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    PASSED IT Tony Dron
    Road tests have never been advertisements - the idea is shocking.

    Resignation is back at last! While former British Foreign Secretaries from both sides fall like flies after being caught out, there’s another kind of resignation in action, the kind in which you fall on your sword with honour, in disgust at the corruption around you. One honest journalist, the senior political commentator Peter Oborne, has just done that.

    His reason? He was outraged to find that the distinction between the advertising and editorial departments was being systematically blurred by a not-very-subtle change in the way his paper was being managed. Corruption in such exalted places is deeply disturbing, but is all journalism like that now? What about motoring journalism? Can you believe what you read?

    Few readers seem to have any idea of what it’s all about. I was shocked once when an enthusiast assured me that all motoring writers were paid by the motor industry. This bloke claimed to be a keen reader of motoring magazines - and decades of work by incorruptible motoring writers were dismissed by him as casually as that.

    History tells a different story in which one man, Maurice Platt, stands out as the pioneer of the independent, scientifically conducted road test. Platt and his colleagues had a struggle because motor manufacturers were reluctant at first to have their products examined like that.


    Platt was a proper engineer who joined Motor magazine between the wars and succeeded in establishing objective road tests of new models, including accurate measurement of fuel consumption, acceleration, top speed and braking performance. Having achieved that, Platt left journalism in the 1930s and joined Vauxhall as an engineer. Following his retirement in the 1960s, he wrote a fascinating autobiography, An Addiction to Automobiles.

    Platt and his rivals, most notably at Autocar, set the splendid rules that were still obviously in place when I joined the road test team of Motor magazine four decades later in #1971 . An admirably ferocious independence of mind prevailed, in which any influence from our advertisement sales team was unimaginable. It just did not happen.

    Apparently, gifts had sometimes been offered to journalists when a new car was launched but that only raised suspicions. If they had any value, such as a good camera for example, they made any decent journalist ask one question: what is wrong with the car? Far from having the desired effect, the British motoring journalists I’ve known have always been deeply offended by any hint of bribery.

    One road test I wrote in #Motor in #1972 resulted in the removal of a valuable advertising account.

    I pointed out that the new #Lancia-2000-Sedan was expensive, the performance was only fair and the fuel consumption was disappointingly poor.

    Our road tests were written by one person but they included the thoughts of the whole team. Looking beyond the figures we had taken ourselves, we were unable to reach a unanimous verdict about that controversial Lancia, despite its many good features.

    It was an honest report but it infuriated Tony Hemelik, the managing director of #Lancia (England) Ltd, and he withdrew all Lancia advertising from our magazine. The editor backed me up in an editorial meeting and that was that, for a time.

    A year later, in July #1973 , the #Lancia-Beta was launched in the UK and British journalists were invited to drive the new models at Brands Hatch. Perhaps because we were not allowed to try them on the public road, the editor sent me to get the story.

    After a few laps of the circuit in a new Beta, I returned to the paddock and had just parked when I saw an agitated, middle-aged man in a suit sprinting towards me. It was such an alarming sight that I looked more closely, and saw that it was none other than Tony Hemelik. Slightly worried, I wound down the window as he arrived, out of breath.

    He blurted out: ‘Fantastic. It’s great to see one of our cars being driven properly... really fast... (pant, pant)... you overtook everybody else... I was watching...’ Then he looked down and his face fell, showing that he had finally recognised me. I smiled weakly. He laughed loudly and turned on his heel. Lancia resumed its advertising in Mofor immediately after that.

    Corrupt collusion between road test writers and advertisement departments is something I have never seen, but I do have a deeper worry today. Now that the industry is required by law to provide accurate performance figures, some magazine publishers have axed their own expensive, independent test departments.

    New cars today get far more column inches from a vastly increased army of ‘lifestyle’ journalists. Any mention of a car’s handling is an outdated mystery to them. Such writing is not dishonest - just waffle. To discover what a new car is really like, read a magazine that does its own proper testing, just like good old Maurice Platt did it.


    Having started his racing career in Formula Ford, Tony made a name for himself in 1970s Touring Cars and since then has raced an astonishing variety of sports and historic machinery.

    He is also a hugely respected journalist.
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    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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    Perhaps the most bizarre recent market trend is for fantastic sums being shelled out for what have traditionally been novelty cars based on common-or-garden underpinnings. Beach cars are the latest executive tov to command huge money. The fun-factor counts in their favour, but when someone pays £109,000 for a #Mini it is time to sit up and take notice.

    But that car - sold by Bonhams at Quail Lodge - just reflected a growing trend. Even Philippe Starck’s #1972 Fiat Shellette starts to look like good value having sold for ‘just’ £33,000 at Artcurial’s 2014 Retromobile fixture. There were more interesting examples in the #Monaco sales: a #1963 #Autobianchi Bianchini Jolly (£42,000 at Coys) and a #1969 #Fiat 500 Mare by Carrozzeria Holiday (£39.5k at RM).

    There’s no denying the rarity of these cars, but the prices are still staggering. In the same way, it is difficult for long-term enthusiasts to accept something such as an Amphicar commanding £50k-plus. Twenty years ago, you could pick one up in the Triumph Sports Six Club’s Courier for little more than the price of a decent Vitesse.

    Scroll back a few years and the market deemed an ex-Gianni Agnelli #1959 #Fiat 600 Jolly by #Ghia to be worth £31,000 at Bonhams. When new, such a car would have cost roughly twice the price of a factory-fresh 600, so that seemed to be an intimidating-enough value. Yet a year later a similar example without the celebrity ownership made £50,000 at Quail Lodge.
    In #2013 , RM took £51,500 for one at Monterey; by March this year a #1959 car sold for £60,000 at RM in Amelia Island. To top it all, at Monterey in August a #1961 example - sold as a pair with a #1957 #Multipla - made an astonishing $231,0 (£ 140k).

    The Fiats and Minis have always carried a premium, but just look at the asking prices for the ‘man in the street’ models. They may not be nudging £100,000, but try to find a #Citroen Mehari in the UK for under £ 10k. Likewise, 1960s Mokes are routinely £15k-plus. Same story with #Renault 4 Plein Airs. Playtime is over.

    'Twenty years ago, you could pick up an Amphicar for little more than the price of a decent Triumph Vitesse'
    Clockwise, from main: #1962 Mini beach car sold at Bonhams' Quail Lodge auction in August; Philippe Starck's Fiat Shellette made £33k.
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