Rekindling my passion for a raucous pocket rocket

More car manufacturers these days are staging drive days for journalists, not attached to the launch of a specific model but instead gathering all the most recent new cars together for the invited hacks to drive as many as they need, or wish, to.

I like these events, because from one day out of the office you can get a lot of potential copy, and sometimes you get some major extras too…

1405VX220cSuch was the case with a day organised this month by Vauxhall. Tooling all the way down from mid Wales to Luton doesn’t exactly excite me – it’s a long way to travel to drive in a part of the country where there’s too much traffic on generally unexciting roads. But this day was to be based at the heritage centre – I’d never been there, and it sounded interesting.

A half-million pound car...

A half-million pound car…

As indeed it was. Vauxhall clearly takes its history seriously and crammed into an innocuous building are many historic cars and just as much memorabilia. PR Man Simon Hucknall clearly loves talking about the heritage centre, and he eagerly pointed out the pre-WW1 Prince Henry (“that’s a half-million pound car…”) and the 1913 30-98, described as the first 100mph production car – not sure I’d like to go 100mph in it…

Possibly just as exciting for many of us was the fact that outside, lined up with the current Cascadas, Mokkas and Merivas, were a host of heritage machines for us to drive. Not the really old stuff, but stretching back to the 1950s with names such as Cresta, Viva and the like…

1405VXR220cFor me, however, the big attraction was much younger – I remember writing about its launch, and I’m not THAT old… It’s called the VXR 220, and the various incarnations of Vauxhall’s go kart on steroids have over the years given me some very distinct memories.

The original VX 220 was launched in 1999. Vauxhall intended to get away from the dull image conjoured up by such cars as the Vectra, and mercilessly stoked by that man Clarkson on Top Gear. The answer was a stripped-down roadster, developed and built in Norfolk by a firm that knew all about building such cars – Lotus…

1405VX220a

The VX 220 – first of a memorable line…

I loved the VX 220 the moment I drove the thing. It had almost 150 horses but weighed just 870 kilos. This was an adult go-kart and even Clarkson admitted it was a better bet than a Lotus. When, around three years later, I was invited to the launch of the Turbo version, I was seriously excited. Closer to 200bhp, 4.7-second 0-62mph time, what was not to like? And the launch was to be held in Spain, with track driving on the Jerez GP circuit, and British Touring Car Champion Jason Plato there to offer speed tips…

And then the day before the launch I was driving to work and the phone rang. It was Maureen from Vauxhall. “Are you nearly at Luton airport?” “But it’s tomorrow…” “No, today…” I – was – seriously gutted…

And then the stories began to emerge. Stories of accidents, wrecked VX Turbos. Several wrecked VX Turbos, into double figures. Even today Vauxhall’s brand guy Stuart Harris appears to shake a little when recalling the firm talking to he had to give the gathered journos. And I had missed all this…

Then just a year later, Vauxhall launched its performance sub-brand, the VXR that we have come to know and enjoy. And the first VXR model was a special edition version of the VX Turbo, dubbed the VXR 220 and just 60 examples of it built. It had another 20bhp, shaving that 62mph sprint to 4.2 seconds in something as stiffly suspended and corner carving as a race car. I had to have one on test…

It was delivered to my office in Orpington. Vauxhall’s delivery driver departed with a cheery “Have a fun week, they all come back crashed…” And I proceeded to drive it home.

1405VXR220bFive miles from my house, there was a Focus in the mirror, manically flashing its headlights. Must be something amiss I thought, so I pulled into a layby and Focus pulled in behind. Out of it stepped a young female who proceeded to run over to my car, bend down and gush excitedly; “I’ve got one of these! I thought mine was the only one in the south of England…”

In the ensuing explanation and conversation, it transpired that she and I actually lived only a few streets from each other. Eventually bidding a cheery farewell, I escaped and drove home, parking the car out the front of my house and thinking no more of my encounter.

Half an hour later and Rosemary, Mrs C, was calling me, with a suspicious expression on her face. “There’s some woman at the door asking for you…” Said woman had gone home, got her VXR 220, and brought it round to show me. You couldn’t make this up…

I did have a fun week, and I didn’t crash it, so several years later, back at the Vauxhall drive day, rekindling my relationship with this particular car was a must. I did all the work-related duties, driving the modern stuff, in the morning, deliberately leaving the expected pleasure to close to the end of the day…

1405VXR220eInitially, it was humbling. It’s not that long ago since the VXR 220 was a production model, and I haven’t got that much older, but getting in and out of the thing, across the wide monocoque sills, is not at all easy, and very undignified. Too much good living in Wales? Possibly…

I briefly forgot how to start the thing, until I remembered that this car was one of the first to have an adrenalin-fuelling start button, rather than a turn key. Said button is an an innocuous little chrome dot on the dash rather than the big ‘Engine Start’ moniker we see on cars today. Still, at least I didn’t set the alarm off, unlike an esteemed national newspaper colleague…

Out on the road, and the car was everything I remembered – basically evil. Its throttle was point, squirt. Braking was face squashing, the ride bone-jarringly stiff. The fat tyres followed every bump, mound or indentation in the tarmac, ensuring that one’s hands stayed very firmly gripped to the squat little steering wheel just to keep the thing pointing in a straight line – this was not a car you could cruise in, concentration needed in large amounts at all times.

1405VXR220dBut you know, it was every bit as much fun as I’d remembered, and I’m only disappointed I’ve never had a chance to drive a VXR 220 on track – there it would no doubt be even more memorable, and I promise I wouldn’t crash it…

No matter – if ever I get my dream garage, there will always be space in it for Vauxhall’s pocket rocket…

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Of classic cars and very mixed memories

This week took me to the Silverstone Classic media day. It’s the second time I’ve been but I haven’t yet made it to the event itself at the end of July. I hope to change that this year because it really has become one heck of a festival, with huge, quality grids right across the historic spectrum.

The media day gives me a chance to catch up with friends and colleagues in the business, while getting up close – as in wandering through the garages and standing on the pit wall as DFV-powered 1970s F1 cars howl past – to some glorious historic machinery, all in a very relaxing environment.

The Lister Storm - how old?

The Lister Storm GT car – is it really that old? Photo: Andrew Charman

However the day does also provide the odd sobering moment – I find it hard to believe that the Lister Storm GT car that I’m looking at is now considered historic, as it doesn’t seem yesterday that I was writing about its British and International GT appearances. But then I am informed that Julian Bailey won the FIA GT Championship in it in 2000, and that was 14 years ago…

Time we can’t forget

On a much darker note, conversation amongst journalists at Silverstone inevitably turns to events two decades ago. The media day marks the exact 20th anniversary of the death, in practice for the San Marino Grand Prix, of Roland Ratzenberger – a tragedy that many believe was totally overshadowed by what happened the following day. I, like some others, am in the opposite camp – would people still talk about Roland, if Ayrton Senna hadn’t died too? Possibly not – we don’t hear so much these days about Elio de Angelis, Patrick Depailler, Tom Pryce…

Still, in motorsport we all remember where we were on 1st May 1994 – it is our President Kennedy moment. For me, it was Snetterton, qualifying day for the British Touring Car Championship. And it was slightly surreal to observe how the mood at the circuit changed as the news filtered through from Imola – mind you a feeling very similar to that I would experience seven years later, at the Frankfurt Motor Show, on the 11th September 2001.

On race day at Snetterton, the mood was even stranger, people wanting to enjoy the meeting but still in shock at what had happened the day before. The Alfa Romeos, then dominating the BTCC, had black stripes painted on the corner of their noses, and when a two-minute silence was held, you could have heard a pin drop – at a race circuit.

Senna in action at Brands Hatch in 1981, and below making a rare mistake. some of my earliest motor racing photos. Sadly in the time available I was unable to locate my pictures of Ratzenberger, they are in the archive somewhere...

Senna in action at Brands Hatch in 1981, and below making a rare mistake – some of my earliest motor racing photos. Sadly in the time available I was unable to locate my pictures of Ratzenberger, they are in the archive somewhere…

I remember too how personally odd the Imola tragedies felt, because both Senna and Ratzenberger were drivers I had first-hand watched climbing the earliest stages of the career ladder, photographing them making their name in Formula Ford races at Brands Hatch.

Senna arrived in 1981, the year after I started building my career at the circuit as initially a photographer. Except that then he was known as Ayrton da Silva – he generally was at the front of each race he ran in, won the championship and then at the end of the season went back to Brazil and we thought we’d never see him again. But he was back the following year, dominating FF2000, and the rest, as they say…

1405Classic02Roland came later, at the end of the 1985 season when he starred at the Formula Ford Festival – in those days a meeting with a far higher-profile than is the case today. He endeared himself to UK audiences with his innocent lack of knowledge as to why everyone laughed at his name. When he found out, what did he do? Got sponsorship from TV-AM, home of the Roland Rat puppet. Class…

Two very different drivers, but still two lost talents, and today we still have fond memories of them both.

Super Touring – it’s back…

To end on a brighter note. A major reason for being at the media day is to keep an eye on progress in the Super Touring Championship – a historic series invented as a guest race at the Silverstone Classic a couple of years ago, and which this year has become a full-blown historic championship for the first time.

Super Tourers - back on the track where they belong, here at Thruxton on Easter Saturday. This and the following picture are courtesy of Peter Still, PSP Images, a superb photographer and strong supporter of the Super Touring series. For more of Peter's work go to http://psp-images.photoshelter.com/

Super Tourers – back on the track where they belong, here at Thruxton on Easter Saturday. This and the following picture are courtesy of Peter Still, PSP Images, a superb photographer and strong supporter of the Super Touring series. For more of Peter’s work go to http://psp-images.photoshelter.com/

Partly thanks to the eldest offspring covering the series for touringcartimes.com, a couple of weeks ago I saw my first historic Super Touring race, as part of a clubbie at Thruxton (can’t remember the last time I went to a clubbie…).  Now you could argue that I’d be a tough audience – after all I was right in the thick of things for almost the whole of the true Super Touring era, I remember just how big that time was, so surely a collection of used Super Tourers driven by little-known drivers won’t be much to write home about…

Actually, it’s great. For starters there are plenty of cars, with more emerging from the shadows all the time. They are generally very well prepared, with authenticity the key – they look and sound just like they did back then, which is not easy as getting parts for them is still not a cheap process and today’s drivers don’t have anything like the budgets the manufacturer works teams did back in the 1990s.

For the same reason, you don’t – generally – see the panel-bashing racing that made the BTCC of the Super Touring era a favourite of audiences both at the track and particularly on the BBC. But that’s okay, you don’t expect that in historic racing. These cars are still raced hard, and it’s brilliant to see them back where they should be – on the track.

Watts and Cleland – former stars back in their cars. Photo: Peter Still, PSP Images.

Watts and Cleland – former stars back in their cars. Photo: Peter Still, PSP Images.

Oh yes, one more aspect. Among the new breed of drivers racing these cars, there are a couple of names that sound familiar – Cleland and Watts…

John bought back his 1997 Vectra, and Patrick the last BTCC Super Touring Peugeots, that had gone all the way to Australia. And they are having a ball – they are not outclassing the field but they are making some headlines, both on the podium (Cleland’s Easter Saturday win at Thruxton was widely reported amongst those at Donington for the rounds of the current BTCC) and in more traditional fashion. Patrick’s heavy impact with the barriers at last year’s Classic is in all the publicity for this year’s event, while one of Cleland’s Thruxton rivals muttered darkly that John had bumped him out of the way on route to that victory…

Superb Touring Cars – one reason to be at the Silverstone Classic in July – and Oulton Park next month... Photo: Andrew Charman

Superb Touring Cars – one reason to be at the Silverstone Classic in July – and Oulton Park next month… Photo: Andrew Charman

There are rumours of more past Touring Car stars jumping into their old cars, while more cars are definitely set to appear – apparently the going rate for a used Super Tourer has mushroomed in recent months. This is a series on the up, but before it fulfills a no-doubt starring role at the Silverstone Classic on 25th-27th July there is a possibly bigger challenge.

On the weekend of 7th June, the Super Touring Series will be at Oulton Park, as a support event to – the British Touring Car Championship. What will today’s BTCC crowds think of these stars of yesteryear? I think they’ll love them…