Best of British?

Autocar magazine has released a list of the top 100 British cars, as voted for by its readers. But how exhaustive and/or authoritative is it, and what is a British car anyway?

Original and best - the BMC Mini (Picture source: Wikipedia)

Original and best – the BMC Mini (Picture source: Wikipedia)

The original BMC Mini has topped a poll of the 100 best-ever British cars, as voted by Autocar readers. This isn’t really much of a surprise. After all, Issigonis’s baby was a truly revolutionary car that transcended class, becoming a much loved icon and as much of an emblem of national automobility as the Citroën 2CV, Volkswagen Beetle, Fiat Nuova 500 and Ford Mustang.

That the Mini should be followed in the poll by the McLaren F1, Jaguar E-type and Range Rover (surely the original Rangie, rather than it’s current, somewhat bling, iteration?) is also unsurprising, as they too are all automotive icons in their own way. After that, things get a bit muddier.

Nissan Qashqai. Subaru Impreza. Honda Jazz. Renault Megane. All make the list, but are hardly ‘British’ nameplates, although the Qashqai and the Jazz are built in Sunderland and Swindon respectively. On that basis, surely the iconic Citroën DS qualifies, built as it was in Slough for a time in the 1950s/60s.

Number 5 in the list is the Yamaha MOTIV.e. The ‘what’, you ask? Well, the Yamaha MOTIV.e is only a concept at the moment, developed by Gordon Murray Design in Surrey, though one which promises to revolutionise the car manufacturing process. A great British car? It could certainly be a great British engineering success story. But it isn’t just yet.

So what constitutes a British car? One that’s built here? Designed here? Engineered here? Maybe it’s wood and leather interiors, or some intangible ‘other’ – an underdog-ness perhaps, or a stiff-upper-lip-ness?

I think that two quotes can help provide the answer to this question. Noted academic John Urry from Lancaster University has previously described the car as “the quintessential manufactured object”, while writer and former Design Museum director Stephen Bayley noted in his 1986 book Sex, Drink and Fast Cars that “more than any other manufactured product, the car enshrines and projects the values of the culture that created it”.

Storming the poll at number 80 - Triumph 1300 (Picture source: author's photograph).

Storming the poll at number 80 – the Triumph 1300 (Picture source: author’s photograph).

This would suggest that what makes ‘a car’ is the time, the outlook, the prevailing zeitgeist of where and by whom it was created, whether this pertains to a car’s inspiration, engineering or manufacture – all qualities exemplified by national automotive icons like the Beetle, Fiat 500, Ford Mustang and, yes, the Mini.

A globalised and interconnected world, however, aided and abetted by car manufacturers’ predilections for platform-sharing and badge engineering, necessarily makes it harder to define the national identity of a car, as the ‘time’ and the ‘place’ of a car become less distinct. Would a BMW Mini be any less British if it was manufactured abroad? Is the Citroën C3 Picasso any less French for being manufactured in Slovakia? Was the last generation Fiat Panda any less Italian for being made in Poland or, for that matter, any less ‘Panda’ for sharing a platform, its underpinnings, with the current Fiat 500 and Ford Ka? Does any of this matter?

My PhD concerns how we ‘consume’ the car as avatar, artefact, icon and experience, and I would contend that only we can answer the question of what a car ‘is’, and decide how a car answers back to us (or not, as the case may be), based on our own nature, our own essence, our own affect. Whether a particular car is attractive, desirable, offensive, or even nothing at all, only we know.

This means that, in addition to the observations above, what also makes ‘a car’ is the time, the outlook, the prevailing zeitgeist in which a car is regarded and consumed, and by whom. How we answer the question of what a car is can be manifest in surveys such as the Autocar best of British poll. Yet there are some who claim that the meaning of such ballots can be baseless or even arbitrary.

They may have a point. After all, the meaning of a car is very much negotiated and contested, and can change over time; memories and reputations of cars can be both trashed and rehabilitated. However, it is because of this negotiation and contestation that these polls can also provide a snapshot of the national automotive psyche.

As for the Autocar top 100 itself, I’m just rather chuffed that the Triumph 1300 made the list, beating the Triumph Dolomite Sprint in the process. Although I would like to know what happened to the Austin Metro…

Oh Metro, where art thou...? (Picture source; Wikipedia)

Oh Metro, where art thou…? (Picture source; Wikipedia)

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Classical gas: Volume 2

Last weekend, I visited an incredibly busy Classic Motor Show at the NEC. Here’s a brief roundup.

Such a lovely couple - Lamborghini Miura and Ferrari 208 (Picture source: author's photograph

Such a lovely couple – Lamborghini Miura and Ferrari 208 (Picture source: author’s photograph)

In the post I wrote on last year’s Classic Motor Show, I noted how busy the show had been compared to when I had previously attended in 2010. At the risk of repeating myself, this year’s show also seemed busier than last year; much, much busier. Having to queue to buy a ticket was no surprise (though this didn’t take long), but queuing to get into Hall 12 once I’d got my ticket was unexpected to say the least.

Eventually inside, I adopted the same plan as last year, which was to scoot around the stands taking as many photographs as possible before the NEC lights cast their distinctive hue upon everything, then peruse the autojumble for interesting models, books and brochures that I couldn’t afford (I almost succumbed to an Austin A90 Atlantic brochure), prior to making my way back through the show, all the while taking more time over things. It almost worked, but I still didn’t quite manage to get around it all.

It is remarkable to consider that while there is no British Motor Show any more, and hasn’t been since 2008, the Classic Motor Show seems to go from strength to strength. This year’s show was the 30th such event held at the NEC, and has grown from occupying just two halls in May 1984 to ten halls in November 2013. Taking photographs was difficult at times this year because of the sheer number of people there, and I began to wonder if the Classic Motor Show is beginning to get a bit big, a bit too successful.

I then stopped thinking like that, because it’s great that so many people want to look around cars that may well have played a part either in their past or in their dreams. The Classic Motor Show and its ever-increasing crowds would appear to prove how the automobile is more than mere transport; rather it is a culturally dynamic artefact, with each car on show invoking its own affect, for a whole host of reasons.

Taking a literal approach to the 17th century philosopher Benedict de Spinoza’s definition of affect, it is perhaps true to say that cars on show moved each of us present to a ‘greater perfection’ within ourselves, if for differing reasons. Such feelings of a greater perfection may be manifest in a comfortable nostalgia as we glimpse an example of our parents’ old car, or of the car we learned to drive in, or of our own first car, or perhaps in something more stirring as we espy a sports car we may regard as a piece of art (or something more primal…).

Events like the Classic Motor Show provide the chance for visitors to realise that all these cars, whether on show or in our past, make us feel a ‘something’, providing an illustration of how the car is ‘consumed’, something we perhaps seldom dwell upon as we drive our cars today. Such consumption constitutes a geography in itself and, as such, these events are worthy of academic consideration in themselves!

In no particular order, here are just some of the cars that invoked a ‘greater perfection’ the, er, greatest.

BMW Z1

BMW Z1Probably my favourite car at the show. While I’ve always liked the Z1, enough to include it in my PetrolBlog Real World Dream Barn, this was the first one I’d actually ever seen in the metal (or plastic, even). Suffice to say I like it even more now, and I really rather want one.

Mercedes Benz 190SL

Mercedes Benz 190SLThe Mercedes Benz Club stand was a delight, with several wonderful cars thereon serving to remind how Mercedes Benz was once a byword for style and elegance. The ‘Pagoda’ 250SL, 300SL Gullwing and 600 Grosser present on the stand were all were fabulous, but the one I really liked was this 190SL. Almost impossibly glamorous, and also probably my favourite car at the show.

Austin Maestro

Austin MaestroI may be showing my age here, but I recall how, in my youth, I dragged my dad down to the local BL dealer launch party when the Maestro first went on sale, so the fact that the Maestro – noted for its talking dashboard – celebrated its 30th birthday (blimey!) this year made me feel a little old.

Renault 16TX

Renault 16Very smart, with an almost tangible comfiness, this Renault 16 was another ‘car of the show’ contender for me. There are, unfortunately, far too few R16s left nowadays.

Bugatti Type 51 – ‘le Roadster Mysterieux

Bugatti T51Dubbing a car ‘the mystery coupe’ might prompt memories of Scooby Doo for some but, in this case, there appears to be a real puzzle about this particular Bugatti. It seems that while the factory production records show this car to be a Type 51, it seems that the identity of the coachbuilder who created the bodywork is less certain. A splendid car, whoever was responsible.

Jaguar C-X75

Jaguar C-X75It wasn’t just old cars which were on display at the NEC last weekend, as the hybrid Jaguar C-X75 supercar which made an appearance on the Jaguar Classic Parts stand shows. Having not made production, it perhaps wasn’t quite the halo car for low carbon automobility that it could have been but, from popular reaction, it certainly seemed to provide a halo for Jaguar here.

Morris Ital

Morris ItalThere was a large Morris presence at this year’s show, as the marque celebrated its centenary. The Morris Centenary stand had a wide range of cars from the marque’s history from a 1913 ‘Bullnose’ to this Morris Ital which, for some reason, I really liked.

Peugeot 304

Peugeot 304Very sweet and utterly French (or should that be tout à fait Française?), this 304 estate was an unassuming delight which raised a smile. Incidentally, behind it was another new car at the show, the Peugeot 308. I only managed a brief sit behind the wheel, but I was impressed; that early road tests suggest it is more suited to the Périphérique than the Nürburgring than have some cars been of late (even from French manufacturers – quelle horreur!) is also good news in my book.

Citroën DS

Citroen DSAnother voiture tout à fait Française – quintessentially so, even – surely no classic car show is complete without a Déesse (another car to reside in my PetrolBlog Dream Barn), and this was a splendid example. I had a really good chat with the folk on the Citroën Car Club stand not only about things Citroën, but also the environmental impact of the car and the merits of contemporary low carbon technologies versus the reuse and recycling that constitutes classic car motoring. We also talked about next year’s Coventry MotoFest being held from 30th May-1st June 2014 – click the link to find out more.

Audi Sport quattro

Audi Sport quattroI must admit that I was a bit of an Audi fanboy in the 80s; I had the Audi Sport t-shirt and rally jacket, Hannu Mikkola was my hero and so the Sport quattro became very much a favourite of mine back in the day (the ur-quattro is another inclusion into my PetrolBlog Dream Barn too). Chatting with the Club Audi member in attendance, it was pleasing to hear that both the ur-quattro and Sport quattro on the stand had attracted more attention than had the newer mid-engined R8 also present. Which is as it should be.

Triumph 1300

Triumph 1300For a Triumphista such as myself, this was an epic car in more ways than one. While some classic cars are stored away, this particular car was taken on a 13,000 mile post-restoration trek to the China. I think it’s fair to suggest that it’s probably run in by now.

A whistle-stop tour, then, of the 2013 Classic Motor Show. There were many other cars I could have included (maybe enough for a Classical gas: Volume 2 ‘B-side’?). A cracking day out all-in-all but please, NEC, sort out the lights – these classic cars deserve better than the jaundiced glow afforded at the moment. Perhaps the show could be moved to a time of year permitting longer ambient daylight (how does May sound…?). Even so, I’m sure I’ll be back next year.

Black and white and read all over

Last weekend, I joined 27 postgraduates and academics for the Royal Geographical Society Social and Cultural Geography Research Group’s ‘Reading and Writing Weekend’, held at Gregynog Hall, approximately 6 miles north of Newtown, in Powys.

Gregynog Hall - a place to read and a place to be read (Pictue source: author's photograph).

Gregynog Hall – a place to read and a place to be read (Pictue source: author’s photograph).

Having booked my place late, I would also arrive after most of the attendees on the Friday, due to my presenting at the Regional Studies Association Early Careers Conference in Manchester that afternoon. No matter; with Manchester Piccadilly station only two minutes walk away from the conference venue, I could easily pop onto a train down to Newtown (and grab some reading time too!) before then getting a taxi to Gregynog Hall itself. However, somewhere between Welshpool and Newtown, a huge bang followed by a massive shuddering of the carriage and the sound of cracking brought the train to a halt, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

Blimey. What the hell was that!??!!?

It transpired that we’d hit some cattle on the line, ultimately stranding the train for over an hour and a half. While obviously a far from ideal situation (livestock and rolling stock aren’t a good mix), it must be said that the Arriva Trains Wales staff were tremendous, doing all they could to both keep us informed and get the train moving again. Having tweeted about the accident so as to let others already at Gregynog know that I’d be later than planned, I was also able to provide updates to our progress via twitter – despite an intermittent phone signal – to a stranger who was meant to collect someone on the train from a station further down the line and who’d picked up on my tweet. Alighting at Newtown just after 10pm, I tweeted a final update when the train departed and, with my good deed for the day done courtesy of the wonders of the twittersphere, I finally managed to reach Gregynog Hall where supper had been kept warm for me. And the bar was still open too!

I recommend the Blayney’s Ale, by the way.

A civilised reading space (Picture source: author's photograph).

All very civilised (Picture source: author’s photograph).

The reading on this weekend wasn’t just limited to academic texts. With acres of dark wood panelling, big leather sofas, stone-walled spiral staircases and a brilliant library, Gregynog Hall is a marvellously evocative building, invoking a real ‘affect’ that can be perhaps best described as somewhat ‘Agatha Christie’ – a cue for lots of references to candlesticks and lead piping over the weekend.

Having ascended said stone spiral staircases for the introductory seminar after breakfast, we were placed into four groups to discuss the sets of journal papers we’d all been assigned to read, before reconvening to discuss them more widely; fittingly, my group – led by Peter Adey from Royal Holloway University – was despatched to the library for the Saturday reading sessions pertaining to ‘Identity & Interaction’ and ‘Mobility & Migration’. These sessions were interspersed by lunch, afternoon tea (and cake!) and seminar sessions on academic writing and on the philosophy and rationale of the Social and Cultural Geography Research Group itself, entitled Why Social and Cultural Geography?

It was during this session that the clock on the wall of the seminar room sprang a surprise as we all noticed that the hands had begun to rapidly spin around the clock face of their own accord. Was this a corollary of a long day’s reading and thinking or, as had been earlier mentioned by some, Gregynog’s apparently haunted reputation? Either way, Saturday evening was a thoroughly civilised round of supper, academic natter, some drinks and a large Jenga.

Gregynog Hall library (Picture source: author's photograph).

Gregynog Hall library (Picture source: author’s photograph).

After a bleary (for some) Sunday breakfast, the rounds of reading discussions continued, this firstly on ‘Pedagogy & Place’ and then on ‘Sustainability & Food’, with another seminar on academic writing in between; however, the logistics of Sunday taxi availability coupled with one train every two hours meant that the latter reading session was missed by some (including myself) who left Gregynog just after lunch, musing on the weekend’s events and encounters as we went.

PhD research can be a lonely furrow to plough, and one of the reasons I (belatedly) decided to attend this reading and writing event at Gregynog was to somehow try and rediscover my academic ‘mojo’ after a recent creative lull. Events like postgraduate conferences and this weekend’s reading and writing session are always uplifting and reaffirming, and are a great way to meet with other postgraduates and learn about their research. Many thanks must go to Sarah Mills from Loughborough University and Rhys Dafydd Jones from Aberystwyth University for organising a great weekend, and also to everyone who attended for making a great weekend.

We must do this again sometime.

Gregynog Hall front elevation (Picture source: author's photograph).

Until next time…? (Picture source: author’s photograph).

Morgan a feeling…

This post began as something to write about during a blogging workshop which was held at Coventry University a week or so ago under the auspices of the Guild of Motoring Writers (GoMW) and co-hosted by Automotive Journalism lecturer Andrew Noakes and GoMW Breakthrough Blogger of the Year Keith Jones. However, as it was about a rather special automotive  experience, I thought I’d better give it a polish and post it.  

Just under eighteen months ago, I was afforded the opportunity to do something that anyone with a fluid ounce (or is that millilitres these days?) of petrol in their veins should do: along with a cohort of automotive design and journalism students from Coventry University, I popped down to Great Malvern in Worcestershire and visited the Morgan car factory.

Actually, you don’t need intravenous petroleum to appreciate Morgan – you can visit out of a sense of history, or of culture, or an appreciation for craftsmanship and style. Indeed, as you pass the factory on Pickersleigh Avenue, you somehow sense that Morgan isn’t a typical 21st century car maker, and the tour doesn’t disappoint as you are taken into a world of craft automotive manufacture, with a little high-technology thrown in.

Office furniture (Picture source: authors photograph).

Office furniture (Picture source: authors photograph).

Split into two groups from the outset, my particular group did the tour backwards – sort of – beginning in the despatch shop where customers’ cars are lined up for delivery, before going to see where the bodywork is fitted and engines are installed. Our next port of call was the body frame workshop, which is a particular delight as your senses are first assailed by the smell of wood and sawdust. And then you see – some sat upon trestles, some resting on the floor – the legendary ash frames, the architecture that will become a 4/4, a Plus-4 or a Roadster, and you begin to ‘feel’ the essence of Morgan (incidentally, contrary to popular belief, it is the body frame – and not the chassis – of a Morgan that is made of wood). It was in this workshop that we were all given wood, in the shape of an offcut with which we were presented as a souvenir by our guide. Anywhere else, and such an offcut would just be an odd-shaped bit of wood; but this is Great Malvern and so it was much, much more than a piece of misshaped arboreal detritus. I still have it.

In the frame (Picture source: authors photograph).

In the frame (Picture source: authors photograph).

Then it was over to the trimming shop where seats are fitted and dashboards installed, before proceeding to the facility where final checks are made – we didn’t get to see the paint shop – and then heading to another building where the neo-iconic 3-Wheelers are made. We only saw the final stage of this, but it was enough for a few pictures and a ponder over my next lottery win. I’ll probably need more than a tenner though.

Three wheels good... (Picture source: authors photograph).

Three wheels good… (Picture source: authors photograph).

Cars are more than just machines, and Morgans are more than just cars. They are innately anthropocentric. Whether it is the bespoke customer specifications or even just their hand-made nature, there is so much in the cars that is, for want of a better word, ‘people’ – a personality, perhaps. From a geographical and sociological point of view, there is an essence, a nature, an ‘affect’ to Morgan – both car and company – that is unique. It produces, and is, a feeling that is almost tangible.

One aspect of my PhD is concerned with the notion of the ‘affect’ of the motor car – an automotive affectus, if you will – and considers how the way that we ‘consume’ the car may impact upon the uptake of low carbon vehicles. Although a visit to the Morgan factory may provide a heightened sense of this, I believe that we all somehow ‘feel’ the car in a way that is manifest in the car we drive, even if we don’t realise it, and that the ‘consumption’ that in/evokes these feelings is a key yet overlooked aspect of the environmental impact of the car. Can we make the leap to a low carbon automobility? Do we even want to?

Before my factory visit, I’d always thought Morgans were okay – old-fashioned, six-year waiting list and all that – but I came away from Great Malvern wanting a Morgan – any Morgan – so much it hurt. Traditional style, modern technology and just so much essence imbued into the cars; what’s not to like? There’s even an electric one – christened the ‘Plus-E’ – knocking around somewhere; I wonder what that’s like to drive?

The factory visit is thoroughly recommended – check out the details on the Morgan website. You know you want to.

Défense de fumer

Local air pollution wrought by the internal combustion engine is a real and, in some cases, almost tangible concern, but might plans to remove older cars from the streets of Paris leave the city culturally bereft?

It was reported earlier this week on MSN Cars that the Mayor of Paris has proposed a ban on cars over 17 years old entering the city http://cars.uk.msn.com/socialvoices/blogpost.aspx?post=50e7822d-2760-4002-ae58-4d7c77fdd10b#scpshrtu with the intention of cutting pollution.

The seemingly numerically arbitrary nature of the plan has echoes of the recent UK scrappage scheme which saw many perfectly serviceable older cars – and even the odd classic – sent to the crusher, in a move that was ostensibly as much about boosting retail car sales as it was about any environmental motives, because they were at least 10 years old. Why 17 years? Next year will be the 17th anniversary of the introduction of the Euro 2 emission standards in 1996, a standard which the Maire de Paris seems to have deemed to be some kind of baseline.

However, the article suggests that French emissions testing and monitoring is somewhat less than stringent, and goes on to highlight several shortcomings in the plan, from the fact that many younger cars don’t meet current emission standards to the observation that not that many cars would actually be removed from Paris streets, meaning that the city’s congestion and pollution will remain ever thus.

Any drive to reduce city-centre air pollution has to be a good thing, although this particular drive seems a tad draconian and, my own eco-leanings aside, I do rather feel a cultural unease about this.

A national emblem and cultural icon – and the Arc de Triomphe (Picture source: bahighlife.com)

Why? Well, it’s because I can’t – and nor do I want to – imagine a Paris without a Citroën DS or 2CV, or a Renault R4 or a Peugeot 205 bounding around La Périphérique or parked within a nonchalant approximation to the kerb. To me, these cars are as much a part of the architecture and culture of Paris – and France in general – as the Marseillaise, the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. For them to be arbitrarily removed from Paris’ streets would be tantamount to cultural vandalism.

This may seem a romantic, even stereotypical, view and one that rather smacks of cognitive dissonance given my environmental concerns but, in my capacity as treehugging petrolhead, such views are perhaps inevitable and provide an illustration of how the cultural consumption of the car renders it more than mere transport.

Very evocative (Picture source: wikipedia)

Maybe, in time, electric cars such as the Bollore BlueCar used in the AutoLib electric car-hire scheme or the brilliant little Renault Twizy (as pictured in the banner image in the title of my blog) will become les nouveaux icônes de rues Parisienne.

Until then, I echo the calls of the article’s author to leave the classic car alone. The DS, 2CV and R4 are as iconic as the Mini and Jaguar E-Type are on this side of La Manche. A city like Paris stirs the passions – all the books say so (!) – and I reckon if one of Europe’s great capital cities were to be bereft of some it’s nation’s great cultural emblems, it would lose part of its essence, its nature, its affect.

Ce serait tragique!