Driving Torque

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Archive for the tag “Vespa”

My own MINI Adventure – how I rediscovered my idenity

No man is an island, as they say. Neither is any man a T-junction or dual carriageway, as no-one says. I’ve waxed lyrical in the past about the inextricable link between man and machine, in particular his/her chosen mode of transport and what this choice says about us to the onlooking world.

Audi A6 Avant

Audi A6 Avant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since selling my excellent Audi A6 Avant in June 2011, I’ve been without a ‘car’ of my own, but a couple of weeks ago I came in out of the cold (literally) and rejoined the rat-race – I bought a bona fide automobile. The effect this has had on my life is infinitely more than the mere convenience of owning another car, it’s had a huge impact in a more spiritual sense.

Some may argue that I never really went cold-turkey on the transport front as I would never sell Matilda, our beloved VW Type 2, I own a Vespa which I classed as my everyday transport and ultimately, I could use my wife’s Citroen whenever the need arose. So why the tangible shift in attitude, just what can a humble car bring to aid one’s wellbeing?

My Vespa - Not so useful in winter

My Vespa – Not so useful in winter

As a hopeless car addict who’s owned one in some shape or form since he was 16, through thick or thin, in good times and bad, I couldn’t possibly have predicted the effect that non-ownership would have on my life. As handy and, in many ways, more convenient as it is to switch from car to scooter, I just couldn’t bring myself to jump whole-heartedly into the two-wheeled camp. The sensation could only be described as treachery, as many people would ask ‘So, what’s replaced the Audi?’ and I’d point sheepishly at my pretty Vespa, quickly uttering some pathetic excuse, like ‘I’m in-between cars at the moment’ or ‘It’s so I can save up for something’. Like someone who’s covering up for recently being sacked, I just couldn’t face the fact that I didn’t actually possess an everyday car to call my own.

A huge part of how we view and judge each other is based on what we do, both professionally and for pleasure. It generally doesn’t take too long for perfect strangers to realise that cars are of substantial importance in my life, usually because I’ve bored them to death about it within half an hour of introduction. It was therefore acutely alien, not only to me, but to my friends and family, when I was without an automobile, like a yin without its yang, like Ant without Dec – you get the idea.

My dream car - temporarily put on hold

My dream car – temporarily put on hold

So, just what vehicle has brought me in from the wilderness, what’s ended the drought? Well, having made no secret of my desire to own a late 80’s Porsche 911, that was the plan, but then our Victorian house started falling down so that budget literally went up in smoke. An Oak Green 16v Mk2 Golf Gti was a slightly cheaper proposition, but they were mostly going the same was as my house – crumbly. The highly desirable E36 M3 Convertible in Estoril Blue was my next target but I was told one too many tales of astronomical running costs for one of those and the idea lost its appeal.

So……. just what ended up fitting the bill? Well, it’s built beautifully by BMW, it’s a very hot hatch with some of the usual practicalities this brings and it’s roughly as quick as an ’87 911…….. It’s a MINI!!! Not just any MINI though, it’s a Cooper S. Not just any Cooper S though, it’s a JCW Cooper S. Pushing out 210bhp through the front wheels, courtesy of a supercharger and various engine upgrades, performance is, shall we say, spirited, especially in this treacherous icy weather we’re currently enjoying.

2003 Mini JCW Cooper S

Our new baby – a JCW Cooper S

If anyone’s considering a Works MINI, just bear in mind that it’s fairly uncompromising in many ways. The suspension upgrades, coupled with 17” wheels make for a ride that eventually forces you to weave across your lane, avoiding the many pot-holes in an effort to preserve one’s spine. The trade-off is obviously limpet-like handling characteristics, just don’t expect to waft to one’s destination, it’s more of a trial than a waft.

By far the most characterful part of an early Cooper S is the supercharger and its unmistakable whine. To say this scream is addictive would be an understatement and the faster you go, the louder and more satisfying it gets. I’m currently achieving an average of 30mpg in my Works but if you suffer from a particularly addictive personality, or a heavy right foot, those economy figures could easily tumble, along with your bank balance as you constantly top up the tank with the 98 RON petrol it demands.

I seem to be painting a fairly negative picture of my new pocket rocket so far but I’m just getting the potentially bad bits out-of-the-way first. Having sorted the fiddly seating position to my liking, this car is evidently serious quality and gravely serious fun. It is so obviously a 0.5 series BMW, they just refused to put their moniker on it, partly because it’s front wheel drive, partly to preserve the MINI identity without linking it to the far more grown-up BMW range. Space inside is a lot more reasonable than I envisaged and my daughters find the rear seats palatial. One word of warning though, whichever way you look at it, THE BOOT IS SMALL. I presumed that a spindly single Maclaren buggy would squeeze in – I was wrong.

Having been generously specced at the factory, my MINI wants for nothing, neither do it’s occupants. Everything’s either heated or electric which gives the sensation of sitting in a little M3. The extra weight added by these luxuries may detract from the go-kart sensation a Works offers but they’re more than welcome if you like your creature comforts.

Like every good relationship, any initial doubts I may have harboured about my new acquisition are rapidly dissipating as the satisfaction of MINI ownership shines through. Perhaps more importantly though, I feel complete again.

By Ben Harrington

Uneasy Rider – I attempt life with a Vespa


Piaggio Vespa PX125

The past week has undoubtedly given me a clearer understanding of how sufferers of amnesia must feel and the frustrating emotions these poor souls endure. It’s well documented that amnesiacs are often fully aware that they should recognise a person or place, and yet their memory cannot completely make the link. Thankfully, I’ve not suffered any major head trauma to gain this empathy, I simply did my CBT.

Just to clarify things further, I mentioned recently that I intended to purchase a Vespa and lo and behold, the very next day I was lucky enough to be the highest bidder for a 2006, Vespa PX125. Many years ago, I would have been able to cruise the streets on my new purchase by virtue of holding a driving licence but in 1990, in an effort to reduce accident rates, Compulsory Basic Training (CBT) was introduced. The initial aim of the CBT was to reduce accidents amongst inexperienced motorcyclists by 33%, in its first year it achieved a cut of 43% so evidently the figures speak for themselves.

Luckily, I live fairly close to a motorcycle training centre which had come recommended to me by a friend so one phone call and £135 later, the date was set for me to attempt to make the transition from four wheels to two. They advised that I reacquaint myself with the highway code and gain as much knowledge as possible on what to expect when riding a motorbike on the road so after a trip to the library, much studying ensued!

Now, I’ve been riding bicycles on and off road since I was about five, I still cycle as much as possible now so I would say that I’m familiar with riding a two wheeled machine on a public highway. I passed my driving test first time when I was seventeen and have owned a car ever since. I consider myself to be of a fairly high standard of driving with a clean licence and have never caused an accident which has been deemed my fault (touch wood). I am also entitled to drive LGVs as I often drive fire appliances, sometimes at high speed. Again, I’ve only had one accident and I would argue that it wasn’t my fault but that’s another story altogether. All of this, you would assume, would stand me in high stead when it came down to adapting my driving skills to riding a motorcycle.

I wouldn’t say I was over confident when arriving for my CBT but nothing could have prepared me for the shock to the system I was about to receive. After an hour or two in the class room, my instructor and I travelled to a large playground (devoid of children) in order to get to grips with the basic operation of the bike. This actually went ok, once I’d accepted that a 125cc motorbike is going to take some revving in order move from standstill with my not unsubstantial frame onboard. A couple of hours were then spent learning basic manoeuvres and controls, followed by common sense measures such as emergency stops.

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in easy rider

Easy Rider

Following lunch and another hour or so in the classroom, it was time to hit the road and this is when the amnesia kicked in. For some reason, I felt as though I’d never seen tarmac before, never mind driven for fourteen years on it. The feelings of alienation were far greater than my first driving lessons at seventeen and yet I’ve driven tens of thousands of miles already. I kept trying to remind myself that I drive almost daily down the very same roads, almost without thinking about it but it was no use, I may as well have been on the moon. I was approaching junctions with feelings of trepidation as I couldn’t even remember which way the traffic should be coming from, roundabouts simply resembled a free-for-all to my now addled brain. This complete memory loss, coupled with repeatedly reminding my hands and feet to swap the roles they’ve become accustomed to whilst driving resulted in a pretty sweaty couple of hours.

Thankfully, my instructor deemed me safe enough to warrant a CBT certificate and I’m really hoping that practice will make perfect, or acceptable at least. I’ve only been out on the Vespa once since as it’s not yet taxed and I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that the next time will feel as bizarre as ever.

By Ben Harrington

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