Waltzing into a new Millennium.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.