So many cars, so little time.
Like most of what we do here at Driven to Write, our commemoration of significant automotive anniversaries throughout the past year came about largely by accident and was therefore never intended to be exhaustive or definitive. But with 2016 consigned to a blessedly welcome end, we now find ourselves like overindulged children with an embarrassment of riches for which we have little real use. So in the spirit of post celebratory ennui, we propose to take a brushstroke to the cars we never quite got around to last year.
It’s fifty years since Alfa Romeo introduced the Pininfarina designed (and built) Duetto Spider. Based on styling themes developed over a number of years with the Superflow concept series, the shark nose and elongated tail styling suggested the previous decade’s streamliners rather than a mid-Sixties aesthetic. Nevertheless, the pretty Duetto became immortalised and would remain a firm favourite in myriad forms for almost thirty years.
The same year also saw Fiat introduce two more Pininfarina-penned two-seaters. It’s interesting how three cars fulfilling such similar briefs emerged from the same carrozzeria at roughly the same time with their own visual character. The Dino Spider’s styling was influenced by a succession of contemporary Ferrari concepts, while the 124 Spider was loosely based on Farina’s 1963 Rondine. While the Dino was a low-volume homologation act of corporate ambition, the 124 was more of a serious commercial proposition aimed squarely at the US market and would remain on sale there until 1985.
Audi’s are difficult subject matter, largely because more often than not they leave so few traces. So from the class of 1976 comes the Audi 100 B2, just the kind of nice middle order saloon which the four rings of Ingolstadt specialised in before they went all Vorsprung on us. It was notable for introducing the world to Audi’s in-line five cylinder engine series and for elevating the marque from the outer hinterlands to the foothills of the prestige market.
Ten years later and with the executive lounge in sight, Audi released the 1986 B3-series 80 saloon. While the preceding car had been styled by Ital Design in Turin, the B3 was an in-house design, said to have been attributed to one J. Mays. Cleaving faithfully to its aero-influenced 100 stablemate, it’s said to be the first in its class to be offered with a fully galvanised bodyshell. Sadly the driving experience fell short, the 80 being a disappointedly leaden device to drive.
Spooling forward another twenty years, Ingolstadt’s finest demonstrated its confident right to a place at the top table by launching two diametrically opposing vehicles in the Q7 SUV and the Lamborghini twinned, mid-engined R8 supercar. While the former has proven to be a colossal (pun intended) and lasting success, the R8 has faltered of late and rumours suggest it may not be replaced. But as a statement of corporate confidence, it did its job cum laude.
During the early 1960’s, BMW was anxiously seeking financial tie-ups with other manufacturers, so unsure were they of their finances or indeed the likely success of their ‘New Class’ range of saloons. Fortunately this model saved their collective bacon but in 1966, BMW took perhaps the most palpable step towards its modern persona with the 1600-2, a car which did more to establish the modern vierzylinder template than any other.
Based on a shortened New Class platform and running gear, the small 2-door sporting saloon defined BMW as not just the ‘driver’s’ choice, but that of Baader Meinhof terror cells too. As the car that spawned millions of 3-Series’ and all its latter-day pretenders, it’s difficult to argue against the recipe the Bavarians adapted as their own. A decade later, the ’02 was still available, but had become an anachronism both to BMW and the motoring press and would be discontinued the following year.
1976 saw BMW announce the upmarket E24 633 CSi coupé, signposting their intended direction of travel under their ambitious CEO, Eberhard von Kuenheim. The E24 was based on the platform and mechanical specification of the E12 5-Series and styled under the supervision of stylistic Director, Paul Bracq. Initially built by Karmann (to a less than satisfactory standard I might add), production was latterly brought in-house.
Viewed by many to have lived in the shadow of Mercedes and (to some extent) Jaguar’s XJ-S, the E24 suffered from a lack of firepower and some might argue, snob value, especially over it’s Stuttgart rival. Opinions differed over its styling, its kerbweight and its pricing and certainly, early sales were far from stellar. However it was continuously developed and would continue in production for another twelve years, departing in 1987 as one of BMW’s best loved models.
A decade ago, Citroën was attempting one of its periodic stylistic and creative renaissances, introducing not only a second-generation of their successful Picasso MPV, but a new full sized luxury saloon as well. The 2006 Picasso featured more space-age styling than the somewhat compromised looking appearance of its predecessor. Said to have been the work of Danato Coco, a man also responsible for the appearance of Dany Bahar’s range of Norfolk unicorns.
Featuring a panoramic glass area and distinctive stepped window line, the car’s podlike styling and versatile interior ensured its commercial appeal. Less appealing however was its reputation for durability, particularly that of the EGS automated manual gearbox. On the other hand, the C6 saloon was a big Citroën in the classic idiom but one that also proved to be the chevron’s swansong. It’s also the sole exception here in that it’s a car I shortly intend to return to.
You might be forgiven for wondering why we hadn’t covered Mercedes-Benz’s W123 series in more loving detail, but frankly the 1976 mid-sized Benz is such a monument, there’s virtually nothing left to say about it. Taking conventional componentry, clothing it in a severe (if baroque in detail) visual language and over-engineering it to a consistently higher standard than just about anyone else marks the 123 as perhaps the Mount Rushmore of motor cars. Also a safety pioneer, the W123 debuted features like a collapsible steering column in conjunction with an evolution of Mercedes’ safety cell technology, there genuinely hasn’t been anything else like it since.
On the other hand the 1996 R170 SLK dates from the ‘Disposable Heroes of Hubbrocity’ era of material quality, so viewing it in monumental terms, it’s probably one to lost values. The SLK however did popularise the last decade’s mania for folding metal hardtops and stylistically speaking, represented a final gasp of sober rectitude before the whole sorry edifice slid into the glitterball maelstrom of Pfeiffer and Wagener. The 2006 Mercedes GL SUV on the other hand, scrapes the barrel in just about every discernible metric. A vehicle that renders me (quite literally) speechless.
When Volvo launched the Daf-based 343 in 1976, press and public were underwhelmed, a state of affairs which it seems was echoed within Volvo’s Gothenburg engineering nerve centre. But despite a less than auspicious start, Volvo persisted with the (even by 1976 standards) horribly dated concept, the model’s eventual demise taking place in 1991. Mystifyingly, it proved a robust sales proposition in the UK throughout the 1980’s.
A mere five years later, Volvo introduced us to the C70 coupe/convertible, a car developed in conjunction with Tom Walkinshaw Racing. Styling was carried out by Peter Horbury’s team in Sweden, with significant input (it would appear) from TWR’s resident stylist, Ian Callum. Perhaps the first Volvo which could be described as voluptuous, the C70 marked a stylistic sea-change, one Volvo would pursue with ever-diminishing returns in latter years.
A decade on, and the second-generation S80, a perfectly nice car in every way, struggled to ignite the enthusiasm of Volvo owners, luxury car buyers or indeed the motoring press. A pale shadow of its much nicer predecessor, it was larger in most dimensions, yet managed the feat of looking smaller and less special – not attributes one associates with success in the luxury saloon market.
In 1976, Renault launched the 14, a car which should rightly have given the VW Golf a far bloodier nose than it ultimately managed. Launched before most of its mainstream rivals, the 14 had most of the ingredients to build upon the success of it’s junior brother Cinq, but thanks to some poor stylistic decisions, a lack of engine choice and a frankly incomprehensible marketing strategy, the 14 proved to be a bit of a, well… pear.
1986 saw GM’s Russelsheim outpost introducing the Omega, a car heavily influenced by the Tech 1 concept but one which fell short of Audi’s B3 100 visually and Ford’s aero-influenced Scorpio dynamically. A thoroughly satisfactory motor car, the Omega did nothing particularly well, but little badly. But if Audi’s leave no trace…
Also from 2006 was the second-generation R56-series MINI. Bigger in most dimensions than its more amusing predecessor, the R56 solidified BMW’s reinvention of the brand and by comparison with the current model, looks rather attractively petite, which really is saying something.
There will be cars I have omitted (by accident or design), but for the most part these are (Citroën C6 aside) the cars I couldn’t write about last year. But don’t let this stop you, should you feel so impelled. In fact, be my guest – the new year beckons and there’s no shortage of further anniversaries to waltz to.