21 Jan 2013

Speedmonkey Fleet - Discovery in the snow

On Friday the UK was blanketed with snow.  The Met Office issued a red alert for Wales and an amber alert for the rest of the country.  Stay indoors, we were told, snow is bad and dangerous and you will surely die should you dare to venture out in it.

And sure enough everything around Speedmonkey HQ in West Berkshire was covered in 4 inches of proper, sticky snow.  Did we heed the naysayers warnings?  Did we heck.  Snow isn't dangerous.  Yes, you need to drive appropriately, and that means slowly and with due respect to other road users.  Of course, having the correct machinery helps.

Rear wheel drive cars are pretty useless in the snow.  Many moons ago I ran a BMW 318i SE company  car.  It was massively underpowered, the pedals were offset to the left, the wheels were outrageously small compared to the arches they sat in, and, despite the fact CDs had been around for a long time, it had a cassette player.  It was also completely useless in the snow.  During the winter of 2000 the BMW sat in the drive for 5 days because it couldn't get up the 1/1,000,000 slope.  We used my wife's Golf GTi instead.

Having said that I did see a Mazda MX-5 (in a lovely shade of deep blue) on the news earlier today, traversing some snowy hill on the Isle of Wight. Bravo that driver!  Surely he must have filled the boot with bricks to get some traction.

The Speedmonkey fleet, ie mine and the wife's cars, currently consists of the Audi S4, Golf V6 4Motion and the Series II Land Rover Discovery V8.  All four wheel drive.  We've only had the S4 for 5 weeks but already a massive bill looms on the horizon.  During a long trip to Exeter an engine vibration started to kick in.  The diagnosis by me, and confirmed by my local garage, is that the Dual Mass Flywheel is on it's way out - a £1500 job.  It's booked in at a local VAG specialist, Storm Developments, next week.

The V6 4Motion was meant to have been sold but my wife loves driving it so much we haven't put it on the market yet - despite my having spent a day cleaning it.

But since the Friday morning, when the snow arrived, the only car we have used is the Discovery.  The Golf would have coped well on the slippery stuff but doesn't have much clearance so would soon become a snow plough on the barely untouched rural back roads of Berkshire.  And, as you know, the S4 is crook.

The Disco fired up, at 6.30am in -2°C for the first time in 2 weeks, first time.  The exhaust emitted enough soot to leave a black skid mark in the snow but otherwise the 4 litre V8 lump ran smooth and clean.

Since then we have covered 50 miles through virgin snow, mushy roads, up and down steep hills, through farm yards, into icy car parks.  Wherever we've needed to go the Disco has taken us.

The car isn't without it's faults.  The 3 Amigos are still permanently lit (3 lights on the dash - a common fault in Discoverys and covered in more detail here) and one of the rear doors will only open from the inside.  And the low temperatures have brought on another problem.  The large, side opening, rear door is frozen shut.  It won't budge.  Oh, and the drivers side rear quarter panel is lashed together with electrical wire and zip ties after my wife had a disagreement with a gate post.

But generally the old girl does exactly as we ask.  Care has to be taken on the slippery roads due to it's weight.  Slam on the brakes and the 2.5 ton mass ensures inertia overtakes grip and it sails magnificently onward.  The solution is to reapply the brakes gently whilst feathering the clutch to introduce a lesser degree of forward momentum.

The interior is also perfect for poor weather.  The leather seats are brushed down with ease, the pedals so widely spaced that it can be driven in wellingtons and the floor slopes gently towards the door so that most dirt just falls out when the door is open.  The only downside is that the big V8 takes fifteen minutes to warm up fully so short journeys are undertaken in the freezing cold,

Driving in the snow is possible.  It isn't dangerous.  Care has to be taken.  Caution has to be used and the brain needs to be engaged.  I, and others, have noticed the appalling driving standards of many, many people.  Indeed I posited on Twitter that petrolheads seem to take a much more positive stance to snowy weather than the general population.

We relish in the challenge.  We appreciate that driving technique needs to be altered accordingly and we know that snow doesn't equal danger, unless it is treated without due respect.  And it is this reaction, by motoring enthusiasts, that makes me think that we petrolheads, are able to cope better in a crisis than the rest of Joe Public.

And not only cope better in a crisis but deal with adverse situations that have everybody else panic buying and bemoaning the end of the world, due to a few inches of snow.  I spoke to three friends on Friday - all petrolheads and all at work in their office.  And they were all alone.  Everyone else had decided they would rather stay at home in a state of sheer terror, rather than actually function normally.  This country's economy would be in a far better state were we all petrolheads.

As I write the snow is still coming down, albeit weakly, and the temperatures have remained firmly below freezing.  The Discovery will continue in it's new role as primary transport for the family for a few days to come.  The cost of our motoring will rise as it drinks fuel at an immense rate.  But, as with all it's other faults, it is forgiven.

An old Land Rover is one of those cars that, like Alfa Romeos and early VWs, it's owners become attached to and cherish - ignoring the faults that cost money, fingernails and hair.  We were going to sell the Discovery as well as the Golf but may find that we can't find it in our hearts to do so.