Geneva 2019 Reflections – Eclectic and Electric

As the halls of Palexpo return to their quiescent state, one DTW reporter reflects on an engaging Estonian, a divisive dreamer, and new masters at Pickersleigh Road.

Image: autovia-media

So how was Geneva? “Very electric” has become my customary reply, when I choose not to elaborate. In Europe at least, the internal combustion is likely to be on the off-ramp within one model cycle.  The denial is over, but the latest mainstream offerings evince a feeling of uneasy stasis.

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Renault and Peugeot had new superminis. The Clio has gone all German, in the sense of looking like a mild facelift of the preceding model. They call it “evolution and revolution”, but I only recognised the first.

Peugeot e-208 Image: autovia-media

Peugeot’s new 208 has a full battery electric version with convincing, but not outstanding, range and performance numbers. Styling is inoffensive, subsuming many of the well-received 508’s leitmotivs. Like every Peugeot supermini since the 206, it would benefit from a 75mm wheelbase stretch, entirely taken up in the rearmost pair of doors.

Peugeot 208 Image: autovia-media

Both of these French  B-segment hatches are hugely important to their manufacturers. They vie for Europe-wide class leadership, and if PSA and Renault don’t get them right, disaster could befall them.

Of the mainstream, there was little to beguile.

Ford, Opel, Volvo, and Hyundai didn’t even bother to turn up. Neither did Tata’s premium division, although the domestic operation’s Harrier and Buzzard SUVs impressed, based on their Omega Arc platform, closely related to the JLR D8 chassis

Tata Buzzard Geneva Edition Image: Tata Motors

I’ve already expressed my infatuation with Fiat’s Centoventi concept. A few metres away, the Alfa Romeo Tonale SUV concept brought mixed feelings, despite complying fully with The Concept Car Charter.

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The designers use the Alfa ‘vocabulary’ of detailing with impressive articulacy, but it’s lipstick on plump, old-style small SUV proportions. VAG, Opel, PSA, and even Ssangyong have used clever devices such as ‘floating’ roofs and side scalloping to reduce the apparent height and narrowness of their latest generation of SUVs. Strip away the wallpaper, and the Tonale’s more 2009 than 2019.

Felix Eaton Image: autovia-media

I hope that Eóin and I can agree to differ on The Difficult Matter of Eadon Green. My two regular Salon-going companions and I were quick to make Felix Eaton’s acquaintance in 2017 before the covers were off his first car.

We like Felix, and we’d like to think he still likes us. In 2017 he was taciturn about what underpinned the Black Cuillin, his Alfa 8C 2900-inspired Meisterwerk.

Now he’s far more relaxed about such matters. Each year has seen a new Eadon Green creation, and each follows a different strategy. In 2018 his Corvette-based Zeclat looked like the sort of car which might fill the hairline crack in the market vacated by the moribund Morgan Aero 8.

Eadon Green Zeclat Image:

Felix cultivates something of the aura of a rock star emeritus, but made his fortune in shopfitting. He is candid about the personal indulgence of his car-making venture. It’s a game for him, and one he continues to enjoy immensely. If there was the possibility of selling some replicas of the first two cars, he’d be up for it, if the money was right and the legislative hurdles could be vaulted.

What would 2019 deliver from Felix’s fecund imagination? Would it be a Zelan, or a Zelite? Or perhaps a Zesprit or Zelise? I’m being silly of course.

The covers were lifted from the Zanturi, Carrosserie Speciale on a Rolls Royce Dawn core structure.

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I can report that the body is far more elegant in three dimensions than photographs suggest. There are hints of the Embiricos Bentley, particularly in the flowing tail. It’s a refreshing antidote to the goût Arabe creations on the surrounding stands, and the ubquitous output of the ever more fecund Universal Electric Supercar Factory.

The Zanturi exhibit is a non-mobile styling buck. Somewhere in the Eaton estate is a depleted Dawn donor. Felix told us that Rolls-Royce have been co-operative, but have resisted a formal association with the project. He showed us a photo of the Zanturi with a RR grille; it doesn’t look in the least incongruous, but the Eadon Green shield looks fine too.

Production is a possibility – Eadon Green’s prototyping partner has the capacity to build 200 bodies a year. Is the “British Boutique Car Manufacturer” about to join the coachbuilding elite? Geneva is where such dreams begin.

Nobe 100GT Image: autovia-media

No Geneva Show report would be complete without a three-wheeled retro-styled battery electric vehicle with high ambitions. I’ve previously written about the now-cancelled electro-steampunk Morgan EV3, and Wim Oubouter’s Isetta-inspired Microlino.

This year I feared a drought, but previously unknown Nobe Cars stepped into the breach with their 100 and 100GT, which meet every parameter. The company is Estonian, but I won’t hold that against them.

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Visually the little car is eclectic in the extreme. The feel is of a long-forgotten Soviet-era prototype of the early ‘60s – space race combined with a bricolage of western influences. It’s so off-beat that it really ought to have an air-cooled 120° V-twin, or an opposed-piston two-stroke. Inevitably, in these times, the powertrain is battery electric.

Image: Nobe Cars

“Nobe” means fast and agile in the Estonian language. Some footage of a 100 being drifted in deep snow certainly confirms the latter. As for speed, the higher-powered GT manages 130km/hour, about 6km/h less than the ten year old Mitsubishi i-MiEV. The range claimed is about three times what I would trust the Mitsubishi to provide.

Image: Nobe Cars

There’s technical interest too – the cars have three wheel drive and claimed ranges of 210 and 260km from two under-seat battery packs described as ‘briefcase-sized’. More daunting is the price – €47,000 including 20% VAT in its home market for the removable roof 100 GT, €10,000 less for the fixed-head lower-powered 100. Classification as a motorcycle or quad bike in many legislatures will help Nobe’s path to type approval, as it absolves them from many safety requirements.

As the major carmakers ready sub-€20,000 battery-electric vehicles, the Nobe’s prices – €37,000 to €47,000 tax paid ex-Tallinn – look set to consign it to the ranks of quirky outsiders.

Image: Morgan Motor Company

And so to Morgan. The venerable Worcestershire firm is only ten years younger than Fiat, and its 110th anniversary was marked by two announcements by the company’s Chief Executive, Steve Morris. The first was the Centumdecem, an all-electric, modular, user-customisable six wheel drive SUV.

I’m being facetious of course…

Morgan Plus Six Image: autovia-media

The major car announcement is the Plus Six on their new “CX” (as in 110) bonded aluminium “wide body” chassis, set out for all to examine. It’s a convincing piece of engineering, independently suspended by double wishbones all round. The design and development is by an external consultancy – no name check, but said elsewhere to be founded by ex-Lotus engineers.

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The big lump of technology under the louvred bonnet is a 3.0 litre BMW B58B30M, Morgan’s first straight six, and their first turbocharged engine.

Morgan Plus Six Image: autovia-media

My favourite Plus Six number is 1050kg – its kerb weight. Compare that with the 1550kg of the lightest BMW applications. It’s a reminder that Morgan are, and always have been, a sports car maker, to the exclusion of anything else. The new series seems truer to the Morgan spirit than the superseded Aero family, which always seemed like alien incubi from the strange era when two German carmakers tried to colonise the British motor industry.

And so to the other announcement. There have been stories doing the rounds for some time of Morgan buying VQ chassis tooling from Aston Martin, but the presence of Dominic Riley, Morgan’s chairman suggested that the big news would be commercial, rather than technical.

As indeed it was, and hot news too; the takeover of a majority stake in the company by Investindustrial, a wide-based European investment group,  leaving small stakes held by the Morgan family and the employees and management.

Steve Morris, MD since 2013, and a lifetime Morgan employee, continues to be an outstanding steward of the company. In a post-conference chat, he told us that the employees had been briefed at 12:30 GMT, in advance of the Geneva Press Conference at 13:45 CET. Unsurprisingly he was keen to commend the virtues of the new ownership; major R&D investment to face a changing world, a solid ethical and commercial track record, fulfilment of global potential, a bright future for the company and its 180 employees.

In 2018 Morgan produced 735 vehicles, 315 of these being three-wheelers.  They have never made more than 1000 vehicles in a year since the 1930s. (figures from Turnover in 2018 was £33.8m, with a net profit of £3.2 million. The margin would be the stuff of dreams for most volumes, but the profits would just about buy an unimpressive house in London.

The new masters are not going to accept the status quo, and for Morgan it’s not an option either. The EVA GT and EV3 demonstrate amply that the company has no fear of the post-internal combustion future.

Yet there was a feeling of unease among the British media. Business-speak alert: Investindustrial will want their pound of flesh, or “investor value”.  “Leveraging of the brand” will not be far away. I fear a drive to turn Morgan into a four-wheeled Harley Davidson. Long before it gains the world, Morgan could lose its own soul.

Fingers firmly crossed for a car firm like no other…

Image: Morgan Motor Company

8 thoughts on “Geneva 2019 Reflections – Eclectic and Electric”

  1. £3.2m might not buy a house in London to impress the Oligarchs and Oil Sheiks in your life, but it could certainly purchase and furnish a home of good taste, that any normal person would be happy with for decades.

    Perhaps there is an analogy in there somewhere?

    Investindustrial have got their cash back from their stake in Aston Martin, following the recent flotation, and so have turned their sights on Morgan. Is a stock market flotation really a viable prospect for this company too? I am not sure (AM’s tanking share price won’t help) so I wonder what their exit strategy is?

    Still, one can be cautiously optimistic, I suppose. Morgan seem to know what they are and what they should be, which is vital. And they are still building cars partially out of wood, which is just amazing.

  2. Jacomo -perhaps a London house wasn’t the best choice of comparison.

    A better one would be 1.06 x Andy Palmer’s ‘compensation’ for 2018 – an indicator that the sort of management focused on “leveraging investor value” doesn’t sell itself cheap.

    (On the matter of international business-speak, the “compensation” expression for what used to be ‘remuneration’ or ’emoluments’ is an odd one. It suggests that the person rewarded would far rather be spending their time in the pub or lying on a beach, but instead takes on the indignity and nuisance of managing a business out of a sense of duty and the prospect of a modest handout for their trouble.)

  3. Tata Motors’ passenger vehicle division is on something of a roll lately. Starting with the Tiago in 2016 (which entered its gestation period as the Zica and was renamed because of some unhappy conflation in prospective buyers minds with a certain southern virus), Tatas don’t sell on price alone anymore. Although still very sensibly priced, usually undercutting rivals by some margin, what arguably lifted them out of their sales ditch they found themselves in during the first half of the decade (“the world’s cheapest car” Nano not the least of its problems) is a very successful new design direction under design chief Pratap Bose.

    The Tiago was followed by the Tigor (its sedan sibling) and then the Nexon, a small CUV with styling that is supposed to be read as being rather bold. Appealing to India’s growing middle-class youth, it turned out to be a runaway success. More important still, it single-handedly changed Tata’s image from one catering to India’s sub-par Taxi businesses to one of youthful aspiration.

    German CEO Guenter Butschek, at the helm since February 2016, following years of executive hurly-burly including sudden deaths and prolonged wars of roses, seems to steer the brand further up-market, finally attempting to find synergies with its struggling British JLR child.
    The Harrier, introduced to the Indian market surrounded by a lot of buzz in January, with reports being that availability is still limited as of now due to manufacturing problems, is the first step towards that goal. The Buzzard, its seven-seater sibling, is supposed to start in autumn, alongside a new “premium” hatch named Altroz sitting above the Tiago, going against the likes of Maruti Suzuki Baleno and Hyundai Elite i20. The Altroz is going to have a BEV variant as well.

    If Tata manages to overhaul its sub-par dealership experiences and service quality, one can’t but see its future rather bullish – something that can’t be said without blushing about its JLR subsidiary that still accounts for roughly 90 per cent of Tatas profits (or losses). While the latter kept the mothership afloat during the past couple of years, whether or not the other way round of doing things is even feasible, is a matter of debate.

    1. Hi Daniel,

      They should figure out a way to change their brand name don’t you think ?
      I’m sure some people have no problem with the name. But I do. And since I have to live myself 24/7 it has become an issue. In French, it sounds like ‘Auntie’, in English and plural I’m thinking of a part of the female anatomy. God knows what else is stands for in other languages, as I think these are the sort of repeating sounds that often have a ‘funny’ meaning, if that makes sense.

    2. You can’t really blame the Tatas for their given family name now, can you?
      That said, in German, my native tongue, “tata” would be the second syllable describing the sound of ambulances and police cars. Then again, Tata Motors is well advised not to care too much about my sensibilities, at least as long as they limit their geographical ambitions to Southeast Asia (and South Africa, I’m told).

    3. Thank you for your reply.

      There’s no law that says your car company has to have your family name either 😉

      I know it’s just a name but I believe names can have a big (and unquantifiable ?) impact on people !

  4. I haven’t followed closely this salon as much as in previous years. I blame the lack of concept cars. There used to be a time when a concept car was a given from most manufacturers at most major salons but in the last few years they’re becoming less frequent I think.

    Talking about concepts, I don’t know how I feel about the Fiat concept at Genevea. Purely because tradiotionally Fiat doesn’t do concept cars , that “rule” was slightlty relaxed when they allowed their Brazilian studios to come up with concepts for the Sao Paulo salon in recent years but it looks like the new CEO is taking a different approach.

    I agree with Mr. Parazitas about the 90’s feel of the Alfa Romeo Tonale concept. It’s one of the first thing that striked me. Still it’s nice to see FCA come up with new material after the draught experienced during the Marchionne years.

    The duel 208/Clio in Geneva was one of the highlight for me. Mainly because we’re now conditioned to see it as this big rivalry between the 2 brands and the 2 models since PSA and Renault make sure these two are always renewed exactly at the same time for the last 20+ years. I’m for the Clio btw. Purely because I find Peugeot and PSA arrogant and they’ve often lagged behind Renault in many areas.

  5. “Felix cultivates something of the aura of a rock star emeritus, but made his fortune in shopfitting. He is candid about the personal indulgence of his car-making venture. It’s a game for him, and one he continues to enjoy immensely. If there was the possibility of selling some replicas of the first two cars, he’d be up for it, if the money was right and the legislative hurdles could be vaulted.”

    In the USA, the replicar legislation allow for small manufacturers to produce up to 325 replicas of cars that are at least 25 years old. Manufacturers are absolutely exempt from all the usual regulations, except they have to use an emissions compliant engine, and they have to own the intellectual property rights to the original car.

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