It took some convincing by Lawrence Millen of Bauer Millen to drive one of his machines for we were unsure as to its relevance in Motor Sport. We took on board the fact that it was a good cruiser, it had tremendous lugging power and it was the ideal vehicle to take to a race meeting for the weekend, but we still remained to be convinced. In fact it wasn’t until we saw just such a machine in the paddock at Donington that we were convinced that it might be of interest to motor racing enthusiasts.
Bauer Millen is a sizeable company situated in the centre of Manchester. The showroom is crammed with American vehicles — Chevrolet Corvettes, Buick Park Avenues, Cadillacs, Pontiacs — but these are not secondhand cars, but new vehicles which have been imported direct from Detroit. It transpires that Lawrence Millett’s company is General Motors’ of America official importer into Britain. The turnover of vehicles would hardly cause a ripple in some of the mainstream dealers’ showrooms in this country, but even in Manchester, well away from the more fertile hunting grounds of London embassyland, Bauer Millen have found that there is a growing market for their wares. One only has to look at prices and compare them with the equivalent European machine to see the reason why, even if there is a culture barrier in Britain in which American machines are held in contempt. The Pontiac Transport, for example, which was launched at the Paris Show, makes the Renault Espace look somewhat dated, and yet selling at £15,000 the Pontiac undercuts the Espace GTS by £1500 and the more comparable Espace TXE by a full £3300 despite the inclusion of air conditioning and automatic transmission.
The vehicle we had been enticed to try, however, was the Chevrolet Starcraft LX, a giant machine powered by V8 engine with automatic gearbox.
Starting as a humble 20 series Chevrolet van, the vehicle is shipped from Detroit to Indiana where it is completely gutted and then refurbished. Deep pile carpets (with colour co-ordinated curtains), solid oak wood fittings everywhere, four captain’s chairs electrically controlled with full swivel facility, a rear seat which converts into a double bed at the touch of a button, tinted windows, a small bar, colour television and video are all fitted as standard on this model. Although the lighter coloured wood, which is used literally everywhere throughout the van, and even as cup holders for the driver and passenger, is not to the more conservative taste, the vehicle is just this side of being over the top.
The fact that it is an undeniably handsome vehicle certainly helps, looks that are enhanced by its fat BF Goodrich tyres, flared sills, tinted windows, v-shaped television aerial and a flawless paint job. It proved to be a head-turner wherever we went.
Such a machine can only be powered by a V8 engine, and in this case it is GM’s fuel injected 5.7-litre unit with catalytic converter which is normally seen in the Cadillac Fleetwood, Chevy Caprice and is also the basis of the Corvette engine. Developing 210 bhp at 4000 rpm and 300 lb/ft at 2800 rpm, it is quite a lusty engine, capable of pushing the vehicle at speeds in excess of 100 mph even when fully loaded, a speed we think we reached on a German autobahn as the needle went well beyond the 85 mph stop, but its most comfortable cruising speed is 80 mph. Although there was not a rev counter, the machine is geared to do 40 mph at 1000 rpm, so at this speed the engine is just rumbling along. It also explains why these engines can go for 200,000 miles or more without lifting the heads. There is also a V8 6.2-litre diesel version available which produces 150 bhp at 3600 rpm and develops 265 lb/ft at just 2000 rpm. In other words, just off tickover and it is at full chat.
Our particular vehicle had been converted by Bauer Miller to right-hand drive, a conversion they do on all the vehicles they import at the customers’ request. The drawback, however, on this particular machine, was that it meant relocating the battery underneath, making it almost inaccessible under the low sills. Normally this would not matter a great deal, but when one realises that one 12 volt battery is the sole power source for everything, from the tv and video, to the six interior spotlights to the usual engine requirements, then one becomes a little apprehensive. It’s true that the engine can be left ticking over all day without worry, but one becomes very conscious about unnecessarily polluting the atmosphere these days. Although Bauer Millen have found a place for the battery under the bonnet on later vans, we would far rather see a secondary back-up system installed.
The only other gripe we came up with in a week of great pleasure provided by the van was the terror of the American-style central locking system. It seems that in the States, it is not the door key which operates all the locks, but the ignition switch. Under this system therefore, the door will automatically lock again when closed unless unlocked from the inside. We lived in constant fear that we should shut ourselves out while the keys dangled helplessly in the ignition and so instituted a system of last person out yelling “keys” to ensure that somebody had them.
These minor gripes aside, even after living in the vehicle for a week, we found it undeniably comfortable, accommodating two adults and two children well, even if one child did have to sleep on the floor. It wasn’t a camper in the true sense in that it was not equipped with fridge, cooker, toilet and sink, but it seems that any of these amenities can be fitted if specially ordered. In fact, many such machines are being used as mobile offices.
Prices range from £26,000 for the Starcraft SL to £33,000 for the Starcraft LX ( prices which include the right-hand drive conversion, remote tv and video and excellent value for money when one takes into consideration the fact that even the bottom of the range model has a standard of luxury that is nothing less than superb. The diesel-powered equivalents are exactly the same prices. To offset the delight of the burbling V8 engine is the fact that it is not too economical, our overall mpg figure of 21.7 proving a little hard on the pocket, although we believe the diesel consumption is somewhere between 25-30 mpg. A four-cylinder unit, though, just would not have been the same.
As a family, we were all very sad to see the vehicle return to Bauer Millett since it had provided 3001 painless kilometres for both driver and passengers. No continental journey will ever be quite the same again. — WPK