Friday, 10 May 2013

SMMT Test Day at Millbrook Proving Ground (Part 2)


I am either going to be the World’s Worst Car Road Tester or I am going to have to come up with an ideal driving position for me only, and judge the best Automotive designers in the World on their ability to design a car that without meeting me, weighing or measuring me in any way, fits me like a glove, accelerates as fast as I want it to, does what I want it to do, and has running costs that fits in with my budget, but would that work and  would it be fair, the answer is no, and I wouldn’t win too many new  friends in the PR departments that were going to be lending me cars to evaluate in the future.

I had stopped overnight at the flea pit that is the Travel Lodge on Toddington Service Station, (hmm perhaps I would be more suited to being a hotel inspector) I couldn’t sleep, and I couldn’t wait to get out of the motel, so I set off  very early to the Millbrook Proving Ground for Vehicles http://www.millbrook.co.uk, which is famous and often featured on Top Gear, I parked my car on the Mile Straight and a courtesy bus took me to where all the new vehicles lay in wait ready to be tested, first things first though, I could smell bacon and before long I had found the breakfast sandwiches and was tucking in, I remembered the last time I had breakfast at Millbrook ( separate blog http://bccars.blogspot.co.uk/2009/11/few-weeks-ago-i-saw-competition.html ) and then went out as a passenger in an Aston Martin driven by some maniac pro driver around the handling track, my breakfast nearly made a surprise return then, but today it was safe,  I would be driving, moderate speed limits had been imposed and to be honest I have no desire to rag the arse off a new car around a test track, the bacon was cooked to perfection so I went back and queued up for seconds.

 I would estimate that there was at least a couple of hundred journalists there, and we all had to attend a talk (which Proved to be very interesting here’s a link to some of the facts and figures http://www.smmt.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/SMMT-Test-Day-2013-edited.pdf?9b6f83  ) then listen to a safety briefing (not so much) I have been to many driving events in the past and I knew that the big family sibling, first up, best dressed rule applied to the cars you got to test drive, first out would get to enjoy, the Rolls Royce Phantom, Bentley GTC, Jaguar F Type, or McLaren MP4 -12c Spider. There were 2 doors out of the hall so I positioned myself next to the one that looked most likely to be the exit, but the old lags one upped me, they didn’t sit down, they stood at the back, and a guy at the front even got up to walk out as the speaker was still talking which I found extremely rude and I was tempted to trip him up.

Having said that taking a picture of the logo on the guy in front of me’s fleece and sending him a message on twitter couldn’t exactly be described as paying attention so I let him pass safely, the speaker finished and the hall cleared like a bomb scare, we then had to pick up our driving permits which were all laid out on a table in alphabetical order, I couldn’t for the life of me see mine, but a guy from Twitter who I had met earlier, saw my badge and handed it to me, if he hadn’t I suspect I would still be looking for it now, later it came out in conversation that he was dyslexic, it made me wonder if he’s dyslexic and he could see my badge, what the f### is wrong with me, and should I actually be driving?

My objective for the day wasn’t to drive as many flash cars as I could, it was to meet as many people from the Manufacturers PR departments especially Chevrolet and Volvo who had been extremely helpful to me, and I wanted to put names to faces and make sure to thank them. I was there by kind invitation as I have recently been offered the opportunity to write road tests for a new up and coming web site which I believe will shortly gain momentum and before long will be the next big thing for UK motorists. I am extremely flattered by their offer and I don’t want to let them down so I’m having a trial run first to see if I can do it, before I offer them any content for publication.

The truth is I don’t know whether the other so called experts are actually being objective, or if they say things for shock and effect, or because they are so arrogant they believe that they can decide whether or not Mr and Mrs Joe Public should spend their hard earned on a product, it’s said that Jeremy Clarkson single handedly destroyed sales of the Vauxhall Vectra with his 1995 review of the vehicle, I remember when the Vectra came out and I thought they were a great car, but my personal car wasn’t a Ferrari like Jezza’s , so perhaps he had been a bit spoiled.

There were 2 cars at the Test Day that I really wanted to drive, but they weren’t the latest models, 1 was a 1974 Jensen Interceptor I think it had a 7.2 285bhp Chrysler V8 engine in it, the last time I drove one of these I was about 20, as I remember I just managed to get it out of the workshop before the plugs fouled up and it wouldn’t start, the next few minutes I was convinced that someone was playing a trick on me, I lifted the bonnet to remove the spark plugs and there was no sign of them eventually as I recall I managed to gain access to them by lying on the floor and removing them from under the wheel arch (it was a long time ago so don’t have a go at me if you’re an expert and I’m wrong)


The Jensen belonged to http://www.greatescapecars.co.uk/ Twitter Handle @ClassicCarsHire but it was being displayed by Newspress http://www.newspress.co.uk and they were kind enough to let me loose in it, the electric fans in the engine bay were still working overtime to cool the car down after the previous drivers sortie, I made myself comfortable in the huge armchair like seats,  started the engine, selected drive on the auto gearbox and gently pressed the accelerator, I must have had a lot heavier foot when I was 20 as I expected the car to set off like a scalded cat but it didn’t, the engine just burbled and I moved away a lot slower than the noise of the engine would suggest.

The Jensen Interceptor was the car to have in the 70s, it even replaced Simon Templar’s trusty Volvo P1800 in the 90s made for TV Movie series “The Saint” starring Simon Dutton, course it could have been his other car as the registration number was 1 ST and not ST 1 as it was on the Volvo in the original series, Harry Rule played by Robert Vaughn drove one in “The Protectors” and Eric Morecambe from Morecambe and Wise had one as his own personal car, Interceptors are notoriously bad on fuel and he once told a story on TV about going to fill it up, it was in the good old days when there was petrol pump attendants to do the job for you, the attendant filling Erics car up  tapped on the window and asked him to turn the engine off as he was gaining on the Pump.

I made my way to the Hill Circuit the route is 6.5km, complete with sweeping bends, hairpins and lots of hill with gradients from 6.5% to 26% it always reminds me of 2 of my favourite happy places the S5163 along the Amalfi coast, or the A 500 heading into Monaco. It could have been because I was going up a steep hill and the fuel had run to the back of the tank, but as I put my foot down I could have sworn I saw the gauge move, I drove at a leisurely pace round the Hill circuit and savoured my time in the Jensen, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the sun was shining, I had the sunroof open and the windows down, all that was missing was the Matt Munro soundtrack “On days like these” my day couldn’t get any better.


The next car I drove was to be another trip down memory lane for me, a 41 year old primrose yellow Datsun 240z 2.4 Litre 153 bhp, I think at least 100 of the horses had ended up in someone’s beefburger as they didn’t seem to be under the bonnet, the car struggled up the 26% Gradient and it ran out of steam with other cars catching me up from behind,  I had  to change down to second to make it to the top, I was taking it very easy and sticking to the speed limit, but I dare say again the problem was due to my driving, if I had been carrying more speed, in a lower gear with more revs, it wouldn’t have been a problem but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to drive the car like that.


Another old car I am a big fan of is the original Fiat 500, there are hundreds of them still driving around Sorrento,  a town in Italy where I like to frequent,  I cannot recall seeing a scruffy, or badly dressed local in Sorrento, for that matter I can’t remember seeing a fat person either, perhaps the Armani clad local “Flying Squad” or “Squadro Volante” to use their correct name run all the scruffy fat people out of town, everything about the place is stylish and beautiful, yet immaculately dressed “beautiful people think nothing of driving around in an original and untouched 50 year old Fiat 500, that has sun faded paintwork, bumps and bangs  and is showing signs of rust, that to me speaks volumes about the iconic model as they allow them to age in the hot climate and grow old gracefully,  sadly that’s more than can be said for the women, let’s just say that not many of them could be described as original, and the local “Booby” doctor must be as busy as the Fiat Mechanic and leave it at that!

The Fiat stand looked  pretty deserted and  most of their cars were out on the track being evaluated by the other journalists,  but the new 500 Convertible 85 bhp Twin Air Colour Therapy was available, it was finished in New Age Cream, which made it look good enough to eat, and it displayed the red square in the windscreen which would allow me entrance to the Millbrook’s High Speed Banked circuit, The last time I was on here, I was in an Aston Martin V12 lapping the circuit at 100mph, you may think what’s so clever about that, but the Aston was so perfectly balanced I was doing it no handed, No, I wasn’t trying to kill myself, I was instructed to do so by the Aston Martin Professional Driver, the car even steered its self off the circuit just by decelerating.

I must admit “Twin Air Colour Therapy” made me think it could be the name of a treatment that’s given to the women of Sorrento to help them recover after their “procedures” but it referred to the 2 cylinder engine, when I started it, it sounded just like it was the same 479cc 13 bhp  power (LOL) Plant that was fitted to the first Nuova Cinquecento (New 500) 50 years ago, but that’s where the similarity ended, the new award winning 875 cc 85 bhp engine is fantastic, in 2011 it won the International Engine Of The Year Award, it was the first 2 cylinder to do so, and the Fiat 500 was the lowest CO2 petrol powered model on the road, how does it achieve this ? well long story short it has electro – hydraulic controlled Inlet valves instead of camshaft operated ones, so now you know! I just hope there is a fail safe and the pistons and valves cant hit each other if theres an electrical malfunction, unlike a lot of cambelt driven cars.

I had the hood down and I stuck to the 55 mph speed limit around the Hill Circuit, the 500 coped extremely well, after a short while I became oblivious to the unfamiliar note of the engine and just enjoyed the car, in fact the engine had 6 cylinders, 6325 cc and 200 bhp less than the Jensen Interceptor that I had been out in earlier, but it drove, accelerated and handled beautifully, I was just in the “zone” at one with the car, and my brain was in neutral, but I was snapped out of it by a sudden change of engine sound, I checked the gauges to make sure everything was alright and looked in the mirror for the tell tale sign of blue smoke, that’s when I saw the annoying rasp was coming  from a fast approaching 1986 Toyota Corolla AE 86 being driven by some nutter who had decided that the speed limit did not apply to him and he was going to overtake me just before a hairpin.

Next challenge for the little car was the High Speed Circuit where I accelerated to 95 mph and allowed the centrifugal force of the banked circular track to take me into the 3rd lane, I still had the hood down and was pleasantly surprised that there was no buffeting, and no scuttle shake which is common on most convertibles but as the canvas hood on this model only replaces the middle panel of the roof, and not the B and C pillars, the car retains most of its rigidity and strength. My verdict is that I would be quite happy to have one of these for day to day use, and I would be even happier if Fiat would lend me one to drive to the Stelvio Pass in with @MontyEnglish next month, then perhaps I should take a detour to Sorrento and apologise to all the middle aged women who I’ve insulted.


Barrie Crampton




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