Sunday, 21 April 2013

My Top Six Car Songs

6. Grey Cortina by Tom Robinson


A Cortina?

Well, of course. Tom Robinson here shows that, like charity, lust begins at home. I didn't grow up leering at Ferraris and Porsches in glossy magazines, but at the grubby Ford Capri's and Escort GTs up our street.

Not many Cortinas were actually grey, they were more a sort of one-shade-off-primer type of cream, and even fewer had twin exhausts. But whiplash aerials were essential, as otherwise they tended not to last too long as jealous little boys would bend them for you.

Jealous adults tended to do rather more than that. As Ford only ever had about three keys cut for their whole range stealing one was easy. In one year almost half the Cortinas in Belfast were stolen, which Ford claimed was because the thieves appreciated the performance and comfort.

Apparently Tom Robinson did eventually achieve his childhood dream and own a grey Cortina, only to have it written off after one day before he even got to a "2 4 6 8" Motorway.

5. MGB GT by Richard Thompson

It's hard to pick any particular theme from the songs of a writer and performer with a career as long and eclectic as Richard Thompson, but generally speaking whilst people are often suspect, machines are usually okay. He eulogised the Vincent Black Lightning motorbike in a song which, if this was a list about two wheeled machines, would be up there with Steppenwolf's Born To be Wild, Brigette Bardot's Harley Davidson, Arlo Guthrie's I Just Want To Ride My Motorcycle and Jasper Carrot's Funky Moped.

No, not really. The Bardot song is rubbish.

However we are staying on four wheels here, so instead of the 140mph Vincent, we have a song about a car that struggles to put a ton on the clock, but is slightly more practical.

The main interest here is Thompson's guitar playing, but with passing references to the Sunbeam Alpine, Triumph TR4 and an Austin Healey it's clear Thompson still longs for the classic British rag-tops of his youth. As a rally fan I'd have preferred a song about the Mini Cooper S, Lotus Cortina or Ford Escort Twin Cam, but I don't really mind MGBs, as long as they haven't got those hideous 1970s bumpers.

4. Red Barchetta by Rush

It's 1980 and the world in recovering from the second big oil shock. Meanwhile Canadian rockers Rush record this song.

Here we have their trade mark Ayr Rand inspired Libertarianism (although unlike Rand, Rush kept their drug consumption under control and never had to survive on Medicare) and sci-fi inspired lyrics, in this case the short story A Nice Morning Drive by Richard S. Foster.

In that the outlawed vehicle the hero uses to frustrate the officious and anti-car authorities is another MGB, but Rush decided instead to change to what many regard as the most beautiful Ferrari ever. A looker, sure, but it's hard to imagine a Barchetta starting up first time after a decade or more in a garage in real life.

The idea of a car as a symbol of individual liberty is all very well too, but if you want to write a song about the egalitarian nature of a car owning society, a Ferrari isn't really the best metaphor is it? Let Them Drive Barchettas - as Ayr Rand might have said.

3. Little Deuce Coupe by The Beach Boys

Car songs by The Beach Boys are always good for a laugh.

Not only can they not pronounce 'coupe' correctly, but amongst the virtues of their Hot Rod is something called a 'four on the floor'. This sounds pretty cool, but it actually translates as a four speed manual gearbox. Even my dad's old Lada had one of them.

They also go on to say that when they accelerate 'it's hard to steer', which does suggest something fundamentally wrong with the car. It's not something you usually read in a sales brochure, anyway.

Still, you don't drive a car like that for the handling, and you don't listen to the Beach Boys for meaningful lyrics. Maybe they were just a Barber's Shop Quartet with guitars, but these songs from before Brian Wilson blew his mind on LSD have a certain naive charm.

After that I guess he didn't drive so much.

2. Mercedes Benz by Janis Joplin

They say irony died when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize, but it was well and truly cremated when this song was used to advertise Mercedes Benz.

I'd always listened to it as a pastiche of consumer society; someone asking God for a car, a TV and a round of drinks, so either I missed something or people really don't listen to lyrics any more.

Joplin didn't even own a Mercedes, she had a  Porsche 356, like the one James Dean drove, only psychedelic. Mercedes in the sixties were cars for people who found Volvos too exciting.

Not that there's anything fundamentally wrong with them. They did do stylish and sporting as well as solid and dependable, like the "Pagoda" model pictured. But speed was always hand in hand with safety and sound engineering, so if there's a car that is at ninety degrees to the live-fast-and-die young ethic of rock, it's a Mercedes.

Also, if you wanted to find a performer whose style reflected the precision engineering of the Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft you wouldn't really pick the gravel voiced Janice Joplin, who sounds more like an old Trabant running without any oil.

1.Dead Man's Curve by Jan and Dean

It wasn't just the Beach Boys who had trouble with corners. Judging by the profusion of roads in America featuring a bend called Dead Man's Curve, the entire country seems to have a problem with anything curvier than Kate Moss.

(I should hastily add here before I am flamed from across the pond that one American at least has figured out how to make his car go round corners)

They even made a TV movie in the seventies called The California Kid, in which an evil Sheriff bumps off reckless drivers by making them take a corner too fast. The bend in question was a gentle right hander a Morris Marina could have taken flat, so I thought frankly they all deserved what they got - which sort of spoilt the film a bit for me.

(Note to my American friends - this, guys, is a tight corner.)

Jan and Dean may look squeaky clean to us today, but in their day they were pretty far out and according to rock critic Dave Marsh they should be regarded as proto-punks.

This song is generally considered to be about the one on Sunset Boulevard. It was written for the boys by Brian Wilson and is about a Corvette Stingray driver who has a race with Jaguar E Type which ends in them both failing to negotiate the titular corner. I can only assume the Jag had bald tires or was going twice as fast, as it had far better handling than the 'vette.

You'd have thought Jan and Dean would have learnt the lesson of the song and driven something with decent roadholding, but no, just two years later Jan Berry was trundling around Beverley Hills in his own Corvette, not far from Deadman's Curve, when he lost control and totalled the car.

Miraculously he survived, although it took him a year to recover, and he lived to the ripe old (by rock star standards) age of 62.

The crash may have wrecked his car, but it did the duos career no harm at all and they were still performing into the new millennium.

The accident certainly made the duo infamous, but hopefully rock stars acting out their own songs won't become a habit. I wouldn't be too bothered if Morrisey really was miserable now or James parked their behinds for a moment, but not only would be it be rather gross if Dexy's Midnight Runners did that to Eileen, but do we really want Liam Gallagher to live forever?

Monday, 25 February 2013

Given The Works

How fast were the classic rally cars of forty or fifty years ago?

They certainly seemed pretty quick to little me as I watched them flash past, but then I had nothing to compare them with apart from my dad's Lada.

Contemporary rally guides list brake horsepower and sometimes power to weight ratios, but these only give comparative figures and you can't rely on manufacturers figures anyway.

What I really wanted to know was how they compared to the cars I knew, or at least knew about.

Could Bodie and Doyle see off an Opel Kadett GTE in their Capri? Could James Bond outdrag a Sunbeam Lotus in his Aston Martin? And could my favourate rally car of all, the Lancia Stratos, compare at all with the world's fastest road going Ferrari?

Fortunately for us the magazine Autocar tested these cars and between 1965 and 1982 they rigged up their fifth wheels and recorded in minute detail the performance of these rallying beasts.

These figures from these tests come with some fairly major caveats though.

Firstly Autocar usually got the cars after a major rally, so the vehicles could well be a little tired.

Secondly taking off from a standing start is not natural for a competition car with a close ratio gearbox. First gear tends to be quite high, as a car club colleague found out when he tried production car trials in his rallying Skoda, and unless you get some wheelspin the engine is usually off cam once the clutch starts to bite.

A better test would be 30-70 or similar, but as 0-60mph appears to be the universal benchmark of performance, so these are the figures we'll use.

Here they are.

1967 BMC Mini Cooper 1275S - 9.7 sec
1969 Lancia Fulvia 1-6 HF Coupe - 9.6 sec
1967 Ford Lotus Cortina Mk 2 - 9.4 sec
1970 Datsun 240Z - 9.0 sec
1971 Alpine Renault 1600S - 8.8 sec
1965 Austin Healey 3000 - 8.2 sec
1978 Opel Kadett GTE - 8.0 sec
1968 Ford Escort Twin Cam - 7.9 sec
1971 Ford Escort RS1600 - 7.0 sec
1980 Saab 99 Turbo - 6.4 sec
1976 Ford Escort RS1800 - 5.9 sec
1978 Fiat 131 Abarth - 5.8 sec
1979 Triumph TR7 V8 - 5.2 sec
1981 Vauxhall Chevette 2300HSR - 5.1 sec
1980 Talbot Sunbeam Lotus - 5.0 sec
1981 Opel Ascona 400 - 5.0 sec
1982 Audi Quattro - 4.9 sec
1978 Lancia Stratos - 4.9 sec

The first question that leaps out from these figures is, how did the Mini Cooper and the Alpine Renault ever win anything? Mainly due to good handling and better teamwork rather than grunt, as you can see. 

In many ways these figures don't tell us anything we couldn't have guessed from the rallies themselves, namely that rally cars got a damn sight faster as the seventies progressed and that the Startos and Quattro were PDQ.

You also see what an amazing machine the Austin Healey 3000 was. It was rallying's first homologation special, and despite limited suspension travel which meant bumps were usually absorbed by the sump guard and the drivers bottom, it could probably have still been a winner in the early seventies if its various special tweaks hadn't been outlawed by rule changes.

The Opel Kadett was tested in Group 1 form. Although hardly a standard road car, it's notable that it still beat the top flight sixties machines.

It's interesting to compare these cars though with the top road going cars Autocar tested at this time.

The 3 litre Capri, which was the car every Old Spice wearing seventies man wanted, managed 0-60 in 8.6 secs, which is well behind the top Group 4 cars. To get equivalent performance we need to look at the supercars that Autocar tested.

In 1977 they clocked the Aston Martin Vantage doing 0-60 in 5.4 secs and the next year they gave the Ferrari 512BB a spin and it managed 0-60 in 6.2 secs, which makes it slower than all the rear wheel drive Group 4 cars.

Seeing as how the Ferrari has a nearly five litre engine, you may wonder where Enzo was going wrong when his top car can be ragged off at the lights by a Ford Escort.

Admittedly, being a road car you could make it faster by stripping out the cladding, stereo, jacuzzi and whatever else they fit to Ferraris and Aston Martins (probably a drinks cabinet), but to make it a rally car you'd have to add a roll cage, fire extinguishers and lots of under body protection so you'd probably be back to where you started from.

Equally you can tune the engines, but then you can do the same for the rally cars. By narrowing the power band up to 20bhp more could probably be wrung out of those engines, but that would make them virtually undriveable on a special stage.

You get the answer when you look at the top speeds. The Escort is geared out to 120mph, which is actually pretty fast for a rally car. This "lets the trees whip past quite quick enough for me" said Roger Clark. The Ferrari meanwhile was peddled at 163mph by the Autocar team and the Aston Martin was estimated to be good for 170.

In other words there was nothing wrong with the either machine, they're just  designed for something different. The rally car is just optimised to race to 100mph whilst remaining as small and light as possible.

However as any drag racer will tell you, the real test of a car is not 0-60, but how fast it can do the quarter mile.

Now these figures too come with a caveat. With the low gearing used on rally stages many of these cars were getting to their maximum revs in top gear and in the case of the Lotus Cortina it had actually red lined. The TR7 V8 was also being tested without a fifth gear, which probably didn't help.

Anyway, here are the quarter mile figures.

1967 Ford Lotus Cortina Mk 2 - 17.1 sec
1971 Alpine Renault 1600S - 17.1 sec
1967 BMC Mini Cooper 1275S - 16.8 sec
1969 Lancia Fulvia 1-6 HF Coupe - 16.7 sec
1978 Opel Kadett GTE - 16.3 sec
1970 Datsun 240Z - 16.0 sec
1968 Ford Escort Twin Cam - 15.9 sec
1965 Austin Healey 3000 - 15.6 sec
1980 Saab 99 Turbo - 14.8 sec
1971 Ford Escort RS1600 - 14.7 sec
1978 Fiat 131 Abarth -14.6 sec
1976 Ford Escort RS1800 - 14.5 sec
1980 Talbot Sunbeam Lotus - 14.0 sec
1981 Opel Ascona 400 - 13.9 sec
1979 Triumph TR7 V8 - 13.7 sec
1981 Vauxhall Chevette 2300HSR - 13.7 sec
1982 Audi Quattro - 13.7 sec
1978 Lancia Stratos - 13.5 sec

The main gainer here is the Triumph TR7 V8 which, once it's tires had stopped scrabbling for grip, was reeling in the opposition and I suspect if they'd run a race over 500m would have come home the winner. But also look how fast the big Healey is, nipping at the tail of the late seventies cars.

It's also interesting to see the Ford Escort and the Fiat 131 so close together. They were on the stages too, but that was generally assumed to be because the Fiat had better handling but the Escort the better engine. The Autocar team pretty much agree on this too, but the stop watch doesn't appear to show much difference at all.

However the supercars were also catching up by now, with the Ferrari also recording a 13.7 sec quarter mile and the Aston Martin bettering that with a straight 13, beating even the Stratos.

But as in rallying the co-driver very rarely gets to say "straight 400" this doesn't really matter. On real roads, rally cars are still the ultimate.