Hardly Noble, but not Inert Either

An American take on the small car.

Before the all-conquering SUV transformed the automotive landscape, America’s taste in automobiles was really quite conservative and the traditional three-box sedan in a variety of sizes was very much the norm. Americans didn’t really buy into the European fashion for hatchbacks, preferring station wagons or pick-up trucks for lugging loads around. Even younger buyers, whom one might have expected to be more receptive to new fashions, still wanted to drive around in a car just like mom or dad’s, only smaller and, ideally, more economical.

Bob Lutz, who had joined Chrysler in 1986 as Executive Vice President in charge of global product development, saw an opportunity to develop a new small car that would be specifically aimed at younger American drivers. It would take Chrysler’s contemporary styling tropes, which were cab-forward proportions and organic, curvaceous shapes, and adapt them to create a small car with a friendly, unthreatening face and a ‘fun’ personality that would Continue reading “Hardly Noble, but not Inert Either”

A Diamond in the Dust

The 2005 Chrysler 300 was as good as it got for DaimlerChrysler.

Image: parkers.co.uk

The 1998 merger of Daimler-Benz and Chrysler Corporation was the brainchild of Jürgen Schrempp, Daimler’s ambitious CEO. Schrempp was on a mission to drive up the profitability and shareholder value of the group, following the disastrous early-1990s acquisitions spree of his predecessor, Edzard Reuter. Reuter had tried to turn Daimler into a broad-based global technology conglomerate, but instead oversaw a collapse in profits and share price that precipitated his sacking in 1995.

Schrempp believed that there was enormous untapped potential in Daimler’s automotive division, Mercedes-Benz. He wanted to leverage this to achieve a step-change in sales and market share for the traditionally conservative and upmarket automaker. This could (and indeed would) be achieved organically by extending the company’s traditional range downwards into mainstream territory, but this would take time and Schrempp was a man in a hurry, driven at least as much by quarterly financial reports as long-term strategy. Continue reading “A Diamond in the Dust”

Endgame

The fate of the Punto epitomised FIAT’s decline into irrelevance.

Image: parkers.co.uk

For the millennials amongst DTW’s readership, it must be barely conceivable that FIAT was once the largest manufacturer of passenger cars in Europe, an automotive powerhouse with a full range that stretched from the diminutive 126 runabout to the luxury 130 saloon, between which extremes were a multiplicity of saloon, estate, hatchback, coupé and convertible models. FIAT’s market presence was strongest at the smaller end of this spectrum and its 127 model of 1971 was the definitive modern supermini, or at least it became so when, a year after launch, it received the hatchback it was so clearly destined to have.

All the elements were there: a transverse engine with end-on gearbox driving the front wheels, making for a compact powertrain that allowed passenger space to be maximised. At around 3.6 metres in length, it was about half a metre longer than Alec Issigonis’s packaging marvel, the original 1959 Mini, but it put that extra length to good use, providing more than tolerable accommodation for four adults to Continue reading “Endgame”

Don’t Try This at Home…or Abroad

Testing brand equity to destruction.

2008 VW Routan. Image: autonews.com

For almost half a century, Volkswagen has occupied a sweet spot in the global automotive market. It might be described as semi-premium, but that prosaic term hardly does justice to its achievement in developing and sustaining an image amongst the car buying public that places the marque consistently half a step higher than its mainstream competitors.

The brand equity, as marketing types would say, is of enormous value to the company. It has allowed Volkswagen to get away with producing some distinctly sub-standard products(1), ignore often middling scores in reliability and customer satisfaction surveys, and even recover relatively unscathed, in reputational if not financial terms, from the Dieselgate scandal that might have been an existential threat to other, less well regarded marques.

Occasionally, however, Volkswagen has pushed its luck too far and the market has pushed back hard. One such event was its attempt to Continue reading “Don’t Try This at Home…or Abroad”

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”

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”

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”

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”

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”

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”

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)”

Cat of a different Colour (Part Two)

Continuing the story of Panther Westwinds.

1976 Panther Lima. Image: autocar.co.uk

Panther’s next offering would represent quite a departure from its large and expensive J72 roadster and De Ville limousine models. The 1973 Middle-East Oil Crisis saw an unprecedented spike in fuel prices and ignited a demand for luxury cars that were small and relatively economical(1). Robert Jankel identified the Triumph Dolomite as a suitable basis for such a car. The Dolomite was a well-regarded conventionally engineered three-box saloon which was already quite tastefully furnished, but Jankel believed he could push a redesigned version much further upmarket.

Unfortunately, the only way Jankel could secure the Dolomites he needed for conversion was to Continue reading “Cat of a different Colour (Part Two)”

Cat of a Different Colour (Part One)

Panther’s cars were always of high quality, if occasionally in questionable taste.

1972 Panther J72. Image: k500.com

As someone whose taste in houses and the objects that fill them resides firmly in the 18th and 19th Centuries, I’ve always had an ambivalent if not antipathetic attitude towards reproductions, which I tend to regard as antiques for people who don’t like old stuff. That said, I can fully appreciate the appeal of a motor vehicle with well executed retro styling concealing modern mechanical and electrical components(1). Such vehicles offer the best of both worlds: contemporary standards of reliability, efficiency and safety combined with the nostalgia for a simpler and more innocent time when motoring was a pleasure and not a crime against humanity.

Robert Jankel (1938 – 2005) was born in London into a family that owned a fashion business, Goldenfelds, so it was natural for him to Continue reading “Cat of a Different Colour (Part One)”

Poundshop Porsche

Škoda brightens up the dreary Soviet automotive landscape.

A cherished 1989 Škoda Rapid 136 Coupé. Image: skodaowners.org

Coupés and convertibles, by their very nature, are rather frivolous cars. They typically cost more(1) than their more practical saloon, hatchback or estate equivalents and offer less in the way of space and versatility. Their appeal lies in their (not always) more attractive styling(2) and, more subliminally, in what they imply about their owner. He (usually) is, apparently, a free spirit, not weighed down by familial responsibilities, and sufficiently affluent to afford such an automotive indulgence.

The post-WW2 Soviet Union was a serious place run by deadly serious people. Preoccupied with five-year plans and other weighty matters of state, they had little time for frivolity. Continue reading “Poundshop Porsche”

Keep On Holding On

A triumph of longevity, if little else.

1978 FSO Polonez. Image: autodata24.com

At the conclusion of the Second World War, Poland found itself on the wrong side of what would become known as the Iron Curtain. It became a vassal state within the USSR, with a nominally independent government, but one that, in practice, enjoyed little autonomy and was directly answerable to Moscow.

Fabryka Samochodów Osobowych (FSO) was an automaker established in Warsaw by the Polish government in 1948 to begin the process of re-mobilising the country after the destruction and devastation of the war. Its first car was the Warszawa, a licence-built version of the Russian GAZ M20 Pobeda. This was a dated if robust pre-war design and sold well, thanks mainly to a lack of alternatives.

FSO realised that, to Continue reading “Keep On Holding On”

Not Smart Enough (Part Three)

Where next for Daimler’s problem child?

2015 Smart Fortwo. Image: Auto&amp

The 2007 second-generation Smart Fortwo got off to a disappointing start as it was generally regarded as not enough of an advance over its predecessor, and too expensive. For a similar price, one could buy a four-seater supermini that might lack the Smart’s distinctive style but would be more practical and less compromised dynamically.

Smart had been developing an electric version of the Fortwo since 2006 and this model(1) was launched in 2009. It was initially fitted with a 14kWh lithium-ion battery pack supplied by Tesla and a 30kW(2) electric motor, which gave it an official NEDC range of 135km (84 miles). Around 2,300 Smart ED (Electric Drive) models were produced and made available to Continue reading “Not Smart Enough (Part Three)”

Not Smart Enough (Part Two)

Smart’s struggles continue.

Faking it: 2005 Smart For four. Image: honestjohn.co.uk

By the turn of the millennium, the Smart City Coupé was established in the market and selling steadily, but Smart was far from being financially viable. Daimler urgently needed additional Smart models to broaden its market coverage.

A plan was formulated to develop a roadster and coupé on an extended version of the City Coupé’s platform, but that would be another niche offering and unlikely to sell in numbers that would significantly improve the company’s finances. What Smart really needed was a larger and more versatile four-seater city car. BMW’s successful relaunch of MINI in 2000 may well have influenced Daimler’s thinking in this regard.

With neither the time nor inclination to Continue reading “Not Smart Enough (Part Two)”

Not Smart Enough (Part One)

Smart had a difficult birth that foreshadowed a long struggle for viability.

1998 Smart City Coupé. Image: autobild.de

In the early 1980s, the traditional Swiss watchmaking industry was in turmoil because of an onslaught of cheap and highly accurate quartz digital watches manufactured in the Far East. This forced the two largest Swiss watchmakers, ASUAG and SSIH(1), both of which were insolvent, into a defensive merger in 1983, forming what would become the Swatch Group after a takeover of the original Swatch company, founded in the same year by Ernst Thomke, Elmar Mock and Jacques Müller.

Swatch had been launched with a business plan to fight back against the digital invasion and regain control of the market in everyday watches. The plan was simple but brilliant: to turn the wristwatch into a relatively cheap fashion item that would be produced in a wide range of colours and styles, thereby expanding the market enormously by enticing customers to Continue reading “Not Smart Enough (Part One)”

The Nearly Car (Part Two)

Concluding our recollection of the Chrysler / Talbot Alpine and its saloon sibling, the Solara.

Image: telegraph.co.uk

Renowned automotive writer Leonard (LJK) Setright took his monocle to the newly launched Simca 1307/8 in the December 1975 issue of Car Magazine. Setright observed that the engineering teams in both Whitley and Poissy seemed keen to take the lion’s share of credit for the new car. This was understandable, as the Alpine was “really rather a good machine, restoring Chrysler to a competitive place in what has been described as the ‘upper middle-class market’ in Europe.”

One could, however, sense a ‘but’ coming, and it duly arrived with regard to the engine, which Setright identified as the car’s “only major shortcoming”. This was mainly due to the volume of engine noise that permeated the cabin. The problem was exacerbated by unusually low levels of wind and road noise, thanks to the aerodynamic body design and the car’s separate front and rear rubber-mounted subframes. The latter helped achieve “fundamentally a very comfortable and absorbent ride.” Continue reading “The Nearly Car (Part Two)”

The Nearly Car (Part One)

The Chrysler / Talbot Alpine was undone by the weakness of its maker.

Image: Chrysler Europe

There is a caricature concerning the behaviour of US corporations following their takeover of foreign companies that goes something like this:

Wealthy and expansionist BigCorp Inc. mounts a successful takeover of LittleCo PLC, paying a handsome premium over the net asset value for LittleCo’s intangible assets. These include its local market knowledge and experience about what sells and how to sell it. BigCorp then trashes that treasure by directing LittleCo to do things the American way, sweeping aside all resistance to change.

I’m sure there are instances where this has happened, but at least one US corporation seemed strangely reticent to impose its will on its newly acquired European subsidiaries. That corporation was Chrysler and the subsidiaries concerned were Rootes Group in the UK and Simca in France. Chrysler finally took full control of the former in 1967 and the latter in 1970. Not only was Chrysler apparently slow to Continue reading “The Nearly Car (Part One)”

Blunt Sword

Not without merit, but vanquished by the Capri.

Sunbeam Rapier Fastback. Image: viaretro.com

When one thinks of 1960s British coupés based on humble saloon underpinnings, the Ford Capri immediately springs to mind. Ford’s masterful repackaging of the Cortina Mk2 into the car you always promised yourself was an instant hit. Who cared that the Capri was largely a triumph of style over substance when the style was so appealing?

Ford was not, however, the only British mainstream manufacturer to market a stylish coupé based on its workaday saloon. A year before the Capri was launched, Rootes Group unveiled the Sunbeam Rapier, a two-door fastback coupé based on the platform and mechanical underpinnings of the Arrow range of mid-size saloons and estates. Continue reading “Blunt Sword”

The Reawakening of Bentley (Part Two)

Concluding our recollection of the cars that sealed Bentley’s renaissance.

1998 Bentley Azure. Image: bentleymotors.com

Such was the demand for the new Continental R that Car Magazine would not get to road test it until January 1992, and then it was still a prototype rather than a production car that was supplied for the test. Reviewer Richard Bremner noted that the car, although roomy and beautifully trimmed, was a strict four-seater, with individual rear seats separated by a large centre console that bisected the cabin. Bremner bemoaned the lack of ventilation or seat adjustment for rear seat passengers. Front seat occupants had no such complaints, however, and sat in great luxury(1).

Unlike the Turbo R, the automatic transmission lever was floor-mounted and linked to Continue reading “The Reawakening of Bentley (Part Two)”

Micropost: The Brunei Bentleys

The Sultan of Brunei was a fan of the storied British marque.

Bentley B3. Image: drivetribe.com

In the closing decade of the last century, Bentley’s most important and valuable customer was His Majesty, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei. With a net worth estimated to be around $28 Billion, the Sultan is one of the World’s richest men. He has been absolute ruler of the tiny but very wealthy sultanate since succeeding his father, who abdicated in October 1967. Now 74 years old, the Sultan has been a controversial ruler and is responsible for much repressive legislation in Brunei. That is, of course, a subject for discussion and debate elsewhere.

Today, we Continue reading “Micropost: The Brunei Bentleys”

The Reawakening of Bentley (Part One)

The 1991 Continental R Coupé was the first unique Bentley for over a quarter of a century. 

2002 Bentley Continental R. Image: cars-specs.com

The debut in 1965 of the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow was a seminal event in the company’s long and occasionally turbulent history. With its unitary construction, it brought Rolls-Royce into the modern age. Its longevity and enduring sales success carried the company through some pretty lean times.

The Silver Shadow also caused the near extinction of the Bentley marque. The absence of a separate chassis on which distinctive coachbuilt models could readily be created reduced Bentley to a badge-engineered version of the Silver Shadow, dubbed T-Series and distinguished only by a different radiator grille. Over a fifteen-year production run, only 2,280 (7%) from a total of 32,337 cars produced carried the Bentley name.

When the Silver Shadow model was rebodied in 1980 to Continue reading “The Reawakening of Bentley (Part One)”

Spoils of War (Part Two)

General Motors’ military adventure was fated to end badly.

L to R: Hummer H3, H2 and H1. Image: medium.com

Now in control of the Hummer marque and its product planning and marketing, General Motors was keen to maximise the sales potential of its newly acquired off-road specialist. Its ambition was to rival and even displace Jeep as the leading US marque in this space. To do so, it needed a full range of models that were more suitable for on-road use than the  uncompromising and unwieldy H1(1).

Hummer’s second model, the H2, was launched in 2002. It was based on a GMT800 series full-size truck and SUV platform and was powered by a 366 cu.in. (6.0-litre) V8 petrol engine, mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. The engine produced maximum power of 325bhp (242kW) and torque of 385 lb ft (522Nm). The H2’s off-road statistics were more modest than those of the H1, but still impressive. Continue reading “Spoils of War (Part Two)”

Spoils of War (Part One)

Hummer would become a lightning rod for political and cultural divisions in 21st Century America.

1999 Hummer H1. Image: carexpert.com.au

The 1991 Gulf War was the global reality television event of the twentieth century(1). In response to Saddam Hussein’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait and seizure of the small and poorly defended emirate’s oil fields, a US-led coalition of 35 countries began a counter-offensive on 17th January 1991. Operation Desert Storm began with an arial and naval bombardment, followed by a ground assault beginning on 24th February. In four days, it was all over. Saddam’s forces had been routed and the emirate, rather the worse for wear after the conflict, was returned to its rulers.

For overseas audiences, there was a strange air of unreality about the war. Such was the level of confidence in a swift and decisive victory that certain coalition military operations were scheduled to Continue reading “Spoils of War (Part One)”

Missing the Marque: Volkswagen Phaeton

A triumph of engineering, or hubris?

Ferdinand Piëch and his act of hubris. Image: hvilkenbil.dk

Ferdinand Karl Piëch(1) was a man of towering ambition, both personally and for Volkswagen Group, the automaker he led as Chairman of the Executive Board from 1993 to 2002 and Chairman of the Supervisory Board from 2002 to 2015. The grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, Piëch was automotive royalty and began his career at the eponymous sports car company before moving to Audi in 1972(2). He ascended to the helm of that company and was credited with turning Audi from a slightly quirky left-field manufacturer into a direct competitor to BMW and Mercedes-Benz, an achievement that deservedly earned him the leadership of the Volkswagen Group.

For many years there had existed an understanding between the German automotive giants that each would occupy its own place in the hierarchy of marques and would not Continue reading “Missing the Marque: Volkswagen Phaeton”

Missing the Marque: Jaguar F-Type

It was greeted with euphoria, but the excitement quickly faded.

2014 Jaguar F-Type R Coupé. Image: andoniscars

The arrival of the Jaguar E-Type in 1961 was a true landmark in automotive history. Its extraordinary styling, lightweight construction, towering performance(1) and relatively affordable price made it unique, to the extent that it might have come from another planet rather than the English West Midlands. Enzo Ferrari described it as “the most beautiful car ever made” and, even sixty years later, it is still revered.

The problem with icons is that they are difficult to improve upon and even more difficult to Continue reading “Missing the Marque: Jaguar F-Type”

Falling Back to Earth (Part Five)

Saturn spirals out of orbit.

(Almost) an Opel: 2006 Saturn Aura. Image: driving.ca

Following the 2005 launch of the well-received Outlook full-sized crossover SUV, next up for replacement was the once popular but now fading L Series mid-size saloon. The replacement was introduced in 2006 and called the Aura. This was based on the GM Epsilon platform shared with the Opel/Vauxhall Vectra C and Signum, Saab 9-3, Chevrolet Malibu, Pontiac G6 and Fiat Croma. It was powered by either a 2.4-litre version of the GM Ecotec engine or 3.5 and 3.6-litre V6 units, installed transversely with FWD.

The L Series estate was not replaced, and the Aura was offered only in four-door saloon form. Stylistically, the Aura dispensed with the Saturn family look, closely resembling the Vectra, both inside and out. It also dispensed with the thermoplastic external body panels, another Saturn hallmark, in favour of a wholly conventional construction. Just two trim levels were offered, XE and XR. A mild hybrid version of the former was introduced in 2007, called Green Line. The Aura was manufactured at GM’s Kansas City plant. Continue reading “Falling Back to Earth (Part Five)”

Falling back to Earth (Part Four)

Saturn struggles, but shows some promise.

2002 Saturn Ion. Image: conceptcarz.com

After a more than a decade, Saturn was still struggling to achieve a level of sales that would make it viable on a stand-alone basis within General Motors, and the company had never turned a profit. US sales had recovered in 2002 to 280,248(1) units, thanks to the successful launch of the Vue SUV, which alone sold 75,477 units in its first full year on the market. Total sales were, however, still below the peak of 286,003 seen back in 1994, when Saturn had just a single model line, the S Series.

The aged S Series was finally pensioned off in 2002 and was replaced by the Ion. The new model was based on the GM Delta platform that underpinned the Opel Astra, Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5. It was offered in four-door saloon or four-door Quad Coupé variants. The latter featured narrow coach(2) rear doors with concealed handles that could only be opened by first opening the front door, similar to those on the Mazda RX-8. An estate derivative was no longer offered. Continue reading “Falling back to Earth (Part Four)”

Falling back to Earth (Part Three)

Saturn loses momentum.

1993 Saturn SW. Image: carsot.com

For those who believe in such things, the decision of General Motors’ Chairman and CEO, Roger B. Smith, who was Saturn’s adoptive father and head cheerleader, to retire on 30th July 1990, the very day the first Saturn car rolled off the production line in Spring Hill, Tennessee, might have been an ominous portent.

Amongst the other divisional heads within GM, particularly at Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Pontiac, there was growing resentment towards Saturn and a feeling that their divisions were being starved of investment as a consequence of the huge costs incurred in bringing Saturn to market, alleged to be up to $5 billion. It did not help those who would later attempt to Continue reading “Falling back to Earth (Part Three)”

Falling back to Earth (Part Two)

Saturn makes a promising start.

1990 Saturn SC coupé. Image: consumerguide.com

There was great interest and excitement, both from the general and specialist automotive press, when the first car rolled off the production line at the new Saturn manufacturing plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, on 30th July 1990. Journalists were invited to tour the plant and engage with the workforce. They detected a certain evangelical spirit amongst the workers, who felt that the company was “people-oriented” and that they had a “voice” in the production process. This referred to regular team discussions with their managers and engineers, where problems were aired and suggestions for improvements were heard constructively and rewarded if adopted.

There were practical innovations in the manufacturing process too. The production line was called the Skillet(1) and the vehicles were carried, not nose to tail, but at right angles to the line, thereby reducing its length by 40%. The workers rode on the skillet with the cars and were free to allocate jobs within the teams, to optimise the use of individual workers’ proficiencies. Any worker could stop the line if they encountered a problem or fault.

Beyond the factory gates, Saturn’s management was also keen to Continue reading “Falling back to Earth (Part Two)”

Lost in Space, Lost in Translation.

The car-hire tombola springs a surprise.

All imges: the author

For reasons that will be obvious to all, Driven to Write’s generous travel and entertainment budget has been conspicuously underspent over the past two years. Fearing that the suits on the sixteenth floor of DTW Towers might repurpose it for even more lavish fixtures and fittings to garnish their executive office suites, or that a certain DTW colleague(1) might run amok restocking the sherry cellar, I managed to persuade our esteemed editor to sign off(2) on an overseas assignment involving an extended road test of an as yet unspecified rental car.

So, bags packed, my partner and I headed off to Tenerife, excited to Continue reading “Lost in Space, Lost in Translation.”

Falling Back to Earth (Part One)

Saturn was General Motors’ response to the Japanese invasion of the US auto market.

Saturn S Series prototype. Image: blog.hemmings.com

The Japanese automakers’ penetration of the US market gathered momentum throughout the 1970s and ‘80s. By 1990, this was a major cause for concern, not just in Detroit, but also in Washington DC, where politicians observed the country’s ballooning trade deficit with alarm. The problem was exacerbated by the behaviour of the US automakers themselves, who were sourcing an increasing proportion of their vehicle parts from Japan.

In 1990, the US-Japan bilateral trade deficit in vehicles and automotive parts was $31.1 billion(1). This represented 28% of the total US trade deficit, and 76% of the country’s bilateral trade deficit with Japan. The deficit in vehicles was $20.6 billion, barely increased on the $19.7 billion deficit seen in 1985. The deficit in automotive parts, however, had more than doubled over the same period, from $4.4 billion to $10.5 billion.

The US automakers struggled in particular to Continue reading “Falling Back to Earth (Part One)”

Missing the Marque: MINI Paceman

Off the pace: the misconceived 2012 MINI Paceman.

2013 MINI Paceman. Image: autotrader.co.uk

One of the very few positives to emerge from BMW’s six-year tenure as owner of Rover Group was the successful reinvention of MINI(1). Barely six months after BMW finally disposed of its troubled English Patient, the R50 three-door hatchback was launched. It was a clever reworking of the style and proportions of the original into a larger and (somewhat) more practical package. It was by no means perfect and there were quibbles about the quality of its interior fittings and more substantive criticisms regarding the performance and refinement of its engine(2).

Despite its shortcomings, the new MINI was perfectly in tune with the contemporary Cool Britannia zeitgeist, with its cheeky looks and endless personalisation options. This was perfectly articulated by the dealership environment. Rather than the clean, efficient but rather sterile surroundings of a typical BMW showroom, MINI dealerships were all black walls and colourful neon strip lighting, more akin to the nightclubs supposedly frequented by its typical target customers(3).

The decision to Continue reading “Missing the Marque: MINI Paceman”

Raking the Embers [3] : Details, Details, Details

Why the facelift failed to fix the BMW E65-generation 7 Series’ most egregious faults.

2003 BMW E65 7 Series. Image: carpixel.net

Someone much more literate in such matters than me once used the terms lumper and splitter in connection with automotive design. I find these terms useful and try to be a holistic lumper, but often find myself unduly irritated by what I perceive to be flaws in the detail execution, hence I am an inveterate splitter. This is why Adrian van Hooydonk’s(1) 2001 Siebener has always irritated me to an irrational degree, and why I feel the facelift did little to address its many flaws.

In the photos below, the blue car is the pre-facelift model, the grey is the facelifted version(2).

The most egregious of these flaws are to be found in the area of the rear door, rear quarter panel and C-pillar. The horizontal bodyside crease in the door skin appears to come to a dead stop when it reaches the door’s trailing-edge shut-line. It has to do so to avoid interfering with the curvature of the rear wheel arch. Actually, if you Continue reading “Raking the Embers [3] : Details, Details, Details”

New York State of Mind

Remembering the city’s iconic yellow taxicabs.

Image: cityandstateny.com

I love New York. Since my first visit over thirty years ago, the city has always entranced and beguiled me with its energy, ambition, self-confidence and irrepressible optimism. It is so much more than mere steel and stone: it is a living organism powered by human endeavour and entrepreneurship. Even though I am very familiar with the city, having visited on many occasions and worked there for a time, I am still irrationally excited on the ride in from JFK airport, waiting to catch my first glimpse of that unique and unmistakable skyline. Continue reading “New York State of Mind”

Eyes Wide Shut

A brief, incomplete and highly subjective history of pop-up and hidden headlamps.

Where it all started: 1936 Cord 810. Image: classicandsportscar.com

Ever since the Cord 810 caused a sensation at the New York Motor Show in November 1935 with its staggeringly sleek and futuristic looks, pop-up headlamps have been subliminally associated with high performance, aerodynamic efficiency(1) and technical sophistication. It matters not that many of the cars on which they subsequently featured, for example the 1985 Honda Accord and 1989 Mazda 323F, were otherwise pretty humdrum devices.

Returning to the Cord, its pop-up headlamps were modified landing lights taken from a Stinson light airplane. They had to Continue reading “Eyes Wide Shut”

Striving for Adequacy

The 1995 Escort Mk6 was… an improvement.

1995 Ford Escort Mk6 Ghia Saloon. Image: auto-abc.eu

The 1990 Ford Escort Mk5 was a terrible car. It was designed to be manufactured as cheaply as possible and was woefully under-engineered, nasty to drive and uninspiring to behold. It was rightly lambasted by the motoring press, to the extent that some of the criticism even spilled over into the mainstream media, damaging Ford’s reputation for competency.

A facelift in 1992 attempted to deal with the most egregious faults but achieved little substantive progress, while making the car ugly rather than merely bland. Such was the strength of Ford’s marketing machinery and wealth of its advertising budget, however, that the Escort and its Orion(1) saloon equivalent remained strong sellers, despite the cars’ blatant inadequacy. Continue reading “Striving for Adequacy”

Missing its Moment: The Reliant Scimitar SS1

There was no reward for Reliant getting it right at the second attempt.

Sporting: 1984 Reliant Scimitar SS1. Image: Reliant

In the decade before the arrival of the all-conquering Mazda MX-5 in 1989, the choice in European small two-seater roadsters was very limited. The ancient MG Midget and MGB had finally been killed off in 1980, but not before their handling and looks had been comprehensively ruined by US regulations(1). The Triumph Spitfire also died in that year, while the more exclusive  Lotus Elan had been pensioned off in 1973(2).

Concerns about the possible outlawing of soft-top cars in the US had also caused delays or cancellations in the development of such models. The Triumph TR7 drophead finally arrived in 1979, almost five years after the launch of the fixed-head coupé. By this time, the TR7 had acquired a grim reputation for build quality and reliability, and both versions were discontinued in 1981 as a consequence of the closure of BL’s Solihull factory.

British manufacturer Reliant, famous for its Scimitar GTE sporting estate and equally infamous for its Robin three-wheeler, saw an opportunity to Continue reading “Missing its Moment: The Reliant Scimitar SS1”

Autour du Virage

Last of the old-school bespoke Aston Martins.

Aston Martin Virage. Image: supercars.net

There is a somewhat hackneyed old joke that summarises the colourful history of Aston Martin rather well:

Question: “How do you make a small fortune in the automotive business?”

Answer: “Spend a large fortune on a prestige British luxury car manufacturer.”

Over the company’s 108-year history, Aston Martin has changed ownership ten times and left most former owners, if not bankrupt, then rather poorer for the experience. Such is the allure of the marque name that a succession of wealthy and (mainly) smart and business-savvy individuals (and the Ford Motor Company) have thrown their hat in the ring, thinking that this time, it will be different. Continue reading “Autour du Virage”

Latin Escorts

Necessity makes for some strange bedfellows.

1994 VW Pointer. Inage: autorealidade.com.br

In July 1987, Volkswagen and Ford’s Brazilian and Argentinian divisions created a joint-venture company, AutoLatina. The ownership was split 51% to 49% in Volkswagen’s favour. Volkswagen would manage AutoLatina’s passenger car operation while Ford looked after the commercial vehicles business. Autolatina was established in an attempt to defend both companies’ market share in what was a distressed and shrinking market.

Rather than compete with each other directly, the joint venture would Continue reading “Latin Escorts”

Missing the Marque: Ford Escort Mk5

A seminal car, but not for the reasons anyone might have expected.

1990 Ford Escort. Image: honestjohn.co.uk

The 1990 Ford Escort Mk5 was a car keenly anticipated by the market, as it would be the first all-new model for a decade. Ford’s rather casual attitude to mark numbers meant that the 1986 Mk4 was little more than a competent facelift of the 1980 Mk3. When the latter was launched, its sharp, contemporary styling and switch to front-wheel drive was fêted as a bold move forward for the model. In reality, it flattered somewhat to deceive, as beneath its apparent sophistication was a car that was distinctly ordinary in dynamic terms, with rough engines and a brittle ride. Continue reading “Missing the Marque: Ford Escort Mk5”

Diminishing Returns

The Cortina’s less talented big sister.

1963 Ford Corsair. Image: storm.oldcarmanualproject

The arrival of the Cortina in September 1962 was a seminal event for Ford of Britain. Here was a light and efficient family car that was designed to be simple and inexpensive, both to build and to run. It offered everything the average motorist and their family needed, and nothing they didn’t. The Cortina exemplified the value engineering approach to design and manufacture that would come to define Ford for the next thirty years.

The Cortina also made the rest of Ford’s UK range suddenly look outdated. This was a particular problem for the Consul Classic and Capri models, which had been launched just a year earlier. Their introduction had been delayed by a couple of years because the Anglia small car was such a runaway success that Ford’s Dagenham plant lacked the capacity to Continue reading “Diminishing Returns”

The Bridgehead Falls (Part Three)

Disagreements, divorce and downfall.

Quietly revolutionary: 1990 Nissan Primera. Image: drivemag.com

Nissan did not like having so little control over its increasingly significant UK business and found Botnar’s forceful style of negotiation distasteful. In 1990 the Japanese company offered to buy Botnar out, or at least take a stake in Nissan UK, but Botnar demurred, determined to retain full control over the franchise. To this end, he refused to renew contracts with the independent dealers that had been key to the company’s early sales growth and began replacing them with his own dealerships.

These dealerships, owned by a Nissan UK subsidiary company, the Automotive Finance Group, were large and aggressively managed, with onerous sales targets. Botnar showed little patience with any dealership manager who failed to Continue reading “The Bridgehead Falls (Part Three)”

The Bridgehead Falls (Part Two)

Despite opposition, Octav Botnar asserts his growing power and influence.

Breakthrough: 1973 Datsun 120Y Sunny. Image: honestjohn.co.uk

Datsun’s breakthrough model in the UK was the 1973 120Y Sunny. Like its predecessor, the 1200, the 120Y had a rigorously conventional, conservative and well-proven mechanical layout, but was clothed in a smooth contemporary bodystyle with an upswept side DLO(1) that would become a signature for this generation of Datsun models. The styling flourishes, such as the ornate grilles and wheel covers, were rather ersatz for some tastes (including this writer’s) but the model really struck a chord with UK buyers and helped Datsun Continue reading “The Bridgehead Falls (Part Two)”