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Dig it

The car manufacturer of the year has to be JCB. I’ve long wanted one, of course, and it’s not hard to find them in the local classifieds.

13 December 2006

2:20 PM

13 December 2006

2:20 PM

The car manufacturer of the year has to be JCB. I’ve long wanted one, of course, and it’s not hard to find them in the local classifieds. What is hard, for we unlucky enough not to be digger drivers, is to know what you’re buying. It’s not only the nomenclature — what exactly is a four-in-one bucket? — but also knowing how to assess the condition. You see some rusty old dinosaurs lumbering happily across the landscape, digging up mighty chunks to eat, while hearing horror stories of expensive hydraulic and oil-pump failures on other creatures that, to the unpractised eye, look pristine. And they’re not exactly easy to tow home when they break down.

Fear is another inhibitor. Most of us have no better idea how to ride one than we would a woolly mammoth. A surgeon I know of bought one and set about his large garden with vigour. After he had twice deprived himself and his neighbours of water, and once of electricity, the local council asked him either to stop using it or to take lessons. Doubtless he assumed that anyone adept with a scalpel could learn to handle a JCB, and he’s probably right; but presumably he’d also practised with a scalpel before setting about living flesh. Presumably.

Were I to indulge in a JCB I’d seek the advice of Peter, a helpful neighbour who lives in the woods and emerges only to move earth for people. He makes a digger look the most delicate of precision instruments (perhaps he’d be a good surgeon). I’d pay him to advise on buying it and pay him to teach me. But I fear that even Peter wouldn’t be qualified for the particular JCB I have in mind.

Calling them a car manufacturer is a touch tendentious, of course, but only a touch because they made a car this year, the JCB DieselMax, and took it to the Bonneville salt flats. There it broke the world record for a diesel-powered car by a hefty 115mph, achieving an average 350.092mph over two runs (365.5mph on one). It was driven by Wing Commander (now Group Captain?) Andy Green, the RAF officer who became the fastest man on earth in 1997 when he broke the sound barrier in Thrust SSC. The car was powered by two JCB standard 444 four cylinder turbodiesels, tweaked to produce 750bhp each, and had a six-speed manual gearbox with a standard clutch pedal. An ordinary JCB Fasttrac tractor push-started it at 35mph. They reckon it’s capable of over 400mph but didn’t have the tyres to take that speed. ‘It’s a joy to drive and very stable,’ was Andy Green’s verdict.

Of course the publicity was good but that wasn’t the only motive for Sir Anthony Bamford, JCB’s chairman. He believes engineers are undervalued in Britain and, owning a company that designs and manufactures its product entirely in the UK (including its own engines), he wanted to make the point that we can be world-class when we make the effort. It will have done no harm, either, to his claim that JCB would be a natural home for Jaguar should Ford decide to sell it.

At the moment that doesn’t look as if it’s about to happen since they put the profitable Aston Martin up for sale instead of loss-making Jaguar, which they were expected to sell. The news has gone rather quiet on Jaguar since then but that doesn’t mean it won’t be sold. JCB would be about as good a home as Jaguar could hope for: it’s British, has a reputation for quality and has engineering talent in abundance. It would also be keen, at the right price, and it already has top-level car expertise in Matthew Taylor, former managing director of Land Rover. But the cost — to both parties — is the rub. Sir Anthony revealed to Autocar that he would want to recommission the Jaguar F-type that Ford foolishly abandoned, which would involve decommissioning the X-type, with Ford incurring the costs.

However unlikely that is, it’s more likely than that I shall be buying into JCB any time soon. Or finding the old Bentley I dream of. Instead, my buy of the year was a 1993 naturally aspirated, oil-smoking 2.5-litre diesel Iveco Daily 35-8, converted into a horsebox. It cost £7,000, outrageous for an old van even with a brand-new Ifor Williams conversion. Finding it revealed a market opening for some enterprising manufacturer prepared to make small horseboxes that Pony Club mothers feel comfortable about driving. You can pay £5,000 for a battered old Transit that would cost £1,500 in non-horsebox form, or £10,000–£15,000 for a fashionable, newly converted Renault Master. But that chassis will be four to five years old and have done about 90,000 miles. I suggested to Hyundai, which is about to import a Transit equivalent, that it should do a deal with Ifor Williams and market brand-new horseboxes for £12,000–£14,000. In that large yet partially hidden horsey market, with its five-year warranty, it’d clean up. Which is what I shall be doing quite a lot of over Christmas, new box or old.

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