campside, park up and consider bed ready for the night. After an evening of one or two drinks and a lot of friendly chat, it was back to the car to see if we really could sleep comfortably in it.

Judging by the snoring, my wife managed this very easily – though I suspect the addition of some alcohol may have helped and therefore her feedback is not to be entirely trusted. I found it almost-comfortable, though a touch narrow. The BX has a fresh air vent in the tailgate though, which was right above our heads. I do like fresh air and this feature was definitely appreciated, though we doubt it was designed with camping in mind.

The car has a number of features to increase comfort. By dropping the suspension to its lowest setting, I was able to prevent too much bodyroll during the strong winds, with only the occasional wobble giving a slight rock-a-bye-baby feel. However, the orthopaedic back massage system – masquerading as boot floor runners – did not give satisfaction. I had to keep trying to find a comfortable spot between them.

So, good ventilation and a slightly-sozzled wife provided adequate heating. Too much in fact – the car proved warmer than our house. We may need to review sleeping arrangements at home.

Overall, it was a cosy if slightly uncomfortable bed test, and we feel that perhaps we need to upgrade to a Maxi or Saab 95, advertising material for both suggests that people find them very comfortable. Is this true? We’ll have to find out…

Who needs a house?

Does the Saab 95 really deliver as a bed?