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  • I’ve been expecting your insurance quote, Meester Bond…

    October 26, 2012 @ 8:14 am | by Neil Briscoe

    A delightful bit of movie trivia emerged in the run-up to today’s release of the new James Bond film, Skyfall. In a policy quote put together by gadgets magazine Stuff and British-based insurer Churchill (yes, the one with the cartoon dog) it seems that if James Bond were (a) real and (b) attempting to insure the 3.0-litre V6 diesel Jaguar XJ that he is briefly seen driving in Skyfall, he’s have to shell out STG£50,000.

    “This is based on a 40 year old civil servant living in London SW3 driving a highly modified (guns, ejector seats, invisibility) Jaguar XJ L, single driver, zero no claims discount due to many Aston Martin write-offs, excessive traffic offences ranging from speeding, dangerous driving and running traffic lights to talking on a mobile. High mileage and danger to other road users are also considered” said the people from Churchill. “Reinsurers are not happy to allow foreign use as James often appears outside of the EU and in some instances under water.”

    Actually, while £50k seems ridiculously steep for an (entirely fictional) insurance quote, it’s actually not too bad in light of the memory that no less an actuarial risk than Jeremy Clarkson was, back in 1992, quoted a real, serious STG£25,000 to insure a then-current Ford Escort Cosworth. Especially considering that when Bond is driving, people tend to be shooting at him.

    Still it all got me thinking about Bond and his relationship with cars, something that has in many ways come to define the character. After all, it’s all but impossible to think of Bond without subsequently thinking Aston Martin, and vice versa. And while the same may be true of Walther, at least you can legally purchase and use an Aston…

    Bond’s driving life, as with all other aspect of the character, date back to the original Ian Fleming books. Fleming himself wasn’t much of a keen driver and wasn’t really a car enthusiast, although he did come to love the Ford Thunderbird that he purchased with the proceeds from his early book sales.

    Bond in the books drove a battleship-grey Bentley, a car that Fleming referred to as a Mark IV, which seems to have been a fictional model created in the author’s own mind, although the optional Amherst-Villiers supercharger was a real thing. As with a great many such luxury items in the original Bond novels, it’s doubtful that Fleming actually meant the presence of the Bentley to mean anything, more that it was there as a recognisable name and one that conjoured the appropriate amount of reflected glamour.

    Bond’s Bentley, whose only ‘gadget’ is a carefully concealed Colt .45 pistol, is destroyed in a chase in the novel Moonraker, one of the few car chases that Fleming actually wrote (a notable other being a snow-bound one in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) – more regular vehicular mayhem being, as with hidden machine guns and ejector seats, a creation of the Bond films.

    Bond does briefly drive an Aston Martin in the novel of Goldfinger, specifically to suit his cover as a trendy businessman, but it was the weaponised DB5’s appearance in the film of that book that cemented forever Bond’s association with Aston. Since then, he has variously driven BMWs, a couple of Audis, a brace of Lotus Esprits (one underwater, one exploding) and even a lowly Renault 11, but Bond and Aston will be forever inextricably entwined.

    Which is rather ridiculous, of course. Why on Earth would someone working for British Intelligence drive such an ostentatious, expensive car? It would be useless for discreetly tailing a foe, and you’d never be able to sneak up on someone – Daniel Craig’s Bond’s 6.0-litre V12 DBS from Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace makes such an adorable racket that it would sound as if the entire grid from the Le Mans 24hrs was sneaking around the back of the secret hollowed-out volcano base.

    Sadly, the truth is that if Bond were to actually be out there looking for an insurance quote, he would be doing so on a much more mundane vehicle. He is, as the Churchill people pointed out, effectively a civil servant, albeit an adventurous one. Have a quick look on the website of Witham Specialist Vehicles (, a UK-based firm which specialises in selling on second hand cars, Land Rovers, fire engines and even tanks, armoured cars and helicopters – direct from their former lives as the property of the UK Ministry of Defence. Yes, you’ll find one or two Range Rovers and there’s a left-hand-drive Jaguar XF 2.2 diesel on there today, but most of the cars for sale are humble Vauxhall and Ford hatchbacks and saloons. Bond wouldn’t drive an Aston in real life; he’d drive an Insignia, and probably a diesel one at that.

    Perhaps we should look instead to that doyen of the realistic spy drama, the original BBC television version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and its sequel Smiley’s People, in which the hero – quiet, dour, put-upon George Smiley – is at one point seen motoring around in search of clues to find a Russian defector. And he drives a mint green Opel Commodore. Espionage fantasies just ain’t what they used to be…

  • Hot hatch hot-spot

    October 12, 2012 @ 7:00 am | by Neil Briscoe

    I am excited, giddy like I never was even when I was a school-boy. It’s not quite that all-encompassing, pounding-heart-and-sweaty-palms experience of running downstairs (actually along the hall – I grew up in a bungalow) on Christmas morning, more that late-September, early-October excited awareness that Christmas… is coming.

    Why? Because whatever mess the economy gets itself into, whatever destruction Michael Noonan wreaks on our wallets in the next few weeks and whatever bit of Greece Angel Merkel next decides to poke with a pointed stick, 2013 is going to be the year of the hot hatch.

    Now, you might have assumed that this year, with the arrival of cars like the Ford Focus ST (250bhp) and Opel Astra GTC OPC (276bhp) that 2012 had already assumed that mantle. Not quite. Watching the Astra and Focus duke it out is like watching George Foreman and Sonny Liston fight. Impressive, sportsmen at the top of their game, landing hammer blows like you’d never survive, but not quite the headline acts. In 2013, Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson are returning to the ring, and Joe Frazier will be right behind them…

    OK, enough of the torturous boxing analogies, I’m talking here about the Peugeot 208 GTI, Volkswagen Golf GTI and the Renault Clio… well, actually let’s save the Clio for a moment, shall we?

    The 208 GTI is in serious danger of being outrun by its own hype already, and the worrying sign is that more than a few of us enthusiasts have noticed that in the official press release about the car, mention of the chassis dynamics and steering doesn’t come in till four or five paragraphs down. For a car hoping to live up to the legacy of the likes of the 106 GTI and 306 Rallye, that’s bad enough, but when drawing direct comparison to the glorious original 205 GTI, that’s heresy. If it’s going to be as good as that, steering and chassis should have been line one, para one.

    I well remember the look of shock on a Peugeot engineer’s face at the launch of the enjoyable but ultimately underwhelming 206 GTI 180 when I asked him about how the car compared with the God-like original 205. “But we just couldn’t” he spluttered. “If you put a car with a chassis like that on sale today, you’d get sued…” True enough, original 205 GTIs were a touch wayward on a trailing throttle, and the common thought amongst owners was “I hope whatever’s on the other side of that hedge is soft” but still, reactive, informative and just plain fun like almost no other car.

    The good news is that I’ve just this minute stepped out of a Citroen DS3 Racing, the updated version of which has been released to celebrate Citroen’s roughly 2-millionth World Rally Crown as won by the unstoppable Sebastian Loeb. And while you couldn’t describe it as being as fleet of foot as the eighties Peugeot tearaway, it’s still fast, fun and engaging, with the added bonus that the cabin is well made and practical and you can easily get it to do 45mpg on a long run. Why is it good for the Puegeot? Because mechanically, the DS3 Racing and the 208 GTI are all but identical and if Peugeot’s engineers can convince the chassis to give up just a smidge more front-end grip and lapse into understeer a little less easily than did the DS3, then it’ll be little short of peachy.

    As for the Golf, well, given how classy and effortless the stock version of the new Golf Mk7 appears, there seems little doubt but that the subtly mean looking GTI version shown at the Paris motor show two weeks ago (VW called it a concept, officially, but come on…) is going to be really rather wonderful. With an increase in power to almost 230bhp on the hottest version, a classy cabin and (hopefully) those lovely retro tartan seats still in situ, the Mk7 Golf GTI is just going to be the king of the hot hatch hill, the The Mohammed Ali to Peugeot’s Joe Frazier.

    But then, what about Sugar Ray Robinson? Ali described Robinson as “the king, my master, my idol.” Quite some praise and to get (in this continuing analogy) VW”s Ali to dole out that kind of respect is going to take some car.

    Enter the RenaultSport Clio 200. Well, almost. We already know that the hot version of Renault’s strikingly-designed new small hatch is going to have a new 1.6-litre 200bhp turbo petrol engine, a dual-clutch gearbox and (one hopes) the same brilliant chassis that the past four generations of hot Clios have displayed.

    Now though, it could have an even bigger punch, a metaphorical horseshoe in the glove. A new Renault Clio Williams. When, in 1993, to celebrate winning the 1992 F1 world title with Williams, Renault produced the original Clio Williams, we all swooned just a little. Gold wheels and blue paint long before Subaru ever thought of using them were just the icing. The fact that it wasn’t all that much quicker than the standard 16v Clio wasn’t the point, it was just better, even if only a little, in every department. Better steering, gripper, more responsive and thanks to the association with the Williams F1 team, just that little bit cooler. This week, Autocar magazine has reported rumours that Renault is keen to big-up its newly rekindled association with Williams (together with which it won the Spanish Grand Prix this year). Allegedly, the car will this time have Williams’ direct involvement in the chassis (the original was just a badge job) and will have around 220bhp. And blue paint and gold wheels? Please?

    So, if I should run downstairs (I do live in a house with stairs now) this Christmas morning to find Mohammed Ali, Joe Frazier and Sugar Ray Robinson holding the keys to three brilliant hot hatches, then I shall know that my 2013 is off to a good start. Or just that I put a little too much brandy in the pudding mixture…

  • An electric hinge

    October 5, 2012 @ 2:14 pm | by Neil Briscoe


    The trouble with history’s hinge points is that it’s damned hard to tell when you’re in the middle of one. Hindsight, preferably from some decade’s distance, is usually needed to tell exactly when things changed, when history took its different course or, as Terry Pratchett would have it, we all moved down a different leg of the trousers of time…

    Even Abraham Lincoln had trouble spotting an historically significant moment when he was in one. Delivering the Gettysburg Address, still reckoned to be one of the most eloquent and succinctly brilliant pieces of speech ever given, he said that “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” Couldn’t have been more wrong, Abe.

    I think though, and I know I’m sticking my neck out into dangerous territory here, that we may have reached just such a significant hinge point in the history of the electric car. Now, some of you would have it that I’m anti-electric, or that I’m someone who scoffs and derides the battery car. But I’m not. Am I a touch skeptical? Yes, but that’s only the right and proper stance for any journalist to take when presented with what people claim to be a world-changing technology. Much the same claims were made for Betamax, or Laser Disc for that matter.

    I like electric cars, like the way they drive, like their refinement, their mechanical simplicity and their €2 charge-ups, but I remain to be convinced that they are the be-all and end-all solution to the future of personal mobility. The limiting factors of short range and long charge up times are still there, no matter how much we would wish them away.

    And it seems I’m not alone in my skepticism. Toyota agrees with me (or perhaps it would be somewhat less egotistical to say that I agree with Toyota). Senior staff in both Japan and Europe are saying that Toyota is turning its back on pure-electric cars and instead will invest heavily in plugin-hybrids and fuel cell cars.

    Now, a pinch of salt needs to be taken here. Toyota has a significant industry lead in both hybrid and plugin hybrid technology, yet it has let the likes of Nissan, Renault, Ford and Volkswagen beat it to the punch when it comes to getting pure electric cars to market. So, there is possibly a touch of “well, we’ll go and play over there instead and so there” about this.

    But still. Toyota, as a company, is conservative and slow to reach a final decision when it comes to things like this. Corporately, it sits down with a long list of pros and cons and takes its time to consider them all before delivering its final verdict. And it doesn’t tend to back the wrong horse…

    “We have seen that customers are not yet willing to compromise on range and they don’t like the time needed to re-charge the batteries,” said Toyota Motor Europe CEO Didier Leroy. “So even if we are ready with our production version of the iQ EV we think a plug-in hybrid solution offers a better way than pure electric for most customers needs. And our fuel cell car will emit no harmful emissions at all and will have a driving range of around 700km.”

    This is a significant moment, beyond doubt. Toyota, for all the battering it received in the triple storms of the global financial crisis, its own recall crisis and the physical and emotional strife of the Japanese tsunami, is still the world’s biggest, richest and most successful car maker. While that does not make its statements holy writ, it does mean that we should sit up and take notice.

    I’ve tried out the Prius Plugin hybrid and it’s a terrific compromise between battery and petrol power. I was able to get a reliable 17km of pure electric running from a single 90-minute charge from a domestic socket, and including two long motorway runs, lots of driving around town and some sundry other mileage, my average for the week was better than 65mpg. Not quite the wonder figure that Toyota claims for the car, but pretty impressive all the same (albeit potentially matched by a good compact diesel).

    By contrast, my driving of electric cars has been necessarily limited thus far, because I live in Galway, all the press cars are based in Dublin and there’s no fast charger on the M6. Hmmm.

    The mention of fuel cells is also an interesting one. Toyota is far from the only car maker investing in such technology, but again, a public declaration that it’s a better way forward than electric cars is interesting. If you thought the costs of complications of installing an electric car charging network were bad, wait till you start running the calculations on installing a hydrogen refueling infrastructure. But again, if Toyota is saying, publicly, that fuel cells really and truly are the way forward, then it’s something worth paying attention to.

    That said, there is, I believe, a future for electric cars but it lies not in dinky commuter vehicles or family hatchbacks but in supercars. I’ve recently driven Citroen’s all-electric Survolt race car and it was a thrilling ride, while this week Mercedes has been showing off its electric SLS AMG E-Cell supercar, with 750bhp and 1,000Nm of torque from its four in-wheel electric motors. With their short ranges and long charge times, these cars are not practical commuting vehicles, but for a Sunday morning blast over a favourite back-road, guilt-and-emissions-free, they would be ideal.

    Of course, I, and Toyota, could be wrong. Perhaps we are doing a reverse Abe Lincoln, assuming that the world will take note and long remember when in fact, the trousers of time are leading us all down quite a different leg.

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