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.

P1010951

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, Riding

Dolores Umbridge. Now in charge of speed limit policy.

Speeding fines handed out by courts are hitting a new high.  In 2013, nearly 115,000 drivers waited while a magistrate looked down, wagged a reproving finger and dished out an average £169 fine and three points.  In 2012, failing to match the number on the stick to the number on the dial accounted for 56% of the 730,000 fixed penalty notices drivers received – and cameras provided the evidence for 84% of them.

If you haven’t had a speeding fine yet, your odds of picking one up are shortening daily.

Why?

The press today says it’s all the fault of new, digital cameras.  Sure, they won’t make things any easier for drivers – but the real problem is Department for Transport-imposed, artificially lower speed limits.  And you probably didn’t even notice.

Unless you spend your time poring over the intricacies of Department for Transport Circulars, you won’t have spotted one snappily entitled Department for Transport Circular 01/2013 crawling into the light of day in January 2013.  It changed the way drivers and riders use the UK’s roads for ever.  And it’s opened the door to a massive increase in speeding prosecutions. In fact, it criminalised hundreds of thousands of previously safe, law-abiding drivers at a stroke.

Van crashes into speed camera

Speed cameras save lives. Apparently.

That dull, dusty document is so full of weaseling that it would make Dolores Umbridge blush.  In true, Umbridgeian fashion, it starts so reasonably that not even the most petrolheaded speed junkie could object:

“Speed limits should be evidence-led and self-explaining and seek to reinforce people’s assessment of what is a safe speed to travel. They should encourage self-compliance. Speed limits should be seen by drivers as the maximum rather than a target speed.”

Then, it works its way through suggesting that drivers should be “encouraged” to drive below the speed limit as a matter of course, before sneaking the bomb in at point 35:

35. Mean speed and 85th percentile speed (the speed at or below which 85% of vehicles are travelling) are the most commonly used measures of actual traffic speed. Traffic authorities should continue to routinely collect and assess both, but mean speeds should be used as the basis for determining local speed limits.

Doesn’t sound terribly significant, does it?  Mean, schmean.  So what?  It’s actually the most significant change in road safety policy since the introduction of speed limits themselves.  Apologies for the history lesson, but the context is important…

Speed limits used to be set by measuring the natural speed of traffic along a given road in free-flowing conditions. You then assumed that 15% of the drivers were going too fast and set the limit at the 85th percentile. Limits were designed to reflect the idea that most drivers were responsible – otherwise why let them have licences in the first place?

The majority drove around the limit speed because, in effect, the majority set it.  Circular 01/13 put an end to all that.  And, in fact, even The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) advised against it.

It made limits so artificially low that nearly every road where the new limits have been applied feels too slow – like the limit is a mistake.  Drivers lose attention, drift off into reverie and cease being engaged with driving.  Failing that, they look for the first available overtake, tailgate the limit-limpet in front of them and lose their sense in a red mist of frustration overtakes.

That means – for most drivers – they now need to spend an excessive amount of concentration simply on limit compliance.  “Well, if they don’t speed, they won’t get a ticket, will they?” tut the prigs.  But when compliance and safety move so far apart, the limits become risible.  Today, sticking to the limit doesn’t make you safe, it makes you an oddity.  When I comply, I’m tailgated, flashed, hooted, overtaken on bends and with oncoming traffic.

More damaging; the better driver you are, the more the new limits punish you.  If you’re used to observing well ahead, planning your drive or ride and anticipating the actions of other road users, you might as well not bother.  You’ll spend more time thinking about what you cook for supper than the road ahead.  They’re so artificially low that you could climb into the back seat, have a quick snooze, make a coffee and still be back in time to brake for any unexpected hazards.

As a consequence, drivers and riders are losing respect for limits.  As they rollercoaster on a single road from 20 to 30 to 40 to 30 to 20 to 40 to 50 to (briefly) 60 and back to 30, they’re driving by a blizzard of numbers, up and down like an MP’s expenses claim.  It’s like paint by numbers; a bad facsimile of the real thing.  But very, very much more dangerous.

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Driving

£300k for a 0.85mph speed reduction?

You might have spotted that Oxford now has a blanket 20mph limit.  You might also have spotted the hacked-off Transit van hugging your rear bumper, flashing his full beam and leaning on the horn as you attempt to comply.  That’s SO much fun when you’re on a motorcycle on the city’s wet, diesely roads.

But the limits aren’t just dangerous, pointless and ugly – they’re expensive.  £300k according to last week’s Oxford Mail – enough to keep eight libraries open.  And for what?  Well, according to the stats I saw from a Freedom of Information request, the new limits have achieved an average reduction of, er. 0.85mph.  The council spreadsheet had even rounded that up to 0.9mph.  Still, one must take 0.05mph where one can get it. Continue reading

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Driving

Flash, bang, wallop. Again.

So it would seem that Oxfordshire County Council are about to turn on the speed cameras again, just a few months after they were turned off.  I wonder why?

I suspect yesterday evening’s BBC news story explains a lot.  The bulletin featured a 9 year old girl from Nuneham Courtney explaining that she wanted drivers to be safe as they drove through her village.  For her, this meant them slowing down – and she thought a camera was the best way to make sure they did.  She was eloquent, clear and clearly cared about safety and her village.  Some shots of roadside “speed kills” posters drawn by local school children, then I was on.  Middle aged, grey-haired fat bloke with an argument that explained how driving is a complex thing and suggesting speed cameras were too blunt in the way they work. Continue reading

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Driving

Training is bad for you. Apparently.

This year sees crashes at their lowest level since records began. We’re killing fewer people than ever – although the rate of fall has slowed markedly since the mid 1990s. Cars have airbags, side-impact bars, seatbelt pre-tensioners, anti-submarine seats, ABS, TCS, TSB, SOS and probably even BBC too. If your car looks after you so well, why does anyone still need to bother getting trained? Continue reading

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Driving

In speed camera land, numbers mean what we like

It’s pretty clear that there are a lot of people who don’t like speed cameras.  I’m one of them.  But my objections are based on what I’ve observed by training drivers and riders.  I think I know what makes people safe and what makes them dangerous.  By and large, compliance with a posted speed limit does not come into either category.  I’ve trained plenty of dangerous drivers who’d never exceed a limit and plenty of fine ones who would – happily.

So a great deal of speed camera policy stands or falls on the stats.  And there lies a rather large problem.  Here’s why… Continue reading

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