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Holden: The Day For Closing Is Coming. Part Two.

This is part two of an interview conducted with Holden’s PR guru, Sean Poppitt, before the closure of Holden as a manufacturer of cars and engines in Australia.

Speaking of local products…Keeping the Commodore nameplate has seen plenty of discussion as to whether it should stay or not. What has been Holden’s reason for doing so?
There wasn’t one single thing that drove that decision…there’s a number of different factors we considered…one of the first ones was this: we went out and talked to Commodore owners. We went and talked to non-Commodore owners, and we did a really extensive market research piece, sitting down with customers and non-customers and asking that question. The overwhelming response we got was to keep the name. Of course that doesn’t take anything away from people’s right to have an opinion on this, I would wonder how many of those with a negative opinion are Holden or Commodore owners.

Two, we made sure that we were comfortable that the car did everything a Commodore should do. (It’s here that Sean’s tone changed and he became very thoughtful.) What defines a Commodore? Is it local manufacturing? You could argue that it’s that as every Commodore from the start has been manufactured here. Let’s not forget that the first ever Commodore was…an Australian modified Opel Rekord…which we built…and we’ve come full circle…taking an Opel car and making it a Commodore.One of the great things about keeping our Lang Lang proving grounds is it’s allowed us to have our engineers embedded in that program for six years. There’s been well over one hundred and sixty thousand kilometres of local testing, which has given us a unique suspension tune for every single model, a unique engine and gearbox combination which isn’t available anywhere else in the world. We’re talking the V6 and nine speed auto, the advanced all wheel drive system, the adaptive chassis. If it’s going to be a Commodore we NEED it to be able to do X, Y, and Z. This car has everything the last car did and more, but there isn’t the obvious emotional attachment and nostalgic element to it not being built here.

I don’t want at all to make light or not give the gravity that it’s due to the local manufacturing people and the passion the people had for that, and what it’s meant for this country and this brand…by every conceivable measure, the new car is a better car than the old one.
(Sean’s tone becomes lighter here). We always knew that a front wheel drive four cylinder Commodore was going to raise some eyebrows, we knew that, but the four cylinder turbo is the fastest, most fuel efficient, most powerful base engine we’ve ever had in a Commodore, so by every single possible measure that car will be better than the base Commodore we have here.Outside of your preference for front drive or rear wheel drive, for the diehard performance enthusiast we’re going to have a sports car, or, potentially, sports cars in the not so distant future. It’s important to note that it’s really only in the last eighteen months that the sales of V8s in a Commodore has lifted up so high. Over the last ten years 88% of Commodore sales have been V6s, and of that a vast majority have been SV6s.
With Opel now under the PSA umbrella, does this open up the model range available for Australian buyers?
There’s certainly opportunities. We’ve been very clear that the current Opel products that we’re taking, which includes the next gen Commodore and the current Astra hatch, there will be no change to them over the course of their projected model life. Dan Amman, who’s our global president, said, when we were in Geneva recently that there’s more opportunity for Holden, not less.

At the current time, where does Holden see itself in five years time, especially with the new SUVs and Camaro in the frame?
We made a commitment back in, I believe, 2015, that we would launch 24 new models by 2020, which effectively means we’re revamping or replacing every single vehicle in the Holden line-up. I’d also say that right now we have the best “pound for pound” showroom we’ve ever had. And it’s only going to get better; we’ve got Equinoxe coming in mid November, the next gen Commodore of course, next year there’s the Acadia, which gives us this really filled out SUV portfolio, which is obviously great for us as that’s where the market is going.

Our strength, for a long time, has been in large sedans, which is a shrinking part of the market. The growth in SUVs, we’ve been really well represented there in the past, and we’ve got Trax, we’ve got Trailblazer, and Equinoxe and Acadia to come. Even Colorado, that continues to grow, with every month the figures show an increase in sales. It’s about going where the market goes rather than hanging onto a sector of the market where clearly people have voted with their feet and wallets to not be a part of.

When we made this announcement four years ago, back in 2013 (about ceasing manufacturing), which really raised questions about what does Holden stand for, which did have a shadow hanging over the business in a way, we want to stay and remain a clear and solid number four in the market and stay on track to sell one in ten vehicles sold in this country. I think it’s remarkable, too, that in such a tough period we’re still one of the top players in this country. I also think we’ve got a rare and unique opportunity to honour one hundred and sixty years of history and heritage and make sure that Holden means as much to our grandkids as it did to our grandfathers.(It’s a huge thanks to Sean Poppitt for his time and his candid responses, and since this interview Holden has confirmed the Camaro SS will come to Australia as the “halo” car. It also officially unveiled the 2018 Commodore which, effectively, confirms for Commodore the SS badging is no longer…)

A Long Time Ago…

In May of 1977 a film was released, a film intended to be an homage to the serials of the 1940s one might watch at the local flicks on a Saturday. With a nod towards westerns and featuring a cast of mostly unknown actors, Star Wars hit an unsuspecting public smack between the eyes. 2017 sees the fortieth anniversary of that film and Private Fleet takes a look at a few of the cars that turn forty also.

Holden HZ.
Yes, a bit of nothing more than a new grille differentiated the HZ Kingswood from the previous model visually, but it was underneath, with the introduction of RTS or Radial Tuned Suspension , that made this an important car for the then flourishing Aussie market. It was also the last large sedan Holden would make for some time.
Chrysler Sigma.
“It’s a sensation” went the advertising for a car that was built by Chrysler Australia and was based on the same car made by Mitsubishi. Powered (stop snickering) b,y at the entry level, 1.6L carbied four cylinder that was good for 56 kilowatts and 117 torques, the GE series Sigma became a mainstay of the Aussie market for a few years and kept the Sigma name plate when Mitsubishi took over the Chrysler manufacturing. There was even a Sports pack for the 2.0L version, with striping, low fuel warning light, sports tiller, and steel belted radials.Ford LTD 2.
Although a nameplate once familiar to Aussies, this was the American version and was, oddly, classified as an intermediate sized car. Given it was bigger than the German battleship Tirpitz and was powered by a strictly V8 engined lineup putting power down via a three speed auto, it’s hard to believe that a five point five metre machine could be considered an “intermediate” sized car. It was available in three trim levels including the top of the range Brougham, a name familiar to Australia Holden fans as the predecessor to the Statesman.Volvo 262C.
The squared off, boxy, blocky Volvo designs of the 1970s gained some coolness with this car from Swedish manufacturer, Volvo. Built in Italy and powered by a 2.6 litre V6 engine, this two door beauty still looks as gorgeous as the day it first appeared in 1977. Italian design house Bertone was responsible for both the design and build, with the coupe’s roof ten centimetres lower than the donor car, the Volvo 260. Standard equipment included power windows and mirrors, central locking, full leather interior, power mirrors, cruise control, air conditioning, heated front seats, alloy wheels and electrically powered radio antenna.Triumph TR7 Sprint.
British maker Triumph, along with MG, made some of the most memorable two door cars of the sixties and seventies but not always memorable for the right reasons. At least this one went some way towards a good purpose, being a limited run of 62 cars to homologate the Group 4 Triumph 7 rally car for the 1978 season. The engine was a two litre, 16 valve, single overhead camshaft type and bolted to a five speed manual. Peak power was 127 bhp, more than the same capacity slant four version found in the standard TR7.Aston Martin V8 Vantage.
Broad shouldered, hairy chested, metaphorically wearing a thick gold chain, Aston Martin’s V8 Vantage packed a 5.3L V8 with 280 kilowatts which promised a top speed of 280 kilometres per hour. Sharing the basic engine package with the Lagonda at the time, the Vantage received re-rated camshafts, a higher compression ratio, bigger valves and carbies, all which lead to a 0-60 mph time of a still rapid 5.3 seconds, quicker than Ferrari’s Daytona.So where ever you are you the galaxy as you celebrate forty hears of these cars and forty years of Star Wars, May The Force Be With You.

The Rarest Cars In The World.

There’s been millions upon millions of motor vehicles built over the last century or so. There’s the bulk volume cargo vehicles, the popular and long lasting nameplates and then there’s the hand built rarities. One could toss in a name like Bugatti, or muse upon the Aston Martins built for the 2015/2016 Bond film, Spectre. However it’s arguable that the rarest cars in the world, of which there are three examples, and may never be touched by human hands in the first half of the 21st century, are the Lunar Roving Vehicle or LRV examples, left near the landing sites for Apollos 15, 16 and 17.lunar_rover_diagramThe design for the LRV or “moon buggy” as they became popularly known, was part of the overall design brief for the Apollo missions as far back as the early 1960s. However, the idea for a manned vehicle that would traverse the moon had been discussed in the early to mid 1950s by people such as Werner von Braun.

In 1964 von Braun raised the idea again in an edition of “Popular Mechanics” and revealed that discussions between NASA’s Marshal Space Flight Centre, Boeing, General Motors and others. Design studies were put conducted under the watchful eyes of MSFC. In early planning, it was mooted that there would be two Saturn V rockets for the moon missions, one for the astronauts and one for the equipment. The American Congress squeezed NASA and, as a result, the funds for including two boosters were reduced to one, making a redesign of the Lunar Module assembly a priority if a LRV was to be included.

In the mid 1960s two conferences, the Summer Conference on Lunar Exploration and Science in 1965 and 1967, assessed the plans that NASA had for journeying to the moon and exploration around the landing sites. Further design studies and development resulted in NASA selecting a design in 1969 that would become the LRV. In a small piece of history, a request for proposals for supplying and building the LRV were released by MSFC. Boeing, Grumman, and others were eventually selected as component builders; Boeing, for example, would manage the project, the Defense research Lab section of General Motors would look after the driveline componentry and Boeing’s Seattle plant would manage the electronics.apollo_16_lm_orionThe first budget cost for Boeing was nineteen million. NASA’s original estimate, however, was double that and called for a delivery date in 1971. As seemed normal for the time, cost overruns ended up being at the NASA end of the estimate and out of this came four rovers. Three would be used for Apollo 15, 16, and 17, with the fourth cannibalised for spare parts when the Apollo program was cancelled.

Static and development models were also created and built to assess the human interactive part, to test the propulsion and training models were built. None of these would make it to the moon. Barely two years after Armstrong and Aldrin first stepped on the moon, Apollo 15 used a LRV for the very first time.1280px-apollo15lunarrover2Bearing in mind the cost per kilo to lift an item from the surface of the earth, the LRV’s weight of 210 kilos must make one of the most expensive vehicles per kilo to have been shipped to its final destination. However, this equals just 35 kilos of weight on the moon. Part of this of course can be attributed to the four independent electric motors that moved the LRV around, with a designed top speed of just 13 kmh. Astronaut Eugene Cernan, on the Apollo 17 mission, recorded a top speed of 18 kmh. 1024px-lunar_roving_vehicle_wheel_close-upEach wheel had a motor powered by the on board battery system, with a total rated out put of just 190 watts, or a quarter of a horsepower. The tires themselves were the work of genius: a wire mesh design combined with a set of titanium chevrons for the “tread”, with a footprint per tyre of nine inches on a 32 inch wheel. Steering was electrically powered as well, with motors front and rear.

It was a unique design situation to get the LRV on board; with a total length of ten feet and wheelbase of 7.5 feet, a fold was engineered in, allowing lesser overall space to be taken up aboard the lunar module. A system of ropes, pulleys, and tapes was employed enabling the two astronauts to lower the LRV from its bay, with the design automatically folding the vehicle out and locking itself into place.1024px-nasa_apollo_17_lunar_roving_vehicleThe range of the vehicles was limited by an operational decision; should the LRV have broken down at any point, it would have to be in a distance where the astronauts could still have walked back to the lunar module with a margin of safety. Each LRV was built to seat two astronauts, plus carry equipment such as radio and radar, sampling equipment and tools, plus the all important tv cameras, which were later used to show the ascent of the final Apollo mission from the moon.

The second and third missions using the moon buggies saw range vary substantially from the first with Apollo 15. LRV 001 covered a total of 27.76 kilometres during a total on moon driven time of just over three hours and reached a maximum distance from the landing module of five kilometres. Apollo 16’s mission saw more time but less distance, with 3 hours 26 minutes for 26.55 kilometres. Apollo 17 upped the ante, with an extra hours worth of travel time and a whopping 35.9 kilometres driven and a maximum distance from the landing module of 7.6 kilometres.apollo-17-lunar-module-landing-siteAll up, in a space of seventeen months, these craft were designed and engineered and built with a 100 percent non failure rate. Even with a wheel guard coming loose after Cernan bumped it during Apollo 17’s mission failed to cause any real issue, apart from the two occupants being covered in more dust. And with four being built, the fourth being cannibalised once the Apollo program at Apollo 18 was scrapped, the three survivors, located at the landing sites for Apollo 15, 16, and 17, must be, indeed, the rarest cars in the world. Only when mankind eventually colonises the moon will they then be touched again by human hands.

Heated Seats – An Everyday Luxury

heated-seats-thumbWould you like to have a hot butt?  No, this is not an ad for some fancy-pants workout programme or weight loss gadget. Instead it’s all about one of my favourite driver conveniences, heated seats.

Electrically heated seats were the brainchild of the designers at Saab – those Swedes certainly come up with some great practical features.  This isn’t surprising, really.  We all know how cold it can get up there in a country that lies partly inside the Arctic Circle.  Saab, like the other Swedish giant, Volvo, know how to build cars that are toasty-warm and can cope with cold conditions (perhaps a little too much so – in a Saab I once had, the soft lining on the inside of the cabin roof came away because the adhesive melted in the warmth of a summer Down Under).

However, according to the Saab History site  (a fun place to poke around if you, like me, are a fan of Swedish vehicles), these heated seats were designed with another purpose in mind.  Instead, the aim of heated seats was to reduce backache and driver fatigue, rather than simply warming up after a brush with a Swedish winter.  This does make a certain sort of sense.  After all, there are other ways of ensuring that your lower half is warm enough, including a snuggly blanket tossed across your knees and wearing ski pants or long woollen underwear.  On the other hand, given that it’s the extremities that get coldest first and driving in mittens or ski gloves is pretty tricky, if dealing with chilly conditions was the aim of the game, you’d think that heated steering wheels would have made it onto the scene first (the patent for the motorbiking equivalent, heated grips, was acquired by BMW in the early 1980s). And it’s certainly true that having something nice and warm on your lower back and around your hips eases the ache of long periods spent behind the wheel… which could easily be a topic for another post.

How do heated seats work their magic to give you that nice warm feeling?  Basically, it uses the same principle as an electric blanket.  This means that the seat contains a heating coil that is supplied with electricity from the car’s battery, and also contains a thermostat to make sure that the heating coil doesn’t behave like the other heating coils we’re all familiar with (ovens and bar heaters) and fry you.  Switch the heated seats on and the electricity flows through the coil (which is a resistor, for all you more scientifically inclined folks), which heats up.  When the thermostat detects that you’ve reached the right temperature, the electricity is cut until the temperature falls below a threshold.

If, however, you have seats that have a heating and cooling function (which you do find on some of the latest models), the technology is a little different. Here, the seat has air vents in it (not so big that they become uncomfortable, of course) and either hot air or cold air is piped around your nether end, similar to what happens with other parts of the air con or ventilation system.

One of the things that was mentioned in that old Saab press release was that the heating system was safe and wouldn’t cause electric shocks in the presence of moisture.  This is a problem with electric blanket, after all, and is why I’m not alone in preferring a hot water bottle on chilly nights.  Some commentators have sniggered at the suggestion that drivers or front passengers might be wetting their pants and thus need the protection.  These commentators obviously have never spilt coffee in their laps or worn those raincoats that ride up and let your bum and thighs get wet.  Or slipped and fallen in a puddle.  Or, presumably, worn a wet swimming costume while driving… although if it’s warm enough to swim in a location that doesn’t allow you to get changed properly, you aren’t likely to be needing the services of a heated seat.  Unless, of course, your back aches.

Now if only they could make every single seat in the home as well as in the car heated…

Car Safety Trivia

This is the closest the Hybrid III crash test dummy family gets to smiling.

The Hybrid III crash test dummy family portrait.

I don’t know why trivia books are so popular, but they are. We could spend a bit of time pondering what it is about humanity that makes collecting obscure and quirky facts interesting or amusing. However, that wouldn’t be half as much fun as actually sharing a bit of trivia, taking the topic of car safety this time.

Not that car safety is a trivial issue, by any means. These days, a new car review is just as likely to emphasise all the safety features, active and passive, as it is to list the power and torque stats. And no wonder: in the state of Victoria last year, there were 248 fatal road accidents; NSW had 302. Some of these were drivers, some were passengers, some were cyclists and some were pedestrians. This is why safety features exist, everybody. There are a lot of lives that could be saved. When you think about the number of people who do idiot things like not wearing seatbelts, drinking too much and driving at speeds that are just plain too fast for the conditions, “facepalm” and “head-desk” just don’t quite cover it.

Right, enough depressing stuff and on with the trivia…

  • Top-level crash testing facilities such as MIRA in the UK don’t just crash-test cars. They also test other vehicles like heavy trucks, and “roadside furniture” such as lamp posts and traffic lights. Yes, they now crash-test lamp-posts to make them safer so wrapping your car around a pole is less likely. Don’t hold your breath for them to make it over to Australia for a while yet, though, so drive safely!
  • The first crash test dummy was called “Sierra Sam”.  Sam was invented in the late 1940s and was used for testing ejector seats in aircraft. It wasn’t until later that someone realised that using crash test dummies would be a good idea for new car models.
  • The average crash test dummy is 1.78 metres tall.
  • Airbags were first invented in 1952 by US inventor John W Hetrick. However, it wasn’t until 1971 that Ford  first actually put them in.
  • The three-point seatbelt that we all know today was invented in 1959 by a guy working for Volvo named Nils Ivar Bohlin. According to Volvo , during the inventor’s lifetime, about 1 million lives were saved by the three-point seatbelt. Let’s all make his name known more widely, because he certainly deserves it.
  • The state of Victoria was the first place in the world to enact seat belt legislation in 1970 when they made it compulsory for drivers and front seat passengers to wear some sort of seat belt. That’s over 40 years ago and some people still haven’t managed to get it.
  • Crash test dummies aren’t the only things strapped into the seats of cars and propelled at speed into an obstacle. Over the years, testers have used human cadavers and, rather nastily, live pigs under anaesthesia. Testing with live anaesthetised animals wasn’t banned until 1993. Cadaver testing sounds pretty macabre and probably is, but is considered to be the absolute best way to test new passive safety features. When you think about it, it’s no worse than donating organs for transplants or donating your body to medical colleges for research purposes and it does help save lives. It certainly beats using the poor old piggies.
  • Airbags inflate at 320 km/h, which is faster than the top speed of most cars they’re installed in.
  • The most common type of crash test dummy is the Hybrid III. To be more accurate, the Hybrid III family is used. This crash test dummy family consists of Mr Hybrid III (five foot nine inches), his big brother Uncle Hybrid III (six foot two), Mrs Hybrid III (five foot no inches) and two kids aged six and three. Mr Hybrid represents the 50th percentile for adults, Uncle is the 95th percentile and Mrs Hybrid is the 5th percentile.
  • Those percentiles mentioned in the snippet above are now out of date. Thanks to galloping obesity (or, more appropriately, not galloping), there’s a chance that crash testing facilities are going to need big fat dummies.

Safe (very safe) and happy driving,


A Car That Turns Head For The Wrong Reasons: The Reliant Robin

And on top of the other weirdness, the bonnet opens backwards.

And on top of the other weirdness, the bonnet opens backwards.

There are some cars that turn heads for the right reasons. You look at them and think “Wow!” I remember nearly going off the road the first time I saw a vehicle that I loved the styling of (it was a 2000 model Ford Falcon XR6, by the way – although I mistook it for a Jaguar at first glance).  Others are a pure dream to drive and seem to have been created by designers who really think about what people need and want (something I’ve experienced with the Volvo and the Saab I’ve owned over the years – bravo, Sweden!).

Others turn heads for the wrong reasons. They leave you wondering what on earth the design team was thinking. You wonder how on earth the cars in question got off the drawing board, let alone the sales yard. One car in particular stands out as a real head-turner (for the wrong reasons) and head-scratcher: the Reliant Robin.

redrobinIf you’ve seen a Mr Bean episode, you’ve probably seen a Reliant Robin. It’s the three-wheeled blue thing that perpetually gets shunted out of the way by Bean’s beloved yellow Mini .  This vehicle wasn’t, as I once thought back in my teen years, specially created by the producers of the Mr Bean series as a joke. It is for real. A design team really did sit down and a car company really did make a car with three wheels. What’s more, it sold.  Apparently, the “Plastic Pig”, as it came to be called, is the second-most popular fibreglass vehicle. It also went through three facelifts (all of which kept the three wheels) and was produced up until 2001.

The idea behind the Reliant Robin was frugality and innovation.  It was developed back in the 1970s during the oil crisis, so cars with small engines were highly desirable (some things don’t change). This had the benefit of bringing the Mini and the Fiat 500 to public attention but it also produced some right horrors. As well as the Reliant Robin, another mid-1970s horror was the Sebring-Vanguard CitiCar, an electric vehicle (yep, things haven’t changed) that was great in the fuel consumption department but looked singularly hideous and had windows that zipped up.

The Sebring Citicar.

The Sebring Citicar.

But why, oh why did they make it with just three wheels?  It doesn’t make for better aerodynamics to increase the fuel economy. It certainly doesn’t make for better handling. Out of all the three-wheeled car designs (the Reliant Robin isn’t the only one in existence), the delta layout (one wheel at the front, two at the back) is the least stable and is prone to rolling when braking   The “tadpole” layout – one at the back, two at the front, as seen in the BMW Isetta – is somewhat more stable.

The reason why they made it with three wheels was to make it more accessible: because of the engine size and because it had less than four wheels, it was classed as a motorbike for licensing and registration purposes. If you were a miner working in the north of England who needed to get to work cheaply but didn’t want to freeze your buttocks off on a motorbike, and you didn’t want to pay a packet for car registration, something like the Reliant Robin kind of made sense, especially as you could fit the family in the back, like you would with any three-door hatchback.

Specifications-wise, the Reliant Robin achieved its aim of good fuel economy. The 1970s model’s teeny little 750 cc engine (with 29.5 kW of power and 63 Nm of torque and a 0–100 km/h time of 17 seconds, depending on who you ask) could do 70 miles per gallon (that’s 4 L/100 km).  The top speed of the Robin was 136 km/h, although given its performance when braking and cornering, you probably wouldn’t want to flog the little thing that hard. Especially as the body was made of fibreglass to keep the weight and fuel consumption down.  Needless to say, the Reliant Robin has a rear-wheel-drive powertrain.

The Robin is notoriously unstable, with a tendency to lift rear wheels off the ground during hard braking or cornering. This is probably the main reason why it ended up being the patsy in the Mr Bean episodes: it was easy to roll, push, tip and otherwise abuse. Top Gear episodes have also taken the mickey out of the Robin. And the three-wheel design makes it look just plain weird.

However, as with all very distinctive cars, there are going to be a few people who are passionate about the quirkiness of the vehicle in question. Some people love the Robin. Heck, one specialist website claims that HRH Princess Anne once owned one. Owners say that they like the way that people stop to stare and smile at the car. Small children have been known to burst into laughter at the sight of a Robin. So I guess the Robin has the advantage of bringing more smiles and laughter into the world. If you want to do this, fine. Just remember two important things: (1) take it very, very easy around the corners, and (2) have another vehicle for taking the kids to school unless you want them to die of embarrassment (although it would make a good parental threat).

Safe and happy driving, whether you prefer two, three or four wheels,


Ancient Resurrection: The Masters Historic Festival at Brands Hatch

Image Credit:

Image Credit:

“A demon of the ancient world. This foe is beyond any of you.”

There are whispers in the dark. Mutterings of a nameless fear once thought long departed from this world. This is the deep breath before the storm. The serenity that dominates our modern world will be broken; shattered as the true power of the past unleashes its voracious fury. On this bank holiday, the Kentish countryside will explode in an illustrious majesty unmatched by anything from the modern world. This is the Masters Historic Festival at Brands Hatch. And Stopwatch as ever is here for all your hospitality needs and more!

This bank holiday weekend, prepare to relive the shining glory of the motorsport past as once again the Masters Historic Festival returns to Brands Hatch. And this year it is better than ever. If I asked you to name some of the great race series from the past, chances are that most of these will be racing this weekend. This is not just historic racing, this is a celebration and resurrection of our racing past in a weekend long festival that will stun, amaze and leave you wanting more.

Making their monstrous return to the undulating Kentish countryside is the FIA Masters Historic Formula One championship, proving exactly what F1 racing should be in all its rapturous, thunderous and almighty glory. No one is saying that the modern championship has a lot to learn from these beastly machines of old, but the vicious combination of speed, power and ungodly noise puts the aggravated bees of the modern day to shame. With machines from the 60s, 70s and 80s including Williams, Tyrell, Lotus and Arrows to name but a few, the golden age of Formula One racing will roar back into life in spectacular fashion.

These titanic time travellers would not be complete without a touring car renaissance, in the form of the Super Touring Championship. In a monster grid of nearly 30 cars, machines from arguably the greatest era of BTCC racing will come together to take on Brands Hatch. The Super Touring era truly defined what it was that makes tin top racing so special. In a time of excess and glamour, the BTCC attracted big manufacturers, big budgets and big names. The 90s may well be over, but the iconic machines remain, ready to reignite the meteoric fires of battle once again. From Nissan Primeras to Honda Accords to Ford Sierra Cosworths, this is not to be missed.

Photo taken from:

Photo taken from:

If that was not enough to whet your appetite, the FIA Masters Historic Sports Car championship will be pitting classic endurance cars against each other, bringing back the spirit of Le Mans from days gone by. Nothing quite beats the sight and sound of a Ford GT40 on the pit straight at Brands Hatch; truly electrifying. And on top of all that, various support series with classic sports, touring and single-seater machines make this a weekend of racing you do not want to miss.

The weekend is not just about the racing, a host of demonstrations and displays will transform Brands Hatch into the perfect Bank Holiday festival. Do not miss your chance to see classic F1 cars from the late 80s and 90s both on track and up close, while feasting your eyes on car displays including Aston Martin, Ferrari and Lancia among many others.

With such a biblically impressive weekend ahead, you deserve to enjoy the action in style. And there is no better place for that than Stopwatch Hospitality. For the small price of £45 per person, guests will be treated to an unrivalled behind the scenes hospitality experience, including multimedia access to live timing, twitter and video feed, complimentary tea and coffee, cash bar and a spectacular view of the circuit. But most importantly, word has reached our ears that BTCC legend John Cleland has agreed to give us a pit tour, sign autographs and take part in a Q&A session for guests. Cleland is celebrating a staggering 20 years since his most famous championship glory in the BTCC. Now that is not something you hear every day now is it?

On this glorious Bank Holiday weekend, its time to let loose the demons of the ancient world. This is the Masters Historic Festival at Brands Hatch. This is Stopwatch Hospitality.

See you there!

Race Day Tickets: £45 per person (Half Price for Ages 12 and under)

–          Includes Circuit Entry and All-day Suite Access

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Road Surfaces Over The Millennia

If I were a better artist, I’d love to create a wordless book tracing the development of a road across from a single game trail to a modern superhighway. History is pretty fascinating, so let’s take a look at how road surfaces have changed over the millennia. I’ll just stick to road surfaces, as including the wheres and whys of roading would make this article far too long to read in one sitting.

If you’ve ever seen a house where they park on the grass during winter, you soon see why. All that pressure and squelching soon becomes deep, thick mud, where wheels get bogged. Shortly after the wheel was invented (around 5000 BC), road surfacing followed shortly afterwards.

Roman road still in use in Jebel, Syria.

Roman road still in use in Jebel, Syria.

The earliest form of road surfacing was just plain brick, and examples can still be seen today in the Indus Valley.  However, paving stones proved to be superior – they could just be cut out of rock and dropped into place, rather than baked like bricks. What’s more, rain and grit didn’t wear stone away like it did brick.

The Romans were the first ones to do more than just chuck stones down on top of the surface of a dirt track. They figured out that if you put down a good base layer, all the rain would drain away more easily, so you didn’t get problems with rutting and potholing as often.  The Romans invented basecourse and subbase, and these techniques are still in use today.

At the bottom of a Roman road, the earth was levelled off at a fair depth down and rammed. After this, a layer of large stones the size of a hand was put down. Next came a layer of concrete (yes, the Romans invented concrete). After that, a layer of very fine gravel. On the very top came flagstones, and they were laid so the middle of the road was higher than the sides, rather like the shell of a tortoise, for better drainage.  Not all roads in Roman times got the full treatment, but the most important ones did – the key ones for trade and military manoeuvres.  Other rather familiar things found on a proper Roman road were milestones and pavements (sidewalks).

The Romans also introduced the idea of roading standards – they had a set of measurements that had to be stuck to for all roads, as least as much as possible, complete with different measurements for straight bits and for curved bits.

Legionaries building a Roman Road.

Legionaries building a Roman Road. “Metopa Columna lui Traian Constructie drum”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Tar did get used to seal roads during Classical times. This mostly happened in the oil-rich Middle East. Back then, tar was the only thing an oil well was good for.  But the idea of combining the Roman method of construction with the waterproofing of tar didn’t come for nearly 2000 years later. From 500 BC to about 1800 AD, it was cobblestones all the way.  It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that a new method was discovered… ironically, it was about the same time that better suspension systems in the form of leaf springs put in an appearance.

The breakthrough was invented by the Scotsman John MacAdam, although some credit does have to go to a couple of other civil engineers of the time, Pierre-Marie-Jérôme Trésaguet and Thomas Telford.  These three engineers had the goal of making good roads cheaply. Needless to say, it was hard work making cobblestones that fitted nicely into roads to give it a good smooth finish.  Cobblestones, after all, had to be cut by hand by a skilled bloke with a hammer and chisel.

Macadam did two things. Firstly, he did away with the club sandwich of layers that the Romans used, although a plain sandwich of basecourse and subbase still gets used today. Secondly, he found out that a good layer of gravel pushed into the right shape allowed for good drainage and was a lot smoother than cobblestones – and could be bashed into shape by a machine or by a road gang (possibly of convicts) in large quantities. Your typical back-country gravel road is what a Macadam road looked like.

Macadam’s roads had one problem, even though they drained pretty well and gave a comfier ride. They kicked up heaps and heaps of dust, especially once motorized transport became really popular thanks to the manufacturing efforts of Ford and others.  A solution was found pretty quickly: tar, which had the added advantage of being waterproof. This was known as “tarred Macadam”. This method involved two coats of tar or bitumen: one on the subgrade before the macadam gravel, then a top layer to seal it all in. You can still see this method used on a lot of country roads.

Then came Edgar Hooley, who had the bright idea of mixing the aggregate (the finely crushed gravel) with the tar before putting it on the road.  This was then flattened into place by a steamroller (which really did run on steam) and was super smooth as well as waterproof.  He patented his method under the name “tarmac” (short for “tarred Macadam”, although we also call it after the form of tar mixed with the aggregate: bitumen or asphalt.

Modern asphalt/bitument/tarmac.

Modern asphalt/bitument/tarmac.

Naturally, the development of road surfaces is still going on today. Slipping, cracking and rutting still happen. Who knows what they’ll think of next?

Safe and happy driving, whether your wheels are on gravel, cobbles or tarmac,


The Perfect Equation: Super Touring Cars and Brands Hatch

Photo taken from:

Photo taken from:

On any normal occasion the end of the month is a time of relief, happiness and impending financial gain. But this is no average month. On May 24th, the HSCC Super Touring Car Trophy returns to Brands Hatch for the Masters Historic Festival. With an expected bumper grid of over 25 cars, the glory of the 90s will once again flood back to Brands Hatch. After a strong opening race for the field at Donington Park, the excitement builds for Brands. And did I mention that there are two legends of the BTCC competing as well?

The 2015 BTCC season has already proven that it is fast returning to its status as one of the best race series anywhere in the world. The NGTC regulations have left other championships reeling in jealousy; cost-effective and ultra competitive make for some of the most entertaining races you will see. The combination of the modern championship with the returning HSCC Super Touring Car Trophy creates a beautifully poetic message about the timeless strength of touring cars as the best race category on the planet.

If the current BTCC represents everything forward thinking and fan-orientated about the modern era, then the glitz, glamour and excess that characterized the 1990s is perfectly epitomized in the Super Touring era of the championship. Big names, big budgets and titanic battles dominated proceedings throughout that time. The circuits may have changed and teams may have come and gone, but it was the iconic machinery that truly represented the golden age of touring car racing. When the HSCC announced it would run the Super Touring Cars, I was returned to my excitable years of innocence when as a child I would be glued to the television every time the BTCC was on. In an instant I was a child again, filled with wondrous joy and reveling in the beauty of Super Touring noise.

And Muller takes Cleland! Oh wait, its not 1998.. Photo taken from:

And Muller takes Cleland! Oh wait, its not 1998.. Photo taken from:

Last year, the Masters Historic Festival at Brands Hatch produced some beastly action from the F1 cars of days gone by, including a tear-jerking tribute to Jack Brabham. However, the Super Tourers were somewhat of a disappointment for those who had come to celebrate the height of the BTCC. After promises of large fields and intense action of a rumoured 30 cars, 7 turned up to the Brands Hatch meeting. In the case of one of the races, one car did not make the finish which did therefore mean there were only 6 cars that crossed the line. I have not seen a touring car race so embarrassing since the opening round of the 2001 season.

The event fell close however to the prestigious Silverstone Classic, which did present a considerable conundrum to the teams. The touring cars of the 1990s were so highly engineered and so specialist that one cannot wander into a mechanic and pick up some spare parts on a whim. There will likely come a time when the tyres that were made for the Super Touring cars will simply run out altogether. So in some ways, the increased television coverage and bigger crowds explains why many drivers chose to not enter the Brands rounds. Not only that, any touring car race at Brands Hatch is never without incident (ask John Cleland about 1995, I dare you), and the bill for repairing one of these BTCC icons will take more than your pocket money that’s for sure.

This year however, the time difference between the two is great enough that the full grid is expected to take to the tarmac. Just to add to the excitement, touring car legends John Cleland and Patrick Watts return once more with their ex-BTCC Vauxhall and Peugeot. They may be in their later years but lost their determination and skill they most definitely have not. On top of this, highly experienced historic racers James Dodd in his Nissan Primera and Stewart Whyte in his Honda Accord have been showing they have what it takes to fight it out at the top. The field itself consists of cars from across the full spectrum of BTCC history, including a Ford Sierra RS500, a Ford Escort Mk 2, BMWs from across the 1990s, the fearsome Renault Laguna, Ford Mondeos, Nissan Primeras (including the ex-Team Dynamics car of Matt Neal) and new for this year Audi A4s.

Multi-generations of Nissans: The beast is back! Photo taken from:

Multi-generations of Nissans: The beast is back! Photo taken from:

The first round at Donington Park saw a massive grid of 27 cars take on the track, with honours shared between Patrick Watts and Stewart Whyte. Moving forward, the rounds at Brands Hatch are expected to be something truly memorable. The sweet combination of BTCC and Brands Hatch has always created an electric atmosphere both on and off track. The elevation changes, overtaking opportunities, daunting corners and high speed straights make for one of the best circuits you will find anywhere in the world.

To name some of the historic touring car moments from Brands Hatch would take a lifetime. But who can forget the Reid – Rydell battle that ended in a post-race scuffle, or Simoni in 1994 who managed to barely keep his Alfa Romeo in a straight line while his team mate Tarquini powered to victory or perhaps more recently when Andy Jordan proved exactly why he deserved to be 2013 champion in the rain soaked final race of the year?

So many wonderful memories.. Photo taken from:

So many wonderful memories.. Photo taken from:

With such a packed grid, expect action from lights to flag as some of the most iconic racing machinery in the world come together to transport you back in time to reignite a fire long extinguished. Who needs Doctor Who and his Tardis when you have the Super Touring championship? The championship itself is fast gaining more support and recognition; it would not surprise me if in a few years time it becomes a regular support to the BTCC package itself. To describe me as excited would be a colossal understatement; my life is touring cars and those of the 1990s truly epitomize everything I love about tin top racing. If I could change anything, all I would want is the addition of some Volvo’s on the grid, lining up alongside some Rouse-prepared cars such as the ’92 Toyota or the Kaliber Sierra. And at that moment, my life may well just be complete.

I hope to see you there on May 24th. 

They’re back, and better than ever. 

You won’t want to miss this.

Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @lewisglynn69 

Keep Driving People!

Peace and Love!

Holy Roller: The Popemobile

Not too long ago, I did a wee post telling you all about the fancy-pants limo used by the President of the US of A, known as The Beast.  The research for this led me to odd bits and pieces about the Popemobile, so I thought that the opportunity was too good to pass up.

The Beast at least looks like a car.  The Popemobile… doesn’t.  Maybe that’s the real reason why the current pope, Pope Francis, doesn’t like it, as well as his apparent preference for keeping things simple.  And I have to say that I’d prefer to drive myself around in a Ford Focus or a Renault 4 , too, like he does, rather than sit in what looks like a glass box on the back of a ute.

Mercedes-Benz-Popemobile-01-626x416Popemobiles are a comparatively recent arrival on the scene, unlike presidential limos. Prior to 1976, the pope got carried about on a mobile armchair known as the sedia gestatoria, which roughly means “portable chair”.  Pope Paul VI scrapped the idea of being carried about on the shoulders of fellow human beings and organised a modified Toyota Land Cruiser  instead.  It used to take 12 blokes to carry it, partly because that padded throne was pretty heavy and partly in memory of the 12 disciples of Jesus… although Jesus’s preferred forms of transport were foot, rowing boat and a borrowed donkey.

Popemobiles tend to come in two varieties: open top and bulletproof.  The uncovered ones tend to get used when the Pope is on his home turf in the Vatican, with the bulletproof ones being kept for overseas trips. The bulletproof ones came in after the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981.

A number of vehicles have been modified over the years to be used as Popemobiles.  Fords, Fiats, a SEAT Panda (close cousin to the Fiat of the same name), a Kia and some British Leyland trucks have all been customised for the task, which is as close as a car comes to being consecrated.  A few other obscure vehicles have also been used over the years.  The current Popemobile is a modified Mercedes-Benz M-Class SUV.  All Popemobiles have the same license plate: SCV 1, with the SCV standing for Status Civitatis Vaticanae meaning “City State of the Vatican”.

Engine: 5-litre V8, petrol fuel.  There are probably plans afoot for greener versions.

Seating: Five maximum: two in the front (one chauffeur and one bodyguard), one in the special chair and two aides in the rear cabin facing backwards and lower down where the general public can’t see them so well.  The answer to the debate over how many guardian angels you can fit in the rear of the Popemobile along with His Holiness is probably the same as the one about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  The actual chair itself has a hydraulic lift system to get it up to the top of the turret for maximum visibility.  Entrance to the seat is through the rear door, and to get into this seat, the Pope goes through the rear door, climbs up a couple of steps, sits down then presses a button to get the chair up into the right place.

Performance: Tipping the scales at 5 tonnes thanks to heaps of body armour, the current Popemobile has a top speed of 160 mph and does the 0–60 mph “sprint” in 15 seconds, assuming that there’s a clear space in front.  The usual speed while on duty is more like 6 mph.  Fuel consumption is 15 miles per gallon.

Safety and security: The bulletproof glass around the rear cabin is actually plastic glass and is three inches thick, capable of withstanding explosions. The underside of the car is protected by a bombproof steel plate half an inch thick.  Kelvar body armour lines the sides of the cabin.  The rear cabin has its own oxygen supply and air filters to withstand biological attack.  The run-flat tyres are able to be used at speeds up to 70 mph.

I did notice that the special chair thing in the rear cabin doesn’t have a seatbelt…

Safe and happy driving – and don’t forget your seatbelts!