Great European Cars: Help Driven To Write Decide

Over the Easter period there will be a series of articles on the best European cars. I have my own ideas of what these might be.

Reassuringly British inside and out: the 1976 Talbot 1510

However, I would like to ask the DTW readership if they have some suggestions. You can propose attributes of a great European car or you can suggest actual candidates for the list. I would probably prefer discussion on the attributes though: is it engineering, style, quality, handling or performance? It is about aristocratic manners or it is about democratic good taste? Is it about the ability to blend these in surprising ways? Is there some other spirit at play?

1973 Ford Taunus 2.8 V6 coupe:

Does the question even make sense because in truth Europe is a collection of very different cultures and the attributes of a great Italian car are not much like those of a great British one; Bristol and Lancia?  What makes a Volvo good (the old school ones) would not apply to a good Fiat.

What of the Americans in Europe: Opel and Ford. Are they European cars or more like cars for Europe? For a long time I didn’t dwell too much on the American roots of Ford and Opel – I saw them as cars made in and for Europe. Where the profits went did not matter so very much. If we consider the Escort and the Kadett: were these really European at all?  And earlier cars like the UK-market Cortina were as Anglo-British as VW was German.

In such a survey we must not lose sight of cars from defunct manafacturers: Wolseley, Simca, Autobianchi, Jensen,  Austin, Borgward, Glas to name a few.  I don’t expect readers to stretch further back than the 1950s. Before that there were scores of small and medium-sized marques which themselves did not know what they were aiming for because the product had not been defined.

While writing this it seems clearer to me now that the period when we can talk of European cars is not open-ended. It starts after the second World War when there were inklings of competition across borders and when there were a reasonable number of large and independent marques. The period may be ending or have ended sometime after the turn of the millenium after which time it seems that more and more cars are shaped according to a common formula and the number of independent brands diminishes steadily.

1967 Monteverdi 375S:

Ford is well on the way to losing its European identity: the Fiesta and  Galaxy keep the flame aloft. Opel we talked about today though perhaps the unfortunate part is that they are more European than ever (and less German than they were). Fiat is a ragbag of disparate and opportunistic models. Saab is gone. Perhaps we can point to Jaguar and Volvo as retaining some more of their regional identity than others such as Seat or Mercedes.

That introduction frames the discussion. What is your view?


Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

57 thoughts on “Great European Cars: Help Driven To Write Decide”

  1. Richard, I do fear the 70-year timeframe is far too long; it’s hard to compute the validity of, say, a Fiat ’50s 600 or Renault 750 against the first Ford Focus. Or a Bristol 403 v DB4GT.

    Another example: you say “Saab’s gone.” Well, yes, but the 99 would be a genuine contender.

    Britain’s a bit of an anomaly, as for decades it paid little attention to exports to Europe, often finding the US easier, in contrast to, say, Peugeot. In fact, warming to this “home and away” dimension, Lancias sold so much better in Italy than elsewhere, except, sometimes in Britain — Beta, Delta — while there are more Lybras at home than anywhere else.

    Oh, Europe changed size too. Skodas (and to a far lesser extent, Lada) were justifiably prized on home ground before arriving elsewhere.

    So, tighten up, or split the period up?

  2. If other people want a more open frame then fine by me. I expect that it will come down to a clash of values. How do we cross compare an Austrian-made G-Wagen with an Alfasud made in Pomigliano?

    1. I’ll go with “attributes”, and immediately go against my previous reservations.

      Surely the great European innovation was the GT. The “purest” form is the two-door 2+2.
      So we start with the Aurelia GT: I wouldn’t turn down any of its series. Astons still make them, but BM and Audi have confused the concept. MB had the CLK although rear seating was a bit generous. Same for the Peugeot 4-series Pininfarinas (and they’re not the hottest performers.). Jag’s XJ8 is presumably its last. Jensen and even modest Gilbern did them, but I’m not sure many went into the Continent.
      205GTI? Astra GTE?
      Citroën called a few cars GTs, but they were souped-up saloons.

      Time for my beauty sleep.

    2. How can the rear seating be too generous? It seems the the GT must be a car with just enough rear room not to be rubbish (go away Jaguar XJ-S) but not so much as to very nice to be in (move over Fiat 130 coupe and most Bristols).

  3. This is very dull, but to me Europe’s greatest contribution to the automotive world is the 4m long, five passenger hatchback. Today’s Seat Ibiza, for example, is a result of decades of intense competition and incremental improvement, resulting in a car that is compact enough for its natural urban environment but easily capable of long distances, and strong as an ox in a crash.

    Perhaps the Mk1 Ford Focus is the single greatest example of the breed. Being fun to drive is the icing on the cake.

    1. Yes, I thought hatchback too, starting at R16 and soon epitomised by Golf. Agree on Focus Mk I.

      Also wondered about mini cars, starting with post-war austerity Ren 750 and Fiat 500, (the nearest Britain had was the A30), before moving on to THE Mini and so on. But the Japanese might have had something there before the Nissan Micra?

      I doubt anywhere but France has the tiny Voitures Sans Permis, which I give a wide berth as drivers have usually lost their licence due to drink-driving.

      If only the Ibiza’s name didn’t put me off: who wants to associated with British Yoof on a two-week bender?

    2. The Ibiza name is so unselfconscious. What do Spanish people think of a car named for a seaside resort? Would a Briton buy a Honda Blackpool or MG Bournemouth or a Bentley Weston-Super-Mare?
      The five-door hatch argument is compelling. My own car is just a big, five door front-wheel drive hatch. They are brilliant and banal though some versions of the genre are quite characterful.
      Did you know that the 1979 Opel Kadett did not have a hatch but a separate boot?

    3. Well, you could have a Fiat Croma, a Plymouth, an old Bangor, any of BMC’s round-the-country names, Ford Dorchester, Bradford van, Bedfords (of course), I’d better stop.

  4. Hi Richard, regarding the 1979 Kadett D (a.k.a. the first Vauxhall Astra) it actually came with a choice of either boot or hatchback, both sharing the same body shape. The booted version was notable for its rather makeshift looking external hinges covered by black plastic caps. So, you could have this Kadett or Astra as a two, three, four or five door saloon/hatchback, or as a three or five door estate. Subsequent Kadett/Astra models had a proper saloon derivative with an enlarged boot. In Vauxhall’ s case the saloon carried the glamorous(!) Belmont name.

    Speaking of small GME saloons, does anyone else remember the Corsa A (a.k.a. Vauxhall Nova) which could be had as a three or five door hatchback and a two or four door saloon? Such a variety of bodystyles is an indulgence manufacturers can no longer afford, apparently: small saloons are almost non-existent in Europe and three door hatches appear to be a dying breed.

    Incidentally, there is an intriguing difference between the car market in the UK and Ireland: non-premium saloons (e.g. Renault Megane Grand Coupe, Toyota Corolla) seem to be steady sellers in Ireland, but there is, apparently, no market for them in the UK.

    1. Daniel, the Kadett D was benchmarked against the Alfasud – even down to the rorty exhaust note. Hence the similarity in silhouette and the adoption of the Sud’s novel (if unsightly) solution to boot space maximisation – external hinges.

      Of course the ‘Sud, like many cars that began life as a fastback saloon was converted in later life to a hatchback, (ditto Citroen GS, Passat, Fiat 127, Honda Civic) but were there any cars (other than the Kadett) simultaneously launched with visually identically configured bodies as both hatch and saloon? Right now, I can’t think of any, although I’m confident you good people will come to my rescue…

    2. Am I wrong in liking the 1979 Kadett? I saw one last night and fail to see why a contemporary Escort or Golf could be better. The booted fastback and rear lights made me think of a Lancia Beta.

    3. Eoin: how do you know that about the Alfa benchmarking? It’s not that I don’t believe you – rather I am disappointed that I didn’t know that little fact.
      I bet the Opel is reliable – something they didn’t get from

    4. I seem to recall reading it in the pages of Car, back in the day. Apparently everybody benchmarked the ‘Sud – after all it was the dynamic class of the field for the best part of a decade. Its styling and packaging too was very influential. Good old Giorgetto. Ford certainly did for Erika, the 1980 Escort Mark III, although its styling went its own way. It too was given a raspy exhaust note so as not to be left out, one imagines.

    5. On the exhaust note, it was a bit late for them to imitate the petits pets of the Morris Minor on the over-run.
      Talking of which, Minors deserve some kind of recognition, although I’ve never see one on the Continent where they also do have mobile midwives. So scarcely a European car. (And most of Britain’s colonies needed longer-legged cars than that.) Two of its features have become more widespread: torsion bars and pin-sharp steering.

    6. The Minor, dear Alec’s most rounded car design…

      Okay, I’ll fetch my coat…

    7. “were there any cars (other than the Kadett) simultaneously launched with visually identically configured bodies as both hatch and saloon? ”
      Passat Mk1.
      The Skoda Superb Mk1 was even launched with both body styles in one car because you would open the rear as a boot lid or as a hatch, a truly ingenious solution.

    8. I can’t believe the `Sud was used as benchmark for any GM product of that time in anything other than rust proneness or cheapness of its interior.
      The `Sud (like any other Afa) was designed to be fun to drive hard whereas GM insisted on their cars preventing drivers from properly using them. The `Suds laser sharp steering and instant throttle response were the absolute opposite of GM’s famous post-Ralph-Nader-trauma `sneeze factor` where cars deliberately got mushy steering and delayed throttle reactions to filter out any quick inputs from the driver.
      The `Sud’s typical boxer exhaust snarl turned rorty only when the header pipes developed cracks or the tubing around the fuel tank started to separate from the end silencer – which was usually the case at a maximum of six months after fitting a new exhaust system. Then maybe the standard tinny Opel exhaust sound was similar to a `Sud`s faulty system.

  5. Hi Vic. Fiat Croma?

    Oh, I get it, the North Norfolk seaside town. Well done!

  6. Hi Eóin. I may be mistaken but, IIRC, the original B1 Passat was launched with both booted and hatchback versions available from the beginning of production. That apart, I’m struggling to think of any other cars where booted and hatchback versions sharing the same silhouette were launched simultaneously.

    1. Okay, thanks for the clarification Daniel. So any advance on those two?

  7. I was intrigued by this sentence in the Kia Ceed article:

    “Notwithstanding one or two brave and ultimately doomed adventures into the leftfield during the early 1970s, the European C-segment has never been a bastion of progressive design.”.

    It sounded interesting and made me wonder which vehicles were being referred to.

    1. Two cars immediately sprung to my mind Charles. Both had a good deal in common. Care to hazard a guess?

    1. The connections? Both had flat four boxer engines. Both became hatchbacks after being launched as saloons. Both were replaced by regressive designs thaf failed to improve on the originals.

    2. You are correct sir. Have a year’s free subscription to Driven to Write Premium, which includes full access to the Archie Vicar archive, a signed copy of Len Brik’s autobiography and a lifetime supply of Car Chat – still only 99p!

    3. I can’t even think what replaced the GSA. My personal C-Matic dissolved rapidly in the rain and was replaced by £150 worth of Visa but I’m sure that isn’t the proper answer.

    4. The Alfasud was revolutionary because it was the first fully bio-degradable car 🙂

      The ‘Sud was a basically conventional but exceptionally thoroughly designed car. Just look at the way its McPherson front suspension uses extremely widely based wishbones or how necessary longitudinal elasticity is put where you need it (at the hub) and not where most cars have it (at the suspension pick up points) or how its gas shock absorbers are mounted upside down all round (the front struts are pieces of technical art). Its rear suspension is an exceptionally clever design with very good anti roll characteristics, low weight and relatively low manufacturing costs.

      The GS is a deliberately oddball design from its air cooled engine to its fully integrated hydro pneumatic suspension-cum-brake system with very expensive details like roller bearings in its suspension arms and proprietary Citroen-made brake calipers.

      On the road, the GS is as archetypically French as the ‘Sud is Italian.

    5. The GSA replacement question is not an easy one to answer.
      If we follow the timeline, the BX was introduced and the GSA stopped shortly after. The GSA Break was produced some years more, until the late-coming BX Break was ready. Clear case, isn’t it? But with this change, Citroën also jumped the border between C and D segment. Sure, the BX was only slightly longer than the GSA (about 10 cm), and even lighter, but offered much more interior space and a broad engine range up to 1.9 litres (compared with the GS’s 1.3). So a gap was opened in Citroën’s offer between the tiny AX and the BX, which was only closed with some six years delay by the ZX. Besides the fact that this was technically a much inferior proposition than the GSA, in the mean time all the customers wanting a practical, small car or estate have run away to Opel and Ford who in the mean time had also learned how to make practical cars – i.e. 5-door, FWD estates.

    6. Simon: The Visa ran from 1978 to 1988. Doesn´t that count as a C-class car to compete with Escorts and Golfs, in an odd Citroen sort of way. I don´t see it as a mini but a supermini which is what the 70s Golf was. Oh I don´t know. The market was so different then. If we trace the C5 back to its roots: C5, C5, Xantia, BX, GSA, GS you get, as you say a shifting of markets. The C4 runs like this: C4 Mk2, C4 Mk1, Xsara, ZX, Visa, Dyane. The GS was broadly comparable to a Ford Escort or Opel Kadett but now its successor is more like a C-D class car. The Escort/Astra/Golf trio have more kept their relative positions in their brand hierarchy and also in relation to the other cars in the market. If VW had let the Golf drift in the market it would be a Passat kind of car now and the Passat would not exist.

    7. As I said, the story is complicated, and the car segments weren’t that aligned yet between different marques and countries as they were some ten years later. For me, the Visa always belonged to the supermini segment, although it was a bit larger than a Peugeot 104, Renault 5 or VW Polo. But I know that it was definitely too small for some of the lost GS customers who didn’t want a big car like the BX. The AX was even smaller than the Visa, which didn’t really improve things.

  8. Your Monteverdi pic makes it look lovely.

    As one of the few ever to have seen a Monty in the metal, the one I looked over in the mid-80s was far from lovely. Halfway up Highgate Road, it was probably not a 375 but a Berlinetta. A bloated barge, in what Bentley called Sand and Sable.

    1. I like the “If I lived in Switz” idea. Maybe another piece some time?

      For me it’s a Lybra for summer — although I’m not sure the bilateral heating/vent controls also apply to the AC.
      For the winter it’ll be the Stelvio Quadrifoglia.

      But my only trip to that country was to Geneva, where I just saw long trains of Ferraris going at 20kph.

    2. I should probably revise my Swiss dream by ditching the Monteverdi. I´d have a Suzuki Cappucino or a Diahatsu Copen. I think they´d be more usable and enjoyable than the Monteverdi. Maybe the Monteverdi is the car for my Cologne pied-a-terre.

    3. I think your two Japanese follies are only RHD, which, being low-slung, will make it hard to see round anything.

    4. If you’d really live in Switzerland, your car would be black or silver, and boring. Most probably some BMWSUV abomination or an Audi Avant. You could also opt for an AMG with execrable exhaust sound. I’ve never seen a Monteverdi in the wild. But Copens, yes, and even the occasional Morris Minor. The Copens here are RHD when they are the original, 660 ccm version without rear spoiler. The later version with the bigger engine (1.3, if I remember correctly) was even converted to LHD.

    5. PS. I second Vic’s proposal for a “If I lived in Switz” piece. However, I feel that I’m not the right person to write it…

  9. What makes a car European?
    Growing-up in Canafda in the 1980s, we Enjoyed a mix of American, European, Japanese, Eastern Block, and Korean cars. The European ones shared a few common traits missing from all the others:
    A tight turning circle
    The ability to go around bends
    A narrow interior, relative to their length
    Comfortable seats
    Good space utilization

    Is that enough to define all post-war European cars? I think so.

    1. Hi Bernard:
      Good answer. That is an interesting list, empirically-based. I am in dreadful fear for my own list now. Hmm. So, roadholding, agility, space efficiency is how I see that. The narrowness aids the agility. I notice you have not included anything to do with ride quality. Jaguar, Rover, Lancia, Rolls, Bristol, Mercedes and other made contribtutions there, I feel.

    2. I consider myself lucky enough to have mis-spent my 20s and 30s and owned all sorts of different cars, not huge budget, but just what I fancied.

      There are two that stick in mind and I wish I could spend time with again. One was fabulous for throwing around the B-roads of Exmoor, and the other was a fabulous A-road and motorway machine.

      I miss them because I could happily have driven each of them all day long for pleasure. Does that count as an attribute Richard?

    3. Was one a Peugeot 205? There are a number of candidates for the second type of car – a Bristol? Or a BX?
      Yes though, they seem European but could be Japanese too. That’s not a criticism of the attributes. The Euro cars would feel different.

    4. Yes I see what you mean. I have missed the point there a bit and not looked for the European-ness. No, not a 205 or BX; I never managed to get my hands on a 205 as they always cost more than my wallet contained, which you understand ruled out Bristols as well.

      I do always wonder how I missed owning a BX or a CX, either of which might have beaten the 406 that I was actually thinking of. The other was an early Alfasud 5M, which was really not that fast but could actually get you places rather quickly!

    5. The 406 is a star. It is such a well-considered car. They are so capable and super long distance vehicles.
      I am also sorry I never had a CX. Instead I have an XM which is very good yet not as nice.

  10. With all manufacturers selling and competing on a world stage its hard to find regional differences in todays designs which were at one time the reason buyers chose individual makes.
    Having stated the obvious there are still two opposites available which are unique to regional trends, one being the American Pick Up truck which has morphed into a luxury carriage and by its enormous size has mostly remained only popular in the States. At the opposite end is the Smart for two which is sold world wide, meets full safety requirements in all the markets and is filling a segment not addressed by anyone else and one that will only increase with population growth.
    The Smarts ancestral cousin the Isetta was ahead of its time being a stop gap to motorise a population after the war but as a product of today with overcrowding the Smart is likely to go from strength to strength.
    Long live the Isetta!

    1. The Isetta is an example of an idea whose time has come…except I think the future of motoring is in not motoring. The general formula for an electric car seems to be a four-seater, some kind of MPV carriage. Better still, much less driving and more enjoyment at the same time.

  11. The Great European Cars series kicks off in a few days. I earnestly hope that somehow I can reconcile the opinions offered here. It really has been tricky to make sense of so many cars and also to avoid re-treading old ground. Vehicles like the Mercedes W-123, Porsche 911, Jaguar E-type, Land Rover, Fiat Panda, Fiat Punto, Volvo 240, Fiat 124, Saab 900, Fiat Coupe Fiat, and Fiat 500 plus noble marques like Bristol and Bentley have all garnered a lot of coverage but might still be considered as candidates. But note also that greatness is not merely a matter of sales figures or overt impact in the public imagination.

    1. Richard, I hadn’t even started on the quintessentially European Panhard Dyna, DKW, Fulvia Coupé. A Borgward, but which?

  12. Perhaps a sideways glance at Primera Mk1 could prove educative. Boring looks, nothing special in the engine bay. Certain attention was paid to front suspension: a complex multi-link design, while the rear had a relatively simple beam with trailing armsm kind of the opposite approach that BMW and Mercedes were taking at the time, but similar to contemporary Saab suspension philosophy. Primera Mk1 also served as the benchmark for Mondeo MkI.

  13. More obviously: Rallying originated in Europe and is still primarily European. Many great production cars have a rallying pedigree, many of them are European, many great.

  14. A very late reply, but how about the Renault 4? The Fiat 128 re-set the template for small cars at the time and is worth of consideration too – or maybe even its Autobianchi ancestor.

  15. I will drift a bit from the original article.

    I write these words based on the assumption that a car is not just a transportation utility. Cars do not have a soul but they – or some – do trigger our feelings within our subconscious mind. I am saying this in a very simple manner of what I consider being important to build some initial context.

    Cars, for those which are over 40 years old like me, are surely related to emotional experience. I like a Renault 9 GTL beige color showing faded paint and fabrics wearing steel banded OEM rims and tire of the correct dimensions. I like more a Renault 11 GTX exceeding the high standard of the GTL showing a cheeky revmeter which forces the R11 Turbo to use orange dashboard graphics along with a turbo pressure gauge and black seats just for the sake of being sure that the turbo punchy feeling is not restricted to what is under the bonnet. The French were right, in the 80s, the slogan was just right “Renault. Des Voitures à vivre”

    But I like much more an old Fiat Regata 70 with an exceptional soft quality of the dash plastics (better than any Mercedes of that era), an engine temperature gauge, manual winding window regulator and a large clock on the dashboard. Rear doors are an invitation to enter and travel with the family for a short travel or a long journey across the country – eventually – to cross the borders. Yes, this is nostalgia more than technical character of the engineer, or manufacturer. But that car is engraved in my memory more than the color – or shape – of the toaster we had in the kitchen by those days. For the accurate reader of the nonsense I have written, if I could, I would rewind my life and pay some attention to that toaster I am referring to, it is just a domestic appliance but I do not want to hurt the feelings of a toaster.

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