Anniversary Waltz 2017 : Things Can Only Get Better!

Continuing DTW’s meta retrospective, we dial the time machine back to 1997.

LR Freelander. Image: RAC

1997 was an eventful year (weren’t they all?) which in a series of reversals for establishment-Britain saw the Chinese regain control over Hong Kong, and the dominant Conservative party lose power domestically following an 18-year run. In Paris that autumn, Princess Diana died in a car accident, the Hale-Bopp comet had its initial sighting, and oh yes, the Titanic sank again.

But if the number of débutantes profiled over the past twelve months is any indication, 1997 proved a good deal more fecund a year from an automotive perspective. Nevertheless, some stories remain untold, which leads us to the point of today’s exercise.

Land Rover’s L314 Freelander was a model programme which like so many former Rover Group concepts was first mooted the previous decade, but owing to the parent company’s rollercoaster fortunes, took the best part of a decade to come to fruition. Originally intended as a more car-like vehicle, dubbed ‘Pathfinder’, it eventually morphed into a junior offroader – somewhat akin to Toyota’s RAV4.

The first Land Rover to be styled by one Gerry McGovern, in fact the essential shape was created by the time GMG was drafted in, but the changes he wrought would (to his credit) benefit the vehicle’s appearance considerably, giving it a visual heft and a familial resemblance it may otherwise have lacked.

I’m Gerry McGovern and this is my hair. Image: (c) autocar via AROnline

A combination of Rover Group’s indecision, lack of funding and the BMW takeover in 1994 meant the Freelander was a good deal later to market than intended, but once announced, it took off immediately. Even its much-publicised reliability issues seemed no impediment to sales – the value of the LR brand (then at least) appearing impervious to bad publicity. A pivotal car for Land Rover then and one which perhaps did more to catapult the marque into the sales mainstream.

The release of Toyota’s 1997 Prius was largely unheralded around this neck of the woods, hybrids being then being viewed as a peculiarly Californian fad, which like most of its ilk would quickly dissipate. Wrong. Like so much of what Japanese automotive engineers have dreamt up over the past fifty (or so) years, we ignored Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive at our peril; a remarkably clever piece of thinking which made the tricky transition from fossil fuel propulsion to electric drive virtually seamless.

1997 Prius. Image: motorised images

Actually, the Prius’ (derived from the Latin, meaning ‘to go before’) drivetrain was sufficiently clever to deserve a dedicated retrospective of its own, but if ever a car was less well-served by its outer wrapping it was this. Designed at Toyota’s Calty design centre in California, it was tepid looking three volume saloon designed to offend nobody, but with the (unintentional?) added effect of pleasing nobody either. Would it have killed them to arrive at something a bit more arresting looking?

Anodyne or no, its 0.29 drag coefficient, coupled with its energy efficient drivetrain gave rise to a claimed combined fuel economy of 57.6mpg with CO2 emissions of 114g/km. Winner of Japan’s COTY award in 1998, and with more than 123,000 units sold worldwide when production ended in August 2003, (predominantly in the US and Japan) it had become the world’s most successful hybrid vehicle. The rest of course we know, and if Prius is now UK parlance for ‘minicab’ its very ubiquity is testament to the essential rightness of the engineering concept – if not the initial styling…

By the mid-90’s, General Motors’ stewardship of Saab saw Russelheim providing Trollhätten with much of the structural hardware required for a new generation of cars using a modified version of Opel’s Vectra and Calibra 2900 platform. With the 9000 series (co-developed with Lancia) needing replacement, this platform was stretched further for the 1997 9-5 model.

The first Saab since the initial 99 model to be launched only as a three-volume saloon, the in-house designed 9-5 was a tacit acknowledgement of the importance of the North American market to both Saab themselves and to their US masters. Not the most inspired piece of automotive styling to emerge from Trollhätten, its appeal was broadened considerably by the debut of a more attractive five-door estate model the following year.

1997 Saab 9-5. Image: cars-data

The 9-5 was powered by a range of engines which stretched from Saab’s venerable in-line four in 2.0 and 2.3 litre capacities, a 3.0 litre GM V6 (all turbocharged) or a 2.2 litre diesel unit, provided by Opel, while chassis-wise it was parts-bin all the way. Passive safety was a major selling point however, the model having the benefit of the Swedish manufacturer’s most up to date innovations, winning numerous awards for passenger safety.

Lengthy production runs had long been a Saab staple, largely because the Swedes traditionally couldn’t afford to tool up for new models that often. This wasn’t so much of an issue when they were producing the durable designs they became famous for, but with the well-regarded 9000-series in production for fifteen years with just over 500,000 built and the 9-5 produced for thirteen (with just under 500,000 made); neither of which could reasonably be considered all-time classic Saab designs, it’s tempting to view this as corporate neglect.

GM-era Saabs were pretty good cars, but pretty good was not sufficient to take the fight to the likes of BMW et al (particularly at this sector of the market), and double digit lifespans certainly didn’t aid matters. Neither did one of the most ill-served facelifts ever, for that matter…

©Driven to Write. All rights reserved.

The anniversary waltz continues soon with a look at 1987.

Cars from 1997 we did write about: Alfa Romeo 156 / Audi A6 / Citroen Xsara / Ford Puma / Jaguar XJ8 / Mercedes A-Class / Mercedes CLK / Peugeot 406 Coupe / Volkswagen Golf V

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

9 thoughts on “Anniversary Waltz 2017 : Things Can Only Get Better!”

  1. That’s a fabulous photo of Gerry! I guess I’m just jealous that he can have so much hair, but he looks like a new-romantic pop star of the 80’s.

    More seriously, I guess there’s a bit of a debate as to which of the three models you highlight carries the greatest long term significance. The most obvious answer is the Prius, but the Freelander properly popularised the SUV as a fashionable design item and was a true ‘pathfinder’ for this niche which is now dominating the family car market across a number of socio-economic customer segments: it’s hard to imaging the success of the Qashqai and Juke without there having been the Freelander. The 9-5 is significant because it could be argued as SAAB’s last realistic grasp at sustainability in the market. It was less successful, in my mind, than the 9000, and, stylistically at least, I thought its way-too-late-to-make-a-difference successor was far more attractive (I still enjoy seeing one on the road today – as I do the Laguna Coupe which also bombed quite badly).

    1. Were suits really that baggy in 1997?
      And the Laguna coupe mystifies me. It is a superbly styled car and even the brittle ride can’t detract enough to explain the way customers ignored it.

    2. I don’t know if Gerry can sing, but if he does, I’d bet his voice sounds like Frank Farian’s!

    3. Popularized the crossover style in the UK maybe.

      I almost bought a Jeep Grand Cherokee in 1992. It was pleasant to behold. Then I drove one and it was ‘orrible. The Ford Explorer had already sold in the millions by 1997, and the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V were also selling well.

    4. Bill,

      I guess the Freelander’s importance increases manifold once once crosses the Channel. Here on the Continent, the Freelander was a significant success (and introduced the LR brand to non-farmers/woodsmen), but the Toyota RAV4 was the car that introduced ‘utility’ to the masses that would previously have fancied a Suzuki Vitara or Opel Frontera (our version of the Isuzu Wizard), but found them too uncouth for daily driving duties.

      For years, what we now know as the SUV used to be the domain of import brands, incidentally. Apart from Peter Schreyer, the major breakthrough for Kia was the Sportage, which I remember people buying or liking despite it ‘being a Kia’.

  2. Comparing Gerry McGovern with Thomas Anders from Modern Talking, he was at least 10 years behind the latest fashion trend…
    But comparing the 1997 Freelander with the 1997 M-Class W163, i would diagnose, the Freelander has the much more sustainable timeless design. Even when you are neglecting the horryfying quality of the first american built W163 you must admit, the Freelander still looks robust and honest, while the first M-class today is just indicating that its owner simply can not afford buying a better and not so cheap looking Mercedes…

    For me – the Saab 9-5 was a slight disappointment compared with the Saab 9000. Not bad at all, but it has no chance especially against the high-quality Audi A6 to be the main front-wheel-drive contender for BMW or Mercedes. The Dame-Edna-facelift of 2005 was the beginning of the end for Saab as a serious carmaker.

    The first Prius…i would like to see a picture showing this car together with the Honda Insight and the GM EV1….

    1. While we may joke a little about Mr McGovern’s personal style he has been very good at his job and Markus is exactly right about the Freelander: it’s solid, classic product design.

  3. Too bad the Freelander we got here in the US was both expensive and horribly unreliable…

    1. I don’t think it’s particularly unfair to say the Freelander was horribly unreliable on this side of the Atlantic as well. Certainly, the early-era cars earned a pretty shocking reputation.

      Saying that, a family member bought an early example circa-1998 or so and had no trouble whatsoever…

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