Theme : Benchmarks – A Random Selection From A Random Industry

Some Very Personal Benchmarks

Panhard 24

Since Simon has granted us the discretion to be reasonably subjective, I make no apologies for presenting a set of purely personal benchmarks, which I will make little attempt to defend with any objective data. 

Panhard 24 SeatsSeats. There are differing views on what makes a good car seat. Some will say that the sort of comfortable seat you’d like in your house is not the sort of seat you should have in a car. They’d say that being bounced around in comfort just induces nausea, which I assume is the theory behind the seats of many German cars. Personally, I find the DIN seat too austere for my tastes, though that is of course a generalisation. In a VW showroom the other day, I sat in an upmarket Tiguan and a basic Up!. The latter had the more welcoming seats. Memory plays tricks and, just as the best and creamiest ice cream I ever tasted in my life is the one I had on the beach at Looe in Cornwall in 1959, so the memory of the most comfortable car seat remains that of the Panhard 24CT I sat in at the 1964 Motor Show. It felt supportive and soft at the same time and that memory, true or false, remains the benchmark by which I judge all car seats.

Aston MartinPerformance. Four years after sitting in the Panhard, a friend of my parents gave me a lift in his Aston Martin DB5. The push in the back and the sound of the Tadek Marek six set a personal benchmark for what a performance car should feel like though, of course, if you look at the DB5’s actual figures, it was nothing that the right Astra couldn’t achieve today. But it’s no good telling me that a La-La-Dum-Diddly-Dum-Ferrari would push my eyeballs through the back of my skull, it could never impress me like the Aston did.

SONY DSCGearchange. This is the first gearchange that I ever used. It is the pre-selector of the Armstrong Siddley Typhoon, a car sporting possibly the most minimal dashboard fitted to a supposedly upmarket vehicle. I must have been 8 or 9 and it just involved me sitting beside the driver and moving it to the next position, whilst they declutched when they chose. The whole process involved the minimum of effort, even a child could have managed it. I’ve had very good and very bad gearboxes under my sole control since then, but none has given so much satisfaction.

Lamborghini BadgeLooks. Again there are many cars I can look at and appreciate their elegance, style, line, quality of construction, sympathetic use of colour, etc, etc. But none of them is an orange Lamborghini Miura. If I was 10 years older, it would possibly be a dark blue Bentley R Type Continental and, in fact, if I was ever in the market for a Lamborghini to own, that would be a 400GT, but the Miura remains in my memory as the epitome of a coherent design, right down to the rear badge. Unfortunately, by offering these opinions without any justification, I lay the path open for you to be able to present the Miura’s dreadful looking successors with the same blind confidence.

Citroen C5Ride. Here I have to diverge from the parameters set in my childhood. I was never a good passenger, partly through car sickness and partly through the fact that I wanted to be the one driving. So I never sat back and enjoyed the ride and have no abiding memories, save that I never actually vomited. I have not driven, or been driven in every Citroen ever made, but my personal benchmark is that any car you can’t drive over a sleeping policeman at 50kph is deficient. Being driven in taxis is a good way to judge ride quality. Many cars, particularly Mercedes, have failed to impress, though in part that might have been to do with their seats (see above). But a recent drive in a Series One Citroen C5 was incredibly smooth and cosseting. This car is dismissed by Citroen traditionalists, for many good reasons, but I think our view has clouded our objectivity. Unlike my other ‘benchmarks’, the C5 is a Benchmark that doesn’t require inverted commas. That few others in the motoring world would agree is due to a combination of three things. First, the C5’s dumpy styling was a complete turn-off. Second, the hegemony of German chassis engineering makes anyone suspicious of anything that doesn’t shake you about. Third, I have odd taste.

Silver CarsColour. My Benchmark is silver (or metallic grey if you will). And the far enough you get away from that the better. Once upon a time silver seemed interesting, a pure finish that showed the car’s lines. When you couldn’t get many silver cars, that was the (non) colour I always wanted. Now I don’t. Its very ubiquity highlights that you should be careful what you wish for. The only thing that made cars interesting for me when I was younger was their sheer diversity. Some seemed very good whilst others were demonstrably awful. Now all cars are good, and most are good in just the same way. And available in silver. Now you might point out that silver peaked quite a while ago, and you are right, but the point is that diversity is the only thing that could justify the huge quantity of choices available to us. But how much real diversity remains in the car industry? And if Burnt Orange becomes the next silver, it will be awful too.

In technology, benchmarks can be good – indeed they can be essential. Outside that they are restrictive and frustrating. My list above is opinionated but I’d say it’s as good as any.

14 thoughts on “Theme : Benchmarks – A Random Selection From A Random Industry”

  1. Sean, this read very nicely, and felt like an homage to Barker, or Bishop, from the days when Car was, probably, TWBCM. Thoroughly enjoyable and made me want to find and drive a Mk1 C5 which I have always avoided, as you suspect, on the basis of looks alone. Your points at the end of the passage on colour are very wisely expressed and made me realise that I feel very similarly. Over the past couple of days, I have found myself wondering why I never bought a Mk1 Focus which was such a deeply impressive thing to drive. I think I could put it down to a kind of vanity, or just idiocy, that made me want to avoid adopting the norm. Of course, now they are becoming more of a rare sight, the attraction is growing. Anyway, a very nice article; I thank you.

  2. I remember taking speed bumps in a DS. If you got the entry speed right, they were almost imperceptible. I’m not sure the later cars with their stiffened set-ups were as adept, although like SVR, I now want to locate a C5 and find out.

  3. Re gearchange … it says something that one of the best I have encountered was a 4 speed job in my 1.1L AX. It was relatively short through and had that lovely well-oiled, slightly counter-weighted feel that meant that it seemed to help itself into the slot by some force of magnetism. How Citroen went from this to what currently resides in the Cactus, PSA only knows.

  4. You’ll have noticed that Ronald Barker died in January at the good age of 95. One of the pleasures of my occasional purchasing of The Automobile in recent years is that there was frequently a letter from him on some matter or another, each well written, interesting and showing a still-sharp mind. When he wrote in Car he self-consciously presented himself as a bit of an old codger, but I realise he was a decade younger than me when I first read him in Car!

    Following SV’s comments, by coincidence I was following a Mk 1 Focus in France a few days ago and thought how it would be a very good car to own, solving several of my requirements. But, despite what I said, the aesthetic snob in my would actually find it hard to own a C5, unless it was a facelift estate. I realise my C5 trip was devoid of sleeping policemen so I can’t comment but, unless there is one of those dips with sump grooves the other side, the formula for my SM is the faster the smoother.

  5. Car magazine even chose to reprint my comment in their magazine.
    With a Focus you need to have the topmost spec to compensate for its apparent ordinariness. A burgundy focus with Ghia trim is ideal. If you go down the Zetec path the car has to be polished and cleaned furiously. Otherwise people will think you have “an old car”.

  6. It’s testament to the Focus Mk1 that the one I was looking at so positively was a dirty silver one of indeterminate variant. Somehow I can’t take ‘Ghia’ seriously. When I had a V6 Mondeo, I was pleased to get hold of a reasonably rare 24V S, rather that the more obvious, timber veneer, Ghia version. The RS was available in a nice blue, but I guess an RS is missing the point of the basic car’s excellence.

  7. That dislike of Ghia is merely John Ruskin´s malign influence on English taste lingering around. Someone said of Ruskin that his descriptions were correct but his conclusions almost always wrong.

  8. Gearchange: the strangest I ever encountered was on a VW Ghia. It felt exatly like a switch, as if there was a small, millimetre sized contraption at the end of the gear lever. If you have ever used a toggle switch on a Morris Minor you would know the sensation. Another distinctive one I experienced was on a Honda 2000. In this case you felt there were big bits moving but there was no play at all between the elements. The Citroen CX I tried had a plain, functional, slop-free gearchange where, again, the parts were well put together. And finally, having experienced all thsi why is the the gearchange on my XM is grauchny and awkward. On some speeds you feel the gear lever is being asked to pass between a rubbery aperture a shade too small for it. No one has yet explained how it comes to pass that this kind of thing is accepted for production. There are three things a driver touches all the time: steering. gear controls and speed controls. None of them should be anything less than unremarkable. You should not notice them
    – that´s the baseline. Then, if the development team are good, you might notice they are nice to use. Anything other than this is inexcusable.
    Steering – my bench marks are a) the Citroen CX and b) the Ford Focus. The CX ran on Michelin tyres and it conformed to the clichee “telepathic”. I only drive this for 20 minutes but I´ll never forget how effective and satisfying it was. The Focus sets the standard for ordinary cars. We´ll probably never see anything as good as this on a regular car again. Reason enough to go out and get a well-maintained Focus Mk1 and also get another as a replacement.
    One day I will get to drive the Peugeot 604, a car whose steering was of “surpassing excellence”. What could that be like? I am dying to find out.

  9. I didn’t mention steering because I’d have ended crowing on about my own car, but Citroen’s dumping of Diravi steering (telepathic as you say, Richard), at least as an option, is as much of a shame as its abandoning hydraulic suspension. As I mentioned in a previous piece, though not the best, manufacturers could learn from the gearchange of the Fiat Ducato I drive, as much for its convenient positioning as its quality (which is still pretty fair considering it’s a diesel van).

    The worst steering and gearchange I remember were both in a single car, a Lancia Beta HPE. Both were heavy, rubbery and imprecise, though I accept that the version I tried might not have been representative – a friend bought it for a suspiciously low price. The best steering in a go-kart sort of way was a Ford Ka.

  10. Ruskin has had a bad year with two unsympathetic cinema portrayals and, the other day, the digging up of some particularly dire thoughts on a woman’t place (even by Victorian standards) in the run-up to International Women’s Day. So I won’t kick him any more and just say that my antipathy to the Ford Ghia is not through his influence.

    Stuck on the wing of a rebodied Fiat 2300, the Ghia crest had a definite playboy flair. The transposition to the vinyl roof of a Ford Granada immediately brings up images of golf club blazers.

    I suspect Ruskin and I would have agreed on the excessive use of chrome too, Richard.

  11. What was Ruskin´s beef? Perhaps today he would say that he only wanted a bit of moderation but the effect of his poisonous ramblings has been enormous. Every day people in Britain chip away more decoration and let valuable pieces of hand-craft rot, in part influenced by Ruskin´s antipathy to decoration. If the alternative was rigorously executed work made of the finer materials I would not mind but it´s not. It´s PVC and plywood. I can feel my blood pressure shoooting up to dangerous levels and I really need to sit down until the red haze lifts….

  12. Was Ruskin antipathetic to decoration? I don’t think so. He had a liking for the Gothic and Pre-Raphaelites after all. If you want to blame anyone for disregard for hand craft in Britain, blame the post-War modernists, especially urban planners …. and 80s post modernists, of course, masters of the glib and superficial. Though I suspect a lot of it is in our nature.

    1. Yep. I have a quote where he derides elaborate shop signs. I think the British modernists were partly inspired by him though also by a misplaced Marxist belief in the power of architecture and some sense of class war fought through minimalism. As a dyed-in-the-wool lefty, I am not attacking Marxists per se, just the mistaken belief design and architecture are the means to pursue social justice. It´s a long discussion best left for another time….I am boring myself.

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