There aren’t that many things coming the other way which distract me these days. I spend so much time on the road that I’ve seen pretty much everything anyway. What’s more, the need to keep all four tyres sticky side down on the tarmac means that I really can’t afford the distraction on our crowded roads. There are occasional exceptions.
I’m not talking about PYTs in strappy little summery dresses; not this time anyway. I’m talking about the rare stuff, the unusual stuff and the exquisitely beautiful stuff which occasionally and momentarily means that I watch it instead of the road ahead. I was in Scotland last week which is why there were no blog posts. My dongle wasn’t working. It’s not often a man admits to a fault with his dongle, but I’m secure and know that sometimes equipment failures happen and it’s really nobody’s fault… Was I just talking about PYTs in summery strappy dresses?
The A14 is a complete sod of a road. For those of you who don’t know it, it’s a two lane dual carriageway for most of its length and it has a lamentable standard of driving combined with very heavy traffic loads most mornings around Cambridge. There are few mornings I go along it when there isn’t a queue of traffic and sadly sometimes it’s been caused by an accident. Last week, as I headed out of Cambridge along the A14 towards the A1, there was the usual long line of nearly stationary cars and trucks trying to head in the opposite direction from the Swavesey junction. What was unusual was the Ferrari 458 trickling along with the rest of them in the outside lane. It was Retail Red. I couldn’t tell from my side of the carriageway and at the speed I was doing what colour the interior was but if it wasn’t either Nero or Crema, I’ll eat some of Jeremy Clarkson’s hairy omelette. And that wasn’t a euphemism. I hadn’t understood the 458 until that moment. I’d seen the pictures and it just seemed odd-looking. I saw it at the showroom in Edinburgh and thought it looked surprisingly okay, considering. It’s only when you see it out of doors, in real light that the shape finally clicks. I’d still rather have the McLaren but I’m not going to think anyone who’d have the Ferrari is an idiot any more.
I saw a few nice vintage Bentleys and one Rolls-Royce 20/25hp during my week in Scotland. I’ve written about my weakness for the fastest lorries on Earth before in this blog so I won’t go on at length here. I will confess however that I missed the VSCC Spring Start this year for the first time in ages because I was distracted by running. I’m training for the Edinburgh Half Marathon on 22 May and if you feel so inclined, you can sponsor me on my Just Giving page. I’m raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support. Back to last week’s Bentleys. The one which stuck in my memory the most was in Fife. It wasn’t a vintage car, it was a special. It was a two seat roadster with what looked like a cut down Mk6 or R-Type radiator surround at the end of its long, green bonnet. Again it was travelling in the opposite direction to me leaving a village as I was entering and I really couldn’t affort to watch it at all because of the children playing with a ball on the pavement a couple of hundred yards ahead. All I had was a flash of sunlight reflected from the radiator and the merest impression of a rakishly unkempt body. I liked it very much indeed.
Soon you won’t be able to move in some parts of the world without falling over a Ferrari 458. They’re going to make a few thousand a year of them, after all. Even old Bentleys are not that unusual in the quieter backroads of rural England on some sunny weekends. Ariel Atom V8s are never going to be a common slight unless you work for Ariel while they’re building them. I saw one on Friday afternoon. It was just south of the Scottish border on the A68 and it was all wings. I know that there isn’t much more to the V8’s bodywork than that in any case but all I noticed were the front wing as it closed on me and the rear wing as it disappeared up the road in my wing mirror. I didn’t have time to lower my window to hear the engine as it passed but it was travelling slowly in any case. That is a single carriageway and traffic was light but constant in each direction. The road is bendy there, all short straights and frustration if you’re caught behind a caravan or a truck with not much chance to overtake unless you’re sociopathic or suicidal. I was stuck behind a tour bus which was travelling quickly enough down the hill but had insufficient momentum to go up slopes all that well. My swearing at the back end of the stupid bus stopped for a few minutes after I saw the Atom. There was a nice long straight which was free of oncoming traffic a few corners later and I breezed past it. Sometimes, a moment’s distraction is enough to refocus on the task in hand.
It’s not just rev counters, of course. I hate lots of things but rev counters are a good place to start. Back when I first started to drive, rev counters were rare. They were on racing cars, sports cars, the Ghia versions of big Fords and somewhat inexplicably on my dad’s Lada 1500 estate. Dad taught me to drive in that Lada estate. On my very first lesson, he told me press the clutch, put it into first gear, take the revs up about 2,000rpm and then lift the clutch gently until I felt it engage, give it a little more accelerator then let the clutch out the rest of the way. I did as I was told, moved off without stalling and have barely glanced at the rev counter since.
Rev counters have their place, of course. You need them if you’re lapping Oulton Park or Snetterton. (Other race tracks are available.) I can’t reasonably think of other cirumstances when you might actually need a rev counter and yet they are standard equipment in everything from Toyota Aygos to Bentley Mulsannes. The Bentley driver has so much torque that he needn’t ever exceed 3,000rpm and he will still absolutely fly. The driver of the Aygo is hardly going to kiss the red paint on every gearchange on the way to Pets at Home for more budgie seed even if the rev counter is mounted on a sporty little pod.
It’s that ‘sporty’ word which does it. I don’t want sporty. Sporty has no place in Sainsbury’s car park, the school run or even the outside lane of the A1(M) just north of Baldock. And if you can’t hear when you need to change gear then you don’t deserve a driving licence never mind a car with a manual gearbox. An extra wee dial on the dash or hanging off it on a pod is only the start. You end up with uncomfortable suspension, loud exhausts and Nurburgring lap times. It’s a god-awful, slippery slope.
If you think I’m being an old woman, think about the analogy of sportswear. Imagine a fat bloke in Lycra shorts, his ample belly stretching his form-fitting t-shirt so much that his hairy navel is showing. He’s chain smoking while he drips tomato sauce from his bacon double Whopper onto his trainers. He puts his tab down only long enough to take another pull on his pint. All the sporty gear in the world is not going to make this man into an athlete.
A long time ago, I was an apprentice electronic technician. I was a bit of a disaster. I was supposed to help design, build and maintain test equipment in a television factory. Instead I occasionally blew up television sets and rather more frequently gave myself impressive electric shocks. At such times I would make a noise not dissimilar from an irate howler monkey yelling abuse at another howler monkey who had stolen some of the first howler monkey’s favourite bananas.
I spent the first year of the apprenticeship at the Edinburgh and District Engineering Training Association in Leith. The electronic technicians spent the day in a closed off corner of the engineering workshops where the fitters, the welders and the sheetmetal workers spent the day making lots of noise bashing and bending things. We spent our time getting fiddly and intricate with our soldering irons and poring over the RS Components catalogue. That’s closed now, the rather shoddy building in Dock Street knocked down and a new block of anonymously brown flats or offices has been erected in their place.
I also did a day release engineering course at Stevenson College where I completely failed to understand any of the maths they tried to teach me. I was all right with the physics and the logic but the maths course was just beyond me. I was a rubbish apprentice and would have been a poor engineer or technian. I did appreciate having the opportunity to do what I did even though I didn’t complete my apprenticeship and went to university instead.
I thought that apprenticeships had gone the way of cursive handwriting. Bentley Motors happily is among those who believe otherwise. They are having an open day on Saturday, 19 March to show prospective apprentices around. I’m sorely tempted to pay a visit to Pyms Lane in Crewe myself. I’m too old and as I said above I’ve already bollocksed one opportunity. You might not be, though. The closing date for applications to this year’s apprenticeships is 16 May. Go for it and good luck.
I think I was on the Autocar forums. It was one of the perennial “Fantasy Garage” discussions which crop up wherever car nerds gather. That day my choices were a Bentley 3 litre Speed, a Jaguar C-type, a Land Rover Defender 90 station wagon, a Renaultsport Clio Cup 197 and a Bristol Fighter S. The list changes almost every day but I remember this one.
This is the Bentley I wanted. It was ordered new by Forrest Lycett, a founder member of the Bentley Drivers’ Club and the owner of a succession of rather quick Bentleys. This is the car which another owner complained was too slow. Lycett sold it to a Mrs de Vries who took it to Bentley’s service centre with her complaint. The lads in the shop fettled it and checked it and could find no fault with it. In desperation they advanced the speedometer by 5mph and she went away quite happy.
The bronze coloured C-type in the photograph once belonged to Fangio. That Fangio. The one who was Formula 1 world champion five times. The one who was kidnapped by revolutionaries in Cuba. Yes, that Juan-Manuel Fangio. It was built in 1952 and will you look at it? It retains the proportions of the XK120 – it was originally the XC120C, after all – but has been lovingly tended and smoothed and aerodynamified by Malcolm Sayer. Yes, I know aerodynamified isn’t a real word but this is my blog and I’ll make words up if I want to. So there. Any C-type is going to be a special car, but who wouldn’t want one which had belonged to Fangio?
I don’t have any huge preference for the Landie or the Clio Cup. I’d like a red Defender on steel wheels and proper off-road tyres and I prefer the look of the Clio 197 to the new 200. The only one of the five cars I would want to order new is the Bristol and the news I read in today’s Autocar means that particular fantasy just became slightly less likely: Bristol Cars has gone into administration. I know that a lottery win sufficient to purchase Forrest Lycett’s Bentley and Fangio’s old Jag was on the tenuous side of unlikely anyway, but let me have my dream. I wanted to go into Bristol’s showroom on Kensington High Street, chat about this and that over a cup of Lady Grey for a while and commission them to build me a Fighter S in Ferrari TdF blu with tan leather upholstery and Fighter T wheels. Side-exit exhausts would have been nice too but would not have been essential. It’s possible that I might have ordered a Blenheim 3S instead. I wouldn’t have wanted to shout about having come into a lot of money and Bristols are nothing if not discreet.
The factory in Filton has been closed and the craftsmen there laid off. Autocar reported that they had been spending nearly all their time on restoration work instead of building new cars. The service department moved last year from Chiswick to Brentford and I would imagine that that will remain in operation. Toby Silverton, Bristol’s chairman says he is confident that they will be able to find a way forward for the business. I really hope they do. Bristol is never going to play a major role in the car industry of the 21st century but we need manufacturers of quiet, confident and idiosyncratic cars like the Blenheim and Fighter.