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Summertime BMW 123d Rally Road Trip › VW California › Mazda MX5


RAG TOP RALLY ROAD TRIP Phil Royle and ROAD super-snapper, Neil Denham, take a 600-mile rag top road trip in the BMW 123d M Sport Convertible, in search of a piece of rally history – Hannu Mikkola’s 1972 East Safari winning Mk1 Escort legend


oad snapper, Neil Denham got a most interesting phone call recently, from a lovely Northumberland architect, garage owner, car restorer and rally driver, Gordon Currie, which we simply could not ignore... Mr Currie had kindly offered us access to a sumptuous slice of rally history – Hannu Mikkola’s 1972 East African Rally winning Mk1 Escort... and an exact, ace, perfect replica, which Gordon himself had created of the legend, in his own car restoration garage up in deepest, darkest Northumberland, in the shadow of

Hadrian’s Wall. It seemed like the ideal excuse to brave the eccentric English summer time weather, book a rag top to test, load an overnight bag and head oop north on a road trip, so we did... The car we chose for the 600-mile round road trip was this £29,395, Black Sapphire BMW 123d M Sport, complete with most questionable Lemon Boston leather. Yuck! 123d reasons? Well, it’s available in rag top, sorry BMW branders, convertible form - to make full use of yet another fabulous British summer (see image above).

It’s also quite rapid, with a claimed 0-60 mph time of seven seconds (actually recorded at 6.5s by the Racelogic P-Box) and an untested, but quoted and believable, ney, impressive 148 mph top speed, from its all-alloy, two-litre, twinturbo, DOHC, 16V, Direct Fuel Injection engine (offering 201 bhp at a remarkably dull 4,400 rpm, but a gutsy and user-friendly 295 lb ft torque from just 2,000 rpm), matched to a slick sixspeed manual gearbox. And being a dirty diesel, it’s also darn efficient, offering a claimed 48 mpg average, and over 600-mile

range - just what we needed for the road trip to rally Mecca. In reality, that 48 mpg was hard to achieve, as was the 600-mile range. But the 123d did cover ground quickly, and effortlessly, if with a complete and utter lack of emotion and driver involvement. It also suffered from the same blight as it’s big brother, the 300 bhp, muchhigher revving, much more fun 135i twin turbo petrol namely a distinct, ney disturbing lack of steering feel, even if the chassis and sus-

pension set-up were pleasantly neutral, as per usual with RWD BMW’s. Ride quality is favoured over handling prowess, as with all M Sport branded

ving, dull-sounding diesel rag top (surely you want to enjoy engine/exhaust noise, and not be made to feel queasy by the sickly sweet stench of diesel in the air going topless?), and, as you can see, I fail to get this motor, at all. Yes, it’s well BMW’s I’ve tested. Make no built. Yes, it’s comfortable. mistake, there’s a gulf the Yes, it’s not bad to look at. size of the Grand Canyon And yes, it’s economical, between M Sport and Mand quick. But, thinking Power division BMW’s. about my forgettable 600 And, at 1495Kg, the 123d miles in the 123d M Sport, is also a bit of lard arse. a saying comes to mind... Add to this the sheer Jack of all trades, master of pointlessness of a low-rev- none. Yawn. Yawn. Yawn.

“A saying comes to mind... Jack of all trades, master of none”


In 1972, Hannu Mikkola drove a Mk1 Escort to an historic victory on the East Safari Rally, and won by a whopping 23 minutes. We found the car, and a talented man who has built an exact replica to enjoy, sideways!


here’s no denying the talents of Mr Gordon Currie: Successful architect (, car restoration garage owner, clubman rally driver and creator of this exacting replica of Hannu Mikkola’s 1972 East African winning Mk1 Escort - a luscious slice of rally history. The original 1,850cc legend used to rest, with just 3,500 miles on its clock, in the foyer of Cumbrian rally giants,

M Sport, owned by rallying hero and Ford Motorsport team boss, Malcolm Wilson - a friend and fellow rally competitor of Mr Currie. “I got rather drunk with Malcolm at a party in the early 1990’s, and managed to persuade him to allow me part-ownership of the original Mk1, until two years ago, when I bought the car outright,” says Gordon. “It had not been run in 15 years or so,” he adds. Gordon’s love of the classics in rallying, the Mk1 being his favourite (and he has competed in Lancia’s infamous Delta Integrale, Metro 6R4’s and C-Type Jags, to name but a few), led him to rightly cherish and preserve the original, which he has done, to perfection. But Gordon also wanted to enjoy Clubman rallying in the Mk1, and so set about the painstaking process of creating an exact replica of Hannu Mikkola’s East African victorious Escort... the one you can see at full opposite lock on this page, blasting around broadside in this Tarmac quarry in

Northumberland (thanks ever so much to Graeme Hall). The standard of workmanship on the replica is so proficient and precise, only a true rally geek or bodywork specialist would be able to tell them apart. This is a work of true genius, a labour of love and a fine testament to Gordon’s skilled car restoration garage technicians, and him. And, as Gordon aptly demonstrated driving full chat, broadside around the gravel

quarry, showing off his years of rally experience, it drives and is set-up just as well as the original too. Time spent in the company of lovely people, with a passion for cars is always good in my book. And time spent sideways, in a rally car, on the loose, better still. This was, without doubt, one of the grandest days out I’ve had in a long time: More than making up for the dull 600-mile road trip in a modern C21st, soulless machine, to get here.

The BMW 123d and this Mk1 Escort are polar opposites. Yin and Yang. ROAD can not praise Gordon enough for not only preserving the life of a perfect rally legend, but worshiping it so finely, building this perfect carbon copy to such high standards, and then using it, in its rightful environment - totally sideways through forests, on gravel, at serious speed and with that unmistakable snarl and bark from the 1,850cc BDA engine. Rally heaven.

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california dreamin’ Summer time, and, in the all-new VW California SE Bi-Turbo, the living is most definitely easy, and one hell of a lot of fun. It might cost a hefty £43,515 OTR, but could this be the finest vehicle in the history of motoring?


he VW Campervan is an undeniable legend. And, secretly, in amongst my Porsche, Aston Martin, Bugatti Veyron and Ferrari unrealistic fantasies, I’ve always hankered after one: An old 1960’s ‘split screen,’ with a Porsche 911 964 engine and running gear, to be precise. Then Jamie Oliver built one, and the dream sort of died. And I can never tolerate vehicles that are (a) unreliable, stranding you at the roadside, forgetting their primary function as something to transport you from A-B, or (b) painfully slow. Slow is a form I can only handle on a canal boating holiday. I also hate the 1980’s Campervans, which sold out on the original vibe of the cool, casual, credible, cult Campers. As such, I’ve never lived the dream and bought

one, and my interest levels waned... Until now that is, with the launch of the all-new California Campervan. This latest offering from VW is the culmination of six decades of a brand, ney, a lifestyle. And, unlike all Campervans before it, this model is unique - being VW’s first full factory-designed and produced model; not one bastardised from a stock van. The model range starts at £39,965, for the 140PS TDi (£41,615 with DSG gearbox), and graduates to the AWD 4Motion at £44,465, with a stunning 180PS BiTurbo diesel engine. And I’ve got this mid-range, front-wheel-drive, Candy White, 180PS Bi-Turbo DSG on test, priced at £43,515. Yes, it’s expensive. Quite shockingly so. But not compared to a motorhome, and

this has all they have to offer - less a lav’. The lav’ is the only thing this epic vehicle lacks though. It’s 180PS, 400 Nm Bi-Turbo engine is brilliant, matched to the equallysuperb DSG gearbox: Fast (117 mph top end) and frugal (35 mpg combined quoted, conservatively). And the ride quality and comfort levels are sublime. But it’s the build quality, and design brilliance that make this California so special. Everything is a design masterpiece. And it’s ability to be cool, a great drive, practical and yet also massive fun with its effortless ability to transform into a home from home and the very definition of ‘glamping’ is what makes it amazing. The California is loaded with two, easy to operate, super-comfy double berths - one below, converting from the rear bench seat in a simple slide, the other up top, produced hydraulically & instantaneously with the push of a button on the easy-to-use central control panel, and complete with fly screens and pod light. There’s a wickedly efficient refrigerator, two powerful

gas rings, 30-litre fresh water container, folding table (stored snugly in the sliding door), two folding chairs (stowed away neatly in the tailgate), ample clothes cupboards & boot space, generous kitchen units, chic stainless steel sink, flexible worktop, air con (for hot nights) and auxillary heater (for chill ones), storage drawer with all your camping site hook-ups in, remote control access to the eightspeaker iPod-CD-Radio (& optional Sat Nav), blackout screens, curtains, a roll-out awning (£360 option) and, Captain Kirk-style front seats, which swivel around to face the main living area,

complete with arm rests and multiple adjustment. The California wants for nothing (bar that lav’!), and offers everything - with style, stunning design and practicality and, most true to its heritage... FUN, by the bucket load. Every journey in this is an adventure. I’ve tested and hankered after many press cars mostly sickly swift, oversteering powermonsters I could never afford. But I can honestly say, I’ve never wanted a press car to stay on my driveway as much as the new VW California SE Bi-Turbo. Now, I’m California dreamin’... I just need to raise the £43,515 now!

“I’ve never wanted a press car to stay on my driveway so much”


21 Today

It’s not easy updating a legend. Mazda’s MX-5 celebrates its 21st birthday this year, and the world’s most successful sportscar is definitely all grown up – now with a six-speed “Powershift” auto transmission option. But is it still having fun?


really don’t envy the boffins at Mazda. Imagine the fear created when being told by the powers that be in the boardrooms to update and improve the world’s most successful sports car – the MX-5 – which has sold more than 854,000 models globally. What if you get it wrong? Sure, the job was done

well with the introduction of the third generation of MX-5 in 2006, but, when asked to re-work what was a brilliant step forward from the original 1989-1998 Mk1 and then the 1999-2005 Mk2, with an updated face-lift of the very C21st Mk3, boffins must have been worried. One thing the boardroom boys got right, was price:

The model range starts at £16,565, peaking out at £21,895 - which is darn good value for such a legendary sportscar - known and respected for its handling prowess, fun factor and universal appeal. The tweaks are subtle, which is probably best. There’s still a choice of a 1.8-litre – offering 126 bhp

and 123 lbft (9.9s to 60mph, 121 mph and 40.4 mpg) – or the two-litre engine, as we have on test here, complete with re-worked ‘Powershift’ six-speed automatic, with steering wheel paddles (which is remarkably good, though not in VW’s DSG league). The 1999cc, 16V, DOHC, four-pot offers 160 bhp and 139 lbft, 0-60 mph in 7.6s, 132 mph V-Max and improved 36.7 mpg; mainly due to keeping weight to 1155 Kg; a key ingredient of the MX-5 magic, like the oversteer inducing limited slip differential. Banzai! There’s also now a more muscular, manly body with new, fatter bumpers, side skirts, tail-lights and fivenode grille. And the front end is designed to reflect the branding of the Mazda 2, 6 and RX-8 models. Inside, there’s more supportive, comfy Recaro seats, jushi new dials/dash, ace Bose stereo, more storage and better sound insu-

lation. And the manual roof is as easy as ever to pop up and down: Design brilliance. The best news is in the already brilliant handling department – now with uprated Bilstein monotube damping and new front suspension pivot points; lowering the roll centre and providing classic MX-5 thrills, spills and oversteer galore. The top-down, back road blast experience in an MX5, with the sun beating down on your face, tunes up loud and a fat smile on your face is as good as ever, better even – thanks to the increased chassis rigidity, suspension tweaks and the drop in weight enhancing the driving experience. The only (minor) downside is a lack of accuracy in the steering feel. The MX-5 may be 21 years old, and certainly has grown up, gaining more class, a greater economy and better looks, but, crucially, it still knows how to have fun.


Ford heritage GOLD!

The Ford Heritage Centre at the Dagenham plant is a Mecca for any blue oval lover, filled to bursting with hereos of the past... today, also including Tony Hadley, of 1980’s pop supergroup, Spandau Ballet: “GOLD!”


or those of us who have a passion for the blue Oval brand, deep Essex’s finest – Ford – there’s a secret place of pure magic, the stuff of dreams... called the Ford Heritage centre. Occupying an incongruous industrial unit on the way into the main factory site in Dagenham, you could easily drive past thinking it was a maintenance workshop. But don’t be fooled by its dull exterior... Inside, covered in polythene dust sheets lurks an amazing collection of some of the all time retro Fords, cult classics and pieces of motoring and motorsport history: From ancient Model T’s, a Model A, Mk1 Zephyr, Prefects, Corsair 2000, genuine RS200’s, GT’s, a three-litre Granada, to more soupedup Transits vans than you can believe; including an ace WRC-modified recce model and even a V8 drag-

ster. And there’s Anglias, Fiestas, Escorts and Capris galore, not to mention the final ever Cortina to be built – a 1982 Y-plate 1.6. My personal fav though is Hannu Mikkola’s London to Mexico rally car, H1 FEV, the sister vehicle to the 1970 winner. Sweet as... The Ford Heritage Centre, run by true Ford enthusi-

asts, Fleet administrator, John Nevill and cared for by Ivan Bartholomeusz and Colin Gray, is a real honour (sadly, it is not open to members of the public) and pleasure to visit... so we jumped at the chance to go back (having been here a year previously, to have a day out in the Escort Cosworth), especially as we

heard another classic from the attic would be there – the lovely, painfully shy 80’s lead singer of Spandau Ballet, Tony Hadley. Mr Hadley was visiting the centre as a promo and thanks for Ford supplying him and his Spandau Ballet band members a fleet of new S-MAX TDCi two-litre autos as tour vehicles, for their 2009 ‘Reformation’ Tour – with gigs in Dublin, Belfast Odyssey, Sheffield Arena, SECC Glasgow, LG in Brum, Metro in Newcastle, MEN in Manchester, Echo in Liverpool and the O2 Arena in their home

“I love cars, and have always been a fan of the classics” town of London, where ROAD Art Ed, Bonnie and I had a cracking night out, thanks boys. Tony said: “I’m here today to meet the Ford Heritage team and say thanks to Ford for the kind loan of the fleet of S-MAX’s for our tour. They have made perfect tour vehicles. You’ve got everything you need: It’s all leathered-up and sat-nav’d up and I love the panoramic sunroof; that’s cool. “I love cars, and have al-

ways been a big fan of the classics... and fast cars... Some of these cars take me back and remind me of ‘The Sweeney’ and stuff like that. It’s great.” And how is the Reformation Tour going Tony? “We weren’t really sure what the reaction would be after 20 years, but, as soon as we came on stage in Dublin, we knew it was all good. The crowds have been fantastic We are happy boys.” True. Gold!


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ROAD Ed, Phil lightly fettles one of the most modifiable, affordable, underrated, practical performance cars available for under £7000: Audi’s ace B5 S4 bi-Turbo

Dunlop Sport maxx The only point of contact with the road... tyres. As such, a vital, and oft overlooked product for tuners. I’ve already tested these new Dunlop Sport Maxx TT (standing for ‘Touch Technology,’ with carbonfibre weaved into the rubber, for added feedback via increased sidewall rigidity), and found them to be truly excellent. And, on the AWD S4, they have been superb - offering amazing improvements to grip feel, very proficient grip levels in the dry and a real feeling of security in the wet, thanks to the added feedback. Their wear rate is very acceptable too, even with the grip levels generated from the combination of the S4’s ace Quattro system, and the Dunlop Sport Maxx TT tyres. I highly recommend these to any performance enthusiast. Trick stuff.

////////////////////////////// //////////////////////////////// Bilstein PSS9 B16 coilover kit I’ve had some good, bad and ugly results from fitting coilovers. Thankfully, these B16 PSS9 coilovers from market leaders, Bilstein, are in the good, ney, VERY good category. Tested extensively on the punishing, and most road-like race track - the epic Nordschleife - these height and multiple bump/ rebound adjustable (oh-so easy, with the turn of a well machined dial) units not only fit (to B5 S4 or RS4) perfectly, thanks to exacting design and perfect manufacturing, but do a wonderful job. The S4 handles very well in standard spec, with a mild hint of understeer, but is a little soft for track use. These Bilstein’s radically flatten out the handling, providing much improved, neutral, chassis/wheel/tyre control, and so, far greater accuracy. And setting them up stiffer, or lower, for tracks is easy. A1 gear.

Milltek Sports cat exhaust system Fitting an uprated aftermarket exhaust system to a turbocharged car (especially one with a remapped ECU, like my S4: Superchips) is a superb way of reducing back pressure in the turbochargers and standard, restrictive exhaust system, particularly in the cats. Gas flow is radically increased and as a result, torque is liberated and peak power increased, at higher revs also. Milltek Sports, in my opinion having tested many, make the best exhaust systems on the market: Not only are they designed and made beautifully, they fit with consummate ease, create very good power and torque gains, but, crucially, are never intrusive in sound, with horrible resonance. Instead, the V6 growl on the S4 has just been subtly enhanced, when at full chat and now lets off a lovely burble on idle. Perfection.

////////////////////////////////////////// ////////////////////////////////////////// Millers engine & Transmission oils

Forge motorsport Blow off valves Turbocharged cars, like my S4, have blow off valves (BOV’s), often called “dump valves,” preventing compressor surge “loading,” by allowing compressed air to vent to atmosphere (or be recirculated), to reduce wear on the turbocharger and engine. Manufacturers use cheap plastic BOV’s, which don’t offer the same turbocharger protection, longevity & surge control as uprated, metal units, like these from Forge Motorsport. They’re made from billet aluminium and are a re-circulating diverter valve system – dumping the charge-air back into the air intake system (no annoying hissing!). They last longer, have a higher clamping load of the valve maintaining boost pressure and quicken throttle response, thus reducing turbocharger lag when you are off the throttle. Another cracking mod to the S4.

Engine and transmission fluids, like tyres, are often forgotten as a vital way to keep your car in perfect order. And fluid changes on turbocharged cars every 5,000 miles are vital - for engine longevity and maximum performance. Transmission fluids on AWD systems, like the Quattro are also essential, to maintain perfect function. Upgrading to fully synthetic oils offers greater protection and performance, and I choose Millers Oils, having had great success with them (dyno tested), on my rally Impreza. The latest idea is to use ‘nanotechnology’ to radically reduce wear rates: It’s been used in BTCC this year, with great success. And, if it’s good enough for them, it’s certainly good enough for my S4. I also used CVL Turbo as an octane boosting fuel additive on track days.


TYRES: SUSPENSION: EXHAUST: BOV: FLUIDS: INSURANCE: PURCHASE: Thanks for the generous support of the sponsors above, who have all been tested impartially and come up trumps. The S4 is radically improved in all areas, by these fabulous products. And, thanks Dave Green – one of the best engineers and garage owners I have ever had the pleasure of sharing a ramp with – at Henstead Motorsport ( or 01502-714177).

ROAD 6  

Summertime special! BMW 123d road trip to meet Hannu Mikkola's Mk1 East African-winning Escort rally car. VW California campervan glamping....

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