Theme : Benchmarks – Lost In Translation

Let’s re-create a winner. What could go wrong?

Jaguar Presentation

Motoring history has many concepts and show cars that disappointed when they were turned into production models, but equally tantalising are the occasions when a manufacturer has looked back into its own history and tried to re-create one of its own supposed ‘classics’. This is sometimes commercially successful, sometimes critically successful, but those of us in the world of motoring who spend our time considering the automotive equivalent of fitting angels onto pin heads are usually frustrated. Here are some of my own personal disappointments and maybe a success or two.

Mini to MINI : Starting with an obvious one that produces greatly polarised opinions. The styling of Frank Stephenson’s relaunch MINI was a clever update on the original, not too slavish, with its own distinctive detailing and more than a hint of Aston Martin at the front, which made the point that this was not intended as a true successor to Issigonis’s peoples car. It’s hard to argue with BMW’s strategy because it sold and sold and, beneath the disguise, was an excellent, affordable and practical enough 2+2 sports car. However, they made a rod for their own backs, since none of its successors and spin-offs are allowed not to reference the Issigonis original. As a result they are looking more and more inbred and, what might well be good cars, put off as many people as they attract – I find the driving appeal of the Countryman very attractive, but the appearance too awful to even consider. It’s hard to see how much further BMW can take this unless they consciously break the stylistic link with the 1959 car.

Continental R-Type to Continental GT. There actually were Bentleys labelled Continental before it, but the 1952 version with Mulliner fastback bodywork was the starting point for today’s Bentley coupés. That car traces its own inspiration back to the pre-War French coachbuilders who specialised in streamlined bodywork. The R-Type is hugely elegant. Its proportions are perfect for a car of its time though, for today, it is too narrow and too tall. But, though it could never have stuck too closely to the original, the W12 Continental has never seemed elegant, with a certain squatness dictated less by modern expectations than by its VW Group origins. In its favour, at nearly half a metre shorter that its ancestor, it is doubtless easier to park in Mayfair, usually with another one just a few bays away. My other gripe is its sound; not the quality of it which would be quite pleasing in the right car, but the fact that it is there at all. ‘My’ Continental for the 21st Century would have kept quiet until extended, rather like a Turbo R of the later Rolls period era but, like many of my comments here, I am both right and wrong – the Continental GT has been a huge success and the preferences of yesterday’s customers are not those of today. Also, relatively speaking, it sells at a far more affordable price than its predecessor which means its appeal must be broader, hence its ubiquity.

DS19 to DS Series : We tend to kick PSA a lot on these pages so, as a respite. I will give them some credit. I won’t say that the Distinctive Series has been a disappointment, since I expected so little from it, but at least they have not yet tried to re-create a retrofuturist Déesse on a coil sprung Peugeot base. For that, at least, we should be thankful.

Mustang to Mustang : Following its massive success with the original, Ford quickly lost the plot. First the Mustang bloated so that, by the start of the 70s, it was a cartoon of the original, then it suddenly shrunk in the fuel crisis to become a shrivelled shadow. After that it just meandered along until Mr Retrofuturism, J Mays, brought back the old styling. Really, if you forget what went between, that’s fine. Think of it as the USA’s answer to the Porsche 911.

Beetle to New Beetle : J Mays again, and at his most superficial. The original was the shape it was because engine position, packaging and the need to optimise airflow over a low powered car dictated so. The revival took a Golf and made it impractical, adding the crude detailing that characterised the worst of 80s post-modernist architecture.

500 Nuova to New 500 : Like the new MINI, the new 500 has never tried to be the simple, affordable transport that its predecessor was. Unlike the MINI it doesn’t have the saving grace of being a very good car. Like most cars today, it is certainly adequate and that is enough for many drivers, as evidenced by the sales figures. I too can be happy with an adequate car if it does something useful such as carry a lot of people. The 500 does nothing the Panda doesn’t do better, since just looking cool by association with its predecessor is really not enough.

600 Multipla to Multipla : To offset my scorn at Fiat’s shameless 500, here is a success, achieved by not being too slavish to the original, just honouring the concept of fitting in the most people on the smallest footprint. I partly include it because of the oddity I found on display at the Turin Museum. It’s actually a confusing exhibit for the uninitiated visitor, being labelled as a 1956 Fiat Multipla but having a modern looking interior. The original Multipla of the brilliant Dante Giacosa was Fiat 600 based and, in the right version, could squeeze in 7 people of the right size and served Italy and elsewhere both as family people carrier and taxi for many years. Investigation of the Turin exhibit (ie reading the catalogue) reveals that their particular car was modified by IDEA in 1995 and, looking at the materials used, this was obviously all part of the 1998 Multipla’s gestation. But the later Multipla is exemplary in borrowing nothing from its predecessor, save an idea, a name and controversial styling.

Miura to Miura : In 2006, Walter da Silva drew a perfectly good looking update of the original Miura of 40 years earlier that, thankfully, Lamborghini had the good sense to put in its museum rather than onto its production lines. I’ve mentioned previously on this site that I find the J Mays GT40 reboot not without merit but it should not set a precedent. However, Lamborghini’s reason for not pursuing the Miura 2, which is that they are all about the future not the past, though sounding admirable, does not confront the fact that the ridiculous Countach, with its dire visibility, has been the benchmark for large Lambos for over 40 years. Time surely to break free and create something more suitable to the roads that even the wealthy have to share with the rest of us.

Miuras

There is nothing wrong with continuity. The VW Golf exemplifies this, apparently staying the same, yet really constantly adapting to the market of its time.  Using hard points in your history to recreate your golden years generally doesn’t work. Who has ever tried going back to somewhere they had a wonderful time and not found disappointment?  Basically, most car benchmarks should be wooly, arguable and subjective. Jaguar’s woes of the past decades, and even the flaws in their recent cars, are partly to do with first having looked too much at their back catalogue  then having looked to match, say, BMW in quantifiable areas, whereas they should be thinking more abstractly about meeting their their own, long ago set, poetic criteria of Grace, Pace and Space.  Car companies need philosophies, not self-elected icons.

5 thoughts on “Theme : Benchmarks – Lost In Translation”

  1. I can’t disagree with a lot of that. The 911 (Porsche’s famous car) cleaves loosely to its concept, much like the Golf but at a higher price. There’s much to be said for cautious change. It is a good basis for making localised or narrowly focused change. You can almost see nations’ long term political values embodied in their vehicles.

  2. I mourn the passing of the Teutonic sporting three box saloon as a readily identifiable concept. Compared to the simple, intelligible forms with pleasing details of old, we now get lumpen objects with graphics slapped on them. The worst offender by far in this respect is the 3 Series, the best-worst offender being the new C Class. (I would even go so far as to argue that the best German sporting saloon on sale within the next few years will be the Jaguar XE. But I digress.)

    We can blame any number of factors; non-inclusive character, lack of practicality, the remorseless German quest for sales. But as I prefer to blame an actual person, I nominate Chris Bangle. He pioneered the idea that slapping graphics on staid shapes could work, and for him, it did. But then he buggered off back to California and left the muddying of BMW’s core DNA to an unwisely emboldened board. The inevitable result of this is the BMW 2 Series Inactive Tourer.

    A while ago I happened to spot a concept of what a modern BMW 2000 (E120 series, BMW fans) might look like (http://www.designboom.com/technology/bmw-cs-vintage-concept-1968-e9-series-tribute-03-26-2014/). Whilst I am not one for wilful retroism, to my eyes the concept placed into stark relief everything that the current 3 Series is not (or even 2 Series Coupe, probably the closest modern fit); i.e. upright with a hewn from solid quality, with well considered and deeply set details. By comparison, modern BMWs have the subtle charm of a Dubai Radisson hotel.

  3. We did an article on him a while back. That design is exactly right. I approve.
    I am uncertain as to whether to place the blame for BMW´s current design direction entirely at the feet of Mr Bangle. I didn´t like the 1991 car or the 1998 car either. Plot lost: 1991. The Mercedes 190E stopped in 1993. Plot lost. The C-class is a slug, a really horrid car. The Audi A4 held on until 2006. After that they are a bit bloated yet still quite close in theme. I would probably choose the A3 saloon or perhaps the BMW 2-series two-door as the closest to the nice BMW 2002 of yore.

  4. I notice that, on the period publicity photo of the original 500, the couple are portrayed as enjoying themselves, doing something with nature on a sea shore – though we’ll ignore the fact that the salt water has just cut the car’s life in half.

    Compare that with the right hand photo of the self-consciously ‘stylish’ couple, parked outside a sterile looking restaurant and studiously avoiding eye contact, the woman staring into the distance to check out who is admiring them, their ‘1957 Edition’ 500 (note the hubcaps) and their choice of restaurant. Sums it all up really.

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