Words: Tim Nevinson
The questions Tim was most regularly asked as a journalist and development engineer included: “What’s the best car you’ve owned?”, “What’s the best car you’ve driven?” and “What’s your favourite car?” For more amusement, a better question would have been: “What was the worst car?”
My stock answer to the first two questions is “Best at what?” because as an engineer you were always striving to make a product as good as you could within a very strict set of parameters and aims and, above all, be objective. As an automotive writer, it very much depended on what audience you were writing for.
I can tell you what my favourite car is without having to think through all of those things, and it’s a car I have never driven, and rarely even been near. My Dad bought Motor Sport magazine every month and I used to swallow it whole. It had a colour picture section in the middle and I used to wind him up something rotten by cutting photos out of the colour centre section and stapling them to my bedroom wall.
When I was about 14, Dad took me to the local cinema where we watched a film called Le Mans.
The Porsche 917 to me was a most aggressive-looking racing car, but up until that afternoon at the cinema I had no idea what it sounded like. I’m not sure if I was dribbling when we came out into the light afterwards, but I was smitten by the 917’s noise and always have been since then. Being powered by a 12-cylinder engine a great sound is a given, but this was a flat-12, and air-cooled, so it came with a lot more mechanical noise and a whining horizontal fan atop the inlet stacks. I’m not bothered whether a 917 is Gulf blue, Salzburg striped or in Martini mix, it is just one awesome machine – awesome in the old sense, not just ‘pleasant’ as the word is used today. I got a bit miffed later in life when people who were into films and those who worshipped Steve McQueen became familiar with the Gulf 917K through that movie because it was my little car enthusiast secret. I didn’t give a toss about film actors! I have since watched the film dozens of times and never get tired of it, even though the plot is weak and the dialogue virtually non-existent. It’s actually quite a difficult film to get any non-petrolhead to sit through.
The fact that the 917 started with a fearsome reputation added to its intrigue for me, and when you look at one today without its panels on it makes you shudder to think of those brave souls barrelling down the Mulsanne at over 200mph in this scanty web of aluminium tubing. I say ‘look at one today’ because at the time we enthusiasts, or the drivers, didn’t give it a second thought – lightness and speed were all that counted. Having been through that era, we elders will look at the bare frame slightly askance, while the younger generation think we should be banged up as criminally irresponsible. The 917 in its original form was aerodynamically unstable, and very fast. It was only when the ‘K’ (for ‘kurz’ - German for short) was introduced that the 917’s reputation calmed down a bit, but those drivers were brave. It won many endurance races, including Porsche’s first 24 Hours of Le Mans victory in 1970 before they, and its ilk, were banned for being too fast.
So there it is, quite easy, no qualifications or experience required for ‘favourite’. I’ve not driven one, not been in a real one, but it’s still my favourite car.
The Lotus Position
Second favourite is another racing car, the Lotus 72 – again, never sat in one, never driven one, but there it is.
This car was very different to the ‘cigar tube’ Formula One cars that had gone before it, their shapes influenced by having the radiator in front of the drivers’ toes. The Lotus 72 positioned its radiators by the driver’s shoulders, allowing a chiselled wedge shape similar to the Lotus Indy Gas Turbine car. Exceptionally light at 595kg, the 72 featured unusual torsion bar anti-squat and anti-dive suspension plus inboard front brakes. It’s the car that Jochen Rindt and Emerson Fittipaldi took to world championships, with Ronnie Peterson’s flair keeping it competitive well into its dotage. It had a very long career encompassing twenty Grand Prix wins.
Like the 917, it was not immediately competitive and initially not liked by Rindt, its number-one driver. Refinements to its anti-dive suspension made it into a car of which Rindt would later say, “A monkey could have won in that car today.” The 72 did bite though, and the car’s unusual inboard front brake shafts breaking is believed to have caused the accident that killed Rindt at Monza in 1970.
Added to the unusual shape was a terrific Gold Leaf colour scheme, which in 1972 became an époque-making black with gold pinstripes from their new branding sponsor John Player Special cigarettes.
An anvil-shaped cold air box made the car stand out even more. In my ‘money no object’ collection, the Lotus and the Porsche would take pride of place – as they did in my school exercise books and on my bedroom wall.
Ah, what the hell!
I’m sure that our favourites are usually cars that were extant at a time when we were most impressionable – our early teens. It would be interesting to hear from others whether this is true.
When it comes down to actual experience, I am one lucky guy because I have ridden in and driven some pretty exotic machinery, but I must assert that it doesn’t need to be exotic to leave me impressed – and, particularly with cars I’ve owned, some were far from exotic.
To an extent, it has to do with my age. I’ve not had much experience of pre-war cars or even those from the fifties, which so many of our readers will have. What is interesting is that neither of the cars that I have a special affection for come from the 80 or 90 cars – the majority of which were Jaguars, BMWs or Citroëns – that I have owned.
I rarely bought a car just to flick it on and make a buck. I can’t say that I made a buck too often, but that was rarely the point. I either bought cars for a particular purpose, or bought them because I fancied the owner/driver experience. Making a decent profit on a car takes a special talent, and a certain amount of chutzpah, neither of which I have been blessed with.
There are exceptions to this, as will be attested to by the auctioneers at Turners Classic Auctions in Penrose, as I have a bit of a reputation there. If there was a classic car for auction that did not even get a bid, the auctioneer’s eyes would lift towards my perch and he’d say, “Tim?” My missus would say that she could tell when I was thinking about a car being auctioned because all sorts of quizzical or weird expressions would come up on my face as it was introduced, and my head would take on new angles and slowly become more animated as the price came close to my “Ah, what the hell!” threshold.
It was usually a car that had a flat battery, had a door or bonnet that wouldn’t open, or was making a terrible noise that I had hopefully diagnosed as nothing serious. I don’t think I ever bought a complete dud from there, and in fact they gave me many miles of happy motoring. Happy times.
Roll of Dishonour
While we are on the subject of complete duds, what were the worst cars I ever owned?
My second ever car was purchased to fulfil a purpose, which was to carry around a racing kart. My first car, a MkI Cortina, had been thrashed beyond an inch of its life, and I was spending every evening and weekend rebuilding it. It was a piece of crap really, but it remains in my heart with great affection. Being a sedan, the only way to carry a kart around was to take the rear seat out – and at that age I had other purposes in mind for the rear seat.
For a short while I was able to resort to my friend’s mobile disco van, an old Transit, but using a couple of FAL speakers as a kart-stand always looked a bit unprofessional (which we were).
Ideally, a MkI Cortina estate would’ve come up for sale, but it didn’t. Instead a Hillman Hunter estate became available and I thought, ‘Well, they won the London to Sydney in a Hunter so it must at least be tough.’ It wasn’t. It went through three engines before I lost patience as I was spending more time on it than the Cortina, which at least had been fast and rewarding.
The Hunter’s appellation soon had the ‘H’ replaced with another letter earlier in the alphabet, and it wasn’t a B! The car suffered with roll oversteer, which was fun if you were in the mood, but really it was just a soggy turd and refused to stay together. That I think was the worst car I owned, but there were others, like the Citroën TA that broke in half in the acid dip bath, and a Triumph TR7 from a reputable West Auckland restorer who can only be praised for his skills in applying paint and bog.
I did learn a useful lesson with that one, which was ‘never buy a car with loose nuts and bolts in the centre console’ – something that came back to haunt me with a gorgeous-looking BMW E30 Touring. I should have had my radar on.
The Triumph TR7 was never going to be the best-ever sports car as a four-cylinder, but the one I bought was a convertible and wouldn’t have made a bad tourer if it hadn’t featured 70 per cent bog in the suspension mounts!
Despite my earlier BMW woes, I would still quite happily have another BMW E30 (I’ve owned four): they are just the right size, have great visibility and are usually solid as a rock. The Touring is an itch I still scratch.
Another disaster was a Van Diemen Formula Ford car that put me in hospital for six weeks with burns. The petrol tank for these single-seaters was under the seat, and unbeknown to me had been repaired with grey tape. You’d have no reason to take the seat out, so it remained undiscovered, which was okay until fuel got filled over a certain level. Racing along I must have grounded out or something, and whoof! Up it all went with me inside at somewhere between 100 and 160km/h. I can attest to the effectiveness of the correct racing attire, as I was in that burning tub for a good two minutes as single-seaters are difficult to get out of when they are moving – not to mention well alight.
All the above can be put in the basket marked ‘learning experiences’. What it comes down to is really trying to see what the car was like before you took ownership. That said, I’ve had a few brand new cars that were exceptionally disappointing, and not from the usual suspects either.
One was a brand new model from a large German combine. Its specifications and features were exactly what I needed, so I bought one. The quality was terrible, the windscreen leaked and fostered wind noise, its transmission gave up in a busy rush hour, and it handled and accelerated like a pudding. An absolutely terrible service franchise had no clue how to fix the problems and certainly seemed not to want to. That car was gone in six months. I’m off that make for a while, and won’t buy a new model again.
There seems to be a strange fascination in the classic community to want to have the earliest version of a car ever built, the new model as it were, and a high premium is paid. The truth is the worst cars a manufacturer assembles are usually the first ones, yet collectors pay moonbeams for these things. A Range Rover, for example, gets cheaper as it gets better. The old ones cost a fortune, and the same can be said for E-Types and other Jaguars. Think on!
As new, or decently prepared, most of these nightmare cars might have been a reasonable or good experience. I have driven a lot of classic cars in concours condition that were absolute dogs to drive, and quite a few dogs that were very rewarding.
We are running out of space and I haven’t even got to the ones I liked so I’ll leave those for another time.
What we can conclude from the above is this – don’t buy an early production example of a new model as you are likely to be repeating all the work the company’s warranty and development engineers did at the time and not see the car’s great features in their best light.
If you are looking at the classic car you always wanted and there are leftover bits in the console, glove box and ashtray, steel yourself and walk away.
If you are able, do as thorough a tear down on the car as you can before you use it. This gives you the chance to sell it on before misfortune strikes – or it merely gives the car a good service, and you a thorough knowledge of the car.
If the car is of more modern steel unitary construction (fifties onward), learn to see what construction welding techniques are used. If you don’t see regular spotwelds in the seams, you are probably looking at bog.
Happy classic motoring!