Friday, 9 May 2008

Test Drive - Citroën DS

Innovation and inspiration have gone hand-in-hand with practical design within the French auto industry for as long as anyone with their own teeth can remember. Citroën are arguably the most daring manufacturer of the Grand Trois, their dogged persistence to make the world appreciate hydropneumatics and such bold current models as the sumptuous C6 and the staggeringly intricate C4 making them seem like a lab of crackpot scientists who make great cars almost by accident. The forefather of these gifted children is, of course, the DS.

SuckSqueezeBangBlow has a lot of respect for the Citroën DS. So, being given the opportunity to spend the day cruising around the twisting and mountainous hills of the Tarn valley in a pristine 1974 DS 21 made your narrator extremely excitable; indeed I was over the next hill quicker than you can say ‘richly stuffed leather bench seat with ultra-spongey padding and the scent of ages’.

No… the DS is by no means a sporty car, and it would be utterly ridiculous if it was. It was designed to be able to accomplish two things – to transport the President in an appropriately dignified manner to his country pile, and then to nip across a coarsely ploughed field without spilling his Pastis. This is a fact.

So let’s not rush things. That’s not what the DS is about. Before driving her, it seemed logical to take a passenger ride in the back seat, to experience what Charles de Gaulle would have felt as he was ferried up and down the Champs Elysées. The seat is so luxuriously stuffed that you sink a good couple of inches into it, with a thick layer of foam under the carpet creating a strange wave-machine effect for your feet. The suspension rolls and wallows so much that you can imagine any corner taken at speed would see the sills gouging great scars in the asphalt. Douglas Adams coined a word in The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which describes the ride perfectly: ‘flolloping’. This car is like riding a big flolloping mattress.

The interior is a glorious place to be, particularly the aroma. It’s sitting in a car like this that makes most modern cars appear soulless; the rich, warm scent of well-aged leather and the faint whiff of petrol in the air… all cars should smell this way. The interior plastics have matured and mellowed to give the whole an inimitably lived-in feel. This is a car with stories to tell.

And so to the act of driving. It’s peculiarly alien to begin with, not because you’re sitting on the wrong side of the car, but because reaching down to locate a handbrake or a gearstick results in nothing more than a handful of leather. Most odd. The handbrake, it turns out, is actually a fourth pedal to the left of the clutch (but of course!) and the gearstick is a stalk poking out of the steering column. Challenging at first, but you very quickly acclimatise to swapping cogs with something you’d normally use to flick your wipers on. The smoothness of the shift is admirable too.

What takes a little more getting used to is the constant attention you receive; everybody stares and most other motorists give a wave or a flash. (In France this is rather disconcerting, as a flash generally means ‘look out, gendarmes ahead’…!) You can have a bit of fun with this attention at traffic lights – as anyone who’s driven a CX, XM or Xantia will know – by hydropneumatically altering the ride height to float from slammed lowrider stance to ultra-SUV mode. Thoroughly entertaining.

The DS is a style icon and has earned its place in the pantheon of classic designs with alacrity. Modern developments such as power steering and disc brakes are wrapped in a gorgeous shape that redefines the term ‘retro’; highly futuristic at launch, the package has aged so well that it still feels oddly contemporary.

One final suggestion – if you do find yourself in the fortuitous position of having a set of DS keys to hand, make sure you try driving it at night. Headlights that turn in sync with the front wheels may sound gimmicky, but are so effective that you almost wonder why all cars don’t do it. The design of the DS is simply a work of genius, and with the patina of 34 years under its wheels, this example is every inch the quintessential vintage sedan.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Test Drive - Volvo 240 GLE

Solidity is a complexly quantifiable state. When a baby is said to be ‘on solids’, this is more likely to refer to a mushy carrot than a handful of gravel. A solid state radio will probably be constructed from wafer-thin fibreboard which isn’t that solid when, for example, you smack it with a hammer. It’s important to be careful with these things, as people don’t always say what they mean. To be totally sure that the word is being used correctly and misunderstandings are eliminated, ‘solid’ may be substituted with ‘Volvo’.

In choosing a suitable vehicle for 2008’s Scumball 3000, Team Krusty made an extremely wise decision; for the rigours of a pan-European thrash with some unexpected track work thrown into the mix, you can’t really top an ’84 240 GLE for reliable and comparatively luxurious cruising. You could detonate a reasonably potent nuclear device in the cabin and it would just be shrugged off with an indifferent Scandinavian mutter.

It might be something to do with the harsh Swedish climate or perhaps the national tendency towards frugality, but old Volvos are completely indestructible and largely futureproof. The old girl may be 24 but she’s as fresh as a daisy and, being the GLE, is as tricked up as you could wish for; not in an an S-class Merc what’s-this-switch-for-shit-now-the-light’s-flashing way, but in a manner that ensures a level of comfort that doesn’t require thought or consideration – electric windows, power steering, an incredibly specifically-zoned heating system, a glovebox that just cannot be opened no matter how many massive tools you try. (This, of course, is a safety device. There might be any number of dangerous or distracting things in there. It could be Pandora’s Box for all you know. Leave it be, you’re better off. Look where you’re going.)

Given the daunting task of swallowing thousands of miles in a handful of days, the torquey 2.3-litre four-pot barely batted a valve spring. She purred through England, thundered across France, was largely indifferent to Luxembourg so elected simply to power on, scampered through Germany, loped in a relaxed manner over Holland and despatched Belgium in a contented cruise. Built for motorways then? Maybe so, but she was more than happy to misbehave on the Nürburgring as well…

If you’ve ever strolled through the car park of the Nordschleife you’ll know the quality of the machinery that takes to the track on a constant cycle. It’s a petrolhead Mecca with every second car being a 911 in some ridiculous state of tune, and sandwiched between them is a kaleidoscope of M5s, 355s, Gallardos, Exiges, Caterhams, superbikes of all shapes and sizes, Tuscans, Evos… think of a desirable machine, you’ll see one there. Quite what they made of four slightly apprehensive-looking chaps in an old luxotank full of camping gear is probably hard to vocalise in actual words, although the general consensus seemed to be something along the lines of ‘hmmmmm…’.

Trust me, the 240 is great fun on the ‘Ring. This is only natural, with a 240 Turbo having been campaigned in the early eighties ETCC (and embarrassing the 3-series BMWs and Jaguar XJS-Rs on several occasions). With ultra pumped-up skinny tyres offering very little grip it’s surprisingly easy to pull a dramatic four wheel drift on the faster (and wider!) sweeping corners – fun with nothing following you and a sizeable cheering crowd at the fence, slightly more shit-your-knickers if there’s a GT3 RS overtaking you on the outside at the time. With the aid of spotters to point out all the things that are overtaking you (fear not, you don’t have to worry about the rigmarole of overtaking slower cars because there don’t appear to be any), you just flick the switch to de-activate the overdrive, hang onto the wheel and see what happens. Bonkers.

…and when you’ve nailed it for four consecutive laps – which takes nearly an hour – you simply slide out on the autobahn and trundle on your way as if nothing’s happened. No fried brakes, no decimated clutch, little more to worry about than the puddles of urine that have formed beneath your passengers.

Classic car ownership is generally fraught with unfortunate possibilities and niggling concerns; will it start in the morning? Will the diff randomly eat itself without warning? Is the temperature gauge actually working or is it secretly overheating without telling me? You get none of this heartache with the 240. It’s like the amplifier your dad bought in the seventies – it may look a little clunky and ungainly now, it may not be packed with all the latest cutting-edge features, but it bloody well works. It does what it was designed to do, and it will continue to do so until the earth boils away to dust.