A couple of weekends ago, on a Saturday afternoon, I was driving past the Apollo Hospital on the way to the supermarket and was approaching the pedestrian crossing opposite the hospital. Traffic was moderate for Colombo, and I’m doing around 30-kmph. A pedestrian gallops across the crossing in the usual I’m-Gonna-Cross-Here-So-Stop-You-Bastards stance necessary for using such crossings in Sri Lanka — arm, umbrella, or newspaper held up to catch attention, steely determined look firmly on face, brisk pace, etc. Elvitigala Road has three lanes in each direction with a center island, and I was in the inside lane, alongside the island, driving towards Kirillapone. I always try and stop for pedestrians on crossings and so I followed procedure and slowed to a stop.
The guy crosses in front of me, and as soon as he’s clear I start to roll. Just then, I notice a young woman about to step on to the crossing, three lanes away. She’s going to take half a minute to get to me, and I’m already on the crossing, so I just keep going. She crosses unhindered behind me and goes merrily on her way. So do I — or so I think.
I’ve barely gone fifty metres when a cop appears from beneath a shady tree and crosses two lanes of traffic, making cars brake and swerve, to flag me down. Puzzled, I steer across the centre and outside lanes to the pavement. Cop leans in on the passenger side and asks me for my licence. I ask him what the problem (actually, what his problem) is. He tells me that I did the right thing in letting the male pedestrian cross, but that I had violated the road rules by driving on before the woman had crossed.
I look at him in disbelief and point out that I didn’t hinder the pedestrian in anyway and that she had crossed without any problem. He says that this is not the point, and that it’s a violation he has to book me for. Now the cop speaking to me is the most junior of three, the other two — a sergeant and a sub-inspector — are still under the shady tree, watching disinterestedly.
Junior breaks off his conversation with me to flag down two more vehicles, clearly for the same offense as mine. While I wait for his return I see random pedestrians crossing the road without the aid of any crossing, dodging between vehicles, unencumbered by the presence of the guardians of the law. A hundred metres further on is the Park Road intersection, and I watch a bus run through the red light followed by a trishaw and a motorcycle that both do U-turns and head back past the hospital. The law enforcement trio cheerfully stop a van for driving across the pedestrian crossing.
Junior comes back to my car and demands my licence once more. I ask him if he expected me to have waited while every pedestrian who strolls up to the crossing has crossed, since it isn’t a light-controlled crossing. Junior shrugs and holds out his hand for the licence. I hand it over, pointing to the intersection and the fact that a bus is cutting across three lanes of traffic to turn onto Park Road, through a red light, of course. Junior feigns interest and squints into the distance. Then he tells me that he’s there to enforce the law where he is and not where he isn’t. I ask him why he doesn’t then position himself where dangerous offenses are being committed and not where minor violations are easy to detect. I suggest that maybe the shady tree is the determining factor, and he walks off to deliver my licence to the sarge. When he returns with the charge sheet I ask him if he isn’t ashamed of himself and the disgrace he brings to his uniform. I say it loud enough to see the sub-inspector’s jaw tighten. Clearly annoyed but unsure if my lecture is actually a violation, Junior drops the charge sheet onto my passenger seat and walks off to continue fighting crime. Continue reading
So on my sixth trip down the E01, they nailed me for speeding. It was actually a bit of a relief. Like a serial killer giving up to the inevitable. And I have been speeding. Probably still will. The relief came from finally knowing how they were going to catch me. I had been told they were installing speed detecting cameras, and on my last trip down south, I even saw cops standing by the road, mostly under overpasses, aiming speed guns at me. If they were going to stop me, they would have, since I was doing variously 130kmph, 140kmph, and 150kmph when I saw them. Obviously, they saw me first. And let me go.
Mostly, I wondered how exactly they were going to stop me. Flagging me down seemed impossibly dangerous, and I didn’t think they were going to give chase. I thought I was going too fast for them to visually read my plates and radio ahead, and I doubted that they had the technology to take a high-speed photograph and upload it to cops at the exits. In the end, it proved to be a bit of both the latter two.
My first time on the E01, I stuck to the speed limit for a full ten minutes, while cars overtook me. Then I got up to 140kmph and stayed there as long as I could, except when traffic or the sight of cops slowed me down. After several trips with nothing happening to stop me speeding, I realised I was on average faster than everyone else; I overtook everything placed before me, and nothing overtook me. Going down to Unawatuna this weekend, I took the usual precautions and nothing happened. Again. Coming back, traffic was moderately heavy, and I just kept my foot planted, doing the trip in 47 minutes. My slowest is 53 minutes, my fastest 38.
When I got to the Kottawa exit last evening, I saw a cop checking number plates in front of me. I’d seen this before, but not noticed anyone being charged. This time he gave me the good new: 128kmph at the 27th mile post. Aside from that being an embarrassingly low speed to be copped for speeding (I’ve been nailed for doing 140 on Baseline Road), I wondered where the Hell the 27th mile post was. I had slowed down on spotting a parked patrol car, and hadn’t seen a speed gun, but I guess that was it.
While I was waiting my turn to have my fine sheet filled out, other offenders unrepentantly inquired from each other what speeds they had each been clocked at. 138kmph was the winner amongst the half-dozen there, the champ unjustifiably proud. I sneered. I had passed him close to the Horana exit like he was standing still.
That’s where I found out how they nailed me. The police radio kept crackling and a voice would say something like, “Vehicle HA-1242, 28th milepost, 130kmph, silver car.” The cops at the exit would then write this down. Obviously, this was happening at all the exits north of the 28th mile post. I wondered what would happen if I challenged the charge. I’m guessing that they have some sort of camera attached to the speed gun — ‘cos no way they can read a number plate going by at that speed — and this picture would be produced in court if needed.
One improvement over the old system of cops flagging you down for these violations, is you get charged at the point of exit; so I only needed to go back to Kottawa to pick up my license, and not Aluthgama or somewhere like it was before. The fine’s a thousand rupees plus a hundred-rupee stamp. I sent a three-wheel driver today with the fine to the post office, and then to Kottawa to collect my licence. He charged me 1,500 bucks. So, 2,600 all told.
Also saw an Army patrol crossing the expressway while I was doing 150kmph. I saw them three seconds before I passed them. Luckily they were still in the oncoming lanes. In my rearview mirror I glimpsed them vault the center barrier. They were carrying a small sign about a foot in diameter which said “STOP”. Probably Vijayabahu Regiment. They always were idiots.
The Frankfurt Motor Show is arguably the best such event on the planet. Unlike Geneva in March, and Paris in October, Frankfurt happens only once in two years, and gives visitors a chance to see new concepts as well as models that have been launched over 24 months instead of just 12. For a Sri Lankan, rarely getting the opportunity to see the world’s best in the steel and carbon, it was petrolhead heaven.
To make the experience even more unique, I was accompanied by Petrolhead Junior, aged 8. This would be our first car event together, a moment of great importance, even without the prospect of checking out the new baby Jag or sitting in an Aventador.
With just three hours to explore the show, we both knew what we wanted to see; so this post isn’t a comprehensive article on the exhibition, but a breakdown of what the Wee Man and I liked.
The Bavarian giant easily had the largest area to itself, practically the whole of Hall 11, crowding Rolls Royce and Mini into two small corners at the back. Even the Italian capos of Ferrari and Lambo didn’t get that much space. Hall 11 even had a track running just below the ceiling, and visitors watched spellbound as Beamers pulled out of their raised parking slots and roared — or in the case of the hybrids, hummed — around the track, only pausing in formation on the wide banked section behind the presentation stage.
While BMW was giving its new 1 Series — including the highly praised 1M and various hybrid versions — top billing, I wasn’t really interested. I think the 1 is the ugliest Beamer ever made, and not even the 1M’s flared wheel arches can change that. The last M3 was still pretty popular with the punters, as was the Z4, but for me the new M5-led 5 Series and the gorgeous new 6 Series stole all the attention. I still like the looks of the old 6, but the slightly retro lines of the new one are just perfect, though that’s one big car, mind you. Hopefully we’ll see an M6 soon.
This was also my first close up look at the i8 concept, and with it was BMW’s new urban concept, the i3. The i8 is a petrol/lithium-ion hybrid 2+2 sports car that promises 0-100kmph in under five seconds, while the i3 is a pure electric city car that can carry four. Both cars are planned for a 2013 launch.
I was never one for the Mini, particularly the new rendition, but the kid liked them, and I must admit that the John Cooper Works Coupe and the Countryman WRC racer do look the business; just not pretty business. Coupes should look pretty and sporty, and the Mini Coupe just isn’t. It looks like someone’s squashed a baseball cap down over its ears. Hopefully, future versions could iron that out, but it’s hard to see that happening without changing the overall proportions; and then it just won’t be a Mini will it? The 17-in alloys looked pretty cool, though. Another nice touch was the display of Mini accessories going all the way up the pierced steel wall, giving the whole stand a kind of grunge-pop feel.
In spite of the global recession, the last couple of years has seen some truly wonderful cars hit the streets, both from the Far East — Nissan GT-R, Lexus LFA — and Europe — Ferrari 458 Italia, Aston Martin Rapide, and Porsche Panamera. We also have a few cars — Lambo Estoque, Aston One-77 and the hybrid Porsche 918 Spyder — still waiting hesitantly in the wings.
However, straitened times subdued the car industry to a some extent, with many designs and concepts scrapped in favour of more sensible mass-appeal models. But with the recession finally over (OK, we’ll ignore the USA) and global markets expanding, the car is back as more than just transport. The annual Paris Motor Show lines up a whole new series of automotive wet dreams; some, like the new versions of the 599 and Maserati GT, are sure to be on the roads soon, but others — particularly those French fantasies — are destined to be, at best, one-off testbeds. Here’s my pick (in no particular order):
Billed as the forerunner for a Survolt racing series, this all-electric track car will go from 0-100kmph in under five seconds, with a racing range of over 200km. More a prototype than a concept, it was unveiled at the Le Mans 24-hour race and was recently thrashed silently (electric, remember?) around the Thruxton track by a TopGear team.
Another electric car, and this one truly a concept, created to celebrate Jaguar’s seventy-fifth anniversary. Clearly Jag’s design team is as frustrated a bunch as the rest of us — this cat looks as un-Jaguar-like as it’s possible to be at first glance — you almost expect to see McLaren badges on it — but a closer look and those ancestral genes begin to appear; the family mouth, the XJ220-like flanks, and a rear screen descended from the E-type.
Each wheel beneath those dominating arches has its own electric motor, giving the C-X75 780bhp, a claimed 0-100kmph of 3.4 seconds, and a top speed of 330kmph. Unfortunately, this will allow the C-X75 a range of only 110km. Fortunately, Jag has given it a pair of gas turbines up its rear (yes, folks, jet engines), each putting out 94bhp and running on any flammable liquid, from LP gas to bio diesel. Switching on the jets allows the electric motors’ lithium-ion batteries (housed in the nose) to recharge, extending the cat’s range to over 900km. Yay. Continue reading
Ask Sri Lankans born in the ’70s to tell you which cars they remember growing up with, and you’ll hear about Austin Cambridges, Morris Minors, “Upali” Fiats, and Beetles. All of which are rubbish. Yes, I know people will put out a fatwah on me for calling a Beetle rubbish, but it is. And yes, I know Upali Wijewardena’s Fiat 128 was the Micro of ’70s Sri Lanka, but you’ll be better off if you put wheels on a Ceylon Tea crate. Plus you’ll be faster. Doesn’t anyone remember a Karmann Ghia, or a Datsun 240Z, or a Mercedes 300? Or at least a Mk1 Golf, for God’s sake? Why do people seem to remember the bland? Somehow, though, I doubt that Sri Lankans in the year 2040 will look back fondly on the Nissan Sunny.
While you’re about it, ask a Sri Lankan to name a great ad from the early days of local television, and it’ll be a pretty predictable choice. The original Airlanka jingle (above) will certainly feature among them, with people still able to sing bits of it or at least hum the tune. There’s one of those dodgy old massage guys on Hikkaduwa beach who sings one part of it (“Blue voters, smiling ice — Sri Lanka, pair of dice”) over and over, as he walks along the sand looking for customers. Then there’ll be the Dot toffee commercials (“Oyagey kate Dot, mage kateth Dot!”), the Thultex spot — the only reason I remember that one is because at 14 years old, I’d never seen that far up a woman’s leg. So we remember this stuff, but were they good ads — did they entertain us (OK, there’s that leg again), engage us? Fuck, no, but we remember them anyway. Mostly because there were far fewer ads around back then.
Now it’s pretty easy to see why people remember great cars and great ads — or great anything for that matter. Cars, movies, books, we remember the ones that were interesting, fun, touching — things that played to our emotions, that entertained us. But what makes us remember things that we have no reason to — why would we remember a packet of washing powder? We wouldn’t, because there’s nothing to remember about it. But somehow Sri Lankans manage it. We even remember the Austin Cambridge. Why?
Perhaps it’s because Sri Lankans, on the whole, prefer the bland and anonymous. We save our spice for our rice, and that’s only because everyone else does it too. Every other day of the week I’m up in front of clients, trying to sell them an ad that I think will do all kinds of wonderful things for their brand. Market share, brand building, top-of-mind, etc etc. And as I pitch that top-of-the-range ad out onto their boardroom tables, I can see them squirm and wait, hesitating over this Scirocco that’s going to have everyone talking and pointing — and believe me these aren’t Porsches; they really are Sciroccos, maybe even RS5s. But no, the client’s waiting for me to run out of revs so that he or she can buy that Toyota Allion that no one will notice. It’ll take them from 15% market share to 17%, smoothly and comfortably, and very very softly. And in an unfeeling, numb coma.
For those of you who enjoyed reading about the AC Cobra replica I spotted at the Colombo Motor Show earlier this year, I’ve updated that post with some clips of the RVD-283 Python being road-tested in the hills. That V8 sounds fantastic. Thanks go to Vince for sending me the clips. Scroll all the way to the bottom of the page and turn up the volume!
Spotted this sexbomb at the Colombo Car Show last weekend — and no, I don’t mean one of the show girls, though they weren’t too bad either. The Cobra caught my eye almost immediately, hidden away behind the usual junk of pimped up Subarus and Mazdas, its cockpit shrouded against the light drizzle outside the BMICH. It was obviously a Cobra, but a peek under the rain covers revealed a BMW logo embossed in the centre of the steering wheel. Clearly, this had been restored with some variations, or actually built from scratch.
The rain eventually eased and the covers came off, unveiling a tan interior. Out of the bonnet popped a Chevrolet V8 small-block engine. A Brit turned up a few minutes later and and told me it was in fact a RVD-283 Python, a replica of the legendary AC Cobra Mk II, the only one in Sri Lanka. His name was Vince Wright, and the Cobra had been built by his company, RV Dynamics, right here in Sri Lanka.
Wright switched on the V8, apologising for a noisy fan belt, and the deep bass growl rumbled through the twin side pipes. The Python rocked on its brakes like a leashed animal, straining to escape.
Vince Wright’s Python had begun life, once upon a time, as a ’57 Chevrolet Bel Air. Having once belonged to the US ambassador to Sri Lanka, it had eventually been abandoned, rusting and rotting away in the Mt Lavinia sea breeze for about five years. Wright salvaged and entirely rebuilt the Bel Air’s V8 and 2-speed auto box, and restored the chassis, which is all that remains of the original Chevy. Everything else was either scratch built or borrowed. Continue reading
Anyone who knows me well will think it strange that I’m even interested in discussing four-door saloons, but for now I am. Looking at the European luxury car designs set to either hit the market or begin development in 2009, you’d think that they hadn’t noticed that their biggest market — the US — was in deep economic crisis. The US auto industry’s on its knees, and European imports are gathering dust in dealerships across North America. October 2008 was the worst month for car sales in the US since World War II.
European manufacturers of premium cars are already feeling the pinch, and not just in the US market. Overall new-car registration in the UK has sharply declined since June, and annual sales which were down a mere 1.56% in the first half of 2008, had plummeted to a wheel-buckling 23% by October. Both BMW and Daimler have issued profit warnings this year, BMW profits slumping by 63% in the third quarter, sparking plans by the Bavarian giant to take 65,000 units out of its 2008 production. Mini, arguably the world’s most successful small(ish) premium car has cut shifts at its UK plant, as has Aston Martin. Bently and Land Rover have also throttled back production. The squeeze is being felt all the way across to Japan where Toyota’s European sales are down by 92,000 units, spurring it to reduce output on its luxury marque, Lexus.
However, none of this carmageddon seems to be crumpling future plans within the super-luxury niche of European car manufacturers. Porsche’s new five-door, the Panamera, is already in the steel and being drooled over from Top Gear to Car magazine. It’s set to hit the market in early 2009. Aston Martin has no less than five projects earmarked for the coming year, and three of them involve brand new models — the four-door Rapide, the 700bhp One-77, and the resurrection of Lagonda. Lamborghini’s own four-door, the Estoque, is still a show car, and while production is estimated to be years away, development will begin in 2009.
The US economic slump has triggered a global financial crisis that will certainly dial back spending habits in the luxury sector, affecting more than just cars. Or will it? Aston Martin’s boss, Dr Ulrich Bez, doesn’t seem to think so. Bez believes that the more exclusive a product is, the less it will be influenced by its environment. “The product has to deliver something really special and unique to a customer.” Sure. Like a learjet. And we all know how many of those are being snapped up today. So how special and unique are these new offerings by Europe’s luxury car brands? Continue reading
The Sri Lankan PM Ratnasiri Wickramanayake said yesterday that anyone who opposed taxation didn’t love the country. He went on to explain that taxation brought in revenue for the state coffers, and therefore any attempt to reduce that was unpatriotic. He was talking to a gathering of families of dead servicemen at a ceremony to award scholarships to the children of aforementioned servicemen, but the PM was obviously taking a dig at the Supreme Court’s ruling on fuel price reduction.
The Supreme Court ruled on December 17th that the price of a litre of 90 Octane petrol be brought down to Rs100 from its current price of Rs122 in line with falling global crude. 95 Octane is priced Rs15 higher than 90, and the SC ordered that this margin be reduced as well. The SC ordered the GoSL to implement the ruling by midnight. So far the GoSL hasn’t. Why? Because no one’s told the buggers, apparently. Yesterday, Parliament decided to postpone passing the SC ruling into law as they hadn’t received notification of the said ruling in writing. Continue reading