(james benedict brown) on the road

Battlefield tours, wot wot

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 19 July, 2008

During my four day excusrion to Belgium (acting as a kind of Passepartout, shall we say) we visited the battlefield site of Waterloo, where in 1815 Napoléon finally got the message that he wouldn’t be able to beat Wellington and his allies.

The battlefield now has a small hamlet known as le Hameau du Lion. It has a handful of visitor attractions clustered around the base of a 43 metre tall earthen mound constructed in the years after the battle as a monument to (amongst others) William II of the Netherlands, who was shot from his horse by a musket ball. For a few euros you can watch a film, see a painted panorama of the battle and climb the 226 steps to the top of the mound, from where you have a 360º panorama of the Waterloo region.

Dedicated battlefield tourists – and we met some, including two gentlemen from Atlanta in the U.S.A, who had already ticked off the First and Second World War battlefields of France during this one vacation – can also enjoy a tour of the battlefield in the back of an open sided truck. It gave me great pleasure to see that on this battlefield, perhaps the greatest British military victory of all time, these old tour trucks are venerable British-built Bedford TK’s. These tough old workhorses were a common sight of the British roads of my childhood – memorable because of their simple but elegantly formed bodywork, including the trademark “monobrow” over the headlights and grille.

Bedford Vehicles wound up operations when General Motors pulled the plug in the mid-eighties. This model and its successor were built for a few more years by a near-by firm called AWD, but the loss of important military contracts meant that they two wound up a few years later. Both firms were based in the east of England, not far from my home turf, and other than in the occasional military convoy are rare sights in the UK.

Rental car secrets

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 28 June, 2008

I recently drove a car for some thirty miles on empty. It was a brand new Vauxhall Zafira – a very intelligent, utterly sensible yet quite enjoyable family car which delivers its most impressive trick shot in the boot. The middle row of seats fold upwards and slide forward against the back of the front seats to reveal two additional seats that are folded flat into the floor. A deft pull of a handle and a satisfactory selection of clunks lifts these seats upright and turns the Zafria into a compact seven seater.

Being a) too sensible and b) too poor to own a car, I rely on discounted weekend rentals to satisfy my motoring needs. This Zafria cost me £50 for a weekend of moving stuff around the country, and was delivered to me brand spanking new – with a zingy new car smell, paper sheets in the footwells and just fourteen miles on the clock. It also came with precisely diddly squat in the fuel tank, leading to a nervous lurch to the nearest fuel station to have my wallet gutted by regular unleaded at £1.13 a litre (that’s about $8.50 / gallon for all you whining American readers who think $4.50 / gallon is expensive).

Returning the car a few days a later, I was obliged to follow the golden rule of rental cars – return it with the same amount of fuel as you received it with. I had a nerve racking rush hour pelt into Sheffield as the fuel warning light first illuminated and then began to flash and beep loudly. In the past I’ve got this badly wrong, needlessly donating as much as £10 worth of fuel to the next renter by over estimating the range of the car. I made it however – despite nose to tail Monday morning traffic on Sheffield’s unforgiving hard-shoulder-less Parkway… the worst possible place to shudder to a petrol-less halt during the rush hour.

Not knowing your rental car’s fuel tank capacity or fuel consumption are two downsides to living with rental cars. Another which most renters will be familiar with is that moment of panic that arrives when you make your first fuel stop. Pulling on to the forecourt, you realise that you have no idea which side of the car the filler cap is on. Cue much awkward reversing and turning as you get it wrong and then have to turn out and back in again to get the cap on the right side. And you could be as dumb as me and flummox a full service petrol station attendant (as I did once in the States) by failing to get the cap on the right side three times in a row by successfully turning the car but then returning to the other side of the pump each time, so repeatedly getting it on the wrong side.

Meanwhile, a simple trick I want to share with any of you who, like me, regularly drive unfamiliar vehicles. If the fuel gauge doesn’t have a triangle or arrow indicating which side of the car the filler cap is on (and some do) look closely at the little icon of the fuel pump on the gauge.

The filler cap will be on the same side of the car as the hose on the icon; in this case it’s on the right.

Great car design #1: Skoda Roomster

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 13 February, 2008

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If you are a parent and you own a car that has seat-back DVD players like these installed, you might want to skip this post. Why? Because I’m about to call you a bad parent.

I have realised that one of the reasons I enjoy studying architecture and designing buildings so much is that I enjoy looking at the world around me. I am a born traveller, comfortable on board an aeroplane, bus or train as long as I’m near a window. I’ve had some of my most memorable travel experiences while on the road (hence this blog’s name, and hence also ontherails), most often when I have been in motion, soaking up the sights of a new landscape through a great big picture window. The luxury of a train ride is that, of course, you don’t have to do any driving. You get a ground level panorama with no obligation to concentrate on steering and controlling a vehicle.

When did this passion for window gazing begin? I’d argue that it began as soon as I was strapped into the first car I remember my parents’ owning: a metallic red 1982 Mark I Volkswagen Golf Cabriolet, purchased new just a few weeks before I was born. Perhaps it was a last impulsive moment of youth before settling down to raise a child, I don’t know. But I credit that choice of car with helping to develop much of my inquisitive character. Successively smaller and less structural childseats held me up so that my young eyes could peer over the lowest edge of the back seat window. And then as soon as the weather cleared, the roof came down. There was no more exciting way to travel, and no better way to inspire jealously in the school yard when I was collected at the end of the day in a little red car with a carefully folded roof.

So seat-back DVD players are, to me, anathema. Such vital hours, days and even weeks of a child’s life can be spent in the car. Every moment is an opportunity to observe the world around and take it in, maybe ever pester the folks up front with a question or two. In-car entertainment systems are a lazy way of silencing a child while in transit. I’m not claiming any expert knowledge in parenting, nor proclaiming that children should never watch television. But I am bemoaning the sad intrusion of TV into travel – the wonderful opportunity for children to see so much more of the world than their home environment.

So my first nomination for a truly great car design is an oddball. But it’s a brilliant design. It’s the Škoda Roomster.

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It might look like two designers independently created the front and back halves of the car, before splicing them together, but that’s the point. I really admire smart small MPVs like the Nissan Note and the Fiat Idea: it’s a great combination of a small car platform and an upright, adaptable body. But the Roomster is easily the most innovative. Just look it.

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Like a great building, you can read this car instantly. This is a family car. The parents sit up front, and the children sit in the back. And the kids get the biggest windows, because they’re the ones who get the chance to see the world as it goes by without having to concentrate on driving. What’s more, the back row of seats is lifted a few centimetres higher than those in the front, enhancing views forward and sideways. A high roofline creates a spacious and very practical interior, and the overall shape is perhaps the boldest mini-MPV on the market that hasn’t been adapted from a panel van (such as the equally clever but slightly less appealing Renault Kangoo).

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If I wasn’t planning on becoming a designer of buildings, I’d want to design cars. Perhaps one day I’ll get the chance to do both. But until then, you can expect me to carry on noticing and commenting on some great car designs.