Those who know me if not intimately then at least well enough to keep their distance will be aware that given half a chance I will toss a day or three (and two weeks’ wages) on the pyre of executing cosmetic automotive improvements, or in other words fettling my cars.
Absolutely none of these vehicles has been anywhere near showroom condition, which ought to underline quite how distracted I can become when handed a bottle of trim gel, a hairdryer (for removing unwanted stickers) or a clay bar and detailing spray. In these circumstances my hands are the equivalent of the TARDIS for a faded window seal or a battle-scarred front spoiler, and such accomplishments deliver a hit no drug can rival (you’ll have to trust me on that).
The recent introduction of not just a Suzuki SV650S motorcycle but also a 22-year-old VW Corrado 16V to the family has upset the normal rhythm of my fettling regime, which for a couple of years until last December primarily involved keeping my Saab 9-3 Viggen clean but not so clean that the small patches of tinworm on the rear arches and bootlid would cause sections of the bodywork to break away from the mothership.
No eye-rolling highs there, then. For those I had to turn to cleaning her nibs’ feisty VW Lupo GTI, a fine example whose nick belies its 16 years but which, sadly, isn’t mine. There’s only so much elbow grease you can throw at somebody else’s toy, and I found myself unfulfilled.
Enter the SV and the Corrado. Being a more substantial not to mention older beast with the complex history any vehicle of its age has inevitably accrued, the latter requires the greatest attention. And one day soon I shall bore you witless about that.
Not today. What I want to celebrate is the discovery of yet another gratifying aspect of motorcycle ownership which I hadn’t been prepared for: ease and speed of fettling.
To keep the machine looking its best, on a weekly basis I need do little more than hose it down and give it a wash – the two-bucket method (email me for instructions) using regular car shampoo – before rinsing it and drying the most visible bits with a shammy. Ten minutes and it’s done. The wheels, which are nothing special, get a good wipe with WD40 now and then – a three-minute job. In periods of prolonged bad weather I wash the bike more often and apply ACF-50 regularly during the colder months, but that’s it.
In fact the longest I’ve spent titivating the SV was last weekend, when I borrowed my good lady’s hairdryer (as you can see I have no need for such an apparatus) and finally removed from the frame the original stickers advising me not to wash the bike using turps, to inflate the tyres to the correct pressure and so on. It looks better dirty now than it did than when it was clean beforehand.
Cleaning the SV is a buzz, then, though not half as efficient at ridding the mind of cerebral knots as riding the machine. This malarkey just gets better and better.
Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.
For the past week or so I have been on less than top form, being the victim of a pincer attack by a nuclear-powered cold and a bad back. The cold caused my nose to become a Mount Etna of snot and my lungs a pulmonary Smith & Wesson firing bullets of phlegm as I attempted to immerse myself in the Open Championship from the depths of the sofa. I’ve had colds before, obv, but none like this.
The spinal aches, however, are a recurring niggle that can be traced back to my lifelong yen for the sport Jordan Speith mastered at Royal Birkdale last weekend. Twelve years ago I was still sufficiently robust to carry my golf bats in a bag, and while sauntering blithely down a muddy slope at Littlehill in Glasgow I took a tumble, the weight of the clubs and my torso coming down with an almighty thud upon my coccyx. The resulting herniated disc and associated spinal issues have given me gyp ever since.
What does this have to do with motoring? Simple. I have, you see, been thinking about risk.
Golf, or at least the variant in which most amateurs such as myself participate, is not perceived to be a dangerous pastime, whereas motorcycling is widely seen as colossally treacherous, both by those in the know and those, er, out the know.
A question I have been asked more than once since becoming a rider is: why do something so potentially disastrous to my capacity to walk/talk/breathe, besides for fun? And while it’s tempting to drone on about how my appetite for golf – not alpinism; golf, for God’s sake – has seen me temporarily unable to stand upright, and what could motorcycling possibly do that would be worse, the truth as I see it is that the regular navigation of perilous circumstances is a central pillar of what it means to be alive. And the more you do it, the better you get at it.
Unlike the so-called dangers that governments and corporations insist lurk in every cranny of daily life, on a bike the risks are slap-bang front of you, in darkest black and brightest white. In seven months of riding I have been forced into an emergency stop when a car cut me up (wobble factor on a scale of one to five = one; I was doing 15mph) and watched, powerless, as a VW Polo lurched across my path to reach a motorway exit at the very last moment (WF = three). Most recently, where the M77 merges with the eastbound M8, I was forced prematurely into lane one of the M8 to avoid being crushed by a straying HGV (WF = five).
What I’ve learned from these experiences is this: if you’re going to ride a motorcycle, never forget your vulnerability to even the slightest hazard. Drivers of cars, buses, vans and lorries will always carry out manoeuvres that endanger you, and occupying the moral high ground doesn’t speed up the fusion of bones or the healing of wounds. Assume the worst and always, always have an out.
Oh – and install an action camera on your handlebars or helmet. The chances of remembering a registration number to provide the police with when facing oblivion are nil.
Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.
It is odd how two events from seemingly opposite ends of the arc of life can become connected after a vast amount of time has passed.
In the late 1970s and early 80s as one year segued into the next, my parents would take my brother, two sisters and I to the East Neuk of Fife to stay with our Auntie Jean, my mum’s best friend, and her three children, who were all around the same age as we were. (Whether it was in the mustard tank known as a Volvo 240, a thin-as-tin Renault 4 or a rented Ford Escort when the tank gave up the ghost, driving from Largs to Fife felt like a marathon to us. Lord knows what it felt like to our folks, having to put up with four bickering smart alecs under the age of 15.)
At our destination, a fisherman’s cottage in Cellardyke, just beyond Anstruther, the adults would gather in the living room and knock back after-dinner tipples while the seven of us were busy being whippersnappers elsewhere in the house (the attic was my hangout of choice).
Perhaps in an effort to cultivate any latent impresario tendencies in us children, at least once we were tasked with putting on a gang show-type event for the adults, who could number five or six depending on who’d dropped by for a blether and a heat from the fire. Red-faced on bonhomie and bevvy, they weren’t the hardest audience we’d ever faced, to be honest.
Being the youngest, my turn inevitably, and in retrospect quite rightly, drew a greater degree of attention than the contributions of my fellow performers. Most memorable of all was the end of 1979 and start of 1980, when, obsessed with scowling sub-Bowie electronic pop star Gary Numan, I doused my face and hair in Brut talcum powder (in homage to the look the unsmiling synth-rocker adopted on the cover of the album Replicas), used the handle of a hairbrush as a mic and delivered a near-flawless impression of the Tory pseudo-android performing his No1 hit Cars.
I was eight years old and smitten by anything that involved four wheels. The combustion engine was a given in all cases, the smell of petrol then, as now, intoxicating to me. Such base feelings would be beneath my ice-cool hero, however. He, I was certain, had in mind a car from the future, a machine that was sleek and clean and silent and fast.
Well, I drove that car last week. It isn’t sleek but it is very clean (zero emissions), pretty much silent and dizzyingly fast from point to point. It’s a BMW i3 and if it weren’t so damn ugly (and I had a spare 30 grand) I’d buy one.
The principal issue facing our Gary at the wheel of an i3, I reckon, would be keeping a straight face as he tickled the accelerator and felt the torque whoosh through his cerebral cortex. You don’t see many surly cyborgs grinning from ear to ear, do you?
Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.
Immeasurably more than driving, motorcycle riding is a sensory experience. It’s not that you gain consciousness at the lights having undergone intense hallucinations the likes of which even Timothy Leary might have balked at. It’s more the case that even the most cursory of journeys can send your nostrils twitching or your peepers widening.
The sights you see from the vantage point of a motorcycle saddle span the glorious and the godawful. As the late author Robert Pirsig wrote in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “Through [a] car window everything you see is just more TV … It is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle the frame is gone … You’re in the scene, not just watching it.”
While this means you get a new perspective on rural landscapes, you also get a new perspective on human behaviour, especially when it comes to people using smartphones at the wheel. Texting, watching videos, making calls – I’ve seen it all.
The nose takes a fair battering too when you’re on a bike. If it’s not a cloud of camomile and walnut-flavour vapour billowing from the driver’s window of a premium German car it’s a lungful of illicit smoke floating from the cabin of a Fiat Ducato on a Friday afternoon, or a whopping belch of diesel fumes from the exhaust pipes of a bus (providing there’s any left in the tank. In my experience most of the diesel that buses take on at the depot ends up on the road).
Further thrills are to be had when passing kebab shops, fishmongers, sewage treatment plants and rubbish dumps. It’s even better when you’re forced to stop outside said establishments.
While modern cars all come with suspension so soft you can’t tell when you pass over a cattle grid, motorbikes are not so forgiving. This means your sense of touch is heightened, which in turn informs how involved you become in the practical business of steering the motorcycle, which in turn makes getting from A to B an active pursuit and not, like 99% of car journeys, a passive experience.
Every rut and bump or change of camber can upset the balance of the machine, as can ironworks and road markings. The rider who can find the least disturbed surface will inevitably have the most pleasant ride. You know you’re making progress when you begin to manoeuvre the bike between paint and manholes silkily and almost unconsciously.
As for your ears, like your nose they are subjected to epic levels of abuse, mainly though not exclusively in the form of wind noise. It is, however, a microscopic price to pay for the relentlessly alluring roar/grunt/burble/whistle of whatever exhaust you have stuck on your machine (only squares leave the original pipes on, dude).
All of which leaves one sense unexplored. While it’s fleeting – and the fact it’s required at all is perhaps an indictment of the way most of us choose to lead our lives – it’s at the very heart of the motorcycling experience, and always will be: the taste of freedom. Now that’s a trip.
Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.
It is not an exclusively Italian trait, but spend any time in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy and you soon learn that deification is a popular pastime. Instead of the vulgar creeds of football and celebrity, however, the religions that enchant the denizens of the corridor linking Piacenza with Rimini are altogether more refined: good food and righteous cars.
The gods of the former are, in the main, pasta (handmade), parmesan and balsamic vinegar, while dominating the latter doctrine are such familiar names as Enzo Ferrari and Ferruccio Lamborghini. So revered are these two that you might imagine they led lives entirely free from moral blemish, yet after surveying and savouring the motoring creations that bear their name – and which wouldn’t have existed without them – you forgive the more hyperbolic aspects of the tourist “experience” attached to them.
Modena is the de facto capital of Motor Valley, as the tourist chiefs have branded it: here you will find Ferrari, Maserati and Pagani, while just outside the city limits you’ll find Lamborghini. Of the four, Pagani cares not for the attentions of the hoi polloi and Maserati has no official museum or factory tour, but the other two marques have created predictably high-quality tourist experiences.
It’s at a farm outside Modena that I get my first exposure to a platoon of indescribably handsome Italian vehicles. Built by Umberto Panini (of the sticker dynasty), Hombre is a quirky operation that, on one hand, produces organic Parmigiano-Reggiano and, on the other, houses the late publisher’s collection of cars, motorbikes and tractors.
Maseratis – polished to within an inch of their lives – form the bulk of the collection, and being a child of the 1970s it’s the Bora, Khamsin and Merak that bring me out in a sweat, but the 3500 GT and Ghibli Coupe are impossibly handsome too. There are also examples of the short-lived Maserati line of motorcycles on the ground floor next to a staircase that leads to a row of lovingly fettled classic two-wheelers, among them models by Moto Guzzi, Ducati, BSA, Norton, Ariel and Triumph. There’s even a Scott Super Squirrel from the 1920s.
Unlike collections closer to home which we won’t name, here you are free to wander among the treasures away from the prying eyes of CCTV. Astonishingly, entry is free, as is parking.
A few miles east of Modena and a few hours later I find myself on a guided tour of the Lamborghini factory in Sant’Agata Bolognese. As we are led through the various stages of assembly, first for the V10 Huracan then the V12 Aventador, it’s quite clear the company has come an indescribably long way from its founder’s origins in the manufacture of agricultural machinery.
Conspicuously clean and tidy and operating to a meticulous schedule whereby the vehicles spend exactly 37 minutes at each stage on the production line, this is more laboratory than assembly line, making 11 Huracans and five Aventadors every day, Monday to Friday. That’s correct: Monday to Friday. So exclusive are Lambos that the cars are built to order and the chassis are put together by parent company Audi in Germany. This means the assembly line staff can work from 8am to 5pm, five days a week, with the factory closing at weekends. The perks aren’t too bad either: while they don’t qualify for a staff discount, workers are given the use of a Huracan for the duration of their wedding day. The guide laughs when asked how many times an employee can take advantage of the offer.
Next door to the factory is the Lamborghini museum, where you’ll see the first car to wear the marque’s fighting bull badge, the understated 350 GT, which Ferruccio Lamborghini was prompted to create after a disagreement with Enzo Ferrari about the Ferrari 250 GTO he had bought. But it’s the Miura, arguably the first supercar, which takes the breath away. Designed by Marcello Gandini, who would go on to create the outlines of the Miura’s unapologetically futuristic successor, the Countach, as well as those of another Top Trumps ace card, the Lancia Stratos, there were fewer than 800 Miuras made from 1966 to 1972. If you can find one, it’ll cost you several million pounds.
Less pleasing on the eye is the prototype of a car Lamborghini is placing a lot of faith in and building a new factory for – the Urus, a 4.9m-long SUV. The mere idea of the Urus seems anathema to the marque’s ethos, but money talks and the market research says more and more very wealthy people want very big vehicles in which to gad about. It’ll reputedly top out at 205mph; in my book, anybody who wants to drive an SUV at such a speed is welcome to throw their money away. Also worth mentioning is the fact the prototype has 24-inch wheels (305/35/R24 to be precise). I endeavour to price a full set online but draw a blank.
Running upstairs at the museum until October is an exhibition that will appeal to fans of Formula 1 before it became a sanitised snorefest: Ayrton Senna – The Last Night. Here you can feast your eyes on all the Brazilian’s race cars, including two Formula Fords and his Toleman TG184, as well as the McLaren with a Lamborghini V12 which Senna test drove but never raced. Again, you can get as close to the exhibits as you like short of sitting on them.
Back up the road in Modena it’s time to see what Ferrari has to offer. The answer is not one but two museums. One, dedicated to the company and its creations, is in Maranello, also the location of the Ferrari factory and the F1 team HQ (Ferrari’s test track, Fiorano, is nearby). Here in Modena, however, the motivation behind the Enzo Ferrari Museum appears to be ensuring if not the deification of the car maker’s founder then at least his canonisation.
Firstly you can saunter through the house Ferrari grew up in and the officina or workshop of Ferrari’s father, Alfredo, who died when his son was 18. Ferrari persuaded his widowed mother to sell the building to fund his racing career, and many decades later the company leases it from its owner, who (understandably) refuses to sell it back. If ogling engines is your thing you’ll like the exhibits, but if, like me, you can’t tell a piston from a pulley then you’d do well to march over to the hyper-modern museum itself.
As with Umberto Panini’s Maserati collection, it’s here that you can behold from all angles some of the most elegant objects ever designed by man: a 330 GTC Speciale (one of four), the 166 Mille Miglia, a Dino 206 GT and a 246 GT. After these the more modern models – everything from the 288 GTO to the LaFerrari via the F12tdf – seem rather crass, which perhaps explains why the modern equivalents of celebrated Ferraristi such as Peter Sellers and John Lennon, depicted in a film projected on to a wall of the museum, include Justin Bieber and Gordon Ramsay.
Give me a Dino 246 GT any day, or a 330 GTC Speciale. In fact, make it a Bora. No, scratch that. Give me a Countach.
That’s the effect Motor Valley has on you. It places you at the heart of automotive utopia. Even if only for a few hours, it’s a very nice place to be.
British Airways (ba.com) has return flights from Glasgow to Bologna via London Heathrow from £232.
Where to stay
Central Park Modena (centralparkmodena.com) has double rooms from €135 per night.
Never having met anyone called Golf, or MX-5, or 320i Touring for that matter, it is cheering finally to come across a person who shares a name with my charabanc. The fact I have just spent six hours getting from Scotland to the heart of Italy means it is doubly uplifting, since I’m tired and in need of a boost.
“Aha – very good!” he says, looking at my iPhone as I hold it before him, his broad smile the only thing ruining an otherwise peachy impression of a dwarf Bryan Ferry circa Avalon crossed with Lou Diamond Phillips’s dad. “You are a Corrado,” I have just said, before pointing at the screen, “and this is a Corrado – my Corrado!”
It breaks the ice.
Into his car I slump before we haul ass out of Bologna airport and head to the small city of Reggio-Emilia. This is my second visit to Italy in six weeks, having been to Tuscany for my brother-in-law’s wedding at the end of April before hiring a car and visiting Venice, Treviso and Bologna.
As usual, driving and motorcycle riding are never far from my thoughts on this June afternoon, and with nobody in the Jaguar XF Sportbrake but me and Signor Corrado I fumble metaphorically in my pockets and locate, amid the fluff, something which looks very much like The Banter, or at least Man Chat.
“Why did you buy a British car?” I ask. Signor Corrado’s response would fill this page, but the short answer is he didn’t want a big German estate like everybody else, so he bought a big British estate instead.
We natter about Fiat, about Alfa Romeo, about the dreaded Dacia. I tell Signor Corrado that during my last visit I was initially unenthused by the predominant driving style of his countrymen, which amounts to veering this way and that and never indicating, a system which is rapidly gaining ground in the UK.
At this point one-third of the Jag is in the middle lane while the other two-thirds are in the fast lane, as they have been for half a mile. We are a gnat’s eyelash away from the Fiat 500 in front (90% of vehicles in Italy are Fiat 500s) and travelling at 85mph.
Pressing hard on an imaginary brake pedal with my right foot, I tell my chauffeur that my misgivings about Italian drivers soon gave way to approval for three reasons.
Firstly, everyone strays between lanes in precisely the same way, meaning you can predict how other motorists will behave. Secondly, the lack of indicating is entirely consistent – nobody indicates, not even nuns, so you quickly stop getting angry about it. Thirdly, everybody is trying to reach their destination as quickly as possible, whereas in Britain there is every chance of getting stuck behind a retired librarian in a Kia Picanto with a passion for hypermiling. If not swift, progress here is at least brisk most of the time.
As soon as you accept these conditions, driving in Italy is a cinch, I tell Signor Corrado. “Hmm,” he replies inattentively, absorbed by the complexities of his Bluetooth phone system, two wheels in the fast lane, mere feet from the car in front, barrelling along at 80mph.
I look out of the window across the plain and breathe deeply. When in Rome …
Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.