A Brief History of Car Ownership

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French Cars

My next car was a Renault Clio 1.4 RT (sadly not the 16V). Compared to the polo it was a much lighter, tinnier, better handling car with typically soft french ride and comfortable seats. I drove it to France when I studied abroad for a year in 1999, and it was squashed by a tree which fell in the storms over the millennium leaving me in France with no car and a car load of stuff to get back to the UK. I liked the Clio, the engine was much better and it was fun to drive, and not too thirsty. But sadly our relationship was not a long one. You reap what you sow, I guess.

The next car I bought took a great deal of investigation and research. I wanted something small, fun and cheap to insure. I also wanted something I could work on myself. I finally went out and bought a Peugeot 106 Rallye; M184 BLB.

I loved this car to bits. The 106 Rallye, for those of you who don’t know is a proper little sporty hatchback. It weighed nothing, was typically light, with none of the safety gubbins that bulk up modern cars. I think it was about 900kg fuelled. The TU2J2 engine was an 8V, 1294cc engine with spanner adjustable tappets, and steel cylinder wet liners in an aluminium block. The 1294 originally appeared in the AX GT, then in the 205 Rallye, and later in the 106 Rallye where it gained a Magnetti Marelli FI system.

The car rode on 15″ wheels with 175 section tyres, had a red interior, black seats with red seat belts, barely any soundproofing, no airbags, no power steering, wind down windows and an engine which redlined at 7200rpm. It looked like a car which was designed to have what little interior it had ripped out and replaced with a roll-cage, which is exactly what it was designed for, the basis of a group N rally car.

The 7200rpm redline was just a clue. To get 100 horsepower from a naturally aspirated 1.3l 8v engine, you need an aggressive cam profile, and that means you are not going to be getting much drive unless that cam is ‘on song’; below 5000rpm, the engine was much like any other small 106, but over 5000, the engine dynamics changed, and you had a little terrier on your hands.

It wasn’t even that quick. I think it did the dash to 60 in about 9.3seconds, but because it charged for the redline with an eagerness that belied its diminutive stature, it felt fast and urgent, engaging and really exciting to drive. Top speed was around 115mph at the redline of 7200rpm in fifth gear.

At the time, my friend Nick had a Rover Mini. I gave him a drive in the Rallye, and he said it was like a bigger more grown up version of the mini; like a go cart with immense feedback from the road, only a bit more comfortable. The way that thing went round corners was legendary.

Because the car was so light, it didn’t need power steering, and you could feel everything that was going on between the tyres and the road. The gearbox was close ratio’d and a stint on the motorway was not a comfortable place to be, with the engine sitting at 4000rpm and little in the way of soundproofing. But the motorway is not what this little gem was designed for. This car is a backroad blaster, a little scamp with the desire to push the limits of what you think is possible.

Modern cars have so much grip that they get away with lifeless steering. Once you know and trust that the car is going to go where you point it, you needn’t be concerned about actually feeling the road through your hands, you just use your eyes; turn the wheel the nose turns. It’s like a computer game. The same goes for the gearboxes nowadays. We’re fast approaching the driverless car, and most of us couldn’t give a damn.

The 106 Rallye gave feedback in the way that a sportsbike does. It meant sensory overload in normal driving conditions, but when you wanted to push it, and to really feel how much or little grip was available, you weren’t guessing, you knew exactly how much you had. You also had to work that gearbox hard to get the bets out of the car, and you felt all the better for it.