Archive | October, 2011

Mercedes 190 2.5-16 – don’t be a fool Carficionado….

28 Oct

Have you ever been using your Smartphone of choice, and tried to make a phone call on it. And yet, straining under the groaning weight of all the technology, the screen freezes, unable to do the ONE task that it was definitely, specifically designed for. “I” “Phone’ – no you don’t. And when this happens, do you sometimes get the urge to travel back in time to when telephones were made out of iron and spit and, when you dialled a number, there was that cool, twisty mechanism that you’d spin round before it reset itself? That wasn’t going to break! And if it did, you could probably fix it – I could probably fix it! And I can’t fix much…..

Anyway, I digress. This is not Phoneficionado. The point I’m making, dear Readers, is that as sexy and slinky as our modern technology has become, it seems to me that its central concern is keeping the user away from the actual processes going on within it. A signal box and a centre where they digitally control trainlines do the same task. But one has big levers, the other is done on a computer. Trainficionado.

A signalbox yesterday

I’ve been thinking about my Golf GTi in this capacity recently. It is arguably one of the best all-round cars of the last decade. It’s spacious inside but not too big outside, can keep up with anything on a cross-country thrash, has sexy little touches like the tartan seats and the honeycomb grille with red surround, a big boot. But, in the seven months I’ve owned it, I can’t say I’ve ever really felt a connection with it. There’s just something a little….anodyne about it. It saddens me to say it, and perhaps I’m being overly harsh on the car. How best to explain this? I know! A sexual robot analogy: if they created a robot that was programmed to have intercourse with you in such a way that you would be robotically taken to the highest heights of sexual bliss with it, it would still be sex with a robot. Do you get me, dear Reader?

Somebody else's Golf GTi. Like a sex robot


The 190 in DTM guise. I haven't put the real picture of the car I want here, because secretly I don't want you bastards to steal it from me

And then I saw her. A Mercedes 190 2.5-16 Cosworth. Black. Leather seats. That tight-fitting bodykit, that strangely enticing blank stare of its facia. And under the bonnet, bits of engine I could actually recognise, cylinders I could see. A 2.5-litre, 16-valve engine bred for German Touring Car racing (or, technically, for rallying). I immediately imagined myself cruising down the autobahns, everyone looking at me going “Ooooo what an interesting car. That person must be interesting, not to mention interested in cars. How interesting”. I’d have kudos coming out of my earholes! And, most of all, to my mind I’d feel in touch with something more alive, not my trophy wife Golf but an old Mercedes with a preposterously long name where I could feel the mechanics all working.

Plus, as I’ve previously mentioned on these pages, my family used to be a Mercedes family. When I was growing up Mum had a 200T estate, whilst at various times Dad had an S Class, an SL280 and, yes, a 190. So there’s something about 80s/90s Mercs that gives me the warm fuzzies.

I want it desperately. But I’m hoping it’s just a passing crush, like Alan Rickman fancying the girl in his office in Love Actually. I’ll go back to my Golf and we’ll be happy. Probably. And I just hope that someone has bought the car in question by the time the weekend’s over. Otherwise, there’s a serious danger that I’ll make a visit. Uh oh.

l to r: Mercedes 190 2.5-16 Cosworth, Carficionado

Top 5 German Cars in Red

24 Oct

Italian cars can come in a multitude of colours and look sexy. Let’s take Ferraris as an example. Now, if I ever perchance to buy a 355, I would buy one in red, naturally, and the same will probably be true when I get my Enzo, and almost certainly true when I get my F40. But what if I were to buy a 456? I’d get that in dark blue. A 550? Silver. My 250 Lusso? Did they do it in British Racing Green?

Travel north to Germany, however, and things are a bit different. I know I seem to give Germans a bit of a hard time about taste, but they do get it badly wrong sometimes. And, seeking to emulate their Italian automotive counterparts, they sometimes produce their cars in postbox red, or bucca delle lettre rosso, if you’re in Rome. And nearly every one looks, in the immortal words of Samuel Pepys, “bleedin’ ‘orrible”. Would you drive a red E-Class estate? A red R8? A red 5 Series? I thought not.

But sometimes, there is a synergy of colour and teutonic car that transcends nationality and just looks excellent. And so below is my run down of the Top 5 German Cars in Red, in no particular order:

1. Porsche 959

The Porsche 959. In a quarry of some kind.

What a great looking car this is. Like a 911 turned up to….well, 11. Sparred in the 80s with the aforementioned F40 for the title of World’s Fastest Production Car and yet, unlike the F40, it was also used for rallying and is thus imbued it with some fairly major kudos. And it looked good in red, hence its presence here.

2. Audi Quattro

"Fire up the....." blah blah blah

Originating in the heady days of Group B rallying, when no limits were put on a car’s maximum output, the Audi Quattro has emerged as something of a legend. It was the first car to introduce four-wheel drive into rallying, which would have been a comfort to the driver, given that some Quattrtos had close to 600 horsepower. Homologated for the road, the car offered a tantalising mixture of performance and discretion that made it the ultimate Q car of the 1980s. Unless you got it in red. Which it looks good in.

3. BMW M1

The BMW M1. In a sexy puddle

Originally built in 1978 as a collaboration between BMW and Lamborghini, the M1 was essentially a homologation special intended for competition (kind of like the Porsche 959. And the Audi Quattro). It was mid-engined, had a cool slatted roof, was designed by Giugiaro and….looked good in red.

4. Mercedes 190SL

Mercedes 190SL. Looks good in red.....

We’ve been hanging out in late 70s/early 80s Germany so far for this list, so let’s take it back a bit. The 190SL, essentially a cheaper, slower, less roofed and thus less gullwing-doored, version of the 300SL, was an archetype of graceful 1950s style. It only had a 1.9 litre engine, as its name suggests, which meant that your only option was to cruise slowly around the Riviera, with the top down, taking in the sights. Sounds terrible. Quite nice in red, too.

5. BMW Isetta

The BMW Isetta. Plus man.

OK, not a German car in the strictest sense, as the car was licensed to BMW by an Italian firm. But BMW put a lot of their own bits on and in it, it had a BMW badge, and that’s good enough for us. Released in the same year as the 190SL, but entirely different, the Isetta is a little cutie pie, albeit a cutie pie that uses the flexibility of your knee joints as its crumple zone. It seems ironic that, despite all our advancements in the automotive industry, automakers are now (non leg-based safety devices aside) trying to emulate the simplicity of the small cars of the 1950s like the Isetta, as well as the Mini and the Fiat 500. All of which look good in red. But only one of which can be counted as German. The Isetta. In red.

Well there you have it. And I appreciate that whether or not a German car looks good in red is subjective (well, it’s objective really, but for politeness’ sake let’s say it’s subjective). But then again, this is my blog, so lump it. Or, better still, tell me your Top 5. Comments welcome!

Interview with BMW i’s Uli Kranz

21 Oct

I met with Uli Kranz, the head of BMW’s new sub-brand BMW i, at the Frankfurt motor show last month to discuss the unveiling on their first two cars, the i3 and i8. The i3 is an all-electric city car, whilst the i8, already mentioned in these hallowed pages, is a plug-in hybrid sports car which will be able to outperform an M3, whilst returning a claimed 104mpg. Both introduce some seriously futuristic design language into the BMW brand, or will do when they go on sale in 2013. Are hybrids and electric cars becoming sexy? Dear Lord…..Anyway, take it away, Herr Kranz!

Carficionado: As BMWs, the i cars are surely going to have to be pure drivers’ cars. Presumably you haven’t been been sending them around the Nordschleife, but will BMW i cars still be “pure driving machines”?

Uli Kranz: I can simply answer ‘yes’. These cars will keep the BMW sheer driving pleasure alive because this is key and this is why we introduced the sub-brand as BMW i. We did our homework on that, because if you see the BMW i3, this is a car with a powerful electric engine installed in the rear and we have rear-wheel drive which is perfectly fine for a BMW.

We have an architecture of the vehicle which puts the centre of gravity very low, because in the middle, there’s the battery which is really low above the floor. And we’ve put our focus on lightweight materials. We reduced dramatically the weight of the vehicle by using carbon fibre for the passenger cell and for the drive module we are using aluminium spaceframe. So we have a very light car and with the material choice, we could really offset the additional weight of the battery. So I can assure you that this car will have the BMW DNA and it will be a perfectly dynamic, fun-to-drive vehicle.

Carficionado: Surely one of the big problems you have to overcome with starting a sub-brand like this is that you have to entice people in who won’t be enticed solely because you are using electric power – you’ve got to sell it to them in a unique way. Has that been the main problem to overcome?

Uli Kranz: We had to make sure that [the i3] is a premium vehicle, that it is a BMW and for that reason we also decided very early to develop the complete powertrain, including the battery, gearbox, power electronics and the electric motor in-house and we do all the application in-house with our experts at BMW. And we know how to build cars that are really fun to drive. And the same applies to the i8. The i8 is a plug-in hybrid super sports car that will have performance comparable to an M3 but with a fuel consumption below 3 litres per 100km and we think this is a very good answer for our customers [so that] they see that the future BMW programmes will still be fun and that we will keep the sheer driving pleasure alive with both cars as well.

Carficionado: Why has it taken BMW, who have been seen as a leader in every other aspect in the automotive industry, so long to bring in hybrid systems or electric systems when the Toyota Prius is already 15 years old?

Uli Kranz: We always actually worked with different powertrains, and you will have seen in 1972 with the Olympic Games in Munich we introduced an electric 1602. So we have always worked on very efficient combustion engines and also electric engines, and we introduced also some concept cars like the E1 in the 90s. The reason why we decided now to go into serious production is, of course, the battery technology, because all the batteries we had in the past, they were not as good as we [needed] them to be and the thing with lithium ion technology is that we could overcome all the problems with memory effects and difficulties in charging. With lithium ion batteries we can offer our customers a reliable, good-working car with good performance. This is the reason why we started now with electric vehicles like the i3 and i8. But in parallel we always work on even more efficient diesels and combustion engines. And we’ve introduced the complete EfficientDynamics package with start-stop engines, brake-energy recuperation and on top of that, we focus on low-rolling resistance tyres and also on very efficient aerodynamics. And this all, in combination with the new lithium ion batteries, gives us a very good opportunity to introduce the next step towards the future.

Carficionado: So it was a question of you not wanting to inconvenience your customers by using sub-standard technology?

Uli Kranz: Absolutely. Our customers expect from a premium car manufacturer premium quality and premium products

(l to r) The i8 and i3. Better than a G-Wiz!

Carficionado: The i Division is obviously at the other end of the spectrum to the M Division. But do you feel that there’s any room for this modern technology creeping into motorsport, or are they mutually exclusive?

Uli Kranz: What we are doing with the BMW i sub-brand and with the M, which is a sub-brand also, is perfectly balancing the core of the BMW brand. The BMW brand benefits from the M division because they highlight even more performance and even faster, quicker and more dynamic [cars]. On the other side, the BMW i is supporting BMW in new technologies and new design language and both sub-brands benefit from the core brand of BMW. So in the future we will benefit from both, so that means that some of the ideas that we develop you will see in the M division or the BMW core brand. Just think about the lightweight materials; this is something that the core brand will see in the future and will use in the M division as well.

Carficionado: How much money has been put into the i Division?

Uli Kranz: I cannot give you a figure on how much money we have put in, but I can assure you that we have the task to make money.

Carficionado: But you’d like to see the technology from the i brand trickle down into other BMWs?

Uli Kranz: Of course. One of the tasks we got within Project i is to pave the way towards new technology but not only focussed on the vehicles, also on the production and the production process, introducing new materials and new processes, and this is what we are doing with the electric powertrain, as well as the carbon fibre lightweight materials.

Carficionado: Has there been any co-operation with the German government in terms of incentives for the company?

Uli Kranz: No.

Carficionado: Would you like to have had incentives?

Uli Kranz: Actually we are not asking for incentives because we do our developments in-house. On the other hand, what we expect from the government is that we have clear rules and standards. This is key because then we have reliable targets to work towards.

Standardisation is key for electric vehicles because at the moment there’s still different standards in Asia, the US and in Europe, but we would be happy if we had three clearly divided standards for where our customers could plug-in and charge the vehicles. Infrastructure is key.

Carficionado: Do you think the same customer who buys an M3 will buy an i8?

Uli Kranz: We will still have customers, I’m sure, who will opt for an M3, because an M3 is a very emotive car. But with the i8 we have the opportunity to bring new customers into the BMW brand and this was also the reason why we established BMW i, because one of the targets we got from the board at the very beginning is to bring new customers into the BMW brand. And this is what we think we can fulfil with the i8, because the i8 is a real sports car but at the same time has a very low fuel consumption and the complete vehicle architecture is very sustainable and the compete production process is very sustainable as well. So therefore I guess we are talking to a different audience with the i8, and this is the reason why we decided to establish a sub-brand. And the same goes for the i3, because we are absolutely convinced that it we will bring new customers to the BMW brand.

Carficionado: Do you envisage a future where there will be an i1, i2, i3, i4 and so on?

Uli Kranz: We are focussed now on the i3 and the i8, but there is enough room between these two figures, 3 and 8, for additional derivatives, even above and below. This is all I can say at the moment.

Carficionado: But you’ve got nice brackets?

Uli Kranz: Exactly!  

Should motorsport be banned following the death of Dan Wheldon?

19 Oct

Dan Wheldon 1978 - 2011

This morning a friend sent me this article. In it, the journalist argues that, following the tragic death of Dan Wheldon last weekend, there should be a move towards banning motorsport. The journalist also argues that, failing the banning of motorsport, there needs to be a serious review of safety, at least within IndyCar racing.

Now the second point I get. Any sport where you have cars driving at 200+mph should be subject to the very highest levels of safety scrutinising. The fact that the drivers expressed concern about the Las Vegas Motor Speedway ahead of the race last weekend should have been enough to encourage a wide-scale investigation into whether very powerful, open-cockpit cars should have been green-lighted to race around that track – and even enough to have the race cancelled, should the track be found to be not up to scratch. In this instance, I would personally level a failure at the IndyCar administration, who have a duty of care to protect drivers involved in their series.

However, by using Formula 1 as a comparison, I want to show that the idea of banning motorsport because of the death of Dan Wheldon is inane. In Formula 1, the fatality rate has been declining steadily decade on decade for the last 60 years, as shown in the graph below.

The last recorded fatality was that of the great Ayrton Senna, who died at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994, on the same weekend as Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger. That means that there have been no fatalities within that sport for the past 17 years. Now, this is by no means a chance for complacency. Safety should continue to evolve within Formula 1, as it should within all forms of motorsport. The injuries sustained by Felipe Massa in 2009 illustrated the dangers inherent in open-cockpit racing. The death of Henry Surtees in a Formula 2 race at Brands Hatch a week earlier made the point even more chillingly. But recent big crashes in F1, such as Mark Webber’s dramatic flip at the 2010 European Grand Prix, or the chaotic start to the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix, illustrate how far safety has evolved in the sport.

Two particular events in Formula 1 come to mind when I think about this issue. One is the circumstances surrounding the 1976 Grand Prix at the Nürburgring. It was here that Niki Lauda, concerned with the lack of safety features at the track, proposed a boycott of the race. Other drivers vetoed the boycott and the race went ahead as planned. Lauda crashed on the second lap of the race, and the horrific burns he suffered in that incident still stand today as a totem to the folly of the decision to race that weekend.

The second event that I’m reminded of is the infamous 2005 US Grand Prix, when all cars running with Michelin tyres pulled out of the race due to fears, prompted by Ralf Schumacher’s massive crash during Friday practice, that the tyres would not be able to hold up for a whole race. Here, in stark contrast to the Nürburgring race 29 years previously, the teams and drivers exercised their free-will – in the face of much bloody-mindedness from the FIA regarding the installation of a chicane at the banked Turn 13 – in order not to race at a circuit where there was a serious concern about safety.

IndyCar really needs to look to the sophistication of safety within Formula 1 to show them the way forward. In addition, I would argue that two aspects need to be looked at in particular. One is the fact that 34 cars started that race in Las Vegas – a full 10 more cars than appeared on the grid at the Korean Grand Prix last weekend. And I would argue that that is simply far too many cars to have racing in that kind of scenario.

The second, and I think far more relevant, aspect that needs to be looked at it is the viability of continuing to race open-cockpit cars on oval, banked circuits. The stresses that banking puts on the tyres is, in my opinion, too dangerous, as is the fact that there are, clearly, no run-off areas on the outside of the track. This means that if a car loses control and is heading towards the outside wall, you run the risk of tyres and suspension arms coming into the cockpit – precisely what killed Senna in 1994. This is clearly a risk in all open-cockpit racing – but on an oval circuit with concrete walls, the incident seems to be invited. And interestingly, if you look at fatalities in Formula 1, which track has been the most lethal? The Indianapolis Speedway.

But is all this enough to prompt a worldwide ban on motorsport at all levels? That’s Formula 1, Formula 2, Le Mans, DTM, NASCAR, MotoGP, British Touring Car, World Touring Car, World Rally Championship and many, many more besides. Frankly, I think that that is a ridiculous notion, a knee jerk reaction to what definitely was a tragedy and a step that I feel certain Dan Wheldon wouldn’t have called for.

Not so fast, Jamie Oliver!

18 Oct

Mr Oliver behind the wheel of his "Porsche-powered" camper

A few weeks ago, I was hanging out at a noted Porsche specialist in Essex, as I am wont to do from time to time. Around me were 993 Turbos and beautiful 1970s 911s with Fuchs wheels and a couple of “future classic” 996 GT3s. However, taking pride of place in the garage was a beautiful, blue split-sceen VW camper, or as it’s known more informally in Germany, Kombinationskraftwagen, which was being renovated for a customer. I remarked to the salesman that it looked similar to the one owned by local Essex celebrity chef and all-round pukka geezer Jamie Oliver – in fact, I thought it might have been his. It wasn’t, as it turned out.

However, I also remarked, thinking that it would impress said salesman, that I happened to know that Mr Oliver had dropped a 3.6 litre Porsche engine into the back of his camper, as he proudly announced on Top Gear a few years ago. This, however, drew a wry look from our salesman. It transpired that a friend of the salesman had been responsible for doing up Mr Oliver’s camper originally, and had put in the common engine upgrade that camper drivers tend to get, that being a modified 2.1 litre Volkswagen engine. However, the engine put into this particular camper had a Porsche fan on it which, according to our nice salesman, had led Mr Oliver to believe that he had in fact put an entire Porsche engine into his camper.

True or false? I don’t know, but I will say that the salesman seemed a very pleasant and honest chap who knew his Porsches, and especially those in the Essex area. If it is true, it seems that the Naked Chef’s motor may not be quite as nippy as he would like to think.

BMW Unleash New 3 Series

17 Oct

New 3 Series

BMW unveiled their new 3 Series at a special event in Munich last Friday. And it’s a bit of a cracker. Obviously the unveiled car was red because, as previously mentioned in this blog, our Teutonic friends sometimes drop the ball on matters of taste (incidentally, I can count on the fingers of one hand German cars that look good in postbox red – but perhaps that’s a blog for another day). But the car itself looks great. For me, the most interesting aspect of the new 3 Series is that it points to the future direction of BMW’s design language, joining the dots between the current range and the rather fabulous i8, a petrol-hybrid produced by BMW’s cannily named sub-brand Project i, which is scheduled for release in 2013.

The forthcoming i8. Note the similarities

And, having personally been disappointed by the styling of the new 5 Series (which hasn’t grown on me at all) it’s nice to see BMW being a little bit edgier with its styling. Well, at least with the front fascia. See the way the lights blend into the front grille? Very i8. Admittedly the rest of the car looks like a smaller 5 Series, but at least it has a handsome face.

5 Series. Yawn.

The car will be powered by the usual array of BMW engines, with the 320d looking likely to be the volume seller in Europe, as it was with the previous-gen model. Will there be an M3, I hear you cry? Yes, probably. But ecological conditions being what they are, BMW won’t be shouting about that at this stage, preferring instead to talk about the EfficientDynamics options on offer for the car, such as brake energy recuperation and oil and water pumps that only operate when required.

What will it be like to drive? Well, doubtless it will be like most BMWs, that is, very very good. You’ll just have to wait and see if they let old Carficionado have a go in it (advice: don’t hold your breath).

So what do you, dear Readers, think of the new 3 Series? Carficionado appreciates any comments!

Oh, and as for the aforementioned i8 (and its baby sibling the i3), I’ll be bringing you an exclusive interview that I conducted with Uli Kranz, direction of Project i, in the coming days….

This is the 335i model. Check the twin exhausts

Cabin is set back to emphasise RWD. Presumably.