Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Ford F-series

The Deep South of the USA is a strange and unusual place. A world away from the cosmopolitan centres of New York or Chicago (in attitude as much as distance), it’s the sort of place where behavioural unorthodoxy can be an unexpected killer. Forget the supposed perils of wearing a blue bandana in the wrong neighbourhood of downtown Los Angeles – just try wearing a ‘Vote Hillary’ shirt on the main street of Mobile, Alabama. These people are terrifying. Their simplicity is a powerful weapon, their unwillingness to accept unconventional concepts is an impenetrable wall of corn-chewing hillbilly menace.

There are certain icons that symbolise the South. Country & Western music. Stetson hats. Republicanism. NASCAR. Pick-up trucks. Homophobia. Inbreeding. Racial tension. Moonshine. These may sound like clichés but trust me, they’re bang on. So, pick-up trucks eh? Well, yes, the ride of choice for the modern hick on-the-go remains the same as it has since as far back as anyone can remember. They’re rugged and hardy, they have meaty engines that grunt and snarl, they sit way up in the clouds to allow unfettered bouncing over furrowed cotton plantations, and their open flatbeds provide simple and effective storage for huge wooden crosses.

The most successful of the bunch is unquestionably the Ford F-series. It has been the USA’s best-selling vehicle for 23 years straight, and the best-selling truck for an astounding 31 years. It’s estimated that the model generates half of the Ford Motor Company’s total revenue, which is pretty bloody impressive, don’t you think? The first generation arrived in 1948 and epitomised the era’s penchant for utility combined with aggression and outright muscle; the gaping chrome grille, enormous arches and vast sidesteps shout don’t-fuck-with-me purpose, and there was plenty of headroom for a nice big cowboy hat. You could even buy one with a rumbling 5.2-litre V8, meaning that you could take your corn to market on Friday and run it up the dragstrip on Saturday, effectively making it the first sports utility vehicle. Granted, the 5.2 only made 155 horsepower (it’s a source of constant bafflement how the ‘Mericans consistently achieve such laughably small power outputs from whacking great engines), but the nature of simple American muscle is that there are many easy routes to power. Bolt on a supercharger and you’re laughing.

Over the generations, the yokel’s choice maintained a contemporary image whilst retaining the core values of the utilitarian pick-up principle. In the fifties it looked like a Chevy, while the sixties saw the F-series take on the aesthetics of a shoebox. The seventies had a lot of chrome, but the gaudiness was toned down in the eighties, as well as seeing the addition of the blue oval to the grille for the first time. It got really interesting in 1993 when the Lightning model appeared, featuring 17” alloys, decent suspension and handling honed by Jackie Stewart, if you can believe such a thing. It had a 5-8 litre Windsor V8 with GT40 heads and dual exhausts, punching out a respectable (if still, by European standards, weirdly small) 240bhp.

The second-generation Lightning appeared in 1999 and featured a rather more impressive 360bhp, due to the fact that Ford’s SVT division had clearly had a word with the armies of backstreet spanner-jockey quarter-mile kings and realised that supercharging was the way forward. It had 440lb/ft of torque and would accelerate from 0-60 in 5.2 seconds, which is just silly behaviour in such a large and lumpen machine. Ownership of a Lightning is best complemented by being on first-name terms with your local Union 76 station and Goodyear dealer.

The F-series, of course, isn’t primarily about sporting prowess (and, to be fair, a three-ton truck with a big-ass V8 is not a sports car, nor will it ever be). It’s about Southern pride, day-to-day unbreakable reliability, taking the family to the county fair and stopping by Crazy Zeke’s on the way home to fill up the back with illicit stump liquor. It’s a national institution, a part of the landscape, a bona fide slice of Americana. Every other homestead from Little Rock to Chattanooga has one parked, dusty and proud, by the front stoop, and with 900,000-odd F-series being sold every year, their roots are firmly planted for generations to come. The 2009 model is set to be constructed from lightweight steel and offer options of hybrid drivetrains and more economical engines in an effort to quell their epic carbon footprint; you could argue that it would be greener to make them less massive, but the rednecks wouldn’t go for that, would they? The F-series is a staple of the Southern way - sure as maize prices, Colonel Sanders, Talladega and Peterbilt will always be the topic of conversation in the rural hash-slinging luncheteria, Peggy Sue, the simple girl behind the counter, will always be driven home in a big fuck-off Ford with a confederate flag in the rear window. This is the way of things, and always shall be.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Classic - Bristol 603

The British car industry. (Insert generic ‘lead balloon’ analogy here.) It’s a cliché, but clichés exist for a reason – once it was great, then it became, er, rather less good. Blah blah, heard it before.

It’s easy to make jokes about how the rub strips fall off Rover SD1s and the Wolseley Hornet couldn’t hold its oil, but we mustn’t overlook what a marvellous back catalogue we, as a nation, have to be proud of. The obvious example is the Mini; no words necessary on that subject. It was revolutionary. But scratch the surface and look at what else British Leyland were up to - in the seventies alone they churned out countless acres of Triumph Dolomites, Morris Marinas, Austin Princesses, Triumph Stags, all very sought after models in the 21st century. There was also the aforementioned SD1, the Jaguar XJS, the Range Rover… OK, the workforce were constantly on strike, the company had a ludicrously convoluted structure that led them to compete with themselves and, yes, there were more than a few Friday afternoon cars, but nevertheless the 40-odd manufacturing plants across the country powered through the ’73 oil crisis, the three-day week and some insanely disorganised management to mass-produce these icons in the face of near-insurmountable odds.

Well done, Britain of the seventies. Top work. The man in the street had a broad selection of stylish and affordable motors to choose from. But what about the well-heeled chap who required something more special, something unique? Forget Bentley, forget Rolls Royce. What you require, sir, is a Bristol.

One could argue that Bristol is the last bastion of quintessential British motoring. Hand-built, deliberately un-flashy, opulent to an absurd degree, and genuinely hard to source – the company has never had official distributors or dealerships. They have one showroom in Kensington High Street and an assembly centre in Filton, and that’s it. If you want one, you have to ask nicely. And be honest with yourself, when’s the last time you saw one on the road? Probably not recently, I’ll wager, although you may well have spotted one and not noticed simply because of Bristol’s peculiar design strategy. Take the Type 603, for example. Big and imposing if you’re up close, but if you didn’t know what it was then it probably wouldn’t catch your eye. This seems deliberate. It’s not exactly ugly, it’s just… unremarkable.

Don’t misconstrue this – it certainly isn’t holistically unremarkable. What it lacks in visual fizz, it makes up for in Rolls-shaming quality. The company bloodline trickles back to 1945, at which point you can imagine a cheery and victorious young whelp thinking ‘Gosh, that was a jolly caper. What does an industrially depleted nation require now?’ – bespoke luxury cars may not have been the most obviously viable solution at the time, but they must have done something right. Quality endures, and Bristol is all about quality.

The 603 is the archetypal Bristol, the one that you visualise when you hear the company name. Forget their modern attempts at Veyron-beating big-power leviathans with flappy doors and bad attitudes – the 603 is what Bristol means to the seven or eight people who’ve actually heard of them. The desire for luxury and the pursuit of quality course through the car like pure warm heroin through junk-starved veins; the sheer level of class that the car represents suggests that everybody at each stage of the design and production process was some sort of snotty tweed-clad eccentric. The engines on offer act as charming proof of this: the standard unit for the 603S was a 5.9-litre Chrysler V8 (not installed to deliver muscle-car hooligan thrills, of course, but to be Rolls Royce-esque in its lazy ‘adequate’ power). However, since the energy crisis was making the purchase of fuel quite a pricey business in the mid-seventies, there was also an economy version. The 630E merely had a 5.2-litre V8…

Fundamentally, the 603 is a series of dichotomies. It’s silly and staid in equal measure. The notion of a car that’s five metres long and only has two doors is peculiar – see the Bentley Brooklands - but it still manages to be understated despite its monstrous size. It whispers where it should shout. It sneaks in the back door and settles in front of your fireplace in your slippers and dressing-gown while the Bentleys and Rollers prance around on the lawn. The evolution of the 603 only served to further blend it into the highway scenery; the 603 S3 (otherwise known as the Brigand) looks strangely like a large Morris Marina from behind.

The fact that most people wouldn’t recognise a Bristol 603 if they saw one is testament to the company’s keenness to adhere to their original values. They are a great British marque for great British citizens; cars for people who are used to the best but feel no desire to demonstrate that fact to the general populus. Bristol is, if you like, the ultimate anti-bling – a Rolls in BL clothing. And remember – Bristol still exist, and they’re still British. Something we can all be proud of.