Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Sheane Formula Vee

Words & photos - Daniel Bevis

Believe it or not, this is a Volkswagen Beetle. Well, sort of.
Alright, not really, although it does have a Beetle engine. It's a 1997 Sheane Formula Vee racer, built around a 1300cc Type 1 engine. It produces somewhere between 80-90bhp, which will allow the lightweight frame to hit 60mph in 4.4 seconds and go on to a top whack of 125mph. The front beam is custom, but the rear transaxle is all stock VW; indeed, Formula Vee is the cheapest form of open-wheel racing in the UK thanks to this engineering simplicity and parts-sharing.
This particular car is owned by Ian Perrin, and the engine was built by Gears Motorsport - Ian is relatively new to the car and was taking it quite easy when SuckSqueezeBangBlow spotted the car at Motorsport at the Palace 2015, although his confidence in the car will surely grow with every outing! In the meantime, his cautious pace allows you to drink in the details of this cute little racer - those gorgeous front wheels, the teeny-tiny carbon-fibre dash, the rude top-mount silencer, it all adds up to a very attractive little race car.

More photos from MATP 2015 here.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Fiat Ritmo 130TC Abarth

Words & photos - Daniel Bevis

The Fiat Ritmo - or Strada, as it was badged in the UK - was an excitingly avant-garde thing. Designed by Sergio Sartorelli, head of the firm's so-called 'Future Studies' division, it was a jazzy riot of folded-paper angles and cutesy circles. 'Handbuilt by robots', the adverts proudly boasted, as it was almost entirely built by automated systems - an ambitious move in the late-1970s, but very much indicative of Fiat's pioneering spirit.
The Abarth variants were pretty saucy too. The original hot-hatch iteration, 1981's twin-cam 105TC, was swiftly superseded by the 125TC Abarth, with its 123bhp twink, big brakes and 5-speed 'box. By 1983, the second-generation (well, facelifted) Ritmo was in full swing and the 130TC Abarth appeared, offering 128bhp from a 2.0-litre twin-cam with twin carbs. It had Recaro buckets, electronic ignition and a close-ratio gearbox - while it was, by this time, one of the only European hot hatches to still be running carburettors instead of fuel injection, it certainly offered an offbeat and unusual alternative to the then-ubiquitous Golfs and 205 GTIs.
This obtuseness may not have been all that pleasing to Fiat's accountants at the time, but thirty-odd years on the model's relative obscurity is something to cherish. The 130TC you see here is run by ML Motorsport, who are eagerly building on the car's original base to create an effective sprint car. No huge deviations in spec here, simply a honed and optimised Ritmo with a rollcage, a bit of bracing, a smidge of weight-loss, and an enthusiasm for chipping away at lap times and personal bests. But the best thing about it - or second-best, actually, after that fruity exhaust note - is how it leaves spectators scratching their heads and saying 'Blimey, what was that...?'

Spotted at MATP 2015 - more photos here.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Audi Quattro

Words & photos - Daniel Bevis

'Fire up the Quattro! Shut it, you slaaaaag!, Oi oi, apples and pears, my old man’s a dustman, and so forth!' Alright, I never watched Ashes to Ashes, but that first ubiquitous phrase is as much a part of the TV-inspired everyday lexicon as 'D’oh!', 'Here's one I made earlier' and 'We were on a break'. You almost feel sorry for the owners of ur-Quattros, as they must hear the bloody thing every day of their lives.

Almost, yes, but not quite. Because the pay-off for having gawping bystanders relentlessly firing TV catchphrases at you is that, er, you get to own a Quattro. And having recently driven this timeworn but feisty red example, I can confirm that this must be a Very Good Thing.

The model was a revelation when it appeared at Geneva in 1980. How could it not be? It took the generally agricultural process of sending drive to all four wheels and repackaged it as a means to go faster. The face of rallying would never be the same again, Audi’s racy Quattros decimating all comers and forcing every rival into an adapt-or-die position. And for those people who used the road-going variants as daily drivers? Oh, they were heroes…

In a modern context, of course, it’s not all that astonishing. We’re spoilt today – every new hot hatch boasts the sort of performance figures that would have been supercar territory back in 1980; brakes are infinitely better, suspension system far more advanced – the game has moved on. So today, the Quattro feels quick-ish rather than actually fast, and the brakes are a bit wishy-washy. But this really isn’t the point. You see, the thing about the Quattro is that… it’s a Quattro. It’s an icon, a legend, those eighties-fade rings on the doors speaking volumes about none-too-subtle sporting intent. This is a car that Audi sold to the public with switchable diffs and a boost gauge, and a 2.1-litre 20v 5-pot offering 200bhp – a demonstration of trust in the man on the street that he could handle what their rally department had been cooking up. And for those lucky punters, the reward came in the form of a chassis so good, so poised, that it offers up oodles and oodles of unrelenting grip, sublime body control with surprisingly little roll, and the sort of dependable agility that few cars can match even now.

This example may have over 170,000 miles on the clock, but it still feels as tight as a drum; whereas other performance machines of the era feel flimsy and rattly today (I’m looking at you, 205 GTI), this is testament to the fastidiousness with which Audi nailed the Quattro together. It smells exactly like a 1980s car should in there, it has appropriately boisterous seat trim and headlining, the driving position is superb – it’s a great relief to find that a car that’s so revered is actually as good as everybody makes out. Sure, it could do with being more powerful (quite a lot more powerful would be nice), and it really needs better brakes. But that’s true of a lot of cars of the early 1980s. All of them, probably. But few of them work in harmony with the driver quite like this one does – it encourages and complements your inputs, urges you to push harder; it’s never scary, it just feels right. Even when you realise that you’re going 20 or 30mph faster than you thought you were. Even when, as happened to me, you find the bright sunshine suddenly being switched off and replaced with a momentary torrential blizzard. ‘Hey, it’s a rally car, it’ll cope,’ you think. And it does, tremendously.

The one feature that really entertains, however, is the turbo. And not just for the fact that it delivers its thrills in a thoroughly old-school way, building the tension through treacly lag before spiking on boost and thumping you in the back. No, it’s the fact that it sounds exactly like an approaching police siren. The first time you properly boot the throttle, you immediately back off assuming that you’re about to be tugged by the fuzz. There are no blue lights in your mirrors, so you press on – and it happens again. Then you realise, and it becomes a game – suddenly, you’re not the mouse but the cat; you are DCI Gene Hunt, firing up the Quattro. And if I’d ever watched the show, I’d know exactly what that meant.

Fancy having a go yourself? This one belongs to Great Escape Cars, drop 'em a line

Monday, 18 May 2015

Los autos antiguos de Cuba

Words & photos - Daniel Bevis

There are a quarter of a million classic American cars in Cuba, so you see them everywhere. Here's a handful of snaps I took back in 2010 when my wife and I honeymooned in the sunkissed Caribbean island nation.
What you see even more frequently than American cars, interestingly, is Ladas - they were imported on a massive scale from the 1960s through the '80s, as trade channels swelled between Cuba and the Soviet Union. Your average Lada Riva would cost around 12,000 Cuban pesos (about £8,000-ish), while you'd pay similar money for, say, a fifties Chevy in usable condition. Ladas certainly worked out cheaper in terms of day-to-day running! Fuel is so pricey in Cuba that pretty much every Yank tank you see has a retrofitted diesel engine, and the only ones you'll spot in reasonably original spec are owned by taxi companies in towns.

In a country where the average monthly salary is around £16, buying a car at all is beyond the reach of most Cubans - you need your lump sum in cash, along with an official government permission letter proving that the money is all yours and that you earned it legally. So owning a car is a tremendously important thing over there, a much bigger deal than most of us can possibly imagine - hitch-hiking is the way most Cubans get about (indeed, there are official hitch-hiking co-ordinators in yellow jerseys, for whom government cars are obliged to stop), so drivers will never journey alone - there'll always be someone to pick up en route. Don't be surprised if you see a '57 Chevy belching out acrid black smoke with six people crammed into the back seat - that's just how the HabaƱeros roll.
Of course, with talk of a relaxation of the US trade embargo and different supply channels opening up with a fresh, more accommodating government perspective, it's entirely possible that the days of such automotive scenes are numbered. You'd better get out there and see it while you can...

Friday, 15 May 2015

Rolls-Royce Ghost Series II

Words & photos - Daniel Bevis

If you want to impress your family, borrow a Rolls-Royce Ghost and tell them you’re all going on a road trip. Trust me.
My three year-old daughter was really quite chuffed with the choice, given that the Ghost in question has a glass roof – she enjoys pointing at clouds and laughing; who doesn’t? – and my wife was unsurprisingly pretty smiley about it too. She usually rides shotgun, but for this journey she was adamant that she’d be chauffeured, and voiced some concerns about my lack of peaked cap. The rear of the Ghost, you see, is a wonderful place to be: heated, electrically-reclining seats, zoned climate control, your own DVD player – separate from the one in the front – that controls the big TVs on the back of the seats, polished wooden picnic tables, deep lambswool carpets… hell, there's even a button for closing the door, so you don't have to reach out and do it yourself. It was almost a shame that I couldn’t be back there too.

Almost, but not quite. Driving a Ghost, as one might hope to discover, is the ultimate form of driving. Everything about it just feels right, like other cars are missing a trick by not being as solid and smooth. Every switch is perfectly weighted, every facet of the layout makes sense. That’s what a quarter of a million quid buys you, I guess.
You quickly get used to how massive it is - as wide as a Range Rover, and over a foot longer - as it’s just so lithe and lissom; it slithers through the metropolis like a buttered eel, which is a good thing because everyone’s looking at you and pointing their cameraphones, trying to figure out which celeb might be inside. The sight of my anonymous face was a constant disappointment.

The driver’s reward for not being pampered in the rear is a mighty, Earth-trembling engine – a 6.6-litre twin-turbo V12 with 563bhp. The car may weigh two-and-a-half tonnes, but it’ll hit 60mph in 4.7 seconds, which is brain-scramblingly surreal and forces you to re-evaluate your understanding of physics. The Ghost defies categorisation – it’s not a saloon or a sports car or a limousine, it’s a Rolls-Royce. It is its own thing.

This acceleration, incidentally, had been thrown into sharp focus when I’d rolled up to the office in the Ghost the previous day. After arriving, it was mere minutes before the big boss arrived at my desk, eager to be taken for a spin around the block. My macho bravado kicked into overdrive. ‘Oh yes, it’s got a twin-turbo V12,’ I bragged, hoping to make him feel shifty about the puny little Aston V8 he’d got parked outside. ‘It’s as powerful as a Lamborghini Gallardo and, despite weighing quite a lot, it’ll hit 60mph in about four-and-a-half seconds.’ What a show off. It’s not even my car.
‘Go on then,’ he said. ‘Prove it.’ Ah. Well, you’re not allowed to do 60mph on the West Cromwell Road, but he was pretty impressed by its 0-40mph time. So much so that he arrived at my desk a couple of hours later with the rest of the senior management board. They all wanted a go too.
The following week, I learned that two rumours were circulating around the office: one, that I was fabulously wealthy and a little eccentric; two, that I had a second job as a chauffeur. Not sure which I prefer.

The admiration of colleagues is nothing compared to the feeling of impressing your family, of course. My wife and daughter loved the Ghost, as did I, and for that week we felt like millionaires. (Um, in a nouveau-riche lottery-winner way, at least.) It is a double-edged sword, though – once your loved ones get used to the swank, you’ve set an unsustainable precedent. Every journey in our slightly knackered Skoda now feels like a massive anti-climax. We touched the stars, but then we tumbled back to Earth.
Still, it’s better to have loved and lost, and all that. We’ll keep buying those lottery tickets.