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April 18 2012

Oldest surviving unrestored Mini to be auctioned

Car enthusiasts expected to bid up to £15,000 for Austin Mini Se7en De Luxe when it goes under the hammer at Bonhams

To the untrained eye it looks like the sort of rust bucket not even the most optimistic secondhand car dealer would dare to offer for sale.

But car enthusiasts are expected to bid enthusiastically when this particular Austin Mini Se7en De Luxe comes up for auction later this month.

The vehicle is believed to be the oldest surviving unrestored Mini and will probably be snapped up by a fan of the make wanting to return it to its former glory.

Auctioneers Bonhams say the car was the eighth of its type to roll off the production line at Longbridge in Birmingham in May 1959. It is known to have been owned by one Gladys Hobro of Aldwick, near Bognor Regis, West Sussex, before being bought by David Gallimore in 1986. Gallimore kept it in his garage at Chichester and there are still only 30,041 miles on the clock.

John Polson, of Bonhams, said: "This is a wonderful opportunity to buy the car and restore it. Collectors love the fact it has had very little done to it since it was built.

"The car was made very, very simply without many instruments or equipment.

"It was designed to be an affordable, family car. The Mini is one of the most important cars of the 20th century. They have always been collectable.

"Some collectors would want to return her to new, but others would just like to get her going again and keep her in the original condition."

It is thought that only three Minis earlier than this one exist, but they have been restored. One is owned by the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust and the other two are in private collections in Japan.

The Mini is expected to fetch up to £15,000 when it is auctioned on 30 April in Hendon, north London.


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February 23 2012

The Routemaster's triumphant return to London

Justin McGuirk hops on board for a first look at Thomas Heatherwick's state-of-the-art redesign of the classic bus

It is known simply as "the new bus for London", but the vehicle that enters service on Monday is essentially the return of that much-loved London icon the Routemaster. This symbol of the capital was retired in 2005 and consigned to a ghoulish afterlife on countless mugs and T-shirts. Mayor Boris Johnson pledged to bring it back, and so he has. Our mayor may have no strategic vision for the city, but he has a talent for the popular gesture – and Routemaster II is one. Being able to hop on and off the back of an open bus is a Londoner's birthright, he might argue, so get hopping. But what is more encouraging about this move is the demonstrative return of good design to the capital's infrastructure.

It is not until you've taken a ride on the new Routemaster that you become fully aware of how unlovely our current fleet of buses is. For years now, they have been produced by manufacturers whose only imperatives were cost, and satisfying a growing pile of regulations. It's no wonder that stepping on to one is like entering an A&E ward: bright orange handrails everywhere, fluorescent strip lighting, baby blue flooring and a fibreglass interior that erupts into mysterious bulges in awkward places. There is nothing to be fond of.

By contrast, the original Routemaster, designed in 1954 to replace the trolley buses, remains full of rich associations for Londoners. Many of them will no doubt have sentimental memories of smoking on the upper deck or canoodling in the love seat by the staircase. So is this "new bus for London" a nostalgic throwback? Surprisingly not. It is a state-of-the-art workhorse designed to drive one of the busiest routes in the city – the number 38 from Victoria to Hackney. It may look like it's for sightseeing but it's built for rush hours.

Transport for London describe this as the first bus designed for London in 50 years. What they mean is that, while London-style buses are used country-wide, no other city in the UK faces the same heavy usage as the number 38. There are three doors, including the open platform at the rear, to facilitate quick entry and exit. In other words, this is bespoke for London in a way that the Mercedes bendy buses (axed by Boris) were not, as they ill-suited the capital's often narrow, windy streets.

The concept designer of the new bus is Thomas Heatherwick, working closely with Wrightbus, its manufacturer. When he appeared on the scene in the late 1990s he was instantly cast as a British engineering genius, the creator of weird, wonderful structures such as the UK pavilion for the Shanghai World Expo in 2010. Undeniably inventive, his work has sometimes erred on the side of the self-indulgent. I must confess that when I first saw his new bus, with its ribbon window winding up the rear and side, I feared the worst. It seemed just the kind of silly styling I might have expected. But in fact it merely follows the path of the two staircases, making them bright and open spaces. Heatherwick says he wanted to expose the circulation of people around the bus just as you might in a glass-fronted building, and it's a compelling idea.

This design is one of very few fanciful notions. The side of the rear staircase is styled with a self-conscious glamour, but other than that, almost every feature of the bus is subject to some regulation or other. Within those strictures, Heatherwick has done an admirable job of making this a stately vehicle. He talks about restoring some of the "grandeur" and "dignity" of riding a London bus, qualities that "had evaporated in the name of pragmatism". And I must say that, riding at the front of the top deck, one does have a sense of privilege. It's not just that this bus offers better views than any before it (except the roofless kind), it's the feeling that every detail has been designed with care. The way the ceiling is moulded and the way the interior is softly lit with LED spotlights almost suggest a plane cabin rather than a bus. With its hybrid engine, it is also quieter than other buses, and much more fuel efficient.

Heatherwick has reintroduced the bench seat of old, but with individual cushions in a bespoke livery. Bus and Tube liveries are part of the visual language of London, and pattern recognition is one of the subconscious rhythms of its commuter life. An experienced citizen can tell what line they're on just from the seat covers. Designed to hide dirt, just like all the others, Heatherwick's is one for the digital age, highlighting the contours of the cushion just as a computer modelling programme might.

Such details aside, what is most impressive about this bus is how spacious and efficient it is. I assumed that the rounded roof was a reference to the original Routemaster's shape, but it turns out that it's a way of reducing the vehicle's perceived mass – this bus is 3m longer than the original, and 1m longer than recent ones. Couple that extra size with two staircases and three doors, and passengers should find it much less of a squeeze. The Routemaster II will also bring the return of the conductor, to oversee the use of the much-vaunted open platform. But since conductors will only patrol the bus during the daytime, the open platform will alas be shut behind perspex doors at night.

Only eight of these buses will be in operation by the summer time. With an overall budget of £8m, the tabloid press is predictably whingeing about them costing £1m each. The other way of looking at it is that, amazingly, Transport for London is investing money in research and development instead of just taking whatever manufacturers give them. From here on, it won't cost much more to build one of this new breed than it does to build a boxy competitor. Whether or not the order is given to put them into production will come down to politics. In May we may have a new mayor and a new agenda. If Ken Livingstone wins, he shouldn't write this off as one of Boris's whims but embrace it as an investment in the daily life of Londoners.


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June 23 2010

Battersea power station fires up for London stock market listing

• Irish owners refinance and want to list the project on Aim
See our gallery of previous redevelopment plans

The troubled owners of Battersea power station have unveiled plans to float the building on the stock exchange in the latest in a string of attempts to redevelop the derelict London landmark.

Despite numerous plans for the 40-acre site, it has stood empty for more than a quarter of a century while the rest of the Thames waterfront around it has undergone huge change.

Now Irish property group Real Estate Opportunities (REO), which bought the Battersea site in 2006 for £400m, wants to spin it off and possibly float it on London's Alternative Investment Market (Aim). It is also looking for a partner to take a 50% stake in the project and provide the financial firepower.

REO has been hit hard by the Irish property slump. It reported an underlying loss before tax of nearly £1bn for the 14 months to 28 February, reflecting an £811m drop in the valuation of its property portfolio.

The firm has drawn up a shortlist of possible investors after being approached by a number of international real estate groups, private equity firms and sovereign wealth funds from around the world, including the Middle East.

REO hopes to get permission to redevelop the site in September after submitting the largest ever planning application made in central London, in terms of financial value, last autumn. If it gets the go-ahead, the site's value is expected to soar from the current valuation of £388m.

"It's an opportunity to turn the power station into a cultural icon for London," said Robert Tincknell, who runs REO's parent firm, Treasury Holdings. "A year ago, people were saying 'it's not going to happen'. That's changed enormously over the last 12 months, with the planning permission having gone in and the support we have [from the London mayor, Boris Johnson, English Heritage and Wandsworth Council]." The Conservatives launched their election manifesto at the power station in April.

Treasury Holdings was forced to tear up its plans for the imposing building, one of London's most recognisable landmarks, and start again after Johnson decided that a proposed tower would ruin the view from Waterloo Bridge to the Palace of Westminster. The original plan, drawn up by the New York-based architect Rafael Viñoly, included a futuristic 300m glass funnel and atrium, rising from an enormous transparent dome.

Viñoly and Treasury Holdings came up with a new blueprint a year ago that is capped at a height of 60m, as stipulated by the mayor. It includes 3,700 homes, office space, shops, restaurants and leisure facilities, at a cost of £4.5bn. Treasury Holdings also hopes to co-fund an extension of London Underground's Northern Line to the site.

The high cost means the company needs a partner – "someone who can bring big financial strength to it to make sure it happens," said Tincknell. Building work could start at the end of 2011.

When the power station was decommissioned in 1983, its then owners, the Central Electricity Generating Board, wanted to tear down the building and replace it with housing, but it had been given a Grade II listing in 1980. For developers, the real prize is the land around it; most have little interest in its heritage status.

REO said today it had negotiated new lending terms for Battersea with Lloyds Banking Group and Nama – Ireland's "bad bank" – which means its existing bank facility will be extended and all outstanding breaches waived.


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