Show and Tell (Part Seven)

Concluding our recollection of a phenomenon now in danger of extinction: the traditional motor show.

Image: the author

Detroit 2000

Chrysler’s PT Cruiser was styled by Brian Nesbitt(1) with the assistance of Gilbert Clotaire Rapaille, a French medical anthropologist, which may well have been an automotive industry first. The reason for employing the services of Rapaille was to find the ‘trigger’ in the reptilian brain of man so that the car would subliminally appeal to them. As the trend in the USA was to ever larger and more intimidating vehicles, Rapaille concluded that drivers “contrasted the dangerous outside world with a secure interior of the car”(2). In response, Nesbitt did not physically make the PT Cruiser that large, but made it look ‘strong’ by “bulking up the fenders and giving the car a kind of bulldog-like stance when seen from the rear”(2).

Introduced more or less in between the decline of the minivan and the rise of the SUV, the PT Cruiser sold quite well (at least initially) and even enjoyed a degree of popularity in Europe: a total of 1.35 million examples were produced over its lifetime. At the press presentation in Detroit, apart from the regular PT Cruiser, two variants that would ultimately not see production were also on display; the Panel Cruiser and the GT Cruiser, both seen in the photo below.

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The Rolls-Royce Corniche V was significant in a few ways: it was the only new Rolls-Royce launched under Volkswagen ownership, the last Corniche to date and also the last Rolls-Royce to be made at the Crewe factory before it switched entirely to the production of Bentleys. Although its frontal appearance alluded to the Silver Seraph, the Corniche V actually shared very little with that car: it used the platform of the Bentley Azure. That made it the first and only Rolls-Royce developed from a Bentley instead of vice-versa(3). Among more recent models of the marque, it is one of the rarest, with just 374 made.

It could have been Stutgart’s answer to the Mazda MX-5, but the compact and light (just over 2,000 lbs) Vision SLA Roadster was deemed too expensive to develop into a production vehicle. It utilised the 1.9-litre, 125bhp engine from the A-Class, but that car’s unique sandwich platform architecture was deemed unsuitable for this roadster. It therefore required a platform of its own and that would have cost more money than Mercedes-Benz was prepared to invest.

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Jaguar’s F Type concept did ultimately lead to a production car, but one that would – save its name – have nothing to do with this pretty roadster, which is a pity as it was a very attractive design. The styling was initiated by Geoff Lawson and Keith Helfet but, after Lawson unexpectedly died in 1999, Ian Callum became the new director of styling and finished the design, which he regarded as a tribute to Lawson: “Sadly, this is the last car to bear Geoff’s inimitable stamp.” Callum reported. “It is a fine example of the standards we will strive to maintain.”

Corbin’s electrically powered Sparrow PTM (for Personal Transport Module) was a bit too much ahead of its time, not only as a concept but also for the then available technology. Mike Corbin had a degree in electrical engineering and had built an electric motorcycle named the Quicksilver that in 1974 set a world speed record of 171mph on the Bonneville salt flats, a record that stood for 38 years.

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The eight feet long and four feet wide Sparrow PTM was powered by a 20kW motor that could be fully charged in six hours. Its maximum speed was 77mph and the range was between 25 and 50 miles depending on conditions. Lithium batteries suitable for vehicle propulsion were not yet available, so the Sparrow used thirteen 12v lead-acid units that together weighed nearly 600 lbs – close to half the total weight of the car itself. Since the batteries in the pack were wired together in series, one battery failing rendered the Sparrow powerless, which was very inconvenient. Less than 300 Sparrows found an owner and Corbin went bankrupt in 2003.

“Buick owners aren’t interested in sacrificing room, comfort or style. So we’re striving to give them the best of both worlds. LaCrosse is a realistic vision of a potential future Buick flagship vehicle with all of the comfort of a Buick and much of the functionality of a pickup.” So spoke Buick General Manager Roger W. Adams at the unveiling of the Buick LaCrosse concept car.

In standard configuration, the LaCrosse was a normal closed four-door sedan with a large glass roof. However, that glass roof could retract, while the rear window and bootlid – a single assembly – slid forward, converting the boot into an open cargo bay, hence the pick-up functionality mentioned by Adams. The rear seat could also fold completely flat to further enlarge the carrying capacity. Under the side-opening bonnet (a nice retro touch, as some well loved Buicks of the 1940s had this feature) was a 4.2-litre V8 with 265bhp on tap.

Geneva 2000

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The Renault Koleos concept car unveiled at Geneva would lend its name to a later, and much blander, production car. The distinctive side treatment style, which reminded some of a giant Ichthus fish, would also resurface a few years later in subdued form on a car available to the public – not on a Renault, however, but on the P12 Nissan Primera.

The Koleos concept was all-wheel drive: a two-litre 170bhp engine powered the front wheels while the rear wheels were driven by an electric motor. The Koleos’ bootlid used the same twin-stage parallel opening technology used on the doors of the Renault Avantime.

At first glance after more than twenty years, I mistakenly assumed this was a SEAT concept vehicle(4) I had forgotten about, but it turned out to be the equally obscure Toyota NCSV concept. “Not quite a coupé. Not quite a wagon. Not quite a sedan. That’s the point!” enthused the press release. Chief engineer Takeshi Yoshida explained that the NCSV was designed to embody a modern, fun lifestyle and was targeted at drivers in their 20s and early 30s. “Here is a vehicle for everyday use that is great for commuting but also perfect for cruising around in your leisure time.” Unfortunately, the press pack did not disclose what ‘NCSV’ stood for, and it seems press and public also couldn’t make enough sense of the concept for Toyota to actually put it into production…

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In hindsight it is remarkable that a few years before the Porsche Cayenne made its debut amid some doubts and controversy, Maserati presented the Buran concept (named after a wind prevalent in Siberia) styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro. With four driven wheels like the Cayenne, but longer and lower as well as wider and propelled by a powerful V8 engine(5), it loosely followed the same recipe, although it gravitated slightly towards an MPV crossover as well, possibly inspiring cars such as the second generation Fiat Croma.

Flaunting the faceted shapes favoured by its ‘Art & Science’ styling theme, the Cadillac Imaj was the American carmaker’s take on a high-end luxury vehicle for the near future. The concept was designed and built in England at GM’s Concept Design Studio in Birmingham. The styling team was headed by Simon Cox and Cadillac Design Manager Tom Kearns. As with its preceding concept car, the Evoq, some the Imaj’s styling aspects (notably the front and rear ends) would find their way onto production Cadillacs some years later,  albeit in toned down form.

A 425bhp supercharged version of the Northstar V8 engine powered the Imaj and drove all four wheels. Italian jewellery and watch manufacturer Bvlgari was enlisted to assist on the interior design, and the Italian luxury brand also produced a set of tailor-made luggage for the car. To ensure the occupants were kept entertained or informed as they should wish, Delphi Delco Electronics and IBM provided the ‘Communiport’ system that included on-the-go Internet connectivity as well as navigation and infotainment. Each rear seat was fitted with its own controls and LCD screen.

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The first really new Morgan since 1964, the Aero 8 was also the first Morgan to be aerodynamically tested at the MIRA wind tunnel and, in order to allow for a front splitter, the leading edge of the front wings needed to be forward of the radiator. This alone would not necessarily have led to a, let’s say, unusual, visage, but mounting VW New Beetle headlamps at an unfortunate angle certainly did. Replacing them with Mini headlights in 2005 rectified the aesthetic problem for the most part, but the Aero 8 would always remain a vehicle one either ‘got’ or not.

The origins of the Mazda RX-Evolv are interesting: by 1996, Mazda resided under the Ford Motor Company umbrella and Ford prioritized joint development and profitability which, among other things, meant that there was to be no successor to the RX-7. A few Mazda engineers were extremely disappointed with this decision and set out to work on a car to replace the RX-7 in secret. Since the ‘rogue’ team had access neither to funds or supplies for use outside of sanctioned work, they needed to be creative. And they were: a forgotten MX-5 development mule gathering dust in storage was used as a base and they manufactured many body panels and mechanical parts themselves on their own time.

Testing of the car was done late at night after all regular Mazda personnel had left. The prototype had its rotary engine placed in a front-mid engined configuration and, although unsurprisingly, its appearance left a lot to be desired, handling and performance were excellent. “Just one ride with this thing and management would realize just how great it is” was the prevailing sentiment. But since their prototype had been created without official permission, how to prove its viability to the powers that be?

It was then that they decided to go for broke, approaching a Ford Motor Company executive officer(6) who led one of the company’s development departments. It was known that he had originally aspired to be a racing driver, and was often engaged in performance and handling evaluations of development test vehicles. They decided to act at a test drive evaluation event intended for another car. After the test drive, they made a direct appeal to the executive, asking him to try the test car they had produced. Intrigued by their creation, he did, and he loved it- thereby clearing the path for what eventually would become the Mazda RX-8.

(1) Nesbitt would later also design the similar Chevrolet HHR after having moved from Chrysler to GM.

(2) Quotes from an article in The Wall Street Journal.

(3) Although technically, the Bentley Azure was of course itself developed on a Rolls-Royce base.

(4) With a dash of first generation Audi TT as well.

(5) The 3200 GT’s biturbo V8 3.2-litre engine with 370bhp.

(6) Unfortunately his identity is not revealed in the account of the RX-Evolv.

Source of information on the Mazda RX-Evolv:

Author: brrrruno

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

11 thoughts on “Show and Tell (Part Seven)”

  1. The ‘Art and Science’ look on the Cadillacs has lasted well. IMHO they look more modern than the current ‘slightly melted’ look.

  2. The PT Cruiser had a very unflattering nickname over here in the Netherlands, which I won’t repeat here. They were a common sight, but I hardly see them these days.

    I’m off to Tokyo now, so I might not check DTW for a few days.

  3. Cadillac and Lincoln both hired UK designers to inject some vitality into their styling. In both cases some excellent work was done. I´d say McGovern´s Lincoln work was the better of the two but it´s not that Cox´s work at Cadillac was remiss. Sterling stuff, both. Yet both the clients failed to do much with the research. Cadillac did use some of it in their production cars, as did Lincoln. Yet 20 years later the brands are still a long way from where you´d think they should have got to. Whatever desire existed in FoMoCo and GM to really turn their upscale brands expired before the 00s were out and the momentum faded away. I had a look at Lincoln´s website and saw only SUVs and one concept car called L100. Lincoln is 100 this year. The concept car is very simple but looks too much like a styling sketch to be plausible. Cadillac have two saloons and some SUVs (which is where the COG in the US is, of course).

    1. A few days spent in NYC enabled me to example the US urban car scene.

      Lincoln simply doesn’t figure. There are quite a few Navigators and some of the smaller SUVs, but they don’t leave any impression whatsoever. Cadillacs, on the other hand, while hardly dominant, are a very regular sight; mostly SUVs, of course, but also quite a number of saloons (mostly in Uber use, as are many Escalades). Of all the US brands, other than Tesla, Cadillac is the only one playing a fundamental role on New York streets, amid the legions of RAV4s, Accords et al.

  4. God, wasn’t the SLA an astonishingly vulgar little thing? As much as I’d like to like each an every small roadster, this one’s exterior simply made it impossible for me to do anything other than look the other way.

    1. Richard,

      wouldn’t you agree that an EV Koleos (tall ride height! space for batteries! spacious cabin!) would still be far more remarkable a design statement if announced 2022 than the Scénic that’s actually supposed to herald Renault’s future?

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