Small Is Beautiful… and Why Modern Cars Are (usually) Better

Sometimes driving the dream isn’t quite what it is cracked up to be. New contributor Chris Elvin outlines why he’s done a’ Rovering…

Image: Chris Elvin

Despite passing my driving test shortly after my seventeenth birthday and having been enthusiastic about cars from toddling age, I managed to retain the position of being the only person in my immediate family never to have owned a car until quite recently, in my late 30s.

A combination of city-centre living and having spent most of my adult life in another country to that in which I learned to drive ensured that driving became an ever more infrequent experience, to the point of actively disliking it. This all changed when a new job required a daily commute that was far quicker by car than by public transport.

As a born-again (and somewhat nervous) driver, who had always preferred small cars with mechanical gearboxes, requiring practical, economical and above all reliable transport, I of course went out and bought a large, eighteen year-old V6 automatic saloon car from a defunct manufacturer lacking any such modern frivolities as parking sensors.

Though hardly universally acknowledged as a modern classic, the Rover 75 has always been a favourite of mine. Though I’m not about to argue the merits of the retro styling craze of which it formed part, I would argue that it was one of its most successful products and possessed of a genuinely elegant shape, upon which the chrome formed a pleasant decoration. Certainly, it is a world away from the current styling trend of huge, angry-looking grilles combined with seemingly random swoops, creases and gashes.

Image: Chris Elvin

A car such as the Rover was well out of my reach when new, but could now be picked up for a (relative) song and to my nostalgia-addled mind seemed to be modern enough to be usable daily. When I started looking, I straight away spotted a seemingly immaculate example in my dream specification: A dark green 2.5 litre V6 saloon from the first year of build (when Rover was still owned by BMW and long before the cheapening of the cars began) with a matching dark green leather interior.

The dealer saw me coming from a mile away and I only had just enough sense left in me to insist upon a complete service with cambelt changes before throwing my money at him.

To be fair to the 75, which really was a lovely old thing, it was mechanically reliable in the months that I owned it and never gave me any cause to doubt it fundamentally. It didn’t, however, take long to discover that the central locking was failing on two of the doors (an expensive fix), the paintwork was in worse shape than I’d taken the trouble to notice, the suspension bushes were shot and that the brake lines were thoroughly rusted and needed replacement.

All par for the course on an old car perhaps but the lenses on my rose-tinted specs began to fade. Far worse than these mechanical foibles was the fact that, though I enjoyed looking at and sitting in the Rover, I rarely enjoyed driving it: Though pleasant on longer motorway journeys, the car was just too large for the cramped 17th century streets and traffic around my home.

Parking was a nerve-shredding nightmare thanks to my inability to mentally calculate the length of the Rover’s boot and it wasn’t long before I expensively scraped it’s flank on a pillar in a parking garage (my first ever such scrape, in my defence).

Image: Chris Elvin

As these unpleasant products of my automotive naivete continued to mount, I got the chance to briefly drive two examples of a quite different type of car, one that I would never have considered for myself: The current model Fiat Panda, with both the four cylinder and turbocharged twin-air engines.

Both cars were pleasant to drive, but it took mere minutes for me to fall in love with the twin-air turbo. Everything about that car seemed right: The compact exterior dimensions combined with a practical and roomy interior, high seating position, good visibility, tidy road manners and most of all that bonkers, growly, twin cylinder turbo engine that propelled the little car down the road with an alacrity that was downright surprising.

Though I uhmed and ahed for a few weeks, and tried to tell myself that it would be idiocy to sell the Rover after investing so much in it, it was obvious I was smitten. In the end I booked a test drive in the Fiat and drove it to the coast and back, immediately after driving the same route in the Rover for comparative purposes.

The difference was night and day: Driving that windy, sometimes narrow route in the Rover was constantly stressful, whereas in the Fiat it was actively enjoyable. The big surprise was that the little Panda actually seemed to ride better than the big old Rover; clearly cars have moved on in the last eighteen years. By the time I got back to the city, I knew my ‘classic’ car adventure was over.

Image: Buyacar

Of course, I took a financial hit on the Rover, but managed to get a decent deal on a new, pre-registered, Panda twin-air turbo in the spec and colour I wanted and, some mild dealer incompetence notwithstanding, the little Fiat has been a delight ever since.

Though the primary lesson here obviously concerns my own utter stupidity with cars, I think perhaps it also says something about the power of our illusions (car ownership is highly emotive) and, yet, how easily they can be punctured by the blunt-force trauma of reality.

I still sometimes see Rover 75s driving around here (the survival rate is quite high and they are undoubtedly well-made) and notice anew what an elegant car it is. But not once have I truly missed owning one.

11 thoughts on “Small Is Beautiful… and Why Modern Cars Are (usually) Better”

  1. Great to have a new contributor with a fresh outlook and set of experiences! That would have been my favourite spec 75 too, albeit the contrary (aka stupid) bit of me quite fancied the 2.0l V6 too. I like the 75 – fantastic flanks and a now much copied rear 3/4 profile and boot treatment (I have you in mind Mercedes C, E, S classes). Good choice in the Panda too – I’d love to hear more about your experience of the Twin-Air. Nice job!

    1. Thanks for your kind comments. I enjoyed writing the article and might, indeed, like to write more about the Twin-Air.

  2. The Rover 75 will unfortunately always be overshadowed by the events around its launch and the subsequent fate of its manufacturer. If we can look past that, it really was a decent car and offered a distinct Englishness in a field of otherwise quite similar cars. It deserves a good afterlife rather than being merely seen as cheap curiosity.

  3. The survival rate of first-series 75s around these parts would appear to be less good if the frequency of sightings is any reliable marker. Given that they haven’t as yet entered the ‘cherished classic’ sphere of highdays and holiday use, I can only guess as to why that may be. Yet, apart from the well publicised head gasket issues surrounding the K-Series, they were a pretty well made and durable car.

    A very elegant one as well, even if some of the detailing was a little on the Downton Abbey side. Overall, though, it’s a car I have a lot of time for, and given it celebrates the 20th anniversary of its launch this autumn, we really ought to give it the full DTW treatment.

    Good call on the Panda too, by the way… welcome to the ranks of contributors, Chris.

  4. Chris, I enjoyed reading your first DTW contribution and I’m looking forward to reading more.
    Old car or new(ish) car, that question isn’t unknown to me. My first four daily drivers (all of them Citroëns) were between eleven and nineteen years old when I bought them, and I usually kept them for three to five years. Luckily, I never had the impression that any of them felt out of place for my driving environment. As different as they were, each of them was fun to drive in its own way – much more than any modern car I drove during that time. True, our company Passats worked much more smoothly, no rattling to hear, no wobbly switches or levers, no fear of a sudden hydraulic leak or failing starter. But how boring they all were to drive.
    In the end, I found a compromise. My C6 benefitted from a young age, which promised good reliability and a certain chance of being able to keep the car for a longer period. And it was at least a car with a character very of its own, which for me provides most of the fun part. Sure, it could be lighter and more nimble around town or in the mountains, but that’s not my usual terrain. And sometimes I miss the idiosyncrasies of my CXs, the hissing steering or the unusual controls, the unique shape.
    In a nutshell, for me it’s really hard to tell what’s better, old or new. I’m glad I had the opportunity to enjoy both worlds (and might do so again, once my restoration project is done).

  5. Maybe it’s just a matter of managing one’s expectations, but I must say my Jaguar XJ matched and even exceeded what I was hoping for when I bought it years ago.

    Certain caveats were a given: Reliability and efficiency in particular weren’t what I was expecting from a decades-old British V12 saloon, but even longer frustrating stretches (mainly due to an incompetent garage) couldn’t quite overshadow the enjoyment I got from the Jaguar.

    Contrary to your Rover experience, Chris, I consider the Jaguar the perfect car for our times – thirst for fuel excepted. Its sublime ride, moderate width, excellent outward visibility, inviting interior ambience, lack of unnecessary electronic distractions and generally becalming air make it the (almost) perfect device for today’s overcrowded, pothole’d autobahns.

    Apart from that, I’m also looking forward to what you’ve got to say about the Fiat.

  6. Ah yes, the Panda! A sympathetic choice, a car that makes me smile when I see it among all the testosterone vehicles we have on our streets today. It still has a loyal following around here, thanks to its 4×4 version which comes very handy for us mountain-dwellers. And I have to say, I like the sound of its 2-cylinder engine that makes it stand out from the anonymous crowd.

  7. I detect lots of Panda love here. Driving our Tipo 169 is always a pleasure, and after eight years it still feels robust and precisely assembled. I don’t rate its successor as highly as a piece of industrial design, but it does bring some practical and safety benefits.

    It’s the only sub-B car that doesn’t feel as if its main purpose is to pull people into showrooms and make sure they leave with a car one size bigger. I’ll be interested to see how the – now defunct – TwinAir goes. It came at a considerable premium over the seemingly inextinguishable FIRE, which does its job remarkably well – it’s the Austin A-series of our times.

    Every home should have one – and hopefully the opportunity will continue – it’s Fiat’s second best-selling product by a tiny margin behind the 500. Let’s hope it’s immune to The Fiat Charter and Sergio’s capriciousness.

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