Tag Archives: Mercedes

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

Mercedes-AMG Hammer Wagons – and why not?

25 Jan

AMG OMG!

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.

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!

Frankfurt Motor Show Awards Ceremony!

13 Sep

So Carficionado ist in Deustchland. And using his mastery of the German language, and disguising himself as a small Schnitzel, he managed to sneak his way into the Frankfurt Motor Show! Other, very reputable, automotive publications will tell you in a more prosaic way how it went down, but I’ve decided that that is too….well, prosaic, so here is Carficionado’s Frankfurt 2011 Award Ceremony. Cue fanfare.

Most Star Studded Cameo of the Day:

Why, it’s the Weltmeister himself, Sebastian Vettel, who turned up at Infiniti to unveil his “Inspired by Vettel” FX50 concept. And reinforce why, when you want to discuss matters of class, taste and discretion in tuning a car, Germany doesn’t usually get the call. (Other notable entries in this category: Michael Schumacher, who drew a big crowd; Nico Rosberg, who didn’t; and Bruno Senna….but more on him later.)

Pomp and Circumstance Award – an award given to the manufacturer who provided the most amount of bullshit in an unveiling:

It has to be Mercedes. Unveiling the new B-Class, F125 and SLS Roadster, along with the Smart Forvision,  a posse of what can only be described as gay Thunderbirds pranced around the stage, interacting with the massive LED screens and doing some light trampolining, before a couple of wizened German management-types shuffled on stage to bore the pants off the gathered audience. Who were all journalists and who thus didn’t applaud with the great aplomb that I’m sure Mercedes were hoping for.

Most awkward unveiling:

This award goes to Lotus, who summoned poor old Jake Humphreys (‘cos he’s from Norfolk and that) to help do a big unveil on some cars that, frankly, didn’t really seem worthy of a big unveil. Poor Mr Humphreys stood, his ubiquitous iPad by his side, looking for all the world like the beleaguered television presenter that he frankly was, wearing a sickly smile as some dodgy, sub-porn lighting illuminated an updated Evora, the new Elise (including the R-GT 16…..OK, that was quite cool) and Lotus’ 444bhp Evora GTE, their most powerful ever road car. Bruno Senna was waiting in the wings to come on, but I had had enough.

Best surprisingly cool car:

This award goes to Volvo, for their Concept You, err, concept. At a time when another Swedish car maker that shall not be named is in dire straits, it was surprising and heartening to see Volvo offer up this rather swish looking exec saloon, which integrates some of the company’s classic design language with some modern sweeps and tweaks (Oh, like every other car on the market you mean? Yes.). But it looks cool. Well done Volvo.

N.B. Volvo have subsequently had their award revoked for offering Carficionado a bribe in the form of a delicious coffee. Mazda are also not eligible, having provided Carficionado with a rather sizeable brioche and some sparkling water.

Most barren stand:

Sorry to pick on you Ssangyong, I know you’re weak and pathetic and no one’s bought one of your cars since my Mum, presumably as an act of charity, took delivery of a Musso in the 90s. But your stand was more dismal than a Bratwurst floating in a puddle. But your concept looked good. Well if Kia and Hyundai can do it….

Worst dressed person of the day:

Well, this was always going to be a difficult choice. There was such a crop of poorly attired, misled Germans this year. Heck, every year I’m surpised and delighted by the lack of sartorial direction amongst the Teutons. I mean it’s one thing when they’ve obviously given up on life. But it’s when they’re trying and failing that it hurts my heart the most. And so, regrettably, because in my eyes they’re all winners, this chap wins. See, scenesters are everywhere!

And last but not least, best concept car:

A rather dour, serious category I know, but it must be done. And I’ve decided that I’m going to be progressive and say that my favourite concept at the motor show was (drum roll)….the Volkswagen Nils (cymbal crash). You may have noticed an environmental bent in Carficionado’s blog over the years. Not much of one, admittedly, but it’s there. But it came always with a slightly rueful feeling that in the future, big bugger V8s and the like would be eradicated and this would be an awful thing. But this car made me feel that what we’re looking at is a future of economical single-seat (or two or three seat) racing cars! And if they handle well and are nippy and economical, bring them on, I say!

So there you go, awards over. Next year I’ll book Billy Crystal to do it.

The Mercedes GLK

27 Aug

Lovechild, aka Fitzpajero

So, I expected to see some interesting Soviet rubbish/bits of curios lying around Mongolia. But to see a new car that I’d not yet glimpsed in Europe yet, and to be honest hadn’t been aware of at all, on the streets of Ulaanbaatar was slightly disconcerting. What was even more disconcerting was that it was this lumpen pile of crap. Regular readers of this blog (hi Mum) will already know that I feel that the Germans’ attempts to create EVERY possible variation of the car is cynical and faintly intolerable. Sadly, it appears the good folks at Mercedes didn’t read this blog, or at least for some reason, they do not fear the derision of Carficionado. Well derided they must be. I’m not going to talk about how the thing drives because…..well, because I haven’t started reviewing cars in that way yet. So let’s talk looks, which are subjective, but hey, get your own blog if you don’t like my subjectivity. Now imagine, if you will, a steamy late night romp on a second-hand car forecourt between a Mitsubishi Pajero Junior and a Subaru Forrester. Now imagine the lovechild of this illicit act. Now put a Mercedes grille on it. Are you with me, are ya, are ya?

Father

Mother

How could this have happened? I know, I know, BMW got to make the X1 and Audi got to make the Q5 so where’s Mercedes’ baby 4×4 that’s slightly smaller than the M Class and much smaller than the woefully misjudged GL. But I’m sorry, why are we all slowly creeping back into baby 4x4s again anyway, like a class of school children who are told in no uncertain terms to shut the hell up and in spite of the explicit telling off slowly start to chatter amongst themselves again. I mean what, is it 1996? Are we all going to end up back in Suzuki Vitara 3 doors and baby blue Toyota Rav4s listening to the Spice Girls? Hey Mercedes! Let BMW and Audi have that market. Bugger ’em! In fact, why don’t you not make stupid Mitsubishi/Subaru look-a-likes and then get someone in your PR department to say “well, we could have built a baby 4×4, of course we could, we’re Mercedes, but in an age where making 4x4s (or at least tall cars, maybe the damned thing is 2-wheel drive) for mums to then drive around Esher (or German equivalent) is a bit, well, massively backwards, we’re actually going to focus on making cars that deal with the problems that the world is facing, unlike BMW and Audi who have shown themselves to be the Flintstones to our Jetsons. We’re light-years ahead of those stupid suckers.” Spin the hell out of it. Then, when you’re done spinning, go and make that delicious looking Shooting Brake and that electric SLS. Don’t bend to the whims of these Esherians! Esherites? Whatever. Where’s your dignity Mercedes? Don’t let them trample all over you like that. Would Fangio have been proud of that? Moss? Hakkinen? Schumacher? Heikki Kovalainen? OK, not him.

Mercedes are trying to make themselves der Über-Manufakturer, and thus be as successful as they can be. And as Jack Kerouac wrote: “You kill yourself to get to the grave before you even die, and the name of that grave is success , the name of that grave is hullaballoo boom boom horseshit.”

My point exactly.

Dreamy cousin....

It’s a Wind up…..geddit?

13 Jul

So, the other day, Carficionado here was having a little perambulate around the environs of Liverpool Street, and happened upon a new-fangled Renault Wind. Bit of an odd one this. A small coupe for 2 people, with a fold-down roof. Sounds fairly standard, but literally, the thing must share it’s floor plan with the Twingo it’s so small. The buggers at Renault should get Stuart Little to advertise it. I had a little peek inside and it looked very cosy, which I actually mean in a nice way, the kind of car that’s really pleasant to get into when you’re caught in the rain an have to run to your car.

Is it too girly for any self-respecting man to drive? Probably. Renault are only offering a turbo 1.2 and a 1.6 at the moment. But, were it to have a little going over from the RenaultSport peeps (and the Twingo got that, so why not?), it could actually be a fairly desirable little thing. Time will tell. All in all though, it looks to be a tidy package from Renault, demonstrating their small car werewithal that has led Mercedes to buddy up with the French car-maker in order to help the Stuttgartians build their city cars. Just a shame it’s named after a fart.