The virtues of an all-electric racer; Dan Ammann's flying visit; mourning rally legend Erik Carlsson
Steve Cropley Autocar
4 June 2015

SUNDAY AM - Can driving be brilliant and terrible at once? It certainly can, and here’s an example. Headed off to Prescott to run an electric Renault Zoe in the annual hillclimb for French marques, La Vie en Bleu. 

Plan was to compete on my own for a bit of fun, but some club type decided I should drive with Barrie ‘Whizzo’ Williams, one of the country’s most versatile and experienced racing drivers. If ever there were a recipe for humiliation, this was it.

Renault found a set of super-sticky Yokos, and the car felt instantly quick off the line, especially for something with a 12.3sec 0-60mph time. 

Most importantly, it gripped, steered and turned really well, even during a late-morning downpour.

Whizzo was fast, of course, finding time to make ‘hush’ signs to the marshals as he noiselessly sped by. He soon turned 60.29sec, easily beating his previous electric record (in a Zoe). I soldiered on, eventually managing 61.88sec – slow but not entirely beyond the pale.  

SUNDAY PM - Prescott is less blokeish than most race tracks, but it was still surprising just how interested people were in our Zoe, especially women. 

They liked the styling and the interior but, funnily enough, they also liked the way it zipped uphill, which they felt matched its cheeky persona.

Found myself slipping into sales patter: “People pay £100k for cars with very little noise and vibration – and here’s one with none of either, small enough to park, for £15k.” Might even have sold a couple of the little things.

WEDNESDAYIt’s not every day a president of General Motors walks into our humble place of trade, but the present incumbent, Dan Ammann, paid us a flying visit for lunch today as part of a busy European tour.

In a sandwich-laden round table discussion he revealed that (a) the recession may have ended in the US but it’s not quite over in Europe, (b) model relationships between GM’s European and US brands will only keep on growing, (c) Chevy’s hybrid Volt and battery Bolt lose money but are still worth doing, and (d) his own interest in high-performance driving “probably” works to the betterment of GM’s cars’ dynamics.

Ammann also entertainingly dismissed a recent merger approach from Fiat-Chrysler boss Sergio Marchionne, “because we’re still merging with ourselves”. It was a fascinating hour from someone who seemed bent on making sure the motor industry looked no more complex than it is.

THURSDAY - So sorry to hear of the death of Erik Carlsson, the Saab rally legend who was one of the world’s nicest men, as well as one of its greatest drivers.

I knew him quite well from the winter days he spent trying to teach us obtuse hacks how to drive on ice. I still picture him behind the wheel, turning right around in the seat and waving an arm to reinforce a point to one of us in the back, while our car continued at a ridiculous angle to its direction of travel but under inch-perfect control.

Two other Carlsson stories. One is a comment he once made about the art of attacking blind crests in those hairy rallying days before pace notes. “Never saw the problem,” he said. “After all, the road has to go somewhere…”

The second was on the launch of the first Vauxhall Cavalier-based Saab 900, which wasn’t an enjoyable car. My driving partner and I reached our destination in darkness, badly in need of a drink and some rest. Out of the gloom loomed a bear-like figure who flung open our boot, grabbed our luggage and bore it into the hotel before we were even out of the car. That was Erik. 

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4 June 2015
It would be interesting to know if Steve drove the Renault Zoe to Prescott and back to compete, or whether it arrived on a trailer? Truth is, it's probably better hill climb car than it is a regular car - and I wonder if there is scope for a special electric class in this sport? Specially designed machines could be phenomenally powerful, with 4WD and vectored torque enabling terific traction out of tight uphill corners. And all with no noise to applease Sunday churchgoers. I'm sure this would be a better bet than Formula E circuit racing where a change of car is needed to ensure adequately long races...

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