There's something about a Rolls Royce

Perhaps it was the couple of glasses of red wine and a great lunch. I don't make a habit of visiting London so when I do it's always a bit of a shock to the system. My wife and I stumbled out of Rules restaurant on our way to the theatre (I know, this sounds just the sort of story a Jensen owner tells), and I saw a sight for tired eyes. Parked discreetly on a genteel residential side street off The Strand was a fantastic late 1970s Rolls Royce Silver Shadow. It was gleeming black with a tan interior and something about that scene, with the chalky white London terraces as a backdrop, that made it look utterly fantastic. For the first time I stopped and admired the Silver Shadow shape and realised what a great piece of design it is.

The owner had retro-fitted Series 1 chrome bumpers, whch really finished the car off. And the black paint - I haven't seen a Silver Shadow in this colour before - worked wonders on the lines. I'm so used to seeing white Shadows ready for wedding duties that to see a really good example in a great setting put them back on the pedestal where they belong. Rolls Royce Silver Shadows - unlike their Bentley T1 and Bentley T2 cousins - seem to have fallen a long way in terms of desirability and value, despite the attentions of Kate Moss and Noel Gallagher. I love the design. There is something about a great 60s and 70s saloon car - I love my Jaguar XJ6 for the same reasons - that just works. If anyone's got a black Silver Shadow or T1 for sale, let me know!

London to Cape Wrath in a Jensen

Members of the Jensen Owners Club have been out again proving that these big old coupes are more durable and reliable than their reputations let on. In the last year the Club has completed Lands End to John O'Groats and a high-speed trial of an old Jensen FF. Now it's the turn of David Stagg who brought his Jensen Interceptor FF over from Australia to complete London to Cape Wrath. The event was held to recreate, on its 40th anniversary, an identical run in the same car by a pair of motoring writers.

The car managed without a hitch and collected numerous other Interceptors en route. Sadly, for me, I only heard about it after the event or I would have brought out my own cars since the convey virtually passed my doorstep on the M40.

David's FF had been subject to a mammoth renovation but even still the run is a testament to the strength of the Jensen Interceptor. The do have a well-ingrained reputation for being recalcitrant that isn't entirely undeserved, but is exaggerated by circumstances. Most of the problems on the cars are electrical involving wires and ancillary parts. The root cause is poor design and engineering and the excessive under-bonnet heat, which fries all the wiring. Apart from this bugbear, the Interceptor is a pretty basic and solid car.

The electrical problems are fiercesomely complex to fix because it seems that virtually no two cars are the same. This in itself leads to more problems as various owner and mechanics make bodges and fixes to repair or circumnavigate wiring problems that have no obvious cause. So subsequent repairs became even harder as each car moves further and further away from the standard specification. The problem is compounded by the relatively low values of Interceptors, which means that they're often fixed on the cheap.

So congratulations to David Stagg. I run three Interceptors as hire cars and I'm constantly impressed by them - apart from the occasional electrical fit they are much more durable and predictable (and cheaper to run) than British and Italian exotics like Ferrari, Iso and Aston Martin.

Dismal Days for British Cars

The news is not great for some of Britain's oldest marques. The motoring malaise has spread from Detroit to Birmingham and Land Rover and Jaguar are going cap-in-hand to the government.

This has inevitably prompted debate. On the one hand are the nationalists who argue that these companies are no longer British and so shouldn't be turning to the British government to save them. On the other hand are the environmentalists who argue that cars are evil and have a short shelf life and Land Rover and Jaguar in particular are guilty of producing gas-guzzling monsters that pander to personal greed.

These are interesting arguments and in better times might carry some weight. Except for one simple issue - the thousands of people who owe their lifelihoods to the British car industry. While media folk and culture vultures argue theory over their foie gras people's livelihoods are at risk. The Midlands, an area I know well, has already lost most of its motor manufacturing heritage. It doesn't deserve and would struggle to recover from the loss of two more.

A bail isn't just prolonging the inevitable. Whatever the motor industry and the motor car look like in the future, we'll all be wedded to individual, personal modes of transport well into this century. This is the business that Land Rover and Jaguar are in. Yes, they need to speed up the adoption of technologies that are less polluting. But they cannot act alone. While petrol stations sell unleaded and diesel, they have to sell unleaded and diesel cars. Until someone somewhere creates an infrastructure based on alternative fuels as commercial entities, Jaguar and Land Rover have to meet market demand.

Land Rover and Jaguar are fundamentally profitable businesses that have been affected by the twin problems of Ford running off with last years profits (a fact well hidden at the time of the sale) which leaves nothing in the coffers for a rainy day and the onset of a particularly severe deluge. Sitting in TV and radio studios arguing about whether or not we should bail out these two companies is like fiddling around while Rome burns. This is our chance to save the jobs of people who have done nothing wrong except work hard. And the Midlands doesn't deserve another Rover fiasco.

Glorious Failures

The byways of motoring are littered with the product of big ideas from clever people that never quite made it. Today I want to celebrate them. I got started on this by thinking about my Jensen - a bold, much-loved car but its maker died in the 1970s.

Gilbern and De Lorean were other glorious failures. Even Reliant. These companies weren't held back by ideas or the ability to find and exploit a niche - in their way and for their customers each one did exactly what they wanted. Gilbern was a great competitor to Jensen, a stylish glassfibre-bodied car with a thumping V8 engine. De Lorean is everyone's favourite whipping dog but it was undeniably cutting edge. So what went wrong?

The failure of many of these companies seems to lie in what made them successful. To stand-out and succeed they need to exploit a niche that the major players aren't bothering with. For a few short years they achieve that successfully, pandering to latent demand from a small group of customers. Then the problems set in. If the niche proves to be a rich and surprisingly populous one the majors begin to pile in and the company struggles to compete due to lack of resources or cashflow problems when they expand.

Alternatively the niche turns out to be just that - a niche. It's not rich enough to support expansion and reinvestment in product improvements and developments. This is what happened to Jensen, which tried to expand the Interceptor range and launched the under-developed Jensen-Healey.

But De Lorean is a unique case. Here was a man with very big ideas launching an unusual car into the big mainstream sportscar market. It failed for two reasons - firstly, it was under-developed and lacked a strong support network to remedy the resulting customer problems. And secondly De Lorean himself raised expectations so high that his car could never hope to fulfill them. And it didn't.

I hope that the modern equivalents of Jensen, De Lorean and Gilbern keep trying to launch new cars. Every year we see niche players coming along to fill niche demand. Whether they succeed or fail - and I hope they succeed - their creativity and enthusiasm is a great counter-point to the dull conservative of the mainstream car makers. And the source of some great future classic cars.

Why is Holland flat?

The blogs and forums are humming again with fall-out from Top Gear's trashing of a Morris Marina. Does it matter? There was a time - roughly lasting 30 years - when anyone of sane mind would quite willingly participate in the ritual slaughtering of Marinas, such was the general distate for their roll-polly handling and total ineptitude. Worrying about the fate of a Marina is like shedding a tear for the passing of another Hyundai Sonata. It just doesn't matter.

or does it? After all, a Marina is a rare and, to some people, classic car. To others its not. To others it's a Morris Minor in disguise. Does it or any other classic car deserve to have a ritual piano dropped from a lofty height (why do they always do that by the way?). Probably not, although if you were left stranded beside the A14 by one in 1976 you may disagree.

I spend my life around classic cars but I don't deride Top Gear for trashing a Marina. It was entertaining. And they did apparently act with some fairness - they used two cars, one good and one a virtual non-runner. They smashed up the bad one, used the good one for the close up shots and then sold it on. From the tired car they apparently also sold the interior and other goodies (for a Morris Marina enthusiast) too. It seems that it made good telly and despite the bluster they acted reasonably. So it's a pity that everyone is moaning about the fate of the Marina when a perfectly good Lada went to its maker in the cause of light entertainment....!

200 miles in a fresh-out-the-box Jensen

One of the advantages of running a classic car hire company is that you're never far away from old cars. And when the cleaning and maintaining gets to be a routine something always happens to change the tempo.

So it was for me this week. I have been running my own Jensen Interceptor for two years as a classic hire car through my company Great Escape. It joined the fleet after an engine rebuild - 20,000 miles on it has been remarkably reliable. But a couple of months ago I decided that I'd prefer to keep it for myself a little more and so I began looking around for a car to replace it.

Chance came in the form of a phone call from a Jensen owner in Eastbourne. He owns a 1969 Mk1 Interceptor that had just finished a 9 year restoration. I won't go into details about cost and sweat and tears but suffice to say this car is in 'as new' condition. You often hear about nut and bolt rebuilds but this car has actually had one - it is quite simply magnificent.

Even before I'd driven 10 miles of my 200 mile drive back to my storage site in Worcestershire I'd already driven further than the car had ever been since its rebuild. I've now had the luck to drive several Jensens and this car is quite simply 'fresh out of the box.' It rides like a new car. The engine needs run in. It is spotless outside. It stops, it starts. For Interceptor owners traffic jams are the automotive equivalent of Chinese water torture - apt really, since the water does get rather hot rather quickly. But this West Bromwich grand tourer sat in an hour-long M25 traffic jam without a mutter (apart from a fuel guage drifting southwards at alarming pace).

Despite horrendous weather I enjoyed ever inch of the trip and realised exactly why people spend so much money restoring cars - the end result is a total transformation. My own Interceptor is a great drive but very different from this carefully set up Jensen - it's less a grand tourer, more a B-road hooligan.

I've added this Jensen to my fleet. For a unique chance to experience a 'new' Jensen Interceptor visit

Is it a real Alfa Romeo?

One of the great things about being a classic car enthusiast is that you can voice any opinion on cars and the chances are that someone out there agrees. Which means that most viewpoints have some validity. And a casual scan of any blog or forum suggests that whatever you think about anything car related, everyone else will at least give it some thought.

Take Alfa Romeo (I wish someone would etc). There is hardly a marque this side of Ferrari that comes near to draw quite as much devotion and fanaticism as the Milan company. The big debate though is whether modern Alfa Romeos are actually 'real' Alfas or just attractive cars with badges on?

In some sense this issue touches on the problem facing every car manufacturer. In an era of platform sharing and car conglomerates are there any car marques that are truly unique and unto themselves any more? Jaguar, Land Rover, VW, Audi - are they brands or manufacturers? If a marque is a car that is more than just a badge then reluctant as I am to admit it, but perhaps independent BMW is one of the only true marques left.

This is the problem facing Alfa Romeo. The company has invested heavily - and beautifully - in creating attractive cars that require an emotional response first and foremost. The 8C, 159 and Brera are amongst the most beautiful cars on the road today. This certainly appeals to the idea that Alfa is an emotional brand. But according to most pundits, the cars don't drive anywhere near as well. And this is the problem. I think Alfa has become a brand, a badge plonked onto otherwise quite generic cars. Because beyond the beautiful bodywork the current Alfa range is heavily indebted to Fiat. The once-legendary and sonorous V6 is now GM-sourced, as are the diesel engines. The handling is not quite up to scratch because most of it is from Puntos and Bravas.

Classic Alfas didn't always look good. What made them great was that they drove well and had fantastic engines. Even the gorgeous Alfa Romeo Spider, launched as the Duetto in 1966, was controversial at launch. That they often looked good too was an added bonus.

For a marketer it is easy to put a wig and lipstick on a pig and make it more attractive. But it is still a pig. If you drape a Fiat in better bodywork, is it an Alfa or still a Fiat?

We need cars that are manufactured with the DNA of the marque built in. The only way to do that is to instill an engineering culture and set of priorities that reflect what matters most to the business. Instead of cars sold on superficial marketing-driven values of appearance and brand, we need to get back to great engineering instead of just great design. That will give us cars that are distinctive and memorable and will linger long into the future - to the long term benefit of the badges on their bonnets.

Standard versus Modified Classic Cars

I have just added a 1971 Morris Minor convertible to the Great Escape hire fleet and it will be very interesting to see how it goes. We already have a Morris Minor Traveller available for rental, which is a totally original, one-family-from-new 1957 car. The new Moggie is a little different. Like many Minor convertibles it started life as a two door saloon before being chopped. It was recovered from a barn in Devon in 2000 and then subjected to a meticulous 3 year renovation. The finished car, I think, is stunning. It's painted in a deep red (an Audi colour) with retrimmed caramel vinyl seats, extra dashboard instruments, grey powder coated Minilites and matching radiator.
While the finished result, to me, is better than anything Alec Issigonis dreamed up, the fact is of course that it isn't original. In the USA and to a lesser extent the UK there has always been a strong custom car following and the Great Escape Moggie isn't the first of its kind to be breathed upon - there are plenty of Minors with useful mechanical upgrades. It started me wondering about the relative merits of preserving or improving classic cars.
Purists argue that original is best - their task in life is to recreate the factory specification. Concours events pander to this and personally I think it's great that they do - we need to preserve our motoring heritage. But other enthusiasts prefer to improve and that generally means personalising the basic car to their own whims.
I fall between the two camps I suppose. I want to keep my Jensen Interceptor standard because it's a late model 1974 car and I think the factory got the specification right by then. But I have to use my cars every day so any upgrades that make them easier and more enjoyable to drive I'm all for. Personally this means mechanical and aesthetic improvements that don't ruin the original character - and in this case the new Morris Minor convertible fits the bill. It drives like an original but looks better, bringing out the innate character of this most characterful of cars.
Ultimately, though, what's great about the classic car scene is that purists and improvers can exist alongside each other. The great thing about the classic car scene is that it's all embracing - if you love old cars you can express it any way you like. And it's part of the fun of it to endless debate whether originality or improvement is better or worse. Meanwhile I'm going to enjoy this Moggie rain or shine.

When is a car a classic car?

The other day I entered into a debate about what makes a car classic. I admit it, this is the sort of argument that usually happens between rival factions of Genesis over whether the Peter Gabriel or Phil Collins versions represented the true heart of the band. Frankly, I don't care - I'm not a fan of Genesis whether they were fronted by a bloke dressed as a sunflower or by a bald bloke who writes equally nauseaous songs.
But in this instance, defining what makes a classic car was important to me because it has an impact on my business. Believe it or not, these things are important when you're trying to buy car insurance, for example. So there is, somewhere out there, a definition of a classic car.
The trouble is, everyone's definition is actually different. For some it's any car over 20 years old. For others the demarcation is 25 years. So it's all about age and era.
That does makes sense until you take the example of my Alfa Romeo Spider. It is one of the last original Spiders ever built so it was only made by Pininfarina in 1992. That's just 16 years ago so it's not officially a classic. Except I think it is. This car is based on the original Alfa Romeo Duetto that was launched in 1966 (42 years ago) and with which it shares its chassis and generally styling. Mechanically it is identical to the Kamm Tail Alfa Romeo Spider of the 1970s and it is simply a mildly restyled version of the Series 3 Spider of the mid-1980s. Each of these cars is a classic by almost any definition.

Unfortunately not everyone agrees. Because I have recently had some trouble getting my Alfa Romeo Spider recognised as a classic. But ultimately, like Genesis, who cares? You either like it or you don't. To me, and all of the people who hire it from me, it's a classic. It looks like a classic, it drives like one (better in fact) and it makes you feel great. Which when all is said and done, is really the definition of a classic car isn't it?