Sunday, December 26, 2010

Avenues of Design

If you spend a long enough time on this earth everything eventually gets recycled, often as something other than originally intended. In the car industry design firms have been doing some recycling – of ideas.

Here’s some amazing design stories, in no particular order.

Citroen once asked Bertone to design a new compact car, and it came up with the Xantia. A little while later Daewoo commissioned the Italian design house for its own compact car, and the Espero is clearly all-Xantia design cues from the front bumper back to the B-pillar.
Citroen Xantia
 Daewoo Espero
Alfa Romeo commissioned a new model from Pininfarina, and it delivered a concept car, which Alfa Romeo rejected. So, when Peugeot asked Pinifarina for a new car to replace the 505, it recycled the concept it had submitted to Alfa Romeo, and this car became the Peugeot 405. Then, oops! Alfa Romeo rejected its own in-house concept, went back to Pininfarina and said they would take its concept after all, and thus was born the Alfa Romeo 164.

Alfa Romeo 164
Peugeot 405
In 1990 Ital Design suggested a design concept to Jaguar which it called the Kensington. Jaguar rejected the design, but lo! The Kensington concept was reborn as the Daewoo Leganza. Actually, it was also used as the basis for the Lexus GS300 and the Seat Toledo!
Ital Design Kensington concept
 Daewoo Leganza
In the early 1990s Jaguar began studies on a successor to the venerable XJ-S, and because of a joint venture with Tom Walkinshaw’s TWR Group some joint work was done on a concept called XJ-41. The project was too expensive for Jaguar and was stopped, but Ian Callum (who joined TWR from Carrozzeria Ghia) borrowed some of the fundamentals of the concept and created Project XX. Jaguar ditched that too, but this was the starting point for what would become the Aston Martin DB7.

 Jaguar XJ41 concept
 Aston Martin DB7
In 1995 Ital Design proposed a sports coupe to Daewoo Motor, labelled the Daewoo Bucrane. However, there was no chance of this car going into production and the concept was put back on the shelf. Lo and behold, in 1997, the same concept was reborn as the Maserati 3200GT. See, no need to waste a good design!
Ital Design Bucrane concept
 Maserati 3200 GT
Daewoo and Ital Design joined up again in 1998 when the Turin design firm took a concept it had developed for Fiat, codenamed Lucciola, and this was the design concept that went into production as the Daewoo Matiz.
Ital Design Lucciola concept
Daewoo Matiz

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Of Astons

The Aston Martin DBS Volante literally leapt forward and launched itself up the steeply curving blacktop known as Laureles Grade Road, which links the Carmel Valley Highway with Interstate 68 in California’s Monterey County.

It was like holding the reins of a wild stallion as this British thoroughbred surged through the sinuous curves to the summit, and wound its way down the other side of the 1,300ft mountain. Then we turned around, scorching uphill again and back to base camp. Now, this is a test drive!

I had joined a small, and select group of Aston Martin owners, enthusiasts and prospective buyers at the swanky Bernardus Lodge in the Carmel Valley, to sample Aston’s latest sportscar.
Discussing Aston Martins with Dr. Ulrich Bez in Monterey, California 
Not for the first time did I come away really impressed with not just the sum of the parts, but the way it was screwed together, and performed its intended task.

A journalist once opined to Aston Martin’s COO, Dr. Ulrich Bez, that the VH platform architecture was not so much a platform, as a collection of aluminium ‘boxes’ welded together. Bez’s response was either a sniff, a snort or a sneeze; however, that journalist was not far from the truth.

Under Dr. Bez’s direction Aston Martin has developed an ingenious way of developing several different cars using the same basic parts. These ‘boxes’ can be large/small; narrow/wide, longer/shorter – it’s how they are put together, and how they are clothed.

Designers Henrik Fisker, and now Marek Reichman, have drawn shapes which are both contemporary and classic. Smooth, but purposeful, and possessing an appeal which delights both sexes.

I have had the pleasure of punting an Aston Martin V8 Vantage down along the coast roads south of Sydney, and then winding back to the city via a hilly highway, to be completely seduced by the car’s snappy handling, and rorty performance.

I have also had the pleasure of touring almost half the length of Britain in a DB9 Volante, and just a small taste of the new Rapide in California.

These cars each have different personalities, according to their size, performance and handling package, but they share a DNA which is unmistakably Aston Martin. It’s a combination of sensuous styling, beautiful interiors and performance which does not leave you asking for more.

I think the new Rapide sporting saloon is a most wonderful example of Aston Martin’s ability to create automotive art, that works! It’s low, svelte and has four seats, although at 160cm tall, I probably fit better in the back seat than a man of 188cm.

What the Rapide has done is extend the popularity and demand for Aston Martins. The next two year’s Rapide production is sold out!

Then, of course, there’s the One77 – a supercar if ever one fitted that description. Only 77 being produced and they are just about all spoken for!

So, last year as I toured through the county of Berkshire on my way back to London I marveled at the ability of the DB9 Volante to surefootedly flash along country roads and respond to my steering inputs with pin-sharp accuracy; and then settle down as I joined the M4 near Heathrow to tootle into the West End with calm and aplomb.

Ulrich Bez, I dips me lid to yer, sir! You’ve developed some mighty fine cars, and at the same time made Aston Martin a very profitable company. Couldn’t ask for more!

Driven Personalities - Ulrich Bez

In May 2010 Ing. Dr. Ulrich Bez, COO of Aston Martin, drove a Rapide (with three teammates) in the 24 Hour Race at the Nurburgring. The beautiful Rapide finished the race, in second place, but it was yet another victory for the man who leads Aston Martin. Bez believes that racing is important to the image of the company, but racing on his terms.

The Aston Martins you see on the tracks today are privately-owned and raced. Not a pound of company funds support them. The Rapide, and, in previous years, the production Aston Martins that Dr. Bez and his teammates race at the Nurburgring, are there for one reason only – to prove their reliability.

Bez puts his money where his mouth is, not only racing, but also personally testing his new models across the desolate deserts of the USA, and on the slippery alpine roads of Europe.

The key to Aston Martin’s contemporary success is undoubtedly the passion, the drive and the commitment of Dr. Ulrich Bez.

Not only has this man driven the tiny British company to exceptional heights, resulting in Ford agreeing to sell the company in 2007 to equity investors for AUD$1.2 billion; but Bez has also been the man who pushed his engineers to exceed everyone’s expectations of the new Vanquish, DB9, DBS, Vantage and Rapide.

When I drive an Aston Martin, I sense his spirit and his fatherly eye in every component; the sound of the engine, the snick of the gears and the confident stance the car has on the road.

If ever a car possessed the soul of its creator, then an Aston Martin is such a car. Much like Sir William Lyons’ presence, in the great Jaguars before and after his death.

Bez is Aston Martin’s champion and is wholly responsible for lifting it from a tiddler in the global car industry, to a serious player.

I have known Ulrich Bez for almost 20 years, and am very much aware of his impressive achievements at BMW and Porsche. So I was very surprised when he turned up as Director of New Product for the Korean company, Daewoo in 1994.

“What gives?” I asked. He replied: “John, what a great opportunity this is! A clean sheet of paper. How many car guys get this chance? To create, guide, mould and produce a whole range of cars?”

To overuse an old phrase, the rest is history. His legacy was four very interesting new cars, with many design highlights, great competency on the road, outstanding reliability and the foundation for GM’s new Asian design and manufacturing base today.

But, I’m sure Dr. Bez would agree that in his journey through life in the car industry, his time at Daewoo was valuable. Leaving Daewoo at the end of his contract, Jacques Nasser, then CEO of the Ford Motor Company, tapped him to take over, fix, and make prosperous Aston Martin.

Ford bought the company in 1984, and sank quite a lot of money into it. However, it must be recognized that Nasser threw Aston Martin its best ever lifeline when he appointed Ulrich Bez. Truly, a prescient decision.

Bez once relayed the tale of his development work on the AWD Porsche 959 and the challenge he faced in one of the test programs. He wanted to drive the car flat out ‘somewhere where there were no limits on speed and distance’. Despite the size of the huge Nardo test circuit in Italy, he wanted somewhere where the opportunities were limitless!

The next moment, he had packed up the Porsche engineering team and freighted the prototype to ice-bound northern Russia, where they set up camp by the side of an immense, solidly frozen river! For the next week, Bez and his engineers took great delight in driving up and down the river at the car’s maximum speed (on studded tyres) testing its potential, its stability, and its handling. Crazy? Probably. Effective? Yes.

Bez was the man wholly responsible for pushing the pretty little Z1 sports car through the BMW bureaucracy. He was its creator, its soul and its ‘father’. The car was hailed by owners, automotive experts and journalists, and mildly appreciated by BMW. The Board took exception to Bez’s strong will and fanatical pursuit of the project, and because the car was not really a complete commercial success, the Board members vowed never to ever give one man at BMW total power ever again.

In recognition of the part the Z1 played in his career development as an engineer, he redesigned his house in Germany, so that the back wall of the garage, where it joined the dining room, was made of glass. That way, whenever he entertained at home, the Z1 in the garage was on display, for his visitors to appreciate.

Ulrich Bez is a rare bird – he’s an eccentric German. He is at the same time inspired, intelligent, autocratic, off-the-wall, manic, determined, and has a great eye for detail.
At the front line - Ulrich Bez with Aston owners in Monterey 2010 
He loves driving fast cars, fast. He loves Formula One. He is the complete car guy. However, he’s also more than that. He took control of the redesign, and construction of Aston Martin’s new headquarters in Gaydon, England.

During a tour he proudly points out where they used travertine marble for good effect in the walls and floors of the entrance and the lobby, but then plaster walls and polished wood in the offices and staff common areas, which are hidden from public view.

It’s not hard to be impressed by the man, his achievements, his passion and will to win. I always thought that his appointment to run Aston Martin was inspired, and put a square peg in a square hole. The marque demanded a man of engineering integrity to create a new dimension for its products; and every day we see the fruits of his labour.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Touring: Como

The jewels of Tuscany are spread fairly wide, but for my money the pleasures of Italy’s Lakes District are compressed very nicely into one area in particular, and that is undoubtedly, Lago di Como.

Each of the lakes – Maggiore, Garda, Iseo, Como and Lugarno has their own distinct features, but for me Como wraps up all the pleasures in a neat package.
Lago di Como
Departing Milan’s Malpensa airport in our quirky Renault Megane we skirted around Milano, to visit friends in the town of Como.
Town of Como
A night in the Hotel Metropole Suisse cleared away the jet lag, and then we headed north east via Caslino dÉrba on the SP40, then joined the SS583 heading for Lake Como’s special jewel – Bellagio.
This is not necessarily the easiest way to access Bellagio, but it’s a fun drive. Once you’ve arrived you’ll find there are many great hotels, large and small in Bellagio, but my pick is the Hotel Florence, which has been in the same family for generations. If you score a room with a lake front balcony, you’ll never want to leave.
Hotel Florence balcony
Plan to stay at least five days in Bellagio, because it’s easy to take day trips and return each night to sample the town’s outstanding restaurants. You could take a car ferry, and visit Menaggio on the western shore.
Dining out after a day's touring
 Ferry to Menaggio
You can take a car ferry to Varenna, and drive up to St. Moritz in Switzerland for lunch. You can take a tour by motor boat around Lake Como, checking out George Clooney’s villa near Moltrasio, or go for a champagne lunch at Villa d’ Este.
 Checking out the lake, and Villa Clooney 
When, sadly, it’s time to leave, cross the lake again to Griante on the car ferry, and motor down the SS340, taking the A9 and A8 autostrade back to Malpensa, near the town of Gallarate.

Don’t plan to break any speed records, because the roads in the area are mostly two-lane, and crowded, but this will be a vacation you’ll remember forever.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Magic of Monterey

Every August since 1950 thousands of car enthusiasts gather in the northern Californian city of Monterey to celebrate style, design, technical complexity and power at the annual Pebble Beach Concours d ‘Elegance. It is THE event for car people and gathers together the best examples of automotive development since the birth of the motor car.
 Pebble Beach Judge Sir Stirling Moss always has an eye for the birds
Although Sunday’s Concours is the pinnacle event, activities now begin mid-week, with events at a variety of locations spread around the Monterey Peninsular. I visited Monterey for the first time in 1991, and have only missed attending a few times since then. It has a spellbinding grip on the psyche, and if you love cars and car people you definitely want to be there.

On Wednesday evening, the must-attend event is McCall’s MotorWorks, a lavish display of interesting, quirky, and quick automobiles, flashy executive jets, old warbirds, and jet fighters from the U.S. Air Force. Convenor, Gordon McCall, is a consummate enthusiast, and organiser, and appropriates the Monterey Jet Centre for the night.
 McCall's MotorWorks at the Monterey Jet Centre
Friday about 3,000 ticket holders attend The Quail ‘A MotorSports Gathering’ which is held on the beautiful Quail Lodge golf course. You can’t attend if you don’t have a ticket, and they go on sale in April. This year they sold out in seven hours! Hosted by businessman Sir Michael Kadoorie, the event is a leisurely stroll among classic sporting cars, with outstanding cuisine, music and lots of automotive curiosities to keep you amused.
 'The Quail' attracts sporting cars from all over the world
On Saturday, you can attend the Historic Races at Laguna Seca circuit just east of Monterey. You’re guaranteed a day of speed and thrills as lots of truly interesting competition cars do battle on the fabulous circuit.
 Historic race cars lap the Laguna Seca circuit
Sunday however, is what we’ve all been waiting for, and from 7am the enthusiasts flock through the gates at Pebble Beach anticipating a dazzling lineup of veteran, vintage, historic and notable cars right off the automotive history pages. They are never disappointed.
 Cars and enthusiasts meet on the 18th fairway at Pebble Beach
Chairman Sandra Button seems to outdo herself every year, and the list of Honorary Judges comprises a who’s who of automotive personnel from design, racing and car-making. This year the Honoured Marques were Alfa Romeo (celebrating its centenary) and Jaguar (celebrating 75 years).

Alfa Romeo brought classics from its Milan museum
 Jaguar brought together all existing XK SS sports cars at Pebble Beach
It’s a big deal and attracts notables like Californian Governor Arnold Schwarzeneger, Comedian Jay Leno, and is hosted by actor Ed Hermann. If you have never been, and you love cars, try and make it there one year. You’ll love it!

Electric Cars - The Shocking Truth

Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) have three major problems – range, re-charging and residual value.

First of all, you may need to drive more than 60 km in a day. Second, re-charging is a pain. You have to have access to a 15amp power outlet (most household outlets are only 10amp), so you have to pay to have an electrician wire one into your system. Re-charging also takes up to 10 hours, if you don’t have access to a ‘Fast Charging’ station (which might only take four hours). Third, BEVs are expensive to buy, and of course at this stage no-one knows what they’re going to be worth on the used car market.

However, in Australia there’s a bigger problem, and that is environmental damage. Australia’s power grid reserves are generated by coal-fired power stations, so re-charging your electric car from household supply, or a fast-charging station, simply swaps tailpipe emissions for power station pollution.

Australians generally drive longer distances on average than in many other developed nations, so range and re-charging is an issue. However, until Australians and their government begin to seriously embrace nuclear-powered generators, and a variety of renewables (wind, solar, water), then battery electric cars make no sense whatsoever.

I heard a member of the Greens blathering on recently about how battery electric cars were the ‘silver bullet’ answer to lowering emissions from motor vehicles. Clearly, this person doesn’t understand the technology, doesn’t want to drive far, has plenty of time on their hands for re-charging, and seems unconcerned about emissions from coal-fired power stations.

There’s one more issue of environmental damage, and that is the ‘mining’ or recovery of lithium-ion for batteries. There are only two big sources of this rare earth metal (in China and Bolivia), and the recovery of the metal leaves the landscape totally degraded. Also, there’s the issue of price control on Li-ion. As the reserves are concentrated in only two locations, it could be an OPEC situation all over again.
The Mitsubishi iMiev BEV. Outstanding technology, and within its limits, drives and performs well.
However, it is completely illogical in Australia, where all re-charging power comes from coal-fired power stations.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Getting Started

I began my international driving career in 1976, when as Editor of Modern Motor magazine I was invited to Italy, England and Germany to test drive cars from Alfa Romeo, British Leyland and Porsche.

I sampled the Alfasud Giardinetta on a drive from Rome to Monte Carlo with my good friend Steve Cropley (who’s taking the photo). I was amazed at how well this little 1.3L wagon howled along the Autostrada, whilst the Porsches and Lamborghinis blasted by us on the way to the Monaco Grand Prix.

After returning the Alfa to Milan, we escaped Italy to London just as the Alitalia pilots staged a snap strike. We left London Heathrow for the Cotswolds in a Triumph TR7.

Swapping rides we sampled the very comfortable Rover 3500 (SD1) on a long loop back to the university city of Oxford.

Before returning to Australia, I flew to Stuttgart to drive the then-new Porsche 924.

That first trip whet my appetite for travel and variety, and began a 30 year career driving great cars, in fabulous locations, like climbing the Malojapass in a Bentley Azure, heading to St. Moritz, in 2006.
This life has been a great trip!

Driven Personalities - Stirling Moss

This week I joined 150 fellow enthusiasts in Sydney to celebrate the Golden Anniversary of the first motor racing at the Warwick Farm circuit. In January 1961 the man who led the world’s top drivers to Australia, and won the first international race at ‘the Farm’ was the great Stirling Moss.

Here he is in an iconic photograph by Don McPhedran (now held by the State Library of NSW) leading the field on a 32 degree day, with the side panels of his Lotus 18 removed, to let heat escape the cockpit. His win was an impressive demonstration of his consummate skill in difficult conditions.

Twenty years later I had the good fortune to meet Stirling in slightly different difficult conditions when an inept entrepreneur left him stranded in Melbourne without accommodation or transport. A mutual friend asked me to arrange a hotel and car, and from this meeting began a 30-year friendship.

I engaged Stirling to come to Australia many times after that meeting, as an ambassador for Jaguar, conducting test drive days for Jaguar owners and enthusiasts at the old Warwick Farm circuit, and I was his ‘Minder’.

One of the greatest moments I witnessed was when he joined ‘his hero’ Juan Manuel Fangio at the Adelaide Grand Prix in 1986. Spending time side-by-side with these two greats was a unique honour.

Although now separated by retirement, and the oceans, these days I am able to meet Sir Stirling and Lady Moss regularly at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, where Stirling is an Honorary Judge.

I don’t mind admitting that I bask in the glow of the warmth, affection, friendship and respect that millions of people around the world endow on this great racing driver,