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…

A new era that could draw me back to Touring Cars…

Two decades ago, it would be about this time that my year really started.

You see in March we have the British Touring Car Championship media day, when the entry for the coming season is announced in front of us hacks. Back in 1994, I was starting my third full year intimately involved in the series, at a time when the BTCC was moving into what has since been regarded as a golden era. The Super Touring formula had firmly established itself, and over the next couple of years would explode in popularity, stretching from the UK right around the globe.

1403BTCC01Indeed it was in 1994 that I came up with the concept of a magazine specialising in the sport, taking as my inspiration the superb French-based publication Grand Prix International that covered Formula One racing in the early 1980s. I spent much of that year persuading first my publisher and then BTCC organiser TOCA that a magazine was a good idea, and the first issue of Super Touring Magazine appeared at the start of the 1995 season.  I admit modestly that it was very well received, and the sad fact that it lasted only until early in the 1996 season had very little to do with the magazine but a lot more to do with internal politics at its now long-gone publishing company…

Your scribe would continue to cover the BTCC extensively until the end of the Super Touring era – I never missed a single round between 1993 and 2000, but it was the mid-1990s period when the series was really at its best. There were loads of manufacturers, loads of drivers of top international status, excellent action in the races and enormous crowds – in those days it could be a crush to move through the paddock even on qualifying day.

1403BTCC02Of course there were plenty of media too, but very special for me was being one of the only half dozen or so that were regarded as the core BTCC press – sporting our TOCA hard cards we could walk into virtually any pit at any time, no-one refused to talk to us from team principals down, while lunch was usually in one of said teams’ awnings. The Audi lunches were particularly memorable, among other things introducing this reporter to the pleasures of German Weiss beer, while thanks to Super Touring Magazine I was on first-name terms with Touring Car teams from America to Australia – they were truly remarkable times which I remember very fondly.

After I stopped working in the BTCC at the end of the 2000 season, I still produced a couple of features a year for various outlets, but as many know my main focus switched to my other motorsport passion, NASCAR. In truth I didn’t like what Touring Cars had become – back in the late 1980s the first series I ever specialised in, Thundersaloons (initially starring a then rapidly progressing young Scot called Cleland) had instilled in me a view that proper ‘tin tops’ were big saloon-type cars, and when the BTCC’s new BTC Touring formula started allowing in coupe-type machines such as Honda’s Integra and the Vauxhall Astra Coupe, followed by what were basically hot hatches, my interest waned rapidly.

The came Super 2000, following the lead taken by the FIA’s World Touring Cars. A BMW invite to Pau in 2007 had convinced me that these were indeed proper Touring Cars, so the BTCC adopting them was a good thing. My work started to see me attending the odd BTCC round again, and yes, the pre-season media day. And at these days I found myself beginning to get that buzz again, that feeling that perhaps I’d like to get back involved, until such thoughts were quickly wiped out by remembering just how much I enjoy my weekends these days.

1403BTCC04I’ve been this week to the 2014 BTCC Media Day, at Donington, and this time it’s different – I could tell that the moment I arrived at the circuit. Quite simply the BTCC is booming, and I now believe on the verge of another truly golden era.

Super 2000 has gone – costs started to spiral out of control, as any race series that is ruled by a combination of manufacturers and the FIA tends to do. Even those that don’t get on with the BTCC’s head honcho Alan Gow will agree that the man knows how to run a championship, and a few years ago he had the foresight to initiate the creation of ‘Next Generation Touring Car’ (NGTC) regulations, slashing costs in the process. And the result? This year’s series, the first to be run exclusively for the NGTC machines, will boast a record 31 entries – all of them committed to running the full season.

There’s much more than that. That entry consists of 14, yes 14, different types of car, from 11 different manufacturers. Yet there are only two so-called ‘works’ teams, Dynamics Honda and MG, and while they will no doubt win races, they will also be beaten during the year by teams across the grid, because the NGTC rules have leveled the playing field. Even if more true manufacturers were to come in and want to spend lots of money, it wouldn’t make them any more competitive because the rules don’t allow it.

Some will argue that the NGTC is not a proper Touring Car because basically you have individual body shells clothing what are the same parts for all. I don’t buy this – sounds a bit like NASCAR, which produces the best racing anywhere. And crucially, when the BTCC rule makers wrote the NGTC play book they took the opportunity to add a few vital inches to the minimum length regulations. So the cars in the pits almost all look like proper Touring Cars.

I say almost, because I struggle to see BMW’s smallest model line as a Touring Car, but I’m soon comforted by viewing the Audi A4, Volkswagen CC, Chevrolet Cruze in both saloon and hatch varieties, Honda’s quirky Civic Tourer (for Tourer read estate…). And all are prepared to very high standards – they look stunning, the best BTCC field in many a season.

1403BTCC05For the first time in some years, I was at the media day for a specific purpose, working on a feature for Race Tech magazine. And as I wandered the pitlane gathering what I needed the years fell away. Being welcomed into the pit of Adam Morgan to discuss his very impressive-looking Mercedes A-Class; five minutes of questions to BTCC Technical Director Peter Riches turning into a 25-minute conversation that provided me with the basis of a whole new feature; catching up with faces I used to deal with on a very regular basis – definitely topped by a chat with Alain Menu for the first time since that Pau WTCC round in 2007…

Being a UK-based NASCAR feature writer is often frustrating, because of necessity so much of the interviewing of crew chiefs, aerodynamicists and the like is conducted over Transatlantic Internet signals, the wonders of Skype. But here I was once again at the sharp end, in the middle of it all, and I very quickly felt back at home.

1403BTCC06I came away from one interview and ran into a wall of people. The pits had been opened to the fans who had been offered free entry from lunchtime to watch the testing. On a Tuesday in March when the weather offered regular drizzly showers and a cold wind, the numbers that turned up would not have shamed many a ‘proper’ race meeting.

Three days on the buzz is not subsiding – I’ve already checked the calendar and cursed the fact that there’s no way I can make the opening two meetings at Brands Hatch and Donington. Thruxton is a possibility however, and feature-pitching head duly screwed on – the BTCC is going to be huge this year, and I think I want back in…

Heading and grid photos courtesy Jakob Ebrey/BTCC