Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bentley's French Connection

Given the resurgence of the Bentley marque following its acquisition by Volkswagen Group in 1998, there has developed a keen interest in classic Bentleys. Despite the fact that W.O. Bentley only ever produced about 3,000 cars during the short life of his company, the world now seems to be knee-deep in classic Bentleys - many of which have very questionable provenance.

The ‘real’ classics are well known to any true Bentley aficionado, and global members of the Bentley Drivers Clubs, but surely one of the most fascinating, is the one-of-a-kind Embiricos Bentley.

Indeed there have even been replicas of this car, but there is only ONE true Embiricos Bentley and its story is fascinating.

During the racing heyday of the marque, Ettore Bugatti once described the huge, upright Bentleys which triumphed at Le Mans, ‘British Racing Lorries’ - such was his disdain for the big, brutish cars.

Aerodynamically-efficient they were not, and even after 1931 Bentley’s new owner, Rolls-Royce, didn’t seem much interested in producing anything that was remotely streamlined.

In the mid-1930s Rolls-Royce was approached by its sales rep in Paris, Walter Sleator, on behalf of Greek shipowner, and gentleman racer, AndrĂ© Maris Embiricos, who wanted a custom-built car. 


Sleator convinced Rolls-Royce that a French designer, Georges Paulins, who had penned some aerodynamic shapes for Talbot Lago, could build a streamlined body on a 4 1/4 Derby Bentley chassis.

Derby Bentley

The British company sold the chassis, but wanted no part in the creation of the custom car. Paulins, who worked with coachbuilder Marcel Pourtout produced what many have said was the best-looking ‘British’ car to that time! It was completed in 1938.

Interestingly Embiricos used it as a road car for only a year, but tired of it, and in 1939 sold it to Mr. H.S.F. Hay, who raced it at Le Mans in 1949. Despite being mostly a road car, with 60,000 miles on it, the car finished 6th. Hay entered the car in the 24 Hour classic twice more, finishing 14th and 22nd. By then it had 120,000 miles on the odometer!

The secret to its performance was an increase in horsepower provided by the Derby factory, thanks to higher compression and bigger carburettors (lifting power from 125 to 142 hp), but it was the lightweight body crafted from Duralium which made the biggest contribution. Duralium is an age-hardened aluminium alloy.

Arturo & Deborah Keller
Hay sold the car in 1969, then after passing through several hands it was acquired by Arturo Keller, a lover of fine cars and a true self-made man who created and runs the Keller Wine Estate in Petaluma, California.

Bentley Motors would dearly love to own this true classic, but Arturo says he has no plans to sell it. He has loaned it to Bentley Motors on occasion, but it remains part of his private collection.

Probably the most fascinating fact about the Embiricos Bentley is that when tested in a wind tunnel in Bristol, England it’s aerodynamic lines were found to produce a faster airflow backwards, than forwards!

Reminds me of the story about the streamlined Jaguar XJ-13, penned by aircraft designer Malcolm Sayer. It was an extremely slippery shape, but was so effective that at any speed over 160mph, it wanted to leave the ground and fly! This was well before we knew about wings, spoilers, and downforce on racing cars.

Despite the striking design of the Embiricos Bentley, the Rolls-Royce company was never adventurous enough to imitate the streamlined shape, but in 1952 conceded that its stylists could produce a more rakish coupe body on a Bentley chassis, and that model became the famous Bentley Continental R-type, another truly iconic Bentley.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

A Fading Romance

We Baby Boomers are being dragged toward a stark reality, and Driving & Life is included. The romance with the car, and romantic notions of driving for pleasure, are fast becoming a thing of the past. Fear not, I don’t think cars will disappear any time soon, but emphasis on how and where they are used will change dramatically over the next 10-20 years.

I grew up in an era where you avidly read car magazines, did all the mechanical work on the car yourself, sending the car to a workshop only if you didn’t have the equipment or the knowledge to complete the task. In my era we still fueled our dreams with terms like Grand Touring, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Grands Prix, Ride & Handling, and exploring the Amalfi coast at high speed on a serpentine stretch of great driving road.

Beckoning Bends

Generations X and Y are already showing less interest in cars as a passion, they seem them as a utility. Alarm over energy use and petroleum reserves are now more dominant in their minds, than how the car handles the Amalfi coast road, or how fast it accelerates from 0-100km/h. They’re actually more alarmed about where to park the bloody thing! And how much that will cost!

Social, legislative and natural forces are more and more restricting how we use cars and where we drive them. A report published in The Australian ( 26/10/2012) by a team led by Peter Newman from Curtin University in Western Australia is, I believe, a defining moment in the debate over transport by personal car.

The report argues that we should be spending less on roads and more on rail, and other mass transport solutions. We should stop taking personal cars (with one occupant) into the city. It says money invested in roads will limit Australia’s productivity, compared with major cities around the world which are embracing railways and light rail.

Since 1980, the report says, more than 80 major cities have increased their spending on underground rail, and light (surface) rail, pushing cars further and further towards the city limits. The cost of fuel, parking, and road tolls will do the rest.

The evidence is clear already, in Sydney and Brisbane. Recent projects like the Cross City Tunnel in Sydney and the Clem 7 Tunnel in Brisbane are not realising the rate of return (toll receipts) that was envisaged, because people can’t afford regular use of these roads.

Other reports cite the fact that removing the surcharge on two stations on the Airport Rail Link in Sydney, would increase rail use by 50% and would be more practical than building an extra lane on a freeway.

Ferrari Trapped in Traffic

Sure you can drive a Ferrari, just not in the city! Keep it for the weekend and take your partner touring to the country, and help bolster regional tourism and spread spending across the country.

The Road Ahead

Whereas, when you go to work, or shopping , in the city, use the light rail - hopping on and off exactly where it suits you.

I vividly remember the uproar from car owners when the Pitt Street Mall was built in central Sydney, because individuals in cars were no longer able to drive right up outside their favorite store, park, and shop! Well, guess what - there are even more restrictions in Sydney now, and that dream is long gone. 

Light Rail in Central Sydney

Sydney city streets are home to public transport, and cars just passing through - or more precisely going from their garage at home to an expensive parking station in the city.

I very much favor banning personal cars from cities. Having travelled widely in Europe, and embraced underground trains and light rail with pleasure, I can definitely see the the value and commonsense in this report by Peter Newman and his colleagues.

Very Veyron Touring

There’s no reason for Bugatti to stop making exotic cars, just as long as the owners keep in mind that they’ll be driving the car rarely, on out-of-town highways, doing battle not with classic bends and straightaways, but speed cameras and the Highway Patrol.

For example, in Milan, Italy, the underground is easily the best way to get around the crowded city.

The Padua Express

In Padua the light rail is classy, comfortable and drops you right by a pedestrian complex, where you can listen to a classical pianist playing for passers by. Now isn’t that more civilized than circling the city blocks searching for that elusive, exhorbitent parking place?

Mozart in the Mall

Friday, October 26, 2012

Australian International Motor Show 2012 - Reflections

First, the bad news. There were 26 carmakers missing from the Darling Harbour Convention Centre in Sydney last week, for the 2012 Australian International Motor Show. So, you might expect a low key affair.

No way! The organisers still managed to gather together a very appealing expo, some great concept cars, a couple of world debuts and the only Aston Martin One-77 in Australia. There was something for everyone, and some very important cars aimed at mainstream consumers. I thought it was well worth the entry price.

However, there were some unusual twists and I thought one of the strangest was Mazda’s new mid-sized car, the all-new Mazda 6. Once we saw the car in the metal, mid-size is NOT how you would describe it. It’s just 230mm shorter than a current Falcon!

The new Mazda 6 is a BIG car in anyone’s language. This is called in the car industry ‘model creep’ - where particular cars seem to grow in every dimension with each new iteration. Then, Lo! The car maker introduces a new, smaller car, with a new model name, to replace it’s ‘old’ established model.

It’s all about hiking prices, then slipping a replacement in under the wire, at an inflated price, albeit cheaper than the model it replaces. It’s a ‘re-positioning’ exercise, aimed at squeezing more money out of car buyers. And, it’s worked very successfully for the last 40 years. Peugeot are experts at it - E.G. the 205, then 206 & 207, then 305, 306, 307. They start out small, and grow - as does the price. Apparently, you the buyer, aren’t supposed to notice!

Then, another interesting development was the first Australian showing of Mercedes-Benz’s new A-Class. To be truthful, although it’s a fresh new look I found it a bit anonymous and less interesting than the car it replaces.

The old A-class was distinctive and cute - and created a great loyalty among its owners, so I thought it very interesting listening to the comments of the people on the Mercedes-Benz Stand: “Just looks like a longer, lower Japanese hatchback.” & “Is it really a Benz? It’s on their Stand, so it must be.” & “It’s featureless, just like everything else.” The new car didn’t seem to be hitting any Hot buttons.

What will A-class owners, looking to trade-up, think? I reckon M-B hasn’t done itself any favours with this restyle.

Then there was the Ford display. A huge, almost empty cavern with just three cars, but several hints at the styling theme of the upcoming 2014 Falcon facelift. During motor show week, Ford’s Director of Styling for Asia-Pacific was in the Broadmeadows studio patting the Australian styling team on the head ,and signing off a radical restyle for the last Australian-built Falcon. suggests the new Falcon may take cues from a Concept Car called Evos, and that would be a radical departure from the styling of the current car, but Whatever! The 2016 Falcon will be a product of the One-Ford Policy and it won’t be manufactured Down Under.

So, there were some interesting new ideas and competitive new cars at the 2012 motor show, and well worth attending - but, it's the last at Darling Harbour. Next year the motor show moves to Melbourne, and in 2014, car enthusiasts will travel to Olympic Park at Homebush for the next expo. It remains to be seen if those missing from this year’s Show return to the fold. My betting is, they won’t!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Take Me To The Benz

I’m 30 minutes into the test drive and even after such a short distance I’m thinking: “This ML350 Blue Efficiency is, at once, everything like a Range Rover; and nothing like a Range Rover”

Let me explain. This latest version of the popular M-Class is quiet, refined, beautifully-finished, comfortable, and performs well – giving the driver great confidence on-road, and presumably off-road too, which are exactly similar qualities found in the latest Range Rover.

However, the occupants of the ML 350, and especially the driver, are totally isolated from everything outside the car. Even the suspension manages to obscure some of the subtleties of the terrain. The Range Rover engages its driver, provides outstanding feedback from steering and suspension, and you know you’re driving it. In that respect the ML 350 is nothing like a Range Rover, and that’s a good thing.

The M-Class has carved out its own niche of appeal for people who just want an extremely competent, and very classy SUV, which will take them from A to B with no worries. And, in extremely well-finished comfort, with all the bells and whistles.

It hasn’t always been like this. My good friend, Byron Mathoudakis (who writes for observed that the previous two generations of the M-Class left a lot to be desired. They lurched and swayed when underway, the electronics were unreliable, and the fit and finish were appallingly inconsistent.

This latest ML has surprisingly humble origins, because the ML shares it platform and underpinnings with the more plebian Jeep Grand Cherokee; and yet Mercedes-Benz has pulled out all stops to deliver maximum refinement.

When you’re paying $100,000 for an SUV, you expect better and I think this latest iteration delivers. I complimented my friends at Mercedes-Benz on the intuitive controls for the Multi-Media Centre (MMC), and the fact that the controls now looked very similar to the Audi approach. “Yes, they are certainly easier to use.” was the reply.

You see, I’ve often thought that if someone else has a good idea, employ it with your own mods – because the customers who test drive everything in the class when they’re considering a purchase, know what works and what doesn’t. BMW found that out very quickly when it introduced iDrive. What a joke! It was so clever, so advanced, so complicated, and so frustrating (!!) that BMW embraced a lot of the Audi approach too in the second and third generation.

Sometimes the brainy engineers who devise this stuff forget that their cars are driven by mere mortals!

But, back to the driving. The ML 350 on the highway is quick and quiet, and the performance makes you wonder: “How good is this six cylinder engine!” It’s responsive, and unfussed when called upon for sustained high speed and for overtaking. Fuel economy was pretty good, but not quite as boastful as the official test figures. You could figure on 12 L/100km in regular use I think.

I think the most impressive thing, after just getting into the car, was that within five minutes I had connected my iPhone to the entertainment system, and had my favourite music playing; and the Bluetooth connection for the phone was just as simple. So intuitive I didn’t need to refer to a manual.

The transmission selector is deceptively simple too. At first glance, the column-mounted change lever could be mistaken for a trafficator, but when you work out its real purpose, it reveals just three positions – Drive, Neutral (and Park) and Reverse.

When you’re underway, you can play with gear speed selection via the steering wheel paddles, but truthfully I never felt the need to do any more than stick it in Drive, and drive!

The ML 350 is a big SUV, so with seats folded it’s capacious and practical, and the seats themselves are firm, in the German tradition. I’m not sure I could do Sydney to Melbourne without a bit of squirming to remain comfortable.

If I were spending my own nickel in this sector I think I would opt for the diesel version. The extra torque of the oil-burner makes it very responsive in the city, and the difference is very noticeable. Plus, if you do go off-road, I guarantee the diesel ML 350 will feel like a stump-puller!

It would be churlish to complain about anything in the ML 350 Blue Efficiency, because Mercedes-Benz has obviously risen to the challenges from the marketplace, and their owners. It’s beautifully-finished, with high quality materials and great standard features and for someone who simply wants a fuss-free and classy SUV, it’s just the ticket.

Monday, October 8, 2012

At The End of the Road

So, I call my friend Emmanuele in Como and ask him: “I’m looking for a nice quiet place for a vacation, completely away from the rat-race of life in the car business in Detroit.”

“Giovanni,” He says: “You must go to Nerano. You must stay at the Taverna Del Capitano, you must also rent a boat and captain, and take a day trip to Capri. Believe me you will love it! It’s quiet, it’s peaceful and the food is fantastic. It’s the only Michelin-starred restaurant south of Rome.”

I look for Nerano on a map, I can’t find it. I can’t find any reference to it in my atlas at home. I call Emmanuele, and he says: “Well, the Taverna is not actually in Nerano, it’s in a small fishing village called Marina Del Cantone. Most people go there by boat, because it’s at the end of a very narrow, twisting road from Sorrento. Most people in cars usually drive right past the turnoff. That’s because there’s no sign!”

He tells me the landmarks to look for, so I’ll take the correct road, and says not to worry about the tariff. Three meals a day, and a room with a view will be quite expensive, but you’ll love it!”

Marina Del Cantone. Taverna in the centre of the photo with arches

We found the Taverna, at the end of the road, looking over a sparkling Tyrrhenian Sea. We stayed four days, we took a day trip to Capri, we ate like millionaires, and we loved it! Emmanuele was right, it was expensive, but worth every Euro. Family Caputo which has owned and run it since Great Grandfather Salvatore built it in the 1930s are a fabulous group of people, and they really look after you.

Beach view from our terrace

Marina Del Cantone is part of the district of Naples, in an area known as the Massa Lubrense and it’s a relatively undiscovered gem. Sure, the Italians know about it, but most international visitors to this area go to Positano or Amalfi. Believe me, you don’t want to miss them either, but if you are looking for quiet, relaxation, some good walks around the coastline to Recomone (East), or Punta Campanella (West), this is the place.

A boat for the day, preferably with Antonio, will cost about 300 Euros, but he will take you across the stretch of water from Marina Del Cantone to Marina Piccolo.

Marina Picolo, Isle of Capri
Antonio will wait for you while you take the little bus up to the main Piazza for lunch, then you call him on his Mobile phone and he comes alongside to pick you up.

Captain Antonio

You’ll see Faraglioni, and maybe even go around the island to the Blue Grotto. If you’re lucky, one of the small boats that take visitors into the Blue Grotto can fit you on board, and you can negotiate a price for vacant seats, out there on the water, with the captain (well, the guy who steers the boat).

We rented a fabulous Renault Megane diesel hatch (the one with the cute bustle backside) and the trip from Rome’s Fiumicino Airport, with a stop for lunch in a cafe at Castellammare di Stabia, to Marina Del Cantone took us under four hours (about 296 km).

Once you leave Sorrento the roads are narrow, twisty, and not well sign-posted, so you won’t be driving quickly.

Having said that, ahead of you is the challenge of driving from Marina Del Cantone along the beautiful Amalfi Coast on that narrow road (SS163) perched high up on the cliffs - where you are harassed by coach drivers, local ratbags in tiny Fiats, and total Wingnuts on Vespas. Don’t let that put you off.

This is one of the most beautiful parts of Italy, and most visitors swear they didn’t spend enough time there. However, it’s been there a while, so you can always go back.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Journey to Flexibility

In this case the destination is not a town, but an end-result. Here is a concept from Chrysler, called the Dodge Journey, which gives new meaning to the word flexibility.

Dodge Journey CRD

Describing the Journey could lead to confusion – is it a people mover, a passenger vehicle, SUV, van or station wagon? Actually, it’s all of these things and more.

The Journey is a new take on the concept of a versatile vehicle which can move people and stuff easily, and comfortably. Chrysler has already proved its credentials on innovation with models like the Chrysler Voyager (the very first people-mover), but I think Journey deserves special mention.

It is full of surprising and delightful secrets, and reveals that the designers dug deep into their imagination to create a car which really does reflect the needs of those with an active lifestyle.

This could be the most misunderstood vehicle on sale in Australia, and its features deserve greater recognition. Here goes ....

In brief, it has the bold and chunky styling of an SUV, it’s built on a passenger car platform, it has three rows of seats for seven people and a fold-flat floor which can take long loads up to 2.87 metres long! There's nothing it can't carry!

The second and third row seats are ‘theatre-style’ which means that each row is higher than the one in front, giving great visibility for those occupants.

Powered by either a petrol or diesel engine, with superb automatic transmissions and outstanding ride comfort, the Dodge Journey appears to be the complete answer for a family car.

The SXT version is the base model, which offers a 2.7 litre, petrol V6 with 136kW and 256 Nm, and a six –speed automatic transmission with manual selection.

Next, is the R/T version, also boasting the petrol V6, which has a large number of trim and equipment variances.

Then there’s the pick of the range; the R/T CRD offering a VW-sourced 2.0 litre, turbo-diesel engine with a fuel-saving 6-speed, Getrag Dual-Clutch automatic transmission.

Chrysler Australia believes the SXT will be 50% of Journeys sold here, but I think the R/T Diesel will appeal to those looking for a smooth, economical drivetrain matched with outstanding versatility in a very stylish, sporty package.

Chrysler Australia has skillfully positioned the Journey models squarely against some of the most popular people movers and SUVs on the market. The base SXT is slightly more expensive than a base Honda Odyssey, but the Dodge has a V6 versus Honda’s four cylinder; and the R/T diesel is more expensive than Territory or Kluger, but has outstanding diesel benefits, seven seat option, and a host of inclusions which are options in most of the Journey’s competitors.

This means that Chrysler is pitching the Dodge Journey as a high-value entrant, which will cut across many of the demarcation lines of the traditional segments of the Australian car market. As I said, is it a people mover, passenger car, SUV, van or station wagon? The answer is: Yes!

All Dodge Journeys get, as standard, side curtain airbags to complement driver and passenger front and supplemental airbags – making a total of seven. The car has achieved 5 Stars in U.S. crash testing, and Electronic Stability Programme is standard.

There are more hidey-holes for precious items than you might believe possible. Two bins under the rear floor, (one which can be used as an Esky©!), one in the floor of the rear compartment, and a unique flip-up front passenger seat, with a place for precious items like cameras and MP3 players. When the front seat folds, there’s even a ‘platform’ for a laptop!

The Dodge Journey is very well thought out and designed. It’s built in Mexico, and has excellent paint finish, panel fit and trim materials.

The ride and handling is exemplary, and confidence-boosting. It’s definitely worth a look if you need a versatile vehicle, with room for seven and lots of stowage options.

You'd be mad not to check it out!

Friday, October 5, 2012

Fauna, Films, History and the BMW X3

The opportunity to test drive new cars on a media launch event is in itself a great privilege - especially when the cars are memorable.

However, sometimes it’s the ‘extras’ that stay on your mind, and enhance the experience.

The launch of the BMW X3 diesel in Victoria, north of Mount Macedon, provided an opportunity to thread together memories, stimulating country, and sparking one’s curiosity.

The event was set in rolling countryside around Kyneton, Lancefield and Kilmore, which was very reminiscent of a 1957 movie I saw as a boy, called ‘Robbery Under Arms’.

The movie was based on a novel by Rolf Boldrewood (aka Thomas Alexander Browne), which was a tale of a settler family, living in a slab hut, who turned bushrangers, and starred Peter Finch.

The movie was set in this area, and also the Victorian goldfields, but in actual fact it was filmed in the Adelaide Hills, and Bourke, NSW. All interiors were done at Pinewood Studios!

As I drove through the beautiful countryside I realized two things. First, I was extremely fortunate to be getting paid for driving around one of the prettiest parts of Victoria; and second, the BMW X3 2-litre diesel is a great mid-sized SUV.

BMW X3 in bushranger country

The engine is very responsive, with great low-down torque, but the driveability of the X3 in any circumstance is truly a pleasure.

Driving the test route, down a remote gravel road, I spied a tiny Echidna crouching rock-steady, in the middle of the track.

Echidna (Australian Museum)

Australia’s wonderful spiny mammal seems certain they’re invisible if they stand still. I stopped, grabbed my camera and exited the car to capture the perfect shot. Alas, as quiet as I tried to be, the little fellow scurried off into the roadside scrub, so all we see is his rear end disappearing into a hiding place.

Echidna on the run!

Then a few kilometres further along, a road sign reminded me that the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition passed this way, when the explorers and their 19-man team left Melbourne in 1860 to trek overland to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Camp Four was at Lancefield.

Seven died along the way, including Burke & Wills, and only one man finished the entire journey. His name was John King.

Burke & Wills Track
It’s a great event, when it produces an enjoyable drive, a good car, and reminds of Australia’s fascinating history. Although just a young country, by European standards, Australia has many tales of great heroism in expeditions and discovery.

Sadly, our Anglo-Saxon forebears and later generations, failed to understand the culture and knowledge of Australia’s indigenous people, and because of this even more great stories have remained untold, until we began to take the Aboriginals seriously and listened to their stories of ‘The Dreamtime’.