Anniversary Waltz 1998 – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

As we complete our retrospective of 1998, we ponder air and water.


Not simply one the World’s busiest airports, but amongst the most challenging from a pilot’s perspective, Hong Kong’s Kai Tak airport had by the 1990s become something of a liability. Situated in the heavily built-up Kowloon district, the technically difficult approach over mountains and city skyscrapers not only looked and felt alarming, but the abrupt banked descent to the single runway in Victoria Harbour required both nerve and experience.

The World’s largest airport terminal building when it officially opened in 1998, the newly built Hong Kong International airport at Chek Lap Kok put paid to the hair-raising sight of 747’s skirting the tips of the Hong Kong skyline. Built on a reclaimed island in the South China Sea, flights into the Kowloon Peninsula became a good deal less dramatic and a whole lot more frequent.

A consequence of its lengthy connection with Mazda, Ford had for some time been attempting to woo European audiences with a succession of Hiroshima-based, Probe-branded offerings to diminishing returns, but also a good deal of schoolboy sniggering behind UK bike sheds. But with the 90s coupé renaissance in full swing, Ford’s product strategists believed in the potential of a model to rival successful rivals, such as the Opel Calibra, Coupé Fiat, and Toyota Celica.

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Employing a modified Mondeo platform and mechanical package, the Cougar was introduced that summer. Despite sharing a well-sorted chassis with its Mondeo donor which garnered praise from the motor press, the Cougar’s styling told against it, falling unsatisfyingly between a number of stools. Sales too fell short of expectations and despite also being built and sold in the US (under the Mercury brand), it proved short-lived, the last example being built in 2004.

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Replacing a much-loved and highly successful model is never a straightforward exercise and for Peugeot, the Sacre Numero proved fiendishly difficult to erase. The solution they initially espoused was to swerve it, but by the mid-90s, it was clear that this strategy had rebounded. Cue feverish work to ready a fully-fledged B-sector entrant.

The first of the post-Pininfarina Peugeot’s from la Garenne, the 206 was designed under the supervision of Gérard Welter and marked a palpable departure from the crisp tailoring and precise surfacing of their onetime Italian carrozzeria. Arguably the most stylistically accomplished of that era’s Peugeot designs, the 206 was pert, and (arguably) prettier than the class norm, with subtle nods to its revered predecessor, particularly in three-door format.

Produced in a bewildering array of engine sizes, trim levels, not to mention manufacturing sites, the 206 survived its own successor, gaining an unfortunate Drive-Sexy makeover in 2009, which was offered alongside the newer 207 until 2013. But such has been the 206’s fecundity (it’s still just about being made in Iran) that it is reputedly the most successful Peugeot model ever, with over 8 million built. The 205 might well be more regarded, but there can be little doubt that the 206 justified the effort.

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Replacing an icon such as the 205 might have exercised intellects at Sochaux, but at Zuffenhausen it’s a challenge they face every time the eternal Nunelfer is renewed. However 1998’s reinvention was to prove its most controversial and to this day, least revered. The outcast 996 not only severed a technical tradition which dated back to Porsche’s origins, but marked the biggest stylistic shift in the model’s history.

Coinciding as it did with the death of Ferdinand (Ferry) Porsche, the advent of the virtually all-new 996 couldn’t really have come at a more sensitive moment, and to say traditionalists were horrified is something of an understatement.

Out went the once inviolate air-cooled flat six, replaced by a fully water-cooled unit, but the sacrilege didn’t end there. The 996’s body style, the work of designer Pinky Lai, not only was larger and broader across the beam than its more lithe predecessor, but it departed noticeably from time-honoured 911 themes, mating less voluptuous surfaces with a good deal of highly evident component sharing with its Boxster sibling.

Viewed to this day as the runt of an otherwise prized litter, the 996 remains the Nunelfer nobody really much cares for.

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While reclamation was the order of business across the industry, at Rover Group it had already become an article of faith. Once a forward-looking, technically driven marque, by the ’90s the Longship had fully embraced past glories. Part of an ill-judged growth strategy, the 75 was conceived to erase uncomfortable recollections of shoddy SD1s and frangible 800s, and to recalibrate perceptions to well crafted upmarket saloons like the well-regarded and long-lived P5.

The 75 emerged as a attractively designed product (courtesy of Richard Wooley), perhaps the finest autonomously developed Rover Group model, but became a victim of timing, of the fragility of Rover’s larger capacity K-Series engines, of changing customer perceptions and of the machinations within parent company, BMW – elements of whom were by then questioning the validity of the entire exercise.

The Longship’s swansong probably deserved a better fate than it received in the marketplace, not to mention from their new owners, once BMW had walked away. But above all, the 75 can perhaps be best summed up as Rover’s Thesis. Just as lovely, just as wrong.


The retrospective mood across the automotive sphere proved so pervasive during this period, that not even Volkswagen’s Spanish outpost was immune. Despite having no appreciable styling heritage to draw upon, VW’s design consultancy of choice did, applying cues from its back catalogue to Seat’s 1998 debutante.

Based on the Golf V platform and mechanical package, the León was arguably Seat’s first pure C-sector contender since the much-lauded Ronda. The attractive body design was the work of carrozzeria Ital Design, reprising themes from the 1971 Alfa Romeo Alfasud, Giugiaro’s first independent design commission.

Aside from some visual deja-vu, the León was pretty normative Nineties C-segment fare, although the performance oriented 20-valve turbo model was a well-regarded fast hatch. Offering little over its Golf donor apart from a cheaper entry point and (debatably) nicer styling, the León proved a modest success, if a car (and marque) lacking any notable USP.


Such are the machinations behind the Smart car that its tale really cannot be told in a couple of paragraphs. Having begun as a mobility project from watchmaker SMH (makers of Swatch), it eventually became a joint venture with Mercedes-Benz, eventually launching as an entirely Sindelfingen-managed programme. Much of the engineering work was carried out under the leadership of eminent M-B engineer, Johann Tomforde, who devised the clever structure and a novel form of modular assembly.

Likely a victim of project-drift, by the time Mercedes had obtained full control, cost and complication had spiralled. Certainly, it appears that nobody had worked out how a ground-up programme for a small (and therefore inexpensive) city car could be delivered profitably, so the fact that it remains the greatest automotive loss-maker of the noughties is not all that much of a shock. The fact that Daimler remained committed to it however, is.

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Thanks to a serious rethink and a vast infrastructural investment, visitors to Hong Kong would enjoy safer landings post-1998. The motor industry however continued myopically pursuing paths which would lead to unprecedented losses and further cost-cutting (Mercedes-Benz), its ultimate demise (Rover), and its absorption by the company it attempted to take-over (Porsche). After all, landing on water is always perilous, so it does help to build a runway first.

The cars of 1998 we did write about.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

10 thoughts on “Anniversary Waltz 1998 – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”

  1. I always thought the interior, especially the dashboard, on the 206 was horrid, with nasty graining. The gear change was also terrible – like that on the Xsara Picasso. The Fabia and Yaris of the era murdered it.

  2. The Ford Cougar is a car worthy of further examination, even if just to understand why it is so “wrong”. It took me some time to find a rare profile photo on the Internet, and that in itself might be a clue:

    The stance is all wrong. The overhangs front and rear are huge but, even so, the wheelbase looks too long for a close-coupled coupe, with a large expanse of bodywork between the trailing edge of the door and the rear wheel arch. The transverse engine FWD packaging is betrayed by the very small space between the leading edge of the door and front wheel arch, so the imagined line from the A-pillar overshoots the wheel centre. The wheels themselves are overwhelmed by the sheer body sides.

    So, the basic proportions are to blame…or are they? Actually, the proportions are in fact very similar to those of a mid-engined supercar, say, for an example Ferrari. Before you decide that I’ve really lost it this time, take a look at this:

    It makes you think what might have been offered on that mechanical package, if the designers had cut loose.

    1. Good observation, that. It´s faint praise but I much prefer the Cougar. More constructively, I think the Cougar (and most cars) are seldom seen from side view from a long distance. The photo of the Cougar is quite artificial in a way and in normal viewing distances you don´t perceive the length of the overhangs. You are correct to point out that if they had lowered the front seats they could have made a much lower car … or could they. The engine is in the way and that might set a limit on how low the H-point could have been.

  3. Not convinced? Here’s what an enterprising individual did to a Cougar:

    I had to look twice to see which was the real Audi R8 and which was the modified Cougar.

    1. Wow, what a discovery! Who would go through the lengths (and it really looks like they tried hard) to create such CougaR8? How very unexpected…

  4. Putting them side by side as above, I realized for the first time that it’s the same bonbon-esque softness of the shapes that I dislike about the Peugeot 206 and about the Porsche 996. (And I have been trying to like the Porsche 996 for a long time, for it being the only somewhat “affordable” Porsche 911.) Rather unexpectedly, I think the Rover 75 has aged best from the above cars.

    The original Smart would also have a guaranteed corner in my museum of all-time automotive icons. What I never quite understood though is why it had to be so horrible to drive. I see that the short wheelbase will set certain limitations to ride comfort. But I don’t see how physics curse this car to have the worst steering. the worst break pedal and the worst transmission of probably any car produced since the 1990s. (At least the worst I have ever driven…)

    The Ford Cougar has always been ruined for an entirely different reason for me. Back in the early 2000s a teacher at my school drove a silver one much like that in the profile shot above. And in my mind his rather questionable reputation got mixed with cars. I’ve never been able to sever that association. Understanding our opinions will remain no less challenging than nailing a pudding to the wall, I suppose…

    1. After the A-Class’s elk/moose test debacle Mercedes was at fire and the Smart project came under scrutiny in every aspect because they feared a reiteration of said catastrophe.
      As a result the Smart got wider rear tyres (still have an original brochure showing it with narrow tyres) and widened wheel arches, a very stiff suspension and extremely mushy steering and a distinctly undresteery road behaviour. Anything that might have been caused abrupt reactions was eliminated to prevent the Smart from dangerous behaviour.

      The terrible gearbox wasn’t actually one gearbox but two. The Smart had a three-speed gearbox and a two-speed intermediate gear – one set of gears less than a six speed box but two boxes to shift, making the shift slow and clonky.

  5. From Wikipedia :
    “Like its (indirect) predecessor, the Ford Probe, the 1998 Cougar was sold and built in the United States. Cars destined to be sold in Europe and the United Kingdom were finished in Ford’s Köln plant in Germany, where the cars had European specification lighting installed, Ford badges applied (and in the case of United Kingdom and Australian cars, converted to RHD); ”

    Is the last phrase really true? Yet another Wikipedia article says the cars were built in both RHD and LHD at Flat Rock, Michigan: “In the United States, the Ford Cougar was built in both left and right-hand drive, with the latter allowing for its sale in the UK and Australia.” This makes more sense to me before shipping to Cologne for finishing for export markets.

    After the robust Probe based on a Mazda platform was dropped, to make the Cougar Ford would have had to drag its production machinery for the CDW27 platform either from Mexico or their Kansas City operations which both made the Countour (Mondeo) and instal it at the Mazda operation at Flat Rock they were leasing to the Japanese company which made 626s there. Sounds highly expensive.

    Anyway this Cougar blobmobile arrived, sold only at Mercury dealers in the US and Canada, where customer traffic was light to begin with compared to a Ford main dealer. It was a powder puff car and never sold very well, nor that well in Europe if Wikipedia can be trusted, and it obviously is on shaky ground on this car. Nobody cared, potential customers stayed away in droves and even Wikipedia writers seem to express a collective disinterest. Yaaawn.

    You were saying? Oh sorry, I was saying, um, I’ve forgotten what exactly. Oh yes, the fake Audi R8 has comically small rear discs.

  6. Was never a fan of the cars that replaced the Peugeot 106, 306, 406 and 605 in terms of both styling as well as driving ability/performance.

    It is known what caused Peugeot to completely lose the plot from the Peugeot 206 onwards, let alone which individuals played a role in Peugeot’s success from the late 1970s to late 1990s?

    What prevented Peugeot from answering the challenge from Renaultsport, Ford ST/RS, VAG Group, etc?

    Fiat were another company that also similarly lost the plot not long after with the Fiat Stilo, Grande Punto and Opel-based Croma.

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