Monthly Archives: June 2009

New cars are toasters.

There are many things you can blame your parents for.

Unmanageable hair, being forced to wear unfashionable tank tops, annoying little sisters. I have to blame my parents for my disinterest in new cars. My dad used to be a biker, and had many of the British greats. tanktopVincent, BSA, Ariel and so on and I can remember him lovingly fiddling and caressing these things as if they were alive. Then we had cars, a green Mini that made a lot of noise, an old blue Vauxhall who’s suspension collapsed and door handle fell off on a trip to the Isle of Sheppey (its not a romantic, golden sandy paradise, its a windswept desolate place with a prison in the middle) and more, but none of that mattered because he bought these cars himself and all the care and maintenance to make them last another week was up to him.

Then dear old dad did something monumentally stupid.

He got a good job, that paid well and supplied him with a company car.

Looking back, this was a mistake, it took away the importance of the car, not only for him but for his very impressionable young son. Gone were the Saturday morning oil changes, gone were the addition of gauges and tinsel from the local motorfactors (a place that smelled so good, a mixture of oily wood and paraffin) If the car blew up or something fell off he got another one, or it was driven to a garage and fixed, to hell with the cost, the company was paying. If the tyres wore out then Kwik-Fit’s finest could change them and not a penny of his money or hour of his labour was spent. This turned the car from something interesting and something worthwhile knowing about, into the automotive equivalent of a toaster.
Dad had a number of company cars, all of them dull, most of them Vauxhalls. cortinaA few stood out, the huge Cortina estate that we slept in all the way down the M4 to out Devonshire holidays, the red Mk1 Astra with alloy wheels was nice but sadly it was a mish-mash of Cavaliers and the odd Rover 214.
What this did to me was make me loose sight that new cars could be exciting and interesting, hot Golfs and Peugeot’s passed me by, Honda’s type R was just a civic with big wheels, and as to even thinking about tuning the engine, uprating the suspension or even bothering with better tyres was lost on me, I mean, would you try and improve the toaster? make the washing machine wash faster by changing its bushes to polycarbonate? Lower the fridge so it chilled lettuces better? No of course not and I saw new cars in the same light.
When it was my turn to buy a car I looked backwards, partly because a £40 Escort Mk1 was all I could afford, but partly because I had no idea that anything modern could be remotely interesting. This view can be laid firmly again at Pop’s feet as he then, just as I bought my first VW Beetle (sourced by him, rusty as hell and totally knackered BUT I had the time of my life fixing it, and received a HUGE feeling of satisfaction when it passed its MOT) vwDaddy went out and bought a 1974 VW Camper, orange and white.This re ignighted his passion for tinkering and could be found most weekends either under it  trying to fix it, trying to make it start or adding some ingenious ‘thing’ to it that made it more funky, so of course I was inspired to get the beetle done, but it drove home the message that old cars=worth playing with new cars=frankly, no.

Its funny how things change in your life, it was not until I met the good friend I keep mentioning, who showed me how with a few bolt ons, a tweek here and there a new Civic can be improved on and even more so can be safe, more fun and indeed faster than the old rattleboxes that I nostalgically pine for and imagined to be better because they were not the ‘throwaway appliance’ that I had been taught . Old cars are wonderful, Dad taught me a lot about the importance of maintaining and caring for what you have when its your money.

The company, forcing beige repmobiles onto its workforce has a lot to answer for, but thankfully at last I realise, all cars are just brilliant.

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Geeked out on speed

Last week I kind of geeked out.

Writing this blog is teaching me a lot, and getting your point across in 1000 or so words is something I am learning is not easy to do. The point was to show how driving games can help in the real world, to show how different parts effect the car, how different lines give different results and what’s good and not so good about tuning. So there you have it, last weeks blog, that I agonized trying to get under 1000 words, condensed into a few lines. This points out a big weakness in my writing, I tend to go on a bit.

Well, I intend to continue going on a bit this week, because I think its high time for a good old fashioned rant.

If you have a puncture and are forced to use one of those skinny space saver wheels, if you have just had your front brake pads fall out or if you are just taking  your pet goldfish for a spin in the car and don’t want to spill his water, then its perfectly acceptable to drive through a 60mph speed limit at 28. I bet that one of the above doesn’t happen very often. Unfortunately, there are people out there who drive at 28mph no matter what the limit is, and this happens very often, normally when I have just found a nice stretch of smooth and twisty tarmac and the car is running well. For the life of me I cant think why they do it unless one of the reasons above or they are scared stiff of third gear.

When I become King it will be punishable by firing squad to drive slower than 5mph off the limit, people under this speed will have their cars crushed and be forced to use the bus. I simply cannot understand it  unless there is a darker reason. They get off on it. They get a sexual thrill of having the knowledge that they are holding people up, they have, for a little while in their tiny mean screwed up little minds power over all the people behind them.915 Caravanners have a similar mentality, but they get punished enough by having to spend two weeks in a field, living in a tin box and pooping in a bucket, oh and yes while Im on the subject, this goes out to the bloke who tried to smugly tell me through the medium of the bumper sticker that ‘I may be slow, but I have more holidays than you’, listen mate, I would rather never go on holiday again if I had to spend five minutes either towing a caravan or sitting in a field in one.
Now don’t get the wrong idea, I think speed limits are important and to be honest on the whole sensible, with the exception of motorways, but Ill get on to them in a minute. 30mph in town is  a good idea, 40 out of town is not too bad and 60 through the lanes is a right laugh, unless you meet a train of cars in the wake of a caravan or buffoon in a Bee Em doing 30, or even worse, a horse. What is the damn problem with horse owners? for god sake ride the bloody thing in a field! “The horse was here before the car” they wail and glare at us dissaprovingly as we trundle by, well its not the poor horses fault that some middle class moron wants to wear stupid trousers and try to relive Imperial England, yes and we used to think the earth was flat, but technology proved it wasn’t, progress happens, get off the road and ride that walking Pritt Stick in the woods! But watch out for Land Rovers with big v8s ‘greenlane-ing’…

Maximum speed is good but when was the last time you saw minimum speed? I looked it up, its in the Highway Code, its a round blue sign with a number in it, normally a very low number like 5 or 10, and in all my driving life I have only seen it once, on the Dartford Tunnel, and as that hardly moves its just doesn’t count. No in my Britain there would be fines that made your pee blood if you di300px-Speed_Limit_65_Minimum_55_sign.svgdn’t go fast enough. The thing is, they already do it in America, America for goodness sake!
All of this makes me sound like a speed hungry, reckless hooligan, but honestly I just like driving, even if its just to work I cant get enough, the best bit about working (apart from the pay packet) is the fact I have to drive home. Now look there are some of you out there who will work in the city and whinge and moan and go on about how awful it is sitting in a jam waiting to get through Blackwall then sitting again waiting all along Commercial Street. Look chaps think of this, yes you are sitting still but look where you are, you are comfortable, dry, warm and entertained (if you think a bit ahead and you know you are going to be stuck, why not bring along some favorite cds? or for as little as £10 you can get a celebrity to read a story to you on one of those audio books) but the best bit is you are in your own space, you can stretch out, pick your nose, talk to yourself and no one cares. 2 hours in a car or 1 hour standing crushed under someones armpit in a train? no contest! It annoys me so much when on the way home, I have taken a detour along a really nice bit of road, with some swoopy bends and great tarmac I get stuck behind some guy doing 28 and the limit is 60. Im not asking for everyone to drive like I do (ie badly) but come on, look in your mirror, if there is a huge train of cars behind you and nothing in front, surely that tells you something? It should tell you to drive faster, move over or take the bus.

Oh and the subject of motorways is simple up the limit to 80, as everyone does 80 anyway, there are no bends and everyone is going the same way so its a safe number, but boring as hell to drive along. When it rains or is foggy, drop the limit, now where do they do this already?

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Videogames. A way to a clean license?

Games

I have been an avid gamer for more years than I can remember and at time of writing I cannot see me stopping. I know this is a car column but I think driving games of today are of use to us when we drive for real.

This really is a golden age for games, the consoles that we have available to us cost absolutely nothing in comparison to what we had at the start of the home videogame era. 1080p HD graphics, 5.1 Dolby stereo, superfast processors bring to us a realm of virtual reality that can make us jump out of our skin when playing Silent Hill or wince in pain as we take a bullet in  Call of Duty 4. We didn’t experience that sort of thing back on the ol’ Atari 2600 where, to quote Grand Theft Auto Vice City, ‘The red square chases the green square, or for variety, the green square chases the red. That is NOT to say these early consoles were rubbish, they were far from it. I cannot tell you how many hours I lost playing Crystal Castles or Yars Revenge, but by comparison the only way we could get anywhere near realism would be to visit an Arcade.

Oh how I mourn the loss of the Videogame Arcade! For any of you that were born after about 1975 and have not experienced the smoky, dark cavern that thumped to the sounds of Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet in the very early11013_17020922433 ’80s have missed out on somthing special. How cool was it to climb into the cabinet of the Star Wars machine, slip in 10p and hear ‘Red Five Standing By’  in your ears as you gripped the controls that had been lifted straight from an X-Wing? Or wandered down row upon row of Jamma cabinets (Game geeks will know what this is, so dont worry) All running different games, all glowing with amazing cabinet art just to get you to put in your 10p. So many firsts in the 80’s, Gauntlet gave us 4 player simultaneous gaming, if the Elf shot the food, the player got a dead arm from the Warrior.

The cabinets that got my attention were released in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Things were still woefully un realistic back home, my Sinclair Spectrum (48k, rubber keys and I still have it!) was good, and to be fair all I ever played on it was ‘Elite’ (remember ‘LensLok’?)But it was a long long way from actually ‘being there’ but luckily something happened to me in 1986 that changed all that, I discovered ‘OutRun‘. Now here was a game that had it all, amazing 1111155102colour graphics, a killer sound track that you could choose by tuning the radio (HOW cool was that??) but by far the best bit was the fact that the whole cabinet, that was shaped like a car, moved. It was SO awesome that you could almost smell the sea and feel the warmth from the sun and you sped along increasingly difficult tracks, tracks that YOU chose depending on the route you took in your bright red Testerossa, oops sorry I mean Red Sports Car (Sega sort of forgot to ask Ferrari if they could use the car in the game, Ferrari went nuts until it saw how popular the game was and how well it showed the car off, don’t forget this was also the decade for ‘Miami Vice‘ so we all walked around with our suit jacket sleeves rolled up, wore deck shoes with no socks (dear lord I did too…) and LUSTED after a white Ferrari Testarossa with only one wing mirror (don’t believe me about the mirror? look it up! its true) Ferrari forgot to be cross and jumped on the bandwagon, check out the line up in the latest Outrun on Xbox 360 and PS3. These new cabinets were amazing. They moved they were bigger so you sat and became part of the game, rather than standing and just playing. Some, like G-loc in the R360 cabinet, a flying/shooting game, strapped you in so you could do a full 360 loop!
By this time though the new gen home consoles were really getting going, I don’t want to bore you with the history of  videogames (I could write a darn book on it, yes, I’m THAT geeky) but we are at a point now where realism, proper physics and ‘feel’ are almost achievable at home.
Gran Turismo was released in 1997 for the PS1 and it caused a sensation. 10 million copies were sold and we couldn’t get enough. I bet none of you out there in Blogland knew what an R32 Skyline was until you played this game and built the 1000hp monster (in green livery) The Skyline is one of the most desirable cars on the planet to the ‘Playstation Generation’ which I am proud to be part of. Not only did it introduce such interesting cars like the Chaser, Soarer, Cyborg etc it also introduced the concept of  tuning. Not the usual ‘bung a Webber on it and add  a sunstrip’ that used to adorn most Escorts, but real tuning from  exotic sounding companies, Mugen, Nismo, Ralliart and so on. Physics were not bad either for the time, and the replays, wow!

We are now at a point where using force feedback controllers and steering wheels we can adjust the tiniest thing on our virtual car. Thanks to software like ‘Forza 2‘ we can tweak the anti-roll bars so it will corner flatter,
forza2soften the suspension or adjust the boost so we can get round Nurburgring in under 7 minutes, its got to such a stage that there are virtual tuners out there that will tune your car, tweak and fiddle until its perfect, for a price of course.forza 2 So how does this relate to driving a real car?  I am convinced theory can be learned from games like this, how to place yourself on the approach to a corner, how power affects handling etc.

But the main difference is, that if you screw it up on the Nurburgring while playing Forza, you can just hit reset.

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