It’s funny how some things in life can change your point of view. Not just any old view, but long held beliefs, things you didn’t think would ever change.
Many years ago I was a teenager, honest. As a child I had it drummed into me to ‘buy British’, after all it was vital to the state of the nation that we all avoided imports and supported our indigenous industry, blah blah blah. But as a teenager I rebelled, I was an individual (just like everyone else) and decided that if the best product happened to be Japanese or German then that’s what I wanted.
Then something happened that involved a Ducatti. I had started earning a proper wage and wanted to upgrade my motorbike, my horrific old Suzuki XS was deeply shagged, both the headstock and trailing arm bearings were shot, it was like riding a hammock. So I looked in a range of voluptuous bike mags for inspiration and was very taken with the fantastically gorgeous Ducatti Monster, so off I went to the friendly local bike dealer to buy one.
Heartbreak awaited me, the salesman dutifully showed me a gleaming red example which I attempted to take for a test ride. But I didn’t fit.
I am just over six foot tall. I don’t think Italians are. It was like sitting on a child’s toy, my knees tucked into my armpits, this was a tragedy of epic proportions! But salvation was at hand, in the shape of a luscious green Triumph Trident 900 which not only fitted me but actually fitted perfectly. Cash leapt as if by magic from my hand, not only did I buy the bike but I also bought the dream, along with matching Triumph branded leathers, gloves and random Hinkley trinkets.
It was, and still is, a fantastic machine. The sheer thrill and exhilaration can only be understood by fellow riders, its that good. Now sure there are other bikes that are either faster or more powerful, some might say better based on their own scale of good and bad, but for me it’s the best.
The reason is not just technical either, some of my friends at the time worked for Triumph, I learned stories about the development of my bike, met some of the people who did it and even took the factory tour. Twice.
The bike was good, the people were good, and slowly I started to feel pride in the little British flags on the back of the lustrous green and cream bodywork. So many times I have heard people say negative things about British industry, but here was solid proof that we could design and build a fabulous world class product. In fact this is the very reason John Bloor bought Triumph and built the new company in the late ’80s; just to prove that the Brits still had the ability and put all the nay sayers in their place.
Looking around I started to see a whole range of excellent British products, I bought a Dyson vacuum cleaner, Britool spanners and looked for locally produced food. All good.
In my career I had to drive a great range of cars, but for my own cars I started only buying British. As I have never been rich these were generally ten year old bangers, including no less than seven Rover SD1 V8s.
Fast forward a few decades and I am searching for a very economical banger to carry me over 600 miles a week. So last year I bought a £500 Rover 420 SDi which regularly returned 55mpg and was generally borderline acceptable. But unlike my previous Rovers the drive experience was strangely un-involving, competent but dull. It went round corners well enough and the engine pulled well, in fact it could even be described as nippy, but never raised a smile. This annoyed me.
Of course it is not an entirely British car, the floor-pan and suspension is Honda, similar to a Civic. And maybe it’s something to do with the perfect yet soulless way Japanese cars were designed back then.
Anyway, eventually the little Rover had to go and as usual I started looking for a British replacement, but then Keith suggested I buy his old Audi 80 diesel. This sort of went against the grain, but maybe it was time for a change, after all Keith had frequently talk about how these old Audi’s were amongst his favourite drives.
So the deal was done. The first few thousand miles went by without too many worries, it’s returning an average of 50mpg and is reasonably comfy. The little rear wing and a lovely sports steering wheel hint at performance, but this is sadly lacking. It is much slower than the old L Series Rover, ponderous almost, but the steering was very vague with a tendency to wander on motorways. But on the whole a good solid car.
As you would expect with a 500 quid bargain banger there are a few ‘issues’; there is a curious whining noise which is road speed related but not load related, the odometer doesn’t work so I have no idea what the true mileage is, but the main problem was very heavy tyre wear on the front inside edges. This was obviously due to the tracking being too ‘toe out’ so I set about winding in the cunning German adjusters. This is were it started going wrong as they were rusted solid and quite difficult to access with big tools. Not so cunning after all.
So drastic surgery was called for, out came the steering link rods, getting to the bulkhead mounted steering rack is very awkward and involved a complex array of universal jointed socket drives and some degree of swearing. Once removed it was clear to see where previous grease monkeys have tried in vain to force the adjuster round, the drive flats being badly rounded off and marks from pipe wrenches in evidence. But with the rod in the bench vice, the rust wire brushed away and a good dose of penetrating oil the lock nuts came free, then a heavy whack loosened off the clamp collars. But even then the adjuster was very stiff because the design has small slots in the rod ends that trap moisture and corrode the threads from the inside! Don’t talk to me about German engineering….
Anyway, referring to the official tracking figures showed a fairly traditional (for that time) modest toe out setting. Back then the theory was to make all family cars under-steer so they were safer to drive by incompetent drivers, but I wanted something a bit more fun so I have set a modest amount of toe in instead.
The transformation was immediately noticeable, with a much sharper turn in to corners, a little more feedback and greater stability at high speeds, well relatively high speeds for a tractor engined barge.
And here’s the thing; it is now fun to drive, honest. Its involving in a way that the poor old Rover never was, even though the Rover went round corners faster. The feeling that a driver gets is a complex thing, highly individual and largely a mystery. Over the years I have developed a set of tweaks that suit my own personal taste, but other drivers may well not like it; soft springs, hard dampers, sharp turn in with progressive over-steer. I am perfectly happy with lots of body roll, I just set the suspension to give good traction when cornering hard with what ever degree of roll the car has, it’s not rocket science but makes a drive much more involving being able to feel the car moving about under me. The Rover didn’t really have that much roll, it cornered relatively flat, it was good but didn’t require much from the driver, maybe that’s why I never liked it that much despite desperately trying to.
But the Audi is now giving me all I ask of it, involving me in every manoeuvre in a most rewarding manner. So now I own a non-British car (as well as several other cars that are very British of course) and my state of mind is being questioned. It’s a foreign car and its fun, reliable (ish), economical and safe.
So there is only one thing for it, I will just have to make my own British car that works just as well. Current thinking is an Allegro with an L series diesel engine in……