Social Distancing in the Woods

Today was our first proper family adventure in the new van, and it was very much needed! When I bought the van it was mainly to increase space for bigger trips, but what also got us (particularly Jen) excited was the possibilities that it would open up for mini adventures – local-ish day trips where we could ride bikes, have picnics and generally explore woods and parks etc.

As getting outside in the fresh air was still being encouraged (as long as you keep away from people and do not touch anything), we loaded up the van with bikes, buggy and picnic and set off for Hicks Lodge – a beginner mountain bike centre near Ashby-de-la-Zouch, that Owen and I visited a few weeks back. We did not know if it would be empty or absolutely rammed, but pulling into the car park it seemed to be the same as normal, despite parking being free (I was planning to pay for parking online to avoid touching the machine). After getting changed we rode/walked/rolled up to the picnic spot together. Even on the gravel road climb Owen was riding noticeably better than our previous visit and got some positive comments – he does look the part when he has his kit on! Lunch was a chilly affair, as it was quite windy and the air temperature had not quite matched the sunshine!

After our rushed picnic, Owen and I rode to the last few sections of the blue graded mountain bike trail, whilst Jen and Henry carried on round the walking trail. Owen struggled on the first part of the blue trail we rode, as it was uphill, just that little bit too steep for him. But once we had pushed up the worst bit he was away – the rollers and berms on this section are bigger than Owen has ridden before, but he took it in his stride! When we got to the gravel road he asked if we could ride back up again, but instead we carried on down the blue trail, on the section Owen rode (twice) on our previous visit. His confidence and bike control seem to have stepped up a notch as he was flying down the trail, instinctively catching a few wobbles when he had them and breezing over the largest roller that had stopped him previously. Watching his little legs spinning furiously on the pedals on the run in to it was so cute! Once again, when we got to the bottom of the trail, he asked if we could ride back up and do it again! What sort of mean Dad would I have been to deny him – so we rode back up the hill (non-stop) and back down the trail for more of the same!

We got back to the van just as Jen and Henry were finishing their lap of the lake trail. As I was loading the bikes up, the family parked next to us started chatting to me about the van – something that seems to happen way more often than anything I have ever driven. As we were only a few miles from where I grew up, after Henry’s first nappy change in the back of the van, we took a detour to show Owen where I lived when I was his age. We inadvertently drove through the town centre, which I did not recognise, but the house was as I remembered it, albeit with a remodelled front garden. It did not take much longer for Owen to fall asleep in his car seat, only waking up to Henry’s crying as we waited for Jen to drop off some Mother’s Day gifts at her Mum’s house. One final stop on the way home was the garden centre – to pick up some topsoil and compost, as our outdoor activities tomorrow are going to be much closer to home – in the garden!

Both Jen and I have said how good the trip out was! Even without social distancing, it would have been a great day out, but with everything that is going on, getting out of the house for some fresh air and exercise was even more important! Fingers crossed that we can have more days like this in the coming weeks and months.

My New Car is a Van!

The BMW has gone, and my replacement daily driver is a van – a 2014 Volkswagen Transporter Kombi! Kombi meaning it has windows and a row of three seats behind the driver, then a load area at the back. The BMW was too small for us, especially when we needed to go away with bikes, so a bigger car was definitely needed. I looked at loads of different options during my research, but kept coming back to vans, as a small increase in exterior size from a large car gave a huge jump in practicality. Being able to hide (and lock) the bikes away in the back offers way more options for stopping off on journeys and really sealed the deal for me.

When I had settled on van, a VW Transporter was the only option. They are the most car like to drive and they are by far the most common “lifestyle vans”, with plenty of specialist garages and online resources available. I was not looking to buy a van quite this soon, but had been casually browsing, when this van popped up. It had the perfect spec, was fairly local, in budget and by far the best colour – so I bought it!

I have no plans to convert it into a camper van, which is common with these, but there may be a few changes to the interior to make it more comfortable/practical. However the plan for now is just to use it like a big estate car – it is going to come in really handy for the trips we already have planned in 2020 and will hopefully facilitate some more spontaneous adventures.

So far I have only driven it a few hundred miles, including a few trips to Hicks Lodge (first to check it out, then to ride with Owen). It drives better than I expected, the six speed gearbox has one of the best shift actions I have experienced. The two front seats are comfy and the boys love being sat high up in the back – especially Owen, who has commandeered the middle seat, for the best view out of the vast windscreen (ideal for spotting diggers etc). Being ten years newer than I am used to, I appreciate modern features such as parking sensors (that works, the BMW had them, but they were broken) and factory fitted Bluetooth. I do need to investigate the Bluetooth media player, as it does not always work as expected – I literally test these systems for a living and have not been able to tame it. After the BMW I also appreciate the simplicity of variable intermittent windscreen wipers, rather than the rubbish automatic wipers that never waited until you could not see anything to wipe the screen. I have noticed a few downsides: it does not fit on the drive with the tailgate open, although it is actually shorter than most of the estate cars I was looking at. A full tank of diesel is over £100, but should last 6-700 miles. The thing that takes the most adjustment for me is that it is a big departure from the compact rear wheel drive cars I have been used to for years. A more relaxed approach is needed, there’s little point seeking out the fun cross country route, unless there’s a view worth taking in – because you will get to see it much better than in a sports car. Hopefully a side effect of this is that I will make more effort to drive the MR2 when I am not transporting bikes or boys…

Farewell to the BMW 120i

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The time has come to replace my trusty BMW 120i. It has been a great car, but it was bought almost five years ago to transport me and my bike, but now things are a bit different – our family (and fleet of bikes) has grown! Day to day the BMW was ideal – the bodywork was scruffy, but that meant I was happy parking it anywhere. It was engaging to drive on the fun roads, but also happy cruising long distances on the motorway. The problems came when we needed to load it up with luggage and/or bikes – holidays and even days out started to challenge our packing skills, even after adding a roof rack and roof box.

I did 30,000 miles in the BMW, but not without reliability problems – there were lots of niggling problems, but the main one was an engine issue that came with a four figure bill. It also got through a lot of consumables, as can be expected with a sixteen year old car with almost 100,000 miles on the clock. This all makes it sound worse than it was, it was still cheap motoring. Probably about half the cost of leasing an equivalent new car over the time I had it.

I have some great memories from my time with the 120i. I bought it as a car that could carry people and/or bikes whilst still being fun to drive – it certainly met that requirement. In addition to numerous mountain bike trips and road trips to Croyde (twice), France, where it soaked up the miles and Wales, it was the first car that both Owen and Henry went in! For this reason it will always be a special car to me. Unfortunately Henry will not remember it, but I hope Owen will!

This morning Owen seemed sad when I told him the red BMW would be gone by the time he got back from pre-school – he asked me not to sell it, which made me feel a bit sad and guilty. However, by the time he had ridden his bike to pre-school he was excitedly telling his teacher about the replacement. He is right to be excited, as the replacement will open up more options for adventures together as a family.

Radio Controlled MX-5 Rebuild: Chassis

One of my goals for 2020 is to rebuild my Tamiya 1:10 scale radio controlled MX-5 model up and running. After wanting a decent radio controlled car as a kid, I finally bought myself the Tamiya MX-5 model when I was a student in 2006, when I had a real version of the car. As work/studying/life in general got in the way the little MX-5 was put away in the loft, and transferred from loft to loft as I moved house three times. Then I found it when I was digging out my Scalextric set to show Owen and decided to rebuild it this year.

The plan is to split the rebuild in to three parts:

  • Refresh the chassis – all the radio gear was rattling around loose, and I was unsure of the state of the rest of it. I also did not know what condition the electronic components were in.
  • Tidy up the original body shell – when I originally did the build in 2006, I did not do a great job of painting and preparing the body shell. I also crashed it and put a split in the front bumper.
  • Paint and prepare the spare shell to a high standard – due to the rubbish paint job and crash, I had the foresight to buy a spare body shell, which I have not touch yet. The idea is that I will try to do a really good job of the paint and decals, to make it look as much like my old car as possible! This body will be kept for looking good, as I would be gutted if I crashed it.

There is also a potential fourth phase, which would be preparing the MX-5 for racing, but that may not actually happen. This post covers the chassis refresh. As I tidy up the body shells I will update with further posts!

The first thing that I needed to do was to check the NiCad battery packs – they are known to degrade over time, and I did not expect them to be in good condition after fourteen years in the loft. The first surprise was that I found a yellow battery pack, that I had forgotten about, unfortunately when I connected it to the charger it was not recognised – not a good sign. The other (blue) battery pack charged up fine, and apreared to be holding voltage when tested with my multimeter. When I eventually got some charge into the yellow battery pack it did not hold it, so it will go into the battery recycling. At least I had one battery pack that I could use for my testing. When researched new battery packs, it seems that the technology has moved on significantly – NiCads, like I have, are no longer available, NiMH battery packs are a straight swap, but considered old hat. LiPo batteries, like those found in mobile phones/tablets are the current standard, but from what I can tell would mean replacing all of the electronics inside the car – so I will give that a miss!

Next, I had a thorough read of the build instructions, and soon discovered the parts list – and “hop up” parts list for upgrades, and decided that if I was stripping the car down, I should probably fit the metal bearings, rather than the standard plastic bushings. I also noted the exact consumables I would need – grease, tyre glue and servo tape (to stick down the radio gear). I started the strip down with the front bulkhead/suspension and found surprise number two – the metal bearings were already fitted! I took my shortened shopping list to FTD Models in Coventry, who were able to supply me with better quality generic products, for less than the equivalent Tamiya bits – result! Owen helped with rebuilding the front bulkhead – he has seemed really interested in this project!

Rebuilt chassisThat evening Jen had some friends round for “cocktails and puzzles”, which meant that once the boys were in bed, I had a few hours where I would not be interrupted and could crack on with the rebuild – focussing on the rear part of the chassis, which houses the rear suspension, and drivetrain. To regrease the gearbox, differential and axles meant fully didassembling the rear of the car, but I got it fixed back together without any parts left over! Before fixing the radio gear back into the car, I tested that it still worked – which it did, so I was able to use the servo tape to stick the speed controller and radio receiver onto the chassis. Then, when Jen was out of the house, Owen and I were able to give the chassis (minus body) a brief test drive in the hallway at home. The test drive was successful, so I proceeded with the final steps of the rebuild – tidying the wiring and glueing the tyres to the rims. Glueing the tyres is something I had neglected to do when I initially built the car, as I did not have any tyre glue and I was eager to drive the car. Unfortunately I started doing the first wheel before watching a guide on YouTube, and learning that I should have trimmed the inner foam before fitting it. To avoid any handling imbalances, I did not trim the foam on the other rear wheel, the front wheels look much neater with trimmer foam though. With the chassis finished it was time to refit the body and take it for another test drive in the hallway, which swiftly turned into a shakedown at the Hearsall Common fair site, which was the nearest clear area of hardstanding I could think of.

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Ever since I brought the box down from the loft, Owen has been really interested in the car, asking regularly when we would be able to drive it. He was surprisingly keen to help with the rebuild, even if it was just watching and handing me tools. When it came to the test drives at home he was really excited, even though the car was barely crawing along. Owen wanted to drive it properly, and as I was feeling confident in the car, I brought him along for the shakedown. As there was a risk that the car could fail after a few minutes we brought our bikes along to do some skills practice, so it would not have been a wasted trip if the car failed. Fortuantely it ran worked well! I let Owen drive, but he struggled to hold the controller, so we settled on Owen controlling the throttle whilst I supported the controller and did the steering. He was actually a really careful driver, keeping the speed sensible and following my instructions – impressive for a three year old! In fact, the only crashes happened when I was controlling the speed and driving too fast…

Rebuilt and ready to goThe car was fast and seemed less keen to just spin in circles than I remember. I needed to add some trim to the steering to stop the car veering left, but I should be able to correct that fairly easily by altering the steering arms on the car. The battery pack also lasted longer than I expected. The situation the car is in now is a lot like my real MX-5 was for the last few years I owned it – a good runner with a scruffy body! Fortunately it should be easier to tidy up the plastic body shell than it would have been to weld up all the rust on the real thing!

Pistonheads Sunday Service at Aston Martin

Owen and I had a great morning visiting the Aston Martin factory in Gaydon for the Pistonheads Sunday Service. Owen has been to a few Pistonheads events before, but only as a baby in a pushchair, this would be our first one just the two of us in the MR2. My parents were also going, so I knew I would have back up if needed.

One of my favourite parts of Sunday Services is the convoy down with my friends from the Pistonheads Midlands forum, it was Owen’s first time experiencing this. He was made to feel very welcome, and enjoyed checking out the ten or so cars assembled before we set off. Once back in the MR2 it became clear that Owen had a favourite car – he was asking about “the fast version of Grandpa’s car” (a Jaguar Project 8) all the way to Gaydon! He definitely has good taste in cars!

At Gaydon I was going to park next to a group of Toyota GT86s, but at the last moment spotted a space next to a 1920s “Blower” Bentley – as much as a line of sporty Toyotas would have been cool, Bentleys are way cooler! As we were checking out the Toyotas (I decided not to tell Owen one was actually a Subaru – two identical looking cars being made by different companies would have caused a flood of “whys”), my parents turned up in their Porsche. So I suggested to Owen we had a look at a cool Porsche I had spotted. He was happy to see his grandparents and excitedly told them about the cars we had seen. As we walked past the Jaguar Project 8 he told my Dad that it had a big wing and big brakes. We then looked at a lovely yellow Triumph TR6 – exactly the same as the one my Dad had when I was a toddler!

Inside the Aston Martin HQ/factory Owen was most excited about the model cars in the gift shop, but with prices starting at £180, he left empty handed. As we walked from the entrance to the cafe to grab some breakfast, there was a display of Aston Martin cars from 1905 through to the current day, which we all enjoyed. My favourite was the DB5 “Superleggera” – I have not even dared to check how much they are worth though! Aston Martin had loads of staff on hand to help people and had obviously put a lot of effort in to hosting the event. When Owen started to get into a grump as we were leaving, straight away an employee came to offer him a sticker, which cheered him up. Owen proudly wore his Aston Martin sticker for the rest of the day!

With so many new Aston Martin cars about, on display and in the car park, the main thing that struck me was just how big they are, with the exception of the Valkyrie. Maybe it is because I am used to my little MR2 Roadster, but they all looked huge! My Dad and I agreed that the previous generation Vantage looked perfect though.

Every time I visit the Aston Martin part of Gaydon (they share the site with Jaguar Land Rover) I leave thinking “this would be a great place to work!” – I have been keeping an eye on their job postings, but have yet to see anything that would suit me… Owen seemed to really enjoy his morning, other than the one almost-tantrum he was on his best behaviour, but the excitement was obviously too much for him, as he fell asleep on the way home, despite the roof being down in the MR2.

Clean MR2

One of my goals for 2019 was to detail my MR2 Roadster. Now, this may not seem like a big goal, but given I last cleaned it in 2016, after a hoon to the Peak District, it was going to be a big job. As it is my pride and joy I wanted to do it properly – no cheating by taking it to the local hand car wash! Cleaning cars is something I find therapeutic, but to do it properly takes a lot of time, which is something increasingly rare for me these days.

Unfortunately I failed in my other MR2 goal, which was to get it to 60,000 miles before the MOT. I was 1,000 short, in fact it clicked over 59,000 while I was giving it an “Italian tune up”, after it initially failed the MOT on emissions.

Jen took the boys out to visit a friend, leaving me with an afternoon free – and a space on the drive! Getting the MR2 on to the drive is usually a three car shuffle, so one less car to deal with made things easier. In fact, my BMW also got a quick wash too and the drive got swept. The MR2 had the full works though: snow foam, two bucket wash, tar remover, fall out remover and a final rinse, before being driven back round to the garage to be dried, panel wiped and treated to a coat of Soft99 Fusso Coat Dark – a Japanese wax/sealant that I had bought for Jen’s Toyota Yaris and seemed to give good results. Given that the MR2 is usually garaged and rarely gets used in the rain, I would normally use a regular wax, but as I had a tin of this special wax for Japanese cars, it seemed a shame not to use it. Waxing the car I noticed that is has picked up a few chips and scratches, but from a few metres away I think it still looks great – especially now that it is clean. I had forgotten just how sparkly the Toyota Sable grey paint is.

After treating the roof and tyres with the appropriate potions, I was able to get out for a drive. It rained – typical! However I still had fun and when I pulled over in front of a yellow field, the sun popped out from behind the clouds and I was able to get a photo of my newly clean MR2.

MX-5 Thirtieth Anniversary – Throwback Thursday

This week is the thirtieth anniversary of the Mazda MX-5’s debut at the Chicago Motorshow. The MX-5 is always going to be a special car for me as  it shaped a lot of my outlook on cars. To this day I will always pick a lower powered, lightweight, engaging car over something with a big engine or high top speed. I will never forget my first drive in one – I had a Saturday job at the village garage and my first job after passing my driving test was running an errand round the village in my boss’s red Eunos Roadster.

A few years later I bought my first one by accident. Between my first and second year at university I had been looking at Ford Pumas, but my Dad heard of a little sports car for sale. It seemed like a good car and was a good deal, so I bought it. The silver MX-5 mk1 with a 1.8l engine was a big step up from the Rover Metro I had been driving before and over six years I drove it over 100,000 miles. Using it for track days, hooning around the shire, trips to Cornwall and Nurburgring and to racing circuits far and wide when I was official photographer for the Ma5da Racing series. I bought it as a student, then when I got my first real job used it to commute from my parent’s house near Kettering to Coventry. Then when I moved out and had my own place in Rugby. It was the car I owned when I met Jen. Unfortunately, like a lot of mk1 MX-5s, it got a bit rusty over the years and in 2011 failed the MOT so badly that I had no choice but to scrap it.

It took me all of a few days to decide on a replacement – another silver MX-5! However this one was different – I leased a brand new one! For two years track days were replaced by road trips all over the country from the Outer Hebrides to Cornwall. I loved how the newer MX-5 kept all of the character of the old one, but was reliable and comfortable – Jen even liked driving it!

When the lease was up, I was tempted by another MX-5, but after eight years I fancied a change, but I knew I wanted another small, lightweight car…

Toyota Yaris

Meet the replacement for Jen’s Fiat 500 – a Toyota Yaris Bi-Tone in “Cyan Splash” blue! As much as we all loved the 500, or “Mummy’s white car” as Owen called it, Jen really needed something a bit bigger, with 5 doors. We were also a matter of months away from running three cars over ten years old. Cars which seem to have a knack for breaking down at the same time.

We did a tour of local garages, but as soon as we saw a Yaris identical to this one at the Toyota dealer Jen was smitten. The good news was that the Yaris ticked all the practical boxes – it feels bigger inside than my BMW, and fits Owen’s pushchair in the boot. I also discovered that in What Car’s 2018 Reliability Survey, the petrol Yaris got a perfect score – no owners reported any faults! The bad new was that the colour that Jen liked was only available on the top of the range model, which was over budget. It was only when we got home that Jen discovered that the dealer had a few pre-registered ones on the forecourt with less than 100 miles on the clock and priced nearer her budget.

The technology in the Yaris is a big step up from the 500 – most importantly for Jen it has DAB and Bluetooth music streaming, without me having to modify the audio system! However I think some of the spec choices from Toyota are a bit strange – auto dimming headlamps, but no auto lights for example. Even my fourteen year old BMW has that! I am glad that Toyota didn’t use their standard clock module, which seems to have been used on most of their models in the last twenty years – the one with the pointless “:00” button, that is in my MR2 Roadster. The controls on the Yaris seem very sensitive, I find it harder to drive smoothly than the 500, especially if I’ve just jumped out of one of my cars, which require far more input. The brakes are especially sharp!

We haven’t been on any adventures in the Yaris yet – for the first few days it was tucked away in my garage, so that I could give it a thorough detail and protect the paint with Soft-99 Fusso wax, and other than a trip to Blenheim Palace, we have just driven it locally. However now that we have a choice of cars for family outings I am sure it will get used more than the 500 was recently!

I had been meaning to borrow the Yaris for a proper shoot, however my lack of free time and shorter days have conspired against me. I was able to grab this shot whilst I was out in the car. I only had my Fuji X-T2 and new 23mm f2 prime lens with me, so it was a case of park up, frame the shot, click and drive off in a couple of minutes. I am looking forward to doing a proper shoot at some point though.

Farewell to the 500

After nine and a half years of faithful service, Jen’s Fiat 500 has gone to a new home. Jen sold it to her sister, so I am sure we will see it again in the future. I am yet to do a photoshoot with the replacement car, although it has popped up on my Instagram stories, but stay tuned…

Jen had the 500 when we met, in 2010, so it feels strange not having it around. We had some great adventures in it. The first one I remember was going to see Faithless play in Nottingham. It was a great gig, but when we came out of the arena the city was white – covered in snow! This was before I was insured to drive the 500, or indeed had fitted it with winter tyres, but Jen did a great job of getting us home safely. Not only was it tricky driving round an unfamiliar city with all the road markings hidden by snow, there were a lot of drunken people, who seemed very excited about the snow, playing in the road.

The 500 carried Jen and I on trips to Scotland (at least twice), Croyde (at least three times) and even to a Pistonheads Sunday Service at Morgan factory (after I had a tyre blow out on the MR2). Last year we had to use it to transport all three of us to Chester for Rich and Anna’s wedding, as three of our cars managed to break down at the same time and the 500 was the easiest to fix.

Writing this post made me realise just how much the 500 had been a part of my life. I have had four cars since meeting Jen – my old MX-5, my new MX-5, the MR2 Roadster and my red BMW. Until a few weeks ago Jen had only had the 500! For most of this time the 500 was the sensible car, used whenever we had people or things to transport, including a lot of Ikea and tip runs during the 119 Project.

I posted this picture back in 2012, but as it is still one of my favourite car photos I thought I could get away with reposting. It was taken on the industrial estate behind my old flat in Rugby. I seem to remember I had dropped Jen off for a haircut and drove round town taking photos of the car until it was time to pick her up.

Cotswold Drive – Throwback Thursday

As I have moved from Canon to Fuji camera gear, I was feeling nostalgic and looked through my Lightroom catalogue for the first photo taken on my Canon DSLR. It was this photo of my Dad driving his first Porsche Boxster – he’s on his third now! The photo was taken eleven years ago in Bourton on the Water in the Cotswolds, I was sat on another bridge over the stream, with my legs dangling over the side waiting for Dad to drive past.

I reprocessed the photo in Lightroom CC, to benefit from the newer tools and much more experience on my side. These days I would have gone for a slower shutter speed and panned with the car, blurring the background. However, I am still pleased with it as a first try at automotive photography.