Friday, November 20, 2009


I've just been back across 'the ditch' (ie the Tasman Sea) to New Zealand. The trip was originally to attend a Triumph rally around the upper South Island, but it was cancelled due to lack of interest. No matter, I wanted to check up on the progress of my Herald coupe restoration (not much progress), and catch up with friends and family.

Although the rally was canned, I still headed off to the Marlborough Sounds for a night with friends. Instead of riding in a Stag or big Trumpy though, I borrowed my father's BMW 318ti. The wee compact hasn't impressed me much on past visits, as it feels a bit lacklustre around town. It goes well enough, but compared to the Triumphs and 4WDs I'm used to, it feels sluggish and vulnerably low. That's around town. On the open road, it turned out to be a very different car.

The road north from Christchurch passes through the rolling countryside of north Canterbury before climbing over the Hunderlee Ranges, and then winding along the Kaikoura Coast. It's scenic, but is also a great driving road. And that car, on that road early on a Saturday morning, was a revelation, a drive to remember.

I should point out that my father's not a keen motorist, and chose the wee beemer simply because it looks smart and is small. A previous owner has fitted 17" wheels, which might be expected to make the ride harsh - not a bit of it. It's not a powerful car - 138hp I think - but with those wheels, good 215 tyres, supple suspension, a rigid body and quick steering, it is the best handling car I've driven. As I learned to trust its cornering ability the drive became better and smoother. I knocked about 15 minutes off my best time to Picton (in a twin-turbo Subaru) without speeding (much), simply because so much more speed could be carried through corners.

It took a while to figure out why the beemer could hold on around bumpy, off-camber corners. The tyres are critical - I never came close to unsticking them. The other half of the equation, though, is a decent amount of suspension travel, meaning the wheels always have a good chance of staying in contact with the road. The springs aren't notably hard, but the damping is very good. The result is a car that feels much better than most 'moderns', which are designed to do their job adequately. Those cunning Germans obviously decided to build a car to a high standard, not just a price.

The reason for all the analysis is to try and get my little Triumphs handling as well. The GT6 will probably have about the same amount of power, and the V8 Herald deliciously more. The Herald's got 195/15 tyres, so grip should be adequate. The trick will be in getting enough suspension travel to allow the wheels to stay in contact with the road, and getting the spring rates and damping right. As for the GT6, it'll always be nose-heavy, but I'll try to balance spring rates, damping and tyre sidewall to keep the wheels hanging on to the road. Ultimately, probably neither will handle as well as that little coupe though. It really was that good.


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