Show and Tell (Part Six)

Blowing the dust off another set of rediscovered envelopes and their contents, rekindling some memories.

Image: the author

Paris 1990

Project 2758, as the Mercedes-Benz 500E was known internally at Porsche AG, who partly built the car, was a ‘Q-car’ in the vein of the BMW M5 but, this being Stuttgart, the 500E presented itself in an even more discreet way than Munich’s autobahnstormer.

The 5-litre, 32-valve M119 V8 propelled the 500E to an electronically limited maximum speed of 250km/h (155mph) although, without the limiter, its terminal velocity was known to have been quite a bit higher. The 500E was strictly a four-seater, which was not entirely by choice: the differential needed was so large that there was no room left for any suspension or even padding in the middle of the rear seat area.

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The pretty Laguna concept vehicle, styled by Jean-Pierre Ploué, was just under one metre high and weighed in at only 900kg so its 210bhp engine gave it the performance to match its looks. Its name would resurface on a mainstream hatchback and the general concept would become a production reality with the radical Sport Spider seven years later.

A concept that would cause no clearly discernible echoes in later production vehicles was Ford’s Shocccwave. Your author’s computer is not suffering from a sticking keyboard- that is how its name was actually spelled. The ‘ccc’ stood for Concept Center California, where the Shocccwave was created. A 3-litre, 24-valve Yamaha-built V6 engine provided the concept’s motive power.

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Emmendingen (Germany) based engineer-designer Hartmut Boschert was the man responsible for this gullwinged Mercedes-Benz R129/C124 splicing. In addition to the far-reaching body modifications, the 3-litre inline-six was massaged by Boschert, with an upgraded cooling system, twin Garrett turbochargers and custom exhaust manifold. The result was 320bhp with 400Nm of torque available between 2,000 and 5,000rpm. Eleven copies of this unusual mashup – some with gullwing doors, some with conventional ones – were ordered and manufactured at Carrozzeria Zagato in Italy. They sold for almost Dm400,000 each.

It did not win on its first try, but the Peugeot 905 sports prototype would emerge victorious at Le Mans in both 1992 and 1993. Transferring its engine to the Formula 1 arena in 1994, where it powered(1) that year’s McLaren, proved to be a grave disappointment, however. The relationship with McLaren lasted just one season and Ron Dennis’s outfit switched to Mercedes-Benz engines with ultimately much better results.

One for the purists: shown in one of those lurid hues preferred by Porsche for motorshow displays at the time, the 911 Carrera RS was 286 lbs lighter than the regular 911 Carrera and also received a more powerful 256bhp engine with a lighter flywheel, a limited-slip differential, lowered suspension, brakes from the 911 Turbo at the front and from the 911 Carrera Cup race car at the rear, and race-tuned shock absorbers. Today it is one of the most sought after air-cooled 911 models.

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Unimaginative styling, uninspiring handling and, everywhere you looked, listened and touched, confirmation that it was built down to a price and then some. Of course, almost all cars were and are designed and built with cost considerations in mind, but did it have to be quite so obvious? Within a few months, both Opel/Vauxhall and Volkswagen further exposed the deficiencies of the Escort Mk5 when they presented the new Astra F and Volkswagen Golf III. Even the halo-model-of-sorts Escort convertible didn’t impress. At least the embarassing and virtually universal panning it received ultimately gave us the vastly better Focus.

The facelift Volkswagen executed on its Polo robbed the car of some of its distinctiveness. With its enlarged taillights, when seen directly from the rear it reminded some of the Fiat Tipo and facelifted Uno.

Mitsubishi’s Sigma, known as the Diamante in the USA and Japan, struck me as quite a good looking car at the time. In fact, the Colt and Galant of the same era were likewise clothed in attractive sheetmetal. While I encountered plenty of the latter pair on the roads in The Netherlands at the time, the Sigma always remained a rare sight. The car’s minor claim to fame is that it was the first car to feature an adaptive cruise control, named ‘Preview Distance Control’ by Mitsubishi.

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Computer Aided Design, as it appeared thirty years ago. Unfortunately I neglected to write down the stand and brand where I photographed it- does anyone have any idea?

Unlike the first Activa concept car, the beautiful Activa II that Citroën proudly presented on home soil appeared to be much closer to  production feasability. Hydractive suspension was of course a given, and here it also raised the car slightly when a door was opened to facilitate entry and exit. Alas, the rumoured SM successor never made it into the showroom as the cost to expected revenue calculation didn’t add up, so it went no further than this one-off built by Bertone. From the A-pillar backwards, isn’t there a definite likeness between the Activa II and the second-generation Ford Probe?

Frankfurt 1997

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It may have been rich in nautical styling cues, but the Peugeot 806 Runabout concept was meant for dry, on-road use only, although it did come with its own, similarly styled, jetski. The teak wood rear deck area could be moved up or down hydraulically and two extra seats pulled out of the area behind the front seats. Those front seats could then pivot 180 degrees so that all four could face each other. A refrigerator hidden in the passenger door provided refreshments. Impractical and a bit silly, perhaps, but distinctive and fun, so the polar opposite of the production 806 MPV that occupied Peugeot showroom floors.

As was to be expected, the new Golf took centre stage on the large Volkswagen stand. Both in the visual and quality stakes, it was a noticeable improvement on its predecessor. The fourth iteration of Wolfsburg’s best-seller would enjoy a life extension on the other side of the pond. After production in Germany was halted in 2004 it lived on (in facelifted form) in Brazil until 2013.

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The most extensively redone 911 thusfar, Porsche’s 996 was virtually all-new and now had a water-cooled engine. This last change was not greeted with universal cheers by 911 traditionalists, and neither were the unusual headlight/indicator units that quickly gained the ‘fried egg’ nickname. The sharing of various components with the entry-level Boxster also led to frowns from some but, as Porsche was not in the best financial health during the development of both cars, the company had chosen this route in the interest of cost saving.

The styling theme of Mitsubishi’s HSR-VI Concept car was named ‘Constructure’(2). The aim was for the car to fit into urban landscapes of the near future, while the interior was said to incorporate a living room atmosphere. The vehicle had two driving modes -manual and automatic- called the ‘Dual Mode System’. In automatic driving mode, the cabin was lowered by 12 inches, the seats reclined and the steering controls were retracted. A camera aimed at the driver’s face monitored alertness by observing eyelid movement and pupil contraction, and gave audible and visual alert signals when needed. True to Japanese cars of the day, the car was rife with technical acronyms: AAS, TWIN-AYC, ASC, ECS and a GDI engine mated to a CVT(3).

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Still looking good after so many years, the Alfa Romeo 156 was a huge step forward compared to the 155 in terms of being a credible alternative to the ruling junior executive cars. The styling by centro stile Alfa Romeo* was so accomplished that even Giugiaro couldn’t really improve on it with the later facelift. In fact many, including your author, definitely prefer the original.

The 156 was a good drive with assured handling and it won European Car of the Year title for 1998. With 673,435 produced, it was pretty successful but, unfortunately, quality and reliability could be patchy and dealer service and attitudes were often substandard if reports in the press are to be believed. An interesting fact about the 156 is that it was not just produced in the Italian Pomigliano d’Arco plant: some were also made in Rayong, Thailand(4).

Making its press debut here a barely believable twenty-five years ago, the Smart City Coupé (later renamed ForTwo) still looks remarkably fresh. A clever and characterful concept with, for some at least, an almost tangible ‘want factor’, it was sadly compromised enough in key areas to put off many potential buyers. Of course, it did have loyal owners who loved it and wouldn’t trade it for anything, but as a business proposition, the Smart City Coupé never achieved the goals Mercedes-Benz set for it. Still, over 770,000 of them were sold between 1998 and 2006.

“This vehicle won’t be everybody’s darling, but it is a BMW through and through: sporty, powerful and dynamic.” So spoke Dr. Wolfgang Reitzle at the introduction of BMW’s M Coupé. Probably a fair description, but I could never get past the ‘basketball trainer on wheels’ look in profile. That said, if one liked the appearance, the compact (at just over 4 metres long) and powerful package (321bhp courtesy of the S50B32 inline-six) certainly presented a strong argument, and 6,291 buyers signed on the dotted line over four years on the market.

(1) If it didn’t go up in smoke that is, which it often seemed more inclined to do.

(2) Was this the first time a car company devised a name for their styling theme?

(3) All-wheel Active Steering, Active Yaw Control, Active Stability Control, Electronically Controlled Suspension, Gasoline Direct Injection and Continuously Variable Transmission.

* Editor’s note: Stylistic attribution for the 156 remains disputed, with some credible sources suggesting the basic design was by Giugiaro, then massaged by Alfa’s own stylists. While Walter de Silva claims credit, this assertion is almost entirely without merit.

(4) More on this in a future article.

Author: brrrruno

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

16 thoughts on “Show and Tell (Part Six)”

  1. The M3 Coupe soon earned the sobriquet ‘clown shoe’ for obvious reasons. If you google ‘clown shoe’, ‘clown shoe BMW’ will be third or fourth in search results.

  2. If you hanker after a Mitsubishi Sigma there are 6 for sale at The cheapest (and the outlier) is around a thousand euros, with no TÜV certificate. The rest cost from four thousand up to around six thousand.
    The Sigma´s design is nicely resolved. They did something quite subtle with the flow of surfaces from side to side and side to top. The front indicators suggest BMW. The rest is quite distinctively Mitsubishi. I bet a lot of the design happened at the clay stage.

  3. Another interesting selection box of treats, thank you Bruno. I’ll take the 500E, a brilliantly understated Q car, and properly built, unlike its flaky successor.

    The Escort Mk5 hangs around like a bad smell to remind us of Ford Europe’s nadir in product design and quality. Still, had it not been so bad, would the first Focus have been so good?

    The Alfa 156 reminds us of one of many brief reflowerings of the Alfa Romeo marque, a sign of hope that could not be sustained. The current Giulietta seems to have gone the same way, a real shame.

  4. When the Alfa Romeo 156 was presented in 1997, I was electrified. I absolutely wanted one – in that time-travel colour, of course: baby blue.
    Instead of spending the money on a car – which I wouldn’t need anyway – I used it to produce my own short film. For one thing, the film was my birthday present (you only turn 40 once) for another, you could throw the film against a wall much more often than a car.
    Since then I’ve never been behind the wheel of a 156, so I don’t even know what I missed.

    1. So, how did the film work out?
      Is it really 25 years since the 156. Oh, no. I remember seeing my first one in Dublin, around Merrion Square. The small articulation behind the badge over the grille caught my eye. They are probably quite a delightful car but I feel more moved by a late 155 Twin-Spark. Madness, surely?

    2. Richard, to answer your question. After I rented a cinema for my birthday and invited friends and family, I gave the film to a Hamburg agency to market.
      The film was shown at some short film festivals, in Bilbao we won the “silver bear”.
      Financially it was a “losing proposition”, but I only did it for fun anyway – and I had my fifteen minutes. What more could you want…

    3. A lot of art is like that. But also, buying a 156 is a losing proposition. The laws of thermodynamics suggest most activities are loss-makers.

    4. I saw my first 156 in April 1997. A bunch of prototypes were on their way back from Nürburgring test drives and paused at Alfas HQ. I was there to have them put right a fault with my 916 GTV they’d built in during the last service.
      The 156s were all off-white with green velour interior. The ‘camouflage’ was black gaffer tape along the lateral crease, over the rear door handles and over the badges in the grille and on the boot lid. They didn’t cover the badges in the wheel hubs, however.
      I bought one at the next opportunity and through my business contacts to them I managed to get the production order for my car into the first batch intended for initial deliveries to dealer showrooms.
      At this early stage of production there were no diesels, a limited range of colours (Blu Cosmo in my case, the nearly black dark blue), no leather interiors and some other options that were kept out of the production processes like radio with integral phone .
      I got my car one day before the official dealer presentation (I signed a commitment not to use it on the road before the official date), making it the first 156 on the road in customer’s hands.
      I absolutely loved this car.
      And yes, it was a losing proposition, but a glorious one.

  5. Good evening, all. I’m late to the party today. I liked the 156 from the start, but to these eyes the design was always compromised by the FWD layout. Every time I see a 156, an increasingly rare occasion, I always think there is too much front overhang. I’ve driven a 156 a couple of times. I remember it as good, but not extraordinary. I disliked the Selespeed.

    I never really got the Q car thing about the 500E. My eyes are always drawn to the widened wheel arches immediately before anything else, so the under the radar effect is gone immediately. I prefer the shape of the original W124. I’ve heard a few people say the one to have is the E420, not the E500. Sadly I haven’t driven either, so can’t comment on that.

    1. I quite liked the look of the 156, although the nose always appears slightly pinched to my eyes – the 159 was an improvement in my eyes. This seems to be a minority opinion, though!
      What really shocked me about the 156, though, was seeing one with the boot open one day – the luggage space seemed absurdly small. I can only presume the rear suspension took up lot more space than that of the Bravo/a. Part of the benefit of fwd gone right there…

    2. To me the 156 is a good looking car. I would agree the front looks a bit pinched, but I’m not entirely sure what causes it. To me the front overhang is still the worst part of the entire design. I have a few issues with the way the triangular grille and headlights meet the bumper. It makes the car look fussier than it needs too. Also those little openings in the bumper around the grill have always bothered me.

      It looks like they tried to resolve the issues I have with the front of the 156 in the facelift version, but in doing so, they messed up the proportions a bit, so I prefer the original. The front of the 159 is better resolved, I think.

      I’d agree about the 156’s boot, even though personally it doesn’t bother me too much. Know that I am typing this, I wonder if my suitcase would fit 😉

      I like the 159 too, but prefer the 156 overall. With the 159, I have the same issue with the front overhang. I’ve driven the 159 only once and was disappointed. It feels heavy and not suited to a more spirited way of driving. It’s probably the better car, at the cost of being less of an Alfa.

    3. Hi Freerk. Only a car nerd (or a DTW reader, not the same thing at all!) would spot the 500E’s widened wheel arches, which is what makes it a great Q car.

      And here’s another:

    4. Daniel, to me a Q car has to be under the radar and the differences to lesser models must only be very subtle. I don’t think the widened wheel arches are that subtle I’m afraid.

      Same for the Audi. It’s hardly subtle, with the extra vents in the bumper and different mirrors. I’d think this is a better Q car. I’d have it without the M-badge and headlight wipers. In black of course. Sadly, today’s M5 is loud, both in sound and styling.

  6. Thanks again, Bruno. That Thai Alfa story sounds intriguing… something to look forward to. I think there’s a little Ford Probe in the Shocccwave as well (seen from the front), not just the – rather lovely – Activa II. But maybe that’s just because they’re two roughly contemporary ultra smooth designs. You have to love this publicity shot for the Shocccwave, though. Futurist design with VERY ’90’s graphics – check; cowboy hat – check; driving gloves – check; white hair – check (that isn’t Caroll Shelby, is it?); determined look on the face – check.

    I wonder if Citroën could have pulled off putting the Activa in that market segment back then (apparently the numbers said otherwise). Peugeot and to a lesser extent made a real habit of teasing all sorts of executive and supercar concepts without ever venturing close to those market segments in real life. A bit like those Playstation GT concepts you get these days.

  7. I don’t think it’s that much of a loss we didn’t get the 2 door Activa. Apart from the striking length and proportions, it’s got all the melted and carelessly applied surfacing and detailing that would become synonymous with Citroen’s output in the 90s.

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