Show and Tell (Part Five)

Look and you shall find.

Ending an aesthetically dodgy episode during the eighties, the final facelift made the Spider regain most of its former prettiness. Image: the author

Some envelopes with car show photos that were elusive when the first four instalments of this series were being written in 2020 have now resurfaced.

Geneva 1988:

Quite late into its life, the Jaguar XJ-S was finally offered as a true convertible(1). Although the conversion might at first glance seem to be relatively straightforward, no less than 108 new panels and 48 modified pressings were needed to make the car a production reality. Also required were reinforcements to the transmission tunnel, rear floor and both bulkheads. The car was available in V12 form only, making it the most expensive vehicle in Jaguar’s model range apart from the very limited production Daimler DS420.

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To erase memories of the rust problems that had tarnished its image, Fiat’s new Tipo comprised around 75% galvanized steel body panels, and its tailgate was made from a plastic composite. The Tipo was quite well received, and roomy with its relatively long wheelbase, but the fact that it would take three years for a performance-oriented version to arrive (the 16V) and five years for a three-door bodystyle to become available did not aid its prospects.

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The Fiat Tipo would be crowned European Car Of The Year, denying the honour to BMW’s E34-generation 5 Series. The latter was the long-awaited successor to the E28 5 Series, which largely dated back to the original 1972 E12 model. In fact, no BMW has ever won the ECOTY award, but this has not harmed the company’s image or prospects in any way.

No longer sharing its platform with the Audi 80, Volkswagen’s B3-generation Passat was the first with a transversely mounted engine. This was because it was instead based largely on the underpinnings of its decidedly more compact stablemate, the Golf. The styling was quite a departure from other contemporary VWs and was inspired by the 1981 Auto 2000 concept, with echoes of the Ford Sierra also detectable in the front-end treatment(2). As Volkswagen aimed to position its new Passat more upmarket than before, there was no longer a five-door hatchback in the range, although the decision to cancel that particular variant came quite late in the development programme.

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Over the years, the Mazda 121 has come in a few different shapes and sizes: Piston-engined versions of the Cosmo Coupé, badge-engineered Ford Fiestas, or the one above, with its optionally available electrically operated ‘cabrio top’. The transparent driver’s door was, of course, not available at any price.

Positioned strategically (and likely not coincidentally) opposite one of its intended main targets, the SAAB 9000 CD would never make much of an impression on the established competition and would always remain something of a left-field choice in the executive class.

The ultimately cancelled Group S rallying class was to be the replacement for Group B and required just ten cars to be built to acquire homologation status. Peugeot proudly displayed its weapon for the planned Group S, the 405 Turbo 16 Coupé with its 1,905cc XU8T engine, featuring dual variable valve timing and a variable geometry turbocharger.

Geneva 1990:

Unfulfilled promise runs like a red thread through the Volvo 480’s life story. Electrical gremlins hurt its quality image and the planned introduction to the vital North American market never happened, thereby crippling its business case. Moreover, this attractive convertible presented at the 1990 Geneva show, accompanied by whispers of public availability in 1991 or 1992, also went nowhere. The cabrio withered in limbo for a while, the untimely bankruptcy of an already contracted body component supplier putting the final nail in its coffin.

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Subaru is not an automaker known for glitzy concept vehicles taking pride of place on its motor show stands but, at this Geneva show, it presented the SRD-1, created in co-operation with IAD. All four wheels were, of course, driven, while power was provided by a 3.3-litre flat-six. The bodyshape was unusual with its long, wide passenger compartment and very short nose, resulting in a seating capacity for as many as eight, depending on the seat configuration chosen.

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Conversely, the American Sunroof Corporation (ASC) could in those days(3) be depended upon to showcase its engineering and styling capabilities through striking concept vehicles on a regular basis. The Vision II above, with a Porsche 944 Turbo drivetrain, was one such concept.

Speaking of Porsche, well over a year after the debut of the still familiar looking but substantially revised type 964, the 911 Turbo arrived on the scene. This did not feature the new 3.6-litre M64 engine used in other 964 variants, but instead retained the old 3.3-litre flat-six, with a few revisions that raised its output by 20 horses to 320bhp.

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Styled by Marcello Gandini but toned down and smoothed out somewhat by Chrysler’s design studio, Lamborghini’s new Diablo had big shoes to fill. The basic recipe of its predecessor, the Countach, was mostly retained although, being slightly larger in all dimensions, the Diablo was 260 pounds heavier. Until 1993, there was no power steering, and ABS was not fitted until 1999, so the early Diablo was not an easy machine to master for the inexperienced.

Based on the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, but unrecognisably so, the Bertone Nivola was a typical representative of the breed in this era. (Pininfarina displayed the Mythos at the same show.) The Nivola was named after famous racing driver Tazio Nuvolari and painted in a pearlescent rendition of il mantovano volante’s favourite hue, yellow. Its styling was the work of Marc Deschamps. In contrast to the Corvette, the Nivola was mid-engined and the already powerful ZR1 engine was turbocharged, resulting in a claimed power output of 650bhp.

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Whenever they are stuck behind it, today’s Formula One drivers constantly complain about the safety car not going fast enough, even when the Aston Martin Vantage or Mercedes-AMG GT R used is clearly being driven at or near it limits by an experienced pilot. Imagine if their tempo was dictated by a Fiat Tempra? Well, we need not imagine, as that vehicle was the unlikely choice of safety car at the 1993 Brazilian F1 Grand Prix. This is the only interesting nugget I could think of concerning this almost forgotten booted Tipo.

The threshold of the eighties and nineties saw major Japanese car manufacturers introducing some seriously well resolved machinery in both the luxury and sports car arenas that made the established players sit up straight and take notice. The Honda NSX, Lexus LS400 and Nissan 300ZX telegraphed a clear statement of intent, and North America in particular turned out to be especially receptive to their undeniable qualities.

(1) Hess & Eisenhardt in the US and Lynx in the UK built a few XJS convertible conversions before Jaguar introduced its own factory version. (Editor’s note: Both of these will be covered in forthcoming articles). 

(2) However, Volkswagen claimed the smooth front end was inspired by its own Type 2 Transporter van.

(3) After the turn of the century, however, business for ASC started to decline and the company became defunct in 2017.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

25 thoughts on “Show and Tell (Part Five)”

  1. Never was aware of the ASC Vision II before. A quick image search, and now I’m thinking to myself “four door Dodge Stealth if they were so inclined”. That extremely similar wheel design isn’t helping me unsee such a thing.

  2. About two days ago I saw a 480ES driving about my district. It is low, wide and rather other-worldly now. It was quite a remarkable sight. The under-bumper grille works from the middle and longer distances. I always liked this car. Today it´s good attributes stand out even more clearly. I think the 5 series seems to have withstood time´s ravages. Looking at that photo I don´t see a 30 year old design. Maybe people under 30 will disagree with me though.

    1. I see a 480 Turbo regularly. The car looks very tired, so I’m not sure how much longer it will be in my area. I’ve always liked the shape of this car and the separate rear seats.

      I’m partial to the E34. My dad had one, it was his pride and joy, but he still taught me drive in it, before I went to a driving school. An illegal practice, but a fun one. Quiet Sundays of trying the clutch and gearbox. After I got my license I drove it a lot. It was an easy and good car to drive.

  3. Good morning Bruno. I’m thoroughly enjoying your ‘Show and Tell’ series with nice thumbnail sketches of cars now largely forgotten.

    The 1994 facelift of the Alfa Romeo Spider really was an excellent job, undoing the hideously disfiguring 1982 grey plastic / rubber front and rear end treatments. As for the Volvo 480ES, if really was quite a striking car when first unveiled, perhaps not conventionally pretty, but interesting and different. The C30 nicely reprised the same sporting estate theme. I should take a proper look at both.

    Richard, the E34 now looks a bit ‘fat’ to my eyes, but its successor, the E39 5 Series, is still as handsome as ever.

  4. Good morning

    For me, the E34 was seen as a visual compromise since the first time l saw the first picture of it.

    It was clear for me that BMW had a 10 year old design issue to solve: how to reverse the front end profile that was a brand trademark since 1960?

    It was progressivelly smoothed over the years, being minimal on the E30.

    But since 1982, the question was: how will BMW solve this issue gracefully?

    It didn’t. When the E34 came to life, BMW proved not capable to do it. The E34 front profile became just vertical, aesthetically near the the abyss.

    Anguish installed itself for a couple of years. Would BMW be able to crack this nut? And if so, how?

    Them the E36 showed it’s face to the world, and the joy was imense. BMW had made it. It had succeeded. It had managed to turn the table.

    And thus the E36 stablished the template for the next 30 years on BMW s frontal aesthetical design codes.

    That is why it is so important. And that is why the E46 is just a visual sucedaneous.

    That’s my view, deep buried in my heart for decades and only now exposed before you, dear fellows/and/or/judges.

    Thank you all

    1. Hi Gustavo, my analysis is different. Knowing that E34 is essentially a shortened and cheaper E32 explains to me what is imperfect about its proportions and detailing.

      I view E34 in much the same way as the E36 Compact, informed by a marketing driven need to present a less prestigious alternative to its big brothers, ergo they took the face in the opposite direction as the 750iL.

      I view E36 as a kind of abberation, like the 996 Porsche (I personally like the fried eggs, but not the rest), so I think of E46 as a correction.

      I often learn new words at DTW… So I looked up “succedaneous”, but I am still not certain what you mean by that.

  5. Thanks Bruno. It’s not just the Tempra that’s been forgotten, the Tipo itself has largely faded from the collective memory as well, much more so than its predecessor. It was one of many cracks at a “Latin Golf”, amongst which I count the first Peugeot 308 discussed around here earlier as well. I really like Italian design from that era: more or less classic in proportion but finding its modernity in the extremely smooth details. The Nivola has similar characteristics:

    (image: TCCT.com).

    Japanese designs from roughly that time could be similarly futuristic, like the Nissan 200SX/Sylvia which was also discussed on DTW not long ago. The Subaru SRD possesses the smooth detailing, but not the proportions, however:

    A sort of low SUV-like creation which never found even the slightest parallel in Subaru’s production line up (did it?) and an interior apparently guest-designed by comic book artist Moebius (Jean Giraud):

    (images: allcarindex.com) I’ll leave baser associations to others…

    Speaking of modernity: I find the contrast between the Jaguar XJS and the Rover 200 behind it quite striking. Without necessarily wanting to make a judgement on either car (although the convertible XJS is rather less controversial than its buttressed sibling), it shows the many contrasts that were around in that era. Not just at Rover (etc.), either: VW’s line up, for instance, was from distinctly differing eras as well.
    I always thought the B3 Passat’s front referenced the type 4:

    Finally, that last facelift of the Alfa Spider was a very well judged piece of design update on an absolutely ancient car. Fortunately, fashions around that time were more towards the rounded shapes of the very pretty original, making things easier than in the “edgy plastic” ’80’s. The original for comparison (own photo):

    1. Hi Tom. If I recall correctly, VW cited not the Type 4 but the Type 2 as the inspiration for the B3 Passat’s front-end:

      I sort of see it, but think it’s a bit of a stretch:

    2. Hi Daniel, I know, but I always thought it looked like the Type 4 (even if I didn’t necesarily know thatmuch about that car back then). Maybe VW wasn’t overly keen on being reminded of it? The Type 2 was a far more iconic car, after all. Other than that they both have headlights and a VW logo between them, and no grille, I find the link a little entuous, like you do.

      Still, I sort of like the B3 (though not as much as the B5). It’s shocking how they managed to essentially facelift it into the bland-as-a-bland-thing B4:

    3. The original B3’s VW logo was the engine air intake. There were cases of cars collecting maybe wet horse chestnut leaves over the logo and the engine stopped working. Not a very good idea.

  6. E34 is a masterpiece. It was a solution that transposed the elegance and panache of E32 onto a taut dynamic proposition but in so doing managed to give the 5-Series its own character rather than looking just like a smaller 7-Series. I love the bluff front (and back) end – rather than seeing it as the end of the line, I see it as the high point from which BMW struggled to successfully evolve – the awkwardness of the first faired in headlamps of E36 I think speak to that challenge – eventually resolved with the E38 and E39 facelifts and then on to E46.

    1. I am with Martin Franklin on this one. Ercole Spada and J Mays get a credit for the E34 at Wikipedia. The E39 is for me inauthentic. All eyes are on the E32 – the poor old Saab 9000 CD is getting left out when it too has a lot of merit, including a massive and lovely cabin.

    2. I also prefer the E34 over the E39. It had a tremendous job to do when it replaced the long in the tooth E28. It has the E3’s muscular tautness that was lost in the Bracq-era cars an transforms it into something new. The only thing that initially irritated me on the E34 were the strips of painted metal left and right of the kidneys which didn’t make any sense to me. I never really liked the grille-less BMW front started with the E36 with its extra wide and often badly distorted kidneys.
      An E34 M5 still is much more desirable than its successor and they sell at eye watering prices.

    3. I know a lot about the 9000 CD and am very familiar with what it was like as a daily driver. But in the context of its introduction at the Geneva show, I am inclined to think that Giugiaro may not have ever envisioned the parts of his contribution to the Tipo 4 project that were realized in the specific terms of a Saab (or an Alfa) variant. Perhaps the appearance of the CD might have even surprised him.

      I greatly appreciate the car’s virtues, and also recognize its compromises. It is different enough under the skin from the Croma and Thema so I considered it a “real Saab”, but it was very much a “stealth” choice for cognoscenti.

      I once fielded a very puzzled inquiry from a service station attendant in rural West Virgina which was very telling (what kind of car is that?), as if the man couldn’t read the deck lid badge, but more likely it just didn’t look at all like any Saab to him. I suspect any car-oriented person anywhere would have recognized a 900 in the early 1990s, even if they had never seen one in the metal. The 9000 CD’s generically anonymous outward appearance did not help to foster brand awareness anywhere, it wasn’t an ideal strategy to grow a niche brand that had already established a reputation for individuality.

      I still fantasize about an alternate history where Trollhättan had instead chosen to spend their development funds on an all wheel drive system.

  7. Hi Gooddog,

    I use to invent new words, both in my native language and in any other one I put my hands on.
    Maybe I was trying to mean “derivative”.

    What I just meant is that BMW had a problem to solve with the “boat prow” that was their trademark.

    They had to reverse that angle at some point, but their basic design\ features were “irreversable”.

    E34 is where the “boat prow” reaches it´s limit, finally ataining verticality on side view.

    But it was impossible to go further, so an all new template had to be created.

    The E36 quadlamp under a unifying glass is, like it or not, the visual theme BMW used since then until they recently lost themselves (forever?).

    Better exampes of the theme were developed over the years, but the E36´s one was the first.

    Similarly, IMO the best “sharknose” is the E10´s one, but the Neue Klasse´s one was the first.

    1. I remember the 2002 from my youth but recently saw one on its holidays at Achill Sound, Co. Mayo. It looked elegant, taut, ready for anything but so small compared to today’s cars… What are we doing wrong?

    2. Thanks for your reply Gustavo. It is interesting to read divergent opinions about E34 bearing in mind that the general consensus here points to almost universal respect for the core range from E3 though E39.

  8. Without being able to justify it, the BMW 5 series of 1988 is one of the best BMW shapes ever produced. I still see them on the road, they are easy to spot around. Great durability, most of them are in very good condition, the quality of their construction shows.

  9. I may have not expressed my opinion correctly:
    I love the 1988 5series.
    All my criticism goes to the final (vertical) iteration of the sharknose theme it carries with him.

  10. I’m trying to be the most obssessive person among all dtw writers and readers 🙂

  11. Gooddog, I share the general consensus you mention.

    E34 is a lovely machine and a beautiful design overall.

    And even regarding his face, there is nothing wrong with it when evaluated in isolation.

    My issue with E34 has to do with context and ethics.

    1 – The context is that the sharknose was BMW’s trademark on all their models since 1960, AND was the most efective, distinctive and powerful mean of brand identification among the industry.

    They used essentially the same face during 30 years.
    No other carmaker achieved such a feat (except porsche, of course).
    And that face was the sharknose.

    2 – The ethical issue is a thus a natural consequence: If you owe so much to a given design feature, you are not morally allowed to dilute it.
    If said design feature is the sharknose, a sharknose it must be until the end.
    And a sharknose is not vertical.

    It should have had a glourious funeral with the 1986 7series, shot dead then and there.

    But it should have been spared the humiliation of appearing on stage one last time looking like it’s former self when viewed head-on, but showing on profile view it was not really itself anymore.

    R.I.P. sharknose

    1. Gustavo: You make a fairly unambiguous statement here. “The ethical issue is a thus a natural consequence: If you owe so much to a given design feature, you are not morally allowed to dilute it.” I get the rather distinct impression that neither Adrian van Hooydonk nor Domagoj Dukec would agree with you on this, however. Mind you, it’s relatively unclear to me at exactly what point the act of dilution becomes an act of drowning. Depends on how much water, I suppose. Just as well they have enlarged those kidneys…

  12. Eóin,

    I hope we may agree on the following: one can discuss much more over dilution (and spend days doing it, hopefully having some fun) than over drowning.
    Drowning is imediatly verified, definitive and unambiguous, so it provides much less scope for conversation…

    1. Gustavo, just for clarity, that wasn’t a critique of your original statement. But yes, agreed. Best keep away from the water.

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