Three Glasses Half-Full or Half-Empty

Automotive sightings that leave your author perplexed.

Dirty. Image: the author

The striking of a recently repaired nearby church clock signalled the end of another tedious morning in the office, and a fine spring day invited me outdoors to take the air. There followed a pleasant stroll, enlivened by some interesting, if conflicting, automotive observations.

Within seconds of leaving my place of work, the first of three wildly different vehicles caused my automotive radar to blip. It was a current (fourth) generation Mazda MX-5. Not a rare sighting by any means, but the unusually scruffy condition of this particular example gave it an aged, neglected and rather morose demeanour. I inferred from its condition that its driver may have travelled great distances with neither the opportunity nor inclination to Continue reading “Three Glasses Half-Full or Half-Empty”

Under the Knife: Fiat 124 and 128 Coupés

Fiat has had a patchy history with facelifts. Here we have one hit, one miss and one meh.

1967 Fiat 124 Sport Coupé. Image: barons-auctions.com

Half a century ago, the European automotive landscape was considerably enriched by the presence of a variety of coupés from different mainstream manufacturers, all offering their own take on this style-led format with varying degrees of success from a design perspective. The best of these offered, for a relatively modest premium over the price of the saloon on which they were based, the opportunity to Continue reading “Under the Knife: Fiat 124 and 128 Coupés”

Their Eyes Met Through Glanmire’s Mist

It is only twenty years since the world’s press welcomed the Opel Vectra C. We consider it again today.

Opel Vectra C

The Vectra C made its public debut at the 2002 Geneva Salon. The styling continued the themes of the 1999 Opel Astra G and so managed to form the heart of a range of crisply styled Opels that included the 2003 Meriva (a jewel of a car) and the 2004 Tigra, concluding with the Zafira B of 2005.

It’s very much a car of its time. The Vectra C shares some of the clean surfacing and crisply defined edges that also feature on the admirable 2000 Ford Mondeo, but the closeness of the launches would indicate that this was a coincidence. Continue reading “Their Eyes Met Through Glanmire’s Mist”

Ciao Bambino! [Part Two]

Defying the naysayers. 

Image: FCA Heritage

The environmental non-starter” was how Car magazine’s Ian Fraser defined the 126 in December 1972, having attended the press launch along with fellow scribe and Car Editor, Douglas Blain, in its home town of Turin[1]. The thrust of their argument against the car seemed to pivot around the assertion that not only was the 126 “something of a throwback” in technical terms but also, in their estimation, that even Fiat themselves appeared unsure about as to its purpose in life.

This would hardly be the first time that the iconoclastic UK monthly took against a car largely on the basis that it failed to Continue reading “Ciao Bambino! [Part Two]”

X Marks the Spot

Flattery, both sincere and otherwise.

Image: muquiranas.com

Copied even before it was launched, and manufactured in modified form with a fibreglass body in Brasil until well into the current century, Fiat’s compact mid-engined targa-topped coupé inspired imitators both before and after its long career.

The Fiat X1/9 as launched at the 1972 Turin Motor Show was a productionised and consequently less radical evolution of the 1969 Autobianchi Runabout concept by Bertone, credited to Marcello Gandini. At the previous year’s Turin show, however, a vehicle that looked extremely similar to the planned but as yet unveiled Fiat was on display. To add insult to injury, the little yellow sportscar was parked almost within touching distance of Bertone’s majestic stand. What on Earth had happened?

Picking up the telephone in his studio, Tom Tjaarda barely had  time to Continue reading “X Marks the Spot”

Life in Monochrome

Understanding the 1985 Fiat Croma.

Image: Automoto.it

Platform sharing, the practice of developing superficially unique vehicles for different marques within an automotive group based on a common architecture, is so widespread today, so obviously logical and cost-effective, that to do otherwise would seem perverse. Back in October 1978, however, a ground-breaking deal was signed between Fiat-owned Lancia and Saab to develop a common platform upon which each maker would build its own large D-segment contender. Lancia chief Sergio Camuffo led the programme from the Italian side. The platform would be called the Type Four and feature a transverse-engined front-wheel-drive layout. Alfa Romeo would later(1) sign up to become a partner in the project.

The attraction of the deal to Continue reading “Life in Monochrome”

Arc de Triomphe

The 2006 Citroën C-Triomphe didn’t quite live up to its billing.

Citroën C-Triomphe. Image: carinpicture

Editor’s note: This article was first published in Driven to Write on 24 October 2017. Owing to the poor quality of the original images, stock photos have been used.

PSA announced this particular iteration of their C-segment contender in 2004, a car which replaced the unloved and visually unimpressive Xsara model line. The C4, believed to have been the styling work of Donato Coco and Bertrand Rapatel under the supervision of Jean-Pierre Ploué marked the beginning of a stylistic renaissance at Citroën’s Vélizy design centre. Au revoir to the creative torpidity which characterised the Jacques Calvet era, welcome back creativity. Theoretically at least. Continue reading “Arc de Triomphe”

Improving the Breed

A man on a mission.

Image: caranddriver.com

The old adage of racing improving the breed was taken to another level when engineer, designer and talented race car pilot Zora Arkus-Duntov took up the development of the 1959 CERV – the first Chevrolet Experimental Racing Vehicle.

A Belgian-born naturalised US citizen, Arkus-Duntov is rightly regarded as the Father of the Corvette. Beguiled by Harley Earl’s beautiful styling but disappointed by the Corvette’s indifferent performance and handling, Arkus-Duntov wrote to Chevrolet Chief Engineer Ed Cole, offering his services to Continue reading “Improving the Breed”

The Seer of Loch Gilp : Bob Henderson 1932-2022

Paying tribute to visionary engineer and supercar designer Bob Henderson, who died in February aged 89.

Image: Sunday Times

“If you accept, as I do, that the internal combustion engine will be with us for some time yet, in either reciprocating or rotary form, then it is sensible to assume that even after all of this time it can still be developed further. In my view it is only in the wide field of pressure or forced induction that any worthwhile steps can be taken, as all others will be mere hair-splitting improvements to meet the long overdue pollution regulations. These are already showing signs of producing less power for more weight, a situation which must get worse.”

“The only long term saviour will be the blown engine which can double or treble the power output for only 10-20% increase in weight, and since cost and complexity could be less than the much-vaunted fuel injection systems, which only marginally improve efficiency, this is obviously the way to go.” Continue reading “The Seer of Loch Gilp : Bob Henderson 1932-2022”

Shift Happens

A tale of ambition and overreach.

Image: Monamicitroen.blog

“At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since.”

Salvador Dalì

André Citroën, the French industrial giant, may not have possessed a level of ambition quite as extreme as that claimed by the controversial Spanish artist, but few amongst his peers in the automobile industry could match his boundless energy and determination to lead the way, often eschewing received wisdom and conventional thinking in the process. These attributes brought him fame and fortune, but would also eventually prove to be his undoing.

A salient example of the double-edged sword of Citroën’s ambition and overreach was the Traction Avant of 1934. It was a revolutionary, highly modern and accomplished design in almost every possible way. Citroën’s original plan was for the Traction to be equipped with a newly designed fully automatic transmission, the brainchild of a prolific Brazilian inventor. Continue reading “Shift Happens”

Ciao Bambino! [Part One]

A matter of perspective.

Small, or far away? Image: FIAT Auto via the author.

It’s not you or me, or Fiat who will decide whether the 126 is a good car. History will make that decision.” These words were spoken, no doubt through clenched teeth by FIAT’s UK representative to Car magazine journalist, Ian Fraser in the wake of the UK imprint’s assessment of the new for ’72 Fiat 126. The Italian carmaker’s displeasure at Fraser’s trenchant review can be gauged by its reaction – FIAT UK pulling their advertising and banning Car’s staff writers from forthcoming press junkets.

The issue, if you could call it that, was one of perception. By 1972 Fiat was viewed as a progressive manufacturer of some of Europe’s most up to date motor cars, with a reputation for fine engineering and superior dynamic characteristics. By contrast, the 126, in Car’s estimation at least, was dismissed as a throwback to the 1950s. But it should behove us to first Continue reading “Ciao Bambino! [Part One]”

Coup d’État

An act of defiance against Dearborn created an exceptionally pretty Ford.

Image: newsdanciennes.com

Established during the Great War by the head of Ford of Britain, Percival Perry, Société Française des Automobiles Ford was Dearborn’s Gallic outpost, producing  Ford models T, A, Y and B as the twentieth century progressed. It would, however, prove to be a rather wilful and independently-minded offspring, resistant to the dictates of its parent company. In 1934, Maurice Dollfus, who had been appointed head of the company four years earlier, sought a means to expand its operations. An introduction to an Alsatian chap by the name of Emile Mathis led to the creation of Matford SA, based in Strasbourg, a joint-venture company in which ownership was split 60:40 in Dearborn’s favour.

Relations across the pond soured in the late 1930s, with Dearborn seeking to Continue reading “Coup d’État”

Back from the Banal

Citroën’s attempt to return some flair to its C-segment contender.

2004 Citröen C4 five-door. Image: autoevolution.com

Of all automotive marques, Citroën used to be the most difficult to pigeonhole. While its competitors happily (or resignedly) occupied their clearly defined or evolved positions(1) in the automotive hierarchy, Citroën somehow managed to design, build and sell simple, utilitarian vehicles like the 2CV alongside technical marvels like the SM without causing confusion or consternation amongst their widely divergent customers. Sadly, the company’s iconoclastic and sometimes chaotic approach to product planning eventually saw it threatened with bankruptcy, and it fell into the hands of Peugeot, its staunchly conservative French rival.

Following the 1974 takeover, Citroënistes were quick to Continue reading “Back from the Banal”

1984 Opel Senator 2.5E Road Test

 Driving a 1984 Opel Senator. 

1984 Opel Senator 2.5E
1984 Opel Senator 2.5E. All images: The author.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on DTW on 14 February 2015.

Every time one has a reason to discuss the large cars from the ’70s and ’80s, the large cars that aren’t BMW, Mercedes or Audi, one seems obliged to talk about the status and success of these products in comparative terms. It seems incorrect to speak of the Granada, 604 or Senator without mentioning how they fared relative to the BMW 5 et al. I’ll avoid re-treading all that ground again.

By now even I admit that you would need to be very determinedly prejudiced to Continue reading “1984 Opel Senator 2.5E Road Test”

John Harris Insists You Try

It’s Grin up North…

All images: The author.

Car trials are practically as old as the motorcar itself. Take a vintage automobile and point it in the direction of a steep hill. Throw in muddy, rutted tracks and/or forest areas. Combine this with unpredictable British weather and you have the makings of a most rewarding, if rather sodden day out.

The Setting: A former limestone quarry in the heart of the picturesque Derbyshire dales. Now verdant and a haven for walkers and bike riders, its industrial heritage has become well hidden unless you Continue reading “John Harris Insists You Try”

Excellent, but still not Good Enough

Fine cars, but victims of badge snobbery?

Image: wallpaperup.com

Half a century ago, there was still a place in the European car market for large saloons from mainstream automakers. These typically offered excellent value for money by being more spacious and better equipped than similarly priced cars from what are now referred to as premium marques. BMW and Mercedes-Benz(1) in particular facilitated their would-be competitors by offering entry-level specifications that included all the features and comforts of a mediaeval prison cell. Air-conditioning, alloy wheels and even a radio were all expensive options. What you got was finely engineered, certainly, but there was little or nothing to Continue reading “Excellent, but still not Good Enough”

A Luton Brougham

A look back to Vauxhall’s mid-’70s upmarket ambitions.

1976 Vauxhall VX Prestige prototype. Image: droopsnootgroup

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on DTW on 11 November 2017.

As automotive industry analysts ponder the fate of Opel / Vauxhall in the wake of the PSA takeover, one possible future being mapped out involves a shift upmarket. On the face of things, this appears about as likely as PSA getting a sudden rush of blood to the head and starting to take Citroën seriously, but as (im)possible futures go, it may not be entirely unthinkable.

Not everyone in the soothsaying universe seems to agree however, as a report in ANE yesterday suggests. Sanford C. Bernstein’s Max Warburton (We haven’t heard from him for a while.) suggesting PSA should “Dump the Vauxhall brand,” before going on to say, “Even the most jingoistic Brexiteers would rather buy a German car. There’s no room for a one-market brand in 2017.”

But leaving aside Warburton’s tough love analysis, can Vauxhall (a) survive, and (b) prosper in today’s increasingly febrile landscape? Taking matters further, could the Griffin (c) ever contemplate a move upmarket, given their current situation? While we ponder this, let us just for a moment Continue reading “A Luton Brougham”

Simplify, Then Add Lightness

Trying to understand the Lotus Eletre.

Front elevation. Can you guess what it is yet? Image: Lotus Cars Media

Even I have come to accept that sports car marques can barely survive, and certainly not thrive, without having an SUV or crossover in their portfolio. Indeed, it seems that even developing a saloon car is not worth the R&D these days, given the news that Mazda will not be replacing the Mazda6, although its new FR platform, RWD, straight-sixes and all, looks tailor made for that job.

Not that I am trying to Continue reading “Simplify, Then Add Lightness”

Troubled Concoction

Remembering Chrysler’s misconceived transatlantic tie-up.

Image: The author / Chrysler Corp.

In the early eighties, long before both companies would find cover under the FCA and Stellantis corporate umbrellas, Chrysler and Maserati hatched plans for a luxury convertible to revive their tarnished prestige image. The two driving forces behind the venture were Lee Iacocca, the ex-Ford executive who had nursed Chrysler back from the dead a few years previously, and Alejandro de Tomaso, who at that time ran not only the sports car company that bore his name but also Maserati. He had taken the latter company over in 1976 with Italian government assistance after Citroën had bowed out. This would not, however, be Iacocca and de Tomaso’s first collaboration: in the early seventies the two had brought the De Tomaso Pantera to the USA(1).

In June 1984, both companies signed a contract to Continue reading “Troubled Concoction”

Keeping Up Appearances

A tale of two half-sisters.

Opel Rekord D. Image: best-selling carsblog

US multinational corporations are often caricatured as having a heavy-handed We Know Best approach to managing their overseas businesses. In the automotive industry, however, the opposite appears to have been the case, at least historically. Over the course of the twentieth century, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler all built up substantial European operations, either through acquisition or organic growth. Not only did these corporations allow their European businesses to operate with a high degree of autonomy from Detroit, they were also markedly reluctant to Continue reading “Keeping Up Appearances”

Long Shadows of the Past

The Ascona C (1980-1988) cast a sizeable shadow over Opel. Is this the car that created the persistent impression of dullness that tarnishes the Opel badge?

1981 Opel Ascona. Image: Favcars

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on DTW on 27 February 2014.

Today’s inspiration is an Opel Ascona two-door saloon, spotted in the north of Aarhus. The recent resurgence (maybe that’s only in my own mind) of Opel has made me reconsider where, precisely, it all went wrong for Adam Opel AG. Lying on my psychiatrist’s couch, I turned over my impressions and images of Opel.

Under the rubble and tattered shreds of half-memories, I found this car. The Ascona is the car that, more than any other Opel product, shaped my attitude to the firm as a maker of vehicles soaked in mediocrity. That, and perhaps the Opel Omega A (1986-1993) which in the land of my youth was sold in fade-prone red with spartan grey cloth upholstery. The Ascona seemed only to come in beige with faded grey plastic trim. Continue reading “Long Shadows of the Past”

Twenty-Two Minutes of Fame

Making a performance out of buying a used car.

Image: Discovery Communications

Back in the day, buying a second-hand car used to involve quite a bit of exercise, trudging around from dealer to dealer trying to weigh up the alternatives on offer and, most importantly, to avoid being sold a pup. Recently, a number of online (only) dealers have sprung up, offering the time-poor and/ or the really-cannot-be-bothered the opportunity to Continue reading “Twenty-Two Minutes of Fame”

How Many Melodies there are to Forget.

Oh, dear. It’s another Suzuki article. 

Suzuki Ignis Mk2. All images: the author

How can I introduce this cheeky, useful, honest and endearing car without alienating readers who prefer uncouth, useless, dishonest and off-putting cars? This time it’s the Mk2 Ignis, which I considered to be quite horrible when I first happened to see one many years ago, but which I now consider quite attractive. What changed? Obviously my own opinions and values shifted and I came to see the inherent worth of a car that made credible efforts to Continue reading “How Many Melodies there are to Forget.”

Spice of Life

The Opel Kadett B was resolutely unexceptional, except in one respect.

Opel Kadett B Kiemencoupé. Image: Favcars

The development of flexible modular platforms and standardised component sets has enabled automakers to spin off a wide variety of models from the same basic architecture. This allows them economically to target market niches where projected sales would make unique stand-alone models entirely unviable. For example, the Cupra Formentor would probably not have been signed off for production if it were not for the existence of volume sellers such as the Škoda Karoq, with which it shares a great deal under the skin.

In similar vein, Opel / Vauxhall’s Stellantis-era models are based on existing Peugeot / Citroën architectures, which has allowed them to be developed for production in a remarkably short time. Whether this widespread commonality is conducive to providing genuine choice for drivers is a moot point, but it is certainly here to stay and is likely to Continue reading “Spice of Life”

Lightning Flash

Lost causes – missing links – exhuming Jaguar’s stillborn XJ21.

1967 E-Type 2+2. Image: Classic & Sportscar

As descriptive metaphors go, bottled lightning requires little by way of explanation or exposition on the part of the writer. In 1961, Jaguar Cars successfully manged this seemingly impossible feat with the introduction of the E-Type, a car which itself would come to stand as metaphor for a now mythologised era of hedonism, permissiveness and social change. But in the Spring of ’61 all of that was for the future. Meanwhile, the manner in which the E-Type was received took Jaguar’s CEO somewhat by surprise.

Attending the E’s euphoric US debut in 1961, Sir William Lyons became painfully aware that while prospective customers were enraptured by the car, many simply couldn’t comfortably Continue reading “Lightning Flash”

Aborted Take-Off

India’s cancelled project to build a people’s car of its own.

Image: team-bhp.com

In different circumstances, Hyderabad could have been the birthplace of India’s first indigenously designed and manufactured car. In the early 1950s, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), a company unrelated to the well known Indian car manufacturer, Hindustan Motors, started work on a rugged and simple people’s car for India. In the end, it was not to be and the country instead went down the route of producing tried and tested foreign designs under licence.

The company, which was originally named Hindustan Aircraft Limited, was incorporated in 1940. In cooperation with the American Intercontinental Aircraft Company, HAL started its business by manufacturing under licence the Harlow PC-5 trainer, the Curtiss Hawk fighter and the Vultee bomber. HAL also designed and developed its own aircraft, starting with the 1951 HT-2 trainer. Over 150 of these were manufactured and supplied to the Indian Air Force and other customers. Continue reading “Aborted Take-Off”

Cat of a Different Colour (Part Three)

Concluding the story of Panther.

1987 Panther Solo 2. Image: carligious.com

There is little doubt that the model for which Panther is best if perhaps unfairly remembered today is the extraordinary and quite ridiculous Six. This monster of a car was developed in complete secrecy and unveiled at the London Earls Court Motorfair in October 1977 to an incredulous and astonished audience. The name refers to the number of road wheels it featured, four 13” steered wheels at the front and two 16” driven wheels at the rear. It was powered by a 500 cu.in. (8.2-litre) V8 engine from the Cadillac Eldorado, mounted over the rear wheels(1) and connected to a three-speed automatic transmission. The engine’s maximum power output had been boosted to a claimed but never proven 600bhp (447kW) by installing twin turbochargers.

The Six was supposedly inspired by the similarly configured 1976 Tyrrell P34 Formula 1 racing car. In Tyrrell’s case, the four small 10” front wheels were intended to Continue reading “Cat of a Different Colour (Part Three)”

Pushing the Envelope

The 1999 Mercedes CL redefined the term ‘back of an envelope’ design.

Image: Autoevolution.com

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on DTW on 14 June 2019.

Like most major carmakers, Mercedes-Benz, under the design leadership of Bruno Sacco at Stuttgart-Sindelfingen, assigned individual teams to specific product lines. However, Sacco also permitted all members of his styling team, irrespective of discipline, to submit proposals for evaluation whenever a new model was being considered.

These would be then whittled down to a shortlist, the favoured proposals being produced in quarter-scale form. A further evaluation would see these being reduced to a final shortlist of three proposals, which would be produced in 1 : 1 scale for final selection. This ensured that management had sufficient quantities of alternative styles to Continue reading “Pushing the Envelope”

Modern Girl

Taking stock of the Mercedes-Benz CL55 AMG.

All images: The owner

Exclusivity is a tricky balancing-act in the automotive industry, particularly for manufacturers who are (or aspire to be) regarded as ‘premium’ players. On the one hand, manufacturers need a level of sales that will allow them to amortise the ever-growing upfront investment required to develop new models, so they can ultimately return a profit. On the other hand, if their bread-and-butter models become too commonplace, the thin veneer of exclusivity could be stripped away.

Mercedes-Benz was, at one time, pre-eminent in maintaining its composure on this particular high-wire. City streets throughout Europe were thronged with smoky W123 200D taxis in mainly unappealing flat colours, yet the same car, in a nicer colour and (modestly) higher specification, was still the vehicle of choice for aspirational upper middle-class professionals. Continue reading “Modern Girl”

Mazda’s BMW

Mazda’s latest pitch for premium status.

New Mazda CX-60 (Source: Car Magazine)

Most long-established readers of this noble site will know that I am a bit of a Mazda fanboy. A few years ago, I wrote a series of long-term tests regarding my Mazda3 Fastback, and more recently I did a retrospective on the 1983 Mazda 626. I have admired the company’s innovation over the years, its independent spirit and, most recently, its ‘Kodo’ design language. Oh, and I still think that Soul Red Crystal is the still most beautiful paint colour on any mass-production car.

The current Mazda3 is somewhat divisive, mainly due to the arguably over-generously proportioned rear pillar on the 5-door hatch. However, the sophisticated surfacing, restrained detailing and beautifully assembled and finished interior really do rival or even exceed the design standards of premium marques such as BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus. I don’t recall Mazda claiming full-blown ‘premium’ aspirations for the current 3, but much about the car is giving a vigorous nod in that direction. Continue reading “Mazda’s BMW”