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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.