Friday, November 18, 2011

The Doc's Domain

When Martin Clunes first graced television screens as grumpy Doc Martin, who could have believed the grouchy, grumbling GP would have become such a popular character? Who could warm to a guy apparently suffering a form of Asperger’s syndrome, whose general attitude seems set to aggravate?

The answer lies in the making of the fifth series, set in mythical Portwenn. However, it seems that the locale for the series might be the real star. Viewers the world over have fallen in love with the village of Port Isaac (the real town), nestled among cliffs on the North Cornwall coast.

Since the show first aired in 2004, visitor numbers to Port Isaac have skyrocketed. Tourists come to check out the pub, the Doc’s surgery, the pharmacy, the school, the harbour, the shops, and the rolling hills that border the town.

Port Isaac’s permanent population is roughly 1,000 people - but in the British summer, the 
population can be three times greater as outsiders jostle with natives to sample some of the magic of
the 18th century fishing village.

British interior designer Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen and his wife were quick off the mark, establishing a shop in the town, and ringing of their cash register almost drowned out the sound of the seagulls.

Another (more commercial) star of the television series is the Lexus LS400, in which Doc Martin terrorises the countryside and frightens the horses. Lexus says it has been a very successful partnership, and so we thought it might be nice to cruise down to North Cornwall in the latest Lexus model, the new petrol-hybrid CT 200H.

Smaller than Doc Martin’s long wheelbase luxury car, this new Lexus is a compact five door hatchback, and adds a third hybrid model to the Lexus lineup. On North Cornwall’s compact country lanes the smaller hatchback also probably makes much more sense as a doctor’s conveyance.

We picked up the test car at London’s Heathrow, and joined the M4 motorway to head towards the southwest. It’s a pretty easy drive, joining the M5 south near Bristol. You leave the motorway at Exeter, and then it’s well-surfaced A roads all the way to Port Isaac.

Whilst the motorways make for fast travel, the Lexus does not return very good fuel economy at a sustained 70mph (Britain’s national motorway speed limit). After just over four and half hours we refueled in the village of Camelford, which revealed surprisingly high fuel consumption figures of 11.5 l/100km for the 250km journey!

The trip from Heathrow also revealed the CT200H might be a comfortable car for motorway cruising, but narrow country lanes showed up its stodgy steering, and quite a bit of pitching in tight corners. After a week of highways, lanes and B roads it’s highly likely this is a car which Jeremy Clarkson would not be raving about.
Having said that, there’s a lot to like about the car. Most important to me, the excellent sound system makes the most of high fidelity from an iPod, and music sampled at a high bit rate.

Lexus introduced the CT200H to the Australian market at the Albert Park Grand Prix circuit in the Celebrity Race. After the silently-whirring petrol-electric hybrids had completed their laps of the race track, Lexus sales people sat back in their showrooms and waited for the orders to come in.

Not so fast! Australian car buyers are shunning ‘green’ cars and it’s highly unlikely a pricey hybrid will make any sort of impact on this ‘no-love’ affair. However, the cheapest Lexus does have some genuine appeal for environmentally-conscious luxury car buyers.

The primary feature set is what will sell this car. It’s quiet, with a great ride, nice seats, smooth to drive, finished like a Lexus, and good value. The price leader is modestly-equipped (how else could you price it at $39,990), so you’ll need to spend around $9,000 to get the full range of luxury features you might expect in a proper luxury car.

On the road it’s willing, but the boot is pretty limiting - we struggled to get two 62cm rollaway suitcases stowed under the removable rear shelf. However, taking a long trip in a Lexus CT200H will be a pleasure, because of low wind noise, good ride and confidence-boosting grip. It's also great for a Pommy pub crawl!
The petrol-electric hybrid powertrain is identical to Prius, in fact the whole platform is pinched from Toyota’s first hybrid, and it delivers no surprises. Fuel economy is claimed to be 4L/100km, but as our drive down Britain’s Motorways suggests, the Lexus doesn’t have a wind-cheating shape, and driven hard (above 110km/h most of the way), it can’t deliver decent fuel efficiency at high speed.

There are four, adjustable, driving modes. You could easily use the EV mode around town, but our suggestion would be to stay away from Sport mode and go for Normal. In Eco mode the air conditioning didn’t seem to be able to keep up with the demands from an Aussie summer. Conversely, a British summer didn’t worry us at all in Eco mode.

Lexus says this model is a vital element of its policy to widen the appeal of its luxury range in Australia, but this car is also incredibly important in the UK and Europe too - where Lexus has, to date, made little or no impact on sophisticated buyers.

However, the beautiful village of Port Isaac made a big impact on me, and I will return one day.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Delivering A Dream

Undoubtedly the most successful British luxury car in recent history, the Continental GT coupe did more than rebuild Bentley’s fortunes. It was a dream, fully realised …..

The main styling studio in Volkswagen AG’s Wolfsburg headquarters is known colloquially as ‘Walhalla’ and is located on the topmost floor of the building. In November 2000 Bentley’s 14 most senior executives gathered there, expectantly, around a full-size clay model, draped in a simple silver cloth.

As the cloth was whipped away, the 14 men gasped, in unison, as they saw their future, represented by the coupe before their eyes. From this initial reveal, to the first production model, little changed from the prototype. The designers’ dream became the reality, which was the Bentley Continental GT coupe, and start of a whole new era for the venerable British car company.
The coupe spawned a sedan, then a convertible; and each of those models was used as the basis for other variations, meaning that in total more than 50,000 of the whole range of Continentals have been sold.

Of course, the story begins much earlier than that first viewing in Wolfsburg, and the success of the Continental GT was a story of the blending, refining and moulding of a series of themes, designs and concepts.

Like all good tales this one begins a while back, in the early 90s in fact. At this time the Bentley team were arguing with the current owners of the company, Vickers plc, about the need to modernise the Bentley brand, update the design language and create an identity for Bentley which was very much separate from the staid Rolls-Royce image.

At the time Vickers was working up to selling off the company and didn’t want to spend any more money than was absolutely necessary. In 1997 it had already agreed to fund two new sedans – the Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph and the Bentley Arnage, which would give the company two new cars to help make it attractive to a potential buyer.
So Bentley designer Graham Hull, leading a very small team, on a miniscule budget began to pull together several design ideas into a cohesive concept.
Bentley 'Java'
In 1993 the company had built the Bentley Java concept car, and revealed it at the 1994 Geneva Salon, to great acclaim.
Simon Loasby

However, by 1997 the Java concept had dated, and it was then designer Simon Loasby’s job to further develop the Java design cues, which led to the creation of a concept nicknamed ‘MSB’ (Mid Size Bentley).
MSB Concepts

The Java concept model had been a ‘runner’- in that the designers had simply sliced the top off a BMW 5-Series sedan, and built the show car on that platform. This necessarily dictated all the key dimensions. However, by 1996 the relationship with BMW had fallen apart, and Bentley was on its own.

The MSB concept ideas were defined, re-defined and refined until a new set of design criteria for Bentley– the muscular rear haunches, the four round headlights and the more compact dimensions were born.

In late 1997 an MSB concept with a retractable hard top was shown to various potential buyers for the company, which included Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Then in late 1998 Volkswagen AG won a bitter bidding war and successfully acquired Bentley Motors.
Hartmut Warkuss

In the meantime, stimulated by Bentley’s advanced design work, the VW styling team led by respected chief Hartmut Warkuss had independently developed a Bentley coupe/sedan concept based on Volkswagen’s Ypsilon platform. In early 1999 the design ideas whirling around between the Bentley and Volkswagen teams were distilled into a singular vision.

Dirk van Braekel
Following the Bentley acquisition Volkswagen Chairman Dr. Ferdinand Piech personally appointed Skoda’s head designer, Dirk van Braekel to the job of Design Director for Bentley Motors.

From this time on Bentley Motors began to benefit from the vision, talent and generosity of spirit which resided in both Hartmut Warkuss and Dirk van Braekel. The two men acted as ‘fathers’ of Bentley design work, guiding the efforts of young Brazilian-Italian Raul Pires as he refined and blended all of the previous exterior work into the concept which would become the Continental GT coupe.
Raul Pires

Robin Page
At the same time van Braekel was encouraging talented young British designer, Robin Page, to blend some of the exterior design cues into a brief for a stunning interior.

Dirk van Braekel took the two young designers back to Bentley’s historic heritage. Using both the 1931 ‘Blower’ and the 1961 Continental as thought-starters, the team combined both historic and contemporary themes to create the car we first saw in 2002.
Design development

Simon Loasby credits both the Warkuss and van Braekel for the support and encouragement of Bentley’s work on the Continental range, which later led to cars like the outstanding Mulsanne sedan.
Original Pires sketch

As good it looked, the Continental GT coupe would have to be based on a VW Group platform. Ferdinand Piech was anxious to take advantage of the new engine designs he and Dr. Martin Winterkorn had been developing, like the W12, W16 and a new V10.

In 1999 it was decided that the platform for the planned Volkswagen Phaeton luxury sedan, would be the donor for the Continental GT. This meant that the Bentley would have a 6 litre, W12 engine.

Volkswagen originally appointed Dr. Ulrich Hackenberg to lead the work to graft the Phaeton platform under the Continental GT design model, and he was succeeded by Dr. Joachim Rothenpieler, who brought the car to production stage. However, the man responsible for the ongoing refinement of the rolling platform is Dr. Ulrich Eichhorn, Bentley’s most recent Chief Engineer.
Ing. Dr. Ulrich Eichorn

2012 Bentley Continental GT

To reiterate, the Bentley Continental GT has been an outstanding emotional and commercial success, and has underwritten Bentley’s future security as a high end luxury brand. The restyled model shown in Geneva in March 2011 is, unsurprisingly, another triumph of sophistication, and refinement of a brilliant original concept.

From the first iteration, in 2002, up until the Second Generation was revealed in January 2010, more than 22,800 Continental GT coupes had been sold, making it possibly the most commercially-successful British luxury car since Sir William Lyons’ epic Jaguar XJ6 in 1968.

It has been a singular honour and a privilege to have been associated with this car, and this company.

Holden Hits Another Home Run

I hate to bang on about this, but in a tiny market like Australia, when one global giant makes a momentous decision (which affects its competitors) it’s big news. 

Holden has now announced that 12 months from now it will launch the Extended-Range Volt in Australia. Why is this an important strategic decision, and why should it affect its major competitor, Ford Australia? 

Ford Australia, by dint of decisions taken by its parent in Detroit is committed to a Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV), the Fiesta EV. GM Holden has chosen to pursue its ‘Green’ credentials by opting for an extended-range vehicle. 

Australian’s have not embraced pure electric vehicles (BEVs), and my guess is that this will continue, for one very important reason – “Range Anxiety”. We travel longer distances than Europeans, or city-driving Americans, and the short range offered by BEVs simply won’t cut it – and Australians are smart enough to realise this. 

GM Holden has provided not only an answer to this conundrum, but it has once again one-upped Ford Australia. 

There’s another reason why anyone should question the suitability to Australia of pure battery power – substituting carbon emissions from petrol-powered cars, for greater drain on the electricity grid in this country, which is fuelled by carbon-emitting coal-fired power stations is not a ‘Green’ solution! 

There’s other, more commercial considerations. First, the business model of the oil companies does not envision thousands of BEV drivers deserting service stations; and also, if BEVs were to flourish, the increased drain on the electricity grid would be dramatic. In addition, if you recharge your BEV from your home power supply, your power bill of course would take off like a Saturn rocket! 

But, back to Holden. Here is a company which, in a rapidly changing market not only enjoys relatively strong sales for its big Commodore, but its junior player, the Cruze, has taken off. In addition, it has the ear of its parent in Detroit, and again, enjoys increasing patronage and confidence to develop a range of vehicles to be sold globally. Meanwhile Ford Australia gets lumbered with whatever Dearborn hands down! 

Despite its great success with the Ranger project, and the outstanding job it has done with rejuvenating Falcon and the Territory, Ford Australia has consistently ended up on the wrong side of the best choices. Strategically, GM Holden stays ahead of the game – and said, as recently as this week, if Commodore drops in a big sales hole, the company is ready for it, and it will reshape its business plan. 

Now that’s big thinking! And, Volt looks like a winner to me, before it sells a single car.


Driving & has been on vacation, enjoying cruising both Scandinavia, and the Mediterranean, aboard two of the best cruise ships afloat, Cunard’s ‘Queen Victoria’ and Holland America’s ‘Eurodam’.

It’s been a peaceful and serene escape from the volatility of the car business, and a chance to sit on the sidelines spectating, as the global car makers make inspired, as well as dumb, decisions.

Queen Victoria

There’s also been an opportunity to reflect on what faces car manufacturers, car buyers and governments of all persuasions. In a way, it’s a bit like watching the European governments failing to deal with Greece’s debt crisis. Everyone knows instinctively what to do, but failing to do it.

With the oil crisis looming, I believe it’s incumbent that governments to make decisive and parallel policy change and take a leadership role. Car manufacturers can and will operate within a legislated framework, and that leaves car buyers to go along with the best solutions.

The internal combustion engines, petrol or diesel, still have life in them as low-cost, low-polluting powerplants, and petrol/diesel hybrids are a good short-term solution, as are ‘extended-range’ models. We should be seeing the development of policies within a framework utilising the immediate benefits of these technologies, whilst the electric car future is decided over the next 20 years.

BEVs (battery electric vehicles) are NOT a final solution. FCEVs (fuel cell vehicles) also have a long way to go before being commercially viable, but somewhere in that mix there lays solutions for the coming decades – just don’t ask any of the ‘Green’ parties to get involved – they’ll have us back on pushbikes before you can blink!