Driven to Write loses an uneven struggle to frame a rather unremarkable automotive year.
Be it economically, politically, or indeed the arts, 1988 proved to be a year of transition. And while the UK music charts were increasingly dominated by the burgeoning counter-culture of dance music, some older orders remained stubbornly implacable.
Following his first solo album release in 1981, actor and former Genesis percussionist and lead singer, Phil Collins had become one of the World’s biggest grossing recording artists, amassing in the region of 150 million album sales. A large proportion of these came on the back of tracks like his chart-topping (across six countries) 1988 release – a cover of the 1965 Mindbenders’ single, Groovy Kind of Love, taken from the soundtrack of Buster, a sepia-toned UK made biopic of ‘Great Train Robber’, Buster Edwards, in which he also starred.
Dominating the domestic automotive scene on the other hand was the SMMT announcement that 1987 UK car sales exceeded the two million mark for the first time, but with economists warning of an impending worldwide recession, celebrations were premature. Also making the news that year was the announcement of the deaths of carmaker, Donald Healey and legendary BMC engineer, Sir Alec Issigonis.
The British Grand Prix at Silverstone was won by Phil Collins fan, Ayrton Senna, from tabloid darling Nigel Mansell, who later that year would sign for Scuderia Ferrari. Furthering the Collins analogy was the fact that the Ford Escort steadfastly remained Britain’s favourite motor car.
When journalists were summoned to Italy to be presented with Maserati’s latest supercar, anticipation was said to have run high. This was abruptly dispelled by the appearance of the Karif, simply another derivation of the endlessly permuted Biturbo concept.
Despite owner Alessando de Tomaso’s claims that the Karif was intended to ‘look normal’, it was more a matter of straitened necessity, there being little in the coffers to justify a bespoke body. So a hardtop variant of the Biturbo Spider’s shell was what we got, lending a somewhat abrupt appearance.
Performance of the twin-turbocharged 285 bhp 2.8 litre V6 was also rather abrupt, with supercar levels of acceleration and highly enjoyable powerslides available on demand. The Biturbo series raised Maserati volumes tenfold, but eroded its exclusive image with dubious durability, a matter the admittedly rapid Karif did little to dispel.
The Opel Vectra (A) of 1988 saw Russelsheim bring its mainstay model into the aero age with a slippery new body clothing a gently massaged Ascona C platform. A particularly well crafted piece of mainstream car styling, the newly christened Vectra looked great in the showroom and came with the usual bewildering array of engines, transmissions (including 4WD) and trim levels, but left drivers somewhat underwhelmed by somewhat inert dynamics.
A huge commercial success however, the Vectra gave the vital fleet market exactly what it wanted, while giving Henry’s facelifted Sierra even more to worry about. It also notably lent its platform (sad to relate) to Saab for the pretty if somewhat vacant NG900.
The Renault 9/11 series was the 1980’s definition of vin ordinaire. Tepid both to look at and to drive, it’s demise ended the worst of Billancourt’s anodyne period. Having previously swapped Marcello Gandini for Giorgetto Giugiaro as go-to design consultant, Renault brought forth the 19, its first serious Golf rival since the unfortunate 14 model a generation before, said by Commercial Director, Paul Percie du Sert, to combine “a uniform balance of qualities”.
Unremarkable is the most apt adjective one could coin for the 19’s styling, but it was well proportioned and drove nicely, apart from the usual Douai ‘sticky’ gearchange. It was also decently well made, Renault going to some effort to raise its game in this area. Against the Mark II Golf, Peugeot 309 and Escort, the 19 acquitted itself well, but dated quickly.
It was a busy year for VW, with the launch of both Passat and Corrado models. The B3 Passat was an all-new car, the first on a transverse engined platform, believed to be derived from that of the Golf. Volkswagen made much of the car’s packaging, claiming as much interior room as that of a Saab 9000. Blessed with a long wheelbase and a truly massive cabin, the feeling of space inside was heightened in no small measure by the paucity of interior fittings. Spartan (if well fitted) was very much the word.
Claims of improved dynamics were not unfounded, with the big VW displaying fine manners and a decent ride, but the cable-operated gearchange was nasty, and the engines struggled in the weighty body. The in-house styling was aero-focused, and heavily influenced by VW’s 1981 Auto 2000 concept. Notable for the lack of a formal grille and body-coloured badging, the Passat’s visual ethos was almost entirely product design-led.
Debuting alongside, the Corrado coupé was anything but. Schemed as far back as the late ’70s, work on the car, initially dubbed Taifun began in 1983 as a Scirocco replacement, but was put aside as its sophistication ruled out such a move on cost grounds. Like the Passat, the Corrado was based on Golf underpinnings, but featured a more sophisticated chassis and more powerful engines, including a novel 1.8 litre G-Lader supercharged version.
Originally intended as a ‘squareback’ shape, the body design was the work of VW’s own studio, with many noting a resemblance to Giugiaro’s original Scirocco – a claim Volkswagen’s design chief, Herbert Schäfer airily refuted to Car Magazine’s Georg Kacher, saying, “I don’t see this familiarity at all. What you refer to are typical and traditional VW styling elements such as a long nose, wide C-pillars and lipped wheelarches.” Tell that one to Giorgetto, Herbie.
1991 saw the Corrado fitted with a 2861 cc version of VW’s troubled narrow angle VR6 engine, which catapulted the Volkswagen into Porsche territory in performance, dynamics (shared with the four cylinder cars) and price. In the end, the Corrado was too ambitious, customers seeming to baulk at paying Zuffenhausen money for the Wolfsburg roundel, the Karmann built Corrado being axed without replacement in 1995. File under vanity project.
Speaking of vanity, Audi’s push into the upper reaches of the luxury car market had stalled by mid-decade, blunted by their ‘unintended acceleration’ woes in the US market and an ongoing customer resistance to paying top whack for Ingolstadt’s upmarket offerings. Ferdinand Piëch’s typically reasoned response was a new unimaginatively named V8-engined flagship.
Powered by an all-new 3.6 litre quad-cam unit, coupled to Audi’s Quattro 4WD system through a four-speed ZF automatic transmission, the Audi V8 appears to have proven a somewhat lacklustre performer. Employing a C3* Audi 100/200 bodyshell, the V8 was subtly lengthened (nose) and widened (wheelarches) but despite its more muscular appearance, it looked little different externally to its less pricey siblings.
Piëch is alleged to have told journalists that he didn’t expect the competition to arrive at an equally competent product in the next four-to-five years, which was somewhat ironic, given the car’s lack of either critical or commercial success. Arguably one of the few occasions Ferdi lost the run of himself.
But he wasn’t alone. Once a respected musician, by the late ’80s, Phil Collins had become something of a parody, omnipresent in film and TV, not to mention a purveyor of wallpaper pop – famously described by a critic as “some of the cheesiest music ever committed to acetate“. Within a few short years, his oeuvre would become the shorthand for the vacuous sheen of ’80s consumption as spelled out in loving detail by novelist Brett Easton Ellis in his 1991 novel, American Psycho.
1988, may have been a groovy kind of love, but times were changing and like most loves, it was one which would prove fleeting.
The cars of 1988 we did write about.
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