Driving, Musings

Brooklands

There weren’t many better places to enjoy clear, blue sky and things with engines than Brooklands last Saturday. It must have been a study for the English country idyll in 1906 when Hugh Locke King (the chap who owned most of Weybridge) decided to build the world’s first motor racing track on his fields and woods.

All the best ideas need a bottle or two.

Like most good ideas, it was hatched over several bottles, a good supper and some good pals. And, despite a conspicuous lack of key performance indicators, service level agreements and “official” suppliers of branded anything, it became the crucible that produced British motorsport and British aviation.

One I was sorely tempted to bring home.

A proper Rolls Royce. One I was sorely tempted to bring home.

The Brooklands banking in sunshine.

The Brooklands banking in sunshine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Take Selwyn Francis Edge, a businessman, car importer and noted motoring enthusiast. Even before the track was open, he decided that he would set a record for driving at 60mph over 24 hours.  That was an impressive ambition in the days when cars broke more than they ran and injured their drivers about as often.

Mr Edge and the Napier.

Mr Edge planned to use his seven-and-a-quarter litre Napier with a heady 60bhp, on tyres barely wider than a motorcycle’s, and establish the record over the night of 28 – 29 June. He would start at 6 o’clock in the evening, so he’d still be alert when darkness fell.

The feat meant hustling a car that only its good friends would have described as ‘overpowered’ and ‘skittish’ around a banked concrete oval of 2.75 miles for 24 hours. With acetylene headlights needing – shall we say – a little help, it meant lighting the edge of the nighttime track with lanterns and flares. And it meant sitting on a seat that was really a green buttoned-leather club chair. With brakes that looked better than they stopped – and they weren’t pretty. Oh, and it rained all night. One leading doctor told Edge he’d either die of exhaustion or be driven mad through boredom.

To give a little context, just thirteen years earlier the first motor race had been run from Paris to Rouen. The winner’s average speed? 10.7mph. Although that would now get you a speeding ticket in parts of Islington, back in 1894 it was hailed as a huge achievement.

Mr Edge’s record?

Edge smashed the Paris-Rouen speed and covered 1,581 miles and 1,310 yards of Brooklands track at an average speed of 66mph, near as dammit. That’s an average 66mph. If you think that doesn’t sound very fast, check the average speed display on your modern car – bet it doesn’t say much more than 48mph.

To get a sense of what it must have been like, try steering a wheelchair down the Stelvio pass – blindfolded – while people drench you with fire hoses.

That’s the sort of place Brooklands is. It reeks of history. Still. They made Wellington bombers here (2,500 of them), Sopwiths and Hurricanes too. The Royal Flying Corps’ 1, 8, 9 and 10 Squadrons had their homes on the in-field. Hugh Dowding (he of “Dowding Spread” machine gun harmonisation fame) learned to fly at Brooklands. You can still smell the 100 octane and cordite.

Historics’ Auction

The banking in the sunshine. 148mph, anyone?

The banking in the sunshine. 148mph, anyone?

I’d gone to see some of the cars in Historics’ June auction. There were some real beauties. And a couple I rather fancied. An Amazon 121 combi (that’s the shooting brake version of mine), a little Alfa 1300 Junior, a proper Rover P4 and a T1 Bentley (really a Shadow that reeks just a little less of cheap cigars and sheepskin). Also, to demonstrate what a taste-setter I am, a Rolls Carmargue – they’re soon going to be seriously hot property, mark my words. And a couple of BMW 635CSis.

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No, that’s fine. Rest your catalogue on this E Type’s roof.

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They wouldn’t have let the likes of me in back then.

Some Mercedes are Grosser than others.

Some Mercedes are Grosser than others. Here’s a 600 on the finishing straight

The auction was fascinating. There were serious dealers with every other catalogue page clogged with Post-Its.  There were dilettantes like me, with more hope than expectation. And there were chaps in scruffy jeans with 18ct gold Submariners who, I suspect, owned some of the more exotic kit on offer.

The auctioneers had a perfect line in cynical, slightly combative patter. To a buyer offering a £100 increase “Ah, a squeak. I see we now have a mouse-bidder” and, to another reluctantly plodding bidder, “I asked you for £50,000 twenty minutes ago and now you’ve just bid £50,000. You could have saved me the time, couldn’t you?”  All splendidly good natured.

Auction prices.

The first lot of the day – bits of a Bentley 3 1/2 that the uninitiated would use to make a garden shed – was expertly auctioneered up to just over £1,100. A white Bentley Continental R with under 50k on the clock sold for under £25k. Even if it was lard-white, that’s still insanely cheap for a soft top Bentley. A Noble Ferrari 330 P4 replica with a £30k reserve hit just over the target – which may have been bargain of the day. And a Delorean DMC-12 with barely delivery mileage and the factory papers still in the window clocked up a busting £57,120.

As a Z3M headed north of £17,000 I decided I’d stick with the Amazon.  But my Carmargue didn’t sell, so there’s always August’s sale…

The Brooklands the council wanted rid of.

So I left the chaps with wads of fifties that could choke a racehorse and went to look at the other Brooklands – the banking and the airfield.  There’s not much of it left now after decades of development and incursion from the surrounding area. But the finishing straight is still there, with the WWII air-raid shelter off to the right.  And the Members’ Bridge and banking.  A very special place.

On a summer Saturday I was expecting it to be packed. Instead, I had it to myself.

I walked in the sun up past the old Bofors gun towers and a soon-to-be restored AC Aceca and, simply by strolling through a gap between a couple of barriers, I was there on the pitted, concrete track.  I soaked up more sunshine as I walked what’s left of its length. Without doubt, this is the most important and significant piece of motor racing heritage in the world.

This was where motorsport records started.

Men and women with more ability than sense hurled unstable, overpowered and underbraked machinery round with little regard to their own mortality. Courage like that seeps into the stone.

An AC waiting to be restored.

An AC waiting to be restored.

A couple of other solitary pilgrims were walking by now. One father was telling his increasingly wide-eyed son about Birkin and Barnato’s Bentley Blower No1. I walked on, thinking that it must have been a wonderful, if closed, world for those fortunate enough to be part of it.

What would they have thought?

I sat down on what would have passed for a crash barrier and thought about how important this few square metres of racetrack are to British motorsport and aviation. And then about the chain-shop retail park that now sits at its south western corner, thanks to the local council’s decision to trade motor racing history for cash in the 1980s. And the risk-assessed, compliance and procurement-controlled corporate offices within its ambit.

And I wondered what Edge, Barnato, Dame Ethel Locke King, 84mph Joan Richmond and 143.44mph John Cobb in his 24 Litre Napier-Railton would make of it.

Not very much, I suspect.  But then they’d probably have taken the same view of an ex-comprehensive school lad from a rather different sort of estate hanging around their track.

Progress ain’t always a bad thing.

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Driving, Riding

Splat the rat

Safer roads in Oxfordshire.

Safer roads in Oxfordshire.

Most councils use conflict-based ‘traffic calming’ schemes as speed reduction measures and to discourage drivers from using certain roads.  They call roads like these – the roads people use to get to work, to go shopping and home to their families – ‘rat runs’.

In my own village in West Oxfordshire we have had ‘calming’ imposed on each of the four ‘rat runs’ into the village.  The reason?  Pressure from some residents that traffic was too fast.  Accident history certainly didn’t give a reason for engineering measures – 12 injury accidents in 5 years, not one speed-related – but ‘fear of speeding traffic’ was significant enough to justify pinch-points and chicanes.

Not so calm

It seems Bampton’s calming caused more crashes in its first six months than the entire village had seen in six years.  It certainly caused many column-inches and minutes of airtime discussion in the local press. Even years later there’s still plenty of evidence of conflict – broken glass, bits of bodywork and scraped posts in the traffic calming.  And residents still say speeding traffic is a problem.

The road safety results?  Well, we don’t know.  No surveys were carried out before the calming was imposed, so it’s hard to measure.  

Calming-caused crashes?

Crawley, another rural West Oxfordshire village, has no history of speed-related crashes, but ‘fear of traffic’ was a concern for some residents.  The County Council installed the scheme of urbanised concrete, posts, lights, signs and humps you can see in the pictures.  They also imposed more bumps, a chicane and narrowing on the tight hills leaving the village. 

Approaching, it’s impossible to see if it’s safe to start driving through the chicanes. That’s because they’re designed to force drivers onto the blind side of the road into the face of unseen oncoming traffic. And, just to make sure they don’t make it through the new hazards quickly, the bumps slow them down and keep them exposed to danger for the maximum length of time. 

The new Crawley scheme was quick in claiming its first victim – just a few days after it was imposed.  You can see the results in the pictures. 

What’s the problem?

Conflict-based calming in action.

Conflict-based calming in action.

These schemes rely on bringing road users into conflict. They could almost have been designed deliberately to cause maximum aggression; clearly telling one set of drivers that they have right of way, then forcing other drivers into their path.  It doesn’t slow traffic down, it just promotes tension, aggression and conflict – completely unnecessarily and with absolutely no benefit.

That’s because conflict narrows and concentrates drivers’ perception and observation to dealing with the conflict – not driving safely.  For one group it becomes all about getting their vehicles over the hump, through the chicane and past the road furniture without having an accident.  For the other group, it means forcibly insisting on their right of way by speeding up, driving aggressively straight at opposing vehicles, hooting and gesturing. Perfect for ensuring that both sets of road users are agitated, aggressive and distracted as they drive through villages.

Politics over safety

One wonders whether the politicisation of road safety might be largely to blame.  After all, a councillor faced with a committee of residents railing about ‘fear of speeding traffic’ rapidly sees voters fleeing to his rivals.  This means he must do something and, more importantly, be seen to be doing something.  Ideally, “something” means a scheme that is perceived to punish those horrid drivers who speed through our village – whilst leaving us free to speed through theirs. 

In fact, shared space schemes would be far more effective in reducing speeds and enhancing the environment.  That’s because they don’t promote aggression and conflict – they promote ambiguity in which road users have to negotiate their way safely as equals.  Shared space does away with the forests of shouty signs, urban concrete and jarring humps – the visual cues road users rely on to know what they should do – and makes the environment more natural and ambiguous.  Ambiguity has the opposite effect to conflict; drivers slow down and observe more widely as they search for visual cues.  Each group is equally discomfited by it, so no-one can aggressively insist on their ‘rights’.   

As Hans Monderman, architect of the shared space concept in Holland, argued:

“Who has the right of way? I don’t care. People here have to find their own way, negotiate for themselves, use their own brains.”

Perhaps it’s time to stop promoting conflict and one-size-fits-all urban ugliness.  Instead, we could look at schemes that not only enhance villages but make them safer and more pleasant too. 

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Driving

Time to be practical, not ideological, about transport

There’s been a lot of fuss in Oxford lately about Oxfordshire County Council taking £4m in bus gate fines.  Even the RAC has waded in to suggest that the system of fining drivers is ‘broken’.  The fines are an issue, but the bigger issue is the ideology that drives so much transport policy.  “After all,” the argument goes, “bus gates are there to help keep the traffic moving…”  But if that’s the case, why are congestion-busting motorcycles not allowed through?  The answer is ideology.  Buses and taxis are collective.  Cars and motorcycles are personal transport.  Public ownership (or regulation) good, private ownership bad.

But we need to ditch the ideology and get practical.  ‘The Transport Debate’ is still a little like the trench battles of World War One. Both sides have dug in behind the wire and are busy shelling each other – even after years of it doing no good. Progress is being measured in inches, and no-one’s really winning the battle. It’s time to come out to kick a few arguments around in no-man’s land.

Time to update transport policy

Time to update transport policy

Is it all about cars?

It’s axiomatic that the car brings a huge degree of personal freedom – but it brings it at a cost. The cost is decreasing massively as cars and the fuels on which they run become cleaner, but it still needs to be addressed. The question is ‘how’? Is the best way forward to restrict, tax and impose or is it to improve, educate and empower? What’s the best way to give people viable, real-world transport choices?

So far, most of the solutions to pollution and congestion have focussed on making cars harder to use – either financially or physically. Most current transport policy appears to be negative and sometimes seems motivated more from an a priori ideological dislike of cars than a desire to change things for the better.

There is much talk of ‘restriction’, ‘management’ and ‘compulsion’. Looking at some of the concrete wastelands that have grown up to cater for the car, it’s easy to see why. But we need to examine the problem from a different angle.

Rather than emphasising what a bad thing cars are and punishing drivers, let’s push the positives of other modes and try to develop some affordable, efficient car alternatives. At the same time, let’s remove the restrictions and controls that have led to more congestion, more pollution and more pain for drivers as local authorities compete to make life harder for them.

The best tool for the job

There are some journeys where the car is the best tool for the job – generally multi-destination trips, or where public transport lacks flexibility, distances are impractical to cover on a cycle or there’s too much to carry. There are plenty of others where other modes are better and there are some journeys that don’t need to be made at all.

We’ve forgotten the human beings somewhere in all this legalese.

Do we need to commute?

One in every six journeys in the UK are to work, yet many employees do not have to be in the workplace every day, and could easily work from home. Assume they spend thirty minutes each way commuting and you’ve saved half a working day’s travel by sitting in the spare room with a laptop as well as slashing peaktime congestion.

When people don’t have to struggle through the daily commute they’re more efficient too. The Telework Association believes that productivity rises by 10-16% if people work at home. Unfortunately, many employers seem reluctant to give their staff the trust and flexibility teleworking needs and the Government offers them few tax incentives for doing so.

What is an ‘unnecessary’ journey?

Cars are an efficient method of getting around with large amounts of luggage to more than one place. For getting to the office two miles away, picking up a bottle of wine at the off-licence or a host of other in-town journeys they are usually more trouble than they’re worth. This is why – quite reasonably – there is a lot of talk about ‘reducing unnecessary car journeys’.

The problem is – who decides what’s unnecessary? There is no way I would take the car a the three mile round trip to the library, but I’d probably use it to collect a washing machine, yet the two journeys are treated as identical by local authorities and penalised equally. The alternatives – a small council-run fleet of Long John cargo bikes, more short term parking spaces or just plainly less onerous parking restrictions – never seem to occur to anyone. No-one seems to think of promoting motorcycles as a core commuter mode. In fact, “unnecessary” seems to mean “something the council doesn’t like.”

Instead, the Council makes it as difficult as possible for me to use my car, but only promotes the alternatives half-heartedly.

Promoting the alternatives

We’re told to get out of the driver’s seat, but sadly, the alternatives are seldom promoted positively. There’s a distinct hairshirted whiff of ‘worthiness’ as we’re encouraged to cycle not because it’s fast, fun and efficient, but because we’re ‘doing our bit’

How much congestion is council-caused?

How much congestion is council-caused?

Then there’s public transport – slammed by the Audit Commission as ‘expensive, unreliable…and that doesn’t go where people want.’ At the same time, it’s more expensive than in almost any other country in Europe. The Government spends less than £12bn a year on transport – yet somehow seems surprised when trains crash, roads crumble or there is tube chaos and people use their cars.

Rather than making the car as unpleasant and expensive to use as public transport we need to give people viable transport choices and allow them to choose the mode that suits their journey best. This means empowerment, education and investment not more restrictions, taxes and compulsion.

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Driving, Riding

Say what you mean

Councils and the public sector are very careful about how they use language.  This is no bad thing.  It demonstrates an understanding that language is massively, foundationally important. The National Council of Teachers of English rightly says “language plays a central role in the way human beings behave and think.”

But language can be used to obscure as well as illuminate.  For example, earlier this year on Radio 4’s Today programme, a Head of Social Services was discussing the problem of dementia patients in care homes forming ‘inappropriate’ relationships with other residents.  In other words, of lonely, scared elderly people daring to fall in love. She talked with earnest concern of how one elderly lady was ‘supported to leave the room’ when their new partner walked in during a family visit. Translated, this meant she was bodily manhandled and frogmarched out against her will. Dolores Umbridge would be proud.

All this care with words makes the language local authorities use about the private car all the more remarkable. Or perhaps it simply shows what they really think of drivers and motorcyclists.

Let’s start with ‘traffic calming’.

Traffic calming

The term implies that traffic is so aggressive and beastlike that it requires constant ‘calming’.  Councils spend millions on humps, bumps, chicanes, gateways and pinchpoints.  Any motorcyclist who’s tried to negotiate the mess of overbanding mastic, poorly-maintained bumps and displaced gravel on a dark and wet February evening will not be calm. Drivers and riders are pushed, hooted and faced-off with oncoming traffic, made aggressive by artificial constraints. But in Councilland, this deliberately provoked and facilitated, full-on road user conflict is called ‘calming’.

Strangely, most traffic is a lot calmer without it.

No conflict here. Move along now.

No conflict here. Move along now.

Thumps

In some parts of the country, drivers and riders are faced with slippery, hard-edged, jarring thermoplastic humps.  If you have a back condition, these can be agony to traverse at any speed.  If you’re a motorcyclist riding in the rain at night, they’re as slippery as a slug and lethal.

To your local council, they’re ‘thumps‘. Yes, that council that does soooo much to avoid even the faintest trace of conflict and demonises ‘hostile’ language calls these ‘thumps’.  But, maybe, they just think those evil, private car and motorcycle users deserve being hit up a bit.

Pinch points

Safer roads in Oxfordshire.

Safer roads in Oxfordshire.

Pinch points are designed to let just one vehicle through at a time. It’s clearly fine to ‘pinch’ drivers, rather as a spiteful schoolchild might pinch another when teacher isn’t looking. By forcing only one car through a gap at a time, councils promote conflict, anger and immense frustration at peak times. Giving those nasty drivers a quick nip when no-one’s looking is absolutely fine.

Village gateways

In ‘traffic management’ (there we go again – the implication that drivers can’t be left to use their own intelligence) terms, a ‘gateway’ is designed to protect a village and keep those nasty drivers out.  The very antithesis of of the faux-equality and ‘inclusion’ espoused by council thinking. Gateways narrow the road so that vehicles are forced to cross into the opposite carriageway into direct conflict.  Drivers and riders are forced into the path of oncoming traffic with the intention of reducing speeds.

Gateways also illustrate – beautifully – a complete lack of understanding of human nature.  Of course everyone should play nicely, giving way, not rushing, not pushing and not being aggressive.  But gateways encourage and promote the opposite behaviour as drivers insist on their rights of way by driving uncompromisingly straight and hard at oncoming traffic. Others try to sneak in the wake of a lead car in an attempt to get through.

It's all about safety, mostly for councillors' electoral chances.

The sign says ‘Danger! Road safety measure ahead’.

Pedestrian refuges 

See those poor, terrified pedestrians.  See them cower in the face of the evil drivers.  See them huddle, clutching each other on the isles of the pedestrian refuge.  The language is absolutely clear – the car is evil and a threat from which defenceless pedestrians need protection.

Clearly, cars are not driven by normal people with children, families and hearts. They are driven by the sort of people from who society needs to seek refuge.

Severed roads

“Severed” is a pretty strong word. An unusual one too. The dictionary has it as “divide by cutting or slicing, especially suddenly and forcibly.” Powerful language from organisations that would describe the frogmarching of a pensioner from a room as ‘enabling her to leave’. Someone must have gone out of their way to choose such a deliberately aggressive term.

They’re described thus; “Severed roads… provide the ultimate deterrent to rat running.” And imagine a councillor or council employee describing any other group in society as ‘rats’. They’d be taken away for reprogramming faster than a final council tax demand.

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Those damn ‘rat-runners’ trying to get to work to support their families.

Dragon’s Teeth

Another wonderfully hostile term describes white, spiked markings at the entrance to towns and villages.  Dragon’s Teeth.  Cornwall County Council’s website describes them thus: “Dragon’s teeth provide a visual change and narrowing of the road. They are suitable for village entry points. Cost £4,250 – 5,500.”

Designed to give those nasty, selfish drivers a visual nip, the language used is, again, clearly and openly hostile.

What does it all mean?

In the real world, this forensic persnicketiness about words doesn’t matter.  Despite what the language police think, normal, everyday people use unintentionally loaded, prejudicial and caricaturing terms all the time and don’t mean a thing by it.  But councils understand the power of words.  They treat language very carefully and thoughtfully indeed with the white-gloved care one usually gives nitroglycerin.

To hear council employees talking about using ‘thumps’ and ‘pinchpoints’ against any other group in society would be unthinkable. Yet it’s not only acceptable but encouraged when directed against private motorised road users. When councils talk about ‘severed roads’, and ‘refuges’ they’re making their position and view clear.

Their language caricatures drivers and riders as an aggressive, unpleasant, animalistic subgroup.  Certainly, in a minority of cases that’s a fair description.  But the mass of normal drivers and riders are far more considerate; just decent and perfectly normal people going about their everyday business. But private cars and motorcycles has been so successfully demonised that it’s absolutely acceptable to ‘manage’, ‘restrict’ and ‘control’ their use.

There is no other group about which officials would use language like this. So perhaps its time to stop using it about drivers and motorcyclists. Either that, County Hall, or fess up and admit you simply don’t like us.

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Driving

Up the Amazon without a paddle.

I blame my pal Damon. I’d always coveted his Amazon 131, slowly converted a part at a time for classic rallying. Every so often, he’d send me pictures of it going sideways with him grinning like a loon behind the wheel. The pictures would usually be accompanied by the line “Bought one yet?” His Amazon is a staple of our biennial Le Mans Classic convoy, so this year I was determined I’d be rolling off the ferry behind the wheel of my own Amazon.

I got to work. I’d toured the UK looking at 121s, 131s and 123GTs variously described as ‘perfect’, ‘immaculate’ and ‘superb’. ’Sheds’, ‘heaps’ and ‘wheeled chicken coops’ would have been more accurate. This was a little more challenging than I thought it would be.

But, on the way to a client meeting, I spotted a beauty of a 121 parked less than ten minutes drive from my village. There was only one problem. It wasn’t for sale.

It’s not for sale, y’know.

I wasn’t about to be put off by a little thing like that. Lifting the sprung chrome windscreen wiper arm (they made ‘em properly in 1966), I left a note with my email address. Three months passed with no news. Clearly, the 121’s owner had decided to hold on to his car. I poked at more rust-infected skips, kicked the rotten tyres of ‘recent restorations’ and peered earnestly at ebay pictures. Then, on Christmas Eve 2013, I got an email.

“Hello Mark – Funny enough while I have been over in Afghanistan I was feeling guilty about leaving the Volvo out in the elements and I made my mind up to find it a good home on my return. I put your note on the radiator to dry out so I hope I have the correct email?”

I headed to Faringdon in the pouring rain, took the old girl for a turn round the lanes to make sure everything worked and handed over the cash. I’d done it. I had an Amazon. A made in 1966, powder blue, single carb 121. It was as original as it left Göteborg and as well-built as a Bramah lock.

Built to last. Allegedly.

Built to last. Allegedly.

Dynamo. None of yer fancy modern alternators. Sealed unit, single candlepower headlights. Fear assisted, non-servo brakes. The two front static seatbelts clamped onto a central hook that had presumably seen duty as a storm lashing on the Tirpitz’ gun deck.

The Amazon and I rapidly became inseparable, if not actually rapid. For the first five weekends of ownership I drove, tweaked, adjusted and improved. I knew the engine would have to come out because she marked her territory by leaking emphatically from the rear crank oil seal. We visited family, clients, moved my partner Pip into her new clinic in Witney. We filled the huge, walk-in boot, rather appropriately, at Ikea.

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Who says classics aren’t practical?

Driving to the office each day I fell easily into the torquey, ‘stick it in fourth and leave it’ Amazon driving style. Even forty odd years after it rolled off the line, I could see why these daftly capable cars were so popular.

Lowering the tone at Spa 2015 (in the background)

Lowering the tone at Spa 2015 (in the background)

Oil consumption overtaking petrol consumption was the first early warning that I might not have bought a pristine car. That and the oily smokescreen that forced even the worst of the photocopier reps in their Audi A6s to keep back on the motorway. She needed rings, clearly. Possibly even valve seals. So I did a quick compression test to be sure. Then, because I didn’t believe the numbers, I did another one. How does an engine manage to run on 20% of its original compression, get up to 70mph and still do 29mpg?

Scrap. No, really. Total scrap.

Scrap. No, really. Total scrap.

Despite this, the call from the engine builder wasn’t encouraging. “The block’s OK, but everything in it’s scrap.” The fuel pump leaked. The single, ancient Zenith carb was shot. The rear crank seal didn’t. The door seals were older and leakier than a politician’s promise. The car was a mess. And the choice was between selling her as the shell for a classic rally car or immolating my wallet on the altar of a full restoration.

I took the coward’s way and offered the old girl for sale. I wrote the listing. I felt mean. Grubby. Faithless. I felt even worse when there were two buyers bidding and keen to trailer her away.

I was at the point of agreeing and waving her goodbye when another pal, Doug, called. As the owner and restorer of a 1930s Roche Talbot, he knows all about the ups and downs of classic car ownership. He took me to lunch and talked some sense into me. No, I didn’t want to sell her and buy a Mercedes 190 Cosworth or an E28 M5, he said. The Amazon suited me, he said. She was lovely, he said. I should keep her, rebuild the engine and restore her, he said. By the time we’d agreed to split the second bottle of red, I was thoroughly talked round and nipped out of the pub to make the call to the engine builder before I sobered up enough to think straight.

In the meantime, I went carb hunting. I knew the original Zenith wasn’t fit for service as a doorstop, so research began into the options. Initial ideas of a Weber twin-choke were dampened by asking a few Amazon afficionados. The view was that if twin SUs were good enough for the rallying 123GT, they were good enough for me. The initial pair I liberated from eBay had been carefully stored for the last six years in chicken guano. No amount of cleaning was going to work. The second pair just needed some advice on needles from Burlen in Salisbury and a rebuild kit.

I wanted the car to look as close to ‘factory’ as it could, but be properly uprated to survive lane 3 jousting with those Audiborne copier reps. So the engine builder (who used to build racing Aston Martin engines) rebuilt the engine from the block up. It’s now running a K cam, lightened flywheel and lifters, a gas-flowed head and a few other trick bits and tweaks. About the only original component is, as he predicted, the block. It goes well enough even if the driver doesn’t.

The brilliant Rob and Emma at Amazon Cars in Suffolk put everything back together, fitted overdrive, a new gearbox and the twin SUs. They also added 123 electronic ignition and an alternator.

Clearly, a gratuitous watch shot. Redeemed by Amazon car keys.

Clearly, a gratuitous watch shot. Redeemed by Amazon car keys.

Yes, I know I should have checked compression – and a whole billful of other things – before I bought her – but I’d argue that buying a classic with your head means you have no heart. If you’re not smitten, look for something else.

At Railway Wood outside Ypres

After that initially shaky start the story, nearly eighteen months later, has a happy ending. The Amazon is back, parked outside the cottage, and does duty as daily transport. I don’t get as far as clients’ reception areas anymore – they spot the car in the car park and come out to see it. When I stop, people talk and tell me about the Amazons they’ve owned. Yesterday, at Wellesbourne Airfield, an ex-Amazonian told me about the 123GT and string of Goteborg’s finest he’d owned. It seems they’re cars held fondly in a lot of memories.

There’s not a Classic this year at Le Mans. Instead, the Amazon and I rolled off the ferry at Zebrugge on our way to the Classic at Spa Francorchamps. And before you ask, yes, we made it back too.

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Driving

What happens if your speedo breaks?

Imagine.  You’re driving – or riding – along and suddenly your speedometer breaks.  The dial in front of you suddenly reads zero and the needle’s not moving. You have absolutely no idea what speed you’re travelling at.

One question…

Can you still drive safely?

A 1967 Volvo Amazon speedometer and dashboard, with a straight, clear road ahead.

What happens when your speedo breaks?

The answer’s rather obvious, isn’t it?  There are probably not too many people who would stop immediately and put in a panic call to the AA.  And if they did, I suspect they’d be more concerned with legality than safety.  After all, no-one wants a £100 fine and a brown envelope through the post.

But if you can drive safely and you’re no more likely to crash or hit a pedestrian with no speedo, why do we place such a reliance on speed limits as road safety tools?  And why do we now talk about speed limits with an almost talismanic reverence?

This is from the South Yorkshire Safety Camera partnership:

You can help us to achieve our aim – and reduce the number of deaths and collisions on our roads. All you have to do is keep to the speed limit.

The Tayside Safety Camera partnership says:

Check your speedometer as frequently as you check your mirrors.

On many of Britain’s roads, where speed limits change as rapidly as the numbers on a fruit machine, drivers are constantly matching the number on their speedo to the number on the stick.  The Slower Speeds Initiative reinforces the case for ‘driving by numbers’ and quotes a TRL study that as little as a 1mph reduction in average speeds can reduce crashes by 5%.

But if a duff speedo is no impediment to safe driving, what is it instead?  If you can still drive safely with no speedo, that leaves the whole question of speed limits and their hardline and automated enforcement rather hanging.

Isn’t this a case of making what’s measurable important rather than measuring what’s important?  And, as a consequence, of mistaking compliance for safety?

I’d argue that we’ve taken relative speed and attempted to make it absolute, backed it with threats of prosecution, then reduced and reduced limits until they’ve become risible.  Leslie Hore-Belisha (who set the 30 limit in 1935) intended limits to reflect the behaviour of the majority.  People drove at 30mph – near as dammit – because it felt ‘right’ for urban roads.  We already know that people drive closer to 20mph on narrow residential streets without 20mph limits.  So it’s not those absolute, nicely round numbers making them safe, it’s the speed relative to their surroundings.

Speed limits are not physical absolutes.  By treating them as such, we’ve returned to the situation that led Stanley Buckmaster in 1931 to revoke them altogether and say “…the existing speed limit was so universally disobeyed that its maintenance brought the law into contempt.”  Of course, Lord Buckmaster didn’t have fleets of camera vans and digital camera technology to make sure the law was enforced.

So we’re back where we started – being concerned with legality rather than safety.  You could drive perfectly safely with no speedometer, but you couldn’t drive legally.  That means we’ve simply equated compliance with safety and backed it with ‘big stick’ automated enforcement.

Driving by numbers.  The same principle as “paint by numbers” but a great deal more dangerous.

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Driving

“Simple, neat and wrong.”

After years of falls, road deaths are rising.  In fact, they’re rising fast enough for the Department for Transport to pre-releasing figures and ministers to start getting their defence in early.

UK transport minister Robert Goodwill warned a parliamentary road safety conference last week to prepare for “bad news” ahead of Thursday’s announcement, telling attendees to expect a “rise” in road fatalities.

H.L. Mencken said: “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”  He could have been describing the UK’s road safety policy.  This isn’t about a fall in the numbers of traffic police, this is about a road safety policy that has focused on what’s measurable rather than what’s important.  And, worse, it has simplified the complexity of safe driving to priggish, dimity little slogans like ‘twenty’s plenty’ and ‘speed kills so kills your speed’.

What’s happened?  We have cars and motorcycles with the most advanced passive safety ever.  We’ve seen those passive safety features, like ABS and traction control, give us safer and safer roads.  When drivers do get it wrong, we’ve got active safety that deploys airbags, pre-tensions seatbelts and stops cars being death traps.

Minster Lovell calming crash Sept 6 09-1

Yet now we’re seeing fatalities and serious injuries rising.

Why?

The honest truth is that no-one really knows.  And that’s because road safety has become a single issue game and the politicians and road safety groups are sat around with their fingers in their ears singing “la la la can’t hear you”.

Driving a car or riding a motorcycle is the most complex thing you’ll do today.  Your level of observation, anticipation, evaluation of environmental and vehicle feedback and psychomotor skills would blindside any computer yet built.  And that’s before you factor in your constant interactions with other drivers, evaluating their actions and planning for what they’ll do next.

Get on a motorcycle and it gets even more complex. Keep a machine upright through corners when it’s naturally unstable, plus all the other stuff.

Yet, according to current road safety policy, all we have to do to be safe is match a number on a dial to a number on a stick.  And if we don’t, there are cameras of many different varieties to make sure we get slapped and our liberty curtailed.  We’ve delegated the complexity of solving the road safety problem to a combination of yellow boxes on poles enforcing frequently changing, arbitrary speed limits on sticks.

It’s drive-by-numbers.  And, like paint by numbers, it’s a dreadful, lumpy facsimile of the real thing.

Given the importance of speed limits, you would think, wouldn’t you, that the numbers on those sticks would be scientifically robust, backed up by hard evidence and – ideally – as close to physical absolutes as possible.  It would be tragic to think that they’re simply set by your local councillor, terrified of losing votes, against the advice of the local police force.

But that’s what’s happening.

Why, despite millions spent on lower limits, cameras, bumps, humps and hardline speed-enforcement, are deaths not falling?  Because we’ve decided that the complexity of real road safety is politically unacceptable.  And we’ve replaced it with a sort of no-carrot-and-lots-of-stick donkey policy.  Speed cameras are binary.  You’re either legal or not.  Safety doesn’t come into it.  And if you’re illegal, you get a slap.  We’ve traded safety for compliance.

Binary solutions don’t – and can’t – work with complex problems.  And you can’t get the sort of behaviour we need from drivers if they’re constantly expecting a slap.

Speed is certainly a simple enough issue to address superficially. Put up cameras, paint them whatever colour you like, raise fines, put in new, ultra-low blanket speed limits, change them every half mile and propose stiff new penalties for exceeding them, then watch the accident figures tumble. Sadly, as we have seen today, they are not tumbling.

Speed cameras, traffic calming and lowered speed limits encourage the majority of drivers to think that it’s easy – by sticking to a limit they are safe – when nothing could be further from the truth. Poor drivers driving slowly crash at lower speeds – but they still crash and they still kill people. Do we believe this is acceptable?

We need to refocus the road safety debate away from speed limits and on to the much more complex and politically unpalatable subject of driver standards, education and training. It’s only when we recognise how complex the driving process is and educate all road users accordingly that we’ll stop killing people.

 

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