Friday, 12 July 2013

Ford Escort 1968 - 2000

More interesting than the VW Beetle?
Here's a funny one for the list.  The good old Ford Escort, particularly the front wheel drive models from the 1980s onwards.  At first glance the numbers look good for the Escort - there are today over 90,000 of them still on the road in the UK.  Not bad for a car that stopped production 13 years ago.  However, when you look at the numbers more closely, things aren't quite what they seem.  About 60% of those cars are late model run-out editions built after the Focus was already introduced.  In other words, they've been kept around as cheap run-abouts by cash strapped motorists who know they can get a bargain by picking one of these over the more modern Focus.

Why is that a worry?  Well these cars aren't likely to be cared for, they're nearly worthless and they're getting very old.  They're all dangerously close to that point where the slightest bill, even the cost of a set of tyres could provoke the owner in sending it to the scrap heap.  Most cars reach this tipping point by 10-15 years or so, and the majority of Escorts sit exactly in that bracket, with their older siblings already long since crushed.

This inevitably means that numbers will drop very sharply in the next 3-5 years.  Why should we care?  After all, isn't the Ford Escort the epitome of disposable A-to-B transport?  It was cheap to buy, cheap to run and said very little about you other than the basic idea that you needed a car and you wanted a safe bet.  That's all true.  But it was more than that.  It was a modern day Ford Model T, a car for the masses that did exactly what people needed it to do, and no more.  However, unlike the VW Beetle, say, ownership of the Escort does not lend itself to clichéd stereotypes.  It does not require you to wear rose tinted glasses of nostalgia to put up with weedy engines, poor ergonomics and disastrous handling flaws.   Ford haven't tried to re-invent the idea as a toy to appeal to the monied middle class whose working class parents might have owned the cheap, functional original, like a MINI perhaps. The Escort still works as a modern car today, especially later ones with electronic fuel injection.  Any 17 year old with a licence could get into one and just drive it away without a lecture from a boring old fart on how to drive the thing properly.

We should cherish this form of motoring.  These cars (and other mainstream motors of the day) represent the last of their breed.  You can fix these yourself without recourse to buying dodgy eBay rip-offs of manufacturer diagnostic systems from China.  You don't need special tools, just basic knowledge on internal combustion engines.  And despite the simplicity, an Escort will still get you to work, or college, or the doctor's or whatever. It will still keep you dry when it rains.  You can put your groceries in the boot.  You can play music in it and chuck it down a B-road on a sunny summer's day.  Compared to cars of earlier times, they don't tend to go wrong that much, or need constant tuning.  What more do you need from a car?

And you know what?  After all this time, some versions of the Escort are actually dating very well in my eyes, especially the 1980s ones, before the infamous early 90s when Ford nearly ruined the car with sloppy revisions. The XR3i is well worth looking for, if you can find a good clean one.  They look quite precarious now, with numbers dropping from about 10,000 in 1994 to just 400 on the road now, half of them convertibles.

Get a good one in your garage now and look after it.  Don't let them all end up like this:

My old Escort, maybe?
I have mixed memories of the Escort myself.  My first car was a 1984 Escort 1.6 Ghia, and that was great -for someone used to walking and cycling everywhere, at least.  But it was a rusty heap, which was my own fault for not knowing what to look for in a car.  I also crashed an early XR3, a car that didn't even belong to me.  Twenty years on, I still blush at that one!

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Volvo 240 1974 - 1993

An early 240 or 245 if you're a Volvo trainspotter type
This was the very car that defined the boxy but practical, slow but safe and ultimately, near indestructible image that lies at the heart of the Volvo brand; or at least it did until Volvo passed out of Scandinavian hands.  They we never going to win any design awards for good looks, nor was fuel economy its strength, but middle class families of the 1970s and 80s loved them, especially in the UK.

By the time the 240 left us in 1993, Volvo had become synonymous with estate car, and perhaps, blandness too, but nobody who owned one cared much what others think of them.  The relatively high standards of safety for the time led to a perception by some owners of the invulnerability in the Volvo and often attracted the careful, slower driver such that a catchphrase was coined: Volvo Syndrome.  I remember a comedy sketch (possibly from Australia?) showing a man clearly labelled with a Volvo logo, bumbling around blindly into people on foot, blissfully uncaring thanks to his array of air bags around his body.  Perhaps this partly lies at the root of occasional hostility shown towards Volvo drivers by some motorbikers and the like?  The early innovation of day time running lights (now standard on all EU sold cars) seemed to draw criticism too, and for no obvious reason.  Perhaps it was the touch of smugness from Volvo owners that helped stoked the fires?  A smugness that, these days, appears to have been inherited by Prius drivers.

I never had a 240 myself, but did have a 2001 V70, and was really quite surprised by how other road users treated me compared to when I was driving other cars.  They expected me to be slow, indecisive and a little bit gaga, and acted accordingly.  I guess I had a generation of 240 drivers to thank for that!

"Volvos - they're boxy but they're good" - the late, great Dudley Moore in Crazy People

Times have changed for Volvo as a brand, with sales of the modern V70 tanking, if you pardon the pun, compared to the more popular XC60 soft-roader.  The old 240 is falling prey to this change in fashion, and to tin worm I expect, and its numbers are dropping fast.  Shortly after sales stopped in the UK, there were 83,000 240s around.  These days you can count around 3,500, mostly late 80s and early 90s cars.

Despite their reputation as tanks that run forever, they may well disappear in front of our very eyes without anyone realising.  Get a good one now and find a nice warm garage for it, which would be slightly ironic given its origins, but still...

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Vauxhall Nova 1982 -1993

This Nova demonstrates a particularly nice shade of brown
After the 1976 introduction of the Ford Fiesta, GM was left shocked and reeling.  Not to be outdone, GM designed their own transverse engined front wheel drive supermini (just like Ford), built their own factory in Spain (just like Ford) and soon hit the streets in 1982 (a mere 6 years after Ford arrived in the market...) with the Nova.  Which, it should be remembered, means "no-go" in Latin-American Spanish.  Thankfully, for the markets outside the UK, they called it Corsa instead.

Despite this inauspicious start, the Nova sold well in Britain, offering the usual Vauxhall complicated array of engines, specs and bodystyles, including a rather odd 2 door model.  At least they didn't try to badge it as a coupé:

Opel badged Corsa A, 2 door saloon or coupé?
My Granddad had one of these unusual 2 door models; he used to take us to the football every week in it.  I remember thinking he was rather brave, as he parked in a scrapyard that used to open its doors on match days, letting people put their cars amongst the tangled debris for about a quid or so.  I fully expected to return from the stands one day and find the dear old Nova hanging from a crane, about to descend into a crusher.  Somehow, perhaps sadly, it never happened.

I also remember how in the early '90s, the Nova was the transport of choice for students with a bit of wedge in their pocket, especially the sportier versions such as the rather desirable GTE, or at least Nova base specs dressed up to look like a GTE!

Looking back to 1994, you could see Novas everywhere in Britain, with nearly half a million of them around then.  These days, there's less than 3,000 left in all, with just 68 GTEs and 1 Nova cabrio, which surely must be an error or a home garage bodge job - I don't believe GM ever made a Cabrio version.  We're losing about 2-300 Novas a quarter to the scrapheap (where, presumably my Granddad's car finally ended up), so don't hang around if you fancy one in your garage.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Fiat Uno 1983 - 1995

An Uno in its home environment, looking decidedly care worn
As I've mentioned before, my parents owned a tatty 1976 Fiat 127.  It was my parents first car, after getting by with buses and motorbikes for many years.  We converted our front garden into a driveway ( a popular pastime in the mid 1980s) in honour of that Fiat.    Sadly, the car was a pain.  I have memories of my Dad tinkering with it endlessly, spending hours learning how to how to apply fibre glass (badly) to the gaping wounds of rust holes, and generally gaining childhood amusement in watching things fall off as it was driven around.

Despite this baptism of fire, I remember my parents being strangely nostalgic for it.  At one point I'm sure they even considering buying the car's successor, the once ubiquitous Fiat Uno.

Fiat must have done something right, as it was awarded European Car of the Year and sold something like 9 million of the things worldwide, with a large number going to the UK.  I remember travelling along in the back of my parents car and seeming to see these cars just about everywhere.  From what I can tell, they were pretty good motors of the era too.  The aerodynamics were very good, the engines maybe a little underpowered, but willing and the reliability wasn't so bad either.  The famous FIRE engines especially stick out in my memory.  What a great acronym that was a for an engine!

In fact, in 1994 there were around a quarter of a million Unos on Britain's roads.  Not a bad number at all.

Another Uno, perhaps not even as well cared for as that blue 'un
However low values (that might be attributed to a perception of an Italian rust problem) have seen numbers drop to alarming levels.  Less than 900 cars remain on UK roads now, 0.35% of what once was.  These are genuinely endangered cars.  Shockingly, there's only 50 examples of the deceptively entertaining Turbo versions, with just 2 left having ABS.  Thankfully, being so small, it's easy to find a space in your garage for one.  Go on, try one.  If you will, I will...

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Leyland National 1972 - 1985

Yes, I now this isn't actually a car, but bear with me on this one.  The Leyland National was a landmark on British roads for many years.  Not just because of its long production life, but also because they hung around  for a lot longer than perhaps they should.  Possibly because of bus privatisation, or maybe despite it, who knows?  A large part of their durability has to be down to the design, which was intended to be modular with easy replacement and/or substitution of components as required.  An attitude which today's throw away culture could learn a lot from, says I on my soapbox.

This particular bus had a special place in my own affections because it was the most common type of bus I travelled on during the early 1990s.  Yes, that's some 20 years after they first appeared.  It wasn't quite like any other bus either.  I always found them appealing to look at, and still do.  The sound of them was awesome too.  The big straight six diesel engine roared from the back of the bus, spewing out toxic black smoke like some kind of tamed dragon.  Inside, I could always be sure of having a smoke on the raised rear section, that's if I could bear the incredible noise and vibration that accompanied that fire breathing engine.  Quite why someone thought it okay to allow smoking on that section and not on the front bit, given the difference of just a few inches, I didn't know, but I never complained.  I've long since given up the ciggies, but have happy memories of those times.  I suspect my fellow passengers were largely grateful for the complete ban on smoking in buses around that time and remember it rather differently!

It's been a while since I've seen one on the roads, but they still make me grin when I see one, and more importantly, hear them whining noisily along in all their 70s glory.

I'm no fan of buses, and I really don't care for them, but these Leylands I make an exception for.  Apparently some were still in commercial use until 2007, or possibly longer.  Not quite London Routemaster standards of longevity, but impressive nonetheless.  I would guess that the majority of the Nationals did at least 1,000,000 miles in service, some maybe 2 or 3 times that.

Of around 6,500 made for the UK market, around 4,000 still survived in late 1994 (not bad for a bus that hadn't been made in nearly 10 years) and yet now there are just 135 actively used on the roads and a further 165 on SORN.  If you have a spacious field or barn, maybe you could find a spot for one?  Try not to breathe the exhaust fumes if you can help it though.

Lada Samara 1987 - 1997

They didn't look much better than this even when new.
The Lada brand was something of an odd-ball in the UK.  How Russian cars ever made it into the West during the Cold War was something of a mystery.  For whatever reason, they did let them in and found more than a few undemanding buyers with thick skins and thin wallets.  The Lada Riva was well known, but if that was just too utilitarian to the point of being antagonistic to ones outer sensibilities, then the Samara offered a package that could just about pass as modern at a price point where many were tempted to part with their cash.

A friend of mine was provided with one of these as student transport by his mother.  We could never work out whether it was intended as a gift or a form of passive-aggressive punishment.  Street cred - it had none.  Words motoring journalists normally use to rate a car like performance, ride and handling all seemed rather abstract concepts when you were in it.  But, to give the car its due, it was damn near indestructible.  Crashes it seemed to enjoy; mechanical failures were unknown.  In the pre-immobilser era where Escorts and Astras were stolen daily, theft wasn't a concern for the Lada owner at all.  In all, there was something in this car that was actually desirable to those in the know, contrary to every pre-conception you might hold, no matter how logically valid it might be.  Of course, the Koreans soon arrived with their raft of Japanese copies and swept up the budget market in no time at all.  That and stricter emissions laws saw the end of Lada in the UK altogether, withdrawing in 1997.

Back in 1994 when these were still being imported to the UK, there were nearly 50,000 on the road.  Today you'll be very lucky to see one of the mere 36 active survivors still out there.  Could you find room in your garage for one?  Just to completely fox the grandchildren when they ask you what it is in 30 years time, of course.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Vauxhall Belmont 1986 - 1991

A Belmont.  Don't get too excited now.

If you've got one of the remaining 188 Belmonts, I ask you a simple question.  Why?  What is it that keeps you in it?  I'm especially curious to hear from the 29 people who own one of the dreadfully low specification Merit cars - most of which have the wheezy 1.3L engine.  I can only assume the owners of these cars have a peculiar sense of humour or follow some form of extreme asceticism.  If my memory is correct, the Merit cars didn't even feature sunblinds, head rests, radios or anything other than the most essential equipment required to steer, accelerate and brake.

Regardless, my father-in-law is often keen to wax lyrical about his mid-80s Belmont and what a fine car it was, but I don't get it myself.  Obviously you got a bigger boot than the Astra equivalent and smaller saloons still had some kind of following at that time, but the Belmont was never going to be that remarkable.  I do remember getting a lift in the hot SRI version from a quite barking mad driver (only 9 of these left incidentally - cars that is, not mad drivers), and that nearly made me change my mind on these cars, but it just didn't quite cut it.
Even with this desperate lack of image, back in late 1994 there were still nearly 80,000 of these on the roads, with virtually none left now, they truly are endangered.

Our collective lack of interest in older Vauxhalls, smaller saloons and 80s metal must surely mean that with the poor old Belmont suffering from all three of these conditions, it will disappear before too long.
Despite all I've said, perhaps one or two of us should find a space in the garage for one, if only for curiosity value and the benefit of TV programmes set in the 1980s.

Citroën BX 1982 - 1994

A Swiss BX from Zurich in left hand drive form.  Recently parked by the look if it, the tail still some way off kissing the tarmac.
This was a car for people who wanted something really special, but without needing big fat wallets.  Citroën today likes to present itself as a forward thinking, innovative company, but back in 1982 with the release of the BX, it wasn't just marketing hyperbole, it was the truth.

In the BX, you had a regular family car with incredible hydropneumatic suspension, lightweight plastic body panels, and (shock) rear disc brakes.  Those brakes really bit hard too, thanks to running off the hydropneumatic pump.  Features like electric windows and central locking were typical equipment on regular models.  We hadn't seen anything quite like it before.  And there was more to come as it developed - the remarkable XUD diesel unit.

My Mum got one of these brand new back in 1989 as part of her job as a district nurse.  It replaced an awful 1987 Vauxhall Astra with the painfully slow 1.7 diesel, sans turbo.  Our BX had the knock out blow that should have made PSA cars dominate in their time - the 1.9 TD engine.  We just couldn't believe how quick it was in comparison to the laggardly Astra.  Suddenly, this was motoring in the modern era - fast, relatively refined and economical with it.  It felt like a huge step change in motoring.

As a kid, it made me giggle to see the back end drop down after a few hours of sitting still.  Very much like a dog getting bored of standing around waiting for its master.  I loved it.  When I saw how it could be made to "lie down" or "stand" with the hydropneumatic control lever, I knew one day I'd have to own one myself.

Note the single wiper blade, cleverly done with a built-in washer jet, however - it was never quite right after a while and just leaked a bit of water across the screen in a pathetic manner.

Several years later in 1997 when I was a young graduate, I was looking for a car and spotted a 1987 BX 16RE in the small ads.  I bought it without hesitation.  Unfortunately, the 1.6 petrol engine wasn't in the same league as the beloved 1.9 XUD and time hadn't been kind to my BX.  Rust infested the suspension pipes and what metal panels the BX did have were riddled with tin worm.  Then, at a venerable 100,000 miles, the head gasket blew, the clutch arm snapped and that was pretty much that.  I scrapped it soon after, something I still regret, especially when I wear my rose tinted specs.

Thanks to short-sighted people like myself, British BX numbers have dropped from 182,000 in late 1994, to just over 800 today.  There's only 7 cars left like mine on the road.  Yikes!

Scarily, if you fancy one of the cooking GTI 16v models there's only 40 of them in all, with just 8 having the 4x4 system.  If you want one, you're going to have to move quickly!
I understand a lot of cars were cannibalised to provide their hydropneumatic system to custom built hot rods.  The genuine remaining BXs could be completely gone within a few short years.  Can you find space in your garage for one?

Ford Sierra 1982 - 1993

Thanks to the Aerodynamic styling, it really hasn't dated as badly as many 1980s cars.  Yep, it's as ugly now as it was back then.

Once the pride of sales reps across Britain, with just 7 cars short of 1.3 million sold, what has become of Ford's jelly mould?

As a small boy in the mid 1980s, this was my parent's first decent car; after a disastrously rotten Fiat 127 that might have put many sane people off car ownership altogether.  The Ford Sierra seemed like a vision of some space-age future.  Coming from the Fiat, I was amazed by windows that could open and close without falling out, bamboozled by doors that actually locked and captivated by windscreen wipers that did the job their name suggests.  It seemed like a proper car.
Okay, it had a pitiful 1.6 litre 74 bhp engine and was all but an aged Cortina under the skin, but we loved it as a family all the same.

Later on, when a friend's Dad acquired the XR4x4, I was in love, and wanted one immediately.  Unfortunately, so did most crooks, that particular car was stolen at least twice by joyriders to my knowledge.
By today's standards, the 2.9L Cologne V6 was nothing special with a mere 148 bhp, but it sounded like a monster risen up from the deep.  I still remember being taken for a run at speeds well in excess of 130 mph along some hairy Leicestershire roads.  Innocent pre-speed camera times, but madness today!

An XR4x4, strangely not being surfed along the edge of a kerb by joyriders at the time of this photo.

Let's not forget also, how the Sierra spawned a whole demographic label with the targeting of a section of middle classes voters under the name of "Sierra Man" by the Labour Party, which soon became "Mondeo Man" as the 90s progressed.

Of the 1 million Sierras on the road in 1995, only 5,000 are still rolling today in 2013.
There were 18,000 XR4x4s in 1995, and yet now there's a truly endangered population of just 400 cars on the road.  Surely these deserve to be classics and saved?

Have a spare garage to fill?  Try a Sierra XR4x4.  You may even find an unmolested example, unlike the slightly insane Sierra RS Cosworth (and "Sapphire" saloons), which are now down to about 1,000 badly modified cars.