The 1987 ECOTY winner was something of a DTW stalwart. Even more so however was the fifth placed entrant, one championed by longtime panellist and judge, L.J.K. Setright.
Since its inception in 1964, the European Car of the Year has been an annual award, adjudicated by a panel of leading European motoring journalists. Its stated aim has been to acclaim the most outstanding new car to go on sale within the 12 months preceding the adjudication.
The ECOTY jury currently consists of 60 members, representing 23 European countries. National representation is based on the size and significance of the country’s car market. France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy and Spain each have six jury members; other countries, proportionally fewer.
In the current year, the award was organised by the following international publications: Auto (Italy) / Autocar (UK) / Autopista (Spain) / Autovisie (The Netherlands) / L’Automobile Magazine (France) / Stern (Germany) / Vi Bilägare (Sweden).
In the two decades which followed its inauguration, the winning cars were mostly cars of some technical merit (with one or two exceptions), but by the mid-1980s, winners were becoming less notable; a matter partly explained by the conservatism which has since gripped the European industry.
For many years, eminent motor journalist, commentator and critic, L.J.K. Setright had been amongst the UK cadre of judges and could be relied upon as much to champion the technically interesting underdog as for his impassioned and beautifully crafted expository epistles.
In 1987, writing in Car, he outlined the manner in which the judging for that year’s award took place. Amongst the shortlist were such cars as the Audi (B3) 80, the BMW (E32) 7-Series, the Fiat Croma, the Jaguar (XJ40) XJ6, the Opel Omega (A), nee Vauxhall Carlton, the Peugeot 309, the Renault 21, the Rover 800, and the Volvo 480. With 1425 points to bestow in total, the maximum which the jury could award any individual car was 570.
The winning car received 275 points in total, well clear of the remaining entries with only the second placed car coming within 100 points of the winner. The top three were placed as follows. First: Opel Omega. Second: Audi 80. Third: BMW 7-Series. The Opel was a clear and popular winner, Setright observing that despite no jury member awarding it maximum (10) points, nobody shunned it completely, a matter which no rival could claim.
LJKS had not backed this particular horse, a matter which becomes evident in his less than effusive appraisal. “We must accept that the Opel, ponderous when confined but running so freely when at large will meet the needs of many. If you wish to deduce from this that the car scored a good average by being a good average car, I would not disagree.” In his defence, the Omega, slippery bodyshell apart, had little of note to commend it, being a slightly more capable car than the one it replaced, yet a slightly inferior one to its Granada/Scorpio rival.
Of the second placed Audi, Setright opined, “A much better case is presented by the Audi. Here is a respectably fresh design full of merit, and if the Quattro version were the only one, it would score more highly. However the bulk of production will have only two wheel drive, and in this form the car suffers from steering so dismal as to make a misery what would otherwise be a scarcely alloyed pleasure.”
“Those of us who like to see the accolade go to a truly outstanding exemplar of all that is good, may lament the distaste of some judges for anything born in the purple”, LJKS lamented, and indeed while occasionally over the event’s history, prestige marques had taken the garlands, ECOTY judges tended to favour more egalitarian fare.
Speaking of the third placed BMW, he noted, “Very little detracts from the pleasures of driving the BMW; and when one is not in the mood even for that, the car is equipped to assume many of the driver’s usual responsibilities itself. It is a most clever aggregation of clever tricks, many of the minor engineering details being truly delightful; yet, though the price may be even greater than the sum of its parts, the car as a whole is not. Mild disappointment in the noise levels and the rear accommodation, in the rear suspension and in the overall appearance robs the car of the points that it ought to have earned.”
The Fiat, Renault and Volvo lacked a compelling case in their favour and were dismissed by our man but the Rover got a better hearing, LJKS noting, “ It would be foolish to pretend that the Rover was a better car than the BMW; but in the absence of disappointments, in profusion of appointments, and in value for money, it is almost supreme this year. Especially in its V6 form (which to my unfeigned astonishment was markedly better than the Honda to which it is so closely related) it behaves with exceptional grace.”
However, Setright reserved his highest praise for the Jaguar, observing, “Not for many years have we seen a candidate so thoroughly, so cleverly, so earnestly and so responsibly designed, developed and made. It is immeasurably better engineered than anything else remotely comparable in price; and for those who do not care for what is subcutaneous, its behaviour is so impeccable as to shame everything else, almost regardless of price. It has no peers.” Yet despite the UK judges (to a man) awarding it their highest marks, everyone else, with the exception of one or two Dutch panellists dismissed the XJ6 as of no account.
While acknowledging his part, Setright wondered if nationalist bias was at play, but observed that voting cleaved to patriotic lines only amongst the British and German judges, the latter cohort getting firmly behind the Ingolstadt contender. The French and Italian contingent meanwhile shunned their own industry, voting solidly for the BMW (France) and the Audi (Italy). The Swedish contingent unanimously backed the Opel.
LJKS concluded that occasionally a car exerted “a strong subconscious appeal to some cultural sensitivity at which it was never specifically aimed”, citing the British motorist’s one-time affinity for the Traction Avant Citroën. But regardless of rational or emotional argument, what can be discerned is the fact that the GM product was, if not an undeserving winner, one of a growing line of mildly underwhelming ones.