Wednesday, April 29, 2015


So, Dr. Ferdinand Piech has taken his toys and left the office. In a rare loss during a boardroom battle, Piech failed to unseat current VWAG Chairman, Dr. Martin Winterkorn – his one time protégé.

Dr.Martin Winterkorn (L) and Dr. Piech
I, for one, am very sad to see him go. I respect and admire him very much and the contribution he made to building the Volkswagen Group into a formidable automotive empire should never be underestimated.

Yes, Piech is the complete autocrat, and ruled with a successful blend of logic, fear and unstintingly high standards in everything from the performance of his executives, to tight panel gaps and bold automotive ventures. But, you know what? I like autocrats. They get things done where cautious committees and consensus-driven managers waffle and pfaff about.

In a very rare event, I was flown to Wolfsburg on one of VWAG’s executive jets to be introduced to Dr. Piech shortly after I had been appointed as Head of PR for Bentley Motors North America. He greeted me graciously; we talked about the difficult tasks ahead (building the Bentley brand in North America, from ground zero), and what his expectations were for Bentley Motors overall.

I continued to meet Dr. Piech and his charming wife at many European motor shows after that. He always greeted me by name, and he recognized I was a car enthusiast. We often discussed various new cars on show, and their pertinent qualities. He is a serious car nut – but coming from the Porsche family lineage, what would you expect?

Given the global powerhouse that the Volkswagen Group has become under Piech’s leadership, I’m not sure what will happen now. If Dr. Winterkorn is elected as Chairman of the Supervisory Board I think things may well follow in the Piech manner – after all, Winterkorn learned at the knee of the Master.

The last thing VWAG needs now is weak management and lack of purpose. Also, there may be some quivering idiots on the Board who may push for VWAG to discard some of the brands it has built from nothing – like Bugatti, Bentley and Lamborghini. What a dumb thing that would be!

Okay, Dr. Piech is 89, and maybe it’s time for him to smell the roses, but I am really sorry to see him go. 

I’m certain he wanted to go on smelling petrol fumes rather than roses, until the day his tank ran empty.

We lived in the era of a great automotive genius. Farewell Ferdinand, you did a fantastic job!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


This week at the Shanghai auto show Mercedes-Benz debuted its GLC coupe, based on the latest C-Class sedan platform.

The teaser sketch featured the usual hyper-style cues common to all car designers, promising an off-roader with the lines of a coupe.

The resulting 'near-standard-production' model revealed in the metal showed that Mercedes-Benz design has come a long way since the relatively stodgy offerings from Bruno Sacco.

The Stuttgart studio is now led by Gorden Wagener, and includes fresh young talents, like Mark Fetherstone (the man responsible for the CLA sedan and the 'Diamond Grille' concept), and there's no doubt Mercedes-Benz has captured an intriguing new design language for its latest cars - but is the GLC coupe a genuine SUV?

It will feature All Wheel Drive, high-riding ground clearance and big wheels and tyres, but can it perform off road? When you look at cars like the Range Rover Evoque,

and the Mercedes-Benz GLA, GLC models you have to wonder if this is really the direction for all new Sport Utility Vehicles - as opposed to upright, somewhat stiff designs, like Range Rover and the Jeep Grand Cherokee?

What would that 4WD purist 'Spen' King think of all this?

Monday, April 20, 2015


Charles 'Spen' King
Cubbington, UK, 2004
In April 1945 Charles Spencer King joined the Rover Car Company, which was then run by his uncles Spencer and Maurice Wilks. He had previously been apprenticed to Rolls-Royce where he worked on the jet engine project initiated by British engineer Frank Whittle.

The Wilks brothers foresaw an automotive application for the gas turbine engine and ‘Spen’ King was assigned to work on the project with his associate Gordon Bashford.

They did successfully design cars, the T3 and JET 1, which were powered by turbine engines, the JET 1 became the basis for the Rover-BRM turbine car which competed and finished at Le Mans in 1963.
Graham Hill, Rover-BRM, Le Mans 1963

Despite producing a prototype, the T4, ultimately the idea was dropped because of poor fuel economy.

Rover T4 prototype Turbine Car

However, the fertile brain which had conceived the innovative design of the turbine cars, was then unleashed on a project to design a replacement for the ageing and stodgy Rover P5.

‘Spen’ King began work on the P6 in 1961, and it was launched in 1963, winning the first European Car of The Year Award in 1964. During its production run from 1963-1977 more than 322,000 cars were sold.

Reading the Wikipedia entry for the P6 I was dismayed to find the article did not include any details of the car’s designer and his colleagues, so on the 70th anniversary of Spen King joining Rover, I wanted to pay tribute to my good friend of 32 years.

The P6 literally bristled with great ideas, innovative solutions and huge future vision which is now commonplace in car manufacturing today.

It was conceived as a ‘safety car’ (long before Volvo ever assumed the mantle) alongside the only other car with a reputation for protecting its occupants, the Mercedes-Benz S500. The chassis or ‘frame’ of the P6 was designed as a monocoque which resulted in a ‘cage’, surrounding the passenger compartment, and the unstressed outer body panels were merely bolted to the chassis.

The engine bay was originally designed to accept a gas turbine, so it was wider than it needed to be for a conventional engine, and the turbine size requirements also resulted in an innovative front suspension.

The vertical suspension movement forces were carried via a forged ‘L’ crank, to horizontally-mounted coil springs which pivoted from a location point on the front upper cross beam (or firewall).

The rear suspension was an adaptation of a ‘de Dion’ concept which featured the differential fixed to the chassis, and the wheels suspended by trailing and leading arms, and a de Dion tube, which also telescoped horizontally so that rear wheel camber settings could be maintained throughout the range of vertical motion by the rear wheels.

Unfortunately the innovative rear suspension took up a lot of space, which resulted in inadequate trunk room, thus the familiar site of owners mounting the spare wheel on the trunk lid, so there was more room for luggage.

Also, the design of the cabin meant that the P6 was really only intended to take four occupants, in four finely sculptured individual seats.

In my conversations with Spen during our friendship he was at great pains to point out that all the engineering work on P6 was a collaborative venture with his friend and colleague Gordon Bashford.

David Bache
The styling came courtesy of another longtime associate, David Bache.

Bache was a ‘modernist’ just like King and Bashford. The three of them embraced new ideas, new ways of doing things and Bache’s design for the P6 was unlike any British-designed car to date. It probably was more American than anything else, with its rakish pillars and streamlined fenders.

The P6 featured a brand new four cylinder 2-litre engine, with a cast iron block, aluminium cylinder head, with Heron-type bowl in piston combustion chambers. The problem with this engine was that it lacked refinement, and clearly was underpowered. Later the power was boosted by a twin carburetor model; then capacity was enlarged to 2200cc – and finally, Rover fitted the Buick-based 3.5 litre V8 – which solved any lack of power issue.
Rover 3500 S V8
I road tested a V8 Rover P6 in Australia in 1970 for MODERN MOTOR magazine, and my most overwhelming memory was incredible understeer! If you didn’t set it up for fast corners you were off the road at the exit!

Later I drove a privately-owned 2.2 TC, which was a much better balanced car to drive.
Rover 2000 TC

Sadly, the Rover P6 was the last innovative and truly inspired sedan car design to come from the Rover team of Bache, Bashford and King. 

The next car from British Leyland (which had absorbed Rover) had compromise written all over it. The Rover SD1.

Rover SD1 3500
The design and engineering was dictated by a host of bad management decisions from the huge conglomerate. Funds were limited, and the car was intended to replace both the Rover P6 and the Triumph 2500. Funding demanded more conventional engineering, including a live rear axle and rear drum brakes!
David Bache, Spen King, Gordon Bashford
David Bache’s design was inspired by Ferrari, but Bashford and King’s engineering solutions were more pedestrian. 

Despite the compromises, the SD1 won Car of The Year in 1977. It even became a racing car, when TWR competed in the European Touring Car Championship!

However, during its 10 year production run from 1976, it sold 20,000 less cars than the P6 it replaced.

I first met Spen King when we brought him to Australia in 1979 to help launch the SD1, and during a break between the Media Launch and the Dealer Launch, we drove down to the NSW ski resort of Thredbo.

Even though it was April, we endured a freak snowstorm.

However, in the privacy of the SD1’s cabin Spen told me of his continual frustration over the design compromises forced on him by the BL management and the dictates of the program. After arriving in Australia he also found that despite promises from the workforce at Solihull, the quality of the first cars sent to Australia was abysmal.

In fact he said that despite any innovations he and his team were responsible for at Rover, they were always let down by poor workmanship and quality problems on the production line.

Spen lived in the Old Manor House in Cubbington, near Warwick in the English Midlands,

In late 2005 we took his Mini Cooper for a blast around the local area, a few years later he was forced to stop driving, due to a detached retina. I visited him right up until his death in 2010, when sadly he died after a bicycle accident in his village.

We always shared an interest in cars and skiing, and enjoyed many long discussions about car design and engineering. His proudest achievement, he said, was the finalization of his ECV3 project, an innovative, three cylinder small car, which
Spen King's ECV
could achieve 100mpg!

It's no surprise that BL management told Spen they couldn't see a need for such a car!

As I write this Reqium for the Rover car company, the respected Rover name now lives on via the Land Rover company; along with Spen King’s incredible reputation for innovation and design initiatives in the car he is most famously responsible for, the Range Rover.
Charles Spencer King CBE, HRH Prince Charles and a 1970 Range Rover

Thursday, April 16, 2015


Australia is fast becoming a policy-free zone for politicians, on both sides of the political fence. Neither the government nor the Opposition has produced any credible, commonsense policies since the current parliament began sitting.

When they do, they're daft, not thought through, and usually ignoring unintended consequences. If this sounds like the country is in chaos, you're not far from the truth.

Enter our current Prime Minister (Tony Abbott, below).

His government (in its wisdom, NOT!) has decided to change the current vehicle import regulations to allow importation of cars which are: current model, with less than 4,000km on the odometer, in order to widen consumer choice! This is BAD policy.

Why? First, because it makes a nonsense of the reasons for Australian Design Rules (ADRs), and second, because there is then no control over the quality of the cars imported (see: rebirthed, crashed and rebuilt cars from Europe/USA).

That in itself suggests the politicians haven't thought this through, but who does this change benefit? It's hard to tell, because this current (conservative) government makes decisions 'on the run' - so even if you asked Tony Abbott, why? He probably couldn't give you a cogent response. He's not good on his feet, when his CoS Ms. Peta Credlin hasn't provided a script for him!

There are a large number of safety reasons why Australia should not relax vehicle import rules, but most important of all, as it is with all legislation, in all countries. Once you introduce it, it can be ammended later, and then you have no control of the process - because it is then a function of the government of day, and whomever are the most effective lobbyists.

Answer? Don't change the current rules. Australians are NOT going to get cheaper cars overnight; the imports won't necessarily adhere to current safety legislation (insisted on by the government), and the insurance industry will have a field day, jacking up policy premiums (to cover the unknown sins of the imports). Not to mention the Used Car Dealers, who will all now be able to easily afford second homes in Hawaii!

New Zealand has many policies Australian governments could easily adapt, which would improve our lives, but free-for-all imports of used cars is not one of them.
Old Japanese cars landing on the New Zealand docks

Years ago, when you visited NZ the cars on the road ranged from New (not many) to a large variety of Used rust-buckets, decades old, which were mobile death traps. Now, New Zealand roads carry a fruit salad of used Japanese cars of varying vintages, so there's no cohesive alignment with vehicle crash safety, and when you do need parts for these cars they are exhorbitantly expensive to import and purchase! Why? Because there are BIG profits to be made from the mugs who buy these 'cheap' cars.

Australians can't demand a new election to rid ourselves of the current federal government, because the Socialist opposition is even more hopeless than the lot currently running the country.

Any hope for us? No, we just have to grin and bear it. And watch Insurance companies and Used Car Dealers get richer by the minute.

ADDED NOTE: Before offering any defense for this ludicrous policy change think about a serious new addition to the sources of sub-standard cars - China!

There are a large number of current model Chinese designed-and-made cars which do not meet ADRs, and are a long way from acheiving basic safety standards (after all, these cars are not required to meet our standards in the first place).

Just wait until some smart-arse Australian used car company decides that cheap cars from China can be imported (slide in) under the new rules. The company will make profits, the cars will kill people, and the Federal Government (under Tony Abbott) will 'hold an enquiry'?

Here in Australia we must be really bad (or really stupid) if we get the 'government' we deserve! With perhaps NSW being a slight exception, our Federal and each of our State Governments are a pathetic collection of 'leaderless forces', lacking vision, confidence, integrity and above all, statesmenship.

Conclusion? "We're stuffed!"

Wednesday, April 8, 2015


One of the many marketing iterations designed to help sell more TR7s in the USA was the ‘Spider’ model, which came in just one color, Black, with the badging and striping kit in bold red.

My good friend Mike Cook acquired a TR7 Spider in 1986 for his wife, as a daily driver. However, just two years, and a growing daughter later, Carol Cook reluctantly sold the TR7 to a college student, named George Hughes.

The Cooks had clocked up 25,000 miles by this time, and George Hughes added another 45,000 miles driving it up and down the east coast of the USA from Florida to Ontario. He sold the car to a friend in the late 1990s.

Then, in Spring 2014 George Hughes emailed Mike Cook to tell him 'their old TR7' was listed on eBay! With four days to go Mike lodged the minimum bid, and on the final morning of the auction upped his bid, and ended up becoming the 7th owner of the Spider!

From the third owner to the seventh, the TR7 was home. Mike had to spend some dollars rejuvenating the old girl, but at 85,000 miles it runs well and provides Mike with a very nostalgic driving experience, especially heart-warming after he lost his wife a few years back, and now thinks Carol would be pleased to see the TR7 Spider back in the Cook garage in New Jersey.
Mike Cook and his Spider at a Vintage Triumph Rally in North Carolina

I love car stories with a happy ending. Good on you Mike! Enjoy!

Sunday, April 5, 2015


I think it’s true to say that Carrozzeria Touring Superleggera of Milano is the last remaining bespoke body builder in Italy of any great note.

The company, originally started in 1926, was reformed many years ago and now makes low runs of exquisite bespoke cars for private clients. This year at the Geneva Salon, Touring unveiled another modern masterpiece, the Berlinetta Lusso.

My dear friend Sr. Emanuele Bedetti, spokesman for Touring Superleggera, has sent me a complete portfolio of the Berlinetta Lusso, which is a unique design fabricated over a donor car, the Ferrari F12.

The owner of the F12, a longtime Ferrari collector, approached Touring and its Design Director, Louis de Fabribeckers to conjure a breathtaking example of the coachbuilders’ art, and the concept shown in Geneva is one of just five examples which Touring will build for private order.

Louis de Fabribeckers

The design takes its inspiration from the Ferrari 166 Barchetta, the first series production Ferrari, built for Ferrari SpA by Touring of Milan in 1946.

All panels are handformed in jigs and assembled by specialist craftsmen.

The attention to detail in something as simple as a badge milled from a sheet of aluminium is a tribute to the excellent workmanship at Touring.

The itemized build method is too complex and detailed to reproduce here, but suffice to say that the car is completely handbuilt using carbon fibre and aluminium panels, constructed to the highest levels of comfort and finish, and the most rigorous safety standards and legislated design rules.

The result is truly a triumph of automotive art and creativity, and yet another in the long line of instant classics built by the artisans at Touring Superleggera.