Saturday, March 28, 2009


Occasionally, very occasionally, a new car is produced which takes your breath away. Not necessarily because of its beauty, or its performance, but because it is so different from anything which has ever gone before.

This happens so infrequently because many important things need to occur at the same time for this particular egg to produce a chicken. Developing a new car is a fearsomely expensive proposition – many hundreds of millions of pounds, so whoever’s going to do it needs an awful lot of cash. Some one needs a real vision, something that most of us say can’t be done. And that person with the vision needs to have the power to commit the enormous funds to a project which most of the people around him probably think will not work.

Committees and concensus, which is the way of most of the World’s Motor Companies simply don’t understand that approach at all – all they want is Safe and Secure. But just occasionally, thank Goodness, the genius overwhelms the mundane.

Sometimes what comes out of this is outrageously expensive. The Bugatti Veyron, produced at a rumoured development cost of £400 million, and with a planned production of around 300 units is one such. It was made because the boss of VW, one Ferdinand Piech, wanted to make it, at any cost, just to say he could. The loss on each car, which they sold for almost £1million each is suggested to be two or three times that figure. But the man wanted to do it, was in a position to do it, had no work colleagues who could tell him not to be so silly, and keep their jobs, so he did it. Simple as that.

I suppose you could account for that one as a rather large Marketing Investment for VW. Or the most expensive Auto-ego trip in the History of the World.

But more often, the vehicles which fall into this category are at the other end of the scale. Two or three come to mind. The original Beetle, sired by Ferdinand Porsche (interestingly Ferdinand Piech's Grandfather - there must be a story there), the Citroen 2CV sired by Pierre-Jules Boulanger and the BMC Mini, designed by Alec Issigonis. All were one person and one person alone’s view of starting with a very large, very clean sheet of paper. They all must have written down a simple design Brief, and thought logically and ruthlessly about how best they could achieve the Brief, ignoring totally the frettings of jobsworths Marketing proles adn whisperings of all their design mates saying “We tried that and it didn’t work” or “You can’t do that.”

This piece is really leading up to a few thoughts about a new car which is just on the market, but I’m going to scribble away for a while on one of the three pieces of engineering genius mentioned above to set the scene for today’s market entry, to show that nothing is ever new – it just gets reinvented if the times are right.

So, of the three, I’ll pick the Citroen 2CV, just because we used to have one in the family. Just look at it.


Its Design Brief is quite famous, and today’s Chief Engineers’ minds would boggle at it. It said, apparently –

… a low-priced, rugged "umbrella on four wheels" that would enable two peasants to drive 100 kg (220 lb) of farm goods to market at 60 km/h (37 mph), in clogs and across muddy unpaved roads if necessary. (France at that time had a very large rural population, who had not yet adopted the automobile, due to its cost – note this bit for later!) The car would use no more than 3 litres of petrol to travel 100 km (78mpg). Most famously, it would be able to drive across a ploughed field without breaking the eggs it was carrying. Boulanger (the man in charge) later also had the roof raised to allow him to drive while wearing a hat.

What he ended up with was a piece of genius, minimalist engineering that ran for over 40 years until the Nineties. Nothing was sacred to him in his aim to bring motoring to a whole new range of people. Compared to what had gone before, it was a breathtaking piece of audacious belief in the need to do things totally differently. And succeeding.

It had front and rear interconnected all wheel suspension (to make it ride like a Rolls Royce), inboard front brakes (same reason), an aircooled 2 cylinder engine (to save cost), bolt on wings front and rear (to save cost and make it easy to repair – have you ever driven in France?), detachable, hingeless doors (to save cost), flap up windows (to save the cost of the winder mechanism), and a full length fabric sunroof. It looked like an upturned pram and handled like an unruly yacht in a high wind.

To save cost, there were no anti-roll bars on the suspension. But the ride was excellent – it floated over the roads quite brilliantly – the eggs did not get broken. It had an utterly unique gear change pattern, which looked really odd until you thought about it and tried it. At which point, you realised that everyone else, before and after, had got it wrong. To save cost, the windscreen wipers had no separate motor – they were powered via a cable from the engine. The faster you went, the faster they went. Simple.

To save cost, it had no radiator, no coolant, no water pump and no thermostat. It had no distributor and no hydraulics. Because the cooling fan and the dynamo were integral parts of the crankshaft, no drive belts were needed to power them. His philosophy must have been - If you can do without a particular component, then leave it out. If it’s not there, it can’t go wrong.

On the one we had, the air conditioning was provided by a forward facing flap which you opened (manually) from the top of the dashboard, allowing the wind to pass into the car. The de-luxe models had a wire mesh grille in the aperture to stop (most of) the bugs and creepy crawlies which would otherwise breathe their last as they flew up your nose at 60 mph. If you wanted to go on a picnic in ours, you stopped at your chosen site, opened the back door, or slid it off its hinge, and took out the back seat, whereupon you immediately had a picnic bench. I’ve tried that with my expensive Audi, and you can forget it.

The thread which runs through all this from a design viewpoint is not “Make it Cheap” which makes it unreliable, but “Let’s not have it at all”, or if we can’t do that, let’s design it to be as utterly simple as possible, whilst staying within the Design Brief. I’ll bet a copy of that Brief was on every Citroen Engineer’s wall, and if they finished the day and what they’d done didn’t match it, they binned it all and started again tomorrow.

So you end up with a very minimalist car, which looked like a joke, but ran like a train, and did exactly what it was supposed to do. There was next to nothing to go wrong, and the bits it did have, ran for ever because they were so simple. It was immense fun to drive, cornering on its door-handles, but it could keep up in the bends with much more esoteric machinery. It phutted its 2 cylinder, 33 horsepower way along today’s motorways at 70 mph, although it has to be admitted that it did take an awful length of time to get there.

So you just developed a different driving style in which, momentum having been gained over a few minutes of gentle, but flat out acceleration, ensured that it was never lost. Corners were taken as if you were competing in the Americas Cup, and the idea of ever braking was pushed to the bottom of the list of possible solutions to any given driving situation. You even took note of the wind strength and direction when starting a long run – it would affect quite considerably how long the journey would take.

The only thing it was bad at was having an accident. The steel shell was paper thin, and that was before the rust set in to make it even thinner. It weighed 560 kilogrammes, about a third of an equivalent car today. I dread to think what the seatbelts were mounted onto. The thought of an airbag in this thing was the cause for hysterical laughter. You simply had to hope that you kept away from everyone else at any sensible speed. Which of course made you do exactly that.

But they made around 5 million of them over a period of 42 years, and changed the way of low cost motoring for the masses. The eccentric, but very astute motoring journalist, LJK Setright, called it “the most intelligent application of minimalism ever to succeed as a car.” And he knew what he was talking about.

Part 2 of this piece looks at today’s take on roughly the same design brief.

Watch this space.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


There was a time, in the last century, when you could say anywhere in the world that British Television produced the best drama series on the planet, and no-one would bother to argue with you. The Boys from the Blackstuff, Brideshead Revisited, Quatermass, Edge of Darkness, Inspector Morse, The Singing Detective, The Prisoner, Tutti Frutti, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Elizabeth R, I Claudius, The Biederbeck Trilogy, A Very Peculiar Practice, That’s Life… the list never ends.

Except of course, that it does end. In about 1995.

These pieces of work are worthy of standing alongside any of the great films of that era. And if you think some of those films qualify as Great Art, you have to accord that accolade to the TV productions as well. Picking two at (relative) random, “Edge of Darkness” is a mid Eighties stunner about the Nuclear World and the limits of power of Governments vs Multinationals, written by Troy Kennedy Martin – he of Z Cars fame. “Tutti Frutti” is one of the blackest comedies you’ll ever see, about a “has-been” Scottish Rock band on their Silver Jubilee tour of the less well known parts of Scotland. It popped up on BBC2 when I suspect I was the only viewer, and then a few weeks later, was repeated on BBC1. Since then, nothing. No video, no DVD. If I had my way, I would make it a Capital offence, punishable by death (or something very similar) if the BBC could not organise to show it again within a year, starting from today. There are people dying today who will go to their graves never having seen it. It’s that good.

Now it may be my creeping senility, or some form of critical Brain degradation on my part, but since that time, the TV series which have captured my attention have been almost exclusively American. I can’t think why, but it’s as black and white as you can get. Before 1995 – Britain, after 1995 American.

Actually, I don’t think it’s me, I think it’s them. The BBC and the other UK TV companies. They suddenly decided that taking artistic risks was not a good idea anymore. Maybe it was tied in with the way the political climate in this country changed with Blair and his accolytes, and the way the pervasive influence of Health and Safety ground its nasty little way into the sinews of our life, but the stuffing seemed to go out of the collective TV artistic departments in the UK almost overnight.

And in America, almost the exact opposite happened. Why?

Things like HBO happened, and blossomed, and the major networks followed suit. Home Box Office is a USA wide, subscription channel which has consistently pushed drama boundaries and produced programmes of the highest quality in the way that the Beeb and the other UK channels used to do, but don’t do anymore. They’re independent, so they can go their own sweet way artistically. They’ve got a lot of money – almost 40 million subscriptions in the USA, so they can afford to throw some serious cash at their programmes. They’re not alone, but they are probably the leaders in all this. The results speak for themselves.

Looking at my shelf of DVDs, the ones which take pride of place are The West Wing, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, 24, and my latest viewing Marathon, The Wire. There’s no British DVDs of the same era on the shelf anywhere, which is really rather sad.

I’ve bleated on about the West Wing before on this site. Six Feet Under is a distinctly acquired taste about a dysfunctional(ish) family who run a Funeral Home. The series addresses one of the great No-Nos of our age – Death, and Dying. But it does it startlingly well.

The reason I’m scribbling this down now is that I’m having a mid series break from The second series of The Wire. Set in Baltimore, the series addresses the crimes of the city in a graphic and often depressingly realistic way. You see it from the side of the Police and the legal authorities, but interlaced with the view from inside the criminals’ minds. You quickly realise that not all the cops are good, and not all the criminals are bad. They’re human and real, and that’s what gives it its edge.

I sat and watched the 13 episodes of Series 1 in two evenings - which made my wife very happy, by the way. But it was riveting stuff.

All I can say is if you’ve seen it you’ll know what I’m going on about, and if you haven’t and don’t mind the sometimes unpleasant realities of life being shown in an effort to explain the real complexities and subtleties of life in a sprawling urban environment, then you have a real treat in store for you.

But don’t take your eyes off it. There are no helpful introductions, or plot set-ups. They don’t even tell you which actor plays which role. You have to work it all out on the fly, and heaven help you if you blink, or pop out to make a cup of tea. It’s a densely composed piece of work which treats you like a grown up.

Anyway, watch it, and let’s hope that someone in the Beeb has enough balls and power to stand up and say “That’s what we should be doing – Sod Dancing on Ice and The X Factor”.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


I don’t like flying.

I have a decent degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the 5th best University on the Planet. I’ve read and absorbed all the stats that tell me I’m safer flying in an aeroplane than I am driving to the airport. I also know that airline pilots don’t have their life insurance premiums loaded because of the hazardous nature of their jobs anymore than burger flippers in McDonalds do - actually I don't know if McDonalds burger flippers have increased Insurance premia, but you get my point.

In my defence, I have also flown solo several times in a 30 year old wooden glider, yanked 1000 feet up into the air by what looked like a (not very well) converted farm tractor. So, at least I've tried it.

But I still don’t like flying.

I still do it, because it used to be part and parcel of my job, and there are places in the world I want to visit, where any other way of getting there is almost unworkable. But my knuckles are a very pale shade of white for much of the time when we're buzzing along.

One of the things I do hope in my attempt to sleep well before a flight however is that the guys who police the Air Safety system are looking after my interests with unblinking vigilance. Mine (as in the passenger), and mine alone rather than the big businesses of the Aircraft Industry. They’re big enough and ugly enough to look after themselves in my view.

In the UK, we have the Civil Aviation Agency and the Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB). In Europe there is the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), and in America there is the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). You would like to think that, on safety matters, they all spoke with one voice, or at least you would find difficulty getting a cigarette paper between their views. We, the customers, rely on these guys to take the necessary decisions which might just keep us alive. It’s as simple as that.

Fast forward now to the Boeing 777, a two engined plane which has sold in many hundreds over the last few years. Its modern design, its massive level of economy and its slightly smaller size (compared to a 747 Jumbo) means that this plane is used increasingly in these straitened times as much as possible by the airlines who have them in their fleets. This aeroplane can be fitted with either Rolls Royce or General Electric Engines, and there is intense rivalry between both of these companies to power the next order that Boeing secure.

A couple of worrying “incidents” have occurred recently to two 777s, both powered by Rolls Royce engines – one a Delta plane in the USA, which lost power temporarily in one engine, and the other a BA plane which crash landed at Heathrow following a scary loss of power in both engines in the last stages of the approach.

Both incidents were apparently caused by the build up of ice particles in the fuel system, which blocked the flow of fuel through a heat exchanger thus resulting in a dramatic loss of power when power was what the pilot wanted above all else. No-one was killed in either incident, but, in the case of the Heathrow accident, this seemed to be because of prompt and responsive reactions from the pilot and God being on his side that day.

There seems no disagreement between anyone involved as to the cause of the accidents. If I’ve read it correctly, flying for a long time in a very cold environment seems to be the cause of the ice build up. If you read the AAIB report, the Trent (Rolls Royce) powered 777s have flown 6.5 million hours in total, and the Heathrow accident was the first time such a failure had occurred. It seems clear from the report that the flight temperatures experienced during the Heathrow flight were on the margins (70 out of 13,000) of the total RR 777 flights to date. But these "incidents" still should not have happened.

From my simple mind, one difficulty here is that the redundancy built into aircraft systems (for instance, 3 computer systems, with the aircraft taking the advice of the two good ones when the 3rd goes off the rails etc) doesn’t seem to work. If the environment outside can affect one engine system to the point where the ice builds up on the Heat exchanger inlet, then it’s not difficult to expect that a second engine situated a few yards to the left of that one is going to find itself in a similar situation. Even my conceptual, rhetorical discussion about whether the complexity of 4 engines outweighs the benefits offered by 2 engines goes out of the window here. If 2 engines can ice up, why shouldn’t 4? I’m still a believer in the More the Better from an engine point of view, but I'd rather that the engines kept running while the aeroplane was up in the air.

If you trawl through the AAIB’s report, and get to the summary, what you finds is as follows.

This is the first such event in 6.5 million flight hours and places the probability of the failure as being ‘remote’ as defined in EASA CS 25.1309.

Which seems to say that, in their eyes, this is an issue but not a major problem. That’s the UK (and Europe) speaking. And it conveniently passes the buck to the EASA in the event that, in the future, a Trent powered 777 falls out of the sky with serious results. But that report does not take into account the implications of the second Delta incident which occurred at a later date.

The problem starts when you get into the “What now?” bit of the discussion. Do you ground the Rolls 777 fleet until a sollution is in place? It would seem that Rolls needs some 12 months to design, test and certify and then manufacture and install the solution to the problem. In the meantime, Boeing and Rolls have issued a raft of operational changes which the airlines need to implement before they get the redesigned parts. These include periodic reductions and increases in engine power and the possible use of fuel additives. All of which increases the pilot workload, and could result in a catastrophic chain of events with no recovery, if such a problem occurred close to the ground.

The real issue here, from the wary and slightly knowledgeable passenger (ie Me), is – Is that response sufficient?

I’m not daft. I know that, even in the land of safety, everything has its price, including a human life. When last I looked, if it cost the aeroplane manufacturer less than c $2.75 million to save a life as a result of a design issue, they did it. If it cost more, they didn’t. Now I know it won’t be as simple as that, but you get my drift. There’s a cut off point, and in the aeroplane business, the scale of money is vast. So the money involved doesn’t just talk, it shouts. You don’t want it to be that way, but in truth, it can’t be any other way.

Hence you rely on the National Safety Boards to protect the passenger’s interests. Nationality, one would hope, doesn’t come into it. I’m not sure I’d trust a report from a West Indian Safety board to the same level as one from, say, Germany for instance. But, in the world of the big players, you’d expect that a report from a UK accident body would say the same as a European one, which in turn would say the same as a USA one.

And here’s the issue. Assuming that what I read is correct, there have been two reports from the AAIB and the NTSC about these cold flying issues on the 777, and while they broadly agree about the cause of the problem, they differ totally in the conclusions they draw about what to do in the meantime, and also in the way they choose to commit their words down on paper.

The USA NTSC’s conclusion in their letter to the EASA is stark and simple, and totally different from the AAIB’s view of the situation.

Therefore, until the current FOHEs (Fuel/Oil Heat Exchangers) are replaced by FOHEs more tolerant to ice accretion, additional failures to achieve commanded thrust could occur and could result in a serious accident and, possibly, injuries and deaths.

All of which, I an sure, is semantically accurate. But what a different message from the AAIB. One (the UK, and the home of the engine makers Rolls Royce) concludes that the issue (at least at the time they wrote their summary) had only happened once in 6,500,000 flying hours, and the level of danger to the passengers was therefore “remote”, and presumably acceptable. The other (the USA, and the home of the rival engine makers General Electric) ends with a conclusion which simply stops me in my tracks from flying on one.

I cannot believe that the two attitudes are accidental. The UK authorities shelter behind the EASA rules and definitions in deciding how to stake their position. Note they don’t say it’s safe, they just say that in terms of someone else’s categorisation of relative safety levels, it is "remote". The USA authorities come from a diametrically opposed position.

Both are “right”. But what is the poor sod getting on the aeroplane supposed to do now? Is the aircraft dangerous to fly in or isn’t it? I’ve lived long enough to realise that the difference between reality and perception is often enormous. I’ll guarantee that other aircraft suffer similar problems where safety is not the black and white issue we all think it is. It’s just that the customer doesn’t hear about it, either intentionally or unintentionally, and therefore gets on the beast in blissful ignorance.

In this particular case, even British Airways are compounding the problem. For reasons that only their labyrinthine financial wiz-kids could explain to me, they have a mixed fleet of Rolls and GE engined 777s. 15 are Rolls powered, and the remaining 27 are GE powered. BA, ever helpful, say that they will not tell passengers, even if they ask, what engines will be powering the 777 you are getting on. How on earth is that statement supposed to give the passenger any comfort? All it says to me is that there is clearly a problem, and a big one.

One can’t help but suspect that it’s all down to money. The 747 is a big, expensive aircraft to run, and in these disastrous times, passenger bookings have taken a tumble. So a smaller aircraft will do on many of the previous 747 routes. A website I’ve just looked at claims that 16 of BA’s 55 747s are “stored”. All the 777s are in use. What a surprise!

So BA are going to get maximum utilisation from their 42 777s, however they are powered. Their action just looks Machiavellian. If the issue goes away, the 42 777s keep flying and BA maximise their margins. If the pressure mounts, they will take the 15 out of service until the fix is available, and put as much pressure on Rolls Royce to get their act together NOW. But, in an industry where every operator tries to claim the high moral safety ground, how grubby does this look?

What happens if there is another “incident”? Perhaps one that turns out to be an “Accident”. One where people, lots of people lose their lives. Can you imagine the lawsuits that would follow now, especially in America?

I suspect that a lot of people in Rolls Royce are working all hours God sends to expedite a solution as quickly as they possibly can. A lot of people in Boeing, Rolls Royce, the National Safety Organisitions and BA will have every finger well and truly crossed while this is going on, hoping and praying that a third “incident” doesn’t happen. They will not sleep at all well until the time when all of their 15 777s are fitted with sets of modified Heat exchangers. Let’s hope they are right.

But you still wonder –

What would those reports look like if GE had the problem, and not Rolls Royce?

Does the NTSC report reflect their lawyers’ view of covering the corporate backside in the event of a disaster, or is it a non too subtle way of boosting GE’s position in the market place?

What will the AAIB’s bland position look like if one of these planes drops out of the sky?

Why can’t the Safety organisations get together and issue a set of reports which at least say the same thing, so the customer can feel that someone in this hugely complex industry is looking after their interests alone, even if it causes the airlines and the manufacturers some grief?

All I know is that, in the next few months, when I want to fly a long way, I will not be asking BA for a price for my next long haul flight. I’ll be going somewhere I know that doesn’t fly these things.

Stupid? I simply don’t know.

The truth is that, apart from looking back in a year’s time, I’ll never know if I’m doing something unnecessary or not. At least, however, the customer (that’s Me in this case) can make a choice here.

As a contrast to that, just ask the RAF Nimrod aircrews what they think about flying them for many months when it seems quite clear (to me at least) that there are fundamental and life threatening problems with that airframe. You can’t, of course, ask the 14 who died in a crash a while back for their opinion, but the UK Ministry of Defence has lost a massive amount of credibility by denying the existence of a problem that any clear thinking individual knows exists. What price the power of the Military?

Don’t the rules change when you’re in the Armed Forces.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to the ways of the Cyberworld. I’ve written a blog for something over two years now, and I’m still not really sure why I do it.

I used to (and to the extent of working one day a week) still do have a job which majors almost totally on the analytical side of things. All through the 40 years I’ve been doing it however, I’ve had a parallel artistic streak in me which I’ve kept separate from my work. I like/love music, paintings, good writing, and am passionate about Photography as an art form. I give talks to local photographic societies almost as a release to some of this side of me.

Working where I do in the UK Manufacturing Industry (or what's left of it) has meant that very few of one’s work colleagues shared one’s interests. Unless it's football or sex, their eyes glaze over at the thought of anything "arty". The thought of telling most of them that I went to the Ballet last Saturday (which I did) would set them off wondering very seriously about my “soundness”, to borrow a word from “Yes Minister”. It’s grown up Billy Elliot, but in the real world.

It was only a few years ago that I started to write on a purely personal basis. There was no point to it other than to satisfy a desire I had in me. I then started occasionally passing a copy of something I’d written to a couple of special and trusted friends, who (and I don’t think they were bullshitting me) said they liked what they read.

But it was the death of Syd Barrett of early Pink Floyd which convinced me to put pen to cyber-paper and set my scribblings in front of a larger audience, and this has since carried on for some 300 separate postings. Occasionally someone puts a note down about something I’d written, but in the main, an average of 60 or 70 people hit the blog each day, although only a small number - you know who you are – felt the need to it with a formal comment. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking for sympathy here, but I assume that what I write has only a limited appeal. That doesn’t matter greatly, as I really do it for one person – me.

For various reasons, I haven’t put pen to blog now since mid December last year. I don’t feel comfortable that a blog, which reaches people in a very impersonal way, is the right place for intensely personal thoughts. It just seems uncomfortable, to me at least, to write down one’s innermost thoughts for examination by anyone who clicked on the link. Perhaps that’s why there has been limited feedback, I simply don’t know.

Since Christmas, I have been beset with a few family issues, culminating in the death of my mother a month ago, as well as one of my closest friend undergoing a massive and life threatening operation on the day that she died. These things take precedence.

In the meantime, it’s been intriguing to me to see how the interest in
42@60 has carried on without any further postings. It should correctly now be called 42@63, following my birthday (and 40th Wedding Anniversary) a few days ago. The title should change, but somehow 63 is not a number with anything about it, so we’ll carry on using a bit of artistic, numerical licence here.

Anyway, I checked up yesterday for the first time in a month to see if anyone was still looking at it, and was rather staggered to find that the hit-rate had blossomed in late January to a tad under 300 per day. Now this is not “set the world alight” stuff, but I can see no reason whatever for such a solar flare of activity on something which had been dormant for a couple of months. It would seem that the less you write, the more you are read. Perhaps rarity is the key factor here!

So, I thought I’d put something down, just to show I’m still alive and kicking. I probably won’t keep up the rate of postings from last year, but when I find something interesting (at least to me!) I’ll pass it on.

Belated Happy New Year. Oh, and have a Good Christmas!