Wetherby and Millbrook memories

I could say I am a well-seasoned Millbrook attendee, having been to all but one Society of Motor Manufacturers’ and Traders’ test days since 2006 and even getting to some Wetherby test day north events. I can recall when I was followed back to the steering pad by track security and given a rebuke for spending too long in the Volkswagen Polo GTI. I was over-excited. The time when I got a passenger ride in the Audi R8 – and spent half an hour recovering after it. Beforehand, the driver informed me he had been warned by marshalls for taking off on the hill crest in a Saab convertible. More recently, test day north was memorable for the Bentley Continental GT Coupe locking me out of the car – whilst the engine burbled away.

2013 celebrated forty years of Newpress, the automotive news distributor that had a fleet of classic cars outside their stand, with original Raleigh Chopper bikes. I used to have one of those with the original gearstick that looked like a thrust control off a Boeing that has been repositioned by the handlebar now. A Jaguar XJ, once owned by the Queen Mother was driven around Balmoral with a dignity that is often lost on newer vehicles. Gentlemen from the heritage centre accompanied drivers around the circuit advising that speed wasn’t important – the experience was. The XJ was a long wheelbase example in claret red, incredible to think that royalty once selected its fragile automatic gearshift – about the same size as a Chopper’s! Included was a Datsun 240Z, affectionately known as the ’24 ounces’ that emulated 1970’s Americana. Strangely, its gearstick looked the same as one in a 1987 Nissan Sunny that I sold (without profit) to a group of Nigerians who told me they were going to export the car to Lagos. DVLA phoned me months later to inform me that the same car was found untaxed in Longsight, Manchester!

Porsche’s Cayenne had been remodelled to look more svelte with a 3.0 diesel engine to appeal to the UK market, handling well for a tall SUV on the hill circuit. Jaguar’s XF had to be driven – a new product with a revitalised company and we demanded exhaust baffles sang in all their glory to provide an apt soundtrack. This Jaguar had the most track development than any other with an adapted XK all-aluminium chassis with aeromotive technology using rivets instead of welding to reduce weight to provide a balanced 50:50 weight distribution – far more composed than the manic XKR-S. I could even see the end of the bonnet and seats fitted like gloves which was positively ergonomic. At the other extreme, a whiz in the Chevrolet Spark enabled me to meander on meanders around the hill circuit. Having owned one, I believe they are underrated and interestingly, headlight brackets cost a massive one pound each which saves you replacing the whole unit. It is a shame that Chevrolet have pulled out of the UK market sending Spark prices plummeting.

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Wetherby ’14 enticed with Toyota’s GT86 that offered a rare rewind back to old school roadstering (remember the Supra and Celica) with a short, stubby gearstick, boxer engine and low-down stance with hard suspension; definitely one for the purists and an interesting fact: Toyota really should be called Toyoda as that really is the family name.

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Acquiring keys to a Bentley is a rare occurrence for me so grinning colleague in tow, we set off for a leisurely drive to conclude our Wetherby test day eventually parking within the racecourse grounds. In my enthusiasm, I set-up a camera tripod in front of the burbling W12 engine, doors thunking shut as my co-driver exited and then yanked the door handle – locked; a rummage around my person revealed that I had left the key fob by the gearstick – inside. Of course, cars shouldn’t lock their drivers out especially with engine on so we proceeded to circulate around the GT coupe trying handles in turn – still no response. Fortunately, the car was parked close to the where the manufacturers’ press officers were stationed so I trudged off to enquire sheepishly, “You know that Bentley, do you have a spare key?” and was met by an abrupt “No, why!?”  Then began the process of Bentley trying to access its own car. With some caressing of Bentley badge, I managed to open the boot where two batteries were sited. Their Crewe factory advised removing the earth connector. No reaction. With 6.0 W12 on idle, continuing to add carbon dioxide into the upper atmosphere, one crew member got into his van and drove off returning with a thin piece of copper piping. Eventually, with a steady hand and damaged window rubber, we managed to hook the key fob out concluding that software fallabilities can confuse even the most expensive of cars. Not to mention cigarette chuffing, fraying tempers and a gathering group of dog walkers asking “What’s wrong with it?” followed by a consoling “It’s a beautiful car.”

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MG’s re-entry into the UK market with the 6, 3 and TF reinforces driver orientation with stiff suspension although the 3 is only offered with a 1.5 petrol engine that costs £140 a year to tax. Interestingly Longbridge, West Midlands is where the cars are finished i.e. options are fitted even though the cars are produced in China. A start of the leaning curve for Chinese manufacturing that needs further refinement.

The new cheaper (by £2000) Insignia from Vauxhall is tweaked for a better ride although refinement of the 2.0 CDTi (140PS) diesel still lags behind Mazda’s 6 2.2 (150PS) which is far quieter. The Vauxhall is the most aerodynamic car in its class in the world – not that many fleet drivers would notice.

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Chancing upon a new three-cylinder turbocharged 1.2 litre petrol unit generating an output of, wait for it 129bhp was a revelation, developed solely by PSA Peugeot Citroen. Introduced in the 308, it suited by giving balanced and poise usually felt in cars in the B-segment. Memorably, it was my most fun drive of the day and that is something I have never said about a Peugeot in the past twenty years.

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It did rain at Millbrook in May 2014 and gossip after testing over tea and cake (confirmed by independent sources) corroborated that a Honda NSX span off the hill circuit, it’s driver seen feeing the scene. That was memorable – for the wrong reason.

Words, photos and film are copyright of Sotiris Vassiliou

July 2014