Brooklands: An Elegy to British Motorsport

14 Feb

I can often be found travelling between Oxford and Brighton, negotiating some of Britain’s least inspiring roadways that lie between these two cities. I’m usually in my Golf and it’s fine. You put on Radio 4, put it into sixth and cruise home, the only excitement coming on the motorway slip roads, where you can pretend you’re on a racetrack.

However, driving like this, the Golf is reduced to its most perfunctory level. Trundling along at 70mph, keeping to M and A roads, I could just be one of those apathetic people who say that a car is just “a box with four wheels”, driving along in a Volvo 440. And I hate those people!

A beautiful old Triumph. Note the vertical handlebar configuration. The people that rode these were nuts!

And do you know what the biggest tragedy is? As I’m driving prosaically along the M25, I am mere miles from a place where, in the early part of last century, cars were allowed to reach the pinnacle of their abilities – the famous Brooklands circuit.

Brooklands was finished in 1907, the first ever purpose-built racetrack in the world. The construction of the track was financed by an aristocratic gentleman called Sir Hugh Fortescue Locke-King, who ordered that the circuit should feature banking to cope with the high speeds of the cars. It was a massive undertaking. Look at a map of the circuit on Google Maps. You see that river that runs through it? That had to be moved to accommodate the track. In two places! That’s a level of logistical bravado that is currently only in evidence in the Emirates. Because tarmacking the banked parts of the circuit, parts of which are 30ft. high, was deemed too complicated, these parts were rendered in rough concrete, giving the banking its distinctive look. The concrete was also distinctive for being bumpy. Witness John Cobb thrashing a Napier around the track in 1935 and getting air! On banking! That’s bravery.

John Cobb jumping his Napier on Brooklands' banking in 1935

The first race at the circuit was held on 17 June 1907, and it was used for racing until the war broke out in 1939. There is now a Brooklands museum on the site and Mercedes have their Mercedes World headquarters there. And so, on one of my inter-Oxford/Brighton jaunts, I left the boring motorway and took Thor the Golf for a bit of a heritage trip. Brooklands has been preserved in its interbellum style, with a proper paddock area and clubhouse, whilst a scattering of planes and hangars represent Brooklands’ aviation heritage. Dip into one hut and you find a collection of Formula 1 cars, including one of Senna’s McLaren’s and James Hunt’s Wolf from the 1979 season. In another building, you find a collection of old motorbikes made by the likes of A.J.S., Norton and Brough, evocative names now largely forgotten by the modern motorcycling fraternity. The museum has even maintained the shed where Malcolm Campbell built his Blue Bird cars, which first broke the land speed record back in 1928. It’s a wealth of British motorsport heritage, and it was all…..thoroughly depressing.

A wing-less British Airways jet

Patriotism is a sport for idiots, but Britain used to be a really impressive country. We had a confidence and a swagger in the way we did things. And yes, that confidence had its roots in the violence and domination of the Empire, but in pacific pursuits, it meant that Britain could compete at the top echelons of whatever it put its hand to. Look at our manufacturing sector. British companies, purely British companies, used to make the majority of the world’s cars. Let’s list some names: Napier, Woolsley, Alvis, Austin, Morris, TVR, Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Armstrong Siddeley, Hillman, Lagonda, Vauxhall, Riley. These companies today are all either defunct or have been taken over by companies from other countries. And there are many more besides. How can Brooklands hope to celebrate this heritage if by celebrating it, you have to acknowledge that that culture is dead. It’s the same feeling you get at a great person’s memorial service. You acknowledge the amazing deeds and accomplishments of the deceased, but all of that glory is given an edge of melancholy by the collective understanding that those achievements are now very definitely relegated to the past.

The banking today

It didn’t help that I was there on a rather bleak day and that the museum itself has the impression of being left to rot, whilst somewhere like Goodwood is always spick and span. But the saddest part of all, after you’ve dragged yourself past the dismal huts and shacks and the wingless planes, is walking over to the banking, now overgrown with moss and castrated by modern developments, and trying to listen to the ghosts of those cars hammering around the circuit. The dreams of Sir Hugh have been left to die in that inevitable, modern British way. Mercedes World stands almost embarrassingly proud and glassy right next to the museum. As I drove out of Brooklands, I drove past a part of the banking which stopped abruptly, having been cut off to allow Tesco to move a superstore in. Further along the road, I passed a modern retail complex housing a PC World and an Argos. It was called The Paddock, a glib, chummy, hollow gesture, an acknowledgement of a heritage trampled on. I guess that’s why I’m driving a Volkswagen and not a Sunbeam.

The Malcolm Campbell shed

Renault Megane Renaultsport 265 Trophy and Clio Renaultsport Silverstone reviewed. Ish.

9 Feb

The Clio Silverstone edition

So as promised, today I’m going to tell you about my little jaunt to Leicestershire to try out Renault’s range of hot hatches, the progeny of the company’s Renaultsport division. Renault had arranged this driving day to show off a number of special editions, most notably the Clio RS Silverstone edition and the Mégane RS 265 Trophy, to journalists. The latter car recently won an accolade that has been oft-quoted in the motoring press, but it bears repeating here. Ready? It is the fastest ever front-wheel drive production car to lap the Nürburgring. Well, the roads around Lutterworth would have to do for little old me.

However, before I waded into battle with the Mégane, I thought that I should ease myself in with the Clio Silverstone. I’d wanted to drive a Clio RS of any kind for a long time. I was very close to buying one instead of my Mk V Golf GTI after reading review upon review which waxed lyrical about the car’s virtues. What ultimately stopped me getting the Clio was the car’s dimensions, which I deemed a little too small for my purposes, and the less than fantastic fuel consumption. But I was still aching to give it a go, and it was…..awesome! Anthropomorphic comparisons are over-used in car journalism, but to equate the car to an excited terrier is pretty spot on. The Clio’s 200 bhp 2.0l engine is naturally aspirated, so there’s no turbo-lag to contend with as there is on my Golf, and unlike the Mégane, the car doesn’t feature anything as sophisticated as a limited slip differential. Instead you simply harry it into the bends and hang on. Plough into the corner with too much speed and you can brake and make corrections mid-turn without being pitched off the road and into nearby foliage. Stick the power on before the apex, and it will try its very hardest to hold onto the road for you and pull through the corner. It is forgiving – a Catholic priest of a terrier, if you will. What that means is that an unskilled driver, such as my good self, can drive with said lack of skill and still go quite fast. The brakes are fantastic, and the Recaro seats are beautifully supportive. Which is a good thing, because the ride on the Cup chassis that the Silverstone employs is pretty crashy – it feels like the car has been set up precisely to lap Silverstone, rather than tackle the little B-roads I found around Stanford Hall in Leicestershire. I love the Clio because it is such an honest little car. It always feels like it’s on your side, like it’s your mate, egging you on to go faster and try harder. And that’s pretty much exactly what you want out of your hot hatch.

Megane. Ominous.

Then it was onto the Mégane. If you think that I’m being unduly reverential towards the Mégane, you should try sidling up to one. It’s quite a sinister looking thing, overt in its claims to being a serious sporting contender. Observe the red brake callipers. Observe the black Renaultsport grill and vents, and the striking yellow paint job. The car is considered in the same category as the Golf GTI, and yet getting into one of those never really quickens your pulse. Here it does. In the driver’s seat, you’re placed low down, far lower than in the Clio, which feels like a van in comparison. The cabin is ominously dark too, the light blocked out by the sloping C-pillars which reduce rear ¾ visibility to…..well, nothing. No matter though. Belt up the horrible yellow seat belts, reminiscent of an 80s city boy’s braces, start the engine and we’re off. You can feel the difference between the Clio and the Mégane straight away. The Mégane has the same 2.0l engine as the Clio, but Renault have fitted a shrieking turbo charger and extracted an extra 65hp out of it. So that’s 265bhp in a front-wheel drive car. That’s a lot of horsies to be running through the same wheels that steer – I can see why Renault put in that diff…..

I see you baby etc. etc.

Remember how I drove the Clio, throwing it at corners with reckless abandon? Do that in the Mégane and you’ll be eating privet hedge for a month. With the extra horsepower and the diff in the Mégane, you have to drive the car properly – it’s a far more sophisticated affair compared to the Clio, and it really does reward the ‘slow in, fast out’ approach. Fail to drive like that and the diff won’t hook up, leaving you torque-steering all the way to Loughborough! But once you understand this and get into a rhythm with the car, you realise that it really is an excellent tool for going fast. You start going through corners like a champion, and on the straight bits it eats up the road, the turbo barking elatedly at you all the way. To understand how fast the car is in the hands of proper drivers, a Porsche Cayman S went round the Nürburgring in the hands of the great Walter Röhrl in 8.04. The Mégane did it in 8.07. Think about that for a minute and you realise that that really is some feat. The Mégane is a fabulous car, one that would excite you day in and day out on Britain’s back roads. It’s not as compliant or as playful as the Clio, but any serious driver would find it far more rewarding.


Clio Gordini. Booooooo!

I drove other cars that day, including Renault’s new electric van, which was a hoot, but the Clio and the Mégane really stood out. They certainly stood out more than the Clio Gordini diesel I drove, which should be ashamed of itself for its blatant sullying of the Gordini name. All in all, ‘twas a fine day out for an aspiring motoring journalist, and I feel duty-bound to thank the good people at Renault who looked after me that day – even though they won’t read this…..

A small editorial

7 Feb

Me, yesterday

Let me clue you in on some of the thoughts that I had a few months ago regarding my blog. I had finished my master’s degree in September, writing an expansive final dissertation piece on the likelihood of the death of the combustion engine, which to my mind was very good and to the mind of the examiner who marked it was a load of old twoddle – which just goes to show that there’s no accounting for people’s terrible taste, lack of judgement and general stupidity.

Anyway, post-dissertation, I found myself turning into a statistic. Unemployed and with no hope of regular employment, I decided that I would become a freelance motoring journalist and, between articles, would turn Carficionado into a self-supporting blog. I wrote to a prominent freelance motoring journalist to ask for some advice and general pointers. The man was kind enough to write back and tell me that, in his opinion, it was “easier to climb Everest without oxygen” (verbatim quote, right there) than for me to become a freelance car journalist with no magazine experience.


Mr G. Gekko, a PR man from a prominent car company who shan't be named,

And so, realising that my ideas were perhaps a little far-fetched, I instead decided to take Carficionado and turn it into a legit car blog, with advertising and various bells and whistles, and legitimise myself that way. A fiendish plan. But to do this, I would need to be in cahoots with PRs from all the major car brands, who would provide me with cars to try. I would then write about the cars, people would read my articles in their thousands, advertising people would think “hmmm, I want a slice of that” in their usual parasitic way, I’d make dollar, become a sensation and be featured in various Sunday newspaper supplement articles about people defying the economic downtown with their entrepreneurial and innovative zeal. Voila, future employment prospects secured. I would be the Mark Zuckerberg of the automotive journalism world.

And so, with the gleam in my eye of a naïve Victorian chimneysweep about to undertake his first job, I began contacting PRs. Some replied, barely able to conceal their contempt for this cretinous little tick who had managed to find his way into their inbox. Others simply ignored me. All the responses said effectively the same thing. “Thank you for your interest” (seriously, let’s form a lynch mob and murder the insipid little syntactician who first stuck those words together) “but unfortunately due to our limited supply of cars and current commitments with various magazines, it would be impossible to fulfil your request. Best of luck in the future. Yours Truly, Bonzo the Wonder PR”.

I can't think why it's taken me so long to mention this but this Renault Laguna is, to my mind, the greatest car of all time. This specific one.

Fair enough really. But being as how almost every strand of ‘lifestyle’ journalism (fashion, interior design, art etc.) has now got its own blogger set, shouldn’t the automotive world have embraced me as The Future™? Apparently not. Only one car company was good enough to give this young dreamer, this veritable automotive Gandhi, a chance. And those heroes were, of course, the magnificent, gracious and benevolent Renault. Well, they didn’t actually give me a car. But! They did invite me to a hotel in Leicestershire to try out their full range of RenaultSport cars, including the Clio RS ‘Raider’ and the Megane RS Trophy. And I’ll be putting my thoughts up about those cars tomorrow…..

In the meantime, thank you for reading and supporting a small blogger!

Mercedes-AMG Hammer Wagons – and why not?

25 Jan


Don’t ask me why, but I have always had a thing for fast estate cars. Couldn’t explain it to you. Perhaps it’s a latent love for Rickard Rydell honing about in the British Touring Car Championship in a Volvo 850 estate. Or hearing the V6 burble of the Audi RS4 the guy at the end of our road used to own. I actually think that, to explore the real reason that I love fast estate cars, you have to look at my penchant, as a boy, for Swiss Army knives. Here was something which fitted in your hand and was convenient to carry around, but could replicate the experience of owning a saw, or a pen, or a knife, or a magnifying glass. By replicate, I really mean ‘do an impression of’. Because if someone presented me with a piece of wood and said ‘OK pal, you have to cut this and you could either use a real saw or spend the next 7 months of your life eroding the wood away with the saw in this Swiss Army knife,’ I know which one I’d pick. It’s the saw, by the way.

My first crush, Rickard Rydell

Now those of you whose brains aren’t entirely starved of oxygen should be able to make this analogical leap with me. If someone gave you a racetrack and said ‘OK pal, you can either go around it in a Lotus Exige or a BMW M5 Touring’, you’d probably take the Exige, because its entire raison d’etre, if I might be so pretentious, is to go around a racetrack, just as the saw’s job is to saw through wood. BUT! If I was dropped in a forest somewhere and was only given a saw, I’d think longingly about that Swiss Army knife with all of its flawed features all snugly collapsed into its red body. And similarly, were I to be told that I was only allowed to own one car ever again and found myself owning a Lotus Exige and trying to fit my hypothetical future wife and two small children into it, I think that I’d rather begin to miss that M5 Touring.

A Swiss Army knife, earlier today

And this is what’s so great about fast estates. They’re the only car you’re ever going to need in the real world. You can go down to Homebase and buy some curtain rods and on the way home you can outdrag a Ferrari and totally remasculate yourself! No, they’re not as sharp as a sports car around a track, and they’re almost certainly not as economical as a Nissan Micra on the road, but if you’ve only got space for one car in your garage and you’re a petrolhead, a fast estate should win out every time.

So anyway, that long preamble is by way of discussing the daddy of powerful estates and the subject for today’s little monograph: the Mercedes-AMG ‘Hammer Wagon’. Now for starters, if you’re going to drive around in something, it may as well be called a Hammer Wagon, right? Right.  And the Hammer aspect does accord with the engineering principles behind earlier AMGs, namely stick a very large, very powerful engine in the car and then….sell it. In the case of the original Hammer Wagon, AMG started with a W124 E-Class chassis, into which they dropped a 5.6l 360bhp V8. Yes, it may have had the cornering ability of a train, but it packed a hell of a punch when it was released in 1986. It would pack a hell of a punch now….although you rather feel that a modern engine tuner could extract more power out of a 5.6l engine. And because it was a Mercedes estate, you could have two people in the front seats, three in the middle and ANOTHER two on the weird, flip up, probably now illegal bench in the boot. And then you and these six other people could travel at 186mph down the autobahn. Wunderbar!

Homoerotic Hammer saloon

But why should I mention the Hammer Wagon at all? Well, for one, because I like educating you all out there, dear Readers, about these fabulous cars. But also, I’ve recently written a couple of articles for a BMW modifying magazine and, reading the publication that my articles appeared in, have had the hitherto largely unknown world of car modification illuminated to me. I think I had rather written off car modification as the preserve of sex-starved adolescents from some of the England’s lesser-known counties. But it can be done with taste and with discretion. And this has got Carficionado’s little grey cells ticking. Could I buy a W124 estate and turn it into my own Hammer Wagon? There must be thousands of boggo W124s out there, and no shortage of written-off cars just waiting to have the V8’s scraped out of them. Mercedes themselves are famed for their collection of spare parts for their old models, so sourcing them wouldn’t be a problem. Then just buy some tasteful AMG bodykit and wheels (tasteful, mind), upgrade the suspension, and there you have it: a Hammer Wagon! And then you could drive it around and feel like an 80s banker, or murderer, or something. I can only see two flaws in my plan. One of them is money. The other is that there are bonobos with a greater flair for engineering and mechanics than me. Maybe it will just be a little pipe dream then <sigh>. Either way, ladies and gentlemen, doff your caps if you will to the Mercedes-AMG Hammer Wagon.

Carbon Offsetting Carficionado-style

15 Nov

You're ruining it for everyone else, you bastard!

So I’m a fan of cars and, because you are reading this scraping from the barrel of my genius, I’m going to assume you are too (more likely though, you are someone I’ve guilt-tripped into reading this because you know me. Or perhaps a bit of both. Either way, welcome!). Well anyway, unless you have had your head inserted firmly into your lower colon for the last few years, you’ll know that everyone is up in arms about cars. The number on the road, the amount of CO2 per kilometre that they produce, the number of people killed by them etc.

The M25, yesterday. Ignore the fact that it's sunny and all the cars are all fitted with foreign number plates and driving on the wrong side of the road. Thanks.

And these are all worthy things that should be worried over. Now I’m not going to talk about the number on the road or safety because….well, because that’s dull. I mean yesterday I talked about killer robots, for Chrissakes! But I’ve had a thought recently and I’m going to share it with you. Of all the cars circumnavigating the M25 right now, what percentage of those do you reckon are car enthusiasts? I’m going to say 15%, max. And yet 100% of those cars going around and around and around the M25 are almost certainly contributing to CO2 production. Do you see where I’m going with this? You’ve got 85% of people who’d be just as happy driving a DFS sofa with an engine in the back of it, driving around, melting the icecaps, giving us real drivers a bad name and, frankly, ruining a thing that I love, namely driving fossil-fuel powered cars at a vast rate of. And it’s these people who moan at Top Gear for letting its presenters drive around fast, unenvironmental cars: look you bastards! This is the last vestige for car lovers, because you’ve ruined everything else with your stupid Nissan Micras! Can we please enjoy a mere 3 people driving around in cars with V12s whilst you and literally billions like you trundle around in your crappy four-cylinder cars doing cumulatively far greater damage!

Let us petrolhead idiots be! OK, this picture's not making a strong case....

Anyway, I digress, because it’s all going to be OK. Because what I hope will happen is that, instead of planting trees to offset CO2 emissions, in five years time, everyone who drives a car who doesn’t care about the engine or how it corners or even what it looks like, will drive cars that produce the same amount of CO2 per kilometre as I do every time I burp. And then there’ll be some headroom for people like you and I to get down to the serious business of driving.

In fact, I can think of something better than that. In order to be allowed to use petrol, you’ll have to take a basic quiz on cars, with questions no harder than “What car was John Cleland driving when he won the 1995 Touring Car Championship?” or “Name 3 incarnations of the Ferrari 250” – easy stuff! And if you get it right, you can have petrol, and if you don’t, you can drive the new Daihatsu Mains Adaptor, or whatever. Now that’s what I call carbon offsetting!

John Cleland. Voted 'Most Fuckable BTCC Driver 1992'

Alfa Romeo 164 Pro-car and Renault Espace F1: There’s hope for you yet, tiny human

14 Nov

Space Dog!

What images are conjured up when I mention the Alfa Romeo 164 and the Renault Espace? Speed? Dynamism? No. The images being conjured up in my head right now are of a scrap yard. Or a car park in Stevenage. Yet just as a common or garden dog has felt the exalted glory of space travel, and Cinderella was transformed from a common or garden scrubber into a princess, would you Adam and Eve that these common or garden cars were permitted to have a nibble at the crust of the highest heights for any automobile: Formula 1.

The Alfa 164 Pro-car. Comical.

Yes, for reasons now obfuscated by the passing of the decades, someone selected the blocky saloon shell of the 164 and the clunky body of a Renault Espace and shoe-horned some state-of-the-art F1 technology into their unassuming shells. In the case of the Alfa, it built the Pro-car, for ‘tis its name, in 1988 when there was talk of there being a race series to accompany Formula 1 races – which was subsequently cancelled, presumably causing much fist-shaking and “why I outtas!” (in Italian) at the Alfa factory. The car’s figures are…..impressive. It had a top speed of 211mph and an output of 620bhp from its V10 engine. The engine was so strong that there was even an option for Ligier to utilise it in their own Formula 1 cars. That’s right – Ligier, or the greatest racing team ever! No? Just me?

The Espace F1. ROFL.

As for the Espace, that was built by Matra and Williams merely as a technical exercise, and presumably for a small amount of comedy value as well. For what could be funnier than watching an MPV hurtle around a track at F1 speeds? Not much! The Espace was also powered by a V10, the self-same V10 as propelled Monsieur Prost to his 1993 F1 title. 0-62mph was dealt with in a mere 2.8 seconds, despite it having the drag co-efficient of a privet hedge, and it could achieve a top speed of 194mph. I have had the pleasure of driving the Espace F1, albeit on the computer game Gran Turismo 2, and let me tell you something for nothing, it goes like stink (hmm actually, given that no car company PRs seem to want me to drive their products, Gran Turismo reviews may be the way forward…..). Well it was fast anyway.

Well, dear Readers, I hope that this article has given you hope. Your lives maybe sad and pointless now, just as was the case for the Alfa 164 and Renault Espace, but maybe some day, some nice engineer will come along, rip out your boring innards and turn you into a bionic murderous space robot. Fingers crossed eh? Fingers crossed.

You now.

You after the revolution.

Honda Civic – a Carficionado design appraisal

3 Nov

Impreza and Ampera combine to make.....not a lot

Soooo, Honda have brought out their new Civic. And, Maverick that I am, I’m going to say something slightly controversial: I think it looks dull. When the last-gen model came out six years ago, the looks weren’t to everyone’s tastes. But you have to say, it didn’t look like anything else on the road at the time. But the novelty of that Civic began to wear off surprisingly quickly, to the point where I think it now looks quite dated and so the new one needed to re-invent the wheel again. And, in my opinion, it hasn’t. It doesn’t help that Honda suited up the test car that the world’s press drove in a lime green that was last seen adorning an HR-V in the late 90s. But the front fascia is just…..nothingy. It has hints of the new Subaru Impreza (dull) and then some vague attempt at a Vauxhall Ampera-style moulded grille/bumper. But that all works together to make a sigh of a design.

No, I’ll tell you what it looks like and why that offends me. It looks like a concept car from the 90s. You know, those ones that pointed at an exciting, dynamic future for car design, but were ultimately hemmed in by the fact that the designs were still necessarily of their time. It just doesn’t look fresh enough and, for reasons mentioned in yesterday’s post as well as others, that’s very soon not going to be good enough. There are grumblings in the automotive world about Toyota also straying from the path, with the new Yaris receiving wide-scale raspberry noises and thumbs down. We all want to see Japan succeed after what happened there earlier this year. But to do that, they’re going to have to step up.