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    We’ve all worked on #MG s and #Triumph s, or maybe changed the occasional starter motor on a Mustang, These relatively simple backyard jobs give us a tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment, especially when they turn out well. Does your car run better when you’ve washed it, waxed it and really cleaned the windscreen? I know it’s mostly psychological, but it does seem to be true.

    My first car was actually a truck. A #1934-Ford-pick-up with a flat-head V8. It was easy to change the plugs and adjust the carburettor. I remember opening the hood of a friend’s #1968 #Mustang at the time and thinking, oh my God, what a complicated mess this is. Compared with today’s vehicles, that ’ #1968-Ford-Mustang engine seems like a single-cylinder lawnmower.

    I have a friend with a late-model BMW . When the battery went dead, the dealer told him not to change it himself because it would negate all the codes on the car’s computer. So he had it towed to the dealer, they changed the battery and it cost $600. Had he known to run jumper cables to the positive and negative terminals to keep the computer codes alive, he could have done the job himself for a third of the price.

    The greatest gift to buy yourself if you have a modern car is a code-reader to plug into your onboard diagnostic (OBD) system. When I took my 2005 SLR Mercedes-McLaren to be smog-tested, the ‘check engine’ light was on. I listened politely as my dealer explained all the expensive parts that needed to be replaced. I thanked him, went back to my garage, plugged in my code-reader and got a reading of 442. That pertained to the EVAP system, which prevents petrol vapour from escaping from your fuel system into the atmosphere. It usually requires no maintenance but can turn your ‘check engine’ light on.

    Your fuel system up to the tank is pressurised, so a loose petrol cap can activate the light, but it wasn’t that. My next thought was the gasket on the gauge sender unit - after all, the car’s 15 years old - but after dismantling the rear of the SLR I found no dampness or weeping there.

    This was getting scary. How much more of this car do I have to dismantle? I decided to follow the fuel lines, and I came to a plastic T-fitting that had a hairline crack in it. Not enough to leak fuel, but perhaps enough to suck air? As I examined this fitting it broke in my hand. Could it be this simple? Never a fan of plastic fittings - after all, this one had lasted only 15 years - I got one made of brass, installed it, tightened all the fittings... and voila! The ‘check engine’ light was out.

    I plugged in my code reader, the code had cleared. I drove it to the smog station and passed the test, the cost, about three bucks. My little $30 code-reader had saved me thousands of dollars. I have to admit that accomplishing this little task was as much fun as actually driving the car. Rather than looking like a rich guy driving it around, I had actually fixed my automobile.

    Old cars are simple but faults can be hard to diagnose. New cars are very complex, but with code-readers you can find the problem quickly. Who’d have thought it?

    My second supercar problem concerned my #2005-Ford-GT . It ran fine but would not pass the California smog test. Once again, I plugged in my handy code-reader and it told me that all my codes were fine, except for the catalytic converter, The dealer told me how much a catalytic converter would cost and how complicated it was to install. ‘After all, Mr Leno, the car is 15 years old.’

    Could it be something else? I took the car for a long drive and noticed the temperature gauge was reading about 160°F. Most modern supercars tend to run close to 200°F. Asking around, I ascertained that the GT was running too cool to activate the computer that regulated the catalytic converter. We pulled out the thermostat and found that a build-up of limescale was holding it open, so it was allowing more cooling water through than was necessary.

    I picked up a new thermostat at my Ford dealer, that’s the thing about a Ford GT: it might be a supercar, but it’s still a Ford. Once it was installed, the car ran at between 195 and 205 degrees. I took it for a drive, about 15 miles at 45mph, plugged in my code-reader and all the codes read OK, including the catalytic converter. I then drove to the smog station and passed the test. Supercars might be complicated, but they’re still cars. And for all the electronics that make supercars complicated, there are other electronics that help make life easier.

    ‘THE CODE CLEARED AND THE SLR PASSED THE SMOG TEST. MY LITTLE $30 CODE-READER HAD SAVED ME THOUSANDS’

    Do yourself a favour. Buy a halfway-decent code-reader and find your modern car’s OBD port, then, the next time your dealer tells you ‘This is going to be complicated’, why not just plug it in and find out for yourself?
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    For most of my automotive life I have been a rear-wheel- drive guy. I knew that all-wheel drive or front-wheel drive provided better traction but, having grown up in New England where snow lay on the ground for at least four or five months of the year, I reckoned rear-wheel drive was just more fun. Doing donuts in a deserted supermarket car park on a Sunday morning, after a Saturday night snowfall, was way more fun than snowboarding or skiing. It’s why I chose the McLaren P1 over the Porsche 918. Hanging the tail out is one of driving’s greatest pleasures. I was well into adulthood before I got near a front-wheel-drive vehicle.

    / #1972-Citroen-SM / #1972 / #Citroen-SM / #Citroen / #Citroen-DS21 / #Citroen-DS / #1971 / #Cord / #Oldsmobile-Toronado / #Oldsmobile / #Citroen-Traction-Avant-15-Six / #Citroen-Traction-Avant

    In America back then, front-wheel drive was more for economy and practicality than anything else. The first post-war American car to feature front drive was the #1966-Oldsmobile-Toronado , and what an impressive debut it was. At a time when Italian manufacturers said you could never put more than 225bhp into the front wheels because of torque steer, the Toronado’s 7-litre V8 had 375bhp. And the fact it was the fastest stock car at the 1966 Pikes Peak Hillclimb helped to seal the deal.

    This radical automobile made me want to learn more. I set out to find myself the last great American front-wheel-drive car: the #Cord-810 and #Cord-812 from 1936 or 1937. It, too, had a V8 engine. In stock form it made 125bhp but you could have it with a supercharger. I found myself a #1937-Cord-812 , naturally aspirated. It was transformed with modern radial tyres, feeling and driving more like a car from the 1960s than the 1930s. The electric pre-selector gearbox is mounted in front of the engine so there’s a flat floor, freeing up more passenger room in the cabin.

    What killed it, besides gearbox problems, was that American cars at this price range were huge. This was the first ‘personal-size’ luxury car, and you seemed to get a lot more car for your money if you went the traditional route.
    My next front-driver was a #1972-Citroen-SM , Motor Trend’s Car of the Year. Rumour says the editor got fired because Citroën didn’t take out huge full-page ads logging its accomplishments like American carmakers did. Every enthusiast should drive an SM before they die. It has sleek aerodynamics, oleopneumatic suspension, quick power steering and the finest five-speed gearbox I have ever used. Driving in the rain was especially pleasurable because when you hit the brakes the rear end would go down rather than the front end, like a speedboat slowing down in the water. And the unique aerodynamics made the windscreen wipers almost superfluous.

    The excellence of this car made me check on Citroën’s earlier offerings. I soon acquired a #1971-Citroen-DS21 , the most comfortable car in the world. And a #1949-Citroen-Traction-Avant-15-Six , its six-cylinder engine better for today’s roads. Another great front-drive French car is the #Panhard-PL17 . It’s way more fun to drive than a Beetle, with only two cylinders but almost twice the power (60bhp for the Tigre model against 36 in a VW) from just 850cc. It weighs 1830lb [830kg], has a Cd of just 0.26 and can do nearly 90mph. It’s always more fun to drive slow cars fast. By far the strangest front-wheel-drive vehicle I have is a 1911 Christie fire engine. At the turn of the last century, fire engines were still horse-drawn because fire departments didn’t like combustion engines, considering them less reliable than horses. Walter Christie’s first pumper, built in 1899, was a horse-drawn unit.

    As engines gained favour, Christie came up with a two-wheel tractor with a 20-litre, four-cylinder engine and a two-speed gearbox to take the place of horses while pulling the same pumpers. It was much cheaper to operate than a team of horses because you didn’t have to feed the engine when it wasn’t running.

    Christie built about 800 of these until the early 1920s, when purpose-built fire engines finally took over. My strangest front-wheel-drive encounter happened recently, when I went skid-plate racing. If you’ve never heard of skid-plate racing – invented by a man named Robert Rice, aka Mayhem – don’t feel bad. Neither had I. You start with any legal front-drive vehicle, remove the rear tyres and weld a skid plate to the rear end. You’re dragging and sliding your rear end around corners, and it’s harder than it looks. Above 40mph it gets extremely tricky because you’re constantly steering and countersteering.

    In the first ten minutes I spun at least six times. When you come to a corner and feel the tail coming round, there’s almost nothing you can do. Unlike losing an early 911 in a corner, which happens so quickly you don’t realise it, this happens so slowly that you’re laughing the whole time as you try to save yourself. Who knew front-wheel drives could be so much fun?
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    Man & machine a very English hot rod 1960 Henry Harris’s Forrest special

    Posted in Cars on Wednesday, 29 January 2020

    Henry Harris’s Forrest special, built in 1960 by an RAF officer, is an Austin Seven like no other. Words and photography Paul Hardiman.

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    Matthew Hayward

    Bricklin SV-1 Buying Guide

    Posted in Cars on Tuesday, 03 December 2019

    Has Canada’s safety-conscious Corvette rival finally come of age?

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    Man & machine Peter Vivian - a special sort of Triumph

    Posted in Cars on Wednesday, 27 November 2019

    Peter Vivian wanted ‘something more interesting’, so built it. Words and photography Paul Hardiman.

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    Sam Dawson

    The life story of the 1969 Gilbern TII

    Posted in Cars on Sunday, 24 November 2019

    An unfinished Seventies prototype, this unique Welsh sports car has survived long-term abandonment, a huge accident and several doomed restorations. Words Sam Dawson. Photography Jonathan Fleetwood.

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    Some of my favourite collectable cars are those I like to call noble failures, cars that were ahead of their time and no-one realised. The #1935-Chrysler-Airflow / #1935 / #1934 / #Chrysler-Airflow / #Chrysler is a good example. Call it the shock of the new, because the 1934 model with its #Art-Deco streamlining and waterfall grille was so different from the previous model that people just couldn’t take it in, especially the long-wheelbase Imperial version. Luxury cars were supposed to have huge imposing radiators with prestigious-looking hood ornaments like the Rolls-Royce flying lady or the Packard cormorant. They learned their lesson. After that first year they switched back to a more traditional front end.

    The car I’m writing about today is not so much a noble failure as a forgotten one. I have been after one for years, but I could never find quite the right example until recently. By the mid- ’60s the pony-car craze was in full swing. Ford had the Mustang, Chevy the Camaro, Pontiac the Firebird, Chrysler the Barracuda.

    Common to all was a V8. Sure, you could get a six-cylinder if you wanted, but that was a base model which was primarily a grocery- getter. Except for the Pontiac.

    John DeLorean was the engineer behind the Pontiac GTO. He enjoyed thinking outside the box.

    Of all the button-down engineers at GM he was probably the most European in his thinking and his lifestyle. He was the guy who put the big honking 389ci V8 into the smaller-bodied Tempests and Firebirds, but he was also enamoured with the Jaguar E-type. Why not develop an American version of the classic European straight-six?

    The engine grew from the standard Chevrolet six- cylinder but had its own cast-iron block and head castings. Only the valve cover and camshaft carrier for what was America’s first mass-produced overhead- camshaft engine were aluminium. It also featured a reinforced glassfibre belt to drive the camshaft, which was considered quite advanced back in the day. With a one- barrel carburettor and a mild cam this 3.8-litre engine put out I65bhp, and was mated to a three-speed manual gearbox as the base powertrain package for the Firebird.

    DeLorean then added high-compression pistons, a hotter cam, dual valve springs, a split dual-exhaust manifold and the new-for-’66 Rochester Quadrajet four- barrel carburettor. This took power to 207bhp, increased to 215 for 1968. Some guys convert their engines to Weber carburettors, which look a lot sexier but don’t seem to give any more performance than the Quadrajet.

    So, instead of a heavy V8 pony car with its 60/40 weight distribution, would Americans go for a European- style pony car with lower horsepower but better handling? The answer: not so much. Pontiac built 108,000 Firebirds for the 1968 model year, of which just 4662 were six- cylinder Sprints. And only 1025 of these had the high-performance engine package.

    The car I have finally found is a 1968 Firebird Sprint with this engine, the very desirable four-speed gearbox, the Safe-T-Track 355 rear end and the hood-mounted tachometer. This combination cost as much if not more than the V8 when new and in America, where bigger is always better and performance was measured in quarter-miles, why would you do that?

    Americans didn’t much cotton- on to six-cylinder engines, and still don’t. When the latest Ford GT was introduced with a six-cylinder, howls of protest were all over the internet. It took the 2016 Le Mans win to overcome all the scepticism.
    But as a teenager I was intrigued by this hopped-up six because it was so different from everything else coming out of Detroit. Overhead camshafts, especially back in the ’60s, were things that came from Europe and were to be seen on the autobahn, the Stelvio Pass or Silverstone. Not Woodward Avenue.

    Over the years I came close to finding the right Sprint. I looked at one but it was an automatic, another had the three-speed. Finally, a friend called to say he’d found the perfect one, a convertible in Caribbean blue with a blue interior, a white top and all the right options. It was a three-owner car, never restored but well maintained. For its first 25 years it had been a daily driver. It had just over 100,0 miles but ran nicely.

    After driving it for a while I have decided to give it a full restoration. The great thing with cars such as Firebirds, Camaros and Mustangs is that every single part is available, many of them new old stock.

    The best part will be when it’s finished and I take it to a Cars and Coffee, park in the Pontiac section next to a couple of Trans Ams or 455 HO big-blocks, open the hood and hear guys go ‘What is that? A six? Cool!’
    That’s my dream, anyway.
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