Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Yet Another One That Got Away... But I Don't Want Back!

She never really had much of a name, although, given her construction, the female form of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein might have been the most appropriate... Frankenstina?

As it was, the creature became known as 'Nockin on', a reference to the 'maturity', shall we say, of her trio of owners/constructors who breathed life into this monster.

Therein lay the seeds of disaster... 3 ageing males, each with a slightly different vision of what should be drag raced as 'comp altered'.

There were many oddities in that class then, Jag V12 powered minivans, V8 hemi powered Fiat Topolinos, blown Rover Morris 1000s, and any number of monstrous sit up and beg Ford Pops.

The whole class was automotive weird, with veteran hot-rodder George Barris - he of the Munsters Hearse and other bizarre rides - being someone to emulate. Think 'weird fast' and with the attitude of a foul mouthed spitting punk.

I arrived slightly late to the party with the basic architecture already decided.

For the record, the eventual recipe was take a completely harmless scrap Renault 4 and throw most of it away!

The Recipe:

Cut the body shell longitudinally and remove 2 feet in width...

...Then add 2 feet in length...

...Then create a copy in hand laid fibreglass...

...So, time to construct a new chassis, all aircraft quality welded steel tube with a massive roll cage...

...Oh, and leave room for a fully race prepped Chevy small block 350 cubes, that's around 5.7 litres...

...Add a 3 speed auto with a race torqueflite autobox, the shortest prop shaft, and a narrowed Ford rear end shod with massive US drag slicks on alloy wheels...

...and you have an unusally bizarre looking vehicle! Think of a head on car crash involving a Miro and a Salvador Dali and you have a Gallic comp altered money pit that was frighteningly quick over a very short quarter mile, hence the ritual dropping of the silk undergarments at 440 yards usually reached in around 11 seconds with a top speed of around 155mph.

But, this most extraordinary bitsa, while enjoying featuring at glam car shows, and in carnivals and parades, was fragile and prone to floods of tears, destroying cooling systems almost as often as ridiculously expensive auto boxes and shredded rear tyres.

This temperamental behaviour culminated in a disastrous trip to Long Marston.

On the first run the auto and diff locked at about 100 mph and the monster turned 90 left across its own and the other guy's lane and speared into the barrier. Pete - that event's driver, we took turns, was well protected and bruised but otherwise unhurt.

Worse was to occur, getting the chase van off the line in a big hurry I stripped 1st and 2nd gear.... Ooops.

When we got back to camp in the paddock, most of the night was spent trying to get the van repaired, but it was not to be. It's a long way back to Worthing with our VW Camper van towing the chase van with all the kit plus trailer with race car inside. A bizarre and very slow moving convoy with a look, and maybe feel, more like a funeral cortege!

But I hinted this tale of motoring madness ends badly... While the race car was repairable, other elements of this tragic tale were not. She had to go, or else.

So, the remnants of the car were got rid of, too many bad memories, too much grief.

For a while we heard she was parked up, then sold, then sold again... It seemed no one wanted this piece of ill fortune.

However, in a bizarre update, just a few years ago I was standing at Goodwood talking to the legendary drag racer Don Garlits and a photographer acquaintance. I was telling an abridged version of this tale when said photographer announced that he used to own the car! He and a mate had been 3rd or 4th owners after us and had run 'Knockin on' for a couple of seasons and then showed it in Belgium whereupon they received an offer they couldn't refuse.

As far as I know the terrible old lady (for that she now is) remains an accursed hag, a grotesque money pit prone to terrible tantrums, a sort of Marie Celeste, and, no, I don't ever want her back!

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Another One That Got Away

As my colleague Mr Gates has so eloquently posited, breaking up with a former love can be a tough yet unavoidable part of one’s life. And, whilst time is, as they say, a great healer, the pangs of loss and regret can remain surprisingly deep rooted in the heart long after the painful act of separation has been completed.

My own personal tale of automotive love lost begins almost twenty years ago.

I had been conducting an affair so to speak with a string of Italians since the early 90s - the most recent of which was a rare and much-admired Fiat Tipo Sedicivalvole. Regarded by the Cognoscenti as something of a catch, the hotted-up family Hatch was a logical step up from the trio of Uno Turbos to which my heart had previously belonged and was a car I truly loved to be at the (Momo) wheel of.

And yet..

Three years of almost daily use had exposed a number of flaws in the old girl - some to be expected given her Italian genes: electrical maladies were, somewhat predictably, becoming legion for example, but some were a little more troubling - the rear quarterlight window detaching and taking flight on the M23 near Gatwick being a particularly eyebrow, and indeed hair-raising incident and one which went a good way towards making me question whether the grass might well be a rather nicer shade of green were I to start looking around for a replacement.

Now - back then in early 1999 I was still very much under the spell of the Italians and the thought of looking elsewhere than the stables of Fiat or Alfa for a new set of wheels didn’t really enter my mind. So, what to choose? What would continue to scratch the Italian car itch?

For many years I’d gazed lovingly at Alfa’s achingly-pretty classic Spider, the most recent incarnation of which had been refreshed a few years back to give it rounder looks and to try and bring what was ultimately a 1960s design kicking and screaming into the 90s yet a trawl through Auto Trader and the back pages of the likes of Autocar revealed that despite - or perhaps because of - the aged design, Alfa Spiders were still commanding strong money and therefore out of my budget. However, during the aforementioned research exercise another good-looking little Italian drophead sportster kept cropping up in group tests and features - and this one, as well as being more affordable was much more modern into the bargain..

Launched only 4 years before, the general consensus was that the Fiat Barchetta was a pretty, delicately-proportioned sports car boasting a peppy little 1800 twin cam pushing out a respectable 130 horses, more than enough to make the most of the relatively lightweight, Punto-based front wheel drive chassis. And whilst it was sold officially by Fiat in the UK, there weren’t going to be anywhere near as many on the road as its far more ubiquitous competitors the Mazda MX5 or MGF for the very good reason that the Barchetta was only ever going to be sold - from the factory at least - with the steering wheel on the left side of the cockpit.

And it was this fact in particular that really set me on a course to replace the Tipo with my very own “Little Boat”. I’ve always liked to have cars that aren’t run of the mill. Not for me the Escort XR3i or Golf GTi, I had to be different and choose the path less trodden - for good or ill (I refer the reader to the Tipo window ‘unpleasantness’) - and the Barchetta ticked that box with a great big fat marker pen.

The more I read, the more I realised that I was becoming smitten. I’d never seriously seen myself in a convertible before but this was different - an affordable, mildly-exotic looking sportster with reassuringly everyday underpinnings that shouldn’t bankrupt me every time the car was due an appointment with my local Fiat service department.

Looking around for second-hand examples, I quickly discovered that as well as the more obvious officially-supplied Fiat UK cars, there were far more parallel/personal/grey imports from the Continent which were generally a fair bit cheaper due to their specification differing from that of their official counterparts. I also learned that there were a couple of specialist importers who were in the business of bringing in new and used grey market cars from mainland Europe and who would also make the necessary adjustments to lights and speedo to help them conform to UK regs.

Interestingly enough, one of the more respected dealers was located only 30 minutes’ drive away from my home and an appointment to view was quickly arranged..

A few days later and I found myself in the heart of the Surrey countryside surrounded by a wide selection of Fiat’s finest, chatting with the proprietor and all-round evangelist on all things Barchetta who introduced me to the Little Boat in the metal.

After showing me some of the fun design features and explaining in detail how the imported cars differed from those brought in by Fiat UK we headed out for a test drive on the leafy lanes around Lingfield and, top down, the sensations of being so close to my surroundings were almost intoxicating, especially as I was conducting business from the ‘wrong’ side of the cockpit.

Once I’d become accustomed to changing gear with my right hand for the first time since the previous years’ holiday to the Canary Islands though, I was able to relax and enjoy the sensations of driving a nimble, fizzy little Italian roadster in the open air.

Needless to say, I was hooked and whilst the dealer didn’t currently have an example in stock that matched my budget, he promised to give me a ring if and when something suitable came up.

I didn’t have to wait long before the phone was ringing and before I knew it, I was the proud owner of a 3 year old Midnight Blue metallic Barchetta.

Imported from Germany, it lacked the ABS and front fog lights of the UK item but did come with dual airbags, leather steering wheel and gear knob, electric aerial and - almost uniquely in the UK - factory fitted air-conditioning.

And I can honestly say, hand on heart that from the moment I climbed behind the left-hand-oriented wheel to the day the Little Boat sailed for adventures anew back in Mainland Europe four & a bit years later (it went to the South of France as a second home runabout for a well-heeled expat don’t you know..) I never once regretted buying it.

Yes, there were times when I had to grit my teeth and cite ‘character’ as an endearing trait when the alternator belt snapped, or the electric aerial developed a mind of its own, or the four month wait for the replacement aircon components to be located in Italy when Fiat UK’s database denied all knowledge of an A/C system ever having existed for the Barchetta, but they were more than made up for by the times I headed out on the first sunny spring morning with the top down, soaking up undiluted Vitamin D and breathing in the smells of the countryside, or driving around France, sat on the correct side of the car for once and being able to make the most of every overtaking opportunity without having to keep repeating “is it clear?” prior to crossing fingers and belting around yet another convoy of dawdling Dutch caravan enthusiasts on the Route Nationale.

All the times I had to stretch across the cockpit to extract a parking ticket from a car park machine were countered by being able to smugly toss Euros into a péage basket on the Autoroute or being able to park in the local High Street and get out straight onto the pavement.

I lost count of the number of people who did a double take when we drove past and it's the only car I’ve ever had which has generated positive comments from fellow petrol pump users.

On the rare occasions when I encountered another one coming the other way I could be pretty much guaranteed an enthusiastic wave, a flash of the lights or indeed both from my fellow pilot and I would of course return the greeting with gusto.

Yes, the Barchetta had its faults - it was a handmade Italian sports car after all - but it evoked genuine affection in pretty much everybody who saw it, and especially in those who got to drive it or travel as a passenger. The purists might have sneered that being a Punto in a posh frock it wasn’t the most dynamic of things and yes, they probably have a point, but I would counter that with the view that for those of us who are willing to sacrifice the need for the fabled “dab of oppo” for a bit of security and practicality whilst still enjoying a fun and good-looking drive, the Barchetta fitted the bill perfectly.

When the time came for me to set The Boat off to foreign shores for the last time the hood was leaking, as was the A/C system. Its paintwork was far from flawless (mostly due to the ignorant and selfish actions of car park cretins it should be said) the steel wheels were starting to rust and the electric aerial was becoming increasingly anarchic and unpredictable by the day..

Yet I was truly sad to see it sail off. Its odometer had accumulated a not inconsiderable number of kilometres in the almost 5 years in my ownership, it had transported my partner - who became my wife while we owned it - and I on numerous holidays and trips away, packing away a surprisingly large amount of luggage into the bargain. It had sipped unleaded and kept me mobile during the dark days of the fuel blockades in the Autumn of 2000 and it seemed to make every journey an event, whether it was a drive through the suburbs to work or a jaunt around the Continent.

The Barchetta was never a huge seller in this country, primarily due to the location of its steering wheel and I think that is a real shame, but conversely this was for me I believe the main attraction. It was different and stood out in a sea of Mazdas and MGs. When I sold mine, circumstances dictated that we needed something a touch more practical and it was replaced with a 156 Sportwagon. For a number of reasons I have very mixed feelings about that Alfa - not least the fact that half of it had already fallen off before the transmission imploded at only 70k miles, but despite this it is was a truly rewarding car to own. I never warmed to it in the way I did to the Fiat which preceded it and for that reason, the Barchetta is, for me, The One That Got Away.

Now, as you will have read, Michael is in the fortunate position of being able to get back with his old flame in the form of another Cooper S and I know that he is going to be like a child on Christmas morning when he finally gets the keys in his sweaty palm.

For my part, I have to confess to firing up Ebay and Autotrader on occasion (having first made sure that the credit card is safely out of arms’ reach) and looking at prices of Barchettas. Prices don’t yet seem to have started climbing dramatically but I predict that within a couple of years, well preserved examples will start to fetch good money. The specialist to whom I used to take mine for regular servicing was already starting to buy up nice ones with a view to fully recommissioning them a decade ago and I reckon that was a pretty shrewd move on their part.

For me, having a family and therefore not realistically being in the position where I can outlay £5k on what would ultimately be a toy rather precludes me from indulging again - well, for now at least - but hopefully my prediction that the little Fiat is set for great things might prove to be unfounded and I might still be able to bag one in a few years time.

Hope so..

Monday, 22 January 2018

The One That Got Away

There will always be that ‘one that got away’...  A breakup under bitter circumstances... A regretful goodbye... Maybe things got old, you got bored and your eyes were drawn elsewhere… Maybe you just didn’t know what you had until it was gone.

For me it came out of necessity. We hadn’t been together long, not really a year and a half perhaps; it had been great and I was happy really, but I found myself watching her disappear off with another guy, with a tear in my eye. Her name was Electra and she was a blue MINI Cooper S.

Be honest, you saw that coming…

For me it all started when I was little kid. I started to spot different cars by about eighteen months old, by two and a half I knew most of their names.

When I was four, my Dad had taped the Italian Job and thought I might like the getaway scene. I didn’t just like it; I loved it and ended up watching it over and over again. The actors were always secondary to me, it was the car, the cheeky Mini Cooper S that became a fixation (and incidentally, also for my nephews some 25 years later). About the only bit I didn’t like was when (spoiler alert) they got unceremoniously shoved out the back of a coach tumbling and bursting into flames.

At the age of ten, in 1997 BMW Rover previewed the ‘New MINI’  bursting through a paper screen onto the stage at the Frankfurt Motorshow. It was different and it was modern but still unmistakably Mini.

I wasn’t sure at first, it was bigger, sure; still smaller than most other cars at the time though, 13cm shorter than the original Ford KA in fact – a car that itself perhaps compares better to the original Mini.

I got to see one in the metal a couple of years later and instantly warmed to it. It seemed a mile away from other small cars at the time, VW’s Golf-based Beetle included, a new car in its own right not a re-skin, like Fiat’s later 500 or the aforementioned ‘Dub, but a re-imagination of a classic, not the same car but an evolution. Think the iconic Porsche 911 and you’ll see where I’m at… and no, that’s not as small as the original either.

The interior, unashamedly retro, was particularly superb to my mind, albeit in terms of interior space, a parody of Issigonis’ Mini design brief; there’s no way you’ll ‘comfortably seat four’ but if that’s what you want, buy a Mondeo, it’s far more practical. That’s not what this car’s about though. It’s a car you buy because you want it not because you need it.

And want it I did; but it was still the original Mini that grabbed me. It didn’t stop me reading though, I had all the mags, went to shows and knew a Mini (ideally a Paul Smith edition) was going to be on the drive when the time came to pass my test. It wasn’t. I doubt I could have insured one, let alone pay for one.  When it came to buy my second car in 2006, I found the perfect car; one of the last, a Tahiti Blue Cooper Sport, with a silver roof and mirrors and a plaque showing it was one of the last made, at £7k it seemed like a great idea. My Mum disagreed – after more than a few ‘conversations’ and a reality check I ended up with a Fiesta.

Fifteen cars and six years later, I found myself needing a new car. By now a classic Mini would realistically only work as a toy, but I already had another car tucked in the garage. I found myself coming back to the idea of a ‘new’ Mini. I thought about a Cooper, but there was only one that would really hit the buttons. It had to be an S and it had to be the first of the BMW ones too, a Rover designed Mini.

I searched, fussy about spec and condition, it had to be right. Eventually I tracked down Electra… All the toys, great condition even a heated screen. My mind was made up even before the test drive, it wasn’t as quick as I was expecting, but the noise; that noise the supercharger screaming in front was addictive. I handed over the cash and drove home, beaming from ear to ear.

If I’m honest, the MINI is a flawed car. It’s juicy, impractical, borderline uncomfortable, not particularly fast and, if I’m even more honest, not really that well-built. But the feeling you get from the thing, the way it corners – doggedly following the road like a Scalextric car and of course the noise, it’s a visceral experience that’s far less compromising than later MINIs and you know what, I loved it all the more for it.

Many MINI adventures passed including the brilliant London to Brighton Run, but suddenly and without warning, the time had come to buy a house, I could see the market changing property prices were climbing and there was only one way to raise the vital thousands. The car had to go.

With a lump in my throat I listed the car online. I didn’t want it to go, I needed it to. It didn’t take long, the new owner took one look and shook my hand. He was kind enough to give me one last spin back to work where my beaten up, faithful old Mk3 Fiesta workhorse was ready to chug me home.

That was nearly five years ago. Another fifteen cars have passed, some truly brilliant ones too, the Fiesta ST and current (it’s not going anywhere!) Focus RS have both been particular highlights; after all, life’s too short to drive boring cars.

Recently however, I found myself needing a car to take me to work and back. In my mind a broken Cooper, now available for a budget-banger £500 seemed like a sensible proposition, mend it, run it, upgrade it. But somehow only an S would do. The idea of a project turned into a hunt for a mint example.. History repeating.

Just like before I did my research, I could hardly believe the design is over twenty years old. The more I read, the more it seemed to make sense. The not-so-new MINI once so ubiquitous on British roads has started to become endangered, the cost of keeping them up-to-spec once neglected seeing many totter off on a one way trip the breakers. What’s more, the original R50 series MINIs (R50 standing for Rover50, fact fans) are starting to gain appreciation as a future design classic and tipped as a good investment. I agree.

I got to try out a New-new MINI last week. It’s well screwed together, has some funky features, it’s comfortable too but it’s also practically the size of the house I sold my MINI to buy. Sure it’s a fine car but it feels like it’s lost its way, bloated and oddly proportioned. The fizz that I found with my S just wasn’t there. Who knows, maybe I’ll grow to like them too,  (BMW, if you’re reading this now is the time to prove me wrong) but for now at least, they just don’t do it for me.

With prices for early MINIs starting to climb past that of its turbocharged successor, now’s the time to buy. Even if it doesn’t turn out to win your fortunes, taking one out for a drive is enough to win your heart. That’s why I’ve put down a deposit on another one... I collect it next week.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Dan Gurney 1931-2018

Photo: Joost Evers / Anefo

Dan Gurney was one of the truly great all-rounders of the late 50s and 60s.

Although he only scored four Formula One GP wins - including two in his own car the Eagle - he was a rival to Moss, Clark, Stewart in that most dangerous racing era, and all feared him as a serious competitor.

The Eagle Mk 1
Photo: John Chapman (Pyrope)
The funds for his "All American Racers" team soon ran out. However, he had greater success in all of the other formulae, especially at home in the USA competing in, and often winning, dozens of races in Champ Cars, CanAm, NASCAR and others. He'd race anything and race it well.

Perhaps his greatest success was winning Le Mans, partnering another American legend, A J Foyt and, as a consequence, accidentally inventing the now ubiquitous, podium champagne spraying ritual.

Americans really took the softly spoken charming gentleman to their heart and there was a time in the 1960s when he was even seriously proposed to run for the US presidency. I even have one of the lapel buttons to prove it! But Dan was too diffident to want that role, a pity.

His European fans never forgot him either. On the night before he was due at Goodwood's Festival of Speed, someone got onto the hill course to write "Viva Gurney" on the track in two foot high letters.

I'll echo that. Dan Gurney is dead, long live Dan Gurney. Truly a gentleman racer.

Graham Benge

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Mission Motorsport Jaguar F-Type SVR @ William Medcalf Vintage Bentley "Drive Out"

Certainly an unusually decorated car at the Drive Out event at William Medcalf Vintage Bentley... the Mission Motorsport Jaguar F-Type SVR with distinctive poppy wrap...

UKMT's Graham Benge spoke to Ben Norfolk about how Mission Motorsport (the Forces' Motorsport Charity) uses motorsport to provide opportunities for those affected by military operations.

For more information:

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Hawk AC Cobra 289 Le Mans @ William Medcalf Vintage Bentley 'Drive Out'

Another interesting car spotted at the Drive Out event at William Medcalf Vintage Bentley... 

UKMT's Graham Benge spoke to John Coward about his beautifully finished Hawk AC Cobra 289 Le Mans....

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Morgan 3 Wheelers @ William Medcalf Vintage Bentley 'Drive Out'

Another great Drive Out event at William Medcalf Vintage Bentley... and loads to see.

UKMT's Graham Benge spoke to Morgan 3 Wheeler owner Chris Golding about the Morgan experience...

For more info: