Anniversary Waltz 1999 – Pre Millennial Tension

Waltzing into a new Millennium.

(c) Brittania Row

As fireworks crackled over the midnight skies and the twentieth century was bid adieu, we peered hopefully, if somewhat tentatively into a technologically dominated future, on one hand embraced, yet quietly dreaded. At least amongst those who weren’t gleefully predicting, if not the end of days itself, then at least imminent technological catastrophe. Y2K, aka the millennium bug was (loosely speaking), a coding issue pertaining to the storage of calendar year data, meaning that the rollover to the year 2000 carried with it the potential for all manner of unsavoury consequences.

It was widely believed at the time that without adequate mitigation, Y2K could precipitate widespread system malfunctions, and in the most doom-laden scenario (of which there was no shortage at the time), the complete failure of the digital networks which were increasingly dominating our lives, to carry on functioning.

Amid the multitudinal epochal celebrations was the opening of the UK’s Millennium Experience, a taxpayer funded journey into the heart of the New Labour project’s PR-fixated interior. Riven with governmental interference, bitter creative differences, and several high-profile resignations, its lack of tangible substance laid bare an intellectual and judgemental void within the Blair government – matters which would come tragically to roost three years later.

Ford’s acquisition of Volvo the same year, while not necessarily an act of hubris, had nonetheless more than a touch of corporate vanity to it, as indeed did the entire PAG project, especially given Dearborn’s failure to truly understand the markets it has purchased its way into. It too would end in ignominy.

Unnatural habitat. (c) BMW BLOG

One measure of just how much has changed in twenty years is to consider the BMW of 1999, for here was a carmaker who truly understood its market. A product of Designworks, the Veirzylinder’s US-based design and conceptual offshoot and billed as a sports activity vehicle, the pre-millennial X5 arrived with a more road-focused remit to that of the traditional SUV off-road vehicle. The X5, which was based on roadcar hardware (with a light sprinkling of 4×4 expertise from Solihull), espoused the BMW brand message to a new market sector in the most unmistakable manner. Commercially speaking, it hasn’t faltered since.

Daily Telegraph
(c) Daily Telegraph

While BMW were pandering to their customer’s baser instincts, Honda was proposing something more, shall we say, insightful? A compact aero-shaped two-seater coupé was certainly not everyone’s idea of a hybrid-drivetrain pioneer, but Honda was never one to blandly follow the market.

Powered by an advanced aluminium and magnesium 67-hp, one litre lean-burn three-cylinder VTEC-E engine, it was augmented by a 13-hp electric motor which also replenished battery energy during deceleration. This compact, lightweight and technically advanced powertrain was front-mounted in an all-aluminium bodyshell, sculpted to smooth its passage through the air. Resembling Suzuka’s own CRX and perhaps a melding of 1960s DB Panhard and Volkswagen XL1, the Insight was pretty, if rather uncompromising to behold.

Never built in huge numbers and clearly a toe-in-water exercise, nor as economical in real-life use as Honda and America’s EPA would have us believe, the Insight demonstrated the gulf which existed between (some) Japanese carmakers and their American and European equivalents when it came to alternative propulsion. A gulf which remains very much a work in progress to bridge.

(c) wheelsage

The immediate pre-millennium period was very much business as usual in France, the Republic imbibing liberally from the black pump. Certainly, while petrol options were available for Peugeot’s debutant 607 flagship, the bulk of those sold (not that there were all that many takers really), chose the diesel. The 607 is believed to have employed a modified version of its predecessor 605 platform and suspension, but perhaps by consequence of its styling (which does have its adherents), contrived to appear less imposing.

Combining styling elements that referred to the earlier 406 and Pininfarina’s 1997 Nautilus concept, the Murat Günak helmed 607 aimed for an element of the latter’s visual drama but lacked a certain gravitas one might have expected from a top-line model from Sochaux. Not a big Peugeot for the ages then, but there were not very many of them, as we know.

(c) carpixel

If the Škoda Favorit and the Felicia which supplanted it helped rehabilitate the Czech car brand from its running joke phase, the 1999 Fabia would redefine it as one which could be taken entirely seriously – a matter illustrated perhaps by Mladá Boleslav getting first crack at the VW group’s AO4 platform, which would be shared with the fourth generation Volkswagen Polo and its Seat Ibiza equivalent, yet undercut both on price.

Styled in-house along more rationalist lines than either, even more so than Volkswagen’s rather contrived looking Polo, while the Felicia was never going to set anyone’s heart rate aflutter, it, like the concurrent Octavia, got the job done in an unpretentious, yet broadly pleasing manner. Škoda would never look back.

(c) carzone.ie

What can be said about the 1999 Volkswagen Bora can largely be stated about its Golf IV equivalent, and upon these pages, already has. But unlike its Jetta and Vento predecessors, the Bora appeared more of a model in its own right than simply a three volume, booted Golf. Designed under the supervision of Hartmut Warkuß and conceived under the material quality strictures of the dark lord himself, the Bora’s shape was elegantly harmonious in a way that few hatch to saloon conversions were then or indeed are now.

This in conjunction with a usefully stiffer bodyshell, lent the model, which was available with a similarly broad range of in-line four, narrow angle V5 or V6 power units, a decidedly upmarket air to its better regarded hatchback stablemate. A better car than the Golf? Debatable. A nicer one? On a good day, perhaps.

If the Y2K bug proved to be less of catastrophe-in-waiting than feared, (despite the amounts spent in mitigation), it was certainly grudged a good deal less than the vast amounts squandered on the design, and construction of the Millennium Dome in London’s Greenwich peninsula, the somewhat lacklustre exhibition itself (which failed to approach its projected visitor numbers) and its subsequent disposal for a fraction of cost, all borne by the UK taxpayer.

Because if a simple term could neatly sum up not only the Millennium bug crisis, Mr. Blair’s Millennium Dome fiasco or indeed Uncle Henry’s PAG misadventure, it would be these two words: Damp squib.

The class of 1999 we did write about.

Honourable mention ought to be made of the Ferrari 360 Modena – (Maranello’s 996?) and Opel Zafira – both of which also debuted in 1999, but neither of which elicit much by way of comment.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

4 thoughts on “Anniversary Waltz 1999 – Pre Millennial Tension”

  1. Reminiscing on the dawn of the New Millenium makes me very sad when I remember the excitement and optimism we felt back then for a better and safer future. The Berlin Wall had fallen, Russia had come in from the cold and the G7 had become G8. China was opening up to the West and even the Middle East appeared to be more stable, if unresolved. Global warming was an issue, but not yet widely understood to threaten an existential crisis. In the UK, Tony Blair’s New Labour was still riding high in the public estimation after the landslide election victory of 1997, promising a new, kinder and more egalitarian society.

    Well, things haven’t worked out quite as we might have hoped…

    On matters automotive, VW Group was turning out some really fine designs, two of which Eóin has mentioned above. BMW was still producing sublime vehicles like the E39 5 Series, and even the first X5 was nicely judged for a large SUV, displaying a degree of subtlety that is wholly absent from its current output.

    Never mind. Happy Christmas to all at DTW and its commentariat!

    1. And a happy Christmas to you and all the readers here, say I.

      Indeed – that period from 1989 to the election of Bush Jr was a pleasantly feckless one. It does not seem clear that the current course we are on was inevitable so much as a fork in the road was taken, at the last minute and to the slightest of degrees, namely the compounded consequences of the US media to give Bush Jr an easy ride and for the SCOTUS to vote on party lines to support Bush in Bush Vs Gore. On the other hand, looking back one could say that election was the tipping point when the hard work of various conservative strategists and think-tanks came to fruition. What I expected in 1999 was for all the ghastly strucural problems to carry on being tackled by the international system; was happened was the post-war interntional order began a long disintegration. Crap cars are the least of our problems now.

    2. It really is a touch frightening that we are coming up on 20 years past my ‘mental cut-off’ date for which I have, with few exceptions, little interest in anything much automotive, design or otherwise. Coincidentally or otherwise, it was also around this date that the magazines – Lord help me, the magazines – stopped their relentless accumulation process, partially a function of not having a Tardis-like house, but much more so that the novelty of paying 10 quid a month for regurgitated Porsche/BMW press releases wore off. Magazine layout and editing practices seemingly being universally allocated to preschoolers around this time hardly helped, of course. It’s impossible to pinpoint an exact date for this transformation but looking at the end of my magazine folders there is no doubt it happened quickly, and for reasons I still find difficult to convincingly explain. It is hardly as if the market for intelligent analysis and commentary vaporised in the space of 12-24 months.

      As it happens, I am about to embark on a project that looks in part at the way the representation of environmental issues in the Anglophone world has been, frankly, mangled into an unrecognisable wreck over the last quarter-century or so. What strikes me is that these things run in cycles – around 1988 and then again around 1992-1993 and then in 1996/97 around Kyoto, there were what seemed to be really meaningful efforts to push for dramatic policy shifts on global warming – it seemed to be generally understood at this stage that incremental change was the only thing we were likely to be able to achieve, but it seemed on-track nonetheless, and just as well, considering we had been aware of this issue for more than a century and the basic science was fundamentally settled by the 1950s at the latest. The reasons this didn’t happen, of course, are multifaceted and well-documented. But then, around ten years later, on the verge of the financial crisis, it seemed everything was in place once more. And yet. I remember these moments well, and perhaps there was an element of complacency by those pushing for environmental prioritisation, that because these things ‘should’ happen, they naturally would. But I am reluctant to class this as a mistake, either strategic or tactical – in the cruel light of day, one can hardly point the finger of blame for failure in the activists’ direction. By contrast, the names of those who would deliberately ruin, interfere, undercut and destroy the cases for environmental action are recorded for posterity and deserve every single piece of contempt thrown their way, and then some.

      I agree there was an impression of ‘pleasing fecklessness’ from 1989-2000 or thereabouts, but with hindsight I think we can also say this was a function of the left (in any meaningful Marxian, capital-labour divide sense) having largely been mullered into submission and material conditions taking a while to catch up with the effects of policies unleashed through the 1980s and into the 1990s. So, in that sense, said fecklessness could be considered an illusion. I have wondered at length about the ‘what-if’ impact of Gore and co., and while I can construct a plausible foreign policy narrative that is significantly less disastrous than what eventuated, I have to admit I struggle to see even a President Gore undertaking the sort of radical systemic change I consider necessary to stave off disaster, let alone changes in other areas that have yielded the kind of socio-political-economic mess we are now dealing with. It is, I am sure, not the full story, but perhaps there is an inclination to reside as much as possible within a headspace, automotive and otherwise, which is closer to the ‘pleasing fecklessness’ of 1999 than whatever 2019 qualifies as.

      On that note, a Merry Christmas to all!

    3. Stradale: your magazine cut-off point is probably a generally accepted stratigtraphic marker for all of us. The sad thing (as sad as these can be, anyway) is that Car magazine was in stupendous form around 1997 to whenever Barlow took over. The decline was not gradual and it did not occur from a point of mediocrity. Bauer and its placemen looked at the magazine as it was during the 1990s and said, no more of this.
      We might want to examine the rise of this “internet” thing – I presume there was widespread panic in the print-media be the time Jason Barlow took over.
      To be fair to Autocar, it has has held quite steady all the way through being neither very good nor biss poor. If I read a car magazine it´ll be Autocropley (on-line or in print).

      Your analysis of the state-change in 2000 is not inconsistent with mine; in retrospect the 1990s were consuming the social and institutional capital left over from the social democtratic consensus years. Reaganism and Thatcherism landed in 1979/1980 and we find it was about a generation later that the course change really took root: add 20-odd years and we get to 2000-2005.

      I think a Gore victory would have led us to a different point and that the long-term push back from the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, Mont Pelerin, Adam Smith Institute etc would have waned for lack of success. The Bush/Gore election was the point where it either worked or failed. It sneaked in under the bar; without Bush I can´t imagine DT and BJ being where the are today.

      Perhaps the reason I lost interest in in new cars circa 2007 was because I had learned as much as I wanted to learn on the topic (engineering wise) and from 2009-2017 I think I cracked aesthetics. There is a lot more to know than I know but I am sated though I still learn new things thanks to the learned writers here, thanks!

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