In this instalment we get closer to the top of the list by considering five more European cars which in their own way, were landmarks in motoring.
In this edition of the series we take a Ford, a Jaguar, a Lotus, a Fiat and a Nissan from their dusty placements in history and shine a light on their significance. The first car is a Ford, a car which showed Dunton simply couldn’t resist the impulse to cater to its core customer base even as it modernised.
So in at number twenty is the 1983 Ford Orion, a front-drive saloon. When the front wheel drive Escort Mk 3 arrived in 1980 it challenged a lot of preconceptions. First, it meant Ford had begun to abandon rear-wheel drive. The 1976 Fiesta’s drive configuration didn’t shock anyone since the car occupied a new sector of the market. People had no preconceptions as to what a Fiesta could be.
The rear-drive Escort though had been a fixture on the European market for a long time, with rally wins and endurance prizes under its belt. Going front drive and using the hatch formula was a big break for Ford’s cautious but numerous buyers.
At the same time as the Orion appeared, in 1983, Ford started its second revolution – replacing the rectilinear best-seller Cortina with the controversially styled hatchback Sierra. The saloon Orion did two things – it gave conservative Ford customers a home if they could not stomach the Sierra’s smooth five-door form and it also reassured the generations of Escort customers who missed the saloon format.
Thus, with one car Ford cemented its claim on the mainstream buyer in two market segments but also used the Orion as insurance to support the shift from market-follower to true market leader.
The 19th best European car is without a doubt the 1992-1996 Rover 800 coupe, a car we have covered here before. It is still worth coming back to though. Aronline have an exhaustive dissection of the 800’s evolution so I suggest you trickle on over there.
With an unusual format, an excellent interior and a small production total, the two-door 800 is certain to enjoy a long afterlife as a “needs-to-be re-evaluated” kind of car. The RAC says: “These are rare enough to be sought after by discerning buyers wanting something a little bit special, and British to boot. “
It would be fascinating to compare the Lancia Kappa coupe and the Rover 800 coupe. They are eerily like twins but are also the bearers of the news that the non-luxury coupe market had died and was not going to heaven. For that reason their significance is assured and they will be remembered as the cars people loved even while they spent their money on something a lot less interesting instead.
Eighteen: While not made by a European brand the 1985 Nissan Bluebird was made in the UK, in Sunderland. The historical import of this lies in this car being the one that showed that Britons could build dependable, high-quality cars. And BMW has found the same thing with its Mini production at Oxford. And Honda at Swindon. What was wrong with the British car industry did not lie in the culture of the country but the culture of the remnants of BMC.
Or eighteen. That said, Jaguar might also stake a claim to this coveted position with the much appreciated S-type of 1999. The S-type demonstrated a British car company could take on the BMW 5-series and give a good account of itself. Not for thirty years had there been a properly agile and sporting Jaguar like this. Further, the S-Type Supercharged V8 was touted as being “the fastest road production saloon car in the world“.
The S-Type’s distinctive retro styling bucked the trend for ever more modern shapes. With the passage of time, the car retains dignity and appeal which its contemporaries lost. If some dispute whether retro was the way to go, Jaguar’s analysis was correct in that contemporary styling had reached an impasse so the S-Type’s response, to break out of the prison of 90s norms, actually deserves to be acclaimed for its perspicacity.
Sweet seventeen: No list of the top-twenty three best European cars would be complete without a Lotus. There have been a slew of memorabe cars from Hethel so this one, in a way, is more of a token: 1974’s Eclat. Can you imagine seeing this car parked next to a Wolseley or Mercedes or Opel Kadett? Today such a distinctively futuristic car costs about half a million Euros and requires impossibly costly servicing.
Lotus offered this car for the price of a well-specced Granada. It had revolutionary construction and devastating performance and yet it wasn’t an unachievable goal to purchase one. Design such as this spurs on the mainstream makers too. Even if only a few thousand find customers, the aesthetic can inform the design of cars for the everyday driver.
Finally for today, number sixteen. The Fiat Croma Mk1 made an impact and scored well enough with European drivers to merit a follow-up in the form of the New Gen Croma, another carefully-conceived and delivered product from one of Europe’s most renowned car manufacturers.
The Croma Mk1 had full galvanisation of its bodywork and while it looked like a saloon it was really a hatch – and that makes it strangely prescient because that was the formula followed by the Seat Toledo a few years later. The pick of the bunch was the 2.5 litre V6: here is one for sale. And it costs €6000. Here’s the odd thing about these cars, they might not have been rated for a while after they went off the market but twenty two years later an example in this kind of condition has almost hypnotic appeal.