Thursday, February 26, 2015


It's time for Driving & Life to venture afield, so we will sample the chaos of LAX and environs,

then test driving in the traffic on Florida's east coast

after which, thanks to the luxurious ms Eurodam, we'll journey into the Caribbean pirate's paradise at St. Croix and battle the tourist traffic in Frederiksted. 

Then we'll be nosing the vessel into Nassau.

Maybe we might even spot a car named after the Bahamian beach resort.

Whatever the next week or so delivers automotively it will be a break from Australia's rainy season.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015


It’s probably true that for decades worldwide the notion of the archetypal British sportscar was considered to be MG. They were small, nippy and simple two seaters with exhilarating performance for the day.

The company was started in 1924 by William Morris’ Business Manager Cecil Kimber as a ‘promotional sideline’ to boost the image of Morris cars.
MG 14/28 (1926)

Until 1935 the company was personally-owned by Morris, until he folded it into the holding company Morris Motors.

The explosion of MG’s image happened in 1949 thanks to the gorgeous little MG TC, a zippy 2-seater, with an upright driving position, wire wheels and a prominent mesh grille.
1949 MG-TC
MG developed equally-popular follow-on models like the TD, and the beautiful MG TF. This was the last of the traditionally-designed MGs, featuring a wood frame.
MG-TF 1250 (1954)
Also in 1954 MG added a sporting sedan to the range, known as the MG Magnette.

Then came two models in succession which boosted MG sales way beyond what the founders may have forseen.

The MG A, which was the first ‘streamlined’ MG, originally launched with a 1500cc BMC engine, later enlarged to 1600cc. It was this car that significantly boosted MG’s American appeal.
MG-A 1600
In 1962 came the car many refer to as the ‘most beautiful’ MG sports car ever, a refined and stylish roadster (and then coupe) called the MG B. This became MG’s biggest seller and attracted fans from all over the world. It lasted until 1980.

After 1982 MG sales plateaued and MG stumbled along as part of the loss-making British Leyland, which gradually dissolved with Jaguar being privatized, and MG and Rover being acquired by BMW AG.
The high point in MG's commercial success - the MG B
Then the most scandalous chapter in MG’s history was written in 2000 when BMW sold the British brands to a consortium of British businessmen who became notorious as ‘The Phoenix Four.’
(Towers, Beale, Stephenson, Edwards)
The ‘Phoenix Four’ consisted of Chairman John Towers, Peter Beale, Nick Stephenson and John Edwards, with MD Kevin Howe running the company, now called MG Rover Group.

If money is considered the root of all evil, these guys ended up causing the grand name and image of MG to be squandered, much to their own financial benefit.

The numbers are fascinating. In 2000 BMW sold the company to the Phoenix Consortium for an incredible £10! Then paid the Group a ‘dowry’ of £500 million to pay wages and keep the company running in its transition phase.
Daily Mail report, 2005

The company, MG Rover Group, was declared bankrupt just five years later owing debts of £1.3 billion! Along the way the Phoenix Consortium’s accountants were fined £14 million, when an investigation identified that Deloitte’s had failed to ‘manage’ conflicts of interest between the personal business interests of the management, and the company!

Then, a report commissioned by the Business Minister, Lord Peter Mandelson (left), revealed that between 2000 and 2005 the ‘Phoenix Four’ had siphoned off more than £42 million into their own pay and pension entitlements!

Chairman John Towers
He was was particularly critical of the ‘Phoenix Four’ Chairman John Towers, and MD Kevin Howe. Mandelson said, “The Directors showed no signs of remorse or humility” when the company collapsed.

The report singled out Peter Beale for specific criticism, because he had installed “Evidence Eliminator” software on the company’s servers, which deleted a huge amount of data, that could have been used in the British government’s investigation.

When the company was finally wound up, 30,000 people lost their jobs, initially without pension benefits; and the MG name was sold to China’s Nanjing Auto. Earlier, BMW AG, which still owned the Rover name, had sold it to Ford along with Land Rover.

Land Rover was then sold by Ford to the Tata Group of India, along with Jaguar, in 2008.

Nanjing Auto later merged with SAIC, which declined to buy the bankrupt British company, but of course retained the rights to the MG name, and has subsequently launched two cars carrying the famous octagonal badge, the MG6 sedan, and the MG3 small car.

MG6 Magnette by SAIC/Nanjing Auto
Today these are sad reminders of a great car company, great cars, and a great concept – the original British sports car.

Now, to the MG that never was! The last two-seater sports car to carry the MG badge was a very modern, contemporary model called the MG F.

It was well received by automotive writers, enthusiasts and experts, and sold well until the company’s collapse. The only problem with the MG F was poor quality finish, but that didn't deter MG diehards.
However, waiting in the wings was a concept car called the MG X80 – a coupe-only model with much improved performance thanks to a 320bhp 4.6L Ford V8!

The production version was created by eminent British designer Peter Stevens, but the production process was a total shambles. Because of lack of money, the concept was brought to production-ready status in just 300 days, at huge cost by a Swedish company called Caran.

However, the carbon fibre body parts of the car were made in Britain, then sent to Turin for assembly. Exterior and interior components from FIAT were added, then the whole mess shipped back to Longbridge for final assembly.

The quality reclamation unit at the end of the production line employed over 150 people! And, still the quality was dreadful.

In the end, the X80, loosely based on the Mangusta (developed by the Qvale Group of San Francisco) disappeared after only 80 cars were produced.

Let’s just remember our fond memories of MG from its glory days between 1949 and 1980, when if you mentioned the name ‘MG’ everyone knew what you were talking about – and secretly lusted after one.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

ALFA ROMEO TIPO 33 - Italian to its Core

I wrote a short time ago about attending an exhibition drive at the Alfa Romeo test track at Balocco featuring the Alfa Romeo Tipo 33, and this encouraged me to research and expand on this very interesting racing car program.
Studio photo by my good friend Michael Furman
The project began life in 1962 when Alfa Romeo SpA decided to get back into serious motor racing, with a dedicated racing company. Alfa Romeo had closed its own competition department in the late 1950s, but not before winning the World Championship in 1950 and 1951 with a Tipo 159 driven by the great Juan Manuel Fangio.
1951 Juan Manuel Fangio, Alfa Romeo Tipo 159
Carlo Chiti
Famed racing engineer Carlo Chiti, who had worked in the Alfa Romeo competition department before it closed, returned from Ferrari in 1963.
Carlo Chiti & Enzo Ferrari

Whilst at Maranello Chiti enjoyed a good relationship with Enzo Ferrari and he designed the distinctive ‘shark-nose’ 156 monoposto which Phil Hill drove to become the 1961 F1 world champion.
Monaco 1961, Ferrari 156 designed by Carlo Chiti
The plan was that Chiti would set up a separate company, called Autodelta, which would contract solely to Alfa Romeo. Of course Autodelta designed, developed and raced many Alfa Romeos, but it was in 1963 when Chiti designed the Tipo 33 and what many called a jewel-like engine.
Autodelta interior 1963 - Photo by Robert Little
Originally it was a 2.0 litre V8, but was later increased to 2.5 and then 3 litres. The Tipo 33 began racing in 1967.

In 1969 Alfa Romeo introduced the Tipo 33/3, which first competed in the 12 Hours of Sebring.

Alfa Romeo 'Iguana' concept car based on the Alfa Romeo Tipo 33

That same year the company showed a concept car based on the 33 at the Turin motor show called the Iguana Stradale 33, designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro and Franco Scaglione.

In 1973 Autodelta developed the Tipo 33/TT 12, which featured a new tubular chassis and a flat 12, 3-litre 500bhp engine designed by Carlo Chiti. The car did not win until the Monza 1000km, but scored enough points to finish the 1973 championship in second place.
Nurburgring 1974 - Redman/Merzario

In 1974 Autodelta entered a car in the Nurburgring 1000km, driven by Arturo Merzario and another of my good friends, Brian Redman. The previous year Brian Redman had won that race alongside Jackie Ickx in a Flat 12 Ferrari  312B.

Brian Redman
Brian told me that the Alfa Romeo T33 TT12  was fast, but like the Curate’s Egg, “It was good in parts.” He said the engine was powerful, the car lighter than the V8 by almost 100kg, but the team atmosphere was fairly chaotic and reliability was always a problem. Brian said that by comparison with the tightly-managed Ferrari team, the Alfa Romeo outfit was “pretty loosey-goosey.”

Alfa Romeo Tipo 33 TT 12
The Tipo 33/TT 12 was however a serious contender in 1975, with an important difference. Due to a lack of cash to splurge on motor racing, Alfa Romeo had virtually handed over the team to an enterprising German racer called Willi Kauhsen.
Willi Kauhsen
Kauhsen had good business connections and delivered handsome sponsorship from Italian drinks company Campari. He also brought along drivers like Derek Bell and Henri Pescarolo.
Derek & I, Pebble Beach 2006
Derek and I have been friends for many years, but I only met Pescarolo once, at Le Mans in 1988 during Jaguar’s successful assault on the 24 Hour race.

Me interviewing Pescarolo (centre), Le Mans 1988. Jan Lammers on the left.

Henri is a quietly-spoken, intelligent and talented race driver. He only talks when he has something to say, doesn’t hang out with the Champagne Charlies, and is thoroughly reliable.

Yet behind the wheel shows skill and resolve that everyone respects. Derek says if your partnered with Henri, then you are very grateful for his tenacity and talent. Mind you, those same qualities apply to Derek Bell, in spades!

Kauhsen not only took over running the team, but also sorting out the cars. Derek said the combination of Italian artistry and German management was a winner. Derek adds: “Quite frankly, the car was quite agricultural, but the engine was sweet and the 33 handled beautifully.”

Now, with both chassis and engine sorted, and a team of top drivers – Bell/Pescarolo and Ickx/Merzurio – 1975 had great potential.

Derek distinctly remembers the 1000km at Spa, and beating Jackie Ickx on his home circuit. He says that was ‘delicious irony’.
Derek Bell leading Jackie Ickx, Spa 1975
 The Alfa Romeo 33TT-12s dominated the season with seven wins in eight races. Derek and Henri won three, and finally after years of struggle Alfa Romeo won the World Sportscar Championship. In 1976 however the Championship was totally dominated by Porsche.

In between rounds of the WSC, Alfa Romeo entered the Tipo 33 in the Targa Florio in Sicily, many times coming close to winning the gruelling event.
Targa Florio, Sicily 1972

1972, Carlo Chiti arrives in Sicily to supervise the Alfa Romeo Tipo 33 entry
(Photo: Copyright Robert Little)
It was Chiti's dream to dominate the race, but it wasn't until 1975 that the Tipo 33 was victorious.

Alfa Romeo won all eight events of the WSC in 1977 with a brand new Tipo 33 SC12, featuring a turbocharged engine and a monocoque chassis.
1977 Alfa Romeo Tipo 33 SC12
However, by the end of 1977 that was it. The WSC dwindled away to non-existence, and Autodelta became involved in a variety of other programmes using Alfa Romeo production cars.

Niki Lauda, Brabham-Alfa Romeo BT46, Watkins Glen 1978
By 1978 Carlo Chiti had formed a relationship with Brabham, and Niki Lauda won two races that year with a Chiti Flat 12-engined Brabham BT46.

A sidelight: Later in 1984 Chiti’s company Motori Moderni slightly re-designed the Flat 12 engine for Subaru, which supplied it to the Coloni F1 team for the 1990 F1 season.

Coloni-Subaru F1 car 1990
NOTE: I’ve used a couple of photos from a wonderful series featured on the website <> called ‘Inside Autodelta’ which are the recollections of a young American apprentice at Autodelta, called Robert Little. It’s a wonderfully warm and intimate portrait of the company.