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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Red light spells anger…

Taking Mrs C and number two son to work this morning, I drove out of our little ‘town’ (it’s a village really, but we get told off for calling it that…) to find yet another set of temporary traffic lights had sprung up on the main road – this set neatly straddling the pedestrian crossing to the local High School, which made for some interesting working out by the traffic…

1404traffic04Now I know that as the weather improves now is the time we are likely to see more roadworks, as the council tries to make good the ravages of the winter and fill in all the resultant potholes before the prime tourist months, but we seem to get epidemics of these lights. You’ll go for weeks without any, and then bang, three or four sets on one stretch of road – they seem to breed…

I’m reminded that some 15 years ago I was writing on this very subject, in the ‘Sideways Glance’ comment column of the Surrey local newspaper I edited – I was seeing red about seeing red. I recall I said; “This week I am not glancing sideways, I am staring straight ahead at what appears to be an ever-growing epidemic of temporary traffic lights – Trafficlightus Temporarnus.”

Well the first thing I will say is the way roadworks are done in Wales is generally a huge improvement on what passes for repairs in Surrey where i used to live. Back then whichever utility needed the road dug up would come along, dig a hole, make whatever repair they needed, slap some tarmac over the top and go away, leaving a nice hump or bump for traffic to negotiate. Then more often than not just days later another utility mob would come along and do the same thing – in the same spot…

Here in mid Wales they do things somewhat differently. The temporary lights arrive, while the affected bit of road is ripped up – not just one spot, they take a huge slice out. And passing by the works, you have to travel slowly, as the lights control a ‘convoy system’, traffic headed by one of the workers in a van or on a quad-bike travelling at a suitably slow speed.

While this is going on the road surface is put back properly – and I mean properly. While works are underway the convoy system is a mild pain in the butt for thos eof us wanting to be somewhere else, but once it’s finished the result is a top-quality surface with no lumps and bumps – it’s really good.

1404traffic03It made me laugh a couple of Springs ago when following a really harsh winter some locals were complaining about the resultant pot holes – “Why doesn’t the council do something?” and the like. But these potholes were on a back lane, and when I saw them – well they looked just like what is considered normal on Surrey A roads that take much more traffic. How the other half live eh?

Generally I find Welsh road workers far more considerate than Surrey ones. For example even in our rural location they seem quite happy to work late at night when the traffic is almost non-existent. I was seriously impressed when travelling home very late one night I discovered the road being ripped up close to where we lived and made a mental note to add 10 minutes to the work run the following morning. When we passed by next morning not only were the road works finished but the white lines had been repainted…

There’s still one aspect, however, that no-one seems to be able to get right – all the various utilities talking to each other. One set of lights on a road is followed by three more as four separate organisations decide to do their work at once. We had to have a water main replaced in the village at the start of the year, which meant a complex and quite tight diversion route for a couple of weeks. So of course Highways decided to do some resurfacing at the same time, on the diversion route – no matter where you went you couldn’t avoid the dreaded traffic lights.

In that column 15 years ago I alluded to the very regular occasions when temporary traffic lights go wrong; “Usually it’s when there’s absolutely no-one responsible around. You sit for what seems like hours staring at a red light, knowing full well that if you chance driving through you will either get an angry broadside from a person coming the other way or worse meet a police car…”

I then described one such occasion; “I could see people working in the hole, and traffic queued at the other end, but my light refused to change. Eventually I carefully drove down the road and stopping by a workman told him in a friendly, informative sort of way that his traffic light appeared to have stuck. “I know” he replied in a tone that suggested I was making the most stupid statement ever. I was so shocked I drove sheepishly away!”

1404traffic01Well it happened again a few weeks ago, just outside Welshpool. I could see the blokes sitting in a van so I carefully made my way past the red light, pulled up alongside the van and told them their lights had broken, at which point they laughed at me…

Well I wasn’t sheepish this time – we didn’t have Twitter in the old days. I discovered the traffic light suppliers had a Twitter feed, and I had a moan on Twitter – big mistake…

Within half an hour I had a phone call from a manager at the company concerned, wanting full details. More phone calls followed, along with e-mails and lots more, costing me rather more time than the traffic light had, while they followed up my ‘complaint’. It wasn’t a complaint, it was a frustrated me letting off steam! On reflection, I should have kept quiet…