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  •   Guy Baker reacted to this post about 4 years ago
    An exclusive visit to the Queen’s own collection. Hidden away at Sandringham is a certain Windsor family’s own collection of cars. Octane was granted exclusive access into the royal grounds. Words Giles Chapman // Photography Matthew Howell.

    By any measure, it must have seemed a baffling request to the craftsmen at Hooper & Co, the Royal Family's favoured coachbuilders for decades. Queen Mary had paid extraordinarily close attention to the specification of her new #Daimler-DE27 . The driver's compartment, she decreed, was too wide, compromising the dignity of the vehicle, and a more seemly front profile was demanded.

    It was 1947, and this was to be her personal car, finished in her favourite dark green and taking four months to build. The narrowing process meant the steering column had to be kinked 2.5in towards the centre, and poked out of a truncated dashboard. Widened wings also needed to be handmade. How her chauffeur felt about his custom-cramped driving posture would, of course, never be disclosed.

    Her Majesty's other requests were more fathomable. Because the 80-year-old Queen Mary had trouble bending her neck, she requested 57in of headroom, which made this the tallest car Hooper bodied after the Second World War. The drop-down bootlid revealed a bespoke picnic case, and the rear compartment was a snug of green leather and walnut, with notebook, pencil, ashtray and matchbox built into the armrest. Spring-loaded silk blinds gave privacy, although Her Royal Highness couldn't countenance life on the road without gold monograms on doors and boot. Queen Mary proudly called it her 'shopping Daimler'.

    The VIP customer proclaimed herself delighted with her 'shopping Daimler' and Queen Elizabeth II's grandmother used it almost daily until her death in 1953 .

    Although this unique limousine now belongs to the National Trust, it's found its circuitous way to a resting place at the Sandringham Estate. And it's not alone. The Queen's rural retreat in north Norfolk, at the centre of its stunning 20,0-acre estate, has an extraordinary car collection.

    Despite Sandringham Museum being open to members of the visiting public, it's largely unknown. Sandringham House first welcomed visitors in #1977 , and you can ramble through the estate's tranquil woodland free of charge all year round. But the car collection? Even the estate's website mentions only a highly polished #1939 Merryweather fire engine in the outbuildings. Yet there's much more...

    You might never have guessed that Sandringham is home to some of Britain's most important and interesting royal cars. Until, that is, #Drive-My was granted unprecedented access to this most august of classic fleets. There are usually between 20 and 25 cars hidden away there.

    When the 21-year-old Prince of Wales - later King Edward VII - was gifted Sandringham in #1862 by his mother Queen Victoria, he received an 18th Century, stucco-fronted country pile that he quickly found too cramped. The builders were soon shipped in and, by #1870 , the new main house was completed. Or, nearly. Additions were constant, including a ballroom and a guest wing, and a stable block that included carpentry and sewing schools for the estate's youngsters.

    The Prince was a dedicated techie, with a penchant for cutting-edge machinery. Hence, in #1901 , he installed an electricity generator for the house in an extension to the stable (soon obsolete when mains power reached Sandringham). Likewise, the Prince was fascinated by the earliest cars. The contemporary Lord Montagu introduced him to the motoring exhilaration in 1899 on a New Forest outing aboard his 12hp Daimler; the Prince was smitten, and ordered a 6hp Model A example for himself the following year. It had all the latest features, such as an accelerator pedal instead of a hand throttle, raked steering column, and elaborate electric ignition. Hooper & Co were entrusted with the bodywork for this first British royal car, done in four-seater mail phaeton style with separate hoods for front and back seats. A spacious new garage was soon added to Sandringham's stables to meet its needs.

    That very car is treasured here today. It's somewhat changed from its original condition - although the alterations all took place in 1902! A Mr S Letzer, the first royal chauffeur and referred to as the Prince of Wales's 'mechanician', sometimes wound it up to 20mph-plus, but it frequently overheated. Moving the radiator from the back to the front cured that but required a bulky bonnet. At about the same time, new and more comfortable tonneau bodywork was built. A frilled Surrey top was added and the pneumatic rear tyres were changed for solid ones, as the lack of a differential made them prone to peeling off.

    The lofty veteran is resplendent in paintwork of royal claret over black, picked out in a bright red that's more respectfully termed vermillion. This livery was adopted from one of Queen Victoria's horse- drawn carriages, and remains the colour scheme for the monarch's official transport today. Not that you'd necessarily spot it. The claret often looks like black from a distance and in certain light.

    This is one of the most influential single cars in British motoring history. Edward VII's enthusiasm for it quelled hostility towards cars from landowners and the gentry. Before, mass upper-crust opinion was that they were noisy and dangerous affronts to a horse-drawn world. But the moment the King adopted the new motor car, the mindset rapidly switched.

    The pairing of Daimler chassis and Hooper bodywork became the royal staple, and there are two magnificent examples of such later limos at Sandringham. The 45hp Brougham dates from 1914 and its Double Six replacement is a 1929 car. These maroon monsters were fixtures of British public life, the King easily visible behind the towering side windows. The newer car has the unusual feature of headlights that can be swivelled to the left, but both cars have the royal quirk of a black- painted radiator grille surround. A bright shiny thing on the front of the car, a rolling advert for Daimler, might have distracted attention away from the occupants of the back seat.

    By the mid-1950s, Daimler's grip on the Royal Household's patronage went limp. For two years between #1953 and #1955 , it didn't even build limousines, and Rolls-Royce stepped in, capping the flow of some 80 Daimlers over five decades with a Phantom IV Hooper Landaulette for Elizabeth II in 1954.

    The second of the Queen's official Rollers was a special Phantom V in #1961 . It was retired to Sandringham in 2002 where, in this very low-key car museum, it's the most recognisable one to most visitors.

    The #Rolls-Royce developed this car in secret under the 'Canberra' codename, to give the impression it was for the Australian Government (the Australians had followed the Royal Family's switch in allegiance to Rolls-Royce in the late 1950s). The coachwork was entrusted to Park Ward, cutting Hooper out of the loop and hastening its decision to quit coachbuilding altogether, and two near-identical examples were built.

    Its most distinctive feature was the cover that could be slipped off the rear roof section, revealing a Perspex dome through which to admire the head of state on her travels. And this car really did go round the world - usually in its own garage on board Britannia. This three-ton behemoth would be craned delicately on and off the royal yacht and rolled carefully into its berth, into which it would just fit, thanks to specially designed demountable bumpers.

    Another Buckingham Palace workhorse with dramatic history has also come to rest at Sandringham. The #1969 Vanden Plas Princess limousine is mundane apart from one thing. In March #1974 , the car was ambushed on The Mall by a gun-toting madman intent on kidnapping its key occupant: Princess Anne. Although he shot a bodyguard, the chauffeur and two passers-by, the attempt was thwarted and she was unscathed and, indeed, unbowed. But it did reveal two worrying omissions in Royal cars: bulletproofing and radio contact with the security services - both remedied soon afterwards.

    Formality is one thing for the Windsor clan, but at certain times of the year Sandringham is all about the great outdoors. And proper shooting brakes have for decades been as regular a feature of estate life as beaters, gun dogs and hip flasks. Hooper's awe-inspiring shooting brake body on a 57hp Daimler chassis must represent a pinnacle in 1920s sporting life. It was delivered in August #1924 to George V, and an excellent day's shooting would be in prospect with 12 guns in its varnished rack. Roll-up side curtains guaranteed lungfuls of bracing Norfolk air for the ten occupants... and four-wheel brakes added welcome retardation on slippery tracks.

    Guides at Sandringham today are accustomed to the huge pull this one has on viewers. It's the paintwork. The rear section is timber- panelled but the thoroughly rural theme continues with the woody effect on scuttle, bonnet and wings. It's called a 'scumble' paintjob: the darker base layer was allowed to dry to the tacky stage and then a lighter paint colour was brushed on artfully with a toothed comb to give the woodgrain look, which was sealed in under three layers of lacquer. The stags and pheasants would never know you're lurking among the trees.

    Altogether more modest is George IV's #1951 #Ford V8 Pilot with a Garner woody body. The wheelbase was stretched by 12in and the windscreen height raised by 3in, so it was uncommonly roomy, with the gun rack on the roof. Yet another interesting modification was a floor-mounted gearlever, as the King hated column changes. Yet his untimely death in 1952 meant he barely drove it. The family kept it for sentimental reasons, and it was still burbling around the estate in the '60s.

    By then it had been joined by an upstart newcomer, a Ford Zephyr Mkll the like of which you'll see nowhere else. Hardly the most elegant of vehicles, with its hearse-like contours relieved with wood panel inserts, eight people could cram in with Prince Philip at the wheel, and it was custom-made for Sandringham shooting parties.

    Yet another category of automotive resident here is the Royal Family's personal cars from years gone by. You can see Prince Charles's 21st birthday present from his parents - a blue #MGC-GT . You can also get up close to several wonderful children's cars. We loved the Imperial 1 midget racing car, a gift for Prince Charles in #1955 from America and, with a two-stroke engine, capable of a hairy 40mph. How many scars can the heir to the throne attribute to spills in this one, we wonder? There's also an #Aston-Martin-Volante Junior that a grateful Victor Gauntlett presented to valued customer Charles in #1988 (to pass on to his sons, Princes William and Harry), and a working replica of the 007 #DB5 given to the Queen on an Aston factory visit in #1966 , as a gift for lucky toddler Prince Andrew.

    The Queen's own Rover 3.0-litre has a patina that includes small dents and a cracked windscreen. The Duke of Edinburgh's #Alvis-TD21 , meanwhile, is crammed with unusual features: Prince Philip ordered a taller windscreen, electric soft-top and a leather dashboard instead of polished walnut. #Alvis later fortified the car with five-speed gearbox, disc brake conversion and a power-boosting TE cylinder head to withstand the relentless use the Prince put it to: over 60,000 hard-driving miles to Germany and back, commuting to polo fixtures, and frequently picking up Princess Anne from school.

    These days, a Vauxhall Cresta PAis a car to admire rather than disdain, and the rare #1961 Friary wagon at Sandringham was an estate runabout. The Queen liked driving this relaxed old barge, and it carries a jocular MYT 1 personal plate. Indeed, Her Majesty pretty much started the craze for 'private plates' after receiving a #Daimler-DE27 as a gift in #1948 registered HRH 1. Who could be more appropriate for either?

    'Her Majesty started the craze for private plates with a Daimler, received as a gift and registered HRH 1’

    Space is at a premium in Sandringham's garage block. Spare capacity is taken up by interesting vehicles on loan from non-royal owners, including the ex-Earl Mountbatten #1924 #Rolls-Royce-Silver-Ghost (used by him in India during his spell as Viceroy and later Governor-General in #1947 - #1948 ). There's also a #1929 Armstrong Siddeley 30hp shooting brake originally built for George Vi's use at Balmoral.

    When the family is in residence at Christmas, though, the garage is needed for the current fleet of limousines and Range Rovers. Cars such as the #Princess , #Zephyr , #Alvis and #Rover are turfed out into heated storage nearby as the retinue of chauffeurs and security staff arrive.

    However, the old cars do not depart under their own steam. The Sandringham collection cannot be faulted for polished spotlessness, but many are non-runners and, indeed, some of the pre-war Daimlers would require much more than a mechanical overhaul to get their sleeve-valve engines purring again. Seizures are a near-certainty. The #1900 #Daimler has tackled the London-Brighton a few times but its last mechanical breakage on the #2005 event has kept it indoors ever since. Nonetheless, all these cars are preserved in a secluded atmosphere that, in itself, couldn't really be any more authentic.

    VISIT SANDRINGHAM MUSEUM www. sandringhamestate. co. uk/visiting-sandringham/
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  •   Andy Everett reacted to this post about 4 years ago
    According to the #Piper Sports & Racing Car Club, some 57 of the 90(ish) Piper road cars produced between 1968 and #1974 still exist, together with a number of the 20 or so racing ones. The marque was established in 1966 at Campbell’s Garage, Hayes, Kent, by proprietor George Henrotte, former Weslake engineer Bob Gaylor, and McLaren M1A designer Tony Hilder. The new car’s name was inspired by the establishment’s logo of a kilted bagpiper.

    Henrotte had run the Works Gemini Formula Junior team and the first Pipers built were intended for the track, and included an open mid-engined sports racer, striking coupe version and both Formula Ford and F3 single-seaters. The birth of the Piper road car was motivated by a group of motorsport enthusiasts who wanted to create a circuit racer using Sprite mechanicals. A scale model was exhibited in #1966 and, despite the project’s instigators then falling by the wayside, Piper built a fullsize prototype in time for the #1967 Racing Car Show. The reaction was encouraging, but progress slow and troublesome until the intervention of Brian Sherwood resulted in a switch to Ford power and a move to his premises in Wokingham, Surrey.

    By #1968 there was a choice of #Piper-GTT , #Piper-GTS and #Piper-Sport versions, all of which featured special cylinder heads and camshafts produced by Piper’s thriving tuning division (now Piper Cams). The fibreglass-clothed, tubular-steel chassis featured Triumph Herald steering and front suspension, and a Ford axle retained by Piper’s own multilink set-up at the rear. Sherwood’s positive influence was prematurely curtailed by a fatal accident near Brands Hatch in December #1969 , at which point production was adopted by Bill Atkinson and Tony Waller under the banner of Emmbrook Engineering. It was on their watch the P2 (Phase 2) model was introduced that featured a 6in longer wheelbase and other refinements.

    The final year of production was conducted at premises in South Willingham, Lincolnshire, with the last car being completed in #1974 . However, the pair continued their working relationship for a further 39 years in the manufacture of fibreglass baths.

    The most dramatic of all Pipers was the innovative three-foot high #Piper-GTR racer, a 1300cc version of which was entered for the 1969 #Le-Mans 24 Hour race. It failed to qualify, but folklore says the lap times were quick enough to well and truly ruffle the feathers of the home-grown team of Renault Alpines! For further info see our site.

    Above top: the Wokingham factory in #1972 .
    Above: a smart 1972 #Piper-P2
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  •   Matt Petrie reacted to this post about 4 years ago
    I often play the same game with friends at auctions or art galleries – if money was no object, what would you take home? It’s a fun challenge that’s guaranteed to focus interest in the subject. I’ve always had a soft spot for early De Tomaso Panteras – particularly before huge wheelarches and wings spoilt Tom Tjaarda’s styling in its purest form, while their tough 5.7-litre Cleveland V8 offered supercar performance without the worry of big bills.

    Ex-Lamborghini designer Gian Paolo Dallara was responsible for engineering the new monocoque and even hero Mike Parkes had a hand in the Gp4 racers before he moved on to the Lancia Stratos. If you can’t have a #GT40 , this is the next-best option. Critics dismiss it as an Italian kit car, but for me it’s a must-have in that dream V8 set with a Cobra 289 and a #GT350 #Mustang .

    When Historics at Brooklands’ latest auction catalogue arrived in the office, lot 282 had me transfixed. Few colours suit the Pantera better than metallic blaze orange, and I looked carefully for any assets that I could quickly sell to fund this low-mileage Californian import. At the earliest opportunity, I was over at #Mercedes-Benz World for the preview day – and even dragged buddy and expert mechanic Colin Mullan along to check it over. Few people have more experience with V8s than the former drag racer and Monteverdi 375L owner. “I worked on a friend’s Pantera once, and the test drive nearly killed me,” he recalled. “At the first corner it just ploughed on. It felt as if I was on ice.” So he clearly wasn’t keen to look at another.

    The Pantera was positioned on the first floor in the immaculate confines of the showcase dealership, where Historics’ specialist Stewart Banks reported strong interest in the dazzling lefthooker. But there was no chance of even starting it, let alone a short drive. Other than its 2013 import to the UK as a project, there were few specific details about the rebuild by a Surreybased serial Pantera restorer who I later discovered had five in his garage, although I wasn’t able to talk to him before the sale.

    The #1974 #De-Tomaso-Pantera-GTS looked straight, its original specification possibly verifying the mileage of just 19,343. The recent repaint was reacting in places, while upgrades included a new aluminium rad and a full retrim. Yet without a test, there was no chance of checking the expensive #ZF transmission. Even with a torch, I couldn’t really assess much of the underside or suspension. “It looks a straight car,” observed Mullan, but specialists maintain that it’s key to inspect any #Pantera on a ramp for the critical rust areas. The crisp lines of the early cars have always seduced me, and Tjaarda once related at a concours that American football players were an influence.

    “Mid-engined cars disturbed me because you couldn’t really tell where the engine was,” he said. “I wanted a simple clean nose with all the intakes at the back to give it a big muscular look. One car was windtunnel-tested, but the front gets light at 150mph. I took one to 125mph and that was enough. My heart was in my mouth!” I’ve yet to drive a Pantera, but the experience appears to be mixed – right back to the original magazine articles. One of the first was by Belgian Grand Prix ace and #1960 Le Mans victor Paul Frère, who collected a prototype with wild twotone hammock-style seats from the Ghia factory in early #1971 . Minor irritations included lifting wiper blades at 125mph and the need for extra spotlights to flash at slower cars, but Frère found the De Tomaso to be utterly stable, including through the fast S-curve on the Torino-Ivrea autostrada. ‘It took it flat with lots to spare even though this was faster than I’d ever taken it before,’ he reported. Several stops from high speeds thankfully proved that the brakes were superb, too. Frère was less happy on winding mountain roads because the car understeered excessively, which he put down to a heavily pre-loaded limited-slip diff. Gear ratios that were too closely stacked with a short fifth that restricted top speed to 137mph in Autocar’s road test (it did 155mph with the later transmission) were other criticisms, but overall the #De-Tomaso impressed. Ford instantly fell for the Pantera and sold it via its Lincoln-Mercury dealers, but soon realised that it had myriad faults – leaking fuel tanks, failed sensors and weak suspension mounts. The man tasked with sorting it was legendary raceteam boss Bill Stroppe, who even tracked down the dozen people who’d bought Panteras before the problems had come to light. He turned up in person and did the work on the owners’ drives!

    That just adds to the mystique of the Pantera for me and I still can’t get that orange beauty out of my mind. I feel really quite envious of the lucky French buyer who snapped it up unseen for £57,120. Just imagine it burbling through Paris on a Saturday night…

    “I took one to 125mph and that was enough,” recalled designer Tom Tjaarda. “My heart was in my mouth!”

    Stunning low-mileage 1974 GTS wowed Walsh at Historics.

    Belgian racing legend #Paul-Frère steps into an early Pantera at Modena.
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  •   Dan Goodyer reacted to this post about 4 years ago
    Octagon’s Renaissance. Triple-M register. These MGs are better than you think. These once-derided MGs are undergoing a revival, enthuses Simon Charlesworth as he compares #MG-Metro , #MG-Maestro and #MG-Montego at the Cowley factory where two of them were built. Photography Tony Baker.

    As the present forever trundles forth, giving an ever-changing perspective of yesteryear, British Leyland and Austin Rover Group cars now conjure a great deal of enthusiasm and nostalgia. So, dear cynics and peddlers of doubt, please pause your scepticism.

    Previously, these MGs have been widely mocked and scorned, but now this view is only held sacrosanct by the low of brow. Glimpse their vivid detailing – those alloy wheels, red octagons and striping, lower door graphics, digital instruments, black spoilers and seatbelts brighter than a Yuppie’s braces – and you’re transported back to the early ’80s. It was a time when BL/ARG finally got around to serving up one last new home-grown range, before Honda’s influence would become prevalent.

    It is understandable why some enthusiasts, in the wake of BL’s neglect of MG, would be highly dismissive of the #MG-Metro-1300 , #Maestro-1600 and #Montego-EFi . Hostile Leyland management had starved Abingdon of much meaningful investment since #1968 , before opting to close a strike-free plant that had persistently topped the company’s quality tables in #1980 . Only after the furore and closure protests did the firm decide to preserve the MG name. At the eleventh hour, it realised just what it had done: aborted a marque that people held in great affection and which, crucially, they still wanted to buy. Cue the old #BMC reflex – badge-engineering – until a new sports car could be launched.

    Today’s location is where the Maestro and Montego were made – if not our Longbridge alumnus, the Metro. Established by Morris, the Cowley plant is now the home of our kind host, MINI. Tanya Field from the MG Car Club’s Front Wheel Drive Register acts as our knowledgeable guide, pointing out what would have gone where and when. There’s the car park that we’re standing on, formerly V Building (post-1992 Maestro/Montego paint and assembly) with T Building (press and tooling) dating from pre-ARG being used as our backdrop.

    When the first ARG MG – the Metro 1300 – hit the road in May 1982 there were still some new MGBs haunting dealerships. Before the #MG-Metro appeared, though, a blast from the past turned up at Longbridge with his idea of a go-faster version of BL’s supermini. John Cooper had based his prototype on a #1982 #Austin-Mini-Metro-1.3HLS . It ran twin carbs, a 997 Cooper cam, free-flowing exhaust and oil-cooler, a n d w a s capable of Cooper ‘S’ performance. The car looked understatedly sporty, only wearing decals along its its lower flanks and sitting on Wolfrace Sonic ‘pepperpot’ alloys.

    Developed in tandem with the Vanden Plas version, the MG Metro was up and running by late #1981 . It did draw from Cooper’s prototype, but the factory car was more powerful and more sophisticated. It was the first Metro capable of exceeding the ton – 0-60mph in 10.9 secs with a top speed of 103mph – courtesy of a low-drag, rear-spoiler-cum-screen-surround and a tuned 1275cc A-plus engine. Output was raised 12bhp to 72bhp at 6000rpm with 73lb ft at 4000rpm in part via a new cam profile (more severe and with greater overlap than that of the ‘S’) and compression raised from 9.4 to 10.5:1. A performance exhaust was specified, and an SU HIF44 carb bolted to a water-heated inlet manifold stabilised the temperature of the ingoing mixture.

    Slipping behind the chunky wheel of Nick Hunter’s fantastically original Cinnabar Red 1983 MG Metro, you need a minute. The interior space utilisation is most impressive and must come second only to the impact left by that wheeled bungalow, the #Austin-1800 . Then there’s the jazzy trim, that minimalist David Bache pod-on-a-shelf dashboard adorned with instruments sporting graphics that border on New Romantic, and is that a suggestion or a genuine hint of #Austin-Rover new car smell?

    “When they brought these out, I was 20-21 and it was ‘wow!’” enthuses Mini Cooper Register stalwart Hunter. “I’d always had a soft spot for them, had never owned one and they were as cheap as chips, so I thought ‘why not?’ It’s the natural successor to the Cooper S!”

    After my recent go-faster Mini refresher course, it isn’t a surprise that so much is familiar. The ride is less frenetic than a Mini, but still a touch firm and not as refined as Moulton’s fully interconnected Hydragas that graced the 1990 Rover Metro. The lack of a fifth gear could be tiresome on the motorway – it’s a shame that ARG didn’t buy Laycock’s Mini Metro overdrive – but these are the only niggles.

    The Metro still feels brisk. At 50mph pulling a mere 2500rpm over snaking B-roads, the light, direct steering – bordering on the Mini’s electric responses – is sharp, full of feel and in-synch with the front-end’s quick wits. The driving position is a touch Mini-esque, but the bolstered sports seats and the lack of any detectable body roll or steering load-up make wriggly roads an utter G-force-loaded joy. It may have been fashionable to criticise the old campaigner engine, but right here and now, zinging through the swift gearbox – the four-speeder shames all of its Issigonistransmission ancestors – the A-plus is far more capable than some newer overhead-cam units.

    Moving up a class: notoriously and typically BL, it took the Maestro seven years to get into production and replace the Maxi, Marina and Allegro – which explains its slightly last-season Ian Beech/David Bache styling. “I’m sure that in around 1979, when we built the first Maestros, the #MG was not on the development programme,” says former ARG technician Paul Bott (see panel). That view is reinforced by ARG’s decision to axe the Maestro three-door and maybe why there were issues extracting competitive performance from the MG’s stopgap engine.

    Masterminded under BL’s engineering chief Spen King using CADCAM, the Maestro would be the first conventional steel-sprung Austin car – MacPherson struts leading VW Polo-derived rear torsion beam – since the last A60s in 1969. Alec Moulton’s Hydragas system was discounted on grounds of costs and complexity. In another break with the past, the Maestro abandoned the Issigonis (gearbox-in-sump) transmission for the more popular Dante Giacosa-favoured end-on configuration. And, to save costs, ARG bought in a Volkswagen five-speed manual gearbox.

    S-series engine development was running behind schedule, so it was decided to use the R-series. In effect a halfway house between the overhead-cam E- and S-series units, it is a fettled 1598cc ‘E’ that accepted the VW 020 gearbox. To realise competitive outputs of 103bhp at 6000rpm and 100lb ft at 4000rpm, twin Weber 40DCNF carbs were installed atop a short eightport manifold. This led to hot-starting problems due to the engine’s non-crossflow cylinder head – and that wasn’t all. Carburettor icing was an annoyance: the R-series was mounted 180º around from the E-series, placing induction at the front. Plus, by removing the in-sump gearbox, crankshaft failure became an issue due to the loss of block rigidity. The S-series delay – it wouldn’t be ready for 17 months – was something that cash-strapped BL/ARG’s tarnished reputation really could have done without.

    Yet, as you sit behind the grey two-spoke wheel in the glassy cabin and observe the dash, it is beguiling. There’s the solid-state instruments with digital speedo and vacuum-fluorescent ancillary displays – plus a trip computer – to study as you cycle through the voice synthesis info and warning system. None of the quality and reliability ‘BLunders’ seem pertinent when faced with such a futuristic piece of theatre, which is part War Games prop, part ZX Spectrum 48k, and which can actually talk. Actress Nicolette Mackenzie’s voice is full of authority – sounding as if The Good Life’s Margo Leadbetter is being channelled by a Speak & Spell – beaming yours truly right back to his childhood.

    Sorry, where was I? Oh yes, the Maestro. Norman Dawson’s Opaline Green 1983 MG 1600 has performance air filters fitted that amplify the Webers’ bubbly gargling duet as we leave our location. The next surprise is the R-series engine’s eagerness to rev and fill the cabin with an Italianate four-stroke song that is more spicy Fiat than Cowley hatchback. Past 2500rpm, then 3000rpm, and beyond 4000rpm it croons with a sporty rasp. It really does shift, before mechanical sympathy calls time.

    “It was a wreck when I bought it in 2011,” says Dawson, before recounting all the Maestros he’s had and still owns. “I burnt lots of pullovers learning to weld and sourced a lot of parts... I’m only just beginning to forget the horrors of doing it! It develops into an illness, doesn’t it?” The driving position is straightforward and comfortable, as are the hip-hugging bolstered seats. The VW gearchange is fluid, average of throw and engages easily. The rack-and-pinion steering, even at parking speeds, is by no means heavy and has you questioning the point of power assistance. At higher speeds over twisty roads, the 111mph Maestro is a laugh, with brilliant manners. The steering is nicely connected, precisely geared and pleasingly weighted, while confidently relating feedback.

    Combined with crisp body control, swift turnin – not compromised by the Maestro’s comfortable, long-travel ride – and eager frontend grip, this car is vastly better than any go-faster, first-generation, front-drive Volkswagen that I’ve driven. Really.

    Before such impressions grow stale, I swiftly transfer into the Maestro’s big brother – Jeff Patterson’s Zircon Blue #1984 #MG-Montego-EFi .

    The two share suspension and floorpan, but the 101in-wheelbase Montego is heavier than the shorter (98.7in) Maestro. In MG form, it packs a completely different engine, the 1994cc O-series (also subsequently fitted to the 1984 Maestro EFi). The driving position is again spot-on, the seats less hip-huggerish and more comfortable, while the talking digital dashboard is a later development from ARG’s new design boss Roy Axe, who was Bache’s successor.

    “People always ask if it has the talking dash or they’ll come over and give the thumbs up,” says Patterson. “It’s the only talking dash on the road – we know of just four in existence. I think they made them for nine months because it’s a gimmick. It’s not a good one. When the sun’s out, you can’t see the digital readout!”

    Stylistically, the Montego changed from being a rather unfortunate-looking booted Maestro to a car that would replace the Ital and Ambassador to compete in the Sierra/Cavalier class. Just as the Metro had experienced an 11th-hour restyle by Bache, Harris Mann, Roger Tucker and Gordon Sked, the Montego was transformed by Axe. Born a bluff-nosed droopy-bottomed mongrel blend of Beech’s Maestro and a Tucker notchback, despite time limitations it became a sleek saloon with a more cohesive aero-look. Fittingly enough, the 1994cc O-series – an alloy-head evolution of the overhead-cam B-series that had been introduced in #1978 – was developed by Abingdon to run on Lucas electronic fuel injection in both naturally aspirated and turbocharged forms. Originally envisaged as a new engine for the MGB, the honour of utilising this last chunk of MG engineering post closure would fall to the #MG-Montego-EFi . In terms of transmission, instead of the Maestro’s VW 020 unit ARG’s new development partner Honda supplied its PG-1 five-speed gearbox.

    Driving the Montego swiftly, the car feels more laid-back, more polished, less raucous and less chuckable than the Maestro. Indeed, I’m tempted to reach for the radio and hope for something catchy and electronic by The Human League or Tubeway Army – my local station was always behind the times – but fear instead that 2015 will burst the bubble.

    Wielding 134lb ft of torque at just 2800rpm with 115bhp at 5500rpm, this fuel-injected engine’s output delivery is so linear that an obvious power-band eludes detection. Even though it has manual steering (PAS was an option), the only major differences between it and the Maestro are the shorter, better defined, marginally heavier Honda gearchange and a lower 3.875:1 final drive than the Maestro’s 3.65:1.

    As with any of these MGs, sophisticates may pick on the interior trim quality, but to do so is to be blind to their Jean Michel Jarre charisma. With the photos all done, we finish at the same time the shifts change at Cowley. As the men and women head home, many stare and remark at our line-up of overlooked sports saloons. Some quip and wisecrack, while a few have memories from 30-plus years ago and many smile. Speaking as one who has been guilty of the former, after experiencing the cars and their owners’ enthusiasm, I cannot help but change my viewpoint to the latter.

    Thanks to the owners, Paul Bott, Tanya Field of the MG Car Club’s FWD Register, Adam Sloman (MGCC) and Dinara Omarova at MINI Plant Oxford.


    From top: subtle alloys; Patterson says the first thing people ask is if dash still talks; injected O-series gives performance on par with VW Golf/Jetta GTI.

    From top: distinctive alloys; serial Maestro restorer Dawson; digital gauges; stopgap R-series is a rev-hungry revelation; sharp lines have aged well.



    From top: Wolfrace Sonic alloys; owner Hunter; neat David Bache dash pod; similar engine layout to Mini, but better access; lively Metro handles well.

    Not quite 50 shades, but grey dominates the cabins, livened up by very 1980s red piping and carpets. Supportive sports seats feature in all three cars.

    Wind of change

    “The photo is of me at the Mercedes wind tunnel in about #1983 , doing the aerodynamic sign-off for the MG Maestro 1600,” says Paul Bott, who joined BL as an apprentice in #1974 and worked on both the MG Metro and Maestro as a technician within prototype build (body and trim).

    “In the early days, there was no mention of a sporty Metro – the only one they did was the Austin Mini Metro 1.3S. Abingdon closed in #1980 , which was the year of the Metro launch, and I believe that’s what caused ARG to look into new MGs.

    “I did a lot of the wind-tunnel testing for the MG Metro and Turbo. We used to work day and night shifts at MIRA doing different trim heights, getting the ride height right to see if it would affect the aerodynamics and reporting back to the styling studio about the proposed spoiler kits. Ironically, on the MG Metro Turbo the front spoiler actually increased aerodynamic drag. We went back to them, but they’d already signed it off as a styling feature because they were more interested in the aesthetics of the kit.”

    Turning to the Maestro: “The original rigtesting for its rear suspension was based on a Polo, and we used VW top-mounting bushes on it – so it was pretty similar to the Golf set-up... VW gave or sold us 26 Jettas that we converted to run using our engines with their gearboxes. We altered the chassis, put a big power-bulge in the bonnet and we used them for mileage cars. I often wonder where they went... The Maestro was a good vehicle. I remember testing them at MIRA and we had a #VW-Golf-GTI and an #Audi-80 as comparison vehicles. The Maestro was equal to them on ride and handling.”

    Why were the drag figures obtained in Germany? “They chose Mercedes to release the Maestro’s drag co-efficient because its wind tunnel produced the lowest readings in Europe. We’d done the aero work at MIRA. Ford did all the development or signed off the Sierra at Mercedes, and when all the manufacturers found out that it gave a lower reading than anywhere else, many went there to sign off models! This was the early ’80s when drag co-efficient was God really.” Bott adds: “People slag off the Metro and Maestro, but they weren’t bad at all.”

    Mercedes wind tunnel became favourite when it was found to produce the lowest drag readings.
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  • There was much office debate this month over the Wankel engine. Thanks to Mick Walsh enthusiastically researching his piece on the #Mazda #RX-500 , the rest of us discovered that we already knew a surprising amount about the ingenious rotary even before debating the two crucial questions: 1) why didn’t it take over the world; and 2) once it was clear it wouldn’t, why did (does) Mazda persevere? It had already watched the brilliant- in-theory unit kill off #NSU and then take #VW ’s #Audi NSU Auto Union wing to the brink. The first question - basically rotor-tip reliability and maintenance by people who didn’t understand it - was easier to answer than the second.

    Left: proud #Hoffman X-8 owner Myron Vernis on the #Pebble-Beach fairway where the car decided that it would not be driven by Elliott. Below: can anyone name another #X-8 equipped car, or something weirder?

    As ever, however, such a conversation soon turned into the usual mental Top Frumps between the Drive-MY team, this time the verbal trading cards being weirdest/most unlikely motor types and configurations used in road cars. Naturally, we ticked off jet-powered cars and propeller-driven fare pretty quickly, but when someone ‘stole’ the card I was planning to play - the should-have-been-but-never-was Doble-steam-powered #1953 #Paxton #Phoenix-it it reminded me of (I think) an even better one.

    The second car came to mind because, like the Paxton , it is owned by my good pal Myron Yernis. To understand the car, you need to understand the man. The superficially ‘normal’ Myron, mastermind of the Glenmoor Gathering in the US, is so obsessed with Porsche engines that he once bought a Stuttgart- powered ski-lift from Europe and shipped it to Akron, Ohio. He is a man so fascinated by the off-the-wall that he bought a Mazda Cosmo to be the run around at his Greek holiday home.
    Apart from perhaps the Lane Museum, therefore, it’s hard to imagine anywhere more appropriate for the wonderful Hoffman X-8 to wind up than with Myron. The what? The Hoffman X-8 - a futuristic, Deco-tinted utilitarian steel-monocoque saloon with independent suspension built by Detroit engineer Roscoe C ‘Rod' Hoffman in #1935 . As an aside, if I had a name like Roscoe, there’s no way I would want to be called anything else. Back to the car: it was given to Brooks Stevens and stayed in the designer’s museum even after his death and right up until #2010 , when it came to Myron.

    'Superficially "normal" Myron once bought a #Porsche ski-lift in Europe and shipped it to Ohio'

    It is a captivating little thing and, though slightly resembling a host of classics, for me it most looks like a Renault 4CV mated with a Stout Scarab. Best of all is its engine. Properly rear-mid-engined, it is a (sort-of) radial unit and I can’t think of another road car that went down this route. Perhaps with good reason. Ford certainly experimented with an air-cooled flat- head X-8, as did GM pre-war, and Honda is said to have investigated the possibilities for racing in the 1960s, but all clearly thought better of it. Hoffman, under commission (though no one is certain for whom) and having started filing patents for such a beast years earlier, pressed on with his water-cooled overhead-cam unit. You could argue that the single-cam X configuration of twinned V4s is not actually ‘radial' at all. For a start, it doesn’t have the odd number of cylinders that is de rigueur with four-stroke radials, but that’s enough science.

    Despite being 170cu in and supposedly good for 75bhp - when it works - the engine does not exactly drip power, being fed by a single twin- barrel carb and driving through a three-speed transaxle. But it sounds great, spitting through its pea-shooter exhausts like an amplified version of one of those miniaturised desktop model V8s.

    I know this because, thanks to Myron showing the Hoffman at Pebble Beach in #2012 , I have at least seen the car and heard it running. In fact, it created quite a stir and stopped Jay Leno and his XX crew in their tracks. Sadly, my planned drive and feature - most likely the first since Michael Lamm’s brilliant article for Special Interest Autos in #1974 - was thwarted when the clutch (which couldn’t be repositioned anywhere in the bay to get any hotter) gave out and we ended up gently pushing the car off the showfield.

    This was long after die red-trousered crowds had dispersed, of course, yet to see the Hoffman X-8 silently slipping away unnoticed despite all the furore it had caused earlier in the day struck me as probably the perfect epithet for the car’s place in motoring history.
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