Monday, September 29, 2008

Going Continental

I may not have mentioned my intention to move to France. Some may have guessed, after I mentioned "driving a lot in Europe" while considering my next purchase, that I may not be long for the UK. Well I can now inform you my specific intended destination is the south of France, somewhere between Nîmes and Perpignan. I'm not sure where yet.

And at this rate, the Lotus and the Fiat will be going with me. Actually, I never really intended to get rid of the Fiat, though transporting it to the south of France could be, um, time consuming. The Lotus, however, is not selling. It seems a global banking crisis is not the best time to try and sell a luxury item. Who'd have thunk it??

Ironically, I think I'll have a better chance of selling it in the Côtes d'Azur than I do in the UK. This is a millionaire's playground, where £10,000 is an evening's bar bill and Jaguar XJ-S convertibles go for £25,000, even though they struggle to reach a third of that value back in Blighty.

I was contemplating this when it dawned upon the French are probably as big in the classic cars scene as the British. It is they, after all, who host the most prestigious classics race in the world, the Le Mans Classic. And when the classic sportscars tour came to Silverstone this month (I got complimentary tickets from a nice chap called Guillaume, who is a classic sportscars organiser from Paris) the pitlane was awash with French accents. Far more French folk than British, even here in Silverstone. In fact, since my car has been for sale, two thirds of the serious approaches have been from French people.

If I were going to move anywhere in Europe, I can't think of a better fit for the classics enthusiast than France.

The Italians love cars, but can't be bothered with old ones (with a few notable exceptions). The Germans love efficiency, so that's that really. The Spanish are indifferent. The Swiss government positively hates cars, and while the Swiss themselves drive around in some of the most expensive cars in the world, the only Swiss person I know who is fortunate (and rich and half English) enough to have a stable of vintage sportscars only bothers to drive them when he's going to France for a few days. The Dutch are up there and enjoy their motorsport, but the French beat all comers hands down when it comes to passion and enthusiasm for classic cars.

I actually look forward to driving the Lotus on French roads for a few months. We're aiming to move in spring 2009 so, savings permitting, I may well be flinging the Lotus around some French country lanes in the spring sunshine.

That would be nice.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

The End Of The Roundabout

I note with some sadness that the highway powers that be are removing the last of the roundabouts from the A1, a secondary (though still major) dual-carriageway running the length of the country, from London to Edinburgh. Most motorists will rejoice at this, but not the Elan pilot.

The only fun bit of driving from London to Newark on the A1 is the roundabouts. Without breaking any road traffic regulation, it is possible to enter a roundabout on such a road, drop in to second, fling the car through the effective chicane and boot the throttle.

This is great fun! You get to use all of the cornering and acceleration of these fantastic little sportscars and roar away up to 70mph then just knock it over from 3rd in to 5th gear and continue on your way, with a broad grin on your face.

Sadly, this era is coming to an end. My drives from London to my parents, in north Nottinghamshire, are about to become an even more tedious experience. Ho hum.

On a more positive note, a nice French chap, who took an active interest in the Lotus, turned out to be the organiser of several well known classic car racing events, including the prestigious Le Mans Classic. Even though he hasn't even met me yet, he has sorted me out with two VIP, all access, guest tickets to the 1,000km of Silverstone (AKA the 6 hours of Silverstone).

What a thoroughly decent fellow. Clearly a gentleman and a scholar. I'll take the Lotus up for him to have a play with, naturally. Looking forward to it.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Youth Crime: The Bane Of Modern Britain

I'm going way off topic today, but I need to get something off my chest. Liberals, stop reading now and come back next week when my mood has lightened.

I am deeply saddened to report that some idiots of questionable parentage kicked in every panel of the off side of the Fiat and caved in the right-front headlamp, before battering the guttering with rocks and pushing it against a wall. About £2,000-worth of damage, all told, in the name of "fun".

Essex Police have lifted fingerprints, but here lies the biggest problem: even if they catch someone for it, the aforementioned individual will certainly get little more than a tap on the wrists from a magistrate and a firm instruction not to do it again. Which he or she will dutifully ignore, next time they're out of their tiny minds on cheap cider and looking for something to smash to compensate for their total lack of prospects of becoming anything other than another drain on the British tax payer.

If it were up to me, the magistrate would be able to present the repair bill to the parents or guardians of the perpetrators and tell them to pay up or go to prison. Then they might actually take some responsibility for what junior is doing at 3am on a Saturday morning. (Coincidentally, this is already how they handle truancy, so I'm hoping someone in government will apply the same logical approach to youth crime, and soon!)

The point is when people under the age of 18 years old suffer no consequences for violent and anti-social behaviour, either in the home or in the courts, and have nothing better to do except spend their unemployment benefit on White Lightning and get blind drunk, what possible incentive is there for the disillusioned youth to behave? British law is unable to decide where responsibility for the actions of teenage criminals lies, and as a result it does not know how to deal with them.

With the system mired in apathy, the teenage criminal receives no punishment, nor do his or her parents, and they get the impression they can do what they like. Which, sadly, is the correct impression. Until they turn 18 and get sent to a proper prison, and then it's too late. By the time they come out of Pentonville Road, two years later, they'll be fully fledged adult criminals and those vital formative years during which their lives could've been turned around have been thrown away.

British society as a whole shrugs it's shoulders. Irresponsible parents are free to ignore the behaviour of their offspring. Education professionals are exasperated and powerless. Police are fed up with not getting convictions or, when they do, seeing sentences so light they are an insult to the victims and the police men and women who spent so much time bringing the perpetrators to justice. Judges and magistrates have no choice but to sentence according to British law, which is decided by... The Government.

The one group of people who seem to be saying it's not their fault either and they appear utterly impotent in the face of it - totally devoid of policies and ideas. Every week, in every newspaper, nationwide, the letters section is alive with commentary on this major social issue of modern Britain, but the present government are doing precisely nothing visible about it whatsoever. May I quote a line from a letter sent to The Metro, a free London paper, last week which nicely sums it up:

"Young people in this country have rights but no responsibilities."

So how do you make them responsible, if their parents won't do it and they no longer have to go to school? Well I think I know what the answer is. It's not a new idea, by any stretch of the imagination, but since we are getting a teenage stabbing in a British city almost every night of the week now, it's time someone took some drastic action:

Bring back National Service.

It's simple enough. If you are not in bona fide full-time education or gainfully employed between the ages of 16 and 21, you are joining the services whether you like it or not, be it military, or medical/charity alternatives for the conscientious. All of these organisations are down on recruits, you are unemployed, there many potential career paths for both men and women, front-line or back office, where they will have responsibilities, fair pay, role models and education.

I'd rather my tax paying pound is spent on supporting a teenager's career in the military or public services, than it being spent paying for a teenager's dole cheque, the police time required to investigate my vandalised property and the near-inevitable stay at Her Majesty's pleasure for the poor, stupid fool who is abandoned and shunned by our nation's society.

If the person who kicked seven bells out of my car the other weekend had been RAF ground-crew based up in Lincolnshire, he or she would've been safely tucked up in barracks by 11pm, having a well-earned sleep after a long, hard day of paid work. Not drinking cider in the streets and looking for something to break.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Mad French Cars

The weird, but wonderful, Panhard CD.
This car is all my friend Tom has bubbled on about since we got back from Le Mans earlier in the month. Before I took Tom to this year's Le Mans Classic, he wasn't much of a car fan. He was just coming along for the ride, doing something a bit different, enjoying a break. When we left the Le Mans Classic, he had a new love in his life. (His previous love was beer, by all accounts, so this probably isn't a bad swap.)

The Panhard CD. Tom is now, officially, a petrol-head.

True to form, he had to pick a real odd one. This crazy, 850cc, two-stroke French saloon was actually entered in the Le Mans GT class, back in the '60s. It never had a prayer, of course, much as it looked rather silly in the glorious re-enactment, but nevertheless, it's a pretty special piece of engineering. It had all manor of technical innovations, unique at the time and not seen again for another decade, before becoming common-place in modern racing.

Sadly, so few CDs were made that the few remaining in good condition are worth a king's ransome. Since Tom is not a king, he'll be left gazing wistfully from a distance at the object of his desire. There is, however, some good news for Tom. Panhard also made a model called the Panhard 24, which is positively cheap in comparison. You can pick up a lovely 24 for just a few thousand quid, which is an absolute bargain for a truly unique car, especially here in the UK.

I love French engineering of that period. In fact, it was Clarkson who once bemoaned the way French car companies have ceased to make "big, mad cars", mostly in reference to the myriad of big Citroens launched in the '60s, '70s and '80s (some of which are still favourites of mine). It's nice to see Citroen weren't acting alone. Panhard were also doing plenty in the "big, mad" stakes.

If you're interested, here is the UK club (there may be others):

Ps - we stayed in this bed and breakfast, about a 45 minute drive from Le Mans, and it was simply stunning - highly recommended:

Monday, June 30, 2008

A Different Angle On eBay Sales

I have been Following Greg's efforts to sell his car on eBay, and wonder how one venue like eBay, can produce such different results, to a wild degree of ridiculousness.
One the one hand there is Gregs Lotus - a well loved, quite well kept usable car that one would think would sell reasonably well for various reasons - and on the other hand - there are cars like this car, Then and Now,
The 1954 Mercury XM800

This was a concept car
This 1954 Mercury Monterey XM800 was first unveiled at the 1954 Detroit Auto Show. The car was built for Ford by Creative Industries of Detroit, Michigan and was designed by the Mercury pre-production studio with John Najjar serving as the studio manager. Elwood Engle worked on the project as well, serving as a consultant assigned by George Walker's design firm.

The XM800 traveled the auto show circuit through 1954 it made a brief appearance in the 1954 20th Century Parade of Progress before fading from the spotlight.

Benson Ford promoted the idea of creating the car as a second Mercuy car line which would compete with Buick, Pontiac, and Oldsmobile.

Although the car was never put into production, it did take part in a Fox twentieth Century Film, and was made famous buy having its model put into Grape Post Nuts Cereal boxes.

The engine is supposed to be in excellent condition, and has only ever driven for 5 miles.
43 bids after it was posted on eBay, the bidding closed with the amazing amount of $125,350!!

So, my conclusion is that in order to make good sales on eBay, you need a lot of patients or a little stardust!

This is a guest post by Leslie, who's own blog is at Antique Cars Club

Thursday, June 26, 2008


We have a new author on the Classic Cars Blog (AKA The Money Pit). Leslie is a blogger from the USA with a keen passion for classic and vintage cars and she has very kindly offered to write a few posts for this blog too. I look forward to reading her posts, as I'm sure you do as well!

Leslie's own blog can be found here: Antique Cars Club.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Hard Sell

I have to tell you, I hate trading cars privately. It is a necessary evil, since forecourt dealerships are such a rip-off in this country, but it's not a pleasant business. It is a world full of sharks.

Everyone thinks it is acceptable to haggle the price of a car and you end up in a Catch 22 situation. You put your car up for several hundred pounds more that you actually want, to account for the inevitable, and no one comes to look. So you put it on at a fair price for the car and everyone still tries to knock £1,000 off of the asking price, even though they know it is fair.

Even eBay seems to be mostly populated by time-wasters and tyre kickers. I shan't try to sell a car of any value on eBay again. I think the problem is the classics market isn't really there. Your car ends up "watched" by four dozen dreaming teenagers and a couple of bargain hunters, none of whom can actually afford/are prepared to pay the reserve price of the car. At one point I was fielding daily offers of £6,000 cash for the Lotus. Eventually I stopped replying to these jokers.

Now, I'm no fool and I have done my research. I have valued my car fairly and I know my valuation is based on my own, extensive market research prior to deciding to list my car. When forecourt dealers are asking over £10,000 for a decent car, my £8,500 (or near offer) price is perfectly reasonable. That said, this sort of haggling nonsense continually undermines your confidence in your asking price and makes one of even the strongest resolve start to question if he or she is asking for too much money.

Fortunately I have sat tight and I finally got an email from a lovely chap called Dave the other day, which I will quote:

[Re: Your Car and Classic Ad: Lotus Elan +2S 130/5]

Greg, we have looked at some total dogs this last week.

There was one that looked like the interior had been done by the Scouts adventure group and the paintwork was put on with a lot of cans. We found another JPS that some Philistine had painted gold very amateurishly, and the interior was a bag of rags.

We are looking for a car that we can get in and drive, that will start, won't misfire that has the servo on the brakes still and that doesn't look as if it was last used at a storage for a big dog . From what I have seen, and have found your car on a number of sites, it is in good order and used and that is what we are after.

So do keep in touch, don't sell it for less than you have it up for and as soon as I get the chance we will drive down and see it for ourselves.

Isn't that nice? Just when my confidence was waivering Dave reminded me what I already knew but had almost forgotten. All the Plus 2 cars out there for £5-7,000 are dog rough. All these jokers offering me £6,000 for mine haven't a prayer of finding a car half as clean for the same money - they are simply taking a chance and hoping I'm desperate.

I guess the moral is if you've done your homework and you know your price is fair, hang tight. Selling luxury items is hard. They are expensive and exclusive so by definition the market is small and extremely sensitive to economic conditions. It also often takes a long time to shift luxury goods. Our local classics garage has not rotated any stock for months now. So, confidence restored, I am still hanging in for on and around my asking price and to hell with anyone who offers me a grossly reduced cash settlement.

For reference, the best avenues I have found are a couple of specialist classic car sales sites (this one and this one) who offer free advertisements and a free London-based noticeboard called Gumtree. In combination these websites are now spawning a couple of enquiries a week and finally I have a couple of "viewings" when I get back from Italy.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

At The Auction

Well, in spite of my pessimistic post about the British summer (which isn't exactly stunning, but not as bad as it could be) I have actually spent most of the last week driving the Lotus to work. This is an absolute pleasure, which makes it even more painful to see the poor girl listed on eBay.

I have really mixed feelings. In a funny sort of a way, even though I've been trying to sell her for ages, I don't really want to see her go. On the other hand, I know I won't find the time to use her and it will be the usual story come winter of sitting too long, seizing up and expensive repair bill in May.

I wonder if anyone will actually bid?? Last time I put a car on eBay I got nothing but a bunch of time-wasters. We shall see.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Wasn't Summer Nice?

That's all folks. Here in England we had two weeks of beautiful sunshine in May. That was summer. And you know what? The Lotus was out of action throughout, on the ramp in Barry Ely's workshop. *sigh*

I just got her back with another punishing bill for leaving her standing for half of the winter. When will I learn? The story goes like this:

Some time in late January (I think) was the last time the Lotus actually started unassisted. The starter motor was sluggish but just when I was about to give up she fired and ran. We went for a spin and all was well, so I put her away again. When I next came to the garage, probably about two weeks later, the starter motor was so reluctant it was never going to turn the engine over quick enough to start a cold Lotus.

Clearly (or at least partly) a bad earth, but it being winter, me being in a cold garage, miles from the house with no tools and no power all stacked up to mean I wasn't going to fix it there! So I went away and about six weeks later I tried to get the car going with my father. However, by this stage the bad earth was even worse and to compound it, the battery was half dead too, refusing to hold any sensible charge. Even hooked up to a Volvo 940 via some hefty jump leads there was no starting her.

And so there she stayed, again. Until May came around, another six weeks or so later, and I decided to call Barry and have him come and fetch the car on a trailer. The result?

Clutch seized so solid he thought he might have to take the engine out to get at it. Seized brake calipers. Blocked accelerator jets in the carbs. Twelve hours of labour at £45/hour, simply because I'd let her stand too long. Stupid, stupid, stupid!

The moral of the story is if something breaks, especially something which prevents you from starting the car, don't leave it until spring! Repair it as soon as it happens. The longer a car like this sits unused, the bigger the bill will be when someone eventually comes to sort it out.

I know this, but a mix of laziness and fear of what might be wrong caused me to ignore it and hope it would go away. It did not.

On the plus side, I have the car back, so in the unlikely event the British summer gets a second wind, I'll have a lot of fun.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Wash Out

April has been remarkably April-like, in spite of dire warnings of climate change, locust plagues, desertification, &c. It has "showered" regularly and constantly all month here in Blighty. So the fact Barry can't come out and fix the Lotus until 17th May is no big drama. I think I'll get the Fiat out later though. It could do with a run and there appears to be a short gap in the ever-present cloud cover!

Onwards. For those who don't know, my daughter was born on 13th April - as a result I have had little time for classic motoring, per se. Rather, with the Lotus out of action, a screaming baby at home and the weather resembling an Indian monsoon (causing a small leak in our bedroom window, via some blocked guttering) I have been reduced to planning my next purchase.

Now, I know I said last time I was definitely, 100%, beyond all doubt getting an MG-F. However my better half pointed out there are no rear seats. "And?" I enquired. It wasn't dignified with a response.

Prior to that you may remember I was set on a mid-1980s Porsche 911, preferably a Targa. That was until I met a chap who told me they are more expensive to run than a high-class "escort" (not the car). "I've got a 1985 911," he wept. "Front wings alone cost more than a new engine in your Lotus." And while he was standing there bemoaning his lot, a thick cloud of oil smoke engulfed us. This is the 911 way of declaring a serious coolant leak requiring a phone call to the AA and another £3,000 repair bill. So that was the end of that idea.

Lotus Sevens? Very tempting. I even toyed with TVR for a little while, until my partner pointed out there are no rear seats in those either. Rats.

Then I came to Jaguars. Now, having a father who's a Jag nut does rather put one off. Not because I have any sort of animosity or teenage angst remaining towards my father. Just simply that it conjures an image of, well, his generation, not mine. He has a rather nice V12 Convertible XJ-S, as regular readers will know, so I started looking around for any Jag other than an XJ-S, naturally.

Since my girlfriend has already vetoed any Jag prior to 1970 (too grandad-like, apparently) my choices were limited, so I was very interested to discover the Jaguar XK-8 is now in my price range for an early model. Here we have a good looking, 4-seater (nearly), comfortable, fast, sports tourer. For £8,000. Bargain! And, to cap it all off, it was love at first sight for herself.

Then I started reading up and discovered the reason: luxury cars always bottom out in the price department after 10 years or so, as worries about electricals and catalysers and the like creep in, but the early XK-8 particularly because it had rather serious engine issues caused by the sulphur content in British petrol at the time. You can buy a 1996 XK-8 for £8,000, but here's the kicker. You have no way of really knowing it you still have an £8,000 engine replacement bill ahead of you. It's Russian Roulette with your wallet.


Back to square one. It was about this time when my father piped up "you should look at a late XJ-S..." Well he would say that. But he had some compelling arguments:

It's every bit the fast, comfortable, sports tourer the XK-8 is - in fact, it's widely recognised as a better handler than the XK-8 coupé, courtesy of the saloon body shape. The late "facelift" models are very well resolved cars, with Jaguar having had nearly 25 years to iron out all the issues. They can go on a classic policy, even though the last ones are only 12 years old. And because they have always been the poor cousin to the E-Type and the later XK-8, they're cheap as chips.

Because I am likely to be doing a lot of driving in Europe, I'm sorely tempted to get a "left hooker", as they say - a left hand drive model. More problems. Search the European market for an XJ-S and they're rarer than hen's teeth. A 20-year-old standard V12 coupé in decent condition will cost you £10,000, which is just madness. About five times over the odds by British right hand drive prices, and it doesn't get any better with Cabrios and Convertibles. So someone like me, looking for a LHD Convertible in Europe, had better have deep pockets. I don't.

On the verge of giving up, I remembered another neat thing about the XJ-S. They sold it by the bucket-load in America. Our friends across the pond loved it. Comfortable, smooth, quick, stylish and not so cumbersome in American "parking lots", which are better designed for a car of those dimensions. (Try parking an XJ-S in a British multi-storey car park - if you get it right first time, I'll cut you a cheque for £1,000 on the spot - that's how confident I am you won't!)

Right now the American economy is in the dumpster. Granted, ours isn't exactly rosey, but with $2 to every £1 and luxury goods off nearly every American's shopping list, I can purchase a nice 4.0, 6-cylinder, LHD, Convertible XJ-S off a dealer's forecourt in the US for about £6,000. I can ship it to Europe for about £2,000 and bingo! I have a nice, 4.0 "facelift" Convertible, LHD XJ-S for £8,000. And the best part is, if I want to sell it I can ask for £25,000 and some rich collector in Monte Carlo won't even blink.

I'll let you know how I get on, but as of the last couple of weeks it seems I may yet end up with the same car as my father. Oh the shame! But I can live with it. They are nice.

Sunday, March 30, 2008


So, with some assistance from my father, I went down to the garage on Monday to try and start the Lotus, to give it a spring airing. Would it start? Would it hell is like. It sat there like a belligerant teenager, daring me to relocate my tools from the garden shed to a council garage 2 miles away, knowing full well I wouldn't. It won.

And this is why the Lotus has to go. I'm not an unrealistic person, and the problem is simple: old sportscars break. Note I say sportscars, not any old classic cars. The Fiat, for example, is also 40 years old and it never breaks. Why? It's about as complex as a 2-year-old's jigsaw puzzle. There's practically nothing to go wrong! (Ignoring corrosion, of course.)

My Lotus, in fairness, is very reliable - for a Lotus. The previous owner described it as "the most reliable Plus 2 I ever had", but that doesn't make it reliable. It makes it as reliable as a 40-year-old Lotus can be. I knew this when I bought it and at the time I had the youth, enthusiasm and time to deal with it. Now I have a baby on the way (it is due on Wednesday!), a garage on the other side of town and nowhere to keep my tools. It just isn't working out.

When I've sold up I already know what I'll get. I'm going to buy an early MG-F. A very clean one, with leather seats and the turbo charger so I can really scare myself. Before you all scoff, these are great little cars. I already know this, because my mother runs the naturally aspirated 1800 version and I borrowed it to go to France in last summer. It's the cheapest genuine, mid-engined sportscar on the market, and it just works.

Sure, it is still a sportscar, therefore it will still cost me a fortune to service and things will still go wrong. But if I leave it in a garage on the other side of town, when I go to take it out it will start. If it doesn't, I'm safe in the knowledge there's nothing I can do about it anyway, as it's probably a sensor or a software glitch, so I'm not left with the guilty feeling I should be fixing it myself. It's perfect. Quick, fun, open-topped and reliable. A much better match for the 2008 version of me.

So is this the end for me and classic sportscars? Absolutely not! My next house will have a double garage. It is essential. I am as adament on this as my partner is about a family kitchen. (It may take us a while to find something we both like...) And when I have this house, I will once again being scouring the newspapers and websites for something for the weekend. Something old, that leaks oil, smells like a petrol station and refuses to start in winter. And I'll love it. But most importantly of all, I'll have the time and the space to work on it.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Supercar With A Difference?

Iconic Motors sportscarFor those of you who don't know, I work in software. I build things in bits and bytes - things people need to make their computers do useful things. Not hugely useful, I grant you, but that doesn't really matter. The point is, I spend most of my time working with software products and platforms which are dubbed "open source".

For the uninitiated, the term open source refers to the licensing of a software product. Open source software is free to download and yours to edit, unlike software from, say, Microsoft, which must be purchased (usually for approximately the cost of one arm and one leg... or your grandmother) and you cannot edit or change in any way beyond the means prescribed to you by Microsoft.

The grander scheme is open source software evolves and is developed by the people and businesses which use it on a day-to-day basis. They don't like something? They take it out. Enough people don't like it, it ceases to be an option. Want it to do something it doesn't? Then add it in. If enough people think it's a good addition, it will become standard.

But who decides? Usually a panel, company or individual, known as the "project maintainer", whose role it is to listen to the case from the community at large and decide what the next version of the product will do, in it's default form, when it is released. What will be kept, what will be dropped, what will be changed, all falls on the shoulders of the maintainer. And of course, if your idea is dropped, well, that doesn't really matter. You can still add it to your version.

It's all very idyllic sounding, but you know what the best bit is? It actually works. Not for nothing does the majority of the Internet run on open source-based software. A coincidence, it is not, that half the governments in South America are moving exclusively to open source software. (Though Mr Bush's old friend Chavez has a finger in that pie, I'm sure. Persuading most of an entire continent to ditch one of America's biggest companies is surely one in the eye for Uncle Sam.)

And now the Dutch are following suit. Which means the rest of Europe is probably only about 10 years away, and interestingly my father (who works in local government, of sorts, here in the UK) is already receiving newsletters from on high about the benefits of open source software within industry and government. Remarkably sharp for the British government, who tend to react to change with the grace and poise of a fully laden super-tanker.

But what on Earth has this all got to do with motoring, classic or otherwise? Not a lot... until this morning. My eyebrows touched the ceiling when I opened an email from a small, US-based sportscar company called Iconic Motors, for two reasons:

Firstly, I (little old me) have been invited to the New York Auto Show at 7pm tomorrow, all expenses paid (except flight and hotel - the expensive bits), as their guest. (Someone should point out it wouldn't hurt to give small-time, London-based motoring bloggers a little more than 24 hours notice for a motor show in New York. Clarkson, I am not.) I can only think they are assuming no one is going to come, so they're inviting every amateur motoring journalist in the world to turn up in the hopes a handful do.

Secondly, Iconic make the grand claim of producing the world's first "open source" car:

Iconic’s not just a little company making 100 very special supercars. We’re making supercars a new way: Open Source design, based on Joy's Law:

The best person for your biggest challenge doesn't work for your company.

I've been a computer guy all my life, with Digital Equipment and as an Oracle VAR, etc. Whether you’re a fan of cars or the internet, you'll love this collaboration.

The Iconic Motors Collaborative Design Initiative (CDI) will be a continuing conversation about the best way to conceive, equip and produce cars right here in America, using the very best suppliers: little companies that normally serve the space and aeronautical industry and the people who custom-build race cars.

And we'd love for you to contribute your own ideas! Using DIGG-like polling, we'll float the best ideas to the top - you will, not me. If one of your ideas wins, you'll be rewarded monetarily and recognized publicly.

So there you have it. This must be my perfect car, as I'm a fan of both cars and the Internet. I should be in seventh heaven as Iconic present themselves as the "maintainers" of an open source supercar, to which anyone can contribute and contributions are welcomed. The trouble is, I'm not.

Here's the thing. An open source project is only as good as the quality of the community contributing. Some open source projects attract super-genii by the bucket load and shoot off in to the stratosphere, surpassing anything even the biggest production budget can conjure up. Look at the Apache web server for a case in point - unbeknownst to the gazzillions of Internet users, this piece of software is open source, free and practically runs the Internet. Others attract a bunch of ill-informed and over-opinionated college kids, exist for as long as afforementioned kids have nothing better to do and then fall down like a sack of spuds.

The Iconic looks more like the latter. For a kick off, it looks like the bastard result of a sordid affair between an AC Cobra and a riced-up Vauxhall Corsa, which leads me to the obvious conclusion the project is yet to attract a designer of any calibre, which is pretty serious when you're trying to sell a six-figure "supercar". It doesn't exactly inspire confidence in the rest of the car either. What else have they borrowed and subsequently mangled to produce this strange looking contraption?

There are a fistful of interesting performance statistics and design notes at the foot of each page, including "Formula One-Derived Racing Suspension" (I sincerely bloody hope not, or anyone who buys one of these things will have no teeth left by the time they get to the end of the block) but all this means nothing. All I'm looking at is an ugly and expensive Cobra replica. I can think of no reason why I would select this over a more faithful copy of the original AC/Shelby collaboration.

Not a great start, if first impressions last, but where Iconic really fall down is in their entire ethos. They attempt to claim this is somehow a community effort and enthuse people to get involved, but let's think about that for a second. To quote Wikipedia:
Open source is a set of principles and practices on how to write software, the most important of which is that the source code is openly available.
Oops. That pretty much makes the Iconic Motors Collaborative Design Initiative dead in the water then.

You see, it's easy for me to sit here and pick holes in a few pictures and facts on a marketing website, but if this were a truly open source project, I'd have an Iconic sitting outside my house. I'd trundle outside, right now, with a tub of filler and an angle grinder and get rid of that stupid skirt they've put on it. Then I'd probably plug my laptop in to the engine management system (because, surely, they've provided me with the appropriate callibration software - for free) and start fiddling with the tick-over rate so my girlfriend doesn't stall it every time the lights turn green. I might even fit an ejector seat. That would be fun!

But I can't. They only plan to make 100 pieces and I am extremely unlikely to ever be able to afford one, and since it was apparently designed by a fifteen-year-old boy, I don't want one anyway. And I bet Joe Boffin in Idaho who contributed to the brake design isn't going to get a brand new Iconic for his troubles either. And there's the problem. In fact, Joe Boffin in Idaho probably knew this, so he didn't even bother to even take part. He made his own aeroplane out of a washing machine and a surf board instead, just for the hell of it.

To call this an "open source" car is a total misrepresentation of what open source is about. This is no more open source than Microsoft Windows, because the contributors will never, ever be able to try out their ideas, say "hey, this works guys!" and give it back. They'll be reduced to firing suggestions at a website in the hopes one of them sticks, just like Microsoft customers.

And who'll do that? A bunch of bored teenagers in computer class, that's who. Everyone else knows that firing ideas at the likes of Microsoft is a waste of energy. The only person who will actually be listened to in the R&D process is the guy with the cheque book.

Then there's the other fundamental problem. Open source is all about the people who use something informing it's development. If you're building an expensive supercar, it is utterly flawed to ask a bunch of people who will, in all likelihood, never even sit in a supercar, never mind own one, to help design one. And it would be commercial suicide to actually listen to them. It's a bit like asking a Maasai warrior to design some hiking boots.

So all this rather begs the question, is it really possible to have an open source car? Not in the truest sense, no, but there are other cars which come much closer to the true spirit of open source than the Iconic. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present the Lotus Seven.

Produced since 1957 and still going strong under the watchful eye of likes of Westfield and Caterham, the Seven is about as open source as you can get. It has always been a kit and you can do as much or as little as you want with it. You can buy a basic, ready-to-roll Seven from Caterham for a shade over £10,000 ($20,000), which is akin to buying Linux from Redhat - you could make it yourself, but you really can't be bothered.

Or you can buy a chassis and some rudimentary bits from Westfield for £2,000 ($4,000) and do the rest yourself, sourcing your own engine and running gear from an old Ford, pulling seats from the back of your mother's sedan and making your own body out of chicken-wire and PVA.

A strong community exists in the form of a number of rabidly enthusiastic owner's clubs who are forever sharing their personal experiences and modifications with great pride. And sometimes, just occassionally, the "maintainers" will use someone's modifications in their own models. And if they don't use your chicken-wire-crafted inspirations? Who cares! You love your Seven just the way it is.

While you'll never get a car for free, the Seven is very affordable, fun, fast, has a real community and allows you to truly build your own car, to your own specifications from a set of core components provided by the product maintainers, the chassis manufacturers and kit builders. If it's open source cars you want, forget the Iconic. Look no further than another Chapman classic.

Well, I'll probably never, ever be invited anywhere again by a small motor company. Damn. If only I'd headed straight for New York, met the CEO and written a glowing review, like Clarkson said I should. I could've been a motoring journalist by this time next week.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Motorway Madness

It occurs to me that few people actually appreciate driving any more. It has become something of a modern chore. We are no longer impressed by the technology of the combustion engine. It's old hat. No one utters an "oooo" or an "ahhh" if you roll up in a new sports car any more. They just think you're a flash git with more money than sense. Few people still admire the car and a growing minority even go so far as to demonise it.

As if to hammer home my point, I'm sitting in a coffee shop opposite an exhibition stand with a brand new Ferrari parked on it. Now, I'm fairly sure that had this been 1963 there would have been a small, clamouring crowd, all trying to get a look at the Italian racing car with the prancing horse on the bonnet. Not today. There are some glances from casually interested business-folk and that's your lot. The car is spurned, passed over for a frothy bastardisation of a "coffee" and a cheap life-style magazine.

It comes down to one single and, in fairness, obvious observation: there are too many of them! Sports cars, family cars, big cars, mad cars, all cars. Just Too Many.

Excluding those of you who live in Nebraska, when was the last time you actually enjoyed driving somewhere? Just getting about has become such a hassle these days, no one actually considers motoring as a pass-time any more. It's simply a means to an end. A necessary evil.

Every morning for the last two weeks I have hopped in my car at around 0900 GMT and headed for the M25, London's ring road and Europe's most notorious car park. Every morning, without fail, I endure a terrifying battle of nose-to-tail duelling for the fast lane, which is a joke, because the "fast" lane is travelling at 50mph if you're lucky, just like every other lane. It also stops abruptly every few minutes or so for no apparent reason.

I'm writing this piece to kill some time in the airport. I'm at London Stansted and, all being well, in about three hours I'll be in Milan. Well actually I'll be in Bergamo, which any Italian will tell you is nowhere near Milan, but Ryanair aren't too hot on geography, so I will have to pile out of the airport, in to a car, and straight in to the customary thirty-mile traffic jam in to Milan proper.

And neither of these two European examples of a global pandemic can hold a candle to the Washington Beltway at 1800 EST on a Friday evening. People set out to get from New Jersey to Maryland with a month's-worth of tinned supplies, just in case. My cousin's husband set out with a hunting rifle once, which landed him in a lot of trouble, but that's a whole other story, and no, he didn't shoot anybody.

In most of England there is no such thing as leisure driving any more. I take the Lotus out on a weekend for a tour of the country lanes and within two corners I have come across someone who believes their Nissan Micra is hard limited to 35mph. There endeth the fun. There is an endless stream of traffic coming the other way and I am now stuck behind said individual all the way to wherever I'm going. And even if I manage to pass them, two corners later I'm behind another one.

I could rant about the standard of driving in this country (it is a fact that you will fail your UK driving test if you pootle along at 35mph on an open, unrestricted A-road, and there seem to be a crazy number of folk who do this and the old bill seem to merrily ignore them) but I don't think people today are any worse at driving than they were forty years ago. I don't think there are any more bad drivers as a percentage either. We just notice them more because when the roads are as jam-packed as they are, these people cause even more chaos.

Which is why I think I will take to driving at night. My motorway journey to the airport at 0430 this morning was positively pleasant. For the first time in I can't remember when, the motorway was busy, but in a good way. There were plenty of people about but I could cruise at 80mph in the outside lane, effortless pull out to glide by the spattering of 18-wheelers on their way to various ports and depots, not once did I have to brake or even alter my speed because, as was the intension when 3-lane roads were invented, there is always a spare lane.

This is how motorways are supposed to be. It's a far cry from an average journey up the M1, which typically goes something like this: you're just free of the horrific mess that is the M25 when you slam in to the two hour queue to get through Bedfordshire. Then you have about thirty miles of being stuck behind a diesel saloon hogging the fast lane before you're queuing again to get through Leicestershire. Nottinghamshire is no better and your joy at being free of Derby will be almost immediately tempered by a seventeen-mile tail-back caused by an over-turned caravan. At this point you decide to stop for the night, because you clearly aren't going to make the Scottish border this side of midnight.

So what has this got to do with classic motoring? As I drove along the motorway this morning, it occurred to me I was getting a real sense of what the brave new world of motorways must have felt like to the middle-class populous who could afford the cars to use them. Cruising from London to Edinburgh at 90mph in a Jaguar E-Type must've been an absolute joy, and there were no speed limits. (Allegedly, the existence of the AC/Shelby Cobra and the numerous attempts to set land-speed records somewhere between Luton and Leicester in the late-1960s is at least partially to blame for the 70mph limit we have nowadays. Plod was not amused.)

I can't help but feel I was born in the wrong era and I've missed all the fun.

There was a window of perhaps twenty-five years when motorways were a quick and efficient way of getting from A to B, but alas that time now seems to be well and irretrievably behind us. Cars are too cheap and it's a shameful report on our public transport network that in spite of the state of our motorway network, the masses still prefer it to our woefully poor and grossly over-priced railways.

One final musing: in this modern world, why is it the privileged few who still seem to be willing and able to splash a decent amount of cash on their motor seem largely to purchase ludicrous 4x4 "sports utility vehicles", as the American's call them? Range Rovers with silly alloy wheels, unusably low-profile tyres and lowered suspension, rendering them utterly useless for any sort of off-road activity.

And though you sit lording it over the masses, I had to laugh when I read a Clarkson article the other day, where he admitted to rather enjoying the driving position of the Range Rover, but offered the following cautionary advice: "all other motorists will hate you on a cellular level".

I'm sorry, Mr or Mrs SUV Driver, but this is true and if you don't believe me you are simply in denial. Ask anyone who does not own an SUV what they think of SUV drivers and I would be hard-pushed to publish the expletives they produce. And no, it's not envy. It's frustrated irritation. You are looked upon as the pond-scum of the road, for a dozen reasons not even remotely relating to the environment which I can't be bothered to reel off again.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Lift Off

I have finally launched my latest effort, Classic Car Source. It's taken an age to get off the ground, but I'm sure you can appreciate how much work I've put in to it.

I actually need a favour from any readers who might like to get involved. I need any classic car enthusiasts who are willing/able to help populate my content library. I'm slowly trawling through it, but it's a lot of research and I will be months just entering the manufacturers and models myself. Sadly my budget is zero/zilch/zippo/nowt, as this is an entirely personal project, but if you do enjoy researching and writing about classics, I'd love to hear from you. Vintage bikers too!

If anyone's interested, you can register and then let me know you're there - then I can give you permission to work on the library.

I really think this could be the classic car resource to end all resources, if I can only get the public interested. I might look in to the possibility of attending some events this year and perhaps making up some business cards or something. Could be worth it.

Speaking of events, I'm just about to book my tickets for the Le Mans Classic this summer. Fantastic. I can't wait. Good company, fine wines, beautiful countryside and lots of really, really nice classic cars. If I still have it, the Lotus is definitely coming with me this time!

Ta da for now.