Pistonheads Sunday Service at Prodrive

Prodrive Factory

Prodrive are a company that I’ve admired for years – they ran the Subaru Impreza rally cars that Colin McRae drove in the ’90s. So I was excited to hear that Pistonheads were holding their first Sunday Service event of 2017 at Prodrive’s new HQ in Banbury.

Before I could go I had the small matter of finishing my winter jobs on the MR2; in summer it makes sense to put off these jobs until the winter, when the car isn’t being driven, but the reality of lying on a cold concrete floor is less appealing at the time! With all the jobs, and a brief shakedown completed yesterday – I was ready to join up with some friends early this morning for the drive down to Banbury. Via the country roads of course.

At Prodrive I met up with my Dad for a look around the factory – I was surprised to learn that they do some much more than building race and rally cars. What initially started as something to keep their motorsport engineers busy during the off season has evolved to 60% of their business! Motorsport is what I am interested in though, so seeing numerous Aston Martin GT cars in various states of build was a highlight. The workshop looked so much more appealing to work in than my garage too.

Their heritage collection brought back memories from my childhood, alongside a few Impreza WRC cars there were Honda Accord and Ford Mondeo BTCC cars and a Metro 6R4. My favourite however was the ’80s 911 Safari Rally car in Rothmans livery,

Being a Pistonheads event the car park also had some interesting cars, alongside the usual selection of Porsches, BMWs and Loti there was a lovely little Connaught sports car but it was another Porsche that I’d have loved to take home – a 356 Speedster. It was parked between a Cayman GT4 and a 911 GT3 RS, but they barely got a glance, to me the little Speedster is the coolest car ever.

Classic 500

Jen in the 500 To celebrate our first wedding anniversary Jen and I hired this little Fiat, and spent the day pootling around South Warwickshire in it. Jen has got her own modern 500, and both of us love the 1950s classic, so when I found out that Great Escape Classic Cars have one available to hire, a plan was formed.

The 1966 model is a lot harder to drive than the modern version, especially as this one was LHD. Both brakes and steering are unassisted, the 4 speed gearbox didn’t have synchromesh so double clutching was needed. Top speed was 40mph – you wouldn’t want to go any faster!

We both enjoyed our trip in the little 500, it could have been a case of “never meet your heroes”, but it wasn’t at all. Despite the trickiness to drive we would buy one if we had space for another car, even a really small one.

Donington Park Track Day

MR2 at Donington Park

After drag racing last month I had my first real track session of 2016 last week at a rainy Donington Par with Circuit Days.

Checking the weather forecast the evening before the track day I knew it was going to be wet, so I dug out the old bottle of RainX from the car cleaning box and applied some to the windscreen. The MR2 had recently been treated to a big service at Rogue Motorsport so that was the extent of my trackday prep.

The weather forecast was right, the track pretty wet to start with, a lot of the race cars stayed in the pits so the speed differential between the MR2, which in my hands is usually the slowest car on track, and the faster cars seemed lower than normal. The lack of power probably helped me to stay out of trouble. As I was on my cool down lap after my first session the red flag came out for a radical which was backwards into the pit wall, right by the pit entry. Possibly the worst place to crash as everyone else has to drive past you on the way in from their cancelled session. Later in the morning I had some instruction, which was especially useful for finding the right line in the wet and telling me where I didn’t need to brake.

In the afternoon the rain stopped and the track dried out, the MR2 was still going really well, and after my instruction I felt like I was going faster than the trackday I did at Donington last year. I was able to lap with other cars too which was fun, notably an Austin A30 race car. Just like last time I was there, about 15 minutes before the end of the day the rain started again, last year I pulled into the pits and went home, but with my new-found confidence from the morning, I pulled into the pits, put the roof up and went out for a few more laps! By this point the track was almost empty, but I spent the remainder of the session lapping with a Caterham, swapping places every few laps, probably the best experience I’ve had on track. The car had been moving under me all day, especially at Redgate and Coppice, but on my penultimate lap I had a bit of a tankslapper coming out of McLeans, fortunately the Caterham was well in front at that point and I managed to keep it on the black stuff – I did catch this on video, so hope to share it with you soon!

I was happy with the 185 miles I clocked up on track, I was doing 15 mins on/15 mins off with no trouble from the car. I had a few people come up to me and say how the MR2 is so underrated. After the last month of drag strip, road trips and a track day I really need to treat the MR2 to a good wash!

Drag Racing

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Since visiting Santa Pod Raceway as child drag racing is something that I wanted to have a go at. With Pistonheads having one of their Sunday Service events at Santa Pod was the perfect opportunity.

Sat in the staging lane amongst BMW M cars, AMGs and other high performance cars I was taking the MR2 up the strip was a bit optimistic, so I was relieved to line up next to a Mazda RX-8. I took my position at the start line, without doing a burnout, revved to 3,000rpm, with my eye on the christmas tree and let the clutch out when the yellow lights went out. Redline in first. Up to second gear. At this point I realised the RX-8 may not have been standard, as it broke traction on its upshift. Redline second. Up to third. RX-8 is well ahead. Up to fourth and across the finish line. Such a rush of adrenaline!

The only thing for it was to drive straight back to the staging lane for another go! This time I was up against a Golf R. I knew I wouldn’t win, but went for it anyway – starting with a big burnout! With my tyres suitably warmed I gave it a few more revs for the launch, but still watched the Golf fly off into the distance, my little MR2 didn’t stand a chance with less than half the power and only two driven wheels. I did learn that fourth wasn’t needed, I crossed the finish line just as I hit the rev limiter in third gear. At this point I still had no idea what my times were – they are displayed at the finish line, but only once you’ve passed, so you can’t see them. I went to the timing hut to get my print out and was pleased to see that both runs were in the 16s bracket, with the second being slightly faster  – along with an improvement on my reaction time.

My next couple of runs were also against turbo four wheel drive cars, an Audi TT Quattro Sport and a Golf R32, but I was getting the hang of it more, except where I was lined up behind the Ford Mustang press car, which did a monstrous burnout, leaving me in a cloud of tyre smoke and I fluffed my burnout – they were still sweeping up the tyre debris from the Mustang. For my fifth run I lined up next to a Saab 95, I must admit that I felt a bit excited, surely my lightweight sports car could out drag a Saab. Talking to the Saab’s driver put a stop to any excitement – he was running 14s. Then I was approached by someone with a VW Eos who wanted to race me – as he was also running 16s and wanted a closer match – brilliant! On the strip I got a much better start than the Saab, but it rapidly caught me and passed me.

Back in the staging lane I lined up next to the Eos, by this time of the day people had started matching themselves with similarly performing cars, so it much have been better to watch from the stands, it meant a bit of car shuffling, but the queue seemed to go down fast, and in next to know time we were called forward to do our burnouts and line up at the start. I knew I’d got a good start. Perfect change to second. Couldn’t see the VW ahead of me. Perfect change to third. Kept the throttle nailed. Still no sign of the Eos. Across the line and saw the yellow light to say that my lane had crossed the line first – an even bigger buzz than the previous runs. The guys in the Eos had enjoyed the close run too. On checking my times this had also been my quickest run – 16.4741s.

Thanks to my Dad for the photo!

BMW 120i

BMW 120i

Now that I’m a married man I thought it was the right time in my life to buy a sensible car – don’t worry, the MR2 isn’t going anywhere – it is safely tucked up in the garage and will still be used regularly.

The main reason for buying the BMW is that I can put my mountain bike in the back, allowing me to explore more exciting terrain than I can cycle to from Coventry. It also has the benefit of not needing to use Jen’s 500 as much, which I’m sure helped with Jen getting on board with this scheme.

I chose a BMW as the roads around the best mountain biking terrain are good for driving too – think Scotland and North Wales, I’m still a car guy and driving those roads in a boring car would really get to me. After driving grey cars for the last 10 years I was happy to find a suitable car in a bright colour – especially as everybody knows that red cars are faster…

MX-5 – Throwback Thursday

Welcome to NorthamptonshireI found this picture whilst looking for images of my old MX-5 to upload to my cars blog on Blatters, I thought it would be perfect for the #throwbackthursday hashtag on Twitter, but instead of keeping it on my Twitter account I thought I’d blog about it too.

This picture takes me back to 2007, while I was working as a web developer between finishing my degree and graduating. Most days I would head out for a blat around the Welland Valley on my lunchbreak. These were the days before I had a DSLR, so this was taken on my Dad’s Nikon FM2 and the slide scanned.

Coventry Motofest

From the 30th May to the 1st June 2014, Coventry city centre was taken over by cars and motorbikes for the first Coventry Motofest. Coventry is the spiritual home of the British motor industry, with an automotive design pedigree and engineering history to rival any other city in the world and I am proud to live here. It is the unique motoring heritage that is celebrated through MotoFest – a free motoring extravaganza which for one weekend each year, turning Coventry city centre into the UK’s most exciting display of great cars from the past, present and future.

The focal point of the event was the display of classic cars on Broadgate, the cars on display ranged from the more common classics; Minis, Triumphs and E-Types through to 1930’s Bentleys and Bugattis. Alongside the classic cars there, were motorbikes from Triumph and Francis Barnett as well as the new Lightning GT – an electric supercar being built here in Coventry. The degree show for the Coventry University Automotive and Transport Design course was part of Motofest and was a good opportunity to see the work of the car designers of the future.

Classic car display on Broadgate

In addition to the static displays an oval racing circuit had been set up in the Cox Street car park, under the ring road for stunt displays and stock car demonstrations. The stock cars sounded incredible, with the V8 noise ricocheting from all the concrete supporting the ring road and it was only when I got back home that I realised my face was covered in black dust from all the tyre smoke.

Stock cars at Coventry Motofest

Sunday saw even more cars on display on Broadgate, but also the anti clockwise lanes of the ring road turned into a racetrack for cars to do demonstration runs (hopefully there will be some timed competition next year), cars running on the ring road ranged from historic competition cars, such as Mini, Talbot Sunbeam and Skoda rally cars, to Time Attack cars and performance road cars from Jaguar, all lead around by the “Dreadnought” pace car.

Motofest Pacecar

My photos from the weekend are in the Coventry Motofest 2014 gallery:
Coventry Motofest 2014

Morgan Factory Tour

Pistonheads Sunday Service at the Morgan Factory

When Pistonheads announced that they would be holding a Sunday Service at the Morgan factory in Malvern I knew I had to go! I like the values of Morgan, that it is still owned by the Morgan family and that a few years ago their then CEO Charles Morgan tested their new 3 wheeler by entering it in the Gumball 3000 rally and driving it across the USA – if only more motor company bosses had that much passion for their cars! Through my day job I have spent a lot of time – possibly too much – in modern car factories, so getting to see how a more traditional factory worked was an opportunity I wasn’t going to miss. Even Jen was excited about it and she doesn’t usually come to car things with me.

The lead up to the event didn’t go too well, the day before I’d had a tyre let go on my MR2 at motorway speed – not fun. This meant that we had to take Jen’s Fiat 500, not as fun for a cross country hoon early on a sunny Sunday morning. The beauty of the Pistonheads Sunday Service events is that they are all including, so it doesn’t matter if you turn up in a Fiat 500, you still go into the same car park as the Porsches and Lamborghinis. As usual the car park was filled with all manner of interesting cars, including a Mercedes SL “Pagoda”, a modified/restored Morris Minor which we both liked, the usual array of Porsches and Loti and even a few Arbath 500s – although Jen’s was the only standard “cute” 500.

By far the highlight of the morning was the tour around the factory – Morgan had even got their employees to come to work on a Sunday morning, just so we could see the factory working and laid on guides for a shortened version of their normal tour (30 minutes, rather than 90, due to the number of people they had to get round). The tour started with a explanation of their current line up, with a handily parked line up of Morgans. Then it was on to a museum room, pictured above, housing some important cars from their history, such as the Aero 8 which competed in the Le Mans 24 hour race.

Next it was in to the assembly workshop, where the newer cars get their BMW engine mounted to their aluminium chassis; and the traditional cars get their steel chassis built up and attached to the wooden frame. This part of the factory wasn’t too dissimilar from other car factories I’ve been to, you could see the line of cars, each one more complete than the previous and the “just in time” parts supply next to the line – but there weren’t any robots or conveyor belts in sight – the cars were resting on wooden trestles. Adjacent to the assembly workshop was the body workshop, where the aluminium bodies are shaped by hand, using traditional methods, I was in awe watching the skilled craftsmen shape sheets of metal into car parts, seemingly just by hitting it with a hammer! The woodshop was next and I’m sure this is pretty unique in vehicle manufacturing these days; the room smelt off sawdust, just what I was expecting from the Morgan factory, the workshop was in two parts, the first which we didn’t really get to see was where the wood got turned into the various parts for the frame, then in the second half, they are fitted together, then glued and screwed to form the frame, which I’m sure is harder than it sounds.

In the opposite shed building was the trim shop, where the cars go after they have been painted, now they really started to look like complete cars, the guide explained the myriad of options available and it was good to be able to see a lot of them being built. After the trim shop we went back across the yard to another workshop where the new 3 wheeler is built, what really amazed me is that the 4 wheeled cars had various workshops, yet the 3 wheelers were made in just one – 15 at a time, each car assembled by one man – that has got to be a really satisfying job!

Jen and I both enjoyed the tour, and I’ve vowed to go back for the full 90 minute tour with my Dad – hopefully tagged onto a drive of a 3 wheeler through the Malvern hills!

Hopefully Soichiro Honda’s prediction that “in the future there would be just half a dozen car companies – and Morgan” rings true and craftsmen continue to hand build cars from a small factory in Malvern because the automotive landscape would be duller without them!

Tokyo Mega Web – Toyota Museum

Toyota TS030 LMP1 Car at Tokyo Mega Web

Last week’s Toyota TS040 Hybrid launch prompted me to post the above picture of their TS030 2013 LMP1 car, which I took at Tokyo Mega Web last time I was in Japan. Tokyo Mega Web is Toyota’s brand showcase/museum building, located on Odaiba, across the Rainbow Bridge from the main areas of Tokyo, I had a few hours spare, so went to check it out.

The first thing I saw when I walked through the door was the TS030 World Endurance Championship LMP1 car, I instantly knew I’d like this place! I had previously seen the car at Tokyo Motorshow – that’s another blog post on the list, but it was a great opportunity to get up close to one of the top endurance racing cars of last year without the crowds. I spent a while looking all around the car and getting excited for Le Mans this year, where the new TS040 will be taking on Audi and Porsche.

The top floor of Tokyo Mega Web is split into two sections, motorsport and technology, I checked out the technology section first, starting with the Star Safety System (traction control, ABS, stability control etc) simulator. The simulator set up was good, with hydraulic rams for pitch, roll and bumps, but the message was lost on me, as they had made the vehicle impossible to drive with the systems turned off – I have driven plenty of cars without stability control etc and don’t crash each time I try to turn a corner.

Next was a gesture based system, used to explain new driver assist systems Toyota are introducing to their cars, such as car to car communications, despite working in the car technology industry I think a lot of it is trying to solve problems that don’t exist, along with making drivers complacent and lazier – you don’t need a radar to tell you a kid is running out in front of you – that’s what your eyes are for!

Rather than continuing to get wound up by pointless technology I went to look at the motorsport section, which alongside the LMP1 car had some TRD tuned cars – IQs (almost as pointless as Aston Martin Cygnets?) and GT86s, which looked good and were available for virtual test drives around Suzuka on their Gran Turismo 6 set up. Next to the TRD area was a section dedicated to Gazoo Racing and their success in the Nurburgbring 24 hour races, with Toyota and Lexus.

Downstairs from the technology and motorsport section was more like a large Toyota showroom, showcasing their current Japanese range, I had heard that test drives were available on their track, but apparently my UK driving license doesn’t qualify me to drive their cars. So, I decided to go to their “History garage”, which is located about 5 minutes away, the other side of a shopping mall.

The downstairs section of the history garage housed a model shop – where you could buy a model of seemingly every car, except an MR2, an ex-Allan McNish Toyota F1 car and their workshop; where they were restoring a Cadillac and a Delorean. The restoration work looked very thorough and the restored Jaguar E-type looked stunning. I was most impressed by the 1983 Toyota Levin, better known by its chassis code AE86 – a lightweight RWD hatchback, made iconic in the Initial D drifting cartoon. Most of the cars were to be found upstairs. Despite being a Toyota museum, the first car I saw was a FIAT 500, as they had a European car section decked out like a market place, with Italian, French, German and British cars, including a very nice Lotus Elan. Next up was a selection of American cars, before the Japanese cars, including the Sports 800 – an ancestor of my MR2 along with original Supras, Skyline GTRs and a lovely Mazda Cosmo – Mazda’s first rotary engined sports car.