Dana 24 for sale. One of the last, most desirable, highly modified & VAT paid. Hull number 342 (2005)

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Doolittle sailing at Cannes. Pic by James Taylor This was before the roller furlers were fitted.

Over half my life has been spent living aboard boats. I make my living from working on them. But it’s time for a change. Time to do something different. So Doolittle is up for sale. She is Dana 342 and one of the very last Dana’s ever made. I bought her new and because of that I had quite a say in many of her details. Being a boat builder myself I was keen to use that experience and knowledge when I had her built.

The Hull. Topsides.

The most obvious difference to most Danas is the fact that her hull is black and she has no contrasting Sheer band. Most of the other Danas have cream hulls and either a green or blue coloured top section. Pacific Seacraft (PSC) do this to make the hull look lower and sleeker but I don’t think that the hull is particularly high in the first place and to my eyes that coloured band serves to make the cabin look higher and boxier than it actually is. Boats are full of design compromises but this was one that I just didn’t like at all so when I ordered Doolittle I asked that the hull be just one colour and not to bother with the contrasting band.

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Doolittle’s amazing hull finish. This was back in October 04 when she had just the day before been removed from the mould. This is an astonishingly good finish and shows not only the high quality of the Dana mould but also the skill of PSC.

Back in 2004 I visited the factory in California and saw her bare hull fresh out of the mould and was amazed at the finish that PSC had managed to achieve. I remember when Don Kohlman (the then CEO of PSC) asked me what colour I wanted the hull and I told him black, he said, ‘Oh no, not black!’ As a boat builder I understood his concern as black will show off every imperfection in a finish. He told me that they spent an extra couple of days polishing the mould in order to get the finish as good as possible. To have a black hull costs more. I paid an extra $2000 for the privilege! But to this day I have not regretted a black hull.

Many people think that a black hull means that the boat is very hot inside but this isn’t actually the case. During the day when the sun is at its hottest, it is also at its highest so its the deck that takes the force of the sun and not the hull. I always wanted a black hull and I do think that Doolittle looks very smart in black and she really stands out against all the other white boats in the world. It gives her a classic and quality look which everyone admires.

It’s not so hard to keep it looking good as the hull is polished and waxed every year and has been since the boat was made. She also has full padded hull covers which protect the hull from the elements and incompetent neighbours in the marina. In the ten years that I have owned Doolittle she has never bashed into the quay or been bashed into. One of the advantages of living aboard means that I can keep an eye on her at all times. Considering her age, the hull looks absolutely fantastic.

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This is the plug that I cut out of the transom when I fitted the electrical socket for the shore supply. It is 30mm thick!!! The gelcoat is about 2mm thick. The Dana is one super tough boat!

When I collected the boat I was given some plugs that were cut out of the hull (I still have them) and they demonstrate many things such as the thickness and strength of the PSC hull but they also show the thickness of the gelcoat, the only part of the layup process which was sprayed. One thing you can say about PSC, and one reason why PSCs are such expensive boats is that they do not skimp on materials, not on their quantity nor quality. The gel coat on these plugs is about 2mm thick! No modern boat I have ever seen has such a thick coating.

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To give some idea of just how solid a Dana is, this plug was cut out of the engine instrument panel when I fitted the twist shower in the cockpit. I have seen boat hulls thinner than this and this is from a panel that just holds an instrument panel!

What this excessive build quality means is that there is plenty of gelcoat to polish over the years and even though Doolittle’s hull is ten years old it looks better than many boats not even a year old! If it looks this good after ten years, then I see no reason why it still won’t look excellent after twenty. So long as the hull is polished and waxed each year.

When I bought Doolittle, I was determined to make sure that no matter how long I owned her I wanted to make sure I took the best care of her. It definitely seems to be paying off. With a black hull, there is no hiding a lack of maintenance! If there is a problem you can see it right away. A cream coloured hull is much more forgiving in this respect. It hides damage and neglect much better. A black hull might be a bit more work to keep looking nice but it’s well worth it.

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In ten years I have gone through two tins of this excellent 3M wax paste on Doolittle’s topsides and deck gelcoat.

One thing that may not be immediately obvious to the untrained eye is the fact that there are no skin fittings in the hull sides. What this does is allow a very clean profile look. It’s a small detail but demonstrates nicely PSC’s attention to detail and skill in building a proper boat. All the skinfittings (all solid bronze) exit at the transom where you will find exhaust, bilge and shower outlets. Also on the port side at the top, the Electrical socket for the shore supply. The cable for which is custom made and rope and leather covered. Every detail of Doolittle has been considered. There is also a range of marina plug and socket adapters and a 20 metre extension cable.

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One of Doolittle’s nicest features is her transom mounted name plate. Made from solid teak and hand carved by the renown Spanish artist, Natalia Avarez Garcia. The name plate might look rectangular but in fact the shape is slightly curved and tapered in order for it to look correct in place. It is a small yet much admired touch and so much more pleasing to the eye than a cheap plastic sticker! The above pic was taken when it was new.

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A lovely patina. The name plate as it is now

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Padded hull covers protect the hull from careless neighbours and damaging UV light. Pic taken in June 2015

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Recent pic of the transom and hull covers. Pic taken in June 2015

The Hull. Below the waterline

As with much of Doolittle, even under the water she is unusual. PSC take great care in making sure that Osmosis is never a problem for owners well into the future. For starters PSC us Vinyl Ester resin for the final layer of resin. It is more expensive than polyester resin but also more water resistant. Then on top of this they add no less than four layers of International Interprotect Epoxy Primer to further protect against water ingress. No wonder Osmosis is unheard of on PSC boats and also why PSC offered a ten year hull warranty, something no other boat manufacturer to my knowledge ever did.

As if this wasn’t enough a further six coats of Coppercoat epoxy antifouling was applied. This is a special product that does away with the need to put noxious paint on the hull each year. There is no build up of paint so the hull stays much smoother and the boat sails better and consumes less fuel in the process. It is guaranteed ten years but many boats report 15 years or more and in Doolittles case I have never used a jet wash on the surface and every year I carefully remove and growth or slime by hand to ensure that I did not erode the Coppercoat more than absolutely necessary. I have no doubt at all that there is a good five to ten years left to go with it. Even if it did finally wear off it makes great economical sense to simply replace it with the same as the savings over the years soon mount up.

Coppercoat is much better for your pocket and for the environment! Last year I noticed that the Coppercoat performance was dropping off so I decided to carefully sand the surface down a little to expose fresh copper. This is the first time I had done this as I did not want to sand off any of the product! But it was well worth doing and since then the Coppercoat has been working very well indeed and the bottom has stayed very clean ever since.

There’s not much to say about the hull under the waterline. It’s clean, there is no Osmosis and the hull has never taken ANY impacts. I can count the amount of times the hull has been aground and it is very few and most of those times were in the French canals where the bottom was simply mud. Not that it matters if you do run aground in a Dana but I want to stress the care that has been taken with Doolittle throughout her entire life. Because she was new when I bought her I KNOW everything that has happened to her.

Deck

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This photo was taken in June 2015. As you can the gelcoat is in fabulous condition and the bronze winches and port holes have a lovely patina.

Doolittle’s deck is the standard Oyster gel coat colour offered by PSC as standard. It is a good choice because white is just too much to look at when it is sunny and the slightly cream colour of the oyster is a superb contrast with the black hull and grey teak. All the teak on the boat is bare and untreated. It’s perfectly OK to do this with teak as it contains it’s own oils which protect the wood. With time it simply goes grey and needs very little care. Some owners varnish their Dana’s teak but it’s a lot of work to maintain and if you’re a sailor who would rather be sailing then bare teak is a fine way to go. Personally, I like the look of greyed teak. It gives Doolittle a rugged and purposeful look.

For a new owner who wants varnish, Doolittle comes with a complete set of new capping teak that could be fitted and varnished if required. What is more important on a yacht, is the gelcoat. Wood can be easily changed and green bronze can be polished but if the gelcoat has been left to fade in the sun, no amount of work will ever bring it back to its former glory. Doolittle has been polished and waxed very regularly and even after ten years her gelcoat is in better condition that many boats less than a year old! This is partly because of the high quality gelcoat PSC used but also the fanatical care that I have taken with the gelcoat over the years.

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This photo was taken in June 2015 and is of the cockpit coamings. Not many ten year old boats with gelcoat this good!

There are a few very small scratches and a couple of cracks in the gelcoat, many of them were there right from the start! But it is hard to believe that Doolittle is ten years old as you can see from the pictures.

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The Solara flexible solar panel fitted in 2008  It fits as if made for the sea hood. There is a regulator behind the electric panel. It is covered from the sun when not in use.

In front of the sprayhood and fitting as if made for the seahood is a solar panel made by Solara. It is a special flexible unit putting out 55 watts of power. It cost 800€ and has a regulator which is fitted behind the switch panel in the cabin. It might seem strange but it too has a custom cover for it. But why cover a solar panel I hear you ask?

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Doolittle’s solar panel cover. Just pops on. Pic taken in June 2015.

The solar panel is supposed to have a life of 25 years or more but the simple fact is that the boat is not always at sea, in fact on average Doolittle has spent more than half of most years in a marina. And in a marina there is shore power so the battery charger is filling the batteries so there is simply no need to leave the panel in the sun. My thinking was if one can keep it covered when not using it, it’s entirely possible that it will last 75 years! It was fitted about five years ago and has been no trouble at all and in reality puts in enough power in the summer to power the fridge which isn’t bad at all.

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Venting forehatch allows air to enter even if it’s pouring down. Smoked lexan is very clear and undamaged. This pic taken in June 2015

Apart from the Bomar venting forehatch which allows 8 cubic feet of air to circulate even when it’s pouring with rain, Doolittle’s foredeck and cabin top is exactly like any other. The only real difference is the way the bowsprit platform and anchor assembly is attached.

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This pic taken in June 2015 and clearly shows the much nicer bowsprit arrangement with better access for maintenance and varnishing. The Harken roller furlers were new in 2011.

Some Danas have had bowsprit issues. As the bowsprit is made of a soft wood it is prone to rot if not properly maintained. The standard bowsprit platform is simply placed on top of the bowsprit and bolted through. There are a few issues with this way of doing things. Firstly, it covers the bowsprit making access for maintenance and varnishing almost impossible. Secondly I do not think that any of the holes that were drilled into the bowsprit to mount the platform were sealed in any way at the factory and lastly it just looks awful.

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This pic also taken in June 2015. A close up of the bowsprit.

So I set to changing this. My solution was to cut a section out of the centre of the platform and then bolt it onto the sides of the bowsprit. This makes it sound much easier than it was to do. Like most things on a boat it was far from easy and involved remaking much of the stainless metalwork so that the anchor rollers and anchor would work and stow properly.

Despite the effort it was a job well worth doing. While the platform was off I plugged the original holes from above and below and even varnished inside all the other holes and the new ones as well. This was essential for the longevity of the bowsprit and platform and I am pleased to say that in the years that have followed I have never had any doubt about the structural integrity of Doolittle’s bowsprit or platform. More than many other Dana owners can say with any confidence.

The whole assembly is much better looking too. Instead of covering the capping, now it is clearly visible and the boat looks better for it. The Dana already has a perky sheer and lowering the platform (and consequently the pulpit too) has improved the look of the boat as well. The life lines are lower and their line is much better than before. Not only that but it is also lighter as well. So better access for varnishing, better looks from above, less weight and a cleaner sheer line to boot. Well worth doing.

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This pic taken in June 2015 shows the bowsprit cover. Doolittle has a lot of covers and these have helped to keep her in as new condition. The cover can be used when sailing or anchoring if required.

Doolittle has a 10 kilo Delta anchor. Not a cheap  copy but a genuine Lewmar version. This is completely oversized for the boat but works brilliantly. This is linked to 5 metres of 10mm stainless chain and around 30 metres of 3/4” nylon 3 strand anchor rode. There is also a Fortress anchor in the stb cockpit locker which is sized for use as Doolittle’s main anchor but is normally used as a kedge.

Cockpit

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This photo was taken in June 2015 and shows part of the cockpit.

The Dana cockpit is a great place to be. It is long enough to lie down in and when sailing, the distance between the seats is perfect for your feet to wedge against when the boat is heeled over.

Doolittle’s cockpit is pretty much standard but where she differs to other Danas is that she does not have a massive hole cut into the bulkhead on the starboard side with a big compass fitted. I never understood why PSC did this because it is a wonderful place to sit with your back against the rear of the cabin. With a big compass in the way, it completely ruins a great spot. The same is true of the port side where the instruments are normally placed.

I have a few issues with this compass and instrument placement apart from the fact that they ruin a great place to sit. I think it is criminal to cut holes in boats that cannot easily be repaired or filled in. So when I ordered Doolittle, I insisted that NO HOLES were cut for either a compass nor instruments. In any case having a compass on only one side means that on one tack it is very hard to read anyway and these days who steers to a compass anyway?

Doolittle has a steering compass of course but it is placed centrally and is readable on either tack. But more than this I didn’t want a compass or instruments in the bulkhead because I wanted to be able to fit opening doors in place of the washboards normally fitted and they would not be able to fold back with stuff in the way. Also, times change and instruments evolve. A hole cut today may not work for a new instrument in the future. Far better not to cut any holes at all!

The cockpit has two lockers and a gas locker. The port side locker is massive while the stb locker is big but reduced in size as it contains the 40 litre holding tank, two 105 amp/hr lifeline AGM batteries, bilge and holding tank pumps and diverter valve. Both of these lockers have bronze lockable clasps and bronze hinges. The gas locker is vented and there is a 12volt solenoid which cuts off the gas when not in use operated from inside the boat.

There is a removable Spinlock engine control lever. This is different to most Danas as normally they have a double lever, one for the gears and one for the throttle. The single lever is much simpler to use and does not void the engine warranty as the double lever does. The lever is removable which is helpful. I use the lever for undoing the fuel and water filler caps.

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The engine instrument panel cover. Just one of the many covers on Doolittle which serve to protect her from the elements. Note the strong cast stainless pad eye on the right (one of two in the cockpit) and the bilge pump cover. Cockpit cushions are made from closed cell foam and covered with Beige Chiné Sunbrella fabric with black cherry piping. Pic taken in June 2015.

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The engine instrument panel with cover off showing the new (2014) Ev 100 autopilot. Bottom left is the Whale Twist shower head and 12v and autopilot arm sockets. Pic taken in June 2015.

The engine instrument panel contains the Yanmar panel with rev counter and warning lights, the Raymarine EV100 display head, the twist hot/cold shower head, one 12 volt power supply socket and one socket for the EV100 tiller arm. It is covered by a pop on cover which keeps the sun off when not in use. The EV100 display has a cover as well.

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Many many coats of Epifanes varnish protect and prettify the laminated tiller. Note also the cockpit cushions. There are six in all. This makes it easy to access the cockpit lockers. Pic taken in June 2015.

The original two tone laminated tiller is deeply varnished and always protected by a superb zip on cover.

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The bottom of the tiller cover. Note the wonderful detail of the sewing. This is typical of Doolittle. This pic taken  in June 2015.

Doolittle has a sunbrella cockpit cover which lays over the boom and can be left up even in quite windy conditions. It is perfect for keeping the rain out of the companionway when conditions are nasty. She also has a full summer cover made of lightweight white cotton which covers most of the deck and keeps the temperature right down in the summer. It needs to be taken down if the wind is much over 20 knots. Both covers are supplied with their own custom made bags.

Autopilots

Doolittle has three autopilots. She has Dave, her original Autopilot which is now over ten years old. He has had a hard life but has steered Doolittle through most of her adventures including right the way across the Atlantic, even bare poled for 24 hours during a gale. He suffers a little when the wind picks up and one must reef early to avoid stressing him. But all things considered Dave has worked well and I think the fact that he is still working after ten years says more about how easy a Dana is to steer than how good the Simrad TP30 is! Dave also has a hand made cover to protect him from the heat of the sun and from water. One thing these autopilots don’t like is water!

Then there is Dave 2. He is also a Simrad TP30 which we bought when we bought Doolittle in 2005. He is Doolittle’s back up pilot and has hardly been used. But Doolittle’s main pilot is now the Raymarine EV100 pilot (new 2014). It has the latest 9 axis sensor technology and can steer Doolittle in more extreme conditions so that sail can be left up. The colour display unit is linked to the GPS and can display any amount of info. Between the Tack Tick display, the GPS and the EV100 there is a huge amount of info available. Dave 3 also has a remote control unit for the ultimate in lazy sailing.

Doors

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This picture taken June 2015 and shows the doors in situ. The glass is unbreakable lightly smoked henna lexan. The doors are lockable of course and open all the way to the bulk head thanks to there being no instruments or compass in them as is normal on all other Danas! There is a fixing system to keep them open when at sea.

Originally Doolittle (like all other Danas) had washboards, four of them which is fine I suppose if you don’t use the boat much but a complete pain in the butt if you live aboard! So I set about trying to create something that worked better and came up with the doors you see today. They have been a great success.

In keeping with my horror of making holes I decided that the doors must not spoil the originality of the boat and that if anyone preferred wash boards then they could easily convert back to the original system. (Not that anyone would want to). So I made a frame which drops into the original slot where the washboards went so replacing the original washboards is as easy as undoing two small screws and simply lifting out the entire door assembly.

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An old picture of the doors and frame during construction. Made of solid teak (like the rest of the boat) this frame simply drops into the original slot where the washboards used to go thus retaining the boat’s originality

The added bonus of this system is that it meant it gave a place to put a centrally placed compass that was much easier to actually use along with some instruments. Not only that but it also allowed a seat which in practice is brilliant when you are at sea as you can keep a good lookout from under the sprayhood (dodger) while keeping out of the elements.

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This picture taken June 2015 and shows the Suunto steering compass (has cover and is always on to protect the compass) the tack tick display that is linked by NMEA to the other instruments and GPS and can display any NMEA info. On the right a Garmin GPS unit. No holes in the boat yet a comprehensive set of useful info.

Yet another added bonus, apart from the obvious of being able to get in and out of the boat much quicker was the extra light that comes down below thanks to the two lexan unbreakable windows in the doors. Because there is no compass in the bulkhead nor instruments it means that both doors fold back against the bulkhead without sticking out which means one can lean back against the cabin bulkhead in the cockpit with the doors open or closed! All in all a complete success.

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Even with the boat closed up, the doors let in a huge amount of light so that even on the grimmest days you never feel closed in. The hand made pure wool carpet protects the varnished floor and feels lovely underfoot.

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This picture shows how part of the door frame was hollowed out to allow for an invisible latch system built into the door. Once these two pieces were glued together they had a groove for the latch mechanism built in.

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A close up detail of the top striker in the doors. The locking mechanism is hidden inside the actual door frame.

Since the doors were done many on the Yahoo Dana group have expressed their wish to have something similar on their Dana. Obviously it takes a certain level of skill to create something like this but that is my job so for me at least it wasn’t too hard but it certainly has massively improved the functionality of the boat in the harbour and at sea. One of the best things I did to Doolittle in fact.

Spray Hood (Dodger)

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Doolittle’s companionway sprayhood. The sides can be folded up or removed and the whole can be folded down flat if needed. New in 2012. This pic taken in June 2015.

Another one of the additions to Doolittle that has been brilliant. Normally a Dana has a full width spray hood which runs from one side of the cabin top to the other and while this set up offers a little more protection it does create a lot more windage and drag when sailing up wind. It also makes going forward from the cockpit harder and using the cabin top (staysail) winches very hard indeed. It also requires a hell of a lot of holes to be drilled in the cabin for all the various mounting points.

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Here’s a picture of the spray hood folded down onto the sea hood. The hatch opens as per normal.

By now you will know that I have a horror of making holes in boats, well holes let water in don’t they? so you won’t be surprised to learn that the entire spray hood is fitted to the boat without making one hole in the fibreglass! It is only screwed to the wooden parts which can easily be repaired or replaced if the need should arise.

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This picture shows how the front of the spray hood is attached. Originally this piece of wood did not have the groove in it. I removed it, and made this piece with a groove by gluing two pieces of shaped wood together. What you end up with is a very strong, clean and watertight way of attaching the front of the spray hood using keder tape and without making any holes in the fibreglass!

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Pic taken in June 2015. Unusually clear spray hood glass allows a good look out to be kept whilst sheltering from the elements.

The spray hood has window glass called strataglass which is extremely clear and obviously more expensive too but by now I guess you are starting to see that only the best goes on my boat. It is a little bit stiffer than cheaper plastic window material but the sides of the spray hood unpop and unzip in moments and then the whole thing can be folded down to rest on the back edge of the seahood and doesn’t interfere with the action of the hatch at all.

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This is the spray hood with the sides folded up to let air through. The Phifertex privacy curtain just pops onto the spray hood. Note how all the spray hood fastenings and hinges are only screwed into the wood and not the fibreglass. Pic taken in June 2015.

The stainless hinge was custom made as were the hoops. The material used is Sunbrella black cherry to match the sail cover and other various pieces on the boat. It is very strong and in fact I use it to swing into the boat on a daily basis. It keeps out the worst weather and waves and has been absolutely brilliant. It was replaced a few years ago and like everything else on Doolittle is in excellent working condition.

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Phifertex privacy curtain just pops onto the spray hood. Pic taken in June 2015.

It has a drip flap so that rain cannot drip into the cabin. Onto this flap there is a privacy curtain which simply pops on. It is made of Phifertex and allows air and light through.

Engine

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Pic taken June 2015 shows Doolittle’s 3YM20 engine. Replaced under warranty in 2010 and has only done 700 hours. Vetus flexible coupling, Polyflex engine mounts, a PSS dripless stern gland and a special large bore bronze riser are just some of the mods. Note also the Isotherm 15 litre water heater.

Most Danas were fitted with the Yanmar 2GM engine which had two cylinders and 18 hp. The later Danas including Doolittle were fitted with the latest super efficient Yanmar 3YM series engine. It weighs about the same as the old 2 GM but has one more cylinder so is considerably smoother. It is slightly longer but weighs about the same. When I first bought Doolittle I thought it was a bit over the top, such a big engine in so small a boat but over the years I have come to relate to the decision.

The Dana is a heavy boat and there have been times when I have been welcome of all that power and there is an added advantage that the engine never has to work too hard to push the boat along. The original engine had a load of issues and was eventually replaced under warranty by Yanmar in 2010 so the current engine has actually only done about 700 hours and is barely run in.

Ever since the first oil and filter change I have had the oil analysed by a lab to ensure that the engine is always in the best of health. It costs a little but it is money well spent as it helps to nip any problems in the bud. I can supply these to anyone who is interested. Oil analysis can help identify problems before they arise. It’s an excellent idea to build up a continuous history.

Modifications to the engine and bay are as following. There is a Vetus Bullflex flexible shaft coupling. This is a massive beast and allows the engine to be misaligned upto a few degrees. Not that it ever is. The engine has always been very carefully aligned. Proof of this is the fact that Doolittle still has her original cutlass bearing fitted and there is still no play in it at all.

The original and poor Yanmar engine mounts have been recently changed for Polyflex ones. These cannot come un glued unlike the Yanmar ones and are a much better and safer solution. They are made of polymers and plastics so don’t rust either unlike the Yanmar ones. These were very expensive. The coupling and mounts alone came to well over 1000€!

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Just one of the Polyflex engine mounts. As you can see the engine and bay is immaculate. The engine is filled with waterless coolant. Note the Halyard soundproofing on the right.

Some of the engine improvements are invisible yet important all the same. Perhaps the most important is the exhaust riser. The original cast iron and frankly rubbish Yanmar one has been replaced with an Expensive cast bronze version from Norway. It should give no further trouble. This is an important and necessary modification for the Yanmar engine.

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Special bronze large bore riser replaces the rubbish cast iron Yanmar one.

To help the engine charge better a Balmar 80 amp alternator has been fitted along with a stand alone and programmable regulator. There are spares for the alternator and even another spare regulator. These parts cost well over 1000€. The original 55 amp/hr Yanmar is on board as a spare and has never been used.

The engine has been filled with waterless coolant which stops the engine innards from corroding. It does not expand so doesn’t stress the hoses. It never needs to be replaced for the life of the engine. It was yet another expensive thing but a good investment which should help the engine to last a very long time.

A pump for sucking out the oil has also been fitted which makes changing the engine oil a lot easier than trying to suck it out of the dip stick which is the way you would have to do it if the pump was not fitted. As there is no drain plug on the 3YM even this simple task was very complicated and costly to do.

The engine is also connected to the hot water tank and it will heat it up to extremely hot in about 15 minutes.

The engine has the usual water strainer and filters which are all replaced regularly. The later Danas have fibreglass fuel tanks which do not corrode unlike the alloy ones in most other Danas. In ten years there has never been the slightest issue with water in the fuel or any other kind of fuel contamination. The fuel tank has a gauge on the top of the tank (accessible by lifting the floor panel) and it also has an electrical gauge by the electric panel.

The entire engine bay has been soundproofed by the addition of fireproof 1 1/4”” thick sound proofing by Halyard marine. Again, the best quality product I could find.

The original stern gland and packing was replaced by the efficient and clever PSS shaft system. It is now ten years old and due for replacement at the end of this summer. The new unit has been purchased and will be fitted the next time the boat comes out of the water.

Behind the engine a plywood shelf has been glassed in and an Isotherm 15 litre water tank has been fitted. It is heated by an electrical element or by the engine. The Isotherm is maybe the best quality water heater on the market anywhere. It has a fully stainless tank within a stainless cover. It was fitted a few years ago and should last for many years to come. The 15 litres is more than enough to have two very hot and long showers. It is a very efficient system indeed.

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The very expensive 4 blade solid bronze feathering adjustable pitch prop. Extremely low drag under sail. Extraordinary efficiency and power when motoring. Strong astern power. Very smooth thanks to the four electronically balanced blades. It even has a shock absorber built in to reduce the stress on the prop when going from fwd to astern. Worth every penny.

The propeller on Doolittle is a superb feathering bronze prop made by Variprop in Germany. It is a quality product and works as you would imagine. It cost 3000€ so that should give you some idea of the level of quality. It can be adjusted for pitch in forward and reverse. It just works and it’s one of the reasons why Doolittle sails better than all other Dana’s as there is practically no drag from the prop. It was an expensive addition but the performance gain is large and the piece of mind that comes from having a quality prop cannot be measured.

Sails and rig

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A pic from a few years ago showing Doolittle’s cutter rig. The sails have since been replaced and furlers added but she looks exactly the same today.

Doolittle is cutter rigged and has tan coloured sails made by Ullman sails in the USA. They were new in 2011 and have been very little used since fitting. When not in use they have been removed from the boat, carefully folded and stowed. They are as good as new and have decades of life left in them.

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A pic from a few years back showing Doolittle stonking along down wind, a reef in the mainsail and the staysail poled out. She sails like a train downwind with very little effort.

The white painted aluminium mast is made by Lefiell and has all welded fittings. It is an extremely strong mast with massive fittings. The paint is in excellent condition. The boom is also made by Lefiel and is also painted white.

There is a mast head light, a VHF antenna and an 8db Omni directional wifi antenna with massive low loss cable which enters the boat through a deck gland. There is a 2 watt adapter which is massively powerful and allows Doolittle to capture wifi from as far away as three miles! Also on the top of the mast is a spinnaker bail and a Tacktick wind transducer fitted in 2013. There is a steaming light and a deck light and flag halyards on both spreaders.

At the front of the mast there is a large ring fitted for attaching the 16’ long telescopic whisker pole and there are two Harken winches and a pair of jammers and various cleats. There are two spectra running backstays which are used if needed.

The mainsail has a black cherry cover and the jib and staysail have Tedlar UV protection strips attached. This is a transparent material which is very light and does not add much weight to the leech of the sails.

In addition to the three main sails Doolittle also has an Asymmetric spinnaker which is flown without a pole. It is a fabulous sail made by Momentum in 2008. It hasn’t had a huge amount of use and is in excellent condition.

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Momentum MPS asymmetric spinnaker. Beautifully made. As new condition.

On the cabin top there are the original Schaefer tracks and chariots for the staysail which lead to a pair of solid bronze Meisner 18 STB-15 winches engraved with the name of the boat. These winches are pure quality and extremely well made and very low maintenance. They have no bearings as such, just a special plastic sleeve. What this means is that they rarely need to be taken apart and greased. I do it from time to time but the grease is always good so I just put them back together!

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Just one of the four engraved ‘Doolittle’ bronze self tailing Meisner winches. Come with two bronze engraved handles with lignum vitae handles. Pure class. After ten years they have a superb patina.

In 2011 I fitted a pair of new and very expensive Harken furlers for both foresails. The original sails were hank on and I couldn’t see the point of having them modified as they had done quite a lot of work. It seemed a good idea to replace the furlers and buy new sails to fit to them which is what I did.

In 2012 I got fed up with the original Genoa tracks and cars. They never slid well and had to be adjusted manually. A right pain in the butt. So I replaced them with a low friction Harken ball bearing system. What a massive improvement. Now a simple tug on a rope allows the adjustment of the jib sheet lead. This was an expensive system to fit but it was worth every penny.

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New Harken tracks and genoa chariots. Note the jamb cleat welded to the stanchion which allows for easy car adjustment from the cockpit. A massive improvement over the original system. An expensive addition but so worth it. Pic taken June 2015.

At the same time, I removed the stanchions and had them all modified to allow the furler lines to run through them. It was the neatest way to do this. Normally one needs to fit rollers and guides which never look very nice. This is a much more elegant solution and I am pretty sure you won’t see many boats with this ridiculous level of detail.

In addition to the guides for the furling lines there is also a small cleat welded on which is used to tie the furling line to and there is also a small jamb cleat on the outside of the rear stanchion which allows quick and easy adjustment of the jib chariot. It was all a lot of work fitting the furlers and associated ropes and guides but it has been well worth it. The end result is very tidy and extremely functional.

Another addition is a back stay adjuster made by Wichard. Yet another ridiculously expensive part but the back stay is super important and one wouldn’t want to lose any part of it so I decided to buy a slightly larger one than absolutely necessary but it was a good choice as it suits the scale of the boat and adjusts easier as it is not stressed.

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Whichard back stay adjuster. Meant for a bigger boat. This expensive bit of kit won’t ever give any trouble! Pic taken June 15.

There are another pair of Meisner 18 STB-15 self tailing bronze winches in the cockpit, they are also engraved with the name of the boat, as are the two solid bronze winch handles with the boat name also engraved in them as well. These are expensive winches but they have never given a moment’s trouble and have gone a lovely green colour with age.

Attached to the backstay chainplate is a special stainless fitting which allows the fitting of a mizzen mast. This was an experiment which worked well and all parts needed will be supplied with the boat. there is a two part carbon mast and an old sail which drops onto the fitting on the transom. Here’s an article I wrote about it.

Doolittle is very well set up for sailing in all conditions unlike many boats whose rigs are not as sorted as hers. Many a time we have out sailed much bigger boats simply because her rig is so optimised and sorted for all points of sail and wind strengths.

The mainsail has three reefs although I have never needed the third one! The battens were placed in the leech parallel to the boom at my request. This makes it easier to flake the mainsail on the boom. This is typical of the attention to detail that has been lavished on Doolittle.

How the boat looks is as important as how functional it is. Doolittle is first and foremost a sailing boat but she is also very nicely finished in most areas.

Interior

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A very cosy and welcoming interior. Doolittle has teak cabin sides unlike many of the later Danas which have white cabin sides. Prebit LED lights spread a lovely glow or can illuminate fully the interior with a total of 8 gold plated lights!

Doolittle has many special features and modifications that are visible from the outside but perhaps some of her best features are down below. Doolittle is brighter down below than most Danas thanks to her doors with large windows in them. Before when the boat was closed up it felt a bit oppressive down below. Now it’s possible to close up the boat even on the grimmest days and not feel penned in.

Perhaps the most noticeable change compared to most Danas apart from the doors is the companionway box which takes the place of the original steps. The steps were fine for getting in and out of the boat but they took up a lot of space in the galley and served no other purpose. On a small boat I believe it is important that everything does more than one job to maximise efficiency. The companionway box is a classic example of this.

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Doolittle’s unique and practical companionway box. Divided into two sections, one for rubbish, one for recycling. Removable step and a nice space under for shoes. Whole box simply lifts out for access to the floor.

On most boats there is no where to put your rubbish and this always annoyed me so the box is primarily a place to put trash but it is divided into two sections, one for rubbish and one for recycling. Of course you don’t have to use it for that if you don’t want, you could simply have a double sized bin! The tops of the step have the original non slip surface flush fitted and they also have hidden hinges. The entire box just lifts out for easy cleaning or for access to the fuel tank under the floor.

The companionway box also has a removable step should the need ever arise and there is now a large space for shoes. The box takes up less space than the original steps so there is more room to work in the galley. It’s a small thing but it really makes a difference. The old steps also used to rattle when the engine was running. The new more solid box does not and that is a great relief!

The only real visual difference between Doolittle and other Danas is the cupboard behind the fridge. Normally PSC made a special shelf dedicated to plates but this seemed to me a terrible waste of space and a very hard area to clean so I asked that they make this cupboard with a door instead. This is a much more practical arrangement altogether.

Other than this, Doolittle has an interior much like any other late model Dana with the excellent unzippable headliner and oiled teak wood work. Things one cannot see are the latex cushions throughout, an extra that I chose at the time which has proven to be excellent. Even after ten years of living aboard the seats and bunks are still springy and extremely comfortable. Doolittle uses a faux leather for the coverings in a nice red colour called Salsa. The seats always have throws on them so they do not show much wear considering the use they have had.

Doolittle has a teak and holly floor which has never seen the light of day. It has always been covered. What that means is that the floor looks like new despite its age. There are not many ten year old boats were near perfect wooden floors in them. Doolittle has a very expensive Moroccan pure wool carpet custom fitted which adds even more comfort and luxury. In the winter there is an special heating element which fits under the carpet. Getting up in the winter is a delight. Bare feet on pure wool is a luxurious experience!

There is also a small 400 watt heater that hooks on under the hanging locker. This and the RugBuddy under the carpet provide more than enough heat during the winter. Much of the cabin has extra neoprene insulation which keeps down condensation in the winter and keeps out the heat in the summer. Under the front bunk there is also a special layer which allows air to circulate under the mattresses.

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One of Doolittle’s 4 prebit dimming gold plated down lights. Fitted to custom made solid teak surrounds. Note the excellent headlining which unzips for access.

In 2014 all the cabin reading and down lights (x8) were replaced at great expense (over 1000€!) with gold plated Prebit led lights. They all dim and are touch button. The glass shades throw a delightful colour on the oiled teak. You can read more about them here. They are extremely bright (if you want) yet consume very little power. Best of all, being gold, they are easy to clean and not likely to corrode or fail unlike the original lights!

Doolittle has an Isotherm fridge fitted and it is simply brilliant. It uses very little power and yet can even make ice cubes. It uses a special seacock to cool the gas and what this means is that any heat produced by the fridge does not find itself in the cabin like most systems. Nor does it make much noise. The compressor is fitted to a custom made shelf under the sink in the galley. It was extremely expensive but has been absolutely brilliant proving that you really do get what you pay for. Here’s an article I wrote about it.

Doolittle came with a Force 10 two burner stove, oven and grill. It’s a superb bit of kit and apart from having to replace the knobs and the sparker unit it has been as good as gold. Here’s a recent article I wrote about it. Even after ten years of constant use, thanks to the great care we take over it, it is still in fabulous condition and in perfect working order. There is a wooden top which lives behind the stove that can be placed on top as an extra work surface.

The table which seats four slides out from under the bed and locks into the compression post. There are large lockers and cupboards all around. The hanging locker has been divided by the addition of shelves but these just drop in so if you wanted the full depth of the locker back it’s easily done. Under the bed there is a huge locker and another one above the foot of the bed. Storage space is not lacking on a Dana!

The electric panel by the companionway has been completely remade in solid teak. The original one had a voltmeter but that has been replaced by more switches and a stand alone BEP meter which shows the levels of the Diesel and water tank (with option for adding another for the holding tank) but also volts and amps in and out so you can monitor the electrical system.

Behind the fridge there is the original 12V control panel with breaker switches and also the Mains power panel, made by Blue Sea Systems which has breaker switches and also a dimmable meter which shows volts and amps.

Toilet and head

Doolittle’s head compartment is now fitted with a solid bronze Reinstrom German toilet. Unlike the original Grocco (as fitted to most Danas) this toilet is the Rolls Royce of heads. It costs nearly $2000 and comes with spares. The shower compartment has been modified so that one can actually shower in there without water falling straight out of the room into the cabin. The sink has a pull out shower head which replaces the original hand pump tap.

The original cheap white toilet hose has been recently replaced by Trident hose which is the best and most expensive that money can buy. Thanks to its construction it does not leach nasty smells which is why I bought it. It also remains flexible so it can be removed easily for cleaning if required.

Conclusion

That’s about all I can tell you about Doolittle and her condition. She is VAT paid so what that means is if you are not an EU citizen you can use and leave Doolittle anywhere in Europe without worrying about a time scale. She can stay in Europe for as long as you want. VAT cost about $15,000 at current exchange rates.

Doolittle also comes with a rather spectacular and unique sailing dinghy which is very hard to put a value on but if I had to make one for a client it would surely be $10,000 as there is a months work involved! It was designed and made to fit perfectly on Doolittle’s foredeck and has a cover to protect it from the elements. It rows and sails too and comes with all the necessary parts. It can be assembled on land or in the water. It rows and sails beautifully and will get massive attention everywhere you go.

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The Stasha Tweed. Made from teak and covered with epoxy coated Flax. It is made from two halves and nests on the foredeck. Here’s an article all about it.

Doolittle would be the perfect yacht for an American couple who want to explore Europe and the Mediterranean, with the VAT paid there are no time restrictions on how long the boat can stay in Europe.

In addition to the seas of Europe Doolittle can also do canal trips and this is a massive bonus and a true delight. Read a little about one of the trips Doolittle has done in the French canals.

Doolittle is for sale for $120,000 which may seem like a lot but when you consider that a new Dana, if you could buy one, would cost upwards of $150,000 for the basic boat, and if you consider Doolittle’s fantastic condition and very high spec and the fact that she is VAT paid AND comes with a nesting hand made sailing dinghy then she compares very reasonably with other recent Danas that have come up for sale.

Doolittle has crossed the Atlantic once and has covered about 15,000 logged miles. She has visited three continents and many countries. She’s a brilliant boat and has been a good comfortable home for all that time. After spending more than half his life living aboard, the author and his partner want to try something new. Here is a unique chance to buy one of the best cared for and most beautiful Danas to be found anywhere in the world.

Should a prospective owner require I would consider delivering Doolittle to the East coast of America although that experience should really be for the new owner! Although I am asking $120,000 I am willing to discuss this with anyone who is seriously interested in becoming Doolittle’s second owner.

If you want to know more about the Dana 24 then please read this very long article that I wrote. if after reading that and this post and you still have questions! Then please contact me. Doolittle is currently UK registered and moored nr St Tropez France. Viewing by appointment.

info (at) woodenwidget.com

Cheers

Benjy

F1 Making it better

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Formula 1 is the only sport I have any interest in. I’m not sure why F1 has such a hold over me but it does. There are so many reasons why I find it fascinating and sometimes even exciting. Those who run F1 have been aware for some time that F1 isn’t all it could be and there have been many complaints of late, from the sound the latest cars make to how easy they appear to drive. As a long term fan of F1 and a great lover of some of the excellent stories that come from this sport I do have a few ideas about to liven things up.

Before we can discuss the changes we need to understand the sport that is F1. Part of its appeal must surely be the history. The cars may have changed but at the end of the day, F1 is about the best drivers and teams competing against each other. There has been much talk of late about making the cars all the same but that would be a mistake. Much of the fascination of F1 comes from the individual teams who compete.

F1 is a team sport. Let’s not forget that. The driver might be the one who gets the limelight but for every driver there are hundreds of behind the scene players who all work extremely hard to ensure their team does the best job. A one design formula would ruin this fundamental fact of F1 and what makes it so interesting and often exciting.

Let’s define what F1 is or should be. F1 is the pinnacle of motor sport. Every racing driver would like to be F1 world champion. It is the greatest accolade for a driver. F1 is cutting edge. Whatever people say about how the cars are too complicated, the simple fact is that throughout the history of F1 teams and designers have always used the latest technologies and materials to get that small advantage. Technology is always going to be a part of F1. The clever part is not letting it interfere with the human being behind the wheel.

Should F1 be running hybrids and saving fuel? Yes it should. Every sport must behave responsibly and reducing the impact on the environment in what is already not a very eco friendly sport is essential if F1 is to remain in business. F1 is a business lets not forget that either. But there is no reason why a business cannot offer a great quality product for a price that is good value and yet enables a profit to be made so that it can be reinvested in the future of F1.

Further more, fuel is heavy and throughout F1 history there have been situations where cars run out of fuel long before they get to the chequered flag. The less fuel a car can carry, the faster it will be. It will also take less out of the tyres. The more economical a car is, the better too. Saving fuel has always been a part of F1.

So far so good. Everyone knows F1 is in a mess and no one knows what to do. This much is obvious because never before have the powers that be in this autocratic sport asked for the public’s help.

What I fear most is F1 changing because of a knee jerk reaction. F1 has been around for 60 years and is bigger now that ever. I think it is important to realise this. Whatever strange rules are introduced, F1 has survived so it can’t be that broken.

What I do think is that it is too expensive. I also think the BBC should show all live races. In my opinion this is one of the worst things that ever happened to F1. The very fact that it is now only watchable on Sky TV is a tragedy. How can it be that F1 now has adverts that promote Betting, money lending at extortionate rates and insurance. If anything cheapens F1 it is this. That people actually pay their hard earned cash to pay to view F1 races on Sky and then have to endure the worst adverts as well beggars belief. Personally I will not pay Sky one penny preferring not to watch the race at all. I doubt I am alone and I fear that F1 lost a lot of good loyal fans because of it.

The price of tickets has risen so much that hardly anyone went to the German grand prix to the point where it’s deemed too expensive to even have one this year. A great tragedy. F1 would be better served by less greed and more generosity. Larger profits may actually ensue. Better than upping the price of a ticket until only the very wealthy can afford it. F1 would be better received if ticket prices were less. High prices carry high expectations. Fans are much less likely to moan if their tickets were not so expensive.

It takes enormous skill to be an F1 driver today. Personally I always reckoned I had the skill to do the driving part and I would have been particularly good at developing a car but when it comes to dealing with the endless mindless questions from the world’s press I would have faired very badly indeed. I take my hat off to the drivers, top diplomats all, especially considering the rarefied atmosphere where they live and their often young age.

One of the problems is that despite excellent camera angles and stuff, on the tv screen you do not get just how hard it is to be averaging 100 mph around the narrow barriered streets of Monte Carlo. Back in the early 90’s things were very different. Even with the sound off this video of a lap of Monaco by Ayrton Senna is spell binding. It’s so quick you wonder how anyone could manage this. Of course Senna owned Monaco. Then they were changing gear 30 times a lap by hand, which of course meant taking one hand of the wheel for much of the lap! Things are very different today.  If F1 looked like this today things would be very different.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTJZTc1U1tM

Perhaps it’s possible with better editing or unusual camera angles, helmet cams etc but I can’t help feeling that even with the current F1 cars they could be made to look more exciting to drive. Obviously it’s not easy even driving a modern F1 car but it LOOKS too easy and that is part of the problem.

I think it would do no harm if F1 made the cars faster. How they do that is up to them but it would make for better racing. One thing is sure F1 should be considerably faster than ALL other forms of motorsport. It can’t be the pinnacle if it’s not the fastest.

There has been mention of reintroducing fuel stops and other such silly ideas. I just can’t see how it makes the racing any better to watch. The same is true of having different tyre manufacturers. Better that the tyres are the one constant. I do think that compound choice should be left to the teams and drivers to decide however.

The blue flags could be updated. I think they are important so that a slower car knows that a faster one is behind but I do not think they should have to get out of the way. Let the faster car get past anyway it can. It seems a shame that the slower cars, already penalised by their lack of pace have to lose further time getting out of the way of other cars. This is racing and back markers are part of it. It should make racing more interesting and bring in an element of luck to spice things up.

I also think that the idea of capping spending is just not realistic. Of course it is expensive to develop and run an F1 team but the big teams can afford it. I never understood why in season development was banned. What we end up with is one team doing really well and none of the other teams able to catch up. What this does is make for boring viewing. Witness Red Bull’s 4 years of dominance which only came to an end after the rules were changed. Now we have Mercedes dominating.

In the wake of the Austrian grand prix where the Mclarens were hit with 25 grid place penalties one has to question the wisdom of this rule. I just don’t understand the logic. OK, punish the team if they have to use another engine but why punish the driver and the sport? In the scheme of things, what difference does it really make if a team has to change engines every race? What we want is competitive racing and that is unlikely to happen if some of the teams are half way down the grid. No one understands the penalties, least of all the drivers or the commentators. How do these penalties help F1 to keep an audience?

Bring back in season testing. Throw as much money at the car as you like. Use wind tunnels when you want and do as much testing with the current car as you like. They are talking about making the cars faster, just let teams develop them and they will get faster. F1 is expensive and that is all there is to it. There’s no reason why even the smaller teams couldn’t manage to develop their cars. Their sponsors can help to fund the development as it is in their interests to do so.

Basically apart from these few niggles F1 isn’t in bad shape. Fundamentally it’s doing just fine. It just needs tarting up a bit.

And here are my two suggestions for improving the sport without ruining it, or changing it too dramatically.

The first thing I would like to see would be a read-out of drivers’ heart beats. It could be slipped in along side the other telemetry information and would give us a good indication into the head space of a driver. I don’t know why they don’t already do this. It’s one bit of extra info that would be very interesting.

But most of all, the question we all want to know is, who is the fastest driver? One of the issues with teams competing is that is hard to know who is the fastest driver? maybe they just have the best car? This question is at the bottom of why we all watch F1. To see who is the best.

Many years ago there was a race in Germany where all the current F1 drivers raced in identical Mercedes 190s. Senna won and Niki Lauda came second. It was brilliant to watch and very instructive.

What I propose is that at every F1 race there is also a race where all the grid drivers race in identical cars. The cars they use are not so important, perhaps in Italy an Italian car would be used, in Germany, a German one and so on. The races would have practice, qualifying and a race, albeit in a reduced form.

It could be run as a separate championship or the points won in these races would be added to the F1 championship. It would do three things. It would be a good showcase for a car manufacturer, it would show who is fastest and it would liven up F1 no end. I believe even the drivers would approve.

It would give rookie drivers a chance to earn a few points and show their skills when maybe they don’t have a competitive F1 car. Top drivers can hardly object as they would expect to be at the front anyway.

Polyflex 3 YM Yanmar engine mounts Review

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The new Polyflex Yanmar engine mounts fitted to a 3YM 20

The Australians lead the way in Polymer technology. The reason why they are so good at it is because the extreme heat in their country destroys rubber in no time at all.

The engine mounts that come with the Yanmar are very poor, especially considering the price. Last time I looked they were about £800 for a set. The front mounts have a different elasticity to the rears but otherwise they are the same. They have two issues, asides from the high price. They are painted very badly and soon rust which makes a mess of the engine beds but worse than that, they are only glued on to the base and can simply come off. I had this happen on a 1GM. I could lift the entire engine clean off the mounts. Not very clever or seaworthy.

The advantages of the Polyflex are obvious. Because they have a (mostly) plastic body they do not rust and they also have a fail safe system so even if the polymer is completely destroyed, the engine cannot come off the beds! This is basic really and any marine engine mount should offer this.

They are not cheap. I paid about £600 for a set of 4. There’s only one mount stiffness so no more having to worry about using the right mount in the right place. They claim to be a direct replacement but this is not entirely true as the bases are much thicker and in my case (naturally) I had to order longer bolts in order to bolt them down to the beds. It’s worth bearing this in mind if you do decide to buy some.

Fitting them was the usual fight in a tight access area but eventually I managed to get them in. When I first started the engine I was very disappointed as there was more vibration than before. At tickover the ropes and rigging wobble. It never did this with the Yanmar mounts.

At higher revs it gets better but still has a vibration and it is harsher than before. I wrote to the company who sold them to me and asked what was going on. They demanded measurements from the base to the dished washer at the top but this is almost impossible to do given the poor access I have.

I didn’t get much joy from them so I decided to contact the manufacturer in Australia direct. That didn’t seem to do much good either. The usual, ‘we haven’t had any issues before’. If I had a pound for every time I had heard that I would be so rich. They also suggested that the exhaust could be causing the vibration. It is true that the pipe from the riser has a bend in it and is very short but it is still rubber and besides, I never had this issue with the original mounts.

So it seems that if you want these to work properly then as far as I can understand (although this is only conjecture as I can’t get any answers from Polyflex) then your beds must be perfectly straight, in line and parallel or you’ll have vibration. Despite asking repeatedly I have not been able to find out what the acceptable tolerances are.

As a boat builder of well over two decades I have installed many engines. Not once have I ever come across a perfect set of beds. There is always some inaccuracy. You might have thought that an engine mount would take up some of this slack but it would appear that the Polyflex ones do not. This is very annoying because my beds are not exactly parallel and they are on two levels which doesn’t help.

How accurate do the mounts have to be? I don’t know and Polyflex promise to write and answer my questions but I am still waiting. Meanwhile I am £600 out of pocket and have a boat that vibrates more than before.

So I would say that unless you have engine beds that are absolutely straight, level and parallel and an exhaust with lots of flex and rubber in it, avoid these mounts. I am not impressed with the way they don’t stop vibration and I am not impressed with the company who don’t seem to want to tell me what I would like to know. Why they won’t tell me, I cannot imagine. Perhaps they don’t know. It’s clear they consider their mounts perfect. Therefore I am just another stupid customer who knows nothing. having just spent £600 I had hoped for a slightly better response than this.

It is possible that I will have to shim the mounts to get their angles perfect in all planes. I know that my boat’s engine beds are not perfect because they were made by a human being. Levelling up the beds to get them perfect is a huge amount of work. This is why I want to know what the tolerances are but will any one tell me? No they will not. Very strange.

Of course it is possible that the mounts are all well within tolerance in which case the only explanation for why they vibrate more is that they are not very good at damping vibrations.

Update May 2015

Finally I received a patronising reply from Polyflex. If I want to stop my ropes and rigging from oscillating at tickover (apparently the term in Australia is idle) I should increase the revs! What a splendid solution, wish I’d thought of that. There was no definite answer to why the engine vibrates more, just some stuff about a boat being like a guitar. Bottom line: It’s Pacific Seacraft’s fault because they did not make the engine beds completely level and they fitted an engine that was too big.

Conclusion.

Unless your beds are absolutely level, straight and parallel you may end up with more vibration, not less. You may need longer bolts as the base of the mounts is thicker than the Yanmar ones.

They might be safer than the cheap Yanmar ones but they do not dampen vibration any better.

Primo, the on going story of a green Fiat 850 Sport Coupé

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Many years ago I owned and loved a dark blue Fiat 850 sport coupe. I have always loved small rear engine cars so when the chance came to own another I decided that we only go around once and it is better regret doing something than to regret not doing something.

I found Primo for sale on Leboncoin.fr which is a French site for selling everything. It was not far away and seemed reasonably priced. Good ones sell for more than £10,000 these days and the extremely rare Abarth versions can fetch a lot more. There is an Abarth 1000 OT on sale in the States, they are asking over $90,000! Whether it sells for that is anyone’s guess but it shows that there are people out there who can see where the next big money is to be made.

The 850 Sport was made from 65 to 71 and in that time it saw two updates. The series one had a smoother look and only two headlights, no chrome at the rear. The series two is the best looking in my opinion and the series three with its not very pretty front end. Apart from these details they were pretty much the same car. US versions of early cars had an engine with 817cc to get around the emissions laws.

The 850 Sport Coupé is an appreciating classic and a fairly practical proposition to run every day. Parts are still available although some are getting extremely hard to find. The Internet has been of immense help in this respect, sourcing parts that would be impossible to find any other way. Maybe it is easier to restore a classic car these days simply because of this.

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Primo as bought. Nasty wheels of different widths and silly white lines and dull paint and chrome.

And for sure Primo needed a whole heap of work. Let’s look at the up side. The chassis is in fabulous condition for its age. The body has only been sprayed once and although it could do with a respray he looks ok for now. There are issues far more pressing than the aesthetics. There are a few patches of rot but it’s mainly the outer sills and I have already managed to find replacements for a later time.

The engine and box are pretty good. The previous owner (PO) did some good work but tended to be a bit simplistic, perhaps underestimating the sheer amount of effort, research and detail that goes into a good restoration. To be fair the PO wanted to turn the car into a Hill Climber but I think that would have been a shame. He replaced the knackered original 903 engine with the 70 HP one out of the Autobianchi A112 Abarth.

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The PO fitted the 70HP Abarth engine from the Autobianchi.

This is a popular way to get more power but it is not without it’s problems. The biggest issue is that the A112 engine spins the wrong way. The original engine runs counter clockwise which is unusual so first you have to make it run backwards. This part isn’t too hard, turn the pistons around, fit an 850 cam and the 850 starter motor. The hard part is getting the cooling system to work.

The block on the 850 engine uses a 4 bolt pump which also houses the fan assembly. It’s a long alloy casting. You can’t use a pump from another engine as they all spin the wrong way. The A112 engine has a three bolt mounting. The three bolts do line up with the 850 pump so that could be easily solved with an alloy spacer and two gaskets. The problem is that the pump does not align with the radiator so it needs major surgery to put it in the right place.

None of this is impossible but it is not easy either. The PO’s solution was to fit an electric water pump and an electric fan in place of the mechanical system on the original set up. The PO could never get the car to cool enough and now that I have owned the car for a while I can understand why.

Putting a radiator in the back of a car next to the engine was never going to be ideal but a well set up and maintained original cooling system can be very effective even if it does rob HP from the engine spinning the fan the whole time.

There were many reasons why the car was not cooling. The first is that the fan needs to push, not suck and the fan fitted has to run the wrong way to do that. It’s not very efficient. There are also supposed to be plates fitted around and under the engine to allow the hot air from the radiator to get sucked out under the car. Without these plates the heat just goes straight back up and into the radiator.

There are a load of other reasons too, like the way the engine was set up, a poorly running engine has to work harder and so gets hotter. At the moment the car still has this electrical cooling set up and apart from the odd steep hill taken at speed the car is quite drivable but at some point I want to put it back the way it was. If there is one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s that those engineers back in the late 60’s knew exactly what they were doing and it is hard to do better.

Some people put a radiator at the front of the car but that would ruin its originality and a big hole would have to be cut out of it, plus it ruins the boot space which isn’t enormous but still big enough to take a large rucksack.

So since I have owned Primo I have been improving and fault finding. Luckily the car was quite drivable although not very nice to drive. Everything worked and it went through a control technique at the first attempt and that was the day after I bought the car. I did nothing to it and was expecting a long list of faults. But apart from a handful of advisories like an oil leak (crank oil seal, since fixed) and missing dust covers on shocks, badly adjusted headlight etc it actually passed which surprised me. Maybe they like old cars. 

The first thing to do was remove the white stripes and the roundels from the doors. I did this with gentle heat from a hot air gun but even so I still managed to pull some paint off but this was helpful to use as a sample to get the paint code. The original colour was dark green and I have no idea what the current colour is. I have to say I like it a lot. It suits the car and really stands out against the drab shoe boxes that pass for cars today.

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This is the interior of Primo when I bought him. Since this photo was taken the alloy floors and bucket seats have gone. The dash and door cards are all worn, distorted, broken and cracked. The steering wheel is the wrong one.

Next to go were the ridiculous alloy floor mats and bucket seats. I sold them along with a load of wheels that came with the car that I had no use for. The seats proved to be my first challenge. The PO had removed the original sliders which are welded to the floor but rather than carefully drill through the welds to remove them he took the violent way out and chiselled them off destroying them and making a right mess of the metalwork underneath. Sad.

Now I challenge you to find two pairs of seat runners for a 850 Sport Coupé anywhere in the world. How do I know this? Because I looked everywhere. Eventually I found a pair for £30 which I bought. The second set proved more elusive. The problem is that no one ever removes them as they are welded therefore there are no spare parts to be had. Maybe there were but nearly half a century later there are not. In the end I had to do some clever research and by studying the floors of other Fiats discovered that the early Fiat X19 had what looked to be an identical runner.

That said, it’s no easier to find runners for an X19 than it is to find them for an 850 Sport Coupé. But eventually I tracked down a piece of floor from an X19 that had the runners still welded to it. That came all the way from America. So at least I found the runners. The car came with the original seats although they are in a right old state though still useable, just ugly split, sagged worn and tired. No surprise after 46 years.

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The incredibly rare Azor wheels, now polished and painted.

Original seats back in, it was time to clean up the 4 wheels of the bunch that looked like they might be rather good. The PO had painted them matt black and decided not to fit them to the car for some reason, choosing instead two different pairs to fit on the car. Nasty alloy wheels with steel rims. Heavy too. The ones now fitted to the car look fabulous and suit it really well. I can’t understand why he didn’t do this himself. With the wheels polished and painted the car looks almost presentable.

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Primo in the evening light. He doesn’t look too bad for a 46 year old car.

Since then the work list has been almost endless. The repair or replacement of one part highlighting even more un noticed issues. Since the brakes worked well enough I decided to start on the suspension. All the wheels looked bockety. It was clear that all the bushes were shagged and the front kingpins quite worn. There was an annoying knock from the back end and the front brake pads rattled annoyingly. The passenger side window would wind down all by itself as you drove along. With no carpets it was a cacophony of noise and very tiring.

The wipers worked for the control technique but failed soon after. Luckily here is a car that you can repair so I pulled out the motor and cleaned up its innards and now it is working again. The washer button was completely rotten and one of the tubes to the washer had been clamped between the heater and the bulkhead. It seems that every aspect of the car needs some attention.

An oil leak from a poorly tightened nut brought to light two loose bolts on the bell housing! The engine and gearbox mounts have all been changed as have all the bushings on the suspension. I bought an Abarth front spring with inverted eyes which should lower the car about 25mm but didn’t seem to be as low as I would has suspected.

The knock from the back end turned out to be a tired shock absorber so I fitted a pair of Spax adjustables at the rear and a pair of new standard shocks at the front.

The steering box was empty of oil and out of adjustment but it needs replacing really. There is a little play and it feels a bit stiff.

The more I look, the more issues I find. The brake lines were done relatively recently but the discs, pads and shoes are all very worn although the brakes work well enough for now. The remote reservoir for the brake fluid is mounted under the bonnet at the front and due to age, the plastic tube joining the master cylinder to the reservoir is tired and hard and slowly leaking brake fluid. Now replaced with Tygon 2375 tubing and the correct clips and not a Jubilee clip which doesn’t tighten properly.

Once the suspension was more or less sorted it was time to have a look at the engine. It started well and ran OK but it would not tick over and had a lot of flat spots.

No surprise, I found the points too closed, the plugs all dirty, the accelerator pump on the carb not working and all the tappets very out of adjustment. Once all this was done the engine ran a lot nicer but still would not tick over. The main venturi shaft was worn. The only solution was a whole new carb, bought for £300.

Now the car ticks over nicely and it runs and revs well. You need to rev the car to get it to move but cane it and it goes quite quickly. Quick enough to surprise a few people on the roads. Surely no one expects an old classic to be fast.

Now that the suspension is sorted Primo is very smooth and has a comfy compliant ride. He pitches slightly but that is due to the stiff front end with little weight in it and a short wheelbase. He handles the speed bumps as well as any car and there are one or two that can be taken at 40 mph. He just flies over them. It’s actually more comfy than at 10 mph!

It might seem like a primitive car but the suspension is very clever. All independent and with geometry that helps the car around corners. It really is eager. I find my self turning in much earlier in Primo than I would do in other cars. He is quite nimble through the bends, the steering is light and the big wheel means quite a lot of movement to get around the tighter corners. At the time the 850 Sport Coupé was praised for its brakes and handling, not to mention the fun of it.

Modern cars are all very impressive and for sure they are faster and safer than the 850 sport but are they as much fun? Get Primo wound up in third and find a nice wiggly road and away you go. If you get a series of corners in quick succession and get it right you will be left smiling. The fact that you’re having all this fun and not breaking the speed limit unduly is but a plus.

The pedals are quite widely spaced. Or at least they are for my small feet and I was unable to toe and heel the brakes and throttle so I got my mate Alain to move the brake pedal over about half an inch. The gearbox might be synchromesh but the down change is smoother if you can blip the throttle and unless the pedals are in the right place you can’t do that under braking.

The PO fitted a ‘sports’ exhaust. It’s based on the Abarth one. The pipe is half efficient, as it has 4 separate downpipes but then they become two and then these two pipes go in to the silencer at almost a 90 degree angle. Not a very efficient system. It may be that the original exhaust is more efficient. It will certainly be quieter. As a driver of a classic car it is your duty to ensure that the car makes the right noises. It’s a bit noisy but has a nice bark. Everyone seams to like it. It sounds better outside the car than from within. In the years to come I intend to tune Primo but I am not going to go the traditional way. These little engines are tough. I read somewhere that unmodified they can run to 12,000 rpm with no modification. Seems unlikely to me but who can say. What is sure, they don’t mind being revved to normal limits. If you want to get anywhere you have to rev the engine. The engine will happily rev to 8000 before the valves start bouncing. Not bad for a standard engine.

There are an unbelievable amount of racing and tuning companies and small garage specialists out there catering for Fiat and if you wanted you could easily spend way more than the price of the car on trick suspension and engine mods.

The 850 engine and indeed the A112 has a shared inlet manifold and what this means is that the engine is not super efficient as it is hard for the fuel to make it properly to the far cylinders. There are a few solutions to this problem. There are no less than three special 8 port cylinder heads available for these engines. There is a Vizza head which is a 850 head welded up and then modified to have 4 separate inlets ports.

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This is the Vizza 8 port head for the 850 and A112 engines.

Then there is the PBS head. As far as I understand it is cast to order and is not a modified head but a whole new one. Both the Vizza and PBS heads cost about 3000€! But do allow the option to fit large downdraught carbs.

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This is the PBS head from Scuderia Topolino

If you’re feeling really flush you could always buy the TCR head for 5000€! It is like a twin cam but uses the original push rods. Clever stuff and with this head 120 hp is possible.

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At 5000€ not for everyone but if you’re after serious power it is possible!

There have been many experiments with the 850 engine over the years and one of the most interesting is the fitting of a Suzuki jeep cylinder head with an overhead camshaft. It seems that the cylinder spacing is close enough to allow it to be fitted although not without some serious modification.

For me the problem is that I do not want an engine that doesn’t come on song until 3000 rpm and revs screaming to 8000 plus. I prefer something more drivable. My idea is to install a small supercharger. That way there will be more torque and that is what I am after. I don’t mind standing out by driving an old timer but I do mind standing out by making too much noise and drawing attention to myself. The fastest cars are always the quietest.

However that is a long way in the future. For now I will be happy to have a mechanically sound vehicle that is reliable that I can drive every day and even go on distant adventures.

One thing I did do that was well worth it was to cover all the panels with Silent Coat. It’s a kind of bitumen/plastic polymer with an alloy skin. It is about 2 mm thick and self adhesive. It comes in small panels about 350 x 250 mm. I bought 80 sheets and surprisingly used every last one of them and I have not covered every where.

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Silent coat sound deadening. It is everywhere and makes a huge difference to the way the car feels.

The entire floor and wheel arches have been covered. The engine bulkhead is also covered and has additional soundproofing in the way of a 10 mm foam. Later there will be more soundproofing and carpets too. I am determined to make Primo a very comfy and quiet car.

The Silent Coat went into the doors and now they shut with a quality clunk instead of a teeth grating clang. I put it inside the front and rear wings too and the roof and bonnet. The difference is quite something. The car just feels more solid. Not massively quieter but nicer. Much nicer.

Electrics next. You can only ignore Fiat electrics for so long. If you neglect them because you fear them you will eventually find yourself stranded on the side of the road, one cold winters night. A familiarity with your cars electrics is also very handy if you do get stranded anyway.

The first thing I did was to install a pair of relays for the headlights with a new power feed coming direct from the batteries. Before this all the power was going through the ignition switch, headlight switch, fuse box and then to the headlights. Standard bulbs are 40 watt which is pathetic but already the limit for the light’s system. Now relays are fitted I have installed brighter halogen bulbs and the difference is amazing. I can now actually see the road at night. Main beam is particularly impressive with all 4 bulbs on throwing nearly 250 watts out.

Where to start? At the deep end I thought and started by ripping out all the dead wire. Stuff that had been added for no reason that I could see and tidied up the loom by re routing wires until it all sat better. Then I went through all the connectors and cleaned them or if dubious would just cut off the terminal and put a new one on.

The dashboard had one light showing and that was the charge light. The only one that worked and it is supposed to go out with the engine running but glowed all the time.

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The dash as it came with the car, peeling wood, sagged and distorted shape, cracked and bent cowl and numerous needless holes. Interior light not working and only one dash light.

The dash was in a right state. You can’t really see if from the photo but the cowl was cracked and had lost its sweet curve. PVC was flaking from the top exposing the 46 year old foam. The dash was sagged, broken and distorted. And cracked. The real wood trim was warped and split and falling out. The dash vents were not held in and the windscreen washer pump was rotten.

The speedo works but over reads by about 20 kph. I have decided to buy a replacement from ‘The Speedometer Shop’ for a reasonable 100€. The one fitted is also damaged. Someone ham fisted had been in there and didn’t know what they were doing. They had not aligned the numbers correctly so the whole time the dash would make a small but annoying click. I suppose this says much for the Silent Coat that I had not been able to hear it before!

The rev counter seems to work ok but I cannot know how accurate it is unless I test it alongside something more accurate.

These dashboards are as rare as rocking horse shit. They are made of formed paper/cardboard and then covered in PVC and foam. Replicating this dash would be extremely difficult. I tried to find a good one but they don’t come up often and when they do they all have the same problems and are either warped, cracked or split.

There is a company in the states called Just Dashes who reckon they can rebuild one for about $1100 which isn’t bad. I doubt that includes the wooden sections either. I did find a fairly good dash on ebay which I have bought with a mind to seeing what they can do with it. In the mean time I had to make do with what I have got.

The first thing I did was to screw the dash down properly in the car and then while it was in the correct place repaired the split by the lower part of the cowl using epoxy resin and some fabric.

Then I had to break the tension out of the top edge where the dash sags between the mounting screws. There would be little point trying to get it to hold a new shape with that tension still in the structure. I got a bit brutal and bent the cardboard back and forth and wet it as well. I then clamped a piece of wood across the lower end and left it to dry.

Then I painted epoxy on the inside of the dash to fix the new position. It is much better than before but perfection was never going to happen with a dash in such a state as that was. I tried to work around the PVC but it was impossible so in the end I pulled it all off using a hot air gun to soften it. I used car body filler to reshape the top surface. That was fun, especially the vents in the top of the dash. It took hours. I sprayed it and prepared it for the leather effect vinyl wrap material I had found.

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The dash with vinyl removed, straightened, reinforced and filled.

This is an amazing product. It is very clever and the end result is not bad at all. It is very compliant but it has its limits. I was unable to get it to go over the cowl and the dash so in the end I had to do it in two parts. Anyway, it looks a million times better than it did. It will certainly do until I can either source a NOS one or get one restored well.

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The dash covered with the ‘leather effect’ vinyl. A very clever product which cost about £30. To make a dash covering in leather would have involved a very complex set of panels that would have to be sewn together. By hand! Although missing the vertical grooves of the original it doesn’t look too bad. In any case, a vast improvement on what was there.

Most people would find making the wood part the most daunting and one often sees these dashes with the long piece of wood replaced but never the piece between the dash dials. And I’m not surprised either. It is just a mm or so thick has 4 extremely pointed ends and two extremely precise triangles cut in it for the indicator lamps to go. Plus the dials have to be stripped and the plastic rims are placed on and then have their tabs welded so putting it all back together is a challenge.

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The wood now replaced with teak. Cutting the slots for the indicator arrows was challenging! This pic shows the unvarnished piece in place.

Fortunately I have no trouble working wood and although it was a far from easy thing to do it was possible. I started with a piece of solid teak which I stuck to the table with double sided tape. I then planed it down to a couple of mm thin. Then I glued some fabric on the back with epoxy to give it some strength so it could be worked and would not split once on the dash. I did not have the luxury of ready made veneer and a sharp punch to stamp out the pieces so I had to make it using saws, drills and small rotary sanders. They will receive a few coats of marine varnish which should protect them for some time.

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This picture shows the newly restored and varnished dash sort of in place. Changed the Abarth steering wheel for an original plastic wood one. Much nicer to use and look at.

I found a very helpful electrical diagnostic publication on the Yahoo group for the 850. It was very helpful to identify the problem of the charge light that wouldn’t go out. It said if light stays on when engine is running (it was charging fine) check the relay under the wiper motor. I had a look and sure enough, there was a little relay. I replaced it and suddenly the light was working correctly! Small victories like this are to be savoured.

I replaced all the original broken bulbs with LEDs and managed to get every single light working correctly. Oil, lights, main beam, dash lights, the lot. Very pleased.

With the dash off it was time to find the one leak in the car. It was coming from where the driver’s side wiper arm goes through the bodywork. I soon worked out why this was leaking and that was because there was a shaped plastic spacer missing on that side. I fashioned a new on from plastic as the chances of finding a genuine one of those is pretty slim. Unless I bought another car to use for spares but as I have no space that isn’t an option for me and because Primo is my everyday car he cannot be off the road for weeks while I do things to him.

New tubing and a windscreen washer pump. Despite being operated by a finger the washers are perfectly effective and do not rely on electricity. Always a good thing. I removed the light switches and cleaned them up. Took the interior light switch apart and repaired that. I cleaned up the Ashtray and all the other chrome bits.

All this work just to get the dashboard done. The dash is one of the 850 sport’s best features so it is an important thing to get right. Next up are the seats. To be covered in black leather with new foam. They are normally PVC but why not leather? The door cards will also be leather, stitched up in the same style as the originals. Then carpets and soundproofing.

Stance

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The way Primo is today. Not a bad stance but could still come down slightly at the front to balance out the look. I’m working on it.

The way a car sits is very important and the Fiat 850 sport is no exception. Most of them sit too low at the back and too high at the front. There are a few reasons for this as I understand it. Most of the weight is at the back of the car so the rear springs can sag in time. The front spring is much stiffer and carries less weight so that seems to sag less. So after 40 odd years it’s no surprise that the car might not be sitting well.

The trouble is that even the original factory shots show the cars at different heights front and rear. So it is difficult to know exactly what is correct. Nowhere can I find the correct height marked. I can find all the other dimensions but not this one.

That said, there are some things to go on. There is the chrome strip under the doors. This should (by my reckoning) be parallel to the road surface. Tyre size has a huge bearing on the way the car looks too. Some people fit 185 section tyres to 5.5” rims but this looks way too much to my eyes although it would help reduce the final gearing a little.

The original rims are 4.5” wide and the car would have been fitted with 155/13 tyres when it was new (I believe). Primo wears 5.5” rims and 165/65 13 tyres which are perfectly well suited to the car and rims. For some reason, probably steering, the front track is narrower than the rear and the front wheels are well inside the arches. It looks a bit strange so many owners fit spacers to the front wheels. This helps the look of the car but is bound to upset the scrub radius and can also reduce spring rate.

The further you bring the centre of the tyre tread away from the axis of the stub axle, the more you will upset the way the steering feels. The extra track width will make the car feel more planted and ultimately faster of course. From what I can understand some cars will be more effected than others in this respect. I must say that even with wider rims and 20mm spacers on the front I can’t notice any issue with the steering, even in very tight corners where the effect of a changed scrub radius would be most noticed.

Not many owners fit 14” rims and low profile tyres because it just doesn’t look right. It is amazing just how hard it is to get all this right. There is not much point fitting much wider tyres and wheels as there would be too much grip and the suspension, although clever for its day wouldn’t be up to it. Skinnier tyres allow the car to drift and stay on the road. It’s the way the car was meant to be driven back then.

The main problem with the 850 sport, or indeed all rear engine Fiats is that they have a rear swing arm which changes camber as it rises and falls. The lower the car the more the rear wheels go to negative camber but when the car is in a corner and the inside rear wheel drops down, the camber becomes noticeably positive and in extreme situations can cause the car to roll. Some racers fit a leather strap which stops the rear arms from swinging all the way down.

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This is with the new lower Abarth rear springs fitted. Just a bit too low. Look how close the engine sump is to the ground. Note also the slightly excessive negative camber. If the front wheel also had negative camber it might look ok but that is a big difference and to my eyes just doesn’t look right. In anycase I must be able to drive over speed bumps without bashing the sump!

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This is with the original rear spring fitted. Much less negative camber and slightly more clearance under the car.

The front end is a clever combination of intelligent thinking and old school technology. There is a leaf spring fitted across the car making a crude but effective independent front end. However this can be improved by the fitting of A arms in place of the spring and a set of coil over shocks. Many racers do this but I do not know how much it helps the handling of the car. Kits are available for less than £800.

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Here’s the alloy version of the coil over conversion available from BerniMotori.

When it comes to getting the stance and ride height correct there are many options. But before I discuss any of that I want to talk about the correct way to set up the existing suspension way before any decisions are made about changing ride height.

All the suspension components use rubber bushings for their moving parts. These wear and need replacing. The parts are cheap and available but the fitting requires stripping down the suspension. That said the Fiat is one of the easiest cars to take apart so this isn’t really a big deal. So before any work is done on the ride, replace all the rubber bushings in the A arms, springs, swing arms and roll bars.

This is the most important. Do not tighten any of the nuts until the car is sitting with its weight on it . If you don’t do this the bushes will be stressed and stiff leading to an uncomfortable ride and fast wearing bushes. Also it may well have an effect on the ride height. You can alternatively jack up a wheel and force it into the normal position and tighten it that way. But this is very important and I get the impression from the cars that I have seen that this simple advice is often ignored.

I fitted some special nylon bushes for the top A arms on the front suspension which I bought from Berni Motori a Fiat racing specialist. And these are very quiet and smooth with less play than the original bushings.

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The very cool teflon bushings for the A arms.

Next up in an effort to lower the front end I replaced the original old and sagged spring with an Abarth version with the ‘eyes’ inverted. This effectively lowers the car by about 25mm but in fact the original spring must have been pretty sagged as it still looks the same to me!

I wanted to lower the rear slightly as well but here the choices are limited. You can buy new harder and lowered (25mm) springs but they dropped the car way too much and were no stiffer than the originals. One of the things that happens at the rear when you fit shorter springs is that the negative camber becomes more noticeable. And too much camber just doesn’t look right either. In any case I couldn’t leave it like this as I was hitting a speed bump with the sump with just me in the car. It would never do. So I refitted the original springs.

The front still needs to come down. Here’s how I could do it. One of the most popular ways to lower the front end is to weld ‘ears’ onto the bottom of the stub axles and redrill the mounting holes lower and slightly inboard to increase track and camber. The camber can then be adjusted by adding shims behind the A arm mounting.

Berni Motori do a very cool lowering kit which works the same as welding ears on but also incorporates a simple way to adjust the camber. The problem with all the other lowering kits is that not one of them allows for any camber adjustment. You can add shims to make the camber positive but once they are all removed there is no way to go any further. So the camber adjustment is welcome. However these blocks lower the car by nearly 4 cm which is a lot. Plus they cost about £300 a pair so it’s not a cheap option either.

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This is the very smart lowering/camber kit from Berni Motori.

If none of this appeals, you can always replace the spring mounting cross member plate which is simply bolted to the chassis with 4 nuts. The original one is made of thin steel but gets its strength from having a triangular shape. By replacing this with a straight U section of steel (or alloy) you can lower the spring by about 35mm. The two down sides to this being there is still no camber adjustment and you need to cut off (or bend) a part of the chassis out of the way or the spring will clobber it.

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A popular way to lower the front end is to replace the spring mounting crossmember with a U shaped piece with no rise in it. The spring shown is a standard version. The Abarth front spring has the ‘eye’s on the top of the spring.

So my issue is just how much more to lower the front end. Because where I live is infested with speed bumps there is no point lowering the car too much. All that will do is compromise comfort. Since the rear of the car cannot be lowered gradually (well it could by making up spacers etc but it wouldn’t be easy) and I only have a choice of standard or way too low I will stick with the standard and match the front end to it. By my reckoning I only need to lower the front end about 25mm to make it look about right.

So the easiest and the cheapest is to change the cross bar mounting plate for the front spring for a straight version and lower the front another 35mm and see how I get on. If that is too low it is always possible to add shims under it and raise it up slightly. There are a lot of different ways to lower this car so at least there is hope. It will just take a lot of messing about to get it just right without losing the comfort and the suppleness of the existing suspension.

What no one will tell you is that as soon as you mess with the spring height you also have to mess with the upper A arm. It also needs raising or the camber will change will be irregular as the wheel goes over bumps. One down side of all these height changes without lifting the A arm pivot is that even with all the shims removed there is still positive camber on the front wheels.

It is essential that the upper A arm is also raised in order to reduce this positive camber and to reintroduce some negative camber. At least when there is negative camber, it can be dialled out by adding shims behind the A arm pivot.

Update Nov 18

Just for fun I tried and experiment with the cooling. It seemed to me that the system the PO had installed could be improved but what with all the other pressing things to do it was far down on the list especially as the car was quite drivable so long as you didn’t come up against too many hills or drove it hard too long.

I simply reversed the fan assembly which slotted into the cowl nicely after I filed the three motor support legs down a bit. Even the original mounting holes realigned nicely. The only problem was that there was now a gap between the fan cowl and the radiator cowl. I wrapped the space with a piece of PVC fabric and tied it in place with string. Crude but effective.

Then I refitted the plate that goes under the engine. I have heard that this piece is essential if you want your 850 not to overheat. It couldn’t easily be fitted as the electric water pump (EWP) was too low. So I added a bit of pipe which incidentally had a water temp switch already installed and lifted the pump up enough to allow the plate to be fitted.

I wired the water temp switch to the fan so that it would only come on when the water was up to temp. Then I went for a drive with the heater off. Having the heater on makes a big difference to the way the 850 cools so turning it off was a sure way to know if there was any improvement.

The temp gauge needle barely got off the mark and when I put the heater on it fell even further. The engine is cooled so well that there was very little heat coming out of the heater. So this is a bit of a surprise. I had not expected such a dramatic difference especially with the small electric fan, apparently from an Abarth A112 but that has a radiator at the front and is not so reliant on the fan.

So for now at least I have decided to keep the current system. There are lots of up sides. It’s already installed and does not rob HP as the original system does. I have ordered the EWP controller and a quality electric fan which I will fit properly to the radiator cowl without the need for bodges. The controller operates the EWP and the fan. You can set the desired temperature and the controller will keep it there. In theory.

It seems quite a clever system so long as it doesn’t go wrong and this is the biggest downside to me. At least with a well maintained mechanical fan/pump system you know where you are. An electrical system can go tits up at any moment. The other advantage is that the controller will continue to operate the fan and the EWP for a few minutes after switching off. The helps to let the engine cool down more gradually.

Next on the list is Waterless coolant…

 

Update 18/12/14

The controller duly arrived and was wired up. The fan is supposed to come on at 3 degrees above the set temp. Trouble is without the fan running the whole time the engine quickly overheats, vents some steam, the level of coolant drops and finally there is so little water in the system that the EWP runs dry and can’t re prime. Not helpful.

I’ve written to Craig Davies to see if there is anything they can do but in the mean time I have wired the fan to run full time and since then have had no problems. So basically I have a controller that lets the EWP run for a while when I turn the engine off and nothing else. Bit of a waste of time really.

Distributors. On the 850, the distributor is a simple thing with a mechanical advance. It doesn’t have a bearing as such only a bronze bush that the shaft runs in. Once there is play there the points gap can never be precise and the engine performance will suffer. Many folk fit an electronic version which was fitted to the later A112 engines but it is very hard to find or expensive and in any case still uses the original bush which is prone to wear and cannot be repaired.

It would be nice if there was an aftermarket electronic distributor as a direct replacement but there is not. Or rather there is but it’s complicated and expensive. There is a company in Holland, 123ignition.nl who make a very clever distributor which has all the electronics in it so that you can still use your existing coil and leads etc.

123-tune-4-rv

It has many clever features and can even be tuned using a PC. The problem is they do not make one for the 850 which is strange when you consider how many there are out there. I did write to the company who said they would look into it but didn’t promise anything.

Then by chance I discovered these people who can take your current distributor, rebuild it, new bush etc and fit the 123 distributor parts into it. For a price that is!

http://www.123ignition-conversions.com/

It is also probably possible to take a 123 Tune and have it machined, add on the shaft at the right length and make it work. It depends on what skill and tools you have at your disposal. What is certain, a good accurate spark is essential for a smooth running engine.

One very clever feature of the 123 is that it has spark balancing. This is a F1 technology that can somehow recognise a different need in every cylinder and advance or retard the spark at that cylinder when needed. The 850 engine with its shared inlet manifold may benefit greatly from this new technology.

Update Dec 2014

Bought a second hand distributor for £30 and have put that on the car for now while I send the original to have its innards changed for the 123.

Bought a lowering block. This is the piece which replaces the crossmember and drops the front end about 35mm. Like most things, once you start messing all sorts of other issues become apparent. It came from GKR who sell these on Ebay. It’s simply a folded piece of alloy sheet with some holes drilled in it. With it came instructions but they are a bit vague and make no mention of having to lift the upper A arm.

For fun and as a way of learning more about the physics involved I decided to fit the lowering block even though I do not yet have a solution for raising the A arm. I didn’t want to lower 35mm, only about 20mm so I made up some packers to be fitted under the crossmember and also the spring.

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Lowered at the front a further 20mm or so, Primo now has a nice well balanced stance

The stance is now excellent. Lowering the front has certainly also raised the rear but it looks well balanced like that. The problem is that the A arm and the spring no longer move in a similar arc as the spring has effectively moved up but the pivot point of the A arm has not. This leads to positive camber on the front wheels and a lot of bump steer. The steering also feels tight and harder to turn. It also has a tendency to wander off if you’re not holding the wheel tightly. Clearly this will have to be improved on as the car is not nice to drive like that.

Naturally there are a couple of solutions. One is a simple and inexpensive trunion adjuster kit for about £70 which comprises of 4 turned risers which are bolted on to the existing bolts and the A arm is then bolted to these. In theory it will return the front end geometry to normal but it does not add any camber. It would be nice, if only for the look to have a very slight negative camber and because I have not lowered the front end the full 35mm there is a chance that I will achieve this.

raised  pivot a arm-1

Or Berni Motori offer a stepped A arm mounting bar which does the same thing. I suspect that this is the better engineered solution. Although it would mean stripping the A arm to fit whereas the adjuster bolts are simply fitted.

aba 2361 tcr 600   850-3

Update Jan 24

The trunion adjusters were duly ordered. They are not listed for fitting to an 850, only a 600 but as the A arms are the same dimensions it should be fine. Not so. The 850 A arm has a reinforcing bar welded across it and this fouls the trunion adjusters! If the A arm is fitted upside down they work but then the shock absorber fouls on it. So either hack away a lot of metal to make them work or order the cast pivot arm from Berni. Hacking away metal is not an option so I have ordered a pair. What I hope will happen when these are fitted is that I will have lowered the front end and re-aligned the suspension geometry so it all goes up and down in unison as Fiat intended and to get a little negative camber in to the bargain. Then the car can go and get the entire geometry set and I am hoping that will make a big difference to how it steers, feels and rides.

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Primo today with standard rear springs. A reverse leaf front Abarth spring, GKR lower cross member (with 24 mm of shims added). Upper A arm as standard. Very slight positive camber on the front wheels. But the ride height is good and the car has a great stance. Just the upper A arms to raise now for perfection.

 

Distributors and door cards

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The 123 conversion fitted into the original distributor. Shame about the gaping hole for water to get in. This was just one of many issues.

A bit of a mixed week. The 123 distributor arrived. I sent off the original one for modification because 123 don’t sell a model for the 850 so the only choice was to either buy one of their distributors and modify it or get mine converted. I’m sure it’s not the hardest thing to do but as I don’t have the equipment I figured it was best left to someone who did. Enter 123 conversions. A Dutch company who can fit the 123 system into your original distributor. The obvious advantage to this is an engine that looks standard but isn’t. I guess the downside is that your original distributor will be ruined by the process.

Fitting the new distributor was not the simple swap I had hoped it would be. For starters I could not get the distributor into the hole in the engine! It turns out that the new roll pin was far too long. So I ground that down. The washer they had also fitted stopped it going in so that was removed. There is always an up/down play in every Fiat dizzy I have seen. This all took time but eventually I got it fitted and rotating as it should.

Wiring is simple. One black wire to the neg side of the coil and one red wire to the positive side. And a blue one to the earth of the car. The red wire is left off until the static timing is done. This is done by rotating the dizzy until a green light comes on. (engine at TDC). I tried to start the engine but there was no life. I tried rotating the dizzy a bit either way but nothing. I pulled a plug and sure enough. No spark. Very disappointing.

On closer inspection I decided I wasn’t very happy about the way the conversion had been done. Where the wires exit the dizzy there was no grommet so that water could easily get in. The hole that had to be made in the top plate of the 123 was ugly and ragged and in time might well chomp through the wire’s insulation. Worse than this was the fact that the wires pass perilously close to the spinning alloy rotor on top. With nothing to hold them away the chances of these getting chomped was great as well.

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Don’t know why they brought the wires out the top when they could take them out the body below.

All in all I would have to say that for the 600 odd Euros that I paid I am rather disappointed. It seems to me that it would just make more sense to make another hole in the body of the dizzy under the 123 mechanism and feed the wires out through there. Much easier to fit a grommet and water can’t track up hill either. The dizzy has been returned with a suggestion that they do the wires like this rather than the strange way they did it. Hopefully I will have better news to impart when I get it back.

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New leather door cards. Apart from looking great they have massively improved the feel of the car. It is quieter and has less strange noises. The doors shut with a superb ‘clunk’ quite unexpected from an old Fiat.

My other half has been busy making the door cards for Primo. I spent a whole day fitting them and they look marvellous. It’s all a bit black and dull at the moment but once those nasty black plastic door trims are replaced with varnished teak they will look fabulous.

The interior of the 850 sport is great and one of the car’s best features. I suppose all that vinyl looked ok when it was new but leather looks nicer. It’s a huge amount of work to make these things in any material so why not spend that little bit more and have a really splendid interior with the evocative smell of leather. From an environmental point of view there is also an argument for using it as leather is a sustainable product whereas vinyl is not. In any case it’s a natural and very beautiful product.

We copied the basic shapes and proportions of the original design as those Fiat designers knew what they were doing. The Italians are excellent at proportion and style. Originally the door cards had chrome trim on them but this is hard to replicate so the decision was made to have piping instead of chrome. I imagine they put the chrome there to offset the nasty black plastic door trims.

The map pocket is now poppered in in two places instead of being attached only in the centre. I doubt I’ll use these pockets for much for fear of stretching them out of shape but they are needed to balance out the look of the panel.

With the door cards in place it is a different car. The difference is amazing. It is quieter and feels more solid and rattles less over bumps. All this from simply changing a door card. Well, I did add sound deadening to the inside of the door. I also replaced and greased the winder mechanisms and replaced all the glass channels. The door cards were the final touch. All these little things together have made a huge difference.

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New rear cards too. Will look a lot better when those nasty black plastic trims are replaced with real wood.

The biggest surprise and the biggest pleasure is the sound of the doors when you open or close them. I do not think I have ever heard a Fiat with doors like that. The sound is quite striking. Maybe striking is not the right word. Perhaps lovely is. They sound great. They even close better. With nothing loose to rebound all that mass just shuts. Sweet.

Next up are the back seats. The foam was all pretty shot so the seats needed rebuilding with new foam before we could even think of covering them. Although not many people will ever sit on them they need to be done nicely to match the door cards. Of course the door cards and seats are just the beginning. There’s still the head lining to replace but that will have to wait until I’m prepared to remove the glass front and rear but before I can do that I’ll need new rubbers….

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Mar 2015

Back seats are made and installed. Looks fantastic. All the foam was replaced on the back part and much of the lower seat too. Wheel arch covers are made, they just need sticking on.

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New door cards and back seat in leather. Now the car has a much better smell than before.

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The distributor.

It finally came back with the cap smashed because of poor packaging. The way the wires come out is better but frankly for the money they charge it’s not great. Hopefully it will at least work this time. I’ll try and fit it this weekend.

The brakes.

It should have been an easy task. Order new shoes, discs, pads etc and replace all the brakes. The rear was easy enough and now they work much better. The handbrake is excellent.

The front end was another story. Obviously after 46 years a car gets changed about a bit. This much was obvious as soon as I tried to fit the front discs. They didn’t fit at all. The right discs had been ordered but it seems that someone changed the front spindles and hubs to a series one which means only series one discs will work. Sigh.

Series one discs are as rare as rocking horse shit and consequently much more expensive than the series two which you can buy anywhere for about £20 a disc which is cheap. The only discs I found were in Italy and were nearly £300 the pair! The alternative would be to swap out the spindles and hubs with a set of series two ones and fit the series two discs but that is a lot of work and it is almost as hard finding these things as a series one disc is.

A second hand set of front hub/spindles would be the answer but then they would need rebuilding so what with one thing or another the price would rise and suddenly £300 doesn’t seem so bad. It is what it is. Sometimes with old cars one gets a surprise. At least the car will have all new brakes and since I hardly ever use the brakes anyway, they should last 50,000 miles or so. I’ll keep my eyes open for some series two hubs for when/if the series one discs need replacing in the future.

Front suspension.

The drop arms arrived from Berni Motori in Italy. They basically lift the pivot point of the upper A arm to reset the suspension geometry back to normal after the front end has been lowered.

On the plus side the car now drives and steers much better. You can take your hands off the wheel even over bumps and the wheel remains inert. The car seems eager to go around the bends and at speed the steering is lighter. I have not yet set the tracking so I’m hoping that after this is done the car will be set up as well as it can be.

As for camber, I have not managed to get as much change as I had hoped. The raised A arm has helped the way the car drives and steers but there is still not enough negative camber. The wheels rarely look the same one minute from the next for some reason that I have not yet understood and the camber seems to change depending on where the car is packed. Very odd.

Until I get the car’s geometry checked I cannot be sure of the camber but I’d say it was almost neutral or perhaps slightly positive. In any case I’d like to add a bit more negative camber, mostly for the look. With all that negative camber on the rear it just looks wrong having any positive camber on the front. I know I am nit picking but one instinctively knows when something is right and it isn’t quite right. At least as far as my eyes are telling me.

Fitting the drop arms was not straightforward. Basically all the dimensions are the same and so in theory at least if it can be fitted it can work but in order to even fit the drop arms to the A arm, the reinforcing bar that joins the two parts of the A arm must be unwelded from one side to allow the A arm to be split.

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Here’s the new drop arm fitted to the upper a arm. In order to fit it required the splitting of the A arm. Then some grinding away of material in the reinforcing bar that joins the two sides.

That in itself was not a big deal. The welds now replaced with temporary bolts until I get it welded back up. But even with the A arm fitted to the new drop arms, there is no way that the arm can move as it fouls the mounting at the bottom. This is made worse by the fact that the bolts that the drop arm mounts to make this fouling even worse. The only solution is to grind away a small part of the reinforcing bar. It’s not ideal but it works.

The car feels better going over pot holes and speed bumps. The suspension is quiet and feels right. So, a lot of effort and some grinding but at the end of the day it was worth all the effort.

Now to adjust the camber on the front wheels. Basically I have run out of options here. Even with the shims removed from behind the drop arm there is no way to get any more negative camber. But I then discovered that it is possible to buy polyurethane bushings with eccentric camber adjusting crush tubes. So if ones could be found that fitted then maybe a degree or so of extra camber could be fed in.

I wrote to SuperPro who, it seems to me, make the best bushings in the business but they said they couldn’t help me. Or didn’t want to. But I can’t believe that there isn’t a bushing in their immense catalogue that couldn’t be easily modified to fit. If that fails then it could be possible to make my own using a special pouring mix and a mould. Fun and games. But isn’t this why we love tinkering on cars?

Update March 22

Series one discs NOS arrived from Italy and were duly fitted along with new front wheel bearings. There is hardly any brake pedal travel now. The old discs were worn unevenly and were down to about 7 mm in places. They are supposed to be replaced when the wear is down to 9mm! No doubt this has been an issue with this car for a very long time.

The 123 Distributor is in and working. This time I wired it up and it worked straight away. I don’t know why the other one didn’t. Anyway, all’s well that ends well.

The 123 Tune distributor conversion has two curves as standard. I have decided to try the first curve as it is to see what’s what and then to play with the advance curve bit by bit to try and maximize the performance and smoothness.

Even on the standard curve it is immediately apparent that it has a steadier and smoother spark. The tickover is very smooth and even with a cold engine, the choke can now be pushed in almost straight after starting and the car will still pull cleanly away.

The midrange is improved and there is much less jerkiness when coming off and on the throttle. The top end seems a little lacking but this is something I hope to work on. The 123 was set at 6000 to limit the revs. In fact the rev counter shows 5,500 revs when the limiter cuts in. So when on rare occations I have revved to 7000 plus on the dial, I have in fact being revving even higher than that! That A112 Abarth engine is tough.

In order to set the limiter and modify the curve you need to connect the 123 to a laptop and run the 123 program. It’s very simple. So I set the rev limiter to 8000 (the max revs the distributor can provide) and also added two degrees of advance about 3000 rpm. A quick test shows, clean and eager acceleration, a crisp engine note and the gear lever is vibrating less so all in all I would say it’s all good. But of course the best bit is that once the correct settings are found you never have to touch it again. No points to wear out, no bob weights or springs to get saggy.

I’ll update more on this 123 distributor later as I test it over time

 

Update March 24

 

After a few days of use I can report that the 123 distributor has made a huge difference. It is very impressive. I didn’t think I would have noticed such a change but it was immediately apparent right from the start. I have set the timing at 10 degrees (set with the strobe) but I think this figure could be advanced a little.

The car starts as well as it ever did but the difference now is that the choke can be pushed almost all the way in within moments of starting and yet one can still easily pull away without the engine stalling.

On the move, the engine pulls cleanly and the exhaust note sounds more even and perhaps even a little sharper. There is certainly more mid range but the top end does not feel as strong.

This is all easily dealt with as I can adjust the advance curve bit by bit until I get it right. The one thing I did do was change the default rev limiter from 6000 rpm to 8000. According to my tacho, the limiter would cut in at 5500 rpm suggesting a 10% error. Not bad. I thought it might be worse than that. What it does mean however is that on the rare occasions I have revved the engine to 7000 plus on the tacho, it has actually been spinning even higher than that!

When I timed the engine with the strobe, one thing was immediately apparent and that was that the timing marks were not hopping about all over the place as they usually do but rather holding very steady.

So, a definite improvement. Only time will tell if it is reliable. In theory, once I get it set correctly it will not need touching again.

Update April 15

 

Finally I got the suspension as sorted as I could and went to get the tracking done front and rear. The young bloke ordered to work on my car was clearly in a bad mood and did not like the idea of having to work on an old car. He was muttering about seized bolts and other nonsense. I told him all he needed was a 13 and a 17 mm spanner and he could practically dismantle the car but he remained unconvinced. Weird really since my experience is that modern cars are far from easy to work on and often require specialist tools. The Fiat 850 must be one of the easiest cars in the world to work on.

So he hung the lasers or whatever they are on the wheels and proclaimed that the rear right side was toeing in too much but couldn’t be adjusted. I explained that all he had to do was loosen three bolts at the front of the swing arm to do it. He grumbled some more but I think was surprised when the swing arm moved and was easily adjusted.

I was not expecting any hassle from the front end as all the track rod ends and links were new. The tracking was out. It should be set about one degree toe in but it was not even 30 seconds toe in. Maybe this would explain the heavy steering and wayward nature of the car at speed. It should have been a simple matter of loosening the clamps on the track rod end and rotating it to bring the wheels in. But the necessary adjustment couldn’t be made because the rod would bottom out in the tube. Most odd.

So that was that. Today I unscrewed the tubes and ground off 5mm from the link arm and 10mm from the end of the track rod. It needed all of that to get the threads to go far enough. I don’t know why this needed to be done. Is it possible that the parts I bought are not made very accurately? Do they leave them long so they fit more than one car? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I have lowered the front suspension. If that is the case then this suspension lowering business is even more complicated than I thought. And I already thought it was complicated!

Before I took the car apart I measured the distance between the link end and the track rod on each side. When I put it back together I removed one mm from each side. I don’t know until I get the tracking redone if I have achieved the right amount of toe in but it must surely have helped.

On the road the difference is really quite dramatic. The steering has regained its light touch. The suspension is unfazed when going over bumps and the ride is excellent. Finally I have managed to get the car working like it did before I lowered the front end. It has been quite a journey. It will interesting to see how close I got the tracking and if I didn’t get it right then the car may yet improve further.

It’s been almost a year since I bought Primo and he is a very different car to the one I bought. There was a lot right with him but also a lot wrong and it has taken me a long time sorting out all the issues one by one. One forgets that the windows used to lower themselves as you drove, the rattling brakes, the clunking shocks, the uneven brakes and the doors which rarely closed first time unless you slammed them shut.

Since then all these faults have been dealt with and the car has been improved in almost all areas. The silent coat sound deadening along with the new door cards has turned Primo into an almost civilized car. If it wasn’t for the fact that at 70mph it is turning over 5000 rpm it would be a great all round car. The gearing needs to be addressed. At some point I’ll have the engine and box out and put a 9 x 35 final drive in there. That should help.

The 123 electronic ignition is also a very sweet thing. The hassle I had with the conversion now just a distant memory. The engine runs so smooth it is really amazing. At 4000 revs it is like a well oiled sewing machine.

In order to set the advance and timing on the car, I plugged in my laptop and went for a drive. I used curve 1 which was pre installed and bit by bit tried adjusting various things. On the 123 there is a tuning option which basically allows you to advance or retard the timing by as much as 5 degrees as the car is running. I tried this but it didn’t make much difference either way.

There is also a rev timer. You set the rev range you want, say 3000 to 5000 then you drive the car in a chosen gear and rev through the range. The time it takes is recorded so that when you adjust the timing and try again you can instantly see if there is an improvement in time. I played with this a bit but you’d need a lot of time and it would be really helpful to have a mate in the passenger side who could adjust the 123 while I concentrate on driving.

After a lot of messing about I came to the conclusion that the original curve works the best. I have since found the advance curve for the A112 engine so I will compare it to curve 1. I suspect it is very similar. It’s hard to imagine that the car could run much better. The only thing I have not checked is the cam timing and I’ll do that when the engine is out.

There’s still much more to do but mechanically Primo is very nice and although it’s nearly 50 years old does not feel so old to me. It may not have the precision that modern cars have but I for one like drifting around corners, it’s way more satisfying.

DSC01382

Primo today. Great stance. To me, this is how the 850 sport coupe should look.

Update April 2015

While I was under the car I noticed that the GKR alloy crossmember lowering block was slightly bent. Not good. I wrote to the guy who sells them. He seemed to think that is is because the nuts are not tight enough but I’m not convinced. Probably has more to do with the 20 speed bumps I have to negotiate just to get out onto the road. Either way, it is a nuisance. Perhaps a steel one would have made more sense. Maybe a bent piece of metal is no match for the triangulated box section original. That’s nearly 50 years old and is not bent.

Oh the joys of modding.

Update June 2015

Just got back from a delightful holiday with Primo. We travelled over 500 kms through France, up hills and down hills, fast corners, hairpin corners and he behaved perfectly. In fact I would go so far as to say that the car is comfortable, reliable AND economical. And of course, everywhere we go people love the car. From old biddies to young kids, there’s something about the Fiat 850 coupé that makes people smile. It takes them back to a simpler time. Nostalgia is in and the 850 Coupé is the epitome of this. Maybe it’s the chrome, maybe it’s the bark from the exhaust. Who knows? What I do know is that I am happy to drive it for hours at a time and I get out feeling fresh. Just keep off the motorways! So long as you stay on the back roads Primo is the perfect car.

Now that it is summer time I will take him off the road to do some work on the engine and gearbox. The diff whines a little and I would like to fit the alloy sump, among other things. I have considered changing the final drive but since the 123 distributor has been fitted the engine is happy revving its nuts off so I think for now I will live with it like that. Maybe I’ll look out for another gearbox and modify that so I can quickly change them over if I feel like it.

Also I really must get around to refitting the original fan system. The electric fan just doesn’t do the job. So long as one doesn’t drive at more than 90 kph for any length of time and can coast for a while the engine doesn’t overheat but that’s no way to have a car. It’s useable but I’d prefer a car that can be thrashed all the time if needs be.

Update Aug 2015

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One of Primo’s front seats now recovered in black leather. Beautifully done in the same style but with slightly bolder piping. Really splendid and more comfy too with extra padding in the Lumbar area.

The front seats are now recovered in black leather. What a difference that makes. While the seats were apart I noticed that many of the spot welds were broken at the base of the back part of the seat. This is why the back part seemed to twist when getting in or out of the car. This was solved by adding a load of rivets.

The original foam really wasn’t too bad considering its age. A steaming of the foam rejuvenated it to some degree and a bit of extra thin foam was added here and there to even things out a little. One thing the original seats lacked was lumbar support so some extra foam was added so hopefully this will improve the comfort when driving long distance.

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I always loved the way the 850 sport front seats folded down. With that funky central release button.

Next up is some carpet. Then, apart from the headlining the interior will be more or less finished. I might cover the dash in real leather as there is plenty left over. The vinyl fake leather I fitted looks OK but somehow it looks cheap against the real leather of the seats and door cards.

Also thinking about a folding sunroof. This costs about 1000€ and that is just for the kit. I’d have to fit it myself as I don’t know anyone here who could do it. You don’t just trust anyone cutting out a massive hole in a car’s roof! Obviously I am conflicted about the idea of making a huge hole and spoiling the car’s originality but at the same time the Tudor Webasto is a period item, a luxury extra that was often fitted to cars of the highest calibre. From a pleasure point of view there’s nothing like driving in the summer with the sky visible above you.

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Chrome polished, metal painted and all new leather covers. Really sweet. And comfy too.

Next up: Put the original water pump back in and revert to the original cooling system. Engine and gearbox out to do a few things, change a few bearings and fine tune a few things….

The Stasha ‘Tweed’ Nesting Dinghy uses Flax

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The Woodenwidget Stasha ‘Tweed’ special edition lightweight nesting dinghy.

The Stasha lightweight nesting dinghy from Woodenwidget has been around now for a few years and I used the prototype for three years as my yacht’s tender. In many ways it’s the perfect dinghy for the Pacific Seacraft Dana, after all it was designed to fit on one! It is easy to stow and launch but more than that it is a fabulous little boat. It is a joy to row and it sails superbly too. When the prototype was showing signs of wear I thought about just putting a new skin on but in the end decided to do something a bit different. And so was born the Stasha ‘Tweed’

The biggest difference between a standard Stasha and the ‘Tweed’ is the fabric. The standard Stasha uses a thin and lightweight heat shrink Dacron covering which is then coated. The ‘Tweed’ uses a Flax fabric woven in the UK. It is specially woven so that it ‘drapes’ well and can conform to a curved surface such as a boat hull. It is normally used with a bio resin that cures with sunlight but I did not try this method deciding to use epoxy resin instead. Not because I think it is better or anything but simply because I had been given a load leftover from another job. If it wasn’t used it would soon be of no use so by using it I avoided buying something and stopped it being wasted.

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Close up of the cloth at the bows. It wasn’t even necessary to overlap the cloth leading to a very tidy look. The fine trim was added to cover the join between the cloth and the panel. This wasn’t entirely necessary as the join was fairly neat but it does lend a pleasant finished look and may even protect the bow panel from damage.

I will be discussing using this material later in this post but if you’re interested here is the link to the site where I bought the Flax fabric. It is the Hi-No twist fabric at £22-50 a metre. The roll is 1.38 m wide so for the Stasha it meant laying it across each section to get enough width to cover in one piece.

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Close up of the raw Flax fabric before epoxy.

One of the problems about using epoxy is that it is brittle and without modification would lead to a fabric covering that could be punctured too easily. In order to make the epoxy a little flexible you can add Benzyl Alcohol. About 2-3% is plenty. It’s a simple and cheap way to do it.

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The test bed for the fabric. This is the finish after the first coat of epoxy. As you can see the finish is very rough so needs sanding and further coats of epoxy.

The fabric is 400 grams a square metre which makes it twice as heavy as the Dacron before the epoxy is even added so using epoxied Flax is not a light option. However the standard Stasha proved to be so easy to stow and use on the boat that it wouldn’t really be a problem if it was a bit heavier. Especially considering that the boat is in two halves so it’s already easy to handle.

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This is how the fabric looks on the inside after epoxy. The finish is much smoother on the inside but far from flat and smooth.

The other difference between the original Stasha and the ‘Tweed’ is that it is made entirely of teak, not ash. Again, this was wood left over from another job and so it would be a shame not to use it. I didn’t know if it would be possible to bend the ribs using teak as it is a much stiffer wood than ash and not known for its flexibility or bending qualities but it wouldn’t hurt to try. If the worst came to the worst, I could always have ash ribs and teak stringers. That would have looked ok.

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Bending the teak ribs in required planning, patience and lots of spare wood. The extra stiffness of teak makes this a very hard job. Ultimately successful however. Wood is an amazing material.

As it happens making the ribs bend was certainly possible but required a lot of patience and spare pieces of wood as the breakage level was high. In a couple of areas I was not able to make ribs in one piece so had to scarf two pieces together. This was no problem but did add time to the build. The orientation of the grain was crucial as well, the slightest run off and the ribs would split. I soaked them before hand for a number of days and kept them wet while I was teasing them into place on the strong back with the hot air gun. It took a very long time to do the ribs and the teak was so much stiffer that the ribs would have a tendency to force the stringers away from the strong back. Ultimately I succeeded but it was not easy.

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One of the wooden rings cut out using two blades in the hole cutting saw. This was then cut into 4 and used to trim the plywood end grain.

Another difference is that every piece of plywood on the ‘Tweed’ has been capped with solid wood so that there is no end grain showing. This is a surprising amount of work, especially where the two sections join as the cutaway has rounded corners. The quickest way I have found to do this is to use two blades in a hole saw and cut out a ring of wood. This is then carefully split into 4 with the grain orientated and then it is glued to the plywood. One of the things that takes so long with adding trim to plywood is the care that you need when trimming it down level.

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Here the plywood end grain trim is being glued on. They will be planed down flush later.

The best approach here is to simply glue on a piece of trim that is slightly wider than the plywood. When it has set, use a hot air gun on the lowest setting, warm up the excess epoxy so it becomes soft and scrape it off using a sharp scraper. This is a very gentle operation. The epoxy will come off very easily with a little heat and a little patience. Once the epoxy is removed it is time to plane down the trim flush with the plywood. Remember that most plywoods have a top veneer of a half a mm or less. You cannot afford to cut into it at all. So a very sharp block plane is needed and also lots of care. Gradually plane down the trim until it is flush. Then use a block and some 180 sandpaper to clean it up.

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Gluing on the inner trim. This is something the standard Stasha in its never ending quest for weight loss never had. It adds a little weight but gives a very sleek look on the finished dinghy.

The last great difference is the addition of inner trim pieces to cover up where the stringers are glued into the end panels. It adds a ‘finished’ look to the boat and also strengthens the glue join. These take a long time to make and fit too as they need to be very neatly made. The quickest way I found was to make a cardboard template for each piece.

The seat used to scratch the varnish on the Stasha so now there are pieces of wood that will remain unvarnished instead. The seat is now made from slats of unvarnished teak rather than a single piece of plywood.

If you were thinking of building a Stasha ‘Tweed’ then I must warn you it’s a lot of work and it demands more skill than for a standard version which is very easy and fast to build. It will weigh about 50% more. With floors and seat it weighs about 17 kilos which is about 5 more than the standard boat but as I said, because it’s in two pieces not one section weighs more than ten kilos.

Asides from weighing a lot more it takes about three times longer to build and uses about five litres of epoxy and two litres of varnish!

The end result is a lightweight but virtually indestructible hard nesting dinghy. It is also extremely nice looking.

The finished fabric is almost two mm thick  so a rebate needs to be cut out of the exterior edges of the panels so that the fabric fits flush in the end.

Also, because of the extra thickness of the fabric it is necessary to remove a couple of mm from the sides of the joining panel on the rear section or it will be too wide to nest without scraping the varnish.

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The varnished front section with panels rebated a little to allow for the thickness of the fabric. The standard Stasha uses much thinner Dacron that doesn’t need to be rebated.

Here’s how the fabric is fitted: The fabric is not wide enough on the roll to fit from one gunwale to the other but it is wide enough to cover from front to back. I bought 4 metres of fabric and didn’t have much left over.

One of the great advantages of this system is that you do not have to rush or panic. You will epoxy only when you are happy with the fitted fabric. It is worth taking your time to get the fitting of the fabric correct because when it is epoxied and varnished it is translucent and any kinks or jumps in the weft or weave of the fabric will be very noticeable.

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The fabric draped over the framework, tensioned and stapled in place.

The fabric needs to be stretched tight before epoxying or it will sag with the weight of the resin. The problem is, how to get the fabric tight when it is such a loose weave. If you pull on one part, it pulls the weave out of line. I used staples to hold the fabric tight. It took a long time to pull it all tight while still keeping the weave straight along the keel. It took a lot of putting staples in and then pulling them out again as I tightened first one side, then the other all the time keeping tension fore and aft as well. This is quite tricky to do as you need as much tension as you can get but without pulling the weave apart or distorting or pulling the weave out of line.

However there is no rush so you can take as long as you like to get the fabric laying right. I found that the fabric lay well over the entire front section if I pulled the aft corners aft first. Then by the time I got to the front, the fabric was able to cover the whole shape in one piece without kinks or pleats. I was particularly impressed that I managed to get the fabric to follow the bow section without having to cut any fabric out.

To make working on the dinghy easier, I varnished the entire framework (except the outer surfaces) with three coats before fitting the cloth. Varnishing the framework is a complete pain in the arse, as is sanding between coats. The plan was to do three coats on the framework and then two entire coats inside making 5 coats for the woodwork and 2 coats for the fabric.

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This is what the front section of the dinghy looks like after its first coat of epoxy. The colour is good but the finish is very rough, far too rough for a boat. It will need sanding smooth and more epoxy then two coats of varnish before it is finished.

The epoxy is brushed on liberally. It is amazing how much epoxy the thick fabric will soak up. I did a test piece first to judge how to apply the epoxy. In the event it was very forgiving and I had no drops of epoxy come through the cloth despite a heavy application. The ideal is to have enough epoxy to wet out the fabric but not so much you are adding weight for no reason. The trick to getting the folded corners to stick down is to apply epoxy to the wood underneath it first, then dab the fabric down with more epoxy.

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The finish on the outside after three coats of sanded epoxy.

Once the epoxy is set it needs to be sanded smooth. If you have applied enough epoxy you will find that even with some quite violent sanding (I used 60 grit on a random orbital) you won’t go through to the cloth. In a couple of places the cloth was visible but that was OK as it needs another couple of coats, each one sanded down smooth. Then the whole surface was sanded down with 120, then 180 and finally 240 grit. Then it received a further two coats of varnish. The varnish is needed as otherwise the epoxy has no UV protection.

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Almost finished varnishing. Four coats on the wood and one on the cloth. It will receive one more coat all over. Note the trim around the stringers where they fit into the front panel. A small touch but makes a large difference to the looks. The epoxy used to glue in the ribs had teak dust blended into it to darken it making it very hard to see it.

The end result is a thick yet slightly flexible and extremely tough skin for the boat. It looks fantastic with the light coming through it. I am happy that I took so long laying the cloth so that the weave was even.

Conclusion:

Not for the faint hearted. Sanding epoxy is a thankless task and varnishing to that level is also soul destroying. If you have 120 plus hours spare then all you need is a set of Stasha plans from Woodenwidget.com and this article and you too can have a splendid looking lightweight nesting dinghy like the Stasha ‘Tweed’.

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View from the inside with the light coming through.

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Raymarine EV100 Tiller pilot review

Evolution2

Borrowed this pic from Raymarine. It shows the colour display and the EV 9 axis sensor.

Today I sea trialled the EV100 Tiller pilot and although I have only so far tested it on a flat sea under motor I have to say I am hugely impressed. It was a real joy to see the wake behind the boat which was straight as an arrow. This is the first time I have seen this on Doolittle. In the same conditions the TP30 would still have the boat weaving slightly. What else is good? The drive arm hardly moves. This is a massive improvement over the TP30 because one of the things that always annoyed me was the amount of unnecessary movement it used to make along with an annoying noise. The EV100 hardly moves and even when it does it is very quiet. The wireless remote is a fine accessory. I sat at the bows and happily changed course with it. Obviously this is hardly a comprehensive review but what I have seen is very hopeful.

Long gone are the Gain and SeaState that we’re used to. Replaced by a simple choice of three settings, Leisure, Cruising and Performance. I tried all three but I found that the Leisure setting held a near perfect course only deviating a couple of degrees. In Performance mode the pilot was a little more active and the course was held to within one degree which is pretty damned impressive. It will be interesting to see how this works with wind and waves. At one point we had some swell to deal with and the boat was rolling quite a lot yet despite that the tiller never moved. That kind of thing would have upset the TP30 for sure

No longer do you need to do a compass calibration by going round in slow circles although you can if you want. If not, the unit just does it itself automatically. You can lock the calibration later so the pilot doesn’t try to do it again. Right from the start the display was showing a compass reading which seemed almost bang on compared to the ship’s compass. I wasn’t expecting the compass to work straight out of the box with such accuracy. There is a dockside wizard which you need to run before seatrials but that is all. All that does is push the helm one way and ask you if it pushed it the right way and if it did you press ‘continue’ and that’s the pilot set up! In my case it didn’t push the helm the right way as I have the drive arm on Stb where as it should be on port. You could switch the polarity on the motor if you wanted to swing it around but since it is so easily done in the display I did that.

The drive arm is the same one that Autohelm have used for years. They no longer offer the GP unit which had a better (Swiss made) motor for longer life but you can still get your standard drive arm modified. To do that it has to go back to Raymarine. I was quite keen to do this until they told me how much it would cost. A shocking £1000!!! So I don’t think I’ll bother. Not quite sure how they justify such an enormous sum unless the motor is gold plated and studded with diamonds.

EV-100-Tiller-Pilot

The same old drive arm that Autohelm has sold for years. At least getting spares for it should be easy enough.

I don’t know how important it is but adjusted the rudder angle (the angle of the tiller from one side to the other) which default setting was 30 degrees. I reckoned it was actually about 33. I also adjusted the hard over time from the 4 sec default to 5.4 seconds which is what I timed it at. This is all in the instructions. It probably would have worked just fine on the default settings but I can play with this at a later date and see if it makes any difference to anything. There are settings for Sail boats, fast sailboats, motor boats etc and you can change the characteristics of the pilot by selecting a different type of boat. But for now I have followed the instructions to the letter and told the pilot it is steering a sailing boat.

The display is very nice with a very bright colour screen. The interface is pretty straightforward and simple to use. The display has a few settings for viewing with different colours, red for night time and of course the screen can be dimmed as well. You need to cut a big hole (about 3") to fit the display which is a bit of a shame. I fitted the display in the engine instrument panel. When I ordered Doolittle I asked Pacific Seacraft to fit the engine panel as far to one side as possible. I’m glad I did because there was JUST enough room to fit the display next to it. I also managed to fit the TWIST shower and two sockets, one for the new pilot and a 12 v supply which also powers up the TP30 which I shall keep for when/if the EV100 dies. Although they offer a 2 year guarantee which is extendable to three years for free if you register online. Not bad.

The installation was made much easier by the fact that the EV Unit (compass) can be placed anywhere above or below decks. I installed most of it (computer, wireless base station etc) behind the engine panel in a space which is used for nothing else. The EV unit lives in a locker far from electrical or magnetic interference. All the components are waterproofed but putting them somewhere that is always dry can’t hurt either.

The wiring up of the components is not straightforward although Raymarine have attempted to simplify the system with colour coded connections. The problem comes from wanting to have the wireless remote and an NMEA 0183 input to the pilot. Perhaps it is harder on my boat because I do not already have a seatalk system, only a Tacktick system (now owned by Raymarine but not seatalk) so it requires some complicated additions to make it all work.

The EV100 uses Raymarine’s latest protocol the SeatalkNG system. The wireless is Seatalk1 so one must buy a converter block ($100). It’s easy enough to wire up as the connections simply plug in to it. The NMEA is a bit more complicated as it first has to be converted to seatalk before it can work. This also requires another interface to do that ($200). I wired it all up on the table before installation to check it worked and also to get a better feel for how it goes together. It was quite shocking to see how many wires, cables and connectors there were.

At first I could not get the thing to work so I called Raymarine in the UK who were extremely helpful and we soon discovered why it wasn’t working. If you have not plugged into a blue socket you must fit the special blanks instead. Once I did this it all started working. So, not the simplest system to wire up since you need three power supplies, one for the NG converter, one for the Seatalk connector and one for the computer. But it was all made much easier by the fact that I could stick it all in the same place at the back of the boat. No need to dismantle the boat to feed wires through impossibly small conduit! Bonus.

Next I’ll have to connect up the NMEA Interface and feed the pilot with that info. They suggest that the pilot is fed with speed info from the log or at the very least SOG from the GPS. It helps the pilot to know what speed the boat is doing. It makes sense to me. Also the display can be programmed to display any number of NMEA info, from wind speed to depth so that’s useful too.

Next a sea trial with wind and waves and then I want to try and get it to steer to the wind as well. I’ll update this report when I have done that but I’d like the boat to be clean before I do that and since I didn’t haul last year it most certainly isn’t. I might even try one of the many steering patterns that are built into the EV-100 such as a figure of 8 or a cloverleaf just because I can!

 

Update July 2014

 

Well I finally got to try the EV100 in the real world. One thing is certain, the EV100 holds a fantastically accurate course. In fact it’s too accurate! What I mean by that is the pilot is working very hard to keep the boat on course. And this is on the lowest ‘leisure’ setting.

When it’s working hard, the drive is also noisy. Much noisier than the Simrad TP30. If it didn’t work so hard it probably wouldn’t matter but with its constant back and forth it gets extremely annoying and in fact if you are near it you cannot hear someone asking you something. It’s that loud. It’s a bit of a disappointment to be honest.

On day two of our sailing trip, headed downwind in 20 knots of wind, waves building the drive suddenly burst. So we put Dave (our ancient TP30) on instead and were amazed at how much quieter he is than the EV100. A very large difference. Maybe the Raymarine is ten times louder than the TP30. Is this just because the TP30 uses a belt drive whereas the Raymarine uses cogs only? Or maybe there was a problem with the Raymarine drive and working hard brought it to light.

I wrote to Raymarine of course and heard the usual, ‘We’ve been selling these units for 15 years and they are very reliable’ etc. Well the EV100 is supposed to be automatic. It is supposed to calibrate itself and set its self depending on the sea state and as I was already on the lowest setting I didn’t see what I could do to slow it down. The instructions are not very helpful and in fact had no mention of the fact that if you manually turn on the Calibration lock setting you get further menus where you can in fact adjust the rudder damping! I wish I had known that before. I only found this out from the very helpful chap at Raymarine. Who also explained why changing the hard over time can also affect the performance.

Here’s what he said: The hardover time will influence the  rudder gain and increase or reduce the amount of rudder for a given off course error, changing the damping will reduce sensitivity and switching between Leisure and Racer will affect the response levels.

The manual simply says this:

After setting your Hard Over Time, observe your autopilot’s behaviour and if required, make small adjustments to the Hard Over Time value until a satisfactory result is achieved.

As you can see that is not very helpful at all. It’s almost as if the people writing the manual didn’t know how it worked either so decided to be vague and ambiguous instead. Perhaps for most people the new system works perfectly and doesn’t need any adjustment. However, I am not most people and it is extremely rare when a product works perfectly right out of the box.

When the drive burst it was working a lot but there was very little pressure on the helm so even like this I would not expect a drive designed for boats much bigger and heavier than mine to explode after just 12 hours use, certainly not when you consider that the TP30 costs half as much and Dave is ten years old and has steered the boat for 2000 hours even for 24 hours as we ran bare poled before a gale and right across the Atlantic Ocean. As I said I was disappointed when the new pilot turned out to be noisy and then burst, but not altogether surprised.

When I took the drive apart I immediately noticed that the four (plastic) cogs that fit around the motor’s brass drive cog had all been ruined by their pins smashing through them. The nice man at Raymarine has promised to send me some replacements to a friends and we will collect them from there in due course.

Now that I am able to change some settings I have hope that I will be able to get the system working properly and only moving when needed and not all the time! I don’t suppose there is much I can do to shut it up. I could try an insulated cover but I think there may be a problem with the drive. When it fell apart, the recirculating nut came unscrewed from the shaft. It may have been this that caused the problem in the first place. Maybe it just wasn’t tightened enough at the factory?

Also the casing does not align properly. Maybe this is not enough to effect the arm going in and out but it could mean that the O ring is not sealed correctly all the way around and it may mean that it is not completely water tight. I will probably send it back after the season and get them to replace the whole unit.

A comment or two about the display and its interface. The display is very nice and it is excellent to have extra info on another screen. But there is no easy way to adjust the screen for night time use. Yes, there is a red/black setting for using at night but the display brightness does not dim. That has to be done manually. So not only do you have to change the display once to get the night time setting but it needs adjusting again to lower the brightness. It just seems very clunky to me.

Also, another thing I did not discover until it was explained to me is that there is an option under diagnostics called ‘about pilot’ when you select this option it shows just what you would expect, the Version number and the serial number. But in fact this page can scroll and stupidly enough, once you select the up/down button to scroll the page, a small tab appears on the right! Now if that tab was always there, one would know that the pages scroll. I know it’s a small thing and I know that had I studied the instructions more carefully I would have learned this but it just stops the interface being intuitive.

The overall feel that I am getting is that this product needs some serious refining. It’s a great idea and I’m sure that they have got the basics right but it is crude, the interface is clunky, the instructions vague with far too much emphasis on the system just working perfectly straight away. Also having to use NMEA to seatalk to seatalk NG is just daft.

I’ll update this again soon and hopefully by then I will have some more positive news to impart! Until then…

 

Update Aug 2014

The nice man from Raymarine sent me a few spare planet gears to fix the drive. I used Loctite on the shaft so hopefully the drive won’t burst again. I also used plenty of silicone grease when I assembled the drive in an attempt to make it quieter.

The good news is that the drive is working fine and I have a working autopilot once more.

Since rebuilding the drive I have had plenty of opportunity and some good varied sailing conditions to really test the EV 100.

On the plus side, the EV 100 is able to steer my boat at high speeds whereas with ‘Dave’ the Simrad I always had to reef early or he would be unable to keep up and have us weaving all over the place. This is very welcome and encouraging. Admittedly the pilot still works hard and is still very noisy.

Although the pilot is supposed to learn the boat and adapt I do not feel that this has been happening. Even turning down the rudder damping all the way to its max setting of nine has not stopped the pilot working hard when the sea is up a bit. That said the boat steers a good course.

One can supposedly adjust the hard over time to help as well but despite trying a lot of different settings none seemed to make a difference as far as I could tell. So the only real settings you can change are the rudder damping and basic response modes.

The pilot seems to work best on the lowest ‘Leisure’ setting. with the rudder damping set at 9. However this setting is no good for sailing on a flat sea as the boat drifts way off course before making any adjustments.

There are some very annoying things about the EV 100 and one of them is that you cannot adjust the parameters without putting the pilot into standby! So someone has to take the helm while you adjust the pilot. This is hopeless. Even my Simrad allows on the hoof adjustment of all the important settings.

Even more annoying is the brightness adjuster. The short cut button to access this is actually on the standby button itself so if you want to adjust the screen brightness, something you might want to do a lot, you will first put the pilot in standby. So you will need to get back on course afterwards and press auto to re engage the autopilot. Brilliant.

So where am I? Luckily I still carry the Simrad tillerpilot which is quieter and still works better than the EV 100 in most conditions. The EV 100 is great for when it is rough and windy as it can keep the boat on course and of course one minds the noise a lot less when it is noisy and windy.

One day sailing with 15 knots of wind, all sail and a flat sea the EV 100 was able to hold a steady course but I had to set the rudder damping at 3 and despite being set on ‘Leisure’ would insist on small movements the whole time although the boat would probably sail itself in those conditions anyway.

I’m not sure what is to be done. My man in Raymarine is on holiday for a while. Maybe the software needs updating. Maybe there is some way to adjust the rudder damping to suit my boat better.

I also feel that although the EV 100 is supposed to recognise roll, it does not seem to. Sailing upwind on a flat sea, the pilot doesn’t move much if at all but when a passing boat makes waves and we roll, the pilot goes crazy when all it has to do is NOTHING. Maybe the ‘roll’ sensitivity can be modified in the software. This would also help when it is rough as most of the movement is roll. The boat tracks extremely well with its long keel so it’s not as if it is coming off course as it rolls.

So to date: It works well though moves far too much and is way too noisy but can cope when conditions are rough and windy. This is already a massive improvement on ‘Dave’ but it needs more refinement and adjustment. The interface is a big let down. Not being able to access important settings when in Auto mode is hopeless.

I will update this in the weeks to come and I try to get the EV 100 working quietly in all conditions.

 

Update 11 August 2014

 

Yet more exciting sailing to gain more knowledge of the EV 100. Again it has steered us downwind with a reef in the main and the staysail poled out in 25 kts with no trouble at all. That said it does this with a lot of fuss, almost as if the pilot is trying to justify itself by moving so much.

There seemed to be more roll however and that I believe is due to the fact that the pilot is over steering the boat. A boat travelling at 6 knots will change direction fast and it will heel over, then when it goes the other way it will do the same, each time adding to the roll. A curious thing happened at one point.

The pilot crashed. It brought up an alarm saying the speed data had been lost but in fact all the fields were replaced with dashes so something serious had gone wrong. What was amazing is how the pilot just stopped making noise, we started to roll less. In fact the drive was hardly moving at all, just making small gestures every now and then and yet it kept the boat on course. This was in 25 kts of wind from behind and fairly large waves too. It drifted about 7 degrees off course either side but that is more than acceptable under those conditions.

What it does prove is that the boat is capable of being steered in a straight line, even over waves with very little input from the rudder. So why is the pilot working so hard?

Personally I’d like to see a special menu that contains adjustments for all the parameters such as sea state, rudder gain and damping, roll, pitch and yaw. Then the three modes (leisure, Cruising and Performance) would make perfect sense.

I have since been in touch with Raymarine who have asked me for info on the version I have and the deviation (5%) how this will help I do not know but one has to be patient in these cases.

Also I tried the autotack function but cannot make it work at all. The boat turns initially well but then straightens up so barely manages to come through the wind. As far as I can tell the boat did not turn an equal distance from one tack to the other. My Tack Tick wind indicator on the top of the mast appears to be set correctly, with no more than a degree or two off so it seems unlikely this is it. I tried this a few times, on both tacks and with the same result. I thought it was because the rudder damping was set so high but I tried other settings with the same result. Also it seems the auto tack option is only available in Wind mode. I suppose I am meant to use the Autoturn function instead when steering to a compass course. In an attempt to simplify things it is actually more complicated.

This dumbing down of interfaces is all well and good if the system works as intended but when it goes wrong there are no adjustments to be made.

Although I think changes should be able to be made to the pilot without having to go into standby first the man from Raymarine thinks it’s safer not to. I think it’s ridiculous myself. An autopilot that can’t be adjusted on the hoof? That must be a first. I guess they’re working on the assumption that the pilot will just work and that there’s no need to address this issue.

So that’s where we are at the moment. Conclusion: It works better and quieter when it crashes but I have not managed to discover how to make it crash so until it happens again I can’t experiment further. When working normally it over steers regardless of the setting, rudder damping etc and because of that it wears the drive unnecessarily, makes noise, uses more power and makes the boat roll. That said, it does hold a good course, even if the boat is over powered or badly trimmed. This is good although it comes at a price.

I’m really not sure what Raymarine can do but even if they can’t make it work any better I will be able to live with it. I can use Dave for most of the time but if it’s windy or rough and I need more power and better course holding then I can use it. I’m thinking a good compromise would be to buy another TP30 and wire the motor direct and let the EV100 power that. At least it would be quieter!

Surely more to come soon….

14/8/14

Some more thoughts.

 

It always amuses me to read about a new product. Here’s what Raymarine say about the new EV100 pilot:

No calibration required!

Engineered for simplicity, Evolution autopilots eliminate the need for complicated set up and calibration. Once Evolution is installed, getting started is as easy as switching the autopilot on.

Thanks to the intelligent EV sensor core, the autopilot automatically evolves and adapts to your vessel’s steering characteristics without any user adjustments.

Well that’s not been my experience. Nice idea though. Or rather, maybe it has evolved and adapted to my vessels characteristics, it just hasn’t done it very well!

Evolution AI™

The culmination of Raymarine’s 30 years of autopilot expertise, FLIR Systems research and development, and advanced aerospace guidance technology, Evolution AI™ control algorithms deliver a new level of accurate autopilot control.

This innovative breakthrough in autopilot intelligence enables Evolution autopilots to perceive their environment and then instantly calculate and evolve steering commands to maximize performance. The result is precise and confident course keeping, regardless of vessel speed or sea conditions.

Hmmm…

I have recently discovered that the Interface Raymarine use in their displays is called LightHouse. Well it needs work. It could do with a way to reduce the brightness without having to put the pilot in standby first, or having to navigate through the menus to find the option that way. Then there needs to be a ‘Home’ button so that you don’t have to press ‘back’ five times to get back to the main screen.

Also it seems I may not be able to update the pilot, ecu and display as I don’t have any other Raymarine displays and it seems that you need one to be able to update. I hope that this isn’t the case but I won’t be at all surprised if it is.

 

Update 21/8/14

 

Oh dear. The man at Raymarine has asked me to compare the various compass readings on the pilot against a fixed one. I did this but frankly don’t see what good it will do. The deviation was small on all points. He also asked me for all the info regarding the settings I have used but it is getting boring now. Clearly there is something wrong.

I decided to try and reinitialize the pilot. This can be done by restarting the compass. But in my case it simply says ‘task completed’ and seems very pleased with itself even though it has managed to come up with a deviation figure of 188 degrees. Apparently going around in circles will change this but all I get is dizzy and a figure of —

So now I have no working pilot.

The man at Raymarine has been very patient (as I have) but he now suggests I call in an engineer to sort the problem. Funny this: I have been here before and after that last time I vowed never to buy another Raymarine product as long as I lived. Will I never learn? That was on my old boat. The engineer came and he was about as useful as a chocolate fireguard. He had no idea why the pilot wouldn’t work and I suspect the engineer that will come this time will be none the wiser.

Either I have been supplied with a dodgy unit or the EV100 won’t work properly on a Dana unless one accepts a lot of unnecessary movement and noise. Now I have to waste more time with an engineer on the boat while we go through all the obvious stuff all over again. I suspect the man at Raymarine thinks I am an idiot and have poorly installed the pilot. Despite that he has at least offered to pay for an engineer to visit even though I installed the pilot myself. So full marks for Raymarine’s willingness to solve the issues I have been having.

The saddest thing about all this is that had the pilot worked well from the start (as it should have done if their blurb is to be believed) I probably would never have started to look closer and discovered an almost endless host of issues.

It has been an education fitting this pilot. Until it starts working properly on my boat I cannot recommend it at all. Had it worked I might forgive the limited adjustments, the poor interface, the noisy drive and the three different NMEA protocols and their associated wiring and converters. Far too complicated.

 

Update Sept 14

 

The software has been updated. The engineer came with a Raymarine chart plotter that he had to wire up and use to get the updates onto the EV.

Then I was told to turn off the calibration and compass lock, make sure the speedo is working and turn at at least 4 knots through a 3 to 4 minute circle. Yeah right. I can see them there laughing at the thought of me driving round in circles. Like I haven’t got anything better to do with my time. Emails back and forth. Waiting for an engineer. Staying in expensive ports while waiting. I am getting very bored with all this.

So I went around in circles for half an hour and nothing has changed. Still just — marked for the deviation and if I try a compass reset it comes back straight away to the 188 degree variation.

Then I got a call from the French engineer who came. The fact that the deviation is 188 degrees is no problem. So long as the light in top of the sensor is green and constant it’s fine. Well it is but Raymarine UK say that it is not fine and should be replaced.

 

Update 22/9/2014

This morning a new compass arrived which was duly fitted. Straight away the pilot seemed to work better with very little movement and fairly quick responses to what wind and wave there was. It is impossible to tell with so small a test if the pilot will work better in more severe conditions but it proves one thing and that is there was a problem with the EV compass sensor.

This explains a lot. If the compass is sending dubious information, the best autopilot in the world won’t work well. There’s no reason why the EV won’t steer my boat especially as it is an easy boat to steer by hand in the first place.

So apart from the drive exploding, the compass unit failing, the strange interface and inability to change certain parameters while in auto mode it seems to work well. Raymarine have been very helpful and got to the root of the problem eventually.

I’ll update this blog sometime in the future after the EV has had a proper work out in all conditions. What I can say is that on a flat sea under motor it works very well. For the rest you’ll just have to wait.

Update March 15

 

It was a lovely day with a nice breeze blowing. ‘Let’s go sailing’ I said and so we did. A great opportunity to use my new working pilot. My arse. As soon as I put it on I could tell there was something wrong. The boat would come off course and sails would start flogging. Frankly it was pathetic. ‘Here we go again’ I thought.

Despite messing with hard over times, response levels, rudder damping, nothing I could do would make the pilot steer the boat. So I checked the deviation only to find that instead of reading a nice small number like 4, it said —. This basically means that the deviation is over 25 degrees and there is a problem.

So with little to lose I decided to restart the compass. Again it came up with 188 degrees. The man at Raymarine says this is perfectly normal and what it actually means is that I now have to turn in a circle at more than four knots taking four minutes and that I must have a speed input into the pilot. The man at Raymarine thinks I don’t understand this. True, I think it extremely strange than rather than say, ‘go around in a circle’ the display simply says 188 degrees. Nothing in the manual makes this any clearer.

So I wrote to Raymarine. Again. The reply was hysterical. ‘Go around in circles at four knots etc’. You are having a laugh right? Clearly there is a problem. The pilot has never worked well from the start and I realise that reading through this fiasco I have been making excuses for this pilot because I so want it to work although it clearly doesn’t and never has.  I am done with going around in circles. It’s all supposed to be automatic anyway. What’s with all this compass calibration anyway?

Anyway the upshot is this. It’s going back to Raymarine. I have insisted on a complete new system in the hope that there is some strange bug that causes the pilot to be chronically inconsistent and lose its mind every time I want to use it. I am thoroughly disappointed. What a waste of money and my time.

Maybe a new unit will work better although I hold out little hope but I have to at least try. There’s a gaping hole in my boat where the display should be for a start. There’s no guarantee that they will give me a new system. But that’s up to them. If they do, it will be the least they can do to sort me out. If they don’t I’ll just put it down to experience and make sure that the next time I absolutely DO NOT buy anything from Raymarine. Twice bitten Thrice shy!

Update: April 2015

 

Duly received the complete new unit. Installation was easy as all the screws and cables were still there.

I ran through the settings changing it to Sail and telling it what kind of rudder I have etc and then went out to calibrate the compass. This is automatically achieved when the boat turns through a circle at some speed.

The first time I did this with the old unit, it initialised before the boat was even out of the marina. I thought it a bit odd at the time. This time the deviation was still marked — even once out at sea. After about three quarters of a circle the deviation came up initially at 0 degrees but soon after 5 degrees. This is exactly what should have happened with the original unit.

The last time I used the old unit, the deviation had disappeared and gone back to showing — it also wouldn’t steer the boat. Somehow it had lost the plot from one day to the next. Not that it ever worked properly in the first place.

This time the boat immediately held a steady course. The wake behind the boat straight as an arrow and what is even more encouraging is the fact that the turns were crisp and fast and the boat would come back on its new course quickly. The original unit never worked like that.

Admittedly I have only tested the EV100 under motor but already this seems a vast improvement and when I switch the unit on and off it does not lose the deviation setting.

Maybe I got an early test version before. Maybe it was just a dud, I don’t know. I’ll update when the EV100 has been tested under sail too. Fingers crossed.

Update May 2015

 

Finally some good news to report. I have had a chance to test the new EV100 under a variety of conditions and am pleased to report that it works well. It could do with some fine tuning but straight out of the box with no adjustments it has managed to steer the boat under sail, in light airs, with more wind, with the spinnaker up and with waves.

What is apparent is that this EV100 is nothing like the one I had before. This one is quieter as it moves less. It only really moves when the boat does and if the boat yaws strongly, the pilot moves strongly too. It seems like it is working as it should be.

Obviously it will need to be tested more thoroughly over a longer period of time but I can say that it works better now than the Simrad. It is stronger and more able to cope without having to reef down so early. It seems more intelligent than the Simrad. One senses that there is a brain inside that does something more than just turn left or right.

If only it had been working like this last year when I had more time to test it. I’ll update this post in the months to come after the EV100 has had a proper work out.

Foldavan lightweight folding bicycle caravan

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The Woodenwidget ‘Foldavan’ bicycle caravan. Here it is in ‘Road’ mode. At just 30 kilos it is easy to tow.

For all of you out there who love bicycle camping but don’t like the discomfort or the hassle that goes with it will rejoice in the news that Woodenwidget have just released the Foldavan folding bicycle caravan. No more struggling to find a flat stone free surface to pitch your tent. You can stop practically anywhere in a caravan. If you’re thinking that towing a caravan sounds like hard work well think again. The Foldavan’s pretty tear drop shape is aerodynamic and it only weighs from 30 kilos. The caravan also acts as a trailer and can carry 75 kilos with ease. To make it really effortless, use an electric bike and put a larger, long-range battery in the Foldavan.

If it’s going to work in the real world, a bicycle caravan needs to be small enough to be transported easily and yet big enough for real comfort. Yet it mustn’t be too big or you won’t be able to get anywhere with it. It would also be nice if it was cheap to build, was aerodynamic and light so it was easy to tow. And wouldn’t it be great if you could fit in a sailing dinghy and take that camping as well. Well you may not believe this but the Foldavan does all this and more.

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In full ‘Camping’ mode the Foldavan offers extremely comfortable and spacious comfort for two. Here it is shown with both sides unzipped to take advantage of the sunny weather.

You can’t buy a Foldavan but you can buy plans that will tell you how to build one. The Foldavan has been designed to be easy to build and thanks to Woodenwidget’s ingenious step by step illustrated instructions there is no reason why you couldn’t make one for yourself and there is an important reason for doing so apart from saving money. You will achieve a great sense of satisfaction from building a Foldavan and you will revel in the pride that comes when you tell your impressed on lookers that you made it yourself. And when you think about how you used to rough it in a tent you will smile all the more.

Not everyone is going to start their biking holiday from their home base so it is imperative that the Foldavan can pack away small enough so it can be easily carried to another destination. The Foldavan compresses to just 210 mm wide and will fit on most car roof racks. It may even fit inside some estate cars. Another advantage of this narrow ‘Stow Mode’ is that your Foldavan can be safely stowed away somewhere indoors without it getting in the way when you’re not using it.

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The Foldavan with wheels off, compressed down to ‘Stow’ mode and lashed to a roof rack.

On the road, the Foldavan opens to 60 cm. This is about the same as the width of most handlebars. If you can pass with your bicycle you can probably pass with the Foldavan. It has a low centre of gravity so it is able to negotiate even quite rough terrain (especially when laden) If it is windy you can unzip the sides to let the wind pass through and stop it from getting blown over. With a trailer you can carry a lot more stuff than if you only had a bicycle. This increases your comfort levels.

When you arrive at your chosen camp site it takes less than three minutes to put the Foldavan in ‘Camping Mode’, a full metre wide and over a metre of headroom. The thick mattress is in two pieces and ensures extreme comfort and jealous looks from your neighbours. You can camp in places where you wouldn’t be able to pitch a tent. You don’t have to worry about stones poking you in the back, rough terrain, insects, damp ground, sudden rain etc. If you would like a slightly wider version you can even build a Foldavan to be a wopping 1.2 metres wide.

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The Foldavan in ‘Stow’ mode. With the wheels off it is just 21 cm wide.

The concise illustrated plans cost just £30 and contain a wealth of information for the first time builder or the experienced alike. Lots of advice on where to find the materials you need. How to work with tools, advice on alternative building options, how to finish your Foldavan and lots more. Even if you’ve never made anything like this in your life, if you are prepared to have a go and have a few basic tools you can build yourself a Foldavan and personalise it in any way you like. You could change the fabric, cover it in a camouflage fabric and use it as a hide or just to blend in to nature better. You could have a pink one or have zebra stripes. You could do you own paint job on it. The choices are almost endless. The materials needed to build a Foldavan are all easy to find almost anywhere in the world in varying qualities to suit your budget. You could make a Foldavan for next to nothing using reclaimed timber and secondhand parts. It takes about 50 hours to build a Foldavan.

The Carbon Footprint of a Foldavan is small because all the materials are easy to find and can be sourced locally. As if this wasn’t already fantastic enough Woodenwidget will plant 5 trees on your behalf when you buy plans. And if you buy the Foldavan/dinghy combo deal you save £10 and they will plant ten trees on your behalf. Plans can be bought on line and downloaded in a matter or minutes at www.woodenwidget.com

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The Foldavan in ‘Stow’ mode.

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There’s even room inside for a Woodenwidget folding dinghy. This is the Fliptail 6

Update 4/1/14

Some of the comments on various sites make interesting reading but what is becoming clear is that many people are quick to dis the Foldavan as a toy. These cynics have obviously not taken the time to find out more which is a shame but there will always be doubters even when the body of evidence is overwhelming.

Many people seem to think that it’s going to be easier to carry a tent. Maybe this is true but the beautiful thing about a Foldavan is that you don’t need to find a suitable surface to pitch your tent on. There is nothing worse that a stony or rough uneven surface for trying to get a good night’s sleep. Having a Foldavan opens up a whole load of new environments that were previously unavailable to tents.

The advantages are massive. Apart from the divine comfort that having a full mattress allows, you are less affected by insects or sudden rain and uneven or hard ground.

I suspect that the same doubters that think it is better to carry their stuff on a bike rather than tow something. What may surprise these people is just how easy it is to tow a trailer with the added advantage that you need to brackets or panniers on your bike which means when you get set up at camp you can use an unencumbered bike to get about and explore on.

Another comment that seems to be fairly common is that it will blow over in the first bit of wind. Well, first of all if it’s windy you probably won’t even want to ride a bike, let along tow a trailer but again these cynics have not bothered to either think about this or look further. It’s very simple. Just unzip the sides and the Foldavan is now extremely stable. Only 20% of the weight is above the base. It is a surprisingly stable trailer.

I hear the same comments about the Woodenwidget range of dinghies. Because they are light and made with fabric people simply assume that they must be unstable but I can tell you than a well designed light dinghy can easily be much more stable than a badly designed heavy one.

Obviously the Foldavan is only for those people who want to carry a lot of stuff and be extremely comfy when camping. Not everyone wants to rough it. The Foldavan is far from being a toy. It is far more sensible and practical than most people realise.

However I am not discouraged. They used to think the world was flat. Opinions change once the cynics and doubters have had their say. I do not know why people are so dismissive of new ideas. It’s very simple really. If you don’t like something. Don’t buy it!

 

Update July 2015

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The Foldavan in le Loire (France) Summer 2014

Well it has been quite a year. The Foldavan almost outsold the Fliptail dinghy, Woodenwidget’s most popular dinghy. The Foldavan has proved very popular, particularly in Germany and the USA.

One Foldavan was used by an American couple who used it to explore the wine regions of France. They amazed me by managing to put their Foldavan on the train. I knew the Foldavan was compact when folded but it is still quite long. However this didn’t seem to matter.

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The Foldavan outside a church in the heart of France

Here’s what they said about using their Foldavan:

Hello, I just wanted to tell everybody that my girlfriend and I took the foldavan on a two month trip through France in September/October and it didn’t fall over once. Not once. Wind is not an issue. Also, when it was raining we stayed so dry and comfy and best of all off the ground! (Only way I could be convinced to camp). When we wanted to go to a different region we put the foldavan in stow mode and took it on the train. It even went on the TGV (high speed trains in France). Everybody along our route just loved it we made so many friends. We biked through the Loire, Alsace and Burgundy. I am not an experienced cyclist but I towed it 10 miles a day with relative ease. It was the coolest way to travel!

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Here’s their Foldavan arriving in California. You can even put a Foldavan in the hold of an airplane! That’s versatility for you.

With almost 100,000 views of the Foldavan video on Youtube it seems that the Foldavan is gathering a steady following. The cynics are being out numbered and those who want to have comfort and cool when they go camping are seeing the sense in the Foldavan.

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The Foldavan in Stow mode on a French train! How many caravans can you think of that would fit on a train?

Also there is the fact that you can’t simply buy a Foldavan, you have to make it first. There is way more satisfaction to be had from using something you yourself have made with your own hands. The Foldavan may not be for everyone but it is certainly appealing to a lot of folk out there.

Splinterbike Haibrid Wooden Bicycle

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The Haibrid from Splinterbike. Wooden frame, wheel rims and handlebars.

Recently I made a promo video to promote the Foldavan bicycle caravan and I thought it would be a good idea to borrow a wooden bicycle so I got in touch with a few companies who made them. I didn’t have much luck but I kept trying. Then I came across the Haibrid made by a very interesting fellow called Michael Thompson who you may have heard of from his previous project, the SplinterBike, a bicycle made entirely of wood which currently holds the world speed record for an all wooden bicycle. He kindly agreed to lend me his demonstrater for a week.

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Here you can clearly see the quality of craftsmanship that has gone into the T section frame.

The Haibrid is a different beast altogether. This limited edition is made from sustainably sourced American black walnut and European birch wood and is an elegant looking machine. Obviously a bicycle made completely from wood just isn’t practical for every day use so the drive train is metal but the frame, wheel rims and handlebars are made of wood.

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Even the detail on the wooden handlebar ends is considered.

Most of the metal parts are made by Sturmey Archer and they are very high quality. I particularly liked the ‘handbrake’ option on the rear brake. This is an essential option for any bike because it removes the chance of the bike falling over when you lean it against something. The brakes are in the hubs which helps add to the very clean look of the Haibrid.

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Sturmey Archer three speed hub and brake. It has a very smooth action.

There are three gears in the rear hub and the system is very smooth. I felt the bike could have done with a tooth less on the rear sprocket but this is something that is easy enough to change at some point.

The seat post and handlebar attachment is pretty standard and the Haibrid has a lovely Brooks titanium saddle fitted finished with copper rivets. I found it a bit hard but a Brooks saddle takes many weeks of use to become comfy. The handlebar grips are also made by Brooks and are leather with a metal end. Very smart and nice to grip. No expense has been spared on the gear on this bike, it’s all top notch stuff.

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Wooden rims and fat brown tyres is a unique look. Gives a comfy ride too.

The wheels are made of birch by August Wheelworks and are really quite something. Fitted with brown fat tyres for a very comfy ride they really look the business. There are many wooden bikes out there but few have wooden wheels. It’s a nice touch.

As a boat builder and someone who works with wood I can appreciate the work and detail that has gone into the bike. Michael tells me that 2500 hours of development and testing went into the Haibrid. I can well believe it. The frame is made with a combination of steam bending, vacuum lamination and CNC machining.

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What’s it like to ride? I prefer to sit a little more upright but that is just a personal opinion and in any case a change of handlebar would sort that out. Otherwise the geometry is good although the high cross bar might not be to everyone’s taste. Michael tells me he is working on a Ladies bike with a lower cross bar. It is a comfy bike to ride and very smooth. The brakes were a bit unfeeling but effective for all that. Gear changes are smooth and seamless.

All in all the Haibrid is a very sweet bike. It’s not particularly light but neither is it heavy. As one French mate said, it’s an ‘honest’ weight. I would say that sums it up about right. Michael tells me the frame itself weighs less than 3 kilos. The wooden wheels are about 40% heavier than metal rims.

This kind of exclusivity and craftsmanship doesn’t come cheap, nor should it. Each Haibrid takes 200 hours to hand build and finish in a special UV lacquer. The price of £6600 reflects that. Michael is working on bikes using other woods such as Brazilian Mahogany, Santos Rosewood and English Ash. Splendid.

Contact Michael Thompson at Splinterbike for more info or to place your order!

Woodenwidget launch the Fliptail 9

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The Woodenwidget Fliptail 9 (2.75m) Stable, spacious and fun. Rows, sails and planes!

This is the biggest boat that Woodenwidget have ever made. It’s huge and it exists because customers kept on asking for it so here it is. Nine feet long or 2.75 metres long. It’s a little bit taller and a little bit wider than the Fliptail 6 and 7 and it has a slightly more pointy bow. It’s a nice proportion and is already proving popular.

It weighs about 23 kilos which is extremely light for such a spacious boat. It has three handles for carrying it so that one or two people can carry it. It is practically the same as the other Fliptail models but has an extra pair of floor and hoop supports otherwise there’s really not much in it. The Fliptail 9 is also able to sail using a full Optimist sail unlike the other smaller Fliptails which need the sail cut down a little.

The Fliptail 9 rows, sails and motors and it does all three extremely well indeed. With just a tiny 4 stroke 2.5 hp engine it gets up on the plane very quickly and flies along at over ten knots. It rows well and because of its extra length is quite quick. With an Optimist rig attached it also sails very well and slips along in the lightest of breezes.

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Room for all the family. Here is the Fliptail 9 in sailing mode.

It is a bit more complicated to make than the Fliptail 6 or 7 foot versions as it is harder to get one piece lengths of wood to make the hoops so it means joining shorter pieces of wood together and this adds time to the build though not so much really.

Plans are available for just £35 and Woodenwidget will plant a tree for every set of plans sold too. The plans are very comprehensive and walk you through the entire process in an illustrated step by step way. There is a mass of extra information included and a load of Internet links to help you find the materials and tools you need.

It takes about 50 hours to build a Fliptail 9 and that includes varnishing (or painting) so why not have a go and build yourself a family sized folding boat that weighs very little and goes perfectly on the roof rack of your car?

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The Fliptail 7 fits easily inside the Fliptail 9.

 

Fliptail 9 on the plane with just a 2.5 outboard

 

Fliptail 9 under sail

www.woodenwidget.com

Smart Roadster Coupé

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Ten years old but looking very tidy. The Smart Roadster Coupe hard top in Champagne Remix colour scheme. It’s a lot of fun.

Sports cars these days are amazing but ridiculous at the same time. As beautiful as an Aston may be, in the real world it’s just a headache. Too big and hard to see out off in most towns and way to fast for the roads. Maybe some years ago you could have had such a powerful car and actually get to use it but now with speed cameras, mobile radar, average speed cameras, parking restrictions and congestion charges it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Not to mention the envy created in others by owning a car that costs as much as a house.

You could do a track day I suppose but if you had the kind of money that would allow you to buy an Aston why wouldn’t you have a race car instead? Why use just a road car? You can’t use its full potential on the public roads, that would be just foolhardy and could only end in tears. You would be forced to occasional bursts of power when the rare opportunity arose. Personally I couldn’t own such a car and only use its power and performance so liberally. I’d want to push it and if I did, I would either crash or lose my license. Or both.

This is all academic. I can’t afford an Aston and even if I could it’s the last car I’d actually want to own. I would feel too guilty driving it. I would be constantly reminded that I was far better off than 95% of the world and that I clearly don’t care about the environment. I have never cared what other people think but I do care about how I think so I need to have a more realistic and PC approach.

Enter the Smart Roadster. An expensive (for what it was) car when it was launched in 2003. Today prices start at about £2500 which for a car that cost 6 times that just ten years ago is amazing. True to say that a lot of eager initial Roadster buyers lost out when they came to sell.

Mercedes also lost out as they had to pay about £3000 per car in warranty claims to right the leaks on the cars. Not every car was affected but they got a bad reputation that remains to this day. The other criticism is the gearbox which is slow and sometimes annoying.

That said, there is a lot to recommend a Smart Roadster. Now that they can be bought for a much more realistic price, they offer cheapish and fun motoring, the like of which you though you would never see again.

Forget all the problems. This car is just such a laugh to drive and lets face it, if you were interested in practicalities you would not be looking to buy a tiny sports car with only two seats, limited luggage space and a car so low that you run the risk of looking a complete tit as you struggle to get out in and out of it.

There are some things that are important buying a Roadster, one is that it is better to buy a higher mileage version because it means it has been used. If it is being used it suggests that it must be reliable. A full Smart service history is the other essential. If it has always been serviced by Smart, the chances are that any issues have long since been dealt with. The Roadster has a highly tuned engine which needs more care and servicing that most modern cars. It needs an exact type of oil and has 2 spark plugs per cylinder. It is a complicated little car that needs understanding. This is why a Smart dealer service history is so important. Even a Mercedes dealer service history could be suspect. Word is that Mercedes didn’t care for servicing these cars and lacked proper understanding.

I bought my roadster on line from a garage selling left hand drive cars in the UK. The idea was to drive it to the south of France where it will become my everyday transport and weekend toy. It had 60,000 miles on the clock and a full Smart service history. I could tell from the pics that it was a tidy car. The guy at the garage said that everything worked. That is true, despite having heated seats, cruise control, electrically heated and adjustable wing mirrors and gawd knows what else, everything really does work.

Really I think that is quite impressive. No ten year old car that I have ever owned can say the same. Will it prove reliable? There is no way to know although I can say this. I have just completed a 2500 mile trip around the UK and then to the South of France in it and it never missed a beat, as happy on the B roads or in the rain on the motorway.

I may feel different once I have had to replace a few parts but I’m not unrealistic about owning this car. I know it will cost me money. Cars do. But even if it does go wrong and cost me money I frankly don’t care because it is just such fun to drive.

There have been a lot of comments on various forums and articles slagging off the gearbox and because of this a lot of people have been put off owning one. Or perhaps they were looking for a valid excuse not to buy one knowing that as much as they wanted one it was too hard to justify for many reasons so it was better to say that you would have bought one if only the gearbox was better.

The funny thing is that I think the gearbox is a stroke of genius. It’s a clutchless manual 6 speed box that can be an auto as well. The best of both worlds. who wants to be using a clutch in the traffic that we see these days? Not me. I have wanted an automatic car for a long time but they are so drab that until now I have not been able to do that.

The car must be learned. I think it took about 1000 miles of all sorts of driving before I felt I had the measure of the car and the gearbox. You cannot do certain things because the car won’t let you. Fine. All you have to do is learn to drive the car within its limits and when you do you will discover that it enhances the driving experience. It keeps you more focused as you drive.

There are lots of tricks. They say that an engine remap often speeds up the gear change. I tried that but couldn’t notice the gear change being any faster. Still it was worth a try and has made the Roadster even more fun to drive. The adjustment of the clutch actuator is critical. If there is too much play the clutch action takes longer and since the gears cannot change until the clutch has done its thing it slows every thing down.

Using the Auto option also slows the gear change down. At low speeds or in town the gear changes are very smooth and imperceptible it’s just when you take the engine to the redline in every gear that the changes are slow and snatchy. However if you change gear manually you will find that the changes are much faster. If you can get it so that you change just before the redline it helps too.

But what helps the most is letting the car warm up properly before thrashing it. This is good for the turbo in any case but like an old Fiat it just gets better and better the warmer it gets. Once you get the hang of the gear change it is not really so slow at all. I would say it is like a leisurely change gear in a normal car. The reality is that this is quite fast enough for the road. Perhaps on a track you might lose a fraction of a second with every change but what most people fail to point out is that you don’t need to change gear as often as you think.

On the road once rolling you don’t change gear much. The little 700cc turbo engine is remarkably torquey and pulls like a train from 3000 rpm to the 6000 rpm redline which means that blasting down a country lane you are mostly in 4th gear. You can accelerate from 40 to 70 very quickly in the same gear.

The 0-60 time is misleading because it changes gear just a few mph before 60 which spoils an otherwise respectable time. Most decent remaps allow more revs in third gear so that it changes after the car has reached 60mph and this makes a huge difference to 0-60 times, I’m guessing about 8 seconds which is quick enough in the real world. There are a few methods for a faster get away. There is a switch at the bottom of the throttle pedal that speeds up the get away by raising the revs to 3000 before releasing the clutch. There’s also a way of using the ignition key to get the revs up before the clutch is released. It takes some practice to get right but does make the Roadster rocket off like a scalded cat but I doubt it would do the clutch much good.

Unless you’re drag racing the slow gear change is not a problem. On the road, in the real world the Roadster can hold its own against most challengers. This is where the Roadster shines. It has a low centre of gravity and a 45/55 weight distribution and ridiculously wide tyres for such a small and light car so it sticks to road and is beautifully balanced. I read somewhere it can generate almost 1 G which is astonishing.

The problem with the Roadster is not that the gearbox is pants it’s just that you can’t drive this car as it was an ordinary car. You have to rethink what you are doing and drive it as it dictates and then you will understand it’s charms. Sure, sometimes it seems a bit slow or snatchy but I’ll take that over a clutch. 99% of the time the gearbox works just fine so long as you stay within the confines of the system. No doubt this kind of thing disturbs the purists but the fact is cars have been taking over many functions from the driver for years now and no one complains about that. Things like auto choke and ABS for example. In the future, cars will do more and more for us so you might as well get used to it.

The technophobes of this world will always diss a new or different way of doing things. For years now Airplanes have not had mechanical systems to operate the wing flaps. It is all done by wires and servos. Yet planes are more reliable because the Human element has been taken out of the equation. No one doubts this because we still get on a plane and expect to arrive. The Roadster has no throttle cable. It too is ‘fly by wire’ and that seems to scare people. The simple fact is that electronics will rule our lives more and more. For those not afraid of technology the Smart Roadster is a great toy. To those pessimistic technophobes I say; Build a bridge and get over it. Even if it breaks down it’s not the end of the world. RAC membership and a mobile phone will get you home. Not like a plane that simply falls out of the sky.

The steering is direct and it changes direction instantly with no roll. It is only marginally affected by cross winds and passing lorries at speed. I don’t know why the Roadster has power steering but it does and it does make town driving a doddle and since it is speed sensitive you don’t really notice it. The steering wheel needs a fair bit of movement but maybe this just adds to the experience as you have to move the wheel so much. A bit like a kid with a toy car wildly swinging the wheel and making screeching sounds. The only thing that is missing from the Roadster experience is squealing tyres which it just doesn’t do. The standard wheel is quite large but you can fit the Brabus version which is a couple of cm smaller but it’s no prettier than the original wheel. The horn is operated by buttons on each side of the wheel but they are never to hand when you want them. I would prefer that the centre of the wheel operated the horn.

The handling is amazing. It just sticks to the road and seems completely unfussed how you drive. You can change direction mid corner, you can brake or accelerate. It just goes round the corner so easily. Perhaps it’s being so close to the road and since the centre of gravity is so low there’s practically no roll at all. I have not noticed much understeer and the back end seems firmly planted too. My guess is that if you really do push it it will be the back that goes first. I have yet to do much driving in the rain so I can’t really comment on what it will do if you over do it. In theory the ESP will take over the car and sort it out. The system is able to control the throttle, clutch and the brakes. It can even brake individual wheels to help the car back on line.

The ESP can be turned off but in fact it only allows wheelspin, it will still take over if you over cook it. That said despite some fairly spirited driving the warning light has yet to come on indicating that the system is taking over. Sometimes if you go over a bumpy road too fast the light can come on but I was not aware of the car taking over in any way. From what I have read it seems that even when the system operates it is never intrusive. I think the only way to tell is to do a track day and see where the limits are. On the road it is hard to know that.

The brakes are good. They are not sharp and require a fair bit of pressure but the car slows quickly. I tried braking hard from 70mph and it pulled up straight with no drama at all. A tiny bit of intermittent squealing could be heard as the ABS cut in and the car nose dives a little but the way it stops is very impressive. How they will cope on the track I have yet to find out but on the road I have not experienced any fade.

The motor is a fabulous creation. Three cylinders means it sounds like half a Porsche and the turbo waste gate makes a delightful chirruping noise when you change gear. You’re so low to the ground that you really think you’re going faster than you actually are. This is a good thing and is why I would rather have a Smart Roadster to drive than any of the latest Supercars out there. You can drive it like a nutter and still have a good chance of not having your licence taken away. What is maybe even more extraordinary is the fact that over that 2500 mile journey on all sorts of roads I still managed to average an amazing 45 mpg. Considering how much I was thrashing it that is a remarkable figure.

The Interior is a nice place to be. Once you have ‘fallen in’ to the car. It’s all a bit plastic and the switch gear isn’t the smoothest but it’s still cosy and yet spacious. Water leaks into the windows when you lower them as there is no roof gutter. But it’s a sports car. One expects some compromise. The answer is simple. Don’t open the windows when it’s raining! The sun visors are hysterical being tiny and unable to move to the side. Actually they work fairly well but clack back shut noisily. There is very little reflection from the dash and the instruments are easy to read although the speedo over reads but this just makes you think you’re going faster than you are.

The stereo in my car is the CD version by Grundig. It’s not bad. It’s easy to use and the sound is good. What is pants are the speakers so I changed them for some high quality German ones. Not cheap but the sound is excellent and the mounting tabs correctly placed for the Roadster, often people install a normal speaker but cannot screw down all four tabs and this leads to vibrations. The Stereo Koncept speakers come with tweeters which are supposed to be fitted below the speakers in the doors but since my car already had tweeters in the dash below the windscreen, I simply swapped them for the original ones. I also added some tape to the tabs that hold the speaker grills in place to stop them buzzing. The speakers are very small but they have a surprising amount of bass and sound very good. Just loud enough to listen with the top down.

The seats are firm and comfy but I find they lack lumbar support for me. Three hours driving is fine but after that you really fancy a stretch. The seating position doesn’t really work for me. I find that when the wheel is in the right place I can barely touch the pedals so I have to be closer to the wheel than I would like. I also find myself a bit low being a short arse. I raised the seat about ten mm and that has helped enormously. There’s plenty of headroom. The seats grip you well in the corners so you’re not constantly being thrown about by the considerable G this car can produce. The seats have metal backs and protect in the event of an accident which is a comforting thought and they have side airbags in their tops. (at least on my car).

The passenger seat folds down but the driver’s one doesn’t. The driver’s seat can be reclined but the passenger’s is fixed. Getting the passenger seat to fold is a two handed operation but that is because the seat has to be massively strong and needs two clips to lock it in position. I dare say Smart could have made a single lever system but the seat is not often folded so it’s no big deal.

Visibility is good considering although it’s impossible (for me) to see the front nearside of the car. The rear screen has no wiper but then it doesn’t need it as it just doesn’t get wet or dirty. The windscreen washers have 4 nozzles and do a great job of washing the windscreen. Side mirrors are electrically operated on my car and that can be helpful when reversing against a curb.

Air conditioning works well as does the heater and heated seats (ridiculous) but since my car has them, maybe one day I will be grateful for them. I used the aircon almost all the way on the last 2500 mile journey in the UK and France in July. It was hot and I was glad of it. Basically the car works just fine and most people when sitting in it for the first time are surprised at the space and the coolness of the interior.

What surprises most people is just how quiet and smooth the car is on the road. My car has 15” wheels which must help a lot. I can’t imagine what the 17” Brabus rims are like. Must be horrible. The Roadster handles bumps and potholes as well as you could expect for such a low slung and sporty little car. What surprised me most was the mellow way it deals with speed bumps. That is a helpful trait for any modern car what with so many speed bumps about. Passengers always comment on how quiet and smooth the car is. I guess having the engine behind helps to keep the noise behind you.

On the motorway the Roadster works brilliantly. My car has cruise control which is essential if you do a lot of motorway driving. I find that the throttle pedal is not well placed for me and if I didn’t have the Cruise Control I suspect that my foot would ache after a while. There is a fair bit of wind noise at 80mph but it’s not terrible. A strip of insulation tape along the front edge of the hard top cuts down the noise dramatically. But the Roadster is not a motorway car and any excuse to get off and find a B road is welcome.

There is a boot at the front that is quite commodious and for the overspill there’s always the rear boot which is 180 litres. The only down side is that it ruins your rear vision. The hard top stows in the back too so that cuts down the space you can use. That said this is a surprisingly practical car which can carry a lot of stuff considering its size. The power steering and auto box make town or traffic far more tolerable.

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A great looking little car. The wheel base is the same as a Porsche 911. These are the 15” standard wheels.

My car has the hard top roof only. It takes a couple of minutes to remove or replace. It’s very easy. It is a joy to drive with the roof off. It really transforms the car. For a start you can’t hear the creaking from the roof panels as the chassis flexes slightly. It’s so nice to have that open air right above your head and it is very nice to be able to thank other drivers by raising your hand out of the roof. Although you will not be popular with your passenger especially if she has long hair as the wind does buffet around in the cabin although it’s not too bad. There are two small plastic ridges on the top of the windscreen surround which may be there to cut down on wind noise or deflect air away. I can’t think what else they could be.

The outside of the Smart Roadster is clever too. All the panels are replaceable and made of plastic. So you could have two sets of panels and change the car’s colour in a couple of hours. One of the best things about plastic panels, apart from the obvious lack of rust is that they do not dent like metal. My last car was perfect except for a line of small dents down each side where people had been opening their doors on it in car parks. The Roadster might get the paint chipped but the door won’t dent!

The roof hinges are far too large and the paint flakes off them. I don’t know why they are so big. In my opinion they spoil the looks somewhat. The door handles work well and the doors open and shut easily and with a nice noise. Maybe they shut too easily and can get slammed by people used to much heavier doors. The electric windows are fast, quiet and smooth and although I prefer the switch on the door it’s not terribly hard to reach to the centre consul to operate them. Most of the switch gear is within easy reach.

Parts are available from a number of places and don’t seem too badly priced. I think the secret with the Roadster is careful and preventive servicing and maintenance. Only time will tell how reliable the car is and how often it needs parts such as clutches, brake pads etc.

There are also a lot of good sites with how to articles about all the aspects of the Roadster and that really is very helpful. When these cars came out they had a dedicated and keen following. Loads of companies offer tuning parts and wheels for the roadster. You can even buy doors that lift up when you open them just like a Lambo. The question is not what do you want to do to your Roadster buy how much you want to spend.

You can even buy active woofers that fit in the passenger foot well. The look a bit bulky and must surely take up some legroom but with the seat right back, there’s plenty spare. You can get chrome trims for the instruments and lowered suspension and uprated brakes. Quite a few companies make exhausts too. The one I keep coming back to is the Janspeed Stealth. Just like the original exhaust, you cannot see it’s exit hidden as it is behind the rear valance. The Brabus versions have a central exit that requires a new section of the valance.

The roadster looks great to me with it’s bulging arches and smiling face but some don’t like it at all. It’s true, the back end isn’t the prettiest and a centre exit exhaust doesn’t even help. In my opinion, the less you draw attention to the back end the better. The first cars had sections of dark grey plastic for the headlights and a part of the rear valance. I guess in a way to reduce visually the large area of paint. Some owners colour code these parts but I think it makes the car look a bit cheesy. Although the dark plastic bits aren’t too pretty they offer a good contrast to the paint. Despite that the Roadster is eye catching and unlike anything on the road today. It offers a welcome antidote to the majority of modern cars which are hard to tell apart.

It’s amazing how many looks the car gets. Kids love it especially and it’s always a treat to see another on the road. There are not many cars left that always flash and wave when they see another one the same. Just the other day I stopped alongside a Portuguese Roadster exactly like mine. The guy was so surprised. He was touring Europe with his girlfriend and having a great time. There are not many Roadsters on the road but if you keep your eyes open they are around.

There are problems with the car being so low is that it seems less visible to other road users. Or maybe they see a car and assume it’s as big as a ‘normal’ car and thus further away than they think. But I think it’s the fact that it has a very angled and small frontal area that’s just hard to see unless you’re looking and sadly today not everyone does look. However with good brakes and quick steering you should be able to stay out of trouble no matter what everyone else does.

There is also a cheeky aspect to the roadster, with the roof off, windows down you can change lanes and nip in front of people without upsetting them, a hand waved through the roof in thanks is all that is needed. No one has hooted me yet! Though I have been flashed at when overtaking sometimes. The car coming the other way just doesn’t realise how quick you can overtake and over reacts.

My conclusion is this: Who cares about all these details really? The one question you need to ask yourself is do you want to have fun when you drive? Do you want to enjoy the journey or do you just want to arrive? The Roadster is not for everyone but for those who want to let their hair down and simply have a laugh without losing their license or spending too much would be wise to consider the Smart Roadster.

The Smart Roadster has competitors. There’s the Mazda MX5 and the Toyota MR2 to name but two. Now I haven’t driven either of these and I’m sure they are excellent cars which are super reliable and quick enough to excite but I’ll bet they won’t make you smile as much as the Smart Roadster will. It’s not for everyone but if you want to have a laugh for not much money then test drive one. Bear in mind what I said about learning the car before you judge too soon.

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Update: After 10,000 kms

The roadster has yet to let me down but it did develop some faults. The first problem was a slipping clutch. It came suddenly so I suspected the actuator. My local friendly Smart garage greased it up and adjusted it, first by pulling the actuator towards the clutch using a special spring balance. Then the actuator is fixed in that position. Then the car must be attached to a computer which then adjusts it. This seemed to help.

Then on a long journey the car would accelerate in a weird way and the turbo boost gauge was not steady. Some quick research on the Internet and it soon became clear that the Turbo was knackered or the manifold was cracked or both. In any case the solution was a new turbo. It comes ready assembled on the manifold. Prices vary but I got one for about £400 which isn’t bad really. The Turbo is so cute, smaller than a donut with tiny little vanes. It seems impossible that so small a fan could boost the power on this little engine.

So while the Turbo was being replaced I also serviced the engine, changed the gearbox oil, replaced the two belts and even a broken front engine mount and the entire sump. Many roadsters have rusty sumps which can start to leak. I bought a plastic replacement which even has a drain plug, something the standard Roadster doesn’t have. Oil is extracted via the dipstick, a poor and inefficient way of doing things. I also replaced the aging actuator with a new one.

At first the car felt a bit underpowered and the boost was not rising above 1 bar. I thought for a while that the remap had been overwritten by the garage when they reset the gearbox and the actuator. Not so, after a few more miles the boost started to climb and now tops out at just under 1.5 bar. It never managed that before so I guess that the Turbo was getting tired even when I bought the car. No worries, now the Turbo is new it should last a few years.

Then the clutch started slipping again. One of the reasons for changing the actuator was so that if the clutch still slipped it would rule that out once and for all. A slipping clutch could only mean one thing, a worn clutch that needs replacing. So I ordered a clutch and release bearing and while I was at it, a new oil seal for the crank. It can leak and cause a slipping clutch though my Smart man thinks it unlikely. In any case since I ordered the clutch (about £250) the current one is working just fine again. In fact the car has never driven better. It is up on power, the gear changes are crisp and the throttle response excellent so for now the new clutch will stay in its box until needed.

Then today I booked the car in for an MOT and driving away the handbrake button popped out of the handbrake so the handbrake no longer locks. Most annoying. Here’s a fault I had not yet read about. In order to remove the handbrake it is first necessary to remove the carpet. In order to remove the carpet, you must first remove the stereo to get access to the bolts that hold the facia in place. Remove the seats (first disconnecting the battery because of risk of explosion from side air bags) and the gearlever, shaft and tunnel. It seems like a ridiculous amount of work just to remove the handbrake but actually it wasn’t too bad at all. I don’t suppose it took an hour and this was the first time I did this so I can only get faster. Having the carpet out was the perfect opportunity to wash and scrub it as it was not smelling so nice. Maybe from a leak that was since fixed. The car was immaculate under the carpet however.

The problem, and here is a classic example of why Smart failed with the Roadster. The ratchet that holds the handbrake is connected to a plastic arm with a hollow in it to catch the rounded top of the ratchet piece. Being plastic and poorly designed and engineered, it was only a matter of time before this happened. To have done a proper job with this piece might only have cost a few pence more but Smart decided to go with plastic and for moving parts it’s a poor idea.

Unfortunately the handbrake is not only hard to remove because of the aforementioned other dismantling that has to take part first but it is also NOT designed to come apart being riveted together. It is pretty nasty. I could buy a new handbrake for £100 but have decided to repair it by adding metal to the plastic to reinforce it. That way it will not happen again. Amazing really when you consider how much work it is to remove the handbrake why they used such shitty plastic that was bound to break one day.

So that is where I am today, with the car in pieces, seats out and handbrake in pieces. But I am not disheartened. The Roadster is such a clever car in so many ways that despite the failures here is a car which can go on forever because the plastic panels don’t rust and the Tridion chassis is very well painted and protected by plastic. Unless you prang the car it could go on for decades slowly replacing all the mechanical parts as they fail. In the future the Roadster would make a perfect donor car for an electric vehicle. Yes the car has cost me money but it has not stranded me and the pieces I have replaced are things that would need replacing one day anyway. So, until the next exciting episode. What will break next I wonder?

 

Update Nov 2013

A very amusing day was spent at a local race track. Most of the cars were Lotus and Porsche and I am pleased to report that the Roadster was not the slowest car by any means. The single seat racing cars were doing a circuit in about one minute. The Roadster managed a respectable 1.12. It scores well in the tight corners and corners which change direction quickly. It also scores on stopping, being able to brake ridiculously late.

It was let down by two things, one being the lack of outright acceleration although to some degree this was mitigated by not really needing to brake in the first place! The second thing that was a bit frustrating were some of the gearbox ratios. There were a couple of corners that required third gear but at the exit the revs just passed 6000 rpm so the gearbox would change into 4th when it should just stay in third. It was only a matter of a few hundred revs but enough that I had to back off the revs slightly so that it didn’t change. This happened again at the next set of bends where I needed forth but if I didn’t pay attention it would change to 5th and mess up the next set of bends. That said, this is true of any car on a track, gearbox ratios will often to finely tuned for particular circuits and corners. It’s a minor gripe but made more noticeable because of the Roadster’s gearbox.

What I did discover is that the Smart Roadster is a fantastically well balanced sports car with an astonishing level of grip and a very forgiving stance even on the limit. I found that even with the tyres screaming their protest it was still possible to change direction, exaggerate a slide or reduce it just but playing with the steering. Many sports cars rely on throttle response to change the car’s attitude in a bend. Not so the Roadster. It doesn’t have the power for this so it’s just as well that the basic chassis is so well set up and allows you to do this. I was very impressed.

I was surprised at how far I could push the car. The tyres, which never squeal on the road were quite vocal on the track. It might have been something to do with the surface which certainly seemed considerably more grippy than your average road surface. Maybe it’s the surface itself, or maybe just the rubber that has been laid down over the years or maybe it was the fact that I was driving it like a maniac.

I tried many different styles of driving to get the best lap time and the fastest was achieved by driving like a lunatic with tyres complaining on corners and ABS cutting in under heavy braking but it doesn’t seem very skilful so I tried a more elegant approach but times dropped by a couple of seconds. Most interesting.

The ESP was turned off and this allowed me to do 4 wheel drifts through corners. On the occasions that I forgot to turn it off I did notice it take over the throttle and stop the drift and in doing so slowed the car down enough to ruin a good lap time.

Under braking the car is so balanced and composed. I was in company with a French guy with a Lotus Exige who was about 6 seconds a lap faster than me and he was surprised how late I was braking at the end of the straight. From 100 mph to 30 mph in no time at all. He was braking before the 100 metre mark and I was braking well after it. Now, how much this has to do with the fact that although I was doing 100 mph at the end of the straight, he must have been doing considerably more so perhaps it is normal that he had to brake earlier than me. What I do know is that many of the slightly faster cars all used the hard right hander at the end of the straight to pass but with such late braking they were frustrated every time.

What surprised me most was that my lap time was about the same as the bulk of the Elises. I would catch them in the bends and they would catch me on the straights. The cars were well matched. In the end I let them go so as not to slow them down but would always catch them up again and they would let me go past. This alone is quite amazing that a car with just a 700 cc engine is able to hold its head high against some of the best sports cars in the world is very impressive. Remember also that apart from a remap, my Roadster has completely standard suspension, brakes, wheels and tyres while most of the Lotus have upgraded everything including special soft tyres.

What I have realised from this track day is this. If you want to have a laugh on the track for not very much money you would be hard put to do better than buy a Smart Roadster. Lots of other drivers commented on the handling of the Roadster and were surprised at how quick it was.

Just a couple of hours driving round a small track with quite tight bends took its toll on the tyres and they were all beaded up and torn although not as badly as some of the other cars I saw. It is a light car and so well balanced that although the tyres wear it’s not too bad. In any case brakes and tyres are bound to wear at a much higher rate on the track and of course this needs to be costed in. Track days are expensive all in all. The actual track only costs a couple of quid a lap but the wear and tear on the car, brakes and tyres will probably double or triple that figure.

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The result of over cooking it. The car ended up beached a surprisingly long way from the track.

Then there is also the chance of damaging the car, the paintwork and the windscreen. And of course if you push too hard and and end in the gravel traps then the wheels and lower bodywork will take a beating. That’s what happened on my second outing after about 15 laps. For no reason at all I lost it after a corner and I don’t know why. Probably the simplest solution is that I was going too fast but it didn’t happen again. It remains a bit of a mystery really but it does prove that it is definitely possible to spin a Roadster even with the ESP which never turns itself off completely.

The track day was a useful experience which has given me so much confidence in the car and its handling. There is no way you could drive like that on the road but it’s nice to know that even at good speeds the Roadster is well planted, offers excellent grip and handling. Powerful brakes that are undaunted by uneven surfaces. It does nice 4 wheel drifts and if you over cook it that turns to understeer and then if you really over do it, oversteer.

All I need to do now is polish out the marks made by the gravel in the bodywork and see if the wheels will polish up. If not, they’ll need to be resprayed. If I was going to do this more often I suppose the best would be to get another set of wheels and put racing slicks on them and change them at the track. Of course then the suspension and brakes would need upgrading. Then I’d probably start thinking it would be nice to have a bit more power. I think the standard Roadster is brilliant and can be used with much effect even completely standard.