Sunday, March 20, 2011

Driven Personalities - Ken Tubman

Ken Tubman was two things, for sure. A chemist, and the winner of Australia’s first Round Australia trial.
Sydney Showground 1953 (Ken, right)

On first meeting you would wonder where this quiet, unassuming pharmacist was hiding the demon within, who drove the 10, 500 kilometres of the 1953 Redex Round Australia Trial, and won it on corrected times by 25 seconds!

His stock-standard Peugeot 203 was considered by most ‘experts’ at the time to be too flimsy, untested and unreliable – because, of all things, it was French. After that momentous victory, the distributors sold out two years stock of the 203 in weeks!

I first met Ken via a meeting of our respective car clubs - he came down from Maitland in 1965 for a discussion on preparing for rallies, and I was asked to be his host. I too found it difficult to match his self-effacing behaviour with the tenacity and determination needed to win Australia’s toughest trial.

But, it’s the quiet ones you have to watch. Ken Tubman had a steel core, and throughout his motor sport history, which started when he raced MGs at Mount Druitt, he proved to be a tough competitor.

In 1977 Ken was appointed Grand Marshall of the Singapore Airlines London-To-Sydney Car Rally by our mutual friend, the late Wylton Dickson. I was entered in that event as navigator for Hans Tholstrup, who had chosen a Mini Moke as his rally car.

Madras, India 1977

Because of Wylton’s cavalier style of organizing, there were lots of details about the event, the route, the customs and shipping, which Dickson hadn’t finalized by the time it began in London in August 1977. Many times it was up to Ken to sort out the problems.

In 1981 Leyland Australia took over the importation, assembly and sales of Peugeot cars, and in 1983 to boost the sales we decided to re-run the 1953 event, with Ken Tubman driving a then-current Peugeot 505 STi. He was accompanied by a string of journalists who travelled with him for stints up to 48 hours, and there was a film crew along to make a documentary, which we planned to present to Automobiles Peugeot.

Devil's Marbles 1983

Many parts of the 1953 route had been by-passed by modern highways, but Ken remembered the old route, and would lead the crew down dusty tracks to find the original road.

Ken, then 67, sailed through the re-run, taking the whole thing in his stride. However, the highlight came a year later, when in October 1984 I took him to Paris, ostensibly for the Paris Motor Show and the launch of a new Peugeot model, then surprised him with a private meeting and lunch with Peugeot Chairman Roland Peugeot, and his son, Eric.
Office of m. R. Peugeot, Paris 1984

I brought along a videotape of the finished film, which Ken presented to m. Peugeot and despite the language difficulties we had no trouble making lunch a four hour affair!

After I moved to the USA in 1991 we lost touch, but he was a great friend and excellent company. We sampled many glasses of good French red wine over the years, and I loved hearing his racing tales from Mount Druitt.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Geneva Delight

One of the delights of ‘ambling’ through the Geneva Auto Salon, passing by the mainstream manufacturers, is the surprise of discovering a hidden gem from one of the few remaining independent Italian carrozzeria.

Just across from the official Bentley display was a stand from Carrozzeria Touring Superleggera, which has been based in Milan since it was founded in 1926 by Felice Anderloni and Gaetano Ponzoni. In Italian ‘superleggera’ essentially means ‘super light weight’ and it is in this area of personally-commissioned coachbuilding that Touring Superleggera has excelled.
1938 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900BLR

The company’s history is populated by some memorable designs, and this year in Geneva it showed two beautiful examples of its current work.

The stunning Gumpert Tornante, which is a low and sexy sports coupe; and the Flying Star, a Shooting Brake created by adding a hatchback to the donor car, a Bentley GTC convertible.

The Flying Star begins production inside a ‘reference cage’ and lightweight panels are crafted and fitted by hand.

For further weight reduction the company is currently studying the use of carbon fibre for the hatchback, rear wings and the complete roof section.
The interior is trimmed in a stunning red leather, beautifully finished
 and presented.

Whilst the design of the Flying Star happened outside the Crewe studios, Bentley styling director Dirk van Braekel and his team acknowledge the skill, sophistication and finish of the car. The Flying Star can be serviced by official Bentley dealers.

Touring Superleggera says it has orders for 19 Flying Star Shooting Brakes.

Throughout its history Touring Superleggera has produced many gems, built on chassis from Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, Lancia, Maserati and now Bentley.

1956 Aston Martin DB2-4 Spyder

Probably the highlight model was the Ferrari Tipo 166 Touring Barchetta shown in 1950. It became a milestone in the construction of a light, elegant and effective design on a competition chassis.

1948 Ferrari Barchetta 166 MM

Unsurprisingly the company faced difficult challenges, and in 1966 was forced to close its doors, however in the year of its 85th anniversary, it has restarted its activities, now part of Zeta Europe BV, a private company specializing in high-end products and brands.

Touring Superleggera now has a healthy order book for both Gumpert Tornante and Flying Star commissions, and is also expanding its business by providing complete design services to car manufacturers.

2009 Maserati A8-GCS Berlinetta

It’s truly pleasing to see a revered and respected Milanese carrozzeria returned to its rightful place at the 2011 Geneva Salon, among the latest creations of the world car industry.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Diesel? Just Do It!

Here’s a good idea! Let’s immediately embrace a greener future for motoring. We could use engines which utilize existing technology; fuels which are readily available, and we could also lower costs to consumers - and let’s do it now!

Pie in the sky? Or remotely possible?  It's definately possible!

It’s simple, we follow the European model. First we ensure that the oil companies produce proper ‘Clean Diesel’ fuel as they are legislated to do in Europe; then we cut the tax excise on diesel fuel (helping car owners and truckies); then we cut the sales tax on cars with diesel engines which produce 120g CO²/km (or less) of carbon.

Forget about the $6.2 billion Green Car Fund - that was a stupid idea anyway. Put that money, or some of it, into the abovementioned measures and overnight you would have a greener car scenario.

It’s quite clear that car buyers do not want to pay a premium for car technology that does not deliver ‘green cars’ economically. Also, battery electric cars (BEVs) which are recharged from a power grid fueled by coal-fired power stations are a dumb idea for Australia. Then, there's 'Range Anxiety', a big problem with the distances we drive.

Every car manufacturer currently selling cars in Australia could offer fuel-efficient diesel models tomorrow (well, next year maybe). Most of these cars already have to meet Europe’s more stringent emission regulations, and produce much lower carbon emissions today, than any of our Australian-built cars.

Efficient diesel engine technology is available now! Clean diesel fuel could be available very quickly, and if we offered the public some financial incentive, and a good reason to embrace a solution like this, we could be actively lowering automotive emissions within two years.

Also, if the government ‘artificially’ lowered the price of diesel fuel this too would have a positive impact on transport costs, benefitting supermarket consumers and truckies, as well as car owners.

The trouble is, this idea is so simple, and reeks of so much common sense our leaders might be unable to recognize its value, and miss a golden opportunity to act both positively and decisively.

Sure, diesel comes from oil and that supply is finite. But, while the car industry is working furiously on new technologies, switching to diesel now would give us far better (economic) use of available oil supplies, lower the cost of motoring immediately, and create a bigger time buffer for new technologies to be refined, and be more affordable and cost-effective.

New technologies are gradually coming to market now, but virtually all of it is immature, and very costly. Look at the sales of the Toyota Camry Hybrid - they are nowhere near what Toyota promised. Why? Because car buyers won’t pay the premium, and they don’t get a payback across the average ownership life!

I’d like to see Labour, the LNP and the Greens get on the same bandwagon together and (acting like statesmen instead of petulant political pointscorers) embrace this idea. The local car industry would grumble, but they would all welcome a cohesive, coherent and defined policy, which could become semi-permanent, giving them security for their planning and marketing.

Even without financial incentives diesel cars are already becoming more popular with Australian car buyers. Imagine the explosion in acceptance if there was not only a financial benefit, but sensible, rational reasons for doing it! The public are smart enough to recognize a good idea, but are our leaders?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Geneva - A Super Salon

It’s the first Tuesday in March, and that means the automotive who’s who will gather in Geneva for the Salon de l’Auto – probably my most favourite motor show, and a chance to not only network, but to preview the automotive future.

This year it can be summed up in one word – electric. Most car companies showed an electric ‘something’ – and those cars were mostly plug-in battery electric vehicles. Instantly it was obvious the Euro car companies are not too worried about ‘Range Anxiety’ (how far you can go, and come back on a single charge).

Never mind that there’s little public re-charging infrastructure, there were companies selling ‘home charging solutions’ – as if that will solve the problem.

Ford, Volvo, Renault and Tesla all had battery electric vehicles (BEVs), but I saw only one Extended-Range-Vehicle, the brilliant new Chevy Volt. Clearly the Europeans reckon owners will only use their cars within one charging cycle. That sort of thinking isn’t going to work in Australia or America.

So after the disappointment of poor product planning I set off to catch up with my friends from the world of automotive design, and what a pleasure to talk with Fabrizio Giugiaro, and catch up on the work Ital Design is doing for its new owner, Volkswagen Group.

Then it was off to Aston Martin and my good friend Marek Reichmann, who was pleased as punch to show off his new Virage. After his big win with the Rapide saloon, this new coupe was all class.

Among a very interesting and eclectic collection of ‘new stuff’ was the Holden-designed Cruze hatchback wearing Chevy badges, and a not unattractive Bentley Continental ‘Shooting Brake’ from the innovative Italian firm Touring Superleggera.

Designer Adrian Griffths from Bertone Stile was keen to show off his Jaguar concept, and Mazda had a fantastic (but unrealistic) BIG sedan to boast about.

I thought Alfa Romeo’s pretty little 4C looked a winner, if they could ever produce it. Ownership of Alfa Romeo continues to be kicked back and forth in the press between Fiat and VW.

Personally, I would love to see VW pick up Alfa Romeo. The division is soaking up a lot of Fiat’s time and money, and given what Piech has done for Bentley, Bugatti and Lamborghini, I reckon Alfa Romeo could have a big future if Ferdinand could snatch it from Sergio.

Finally, two compact cars which caught my eye. Citroen’s fabulous little C4, and ItalDesign Giugiaro’s concept car for Volkswagen.

Then it was more networking and catching up with old friends, like Aston Martin COO, Dr. Ulrich Bez. Like many chief executives at the Geneva Salon he was very upbeat about this year, and prospects of business in the luxury sector continuing to improve.

Every year this auto show knocks your socks off, and 2011 was no different.

A Pure Motor Racing Spectacle

A good friend decries boring motor racing circuits, which produce unexciting F1 races. I couldn’t agree more. After you’ve been to Spa-Francorchamps, Monza or Albert Park, most of the ‘scientific’ circuits produce very dull racing, so I, for one, was not sad to see the Bahrain GP cancelled.

Having said that, I LOVE Formula One racing. It’s motor sport at its highest elevation, and it has produced the highest level of technology of making a car go fast in a given environment.
(Start of 2003 race, Bentleys leading. Photo - John Brooks) 
But, for pure spectacle there is no comparison to Le Vingt Quatres Heures de Mans,

Every year since 1923 drivers and their cars line up to ‘race’ for 24 hours. This is not a casual tour until 23h 30m and then a ‘sprint’ to the line. This is racing in its purest sense, and endurance racing at that. For a whole day! Plus, it’s in France – a great added bonus.

You have to preserve the car, be competitive, and watch your back. No quarter is given. Not that there’s any other racer out there with designs on seeing that you don’t finish. There’s enough drama in your own team, and car, to ensure you are truly focussed on your own problems.

However, there are diversions. First of all there is the eye candy, and clearly that’s the Hawaiian Tropic girls, who’ve been at every Le Mans I’ve been at, since 1984.

It’s a just a moment or two, before the real action begins, however it’s certainly not unpleasant, and most of the girls I’ve engaged in conversation were smart and educated as well as beautiful.

Then there’s the stuff that happens during the race itself. Whether you’re with an entrant (I attended with both Jaguar and Bentley); or a journalist, a sponsor or a member of the public, you get to wander through the infield to take in the sites.

Like F1, the Paddock and pits these days are out of bounds unless you have accreditation. Which is a far cry from the first time I attended in 1984, when every man and his dog (yes, dog!), and girlfriend, could wander along pit lane mid-race!

So, you get the opportunity to either ride the ferris wheel, visit the carnival, drink at the Mercier Champagne stand, or just bed down to get a few Zeds during the night.

The Mercier Champagne connection is interesting. The company was founded in 1871, but the owner Eugene Mercier had a love of fast cars. He decided they should occasionally ‘race’ through the wine caves, but in addition he thought his company ought to be a sponsor at Le Mans. The company has maintained a stand since the mid-1930s.

The other great diversion, and in fact one of the really important pit stops is to visit the Grand Marnier crepe stand. I have been to the race more than eight times, and for mid-race sustenance there is no substitute for a Grand Marnier crepe. It is tasty, alcoholic and simply wonderful. There’s nothing like it during the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Of course, there’s the race. The high drama, the disasters, the mid-race crashes, blowouts, fuel starvation and plain bad luck often expose the lack of planning and poor risk assessment by many teams. The guys who plan and prepare well usually end up with a good result, not by good luck, but by good management.

Every year, but one, I have remained awake and alert for the whole period. The following day, after the race, I usually sleep for 20 hours!

That’s what I call a spectacle. I have never failed to be entertained, intrigued, enervated, interested or brought to tears by the effort, the struggle and the results. In my mind the 24 Hours of Le Mans is motor racing at its best, and I applaud L’√Āutomobile Club de L’Ouest for its perseverance, pedantic behaviour, passion and punctuality in bringing us motor racing’s greatest drama every year.

Long may it continue!