Your First Track Day – A Guide.

Exhilaration seeps from the track, the sounds, the smells and the spectacle all conspire to grab you by the heart. The fact is that you would have to go a long way to beat the sheer enjoyment of driving at full chat round one of our many splendid race circuits, so it is probably quite high up on your list of things to do. Track day veterans will tell you there are a few secrets to success, some of which might sound surprising if you are new the scene.

E30 'testing'
E30 ‘testing’

The great thing about track days is that they are not a race. In fact racing is strictly prohibited, the idea is that everyone can go as fast as they feel happy with and enjoy the day. Corners are where the fun happens, you are entitled to handle the corner in any way you can without being hassled by faster cars. So overtaking is only allowed on the straights, it is quite common for faster cars to hold back on the straight to give themselves some space in front so they can then take the corner flat out without risk of encountering a sower car.

Many people worry that they are in some way ‘not good enough’ or that their car isn’t ‘fast enough’, this is normal and nothing to worry about. Because there is no minimum speed, no racing, nothing to compete against except your own fear, you could turn up in a bog standard diesel family hatchback and still have a great day.

The big day.
As the nerves build before your first track day you might find that you get bombarded with conflicting advice, so just to add to the confusion here is some more:

1.You will need to feel comfortable, so wear comfy clothes. Shoes are very important pieces of equipment, ideally they should have soft soles so you can feel the pedals, but the most important thing is that they must be tight enough to give you accurate control but not so tight that they hurt after an hour or so. Thick soles such as trainers should be avoided.

2. You do NOT need a stop watch, you will not be taking lap times, this is not a competition and racing against the clock leads to accidents and a level of self imposed stress that can ruin a fun day.

3. If you are using your own car then service it before hand, belts (including cam belt where fitted), oil, coolant, gearbox and diff oil As well as brake fluid should all be fresh and at the right level. Depending on the car it may be best to run the oil level towards the low mark on the dip stick to prevent oil pull over, or towards the top end if the engine is prone to surge

My first Rover SD1 racing at Cadwell Park 1992
My first Rover SD1 racing at Cadwell Park 1992

where the oil in the sump sloshes away from the pick up pipe. Again check for advice on your particular model. Either way check the oil level after each run, consumption will be higher than for normal road use, take spare oil.

4.Keep an eye on the temp gauge and if it starts creeping up then ease off and investigate the cause in the pits. But only look at the gauges when safe to do so on the straights. Don’t look at the speedo, it wont help. Do look at the rev counter and avoid the red line, preserve the engine.

5.It is vital to do a cool down lap before coming in (High gear, low speed and don’t touch the brakes) to loose the stored heat in the engine, exhaust and brakes. Never put the hand brake on, once the brakes are hot it warps the disc and can bond on quite resolutely.

6.After a run has been completed open the bonnet and let the heat out, all the metalwork will be hot and will soak into fuel lines and electrics whilst parked up. Whilst there check everything is still attached and not leaking.

7.Keep checking your tyre pressures, you will be pushing your tyres harder than you ever could on the road so the right pressure is vital.

8.Don’t take loads of spare parts, what ever spares you take you wont need, what ever spares you need you wont have. Best not worry about it. But do take fluids.

9.Take drink, a hat and sun glasses, tracks are strangely drying places, keep hydrated otherwise your concentration will fade faster than your brakes.

10.The first few laps will be a bit bewildering, most people feel lost. This is normal and nothing to worry about. Your first few laps should be used to get familiar with the layout of the circuit. Just take it easy and build your speed gradually, you have all day and after lunch you will be much faster.

Diana enjoying the delights of Bedford Autodrome.
Diana enjoying the delights of Bedford Autodrome.


11.Chat with the other participants, find someone with a bit more experience and get them to sit in. But bear in mind that anyone who says they are experienced is usually a deluded, the best guides are the quiet ones who don’t boast. Better still pay for some proper tuition.

12.After lunch pick someone who has a car that should in theory be as fast as yours, follow them and try to keep up, don’t worry if you can’t.

13.Keep a safe distance from other cars, particularly breaking for corners. Build a bit of space by hanging back on the straights so you can safely go flat out through the corners, where the fun is located.

14.When you spin off, stay calm. Stop for a few seconds and collect your thoughts. Follow the marshals directions, check all around for other traffic and indicate when you re join the track. Your tyres will be full of mud so don’t go too fast and stay off the racing line until they clear, it will sound like a hail storm as the grit is thrown into your wheel arches but don’t let this concern you.

15.Take pictures. Lots of pictures. Take friends who are good with cameras. Video is even better but you must get permission from the circuit and also from the event organizers first.

16.Enjoy yourself. Don t push too hard, there will be other track days and the chances are on the first outing you will find niggling faults on the car anyway, preserve the car and yourself. Remember this is not a race, it is not a test, it is not a test of your honour.

17. When packing up to go home take a few moments to make sure you have everything you came with. Check the car is safe for the road if you are driving it home, check the tyres for damage and make sure the tyre pressures are right. Check the fluids again and if you taped up your lights remember to take it off!

You're never too young to start, err, well.....
You’re never too young to start, err, well…..

18. On the way home keep your speed down, nothing you learn on the track is appropriate for road use! You will have become accustomed to going very fast, your road speed may creep up on you without you realizing.

After your first track day you will probably be hooked, ideas for improvement to both yourself and the car will start pouring in and you will find it impossible to talk about anything else.
You’ll see signs about the track saying ‘motorsport is dangerous’, but what they don’t warn you about is that it is also highly addictive. If you start down this route the chances are your life will never be the same again. Go on, book a session right now!

Good luck.



PS: Why not hire a track ready car for your first time on a track? I’ve recently worked with Track Group Ltd who have some rather fun offers. Please have a look at their web site, and if you do decide to book a session with them be sure to mention my name.



Cars, Money and Media.

The media has given UK industry a bit of a battering in the last few years, in fact ever since the high profile industrial collapses in the 70’s the media has focused on doom and gloom stories rather than all the good news that the industrial sector has consistently produced.

I was talking to a bloke last weekend at an arts festival, was was an ordinary chap who happened to have no real interest in cars but as he knew I am a motoring journalist he made conversation by asking what car I would recommend. Being very proud of the UK car industry I immediately replied ‘any car as long as its made in Britain’, he looked quite astonished and said ‘I didn’t think there were any cars still made here’!

This shocked me, the UK makes over 2 million cars a year with factories churning out products from Jaguar, Land Rover, Lotus, Morgan, Ford, Vauxhall, Nissan, Honda and BMW to name but a few. All of these bring revenue and prosperity to the country and use British skills, both in manufacturing and engineering design. But we very rarely hear anything about this on the news, in fact when Lotus dropped a few hundred jobs last year it made national news, but when Jaguar recruit about 3500 this year there is no national coverage, I find this very frustrating and also more than a little suspicious.

I am sure the fact that most of the big media organisations are tied up with the financial sector has absolutely no influence on their bias, but it is remarkable how even the phraseology favours the ‘markets’ at the expense of industry. For instance take a look at exchange rates, to sell things we make abroad we need the pound to be cheap and affordable, but the media call this situation a ‘weak’ pound. But when the pound is expensive and unaffordable, which crushes foreign sales, reduces production and leads to job losses, they refer to that situation as a ‘strong’ pound. Its ridiculous, until you look at the financial sector who benefit greatly when the pound is expensive, and suffer when its cheap.

And the whole idea of being ruled by a stock market that panics like a frightened weasel, thus taking support investment away when its most needed, is utterly ludicrous. A system where a few chaps in blazers in London transfer money when they see their bonuses start to drop, causing a hard working company many miles away to loose several jobs even though they have a full order book, must surely be immoral?

So you might argue that as there are so many people now working in the financial sector that it balances out, when money is tight in industry it must be flowing in the financial sector? Well maybe it does, but the thing I notice is the difference in the way that money is distributed.

I read a report a while ago comparing average wages, I think it was something like average car industry wages were 25k and finance was 36k, or something like that. But the distribution of those wages is dramatically different, many people I have met who work in the city earn less than 20k, normal average office workers, many earn less than 18k and really struggle to pay the bills. The equivalent in the car industry might be factory line workers who earn a basic of about 25k and with usual overtime could be on 35 to 40k, thus allowing them more spare cash to pump back into the economy.

By comparison at the top end of the pay scale things are the other way around, senior managers in the car industry might be on 60k, but their counterpart in finance may be on double that. At director level the difference is even greater, there are no million pound bonuses in the car industry, no seven figure salaries, and all the better for it.

There are two results of this, firstly the car industry benefits more of its employees, the wages are more evenly distributed and more of the cash finds its way into the local economy. But secondly the car industry is much less appealing to the super rich, the rewards are slimmer for directors and for investors the dividends are modest.

Over the decades the press has made industry seem grubby and declining which has damaged its image severely, now UK industry is struggling to recruit the people it needs for continued growth because generations of young workers have been put off by the media image, preferring the relative ‘glamour’ of finance or retail.

Career choice at an early age obviously shapes the subjects kids study at school, and the exams they take at the end. The media bias has driven huge numbers to study softer subjects, and whilst I have absolutely no objection to anyone taking these subjects, we desperately need to rekindle the enthusiasm for learning how to make things, how to design and engineer things, how to turn dreams into tangible working products that people can buy. This mismatch of candidates skills and job requirements, coupled with the apathy toward industrial work puts the country in the ridiculous position of having a large pool of unemployed youngsters and an industry being forced to recruit from abroad.

This situation has to change, the notion that an economy can run on the service and financial sectors alone is clearly flawed, how can a country prosper when all it does is sell someone else’s products to its own populous?

Also the idea that we can be solely a ‘knowledge’ economy, where we design stuff but make it elsewhere is idiotic. All that happens is the detailed knowledge of a product gained by actually making it gradually migrates to the place where it is made, all the product knowledge seeps away until the manufacturing area has greater understanding and technical expertise than we do. Then what do we design? ‘For Sale’ signs maybe.

I don’t know what the solution is, but I know what I see is terribly unfair and inefficient, like a misfiring engine it sort of works some times but keeps stalling at junctions. I think its time this country had a new engine, one driven by selling world class products globally, building real skills and doing useful jobs that benefit everyone.



My view on Alternative Fuels

There has been much talk of alternative fuels to keep our classics going as petrol becomes ever less attractive. But after all is said and done, more has been said than done.
Here is a brief summary of my experience and some hearsay from down the pub, it is quite possible I have made a mistake here or there so if you spot one do let me know.


Here I've drilled into the intake manifold and I'm fitting LPG injector nozzles to one of our Rover V8s.
Here I’ve drilled into the intake manifold and I’m fitting LPG injector nozzles to one of our Rover V8s.

Mostly Propane with a splash of Butane, stored as a liquid under a pressure of about 5 bar in steel cylinders. The fuel is turned into a gas and the pressure regulated in an evaporator that is heated by engine coolant. The simplest way of feeding the gas into the engine is by using a gas carburettor, but these are quite restrictive and so peak power is significantly reduced, maybe by 20%, although most drivers don’t notice this for some reason. Often these systems are set up to run very rich to mask installation problems. Better way is to use gas injectors, similar to petrol injectors, with their own ecu, this is more expensive but more efficient.
LPG is usually less than half the price of petrol per litre, and although the fuel consumption on gas is slightly worse there is still an overall saving. A well set up system will have lower HC and CO emissions than petrol, but the higher fuel consumption leads to similar CO2 levels.
LPG has a higher octane rating and so engines can be redesigned with higher compression ratio to achieve higher power and economy, but again that is expensive.
As LPG is a dry fuel there can be issues with valve seats wearing, but only if the engine is worked hard. Special lubrication systems are available but many have problems with uneven distribution between the cylinders.
LPG supply is directly related to oil supply, so if petrol runs out then so does LPG.

Methane / CNG.
This is the same gas as you get in your domestic cooker, Compressed Natural Gas. On cars it is stored in very high pressure cylinders. You can get domestic pumps to fill the car from a household supply. The regulator and engine conversion equipment s similar to LPG, but with different flow rates. Again there is a power loss, slightly greater than LPG but not horrific.
Also the valve wear issues are similar to LPG.

An alcohol fuel with a fairly low energy content, so less power than petrol in a standard engine, but the high octane rating means that add a turbo or supercharger and you can have a very powerful unit. But if you’re happy with the power loss on a standard engine then home brewed methanol could be a cheap alternative to petrol. Unfortunately it’s very hydroscopic so cant be stored for long periods.

An alcohol fuel with a fairly high energy content and octane rating, it makes a small gain in power on standard engines but can make even better gains on a modified engine with higher compression ratio or a blower.
It is very hydroscopic so has a limited tank life, it also has an unfortunate tendency to react with steel creating an acid that corrodes pretty much everything. So stainless or plastic fuel pipes, tanks and fittings are helpful. The exhaust is also corrosive so stainless systems are best.
Alcohol fuels can be brewed in much the same way as moonshine, using food waste, but getting the water out is very difficult.
Flow rate is much higher than petrol, so the fuelling system has to be modified to suit, although some conversions have managed to use standard injectors and fuel pumps.

It has no carbon and the only emission is water. Unfortunately its very difficult to store, requiring cryogenic tanks. As it is the smallest atom it tends to leak through pretty much anything, including steel. I
t also needs either very high pressure tanks or cryogenic (-253.7 ºC) liquid storage. The other problem is that its energy density is quite poor, so you need a lot of it. If it is injected into the port it displaces quite a lot of air, so power is significantly reduced. But of course this could be tackled by using a bigger engine or turbos, yes its true, with hydrogen you can have a guilt free 8 litre V8! British company ITM Power have developed a home hydrogen generator, simply add water and plug it into the mains, to prove its usefulness they converted a Focus which gets about 100 miles per fill.
And Sunderland university have used CNG (compressed natural gas, mostly methane) equipment, which is similar to an LPG conversion, with a special tank to run a standard car on Hydrogen. 
Again it’s a dry fuel so valve seat erosion can be a problem if worked hard.

Another brewed fuel, usually made from oily seeds or waste cooking oil. Quite expensive to produce on anything other than large scale industrial quantities. ‘Phase 2’ biodiesel is made from farm waste (husks and stalks left over from food production) and is more expensive but does not use up the worlds food supply.
Performs just the same as regular diesel as long as it is filtered properly. Because of the greater solvent content it will loosen any old fuel deposits from an old cars fuel system, which can clog filters and injectors, so its best to fit a new fuel filter then run biodiesel briefly before changing the filter again.
Being an organic substance it is prone to stuff growing in it, so it has a limited tank life.

Chip oil.
Some people run older diesels on filtered chip oil, there are lots of microscopic plant particles in this which carbon up the injector tip and can coke up the engine. The harder the engine works the worse the problem gets. Using modern diesel can wash some of the deposits away, so alternating fuels can extend service life. Modern diesels use much finer tolerances in the injection system and are a lot less tolerant of this type of fuel, but old fashioned mechanical diesel injection systems don’t seem to mind so much.

Throw the engine away and fit a milk float motor? It has been done, in fact I did it to a Fiat X1/9 but that’s another story, but you have the performance of a milk float and the batteries are very heavy and take up a lot of space.
However, recently the century of pitiful investment has come to an end and the technology is finally getting proper funding. We now have electric sports cars, and even a few supercars. So over the next few years expect to see much more viable electric drive systems and batteries.
Personally I would love to develop a replacement electric system in the shape of an engine, I think that would be rather fun.

Advanced fuels from petrol stations.
Things like BP Ultimate and Shell V Power are formulated to coat the cylinder in a low friction coating, improve oil control and disperse more effectively to improve flame efficiency.
This does actually work, an engine improves over time with use as the coating builds.
The fuels cost more which can negate the economy benefit, depending on the engine and how much difference the fuel makes on that particular design.

Fuel supplements>

Hydrogen in petrol.
Mixing about 3% by volume hydrogen in the intake air can allow a petrol engine to run very lean, in this condition it is possible to gain 25% in efficiency. Maximum power will be reduced due to the displaced air, and the hydrogen requirement is quite large so generating it by an on-board electrolysis system is not usually viable. Also the engine change to make use of the lean burn potential is significantly expensive.
Introducing hydrogen without running the engine lean makes no improvement.
Using a jam jar of water and 12v electrodes is just plain silly.
A variation on this theme is to use thermal and catalytic cracking on the petrol to turn it into hydrogen and CO2, with engine modifications this can improve efficiency by up to 30% at part load. But its a very expensive system and complicated to control.

LPG in diesel.
Can improve efficiency by up to 20% but makes an even more dramatic improvement to performance. Over doing it will melt the engine, much like nitrous oxide on a petrol engine.
Cheaper than a conventional LPG conversion, this works very well indeed if set up properly.

One alternative, but not a good one...
One alternative, but not a good one…


The following things really don’t work.

Magnets, they have no effect on fuel what so ever.

Solid fuel ‘catalysts’, I have tested a few and none made any difference.

Air flow vortex or turbulators, these usually have absolutely no effect, although they do block the intake and turbulent air reduces flow rates, so they can actually reduce performance. Cars with mass air flow meters require extremely non turbulent flow, and usually have flow straighteners built in, turbulent flow creates false readings and may make the engine run slightly rich

Anything involving running your car on water.


McLaren MP4-12C

It goes quite well, as you might expect.

But there is so much more to this car than just speed. The gear changes are all but instant, helped by the very low inertia engine which makes down shifts as fast as up shifts. In fact it’s so fast I can actually play a tune by shifting gears rapidly, not a very good tune, but a tune none the less. The ease of shifting compels me to

A selection of MP4-12Cs, closest we have the open top, in the middle is the racing GT, and at the back is the coupe.
A selection of MP4-12Cs, closest we have the open top, in the middle is the racing GT, and at the back is the coupe.

continually change gear as I drive round the high speed test route, each shift commanded by a simple flick of the very well placed steering wheel paddles, left for down shift, right for up. It’s simple, intuitive and works fantastically well.

Not that it really needs to, the torque curve from the engine is indecently flat, pulling as strongly at low revs as it does near the ear splitting red line. 600Nm from 3000rpm to 7000rpm from the 3.8 litre V8, which is more than respectable in a sub 1400kg car.

This makes it very easy to drive, any gear will do for normal driving, and the flexibility of the engine is matched by the suppleness of the suspension. It’s undoubtedly a

Uncluttered dash, all controls to hand nicely.
Uncluttered dash, all controls to hand nicely.

supercar, but it doesn’t knock your teeth out with a bone crunchingly harsh ride, ok it’s a bit firm in ‘Normal’ mode but perfectly acceptable and makes long journeys a completely reasonable proposition. Even getting in and out is made easy by the wide aperture and decent leg room, unlike many other supercars. In fact the whole cabin is an ergonomic triumph, everything you need is where you need it. The seats are comfy but supportive and can be adjusted for a diverse range of body shapes because they contain a number of inflatable bags which you can set to suit yourself. The controls are very well placed and everything the driver could need falls nicely to hand. The rear view over the transparent engine cover is a little narrow but perfectly usable.

Transparent cover displays the 3.8 twin turbo V8.
Transparent cover displays the 3.8 twin turbo V8.

And that cover lets you see the throbbing heart of this magnificent creation: a twin turbo V8 that at low speeds makes an exhaust not reminiscent of might Deltic locomotives, the throbbing engine complemented by the whistle of turbines, but once up to speed make a screaming soundtrack that lets you know that the manufacturer learnt its craft on race tracks.

You might think a transparent engine cover is a little exhibitionist, but why not show such beautiful craftsmanship? After all, this car is street theatre, just like any other supercar it’s more art than transport, you buy it because you want it not because you need it. But this piece of art is more subtle than many of its competitors, the lines are uncluttered and have a beautiful simplicity that doesn’t need to be decked with multi stage wings and complex splitters to work.

Simple elegant lines, a pretty car.
Simple elegant lines, a pretty car.

This is a testament to the skill and experience of McLaren aerodynamics engineers, they are arguably the best in the business and have made a shape that inherently works. The rear wing is an inherent part of the rear design, not just bolted on. Not only that but they have added a few features so that the downforce and drag can change to suit your driving mood. There is a button that provoke active aero, a rear spoiler popping up under heavy braking to give greater traction and also work as an air brake, something they first tried on their mighty Mercedes SLR.

Yes it has a rear wing, but its a beautifully integrated part of the design.
Yes it has a rear wing, but its a beautifully integrated part of the design.

Mood control extends further, there are two rotary switches to set up the car for your chosen task, each has three settings: Normal, Sport and Track. On the right we have Powertrain control which adjusts the way power is delivered, more instant and aggressive for track, more gentle and progressive for road. It also sets the gearbox up for fast hard shifts on track and soft comfy shifts on road. On the left we have the Handling control which adjusts damper firmness and the effect of the active roll control.

This is all the adjustment you could need, if you want a fast blast on rough country roads then leave the suspension on Normal and switch the powertrain to Track, there are sufficient options to tailor the car to your preferences. I like that, it’s flexible, effective and simple.

Race car interior is also nicely laid out, note the gratifyingly wide front tyre.
Race car interior is also nicely laid out, note the gratifyingly wide front tyre.

Driving the car is a joy, the soundtrack from the engine is delightful and only intrusive when you’re going a bit too fast for the road anyway, drive within reason and you could sit here comfortably all day.

But get on a smooth track and twist the controls to 11 and this car will throw you at the horizon with indecent haste.

Road car is only one step away from this GT racer.
Road car is only one step away from this GT racer.

But if that is not enough for you, there are special track and race versions too, the CanAm harking back to Bruce McLaren’s racing heyday, and the GT picking up where the old F1 LeMans cars left off.

So underneath this fine road car is clearly the heart of a race car. It really can deliver, it’s not just some pretty boy wanna be, it’s well though out proper engineering. Hugely competent without shouting about it, very British in a way.

In summary, I like it, quite a lot.


Drivetrain Layout: Longitudinal Mid-Engine, RWD

Body Structure: Carbon Fibre MonoCell with Aluminium Front and Rear Frames

Suspension: Double wishbone all round with ProActive Chassis Control

Active Aerodynamics: McLaren Airbrake

Transmission: 7 Speed SSG

Engine Configuration: V8 Twin Turbo / 3799cc

PS / rpm: 625 / 7500

Torque Nm / rpm: 600 / 3000 – 7000

Brakes: Cast Iron Discs with Forged Aluminium Hubs (F 370mm/ R 350mm)

Length (mm): 4509

Track, F/R (mm): 1656 / 1583

Width (mm): 1908

Height (mm): 1199

Wheelbase (mm): 2670

Dry Weight (kg / lbs): 1336 / 2945

Tyres (F/R)

Pirelli P Zero 235/35 R19 /
Pirelli P Zero 305/30 R20

Wheel Sizes (F/R): 19” x 8.5”J / 20” x 11” J

McLaren really do make damn good cars.
McLaren really do make damn good cars.

More info (and much better pictures!) can be found here:

Time warp Vauxhall

Time travel is a wonderful thing, you get a great view of time as you warp through the decades. The recent PetrolBlog big day out at

Many thanks to Major Gav and the PetrolBlog massive!
Many thanks to Major Gav and the PetrolBlog massive!

Vauxhall took me right back to the dawn of my motoring career, the sounds and smells of old engines are so amazingly evocative of the age before fuel injection and catalysts. And this got me thinking about just how far we have come, there have been some remarkable advances in areas such as performance and refinement, but also we seem to have lost something along the way.






Fienza HP (Droop Snoot)

My first drive of the day, and one that instantly transported me back to my first ever car; a Cavalier mk1. There is the smell of fuel you only get with carburettor cars, it’s raw, pure, and for people of my

Droop Snoot Firenza HP, fully restored and dressed to kill.
Droop Snoot Firenza HP, fully restored and dressed to kill.

generation it’s hugely evocative of an era when just getting your car to start was an achievement.

This car was a complete bare shell restoration which I covered for Practical Classics a few years ago, absolutely everything had to be rebuilt from the ground up and is

Firenza interior oozes class, note upside down rev counter and dog leg 'box.
Firenza interior oozes class, note upside down rev counter and dog leg ‘box.

another great example of the fantastic work that master mechanic Andrew Boddy at the Vauxhall Heritage Centre undertakes, and it is wonderful to see the car fully finished. It’s even more wonderful to drive it.

Definite road presence!

Immediately the car feels direct and delightfully connected to the road, with non-assisted steering you can feel the road under the wheels, it feels alive. Even before I get out the car park I’m smiling like a lunatic, but once out in the country lanes this car delivers joy in great bucket loads. It’s by no means perfect, the 185 tyres seem skinny by modern standards and let go readily, but delightfully progressively making it deeply rewarding to drive. Would I take this car out just for the thrill of it? Well yes, but half the thrill would be wondering if it will make it back in one piece. This is an old car, there are a few clonks and rattles, but it all adds to the theatre of this marvellous car. And when I finally get out of the car and walk away, I just cant help looking back at it and enjoying the superb lines and proportions of this classic beauty. Surely that’s a sign they must have got something really very right.

Elegant to the very end.








Astra GTE MK1

Now this was a very interesting car, because my colleagues formed a notably different view of it to me. This highlights how personal car

The first small GTE for the marque.
The first small GTE for the marque.

tests actually are, our view of a car depends on our own preferences, past experiences, expectations and driving style. Every road test is as much a reflection of the tester as it is of the car.

This car was from a far simpler age, non-assisted steering giving lovely feedback through the spindly steering wheel, the view from the large windows is complemented by the low waist line so you can see everything on the road with no blind spots. But that’s where the fun stopped for me.

Mk1 interior boasts push button radio/cassette.
Mk1 interior boasts push button radio/cassette.

On the road the performance of the 1.8 8 valve engine is modest, maybe I’m spoilt by the thrust of modern performance cars but this one just didn’t sing for me, despite not having a rev limiter. The handling is poor by modern standards, but very much the norm for small hatches of that era, go into a corner fast and it understeers horribly, and if you have to back off for some reason mid corner the understeer immediately translates into annoying oversteer. Not that slowing down is that easy, the brakes really don’t do much, press the pedal hard and you really don’t slow down very much, press it harder and a wheel locks up, and you still don’t slow down very much.

But this is in itself important, it’s stable mates at that time had even more pedestrian engines which didn’t overly tax the brakes and handling. By taking the standard car and fitting a slightly more powerful engine they created a dynasty that leads directly to today’s Astra VXR.

Astra GTE MK2

With the MK2 they put a decent engine in, in fact that 16 valve 2.0 litre lump became a legend in racing circles and managed to dislodge

Mk2 a definite improvement.
Mk2 a definite improvement.

the Ford Pinto as the engine of choice in many club racing specials. In the GTE it’s pleasantly nippy and buzzes along with happy eagerness, the understeer is still there but less intrusive, and the lift off oversteer is much better. The brakes are still inadequate when ‘making good progress’, it

I love the digital dash!
I love the digital dash!

doesn’t really do emergency stops as such but at least it has the ability to slow down a bit, unlike its predecessor. It is quite a fun car, but still doesn’t quite work as a complete package.






Now, our illustrious leader Major Gav has actually owned two of these fine motorcars, so I was a bit worried when he joined me for a quick blast through the countryside, was I about to show myself up at the wheel of one of his favourite machines?

Special edition VX220. Great on track, painful on road. Still fun though.
Special edition VX220. Great on track, painful on road. Still fun though.

This particular version is the higher powered version, still based on the Lotus Elese but with the suspension and engine tuned by Opel. It seems to be set up for a race track, with very hard suspension that is not helped by the non standard ultra low profile tyres, it crashes and bangs over irregularities and pot holes are like a kick in the butt. It’s not nice.

But on smooth stretches it sticks to the road quite well and picks up pace briskly, the steering is direct and it changes direction swiftly. It’s quite a lot of fun and begs to be pushed harder, and somehow as it wears a Vauxhall badge and not a Lotus one it seems a bit more humble, I like that.

The last stop on the time machine was the present day, and here I had the opportunity to sample the descendants of these old cars and see exactly what their future held.


Now, those who know me will be wondering what witchcraft managed


to get me into this sort of car. It’s not a fire breathing supercar or a go anywhere off road superhero, but putting my own preferences to one side I find that this sort of car is a very good idea. Its big inside, not too big on the outside, it goes and stops as it should and doesn’t use too much fuel. Normally that formula could be dangerously close to dull, so the splash of stainless steel and the nice blend of colours adds a touch of interest. In short it’s a perfectly good car. If you like that sort of thing.


This was a surprise. Again not my usual sort of test car, it has very little power and has no noticeable acceleration. Inside it is very roomy for two adults and two small kids at the back, an ideal car for a young

Striking Adam. Small children pointed and laughed, but that might just be my driving...
Striking Adam. Small children pointed and laughed, but that might just be my driving…

family, and I think that is a useful focus for this test. The car is painted to look sporty, it has stripes and graphics, even the headlining is a massive chequered flag, which initially seems at odds with its lack of performance and its super soft suspension, but I actually think it makes sense. If

Sporty? Not sure, but definitely fun.
Sporty? Not sure, but definitely fun.

you have just started a family you might not want to give up on the idea of a sports car, but even if you had one you would drive it gently with your new family installed, so this car works; it has a fun and sporty image yet delivers sensible family practicality.






I drove this on a test track last year, but driving it through the heart of Luton was a far more realistic test, particularly accelerating between speedbumps up some of the towns steep hills. Now, you might expect me to slate electric cars, as I spend most of my time testing things like

This is what the future looks like, quite close to the road.
This is what the future looks like, quite close to the road.

Bentleys, Jaguars and Porsches, but actually I am a strong believer in electric cars, which are in many ways still in their infancy but will increasingly meet an exceed the abilities of internal combustion.

But this car should not be judged as an electric car, it should be judged as a normal small family car, and that is something it does very well, in fact in many ways it does it better than the Adam. It has reasonable performance, it’s quicker than many other conventional cars in this class and handles acceptably well too, although the low ground clearance at the front can be an issue on speedbumps. The interior is well equipped and spacious, not massive by any means but certainly big enough for most things.

Interesting, but a bit too much information.
Interesting, but a bit too much information.

In short this is a good car in it’s own right, and if I had the cash I would probably buy one.

So in summary, there are many things that are good such as ABS and crash safety, but there are many things that are a bit of a sad loss too. Being able to feel the road through the steering wheel in such a vivid way that you know how much traction the tyres have has completely gone, and whilst it may be true that you don’t need to read the road any more because the car stability control does that all for you it also means that drivers aren’t compelled to concentrate on the road like they used to. One result being that crashes keep getting more frequent, and now for the first time in decades road deaths are increasing.



My first car was a Cavalier, spindly A pillars and lots of feedback made it good to drive.
My first car was a Cavalier, spindly A pillars and lots of feedback made it good to drive.

The styling of cars is much more intense than it used to be, we are cocooned and protected with styling flourishes here there and everywhere. The window glass area is increasing, front screens are massive now, but the view out is getting more restrictive. A pillars are huge, mirrors are multifunction colossus, waistlines are getting higher, our actual view of the road is diminishing. In fact it is quite easy to loose sight of a car behind the mirror and A pillar whilst waiting at a T junction or roundabout on a modern car, by comparison a car of the ’70s with its spindly A pillar, tiny mirror mounted lower and not obstructing your line of sight forward, all makes for a far better view of the road, I felt much more a part of the traffic in an old-timer than in a new car.

Our connection to the road and to the traffic is reduced, our responsibility in terms of controlling the car and observing traffic have been eroded. But it is possible to design a car with the best of both old and new, spindly A pillars made out of stronger modern materials, mirrors replaced by cameras and a head up display, nicely assisted steering but with the soft compliant isolation removed etc. Driving both old and new on the same day brings it all into sharp focus.

And a final observation, not about cars but about our car industry in the UK. Currently UK automotive is doing very well indeed, the car sector is probably better than it has ever been. But there is a sobering reminder of how things can change for the worse in the Vauxhal

Map made in the eighties showing the huge Luton plant, including 'planned extension'.
Map made in the eighties showing the huge Luton plant, including ‘planned extension’.

museum, there is a map of the site from the early ’80s, it shows the massive scale of the sprawling complex, with roads and railways running through the site. Some areas are marked up for planned expansion, there are research and development facilities, prototype workshops, a styling studio as well as a myriad of huge production buildings. Thousands of people worked there, the streets around the plant housed thousands of families dependent on the thriving factory, for every job at the plant it is reckoned that about 5 further jobs were supported in support activities such as parts suppliers, transport drivers, sales staff and even the local shops and restaurants. The whole town fed this plant, and the plant fed the whole town.

And it’s all gone. Only a skeleton crew remain, some marketing people and a few support activities, even the fantastic array of cars in the heritage centre are restored and maintained by just one bloke. The streets reflect this change, there is not so much money about round there at the moment.

And this is not a case of me dreaming of a bygone industry, I’m not lamenting the passing of steam engines of horse drawn ploughs, no I’m cross because all those jobs went somewhere else. Vauxhall make more cars now than they did back then, the demand for there product is there, production is marching on, research and development is busier than ever, the jobs exist, but not here.

Over a hundred years of history at the Vauxhall Heritage Center.
Over a hundred years of history at the Vauxhall Heritage Center.

I’ve driven some very impressive cars here today, and I thank Vauxhall very much for the opportunity, but as I drive away through old streets, past the large retail site that has been built on part of the old factory, I feel a bit sad that all those jobs have gone. And with that loss the skills have gone, the real heritage of a hundred years of Vauxhalls, the stories, the effort, the stress of pushing out a new model, the dramas, all become fading memories.

Look out!

A good motto to live your life by; look out!
Last year saw the first rise in road deaths for decades, despite cars being safer than ever. This is truly shocking, already we suffer about two thousand road deaths every year in the UK, just compare that stat to war deaths and cancer victims. It’s a scandal. And of course it doesn’t have to be this way at all.
There’s a trick that I learnt as a motorcyclists, used when passing a T junction, one of the prime danger areas for vulnerable bikers. If there is a car at the junction waiting to pull out, you stare at their eyes, strangely usually they then look at you and acknowledge you, if they don’t then you know they haven’t seen you and you slow ready for them pulling out in front of you. It becomes a sixth sense for bikers who survive long enough to become experienced.
I stopped riding my beloved Triumph a few years ago because there was a sudden increase in people not engaging with me or the traffic around them. I still use the technique in the car to good effect, but in the last two years I have notices a massive increase in people who are driving but seem completely disengaged from their surroundings.
I do a high mileage, spend a lot of time on motorways and A roads. Barely a week passes without me getting stuck in a traffic jam, only to slowly crawl past a multiple car pile up. It’s ridiculous, people just driving into each other, what a waste.
I am not sure what the cause is, but I have notice a number of trends in behaviour and in some technology that must be called into question. Obviously the problem is people not looking out, not thinking ahead, not concentrating on the job in hand. But there must be a cause for this noticeable change.
There seems to be much more driver aggression, lane 3 on most motorways is a battlefield with cars tailgating horrifically and slamming on brakes at the last millisecond. This may be to do with society, maybe the saturation of violent films and games, even Top Gear features the occasional helicopter gun ship now, this violent environment is everywhere.
But also our lifestyles are more fraught, specially since the recession which left many of us in poor financial state and having to work longer hours for less pay, stressful environments cause stressful behaviour.
Also we have become an ‘on demand’ culture, where slogans like ‘because you deserve it’ are flung at us left right and centre. We demand more, we expect not to be delayed, to get through fast. But of course this is just being selfish and not considering others. Clearly this negates the spirit of cooperation and camaraderie that is so essential for driving in heavy traffic.
We all know there has also been an increase in mobile phone use too, to me this is astonishing and may only be explained as being a result of drivers simply not understanding the risks. Despite being bombarded by information and statistics clearly showing the danger of phone use whilst driving, many drivers don’t get it. Maybe this is because we have so much exposure to violent and extreme images, games that turn killing and war into entertainment, films that glorify guns and extreme violence, that a safety campaign seems weak by comparison. Texting whilst driving is bizarre, why would anyone think it a good idea to not look at the road and concentrate on something down in their hand whilst covering ground at tens of meters per second in over a ton of machinery? But it’s not just phones that divert our attention.

Find out what all those buttons actually do!
Find out what all those buttons actually do!

Touch screens now seem to adorn every new model, they allow a huge array of complex controls to be put in one place which saves space and money. But there’s a big problem, a touch screen demands that you look at it, there is no tactile feedback at all. With old fashioned heater controls you could turn the heat or fan speed up without looking at the knob, you just reached over to where you knew the knob was and felt it move as you adjusted it. Easy, simple and absolutely no need to take your eyes off the road, unlike touch screens.
It is clear to me that any control that the driver is expected to use should not require them to stare intently at the centre console, in an old car you needed no more than a quick glance to operate switches or knobs, so touch screens are not really progress in my view. But things like voice command, which is already available on many luxury cars, doesn’t distract you and certainly is progress.
You see, anything that you have to look at carefully and think about, such as touch screens or mobile phone screens, focuses your mind on that area at the expense of your peripheral awareness. Usually as you walk down the street you are processing data from your peripheral vision and hearing to build a subconscious picture of the world around you, and not just what’s directly in front of you. In fact it’s happening to you right now, you’re reading this and your mind is in here with me, which is why you are completely unaware of that weird bloke staring at you over your shoulder.
Made you look!
Being aware of the traffic around you when driving is vital if you have to make an emergency manoeuvre, if a car cuts you up on the motorway you might not have time to look in the mirror and over your shoulder to check there is a clear space to move into, peripheral awareness is vital and is hugely compromised by using things like touch screens and phone displays.
Risk compensation is a phrase commonly bandied about, usually to do with the perceived safety of ABS, crumple zones and air bags. The safer we feel the faster we feel comfortable driving, but more importantly feeling safe makes us concentrate less. You know the feeling, you feel comfy and your mind wanders, then all of a sudden you realise you have no recollection of driving the last five miles. Humans need stimulation to stay awake, but modern cars are very quiet, with smooth running suspension, great sound systems. Not only is this a more relaxing place to be, but also the workload on the driver has been reduced, many functions are automatic such as lights and wipers so you don’t even have to think about road conditions any more. Whilst this may help reduce driver fatigue it also reduces our sensitivity to what is happening around us, increasing the chances of making a mistake and even crashing.
Certainly technology has a part to play here, but of course what matters is how we use it. Having a mobile phone is fine, texting whilst driving at forty meters per second is clearly not fine. We all have a responsibility to use our tools without causing others undue risk. So clearly there is something needed in our education system and media to bring this moral code back to strength.
It is fair to say that a similar responsibility lies with car companies when it comes to things like touch screens. But it is also fair to say that companies make things they think people want, if we the customer reject such things then they wouldn’t be there. The choice is ours.

Porsche Experience

Porsche is a very powerful word. As brand names go it’s a bit like Marmite. But love it or hate it one thing is certain, their cars are fast, designed for performance and driver enjoyment. Of course, to get the best out of such a specialised machine the driver needs to have the right skills and experience too, but crucially these driver skills are of huge benefit to any driver no matter what car we drive.

ASL, DSC and other stability control systems allow even the clumsiest driver to enjoy supercar power in reletive safety. Technology can be amazing.
ASL, DSC and other stability control systems allow even the clumsiest driver to enjoy supercar power in reletive safety. Technology can be amazing.

In fact you don’t even need to be a Porsche fan to benefit hugely from a bit of driver training, such as the rather brilliant packages on offer at the Porsche Experience Centre. Situated in its own dedicated complex of test tracks just a few yards from one of the fastest corners at Silverstone race circuit, it has a bit of everything to allow drivers of all levels to safely learn and develop their skills.
Pick a car, any car...
Pick a car, any car…

The main circuit is not really a race track, its flowing twisting curves are actually designed to replicate the most demanding country roads. Here you can learn how to approach corners safely whilst enjoying the full potential of one of the centre’s immaculate Porsche cars. Their skilled instructors, most of whom are professional race drivers, first asses your ability at modest speed, then identify areas where you can improve and then gradually build your skill and confidence at a pace that suits you.
Find out what the real difference is between a Cayman and a 911, it is actually quite interesting.
Find out what the real difference is between a Cayman and a 911, it is actually quite interesting.

You don’t have to drive fast either, they go at your pace making sure you are comfortable with the speeds. They can teach you road craft, how to balance the car and how to control it in emergencies, so when something springs out in front of you on the road home you should be better able to react and maintain control.
One crucial part of coping with emergencies is skid control, and although modern Porsches have stunning dynamic stability control systems built in it is still essential that the driver knows what to do should the unexpected occur.
On road tuition in the rather lovely Panamera.
On road tuition in the rather lovely Panamera.

To this end the Centre has two dedicated skid control areas where you can practice not going sideways, these smooth plastic roads are irrigated with soapy water so it can simulate the worst black ice. One area is on a hill which is set up as a series of corners, demonstrating superbly how quickly things can get out of hand if you don’t react at the first sign of a skid. The first time I tried it I drifted reasonably elegantly through the first corner, but the turn into the second put the car into a massive skid and the final corner was taken very inelegantly backwards! But with the skilled guidance of my coach the next pass was taken largely in the intended direction, if a little ragged. By the third pass all was well, under control and I was able to keep the car on the correct side of the road. I’m sure you’ll agree these skills are vital in any car, not just a high powered sports car.
But of course it’s one thing to enter a skid pan fully aware of what lies ahead, in the read world you may get no warning. The Porsche Experience Centre have this covered too, they have another skid pan with the same super slippery surface, but this time it’s flat and very wide with a very sneaky surprise at the start. You are asked to drive at about 15mph in a dead straight line, a simple instruction to get from one end of the surface to the other, it should be simple. But as soon as you enter the plastic road section a computer controlled kick plate throws the back of the car sideways with a violent jolt, the system can be set up to be mild or seveqre, usually it is set to be random so that you have no idea how sideways the car will go, or indeed in which direction! This is a fantastic facility, no other track I know of has the ability to continually surprise on every lap. After just a few passes I found my reactions improving, becoming more instinctive and flowing.
Find out what all those buttons actually do!
Find out what all those buttons actually do!

This area also allows the staff to demonstrate exactly what all those stability control systems actually do, taking runs over the slippery stuff first in normal fully assisted mode, here you have to steer into the skid but the car then brings everything into line very swiftly for you. Then there is a run with stability control off but traction control still on, here you have to put in much more steering input to keep things going in the right direction and then counter steer to avoid the car flicking back the other way. Finally they let you do a run with it all turned off, with only your wits to help you as the inevitable series of dramatic spins awaits. This remarkable demonstration really does show just how brilliant modern car technology is and is well worth doing.Plunge
I was fortunate enough to spend a day there courtesy of Porsche GB PR, but a variety of courses are available for anyone who fancies learning something new, you don’t need to be a Porsche driver or even have a fast car, they have a selection of cars for you to use including their luxurious executive saloon and the Cayenne off roader. And it’s not all about speed, there are road based courses, off road courses and you can even book a session in their classic ’70s 911. There is something to cover every aspect of driving, and before you ask yes I am going to book one myself!
Your office for the day.
Your office for the day.

The next big thing.

People often ask me what the future of motoring holds, after all my day job is working with car companies to develop prototypes of the cars of the future. But the long term plans of the big car companies is only part of this story.

It’s true they try to guess the future, often a new car design will be in production for seven years with a facelift half way through, and it takes between three and five years to do all the engineering so all in all a totally new model may still be going strong a decade after the initial plan was agreed. And when you are investing billions in factories and engineering facilities you need to feel that your guesses will be fairly close to what the future will actually hold.
So many experts are consulted; economists, engineers, scientists, sociologists and pundits all make contributions in one way or another, and gradually a fuzzy picture of the future coalesces.
But times are changing.

Oil supply is uncertain, it’s not so much that it’s running out, more that politics and economics mean that prices will carry on going up and the reliability of supply is less certain than ten years ago. And when a critical factor like oil becomes iffy then long term plans become impossible to make, this means that it is far safer to plan for alternative fuels, and electric drives seem relatively easy to plan for (see a previous post). But even the role of alternatives is not clear cut, there is renewed interest in making fuel by reversing the combustion process with electricity. Petrol and diesel burn and turn mostly into water and carbon dioxide whilst releasing energy, so by combining water and carbon dioxide and putting loads of energy back in you get fuel. So depending on where the electricity comes from this has the potential to be carbon neutral and also has the benefit that the car industry doesn’t have to invent new engines. This could be the next big thing, really very big. Unless it’s easier to plan for electric drives or some other technology, in which case this will get too little investment and never get anywhere.
Fuel is a hugely contentious issue these days, both for its cost and its environmental effect.
Have you ever seen people complaining that they don’t get the claimed fuel economy from their car? The problem is drivers are hugely inconsistent, I am famed for squeezing higher fuel economy figures from almost any car, but a colleague of mine usually manages to use twice as much fuel as me on the same journey! And it’s not just MPG, its how many litres of fuel you have to pay for each month, and part of that is what route you choose and traffic flow.
But there are some bigger issues that will influence the future, did you know that road deaths in the UK have just started going up? About two thousand people are killed on the UK roads every year, that is an astonishing statistic, how the hell can we live with this situation? Almost all of these are caused by driver error.
These problems are contributing to the drive towards fully autonomous cars, although the main drive is the fact that most drivers hate driving and would rather be on the internet or chatting to friends, so having a robot chauffeur is a real selling point. We have already seen self parking cars gain popularity, and Volvo were the first to introduce collision avoidance where the car will do an emergency stop if it gets worried. All the car companies I know of are working on autonomous cars, they are still many years off, but within a decade they will be widely available.
Autonomous cars have the potential to reduce journey times, slash road deaths and injuries, reduce insurance costs, reduce financial losses, and reduce emissions. Manufacturers also benefit from a reduction in warranty costs caused by customers abusing their cars. And intriguingly once a car becomes autonomous the interior design focus changes dramatically towards being an entertainment or business centre, windows become less important, seats facing forward is no longer mandatory, just imagine the possibilities.
But in the shorter term there is still a lot of work going on refining existing technologies.
You may have noticed that engines are getting smaller again, coupled with much higher boost levels, such as the lovely little Ford three cylinder unit or the sprightly VW Tsi. This trend is set to continue over the next ten years at least, with a greater presence of electric hybrid drives to ensure the engine is used only at its best efficiency.
But something is coming that might make these plans irrelevant.

And it’s the weather.
People have noticed that the weather is becoming increasingly inconvenient. The climate is warming up, in the UK this means that crops are getting ruined year after year. I’m fairly close to the farming community and a startling thing is that most farmers I’ve spoken to can’t remember when they last had two consecutive good years. This year our food prices will go up, although to be fair we have very cheap food in the UK to start with, and there may be shortages of certain types of food. Initially grains will be diverted from animal feed stocks to feeding us directly,, driving up animal feed and thus meat prices will be the first to go up. This will drive inflation up and this in turn worries politicians, and when politicians get worried they usually pass some badly thought out laws.
But it’s not just food, floods have caused huge damage and disruption costing the country a fortune.
You can see where this is going can’t you? Yes it’s our old foe climate change, for decades people have been warning that there was a problem, and for over a decade the car industry has taken this very seriously but the problem has always been that the message we’ve been receiving has been confused and complex, making it impossible to know who to believe and so what to plan for. This is partly because the climate is a hugely complex thing, and our understanding of it is still in it’s infancy, what’s shocking is the lack of funding for this science, which takes us back to politicians.

Politicians react to popular opinion, more so near an election. So no matter what the real truth of the matter is (how about massive investment and incentives for zero carbon drives and proper funding for climate research? No, ok then spend the money on nuclear weapons we will never use.) politicians now have a population with ridiculously expensive fuel, flooded homes and food shortages. The people want this mess sorted out, so the standard scenario is that in this situation politicians choose someone to blame and pass laws to restrict the ‘bad thing’ that is the alleged cause of the problem.

Car companies are a bit worried about this situation, not knowing what laws will be passed on emissions or what taxes will be applied to fuel and different types of car means that long term plans are near impossible. Obviously 6.0 litre V8s will get hammered, but what about a 2.0 or a 1.5 litre turbo unit? If the top of your current range has a 3.0 V6, what should you plan to be using in ten years time? Maybe even a sub one litre engine will still get hammered?
And what about the cars due for release in 2013, many years of work and many millions, sometimes over a billion, have gone into getting each one into production. They simply have to be in production for their intended production life span or the company may suffer serious damage, and for very high volume producers like Ford or VW loosing the market on a new car because it gets taxed to oblivion or fails new emissions limits could bring it to its knees. This is serious stuff.

But more serious is the very real change in our climate, if greenhouse gasses are the problem then we have to engineer a technical way of ripping it out of the atmosphere in astonishing volumes, after all we’ve been pumping tons of shit into the air for hundreds of years and there is one hell of a lot of it up there now. And it’s not just CO2, Methane is far worse and a lot of that comes from our passion for meat, there are many factors and it all needs sorting out.

If the politics dictate that petrol and diesel suddenly face being taxed to death, or even banned, then all of a sudden getting funding for reformed fuel or electric drives will become a lot easier, because investors can see the benefit.
But time is running out, and what we need is some sort of certainty so long term plans can be made and investments made. Tell the car industry that cars in ten years time will have to be all electric and we know what we have to work with, sure it will be hard but it will get done. If its gas or reformed fuel or whatever, just let us know.

So what’s the next big thing? Could be reformed petrol, could be hydrogen, could be electric, could even be banning cars and everyone working from home (ok, not that). One thing that I have seen across the board is that there is an increased focus on putting more fun into motoring, there are some fabulous drivers cars in the pipeline. Longer term there are loads of fascinating technologies in their infancy that could change our lives fundamentally, some are being funded and some are just starting out. But in all honestly it all depends on politics, and one thing no one can predict is politicians.


On most cars built in the last 14 years there is a little yellow warning light with a picture of an engine on. This ‘Check Engine light, sometimes called the MIL light (Malfunction Indicator Light), comes on when something is gone wrong with the engine, it might not be a big problem but the engine’s computer thinks it’s at least bad enough for the car to fail an emissions test.
The great thing about these cars is that you and I can read its mind.

It’s been a long time since On Board Diagnostics (OBD) became standard on cars. There have been a few variations on the theme, such as K line or CAN, but these days there are a respectable number of fairly cheap devices that can read fault codes, making looking after your car that bit easier. In fact I would encourage any car enthusiast to get one.

For instance I use an application for my Android phone, it’s called Torque (I reviewed it in Evo magazine last year) and it cost me the princely sum of £2.92. To be able to physically talk to the car I connect it using a Bluetooth OBD interface based on the ELM327 chip, which cost about £12 off eBay. This allows me to read fault codes from the engine, and when appropriate to clear them. It also allows me to look at the values from sensors such as coolant temperature, engine speed and the signals from the oxygen sensors.

My HTC running Torque, this window lets me set up a virtual dash showing any info I want from the car
My HTC running Torque, this window lets me set up a virtual dash showing any info I want from the car

This is very handy when you like playing with bargain bangers, which tend to be about ten years old and frequently come pre-equipped with a host of minor faults. In fact I used it on the last car I bought, I must confess that I did something that I always advise other people not to do and bid on a car on eBay without viewing it! So when I went to pick it up I plugged my phone in to the OBD port and listed off the current faults, then had a chat with the seller about their claim that the car was ‘faultless’. We came to an arrangement.
They say knowledge is power, and knowledge of what’s on a cars mind certainly does give you bargaining power.
And all power came for less than £15, not bad.
I use this kit for servicing and maintenance, it can indicate when a small exhaust leak has just started or when an air meter is dirty and is reducing performance and economy. But I also use it for tuning, I’ve tried different spark plugs and checked the knock reading as well as watching the fuel flow to see if the efficiency has improved. As the phone has GPS I can compare the actual road speed to the speed the car thinks it’s doing, handy for calibrating the speedo when fitting bigger tyres. For someone who like to play with their cars this info is very useful, years ago kit to measure these things would have cost thousands, but now it’s cheaper than a large box of chocolates.
In fact I even use it when I’m working on prototype and experimental cars, as a first line in fault finding and making sure a car is running correctly before an important test.
I also have kit that does indeed cost many thousands, but it is bulky and needs a laptop (for those in the know I’m talking about INCA and an ES592 with all the leads and faf) so if I just need to have a quick look at the basics then I’ll use my phone instead.
Amazingly the app is so good that it can record data from the phone’s other features at the same time, so I can do a few laps of a test circuit and record critical values such as temperatures, air flow, fuel flow, lambda end engine speed, whist at the same time recording G forces from the Android phone’s inbuilt sensor and also record video from its camera. This gives me a very useful log file showing exactly what went on in the engine as I throw the car through the twisty bits.
Of course it doesn’t do everything that full professional kit does, but it gets pretty damn close for a fraction of the price. I am still impressed one year on.
The Blootooth OBD interface similar size to my phone.
The Blootooth OBD interface similar size to my phone.

But even for the normal car enthusiast this kit is really useful, even if you only use it for fault code reading and resetting the ‘Check Engine’ light. I have seen many dealers charging around £250 for this service, so if you only ever use it once you’ve saved a packet.

I should mention at this point that there are two completely separate sets of fault codes from the engine, the set used here is the standard set that is dictated by law, all cars use this set and it includes the ability to clear codes and reset the fault light. But there is also a second set that is manufacturer specific, this allows for unique design features and gives more detail, a simple reader won’t usually understand these codes. Some companies such as VAG make heavy use of these special codes, but even so a basic reader will still tell you if something is not right.

However I have to sound a warning, these fault codes are not to be taken too literally. A common problem is a slightly corroded connector leading to an incorrect diagnosis of a failed sensor, imagine a little bit of moisture creeping into the engine speed sensor connector, leave it a few years and a tiny spot of corrosion forms. Some days when you go to start the engine it doesn’t get a signal from the sensor and so flags up a sensor fault. You take the car to a dealer who plugs in the diagnostic tool, see the fault code and immediately replaces the perfectly good sensor with a new one. When they plug the new sensor in the tiny spot of corrosion is scraped off and all seems fine again. Two things happen, firstly you get charged for a sensor you didn’t need, and secondly about a year later the same fault re-appears. All it needed was the connector cleaning and a quick squirt of contact grease.
Another classic fault is an oxygen sensor reading too lean, but rather than the sensor being at fault it is more likely to be a small exhaust leak that’s causing the problem.
So you see, fault codes can be misleading. They are great for telling you the area that has a problem, but this is only the start of the investigation for a competent mechanic.
It’s one thing to read fault codes, it’s another to actually understand them.
But don’t worry if you are not a trained engineer, owning a code reader is still great because you can read the codes and go onto your car’s model forum and ask the collective expertise what might be causing it. The internet is great for this kind of wisdom, and one thing car enthusiasts are good at is talking about problems and solutions. We are no longer limited to just the contents of our own brain.

There are limitations to the ability of cheap devices, most wont read codes from your ABS system or be able to program new keys to your car, but for the rare times you might need one of these features there is usually someone from the forum or club near you who has the kit and is only too pleased to help.

The usual place for the OBD connector on any car is under the dash near the steering column.
The usual place for the OBD connector on any car is under the dash near the steering column.

Your car diagnostics should not be a mystery to you, codes were standardized by law to make sure we all had the ability to fix and maintain our cars, so go on, splash the cash on a new gadget and explore your motors mind.

And yes, I am full expecting to get bombarded with questions about codes on my Twitter account now! 😉

Road Hog

I made a comment recently on Twitter mocking the rise in Lycra clad middle aged cyclists since the Tour D’ France and Olympic cycling team’s success. Whilst my intention was to lightly mock those dressed like racers but struggling to wobble up to 25mph, some of my flippant comments were picked up on by people with very passionate views on cyclists, unexpectedly a small war broke out between those who love cycling and those who hate it. So this is my feeble attempt to set the record straight, and hopefully enlighten some of you a little too.
But before I make my own views known let me just go over the views that other people have kindly expressed. One aspect that struck a raw nerve was how some cyclists were perceived to put themselves and other road users in potentially dangerous situations, such as travelling slowly round blind bends on country roads. A car travelling at the national speed limit would come up on such a bike very rapidly and have to slow abruptly, with the added potential risk of another car following on and striking the first one from behind, or the first car overtaking in a dangerous position potentially striking an oncoming car. A surprising number of people sited this sort of scenario as a reason why they were frustrated with bikes.
Of course exactly the same situation can also be reasonably sited by cyclists as to why they are frustrated by cars. A cyclist making reasonable progress down a road will often be squeezed into the gutters by idiot drivers overtaking in dangerous positions, or risk being struck from behind at high speed by drivers going too fast for the road.
When you think about it both sides are right, what we have in this particular scenario is an incompatibility problem between high speed cars and lower speed bikes.
Now, this brings me to one of my most strongly held opinions; ALL road users are equally entitled to be there. Roads are public places for us all to use for business and pleasure, I personally gain a huge amount of enjoyment from roads, I clock up fairly high mileages test driving a variety of exciting cars but I also enjoy the very different experiences to be had from other modes of transport. For instance nothing compares to the thrill of riding a fast motorbike as you feed it through an exhilarating series of roller coaster twisting back roads. But I also enjoy driving big things like trucks, large military vehicles, tractors, 4x4s and even Artics.
However you may be surprised to hear that it doesn’t all have to be about big engines, there is great enjoyment available from riding a horse, the best bits are fast runs over moors but inevitably to get from one run to another you have to do a bit on the road, but even travelling slowly with a fantastic view is still a great experience. I have even been known to use my own legs, mostly many years ago when they worked properly. But even this can cause tension on the roads, for instance a nice hill walk on the moors back home in Devon can sometimes be cut abruptly short by sudden fog fall, then the only safe way of finding a way out was to walk along the roads.
And yes, I even own a bicycle. As a child it was a ticket to freedom and adventure, as an adult it is a fantastic way to keep fit and a lovely low pollution transport solution (pollution levels depending on what I’ve eaten recently…) and one I wish I used more.
And remember that we all pay for the roads, road funding comes from general taxation and not from the car tax disc. It is a common misconception that the Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) tax disc is some form of road tax, it is not. It is a car tax, the government decided many years ago to tax cars and trucks, simply because they could. It has nothing to do with funding roads. A car driver has no more paid for the road than a pedestrian or cyclist, everyone who pays income tax has paid for roads, even people with no cars. Just thought I should clear that one up.
And when you think about it this makes some degree of sense, because most of us benefit from the road system even if we don’t use it ourselves. For instance we benefit from the trucks bringing food to the shops, from the nurses driving to work, from the parcel delivery, post or even milk delivery. The road system is funded by most people because it benefits most people, in fact everyone except hermits and self sufficient recluses with their own veg patch.
I feel very uncomfortable with any comments that target one group of road users in an attempt to turn them into villains and banish them from the public roads. I am a strong advocate of the view point that you can’t criticise something you don’t understand, although it is perfectly reasonable to question it and indeed poke fun at it in a light hearted manner. Having used most types of transport (still not driven a hovercraft yet) I have complete sympathy with all the above mentioned road user groups, and whilst I can see there are clearly problems I can also see the need for compromise.
So in our first example above with the cyclist on a blind bend you may be wondering which side I support. But as I said it is a compatibility problem due to the high speed differential, so the solution is to reduce the speed differential, cyclists are usually aware of the need to get through dangerous corners as quickly as possible, and many car drivers slow down enough to be able to manoeuvre in time. So the elements of a solution are already there, the problem seems to be where incompetent cyclist don’t recognise the danger and go too slow in such a section, and equally incompetent car drivers getting cheap thrills by not slowing for corners. Sadly on rare occasions I may have been guilty of both these sins, and I suspect you, dear reader, may even have transgressed one or twice too. The trick is to always think about what you are doing, asses the risks and proceed accordingly.
You may have seen the recent proposal to reduce the national speed limit in rural areas from 60mph to 40mph, something that happened on my beloved Dartmoor many years ago. Now, I love driving and riding fast, and being a country bumpkin the lanes were where I learnt to drive many many years ago, they are my home, the roads that I am most comfortable on. So when I heard about the proposal my heart sank, I felt saddened at the impending loss, but when a friend started a petition against the proposal I found that I couldn’t sign it. 60mph on many rural roads can be lethal, sure 99.999% of the time we get away with it, but that remaining small percentage represents utter misery for far too many people, and sometimes tragic loss. Rural roads have a disproportionate death rate, something that could and should be addressed by educating drivers and riders, but the funding for such an exploit would be difficult and any voluntary system would be unlikely to draw in the irresponsible people that need it most. Dropping the speed from 60mph to 40 means that when a car comes across a cyclist doing 25mph the closing speed is just 15mph, rather than 35mph, giving a much more realistic chance of manoeuvring, slowing and generally avoiding death.
In short it increases compatibility between the varied types of road user. And this has to be the key, remember that it is not vehicles that are entitled to use the road, it’s people, all of us. Roads are the arteries of commerce, essential links in farming, they are freedom for teenagers, the paths to our friends and family, adventure and excitement. They are, and always should be, for everyone. And to preserve that freedom and avoid further restrictive legislation we, the road users of all types, must pull together, look out for one another and reduce the scale of the problems. That surely is the only way we have the right to resist any kind of restriction as to what sort of vehicle belongs on the road.
United we stand, divided we fall.