It’s cliche, but this really has been a year unlike any other. Our columnist picks his top moments
How bored are you with never-ending observations about ‘these extraordinary times’? I very much am, especially since looking back through my phone has proven that description really isn’t accurate.
Things have been very different at Autocar in 2020, but the combination of our own determination to get the magazine out (and keep the website populated) and the huge resourcefulness of the industry (who have circulated information, held interviews and provided test cars like normal for most of the year) made it busy – and for the most part enjoyable. Here are some highlights, through my lens at least.
I spent the last Christmas break in the company of this Bentley Mulsanne, accounting for this poor attempt to photograph it beneath a guiding star. Back then, it was still a few months from the end of production. It was terrific to drive, of course, with a very special old-school class that made it seem unkind (if correct) to observe that the latest Flying Spur is better in almost every department.
Land Rover design director Gerry McGovern reached what is arguably (I haven’t asked him) the pinnacle of a stellar career by launching the new Defender in the hallowed halls of the Design Museum. Although there was widespread fear that no replacement could ever be good enough for the cognoscenti, the car has received hearty accolades from all quarters.
I borrowed this shiny new 1.2-litre turbo-petrol auto Citroën Berlingo, so I had to take it immediately to the dump, where our own 17-year-old version has proved useful for so many years. This is no insult; the new Berlingo rides like a Lexus (only better) and can cruise a motorway with seven upright passengers seated in spacious comfort. It’s nothing short of a secret weapon.
I got into a right lather when the Ford Ranger Raptor came out, having discovered during a short drive that this ‘performance’ pick-up steers, handles and rides far better than you would think. I briefly saw myself as an owner but soon realised the restrictions of height and length would make life too hard. It’s expensive, too, and still diesel-powered. I’d have preferred a decent V6 hybrid (they’ve got such a thing) or – whisper this – a V8.
In a brilliant display of resourcefulness, Bentley’s people turned what was organised as a convoy to the Geneva motor show into a 750-mile UK road trip, ending at Crewe, where hacks could view its Geneva properties, hurriedly repatriated for the purpose. They even arranged to shut Carlisle airport so that we could try the cars at 150mph.
Our last stop before Crewe was a lightning tour of Bentley’s racing headquarters – aka Malcolm Wilson’s M-Sport works at Cockermouth – where I was able to hold the outright winner’s trophy for Australia’s Bathurst 12 Hour race at Mount Panorama, a venue that I’ve attended many times over the years.
If there was one month of near-inactivity this year, it was April, when we were learning to live with lockdown. This fine Bentley Flying Spur was marooned at my place in the Cotswolds, and all I could do was sit and look at it. This image and a few words to that effect did great business on social media. There seemed to be quite a few of us in the same boat. Thankfully, rules were eased just in time for me to rack up some decent miles before handing back the keys.
After 30 years in the same house, you would reckon we would have learned where the gatepost is, but not so. This was the result of a minor argument between gate and Mazda MX-5 (luckily no panel damage) that cost £250 to put back as it was.
This car taught me why the new Opel/Vauxhall Corsa is achieving such stellar sales across Europe: it’s a great shape, a great size and simple to own and drive. This one had the unlikely but brilliant combo of a 99bhp 1.2-litre engine and an eight-speed auto; it was effective and decently economical.
The National Motor Museum at Beaulieu had the good sense to open its gardens to visitors (regulations prevented anyone going inside) and did its best for car enthusiasts by parking interesting-looking exhibits in open garages and on the museum’s forecourt. It was amazing how good it felt just to have a destination.
Honda launched its E electric supermini to UK hacks in the great outdoors, providing a sanitised test car for each and delivering an interesting briefing via a drive-in movie screen. There’s no better way to understand a car than sitting in it while its complex bits are explained to you. This might be a thread for the future…
Bicester Heritage (or Bicester Motion, if you include the modern engineering parts) has really moved into its own this year, despite all. I was invited to join this socially distanced, outdoor, Friday-afternoon group on the forecourt of the former RAF base’s very own craft brewery, which is called Wriggly Monkey after a widget in a Frazer-Nash’s multiple-chain transmission.
Here’s the one car that I really didn’t enjoy this year: the BMW M235i Gran Coupé. It had a great powertrain and is quite a cross-country weapon from the chassis and performance points of view, but the ride was unnecessarily unyielding, the tyre noise was phenomenal and the seats distinguished themselves by being the only ones, in 55 years of driving, to actively hurt my back.
Busy month. First time to see the new Ineos Grenadier in the flesh and to appreciate the crispness of its admittedly traditional lines. Then to Bicester Heritage twice, first to take part in a Revs Limiter Charity event and then to enjoy their Drive In day, only possible because of the vast space BH has at its disposal. I didn’t watch movies from the car (although this was possible), I just looked at cars…
I had been given masks on visits to Bentley and Rolls-Royce, and it struck me how neatly their characteristics matched the firms’ cars. The Bentley mask was stylish to the point of being flashy but easy to use and fit me well; the Rolls mask was very carefully engineered and definitely more expensive but had a special-occasion feel. But I prefer a standard paper mask: is that the Ford equivalent?
I bought a 61,000-mile, 1991, front-drive Lotus Elan for next year’s Paul Matty hillclimb championship and celebrated the 50th anniversary of another – the Range Rover – by driving a naked, pre-production version at the head of a Goodwood parade. Look, they even put me in The Daily Telegraph. God, it was cold…
Two fine cars to end a slightly crazy year. I simply can’t get over the charming versatility of the Suzuki Ignis 4×4, given its price, packaging, compactness, quality and driving ease, and I love its styling more and more. And Porsche’s Taycan is one of the finest three or four cars I’ve driven. Practically every detail suits me perfectly (except perhaps the width) and the way it rides, steers and deploys its magnificent performance (with the least road noise of any Porsche) is simply marvellous. If this is an omen for what 2021 will bring, we should be happy.
Lockdown sanity saviours
Camped on the lawn: It was surprising how different it felt to work in our Volkswagen California while still in touch with the house wi-fi. Our neighbours thought it weird, though…
Zoomed in on colleagues: We all quickly got used to this and still have meetings every day. Actually, I would say in some ways, we’re in better touch than we ever were.
Played with models: There’s no substitute for little cash therapy. I bought this 1:18-scale Citroën DS and then photographed it in our street. Some thought I had bought the real thing.
Got reading: I enjoyed Dave Phillips’ The Land Rover Story more than anything else I’ve read on the marque, mainly because it explained all-important political landscapes.
Fantasied with configurators: Messing about on a car configurator always makes me feel better. Here’s a new Land Rover Defender that suits my price range.
Cleaned out the garage: This was amazingly cathartic. It took a whole day, but we’re still reaping the benefits months later – and I reckon I still know where everything is.
Against the odds and unlike many, Autocar has had a decent year. We would like to have sold some more magazines, but our online and subscription performances have been terrific. This is entirely down to the continuing support of you, our loyal readers. Weeklies require more loyalty and understanding than other periodicals to stay healthy, and we continue to thrive. Heartfelt thanks from us all – and doubtless from the ghosts of the thousands who, as we were reminded recently, spent 125 years putting us where we are now.