Missing the Marque: Renault Safrane

Renault replaces French style with Euro-blandness, with wholly predictable results.

Going incognito. Safrane Biturbo. Image: razaoautomovel.com

The 1965 Renault 16 was highly unusual for a large European car. Firstly, it was a hatchback when all of its contemporaries were three-box saloons. Secondly, it was front-wheel-drive when large saloons were mainly driven by their rear wheels. Thirdly, its styling was highly distinctive and didn’t observe any of the norms expected in such models. Ask me to Continue reading “Missing the Marque: Renault Safrane”

Fortune Doesn’t Always Favour the Brave

Innovative designs, and better built than one expected from Fiat.

Image: honestjohn.co.uk

Prior to the inexorable rise of the crossover, the C-segment hatchback was the bedrock of the European automotive market. Every mainstream automaker knew the vital importance of success in this class, the champion of which was the VW Golf. The Volkswagen Group prospered on the enduring success of this car, while other manufacturers strived to match its qualities and capture its appeal in their own offerings. Some slavishly tried to build near-replicas(1) of the German car, an effort lampooned by Volkswagen in its witty and memorable 2009 ‘Just Like a Golf’ television advertisement(2).

The success of the Golf was, however, something of a double-edged sword for its maker. So concerned was Volkswagen not to inadvertently kill the golden goose that it allowed the Golf to Continue reading “Fortune Doesn’t Always Favour the Brave”

E1 before i3

Two decades before BMW launched its first production EV, there was the E1 Concept.

Image: cartype.com

Energy Density and Specific Energy are the twin holy grails for any automaker wishing to bring a viable electric vehicle to market. These two units of measurement are often confused, even by people who really should know better(1). In simple terms, energy density is the amount of energy that can be stored in a given volume, whereas specific energy is the amount of energy that can be stored in a given mass. The S.I. unit for the former is joules per cubic metre and for the latter is joules per kilogramme. In the context of electric vehicles, the energy component is more usefully measured in kilowatt-hours, since the joule is a very small unit of energy(2).

Petrol has a specific energy(3) of around 12.5kWh/kg. Diesel is slightly lower at around 11.5kWh/kg. These numbers might appear meaningless in isolation, but compare them with the specific energy of a traditional lead-acid battery, which is a tiny 0.04kWh/kg and you can Continue reading “E1 before i3”

Swedish Iron (Part Three)

Concluding the story of Volvo’s long-running and successful 100/200 series.

Image: media.volvocars.com

After eight years and 1.25 million sales, the Volvo 100 series was heavily re-engineered and restyled to produce its successor. The budget for the research, development and updated production facilities for the new model was a relatively modest £60 million. The 200 series was launched in the autumn of 1974.

It retained the body of the 100 series from the A-pillar rearwards but was given a completely new front-end, inspired by the 1972 Volvo Experimental Safety Car. This was designed to improve passenger safety in a frontal collision and added a substantial 172mm (6¾”) to the overall length(1), which was now 4,823mm (189¾”) for the saloon and 4,844 mm (190¾”) for the estate. Unfortunately, the ‘shovel-nosed’ new front-end, again designed by Jan Wilsgaard, looked rather ungainly, and it unbalanced the proportions of the saloon(2) somewhat. Continue reading “Swedish Iron (Part Three)”

Swedish Iron (Part Two)

Continuing the story of Volvo’s long-running 100/200 series.

Image: Veikl

In July 1968, Volvo unveiled its new range-topping 164 saloon, based on the 144. As the model designation implies, the 164 featured a six-cylinder engine, making it the first Volvo for twenty years so powered. The new B30 engine was simply an six-cylinder version of the B20 inline-four and shared many common parts. It had a capacity of 2,979cc and, fitted with twin Zenith-Stromberg carburettors, it produced maximum power of 145bhp (108kW).

The engine was mated to a four-speed manual gearbox or three-speed Borg-Warner automatic transmission. An overdrive, which operated on top gear only, was an option with the manual gearbox. From the A-pillar rearwards, the 164’s body was identical to that of the 144. However, the longer engine required a 96mm (3¾”) extension in the wheelbase to 2,700mm (106¼”) while the overall length grew by 63mm (2½”) to 4,651mm (183”).

Volvo took the opportunity to Continue reading “Swedish Iron (Part Two)”

Swedish Iron (Part One)

Remembering Volvo’s long-running and highly successful 100/200 series.

Image: autoevolution.com

One of the near-constants of the automotive industry is the model replacement cycle. It typically works like this: a new model is introduced, given a facelift (for better or worse) after, say, four years, then is replaced by an all-new model after a further four years. Of course, ‘all-new’ is a term used pretty casually by automakers. Often, beneath the shiny new bodywork, many carry-over parts will be found.

A number of factors conspire to enforce this cycle. Ever tighter active and passive safety standards and regulations need to be incorporated. Likewise, developments in technology, both for the vehicle itself and the machinery used to build it, will, in the best of circumstances, allow the redesigned vehicle to Continue reading “Swedish Iron (Part One)”

Whisper, don’t Shout

The author attempts to explain his violently opposed reactions to the design of the 2020 Rolls-Royce Ghost and 2022 BMW 7 Series.

In a comment appended to a recent piece on DTW, a reader asked me to elaborate on why I thought that the Rolls-Royce Ghost works as a design, whereas the latest BMW 7 Series* simply doesn’t. It is a good question, and one I have been pondering. In what follows, I will attempt to explain my thoughts. As ever, I should begin with the caveat that, while there are well understood principles of good design, I have no formal training in that field. Hence, my observations are simply those of an enthusiastic amateur, no more or less valid than any others, so I am very happy to be challenged on anything that follows.

Cars like these, being large and expensive, should offer designers maximum freedom to Continue reading “Whisper, don’t Shout”

Living with the BMW E30-Generation 3 Series

The author recalls his experiences with two of Munich’s finest.

Not ours, but identical. Image: classiccarauctions.co.uk

My partner and I had the good fortune to run as company cars two E30-generation 3 Series models for six years during the 1990s. The first was a 1990 320i convertible, which was followed in 1993 by a 325i convertible. The 320i replaced a 1988 Mercedes-Benz 190E, about which I have previously written here. I would have liked to maintain my allegiance to Stuttgart, but my partner and I wanted a convertible and the C124 was too large, with an image that suggested middle-aged Miami orthodontist rather too strongly for our tastes and ages at that time. Continue reading “Living with the BMW E30-Generation 3 Series”

Breakthrough (Part Two)

Concluding the story of the seminal BMW E30-generation 3 Series.

Image: engineswapdepot.com

Sales of the new 3 Series, initially available in two-door saloon form only, started briskly around the end of 1982. Renowned automotive journalist Leonard (LJK) Setright drove the new 3 Series for the first time and reported his findings in the January 1983 issue of Car Magazine. Whilst largely agreeing with Georg Kacher’s assessment of the car, published in the previous month’s issue of the magazine, he took a more nuanced view of the handling issue.

Setright acknowledged that a base 318 fitted with the ZF three-speed auto was likely to Continue reading “Breakthrough (Part Two)”

Breakthrough (Part One)

Forty years ago, BMW launched a car that would help to propel the company into the automotive stratosphere.

Image: autoevolution.com

Automotive historians often identify two models as seminal in the history of the storied Bavarian automaker. The first is the BMW 700, a modest car that quite literally saved the company from bankruptcy after it plunged to a huge DM 15 million loss in 1959, mainly thanks to its misadventure with the beautiful but financially ruinous 507 roadster.

Launched in the same year, the 700 was a small rear-engined model available in two-door saloon, coupé and convertible variants. Styled by Giovanni Michelotti, it was an attractive and contemporary looking car that was well received and sold strongly from the off, bringing desperately needed income and stability to the company. The 700’s success encouraged the Quandt family to Continue reading “Breakthrough (Part One)”

Game of Chance

The author bemoans the arbitrary manner in which a complex rulebook and extraneous events determine the outcome of so many Formula 1 races.

Image: formula1.com

I have been a fan of Formula 1 for as long as I can remember. I can recall both the highs and lows of the sport over many years. The former includes Lewis Hamilton’s magnificent first World Championship in 2008 when, driving a McLaren, he took the championship from Filipe Massa by a single point when he overtook Timo Glock on the last corner of the season finale in Brazil to finish fifth. At just 23 years old, he became the youngest ever World Champion in just his second season in the sport.

Hamilton would Continue reading “Game of Chance”

Unforced Errors

The author wonders why some automotive designs end up being not as good as they should or could have been.

Image: Audi Design

In the field of automotive design, there is always a degree of tension between the designers and the body engineers charged with making their designs a reality. Many designs, when first revealed as concepts, are loaded with details that might look beautiful, but are difficult or impossible to incorporate into the body engineering for viable and economic series production. That, and the need to comply with the raft of motor vehicle legislation and regulations, is why production cars are often a disappointment, typically described as ‘watered down’ from the concept.

If the designer is unconstrained, then the result is, for example, the bonnet of the Jaguar E-Type. While undoubtedly beautiful, it was a nightmare to fabricate from many separate pieces of steel, laboriously welded together then lead-loaded and smoothed off to Continue reading “Unforced Errors”

Sierra Shock (Part Three)

The Sierra’s troubles mount, forcing a radical rethink.

Sierra XR4i. Image: definitely motoring

In the run up to the Sierra’s launch in September 1982, the external design had been previewed with the Probe concept, aimed at lessening the shock of the new. However, few observers believed Ford would put anything so radical into series production, a perception the automotive and general press did little to discourage. When Sierra arrived in the showrooms however, the stunned disbelief was palpable.

Additionally, there remained large stockpiles of unsold Cortinas, which required significant discounting to clear. This gave wavering customers an opt-out, which many gratefully accepted, delighted by the opportunity to Continue reading “Sierra Shock (Part Three)”

Sierra Shock (Part Two)

First impressions are very positive, but trouble lies ahead.

The UK automotive press were inordinately impressed by the apparent sophistication of the new Sierra. Car Magazine featured it on the cover of its October 1982 issue with the headline, “Sierra Shock! It really is a good car.” The magazine devoted a six-page feature to the Sierra including an analysis of the design by Steve Cropley, driving impressions from Mel Nichols and an interview with Bob Lutz, Ford Europe’s (former) chairman, who had recently been promoted and returned to Dearborn.

Cropley’s opening remarks set the tone for his piece: “If ever a car… deserved a complete break from the cloying, boring image of the ubiquitous Ford ‘nail’, this Sierra does. It is wholly different; wholly better.” He continued thus: “It is good enough to be compared with the new Audi 100, and to be mentioned in the same conversation as a Mercedes-Benz W123.(1) The eulogy continued: “Never again will a car maker be able to Continue reading “Sierra Shock (Part Two)”

Sierra Shock (Part One)

Ford of Europe bets its future on a car that appears truly radical.

Image: favcars

Exactly forty years ago, the European automotive landscape was upended by a new car that looked like nothing we had seen before. Even more surprising was that it came from Ford, that most conservative of automakers, which had made its fortune from producing cars that were… just as expected. Ford was emphatically not in the business of challenging its customers’ expectations, but meeting them head-on.

The company’s ultra-cautious approach to product development had created generations of cars that were only modestly and iteratively updated from their predecessors. This suited both conservative private buyers and cost-conscious fleet operators, for whom reliability and low running costs were by far and away the most important factors for them to Continue reading “Sierra Shock (Part One)”

Tyger, Tyger Burning Bright

Remembering GM Europe’s pretty but clawless felines.

1994 Opel Tigra. Image: Ultimate Car Guide

Over the past fifty years or so, the B-segment supermini has been a staple of the European automotive landscape, to the extent that it has, so far at least, managed largely to resist the onslaught of the crossover. In the early days, there was some experimentation with the precise mechanical layout, but most automakers quickly settled on what they realised was the optimum in terms of cost and packaging; a transverse four-cylinder engine with an end-on transaxle gearbox and unequal-length driveshafts to the front wheels, MacPherson strut front suspension with a torsion-beam axle at the rear, disc front and drum rear brakes, all wrapped up in a three and/or five-door hatchback body.

Many young people began their driving careers in a supermini, not least because they were so popular with driving schools, then widely available second-hand. They were cheap to buy and, crucially, relatively cheap to insure, even for a novice driver without the benefit of a no-claims discount and with a better than evens chance of having a bump in their first year on the road.

Given the ubiquity of the supermini and the resulting economies of scale for its component set, it is unsurprising that European manufacturers were keen to Continue reading “Tyger, Tyger Burning Bright”

There Are No Words…

…adequately to describe how awful this was (but I’ll give it a go anyway).

Image: journal.classiccars.com

From its very earliest days, the automobile was more than just a machine for personal transportation. It represented freedom, independence, individuality(1) and, of course, affluence. Automakers quickly realised that the wealthy could easily be persuaded to part with large amounts of money for a car that not only conveyed them in great comfort, but also conveyed clearly to others their social standing.

For some, Rolls-Royce stood at the pinnacle of the automotive hierarchy, with its superlative, hand-wrought quality and understated, refined elegance. For others, Mercedes-Benz was favoured for the excellence of its engineering. In the US, Cadillac proclaimed itself ‘The Standard of the World’ with at least some degree of justification before General Motors had done its worst to Continue reading “There Are No Words…”

Maserati for the Masses (Part Three)

Concluding the story of the Biturbo and the models developed from it.

Image: weilinet

Apart from the coupé, saloon and Spyder variants, the Biturbo’s platform and mechanical package was the basis for an additional five closely related Maserati models. The first of these was the 228, unveiled in December 1984 for launch a year later as a 1986 model. This was a two-door coupé, but was based on the Biturbo saloon’s longer 2,600mm (102½”) wheelbase. The 228 was intended to be a grand touring coupé in the Maserati tradition and featured the first application of the enlarged 2.8-litre V6 twin-turbo engine. Although superficially similar in appearance, it shared no body panels with the Biturbo coupé, being both longer and wider than even the saloon.

The 228 was again designed in-house by Pierangelo Andreani. Overall length was 4,460mm (175½”) and width was 1,865mm (73½”), making it 60mm (2¼”) longer and 135mm (5¼”) wider than the Biturbo Saloon. The Biturbo’s geometric lines had been softened, with a gently upswept lower DLO line and more curvature in the bodysides. Continue reading “Maserati for the Masses (Part Three)”

Maserati for the Masses (Part Two)

Continuing the story of the Biturbo and the models developed from it.

Image: maserati.com

The 1982 Maserati Biturbo was a fundamentally sound design, but a rushed development programme and hasty scaling up of production to meet strong initial demand had damaged its reputation for build quality and reliability.

In a later interview(1), Giorgio Manicardi, Maserati’s International Sales Manager, laid the blame for the Biturbo’s early quality and reliability issues firmly at Alejandro de Tomaso’s door. Manicardi had wanted to launch the Biturbo at a price of 22 million Lira, but it was de Tomaso who insisted on the sub-20 million Lira starting price. “As a result we lacked the [profit] margin to implement quality controls,” Manicardi contended. Moreover, de Tomaso allegedly maintained an iron grip on the project, to the extent that he rejected importers’ pleas for a cover to Continue reading “Maserati for the Masses (Part Two)”

Maserati for the Masses (Part One)

DTW marks the fortieth anniversary of the Biturbo, a car that sired a range of more affordable Maserati models.

Image: maserati.com

As seems befitting for an Italian company manufacturing sports cars, grand touring coupés and luxury saloons, Maserati S.p.A. has had a colourful and occasionally tumultuous history since its establishment in 1914. One brief period of relative calm began with the company’s takeover by Citroën in 1968. The deal was predicated on a joint-venture project whereby Maserati would design and build a new V6 engine for Citroën’s forthcoming flagship, the SM. Financed by French investment, Maserati introduced a new range of models, notably the 1971 V8-engined Bora, the company’s first mid-engined supercar, its smaller brother, the 1972 V6 Merak, and the stillborn SM-based 1974 Quattroporte II saloon.

Unfortunately, the Middle-East Oil Crisis of 1973 caused a collapse in demand for the sort of cars in which Maserati specialised. Citroën, struggling with its own mounting losses, put Maserati into receivership in May 1975. Political pressure to Continue reading “Maserati for the Masses (Part One)”

Ordinary Joe in a Sharp Suit

Remembering Ford’s blue-collar big saloons of the early 1960s.

Image: classiccarsunder80.blogspot.com

If such a thing is possible, then its fair to say that America had a good Second World War. Provoked into action by the surprise Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour on 7th December 1941 which caused the death of over 2,400 service personnel and civilians, America mobilised its vast industrial resources to produce military vehicles, ships, aircraft and armaments. Unemployment was virtually eliminated and the economy boomed during the war years.

When the war ended, Europe was bankrupt and its infrastructure shattered. Both winners and losers suffered equally from the privations of the years that followed. For many, life was little better than it had been during the war as the long struggle to Continue reading “Ordinary Joe in a Sharp Suit”

An Abundance of Caution

Toyota’s switch to front-wheel-drive began very tentatively in 1978.

Image: iheartjapanesecars.blogspot.com

The Toyota Motor Corporation vies with Volkswagen Group as the world’s largest manufacturer of motor vehicles. Global sales in 2021 were just shy of 10.5 million vehicles, earning revenues of approximately US $250Bn. The underlying philosophy that has taken Toyota to this dominant position has been one of cautious, iterative product development over decades, always giving the customer exactly what they expect from the company; finely engineered and meticulously constructed vehicles that deliver a long and reliable service life.

As the automotive industry has evolved, Toyota has tended to demonstrate an abundance of caution, not wishing to Continue reading “An Abundance of Caution”

A Gilded Cage?

Is Land Rover overawed by its own success?

Spot the imposter. Images: Land Rover Media.

Range Rover’s success over the past two decades in establishing itself as the pre-eminent manufacturer of luxury SUVs is truly remarkable, particularly when one considers JLR’s chequered and occasionally traumatic ownership history. British Leyland, BMW and Ford all attempted to impose their plans on the company, with decidedly mixed results. It was only in 2008, when JLR was acquired by Tata Motors, a subsidiary of the giant Indian industrial conglomerate, Tata Group, that the company finally enjoyed both the financial stability and management autonomy to Continue reading “A Gilded Cage?”

Folie Française

An Anglo-French automotive curiosity remembered.

Image: ranwhenparked.net

Over the past fifty years, the global automotive industry has witnessed an ongoing consolidation to the extent that it is now largely under the control of a handful of major players(1). The reasons for this are all economic: the costs associated with the design and manufacture of a new motor vehicle are now simply enormous, given the raft of fitness for purpose, safety and environmental regulations and legislation with which any new model must comply. Moreover, the product liability implications of putting into the hands of the public a machine that could be potentially deadly to themselves and others are truly terrifying. Only a lunatic and/or a genius(2) would now Continue reading “Folie Française”

Keeping it Real

Musings on the US automotive landscape.

Image: the author

I am writing this on our flight home from Chicago after spending ten most enjoyable days exploring the city and surrounding areas. Chicago is one of the great American cities and, with so much to see and experience, it is well worth a visit. Over the past thirty-something years, I have had the opportunity to travel to the US many times for both business and pleasure. One of my abiding fascinations is the country’s automotive landscape and how it has evolved over these decades.

When I first arrived on those shores in the late 1980s, the US car market was still dramatically different to its European equivalent, thrillingly so for a car-obsessive like me. Despite the downsizing precipitated by the 1973 fuel crisis, there were still plenty of US-manufactured ‘land yachts’ traversing the streets of the big cities and the country’s broad highways. American cars retained their highly distinctive style amongst a plethora of different marques, each with its own signature design features. Continue reading “Keeping it Real”

Boxing Clever (Part Two)

Concluding the story of the 1982 Citroën BX.

Image: motorpassion.com

Following a successful launch, the BX sold strongly, although there were some early build quality issues that were overcome during the first year of production. A year after launch, the BX range was augmented with the addition of a Break estate version. Production of the estate was outsourced to the French coachbuilding firm Heuliez.

Unusually, the estate retained the hatchback version’s rear passenger doors. This was problematic in that the hatch featured a roofline that fell noticeably towards the rear of the car, and the rear door window frames followed suit. However, in order to maximise load capacity, the estate, although only a little taller overall, was instead given a horizontal roofline. The solution was slightly makeshift: the estate’s additional rear side windows were mounted higher than the rear door windows, with long horizontal air vents below them. The mismatch was partly disguised by satin black trim and paint surrounding the DLO on all but the base versions, where it was readily apparent. Continue reading “Boxing Clever (Part Two)”

Boxing Clever (Part One)

Confounding the cynics, the 1982 BX was a proper Citroën.

Image: honestjohn.co.uk

The 1976 takeover(1) of the bankrupt Citroën company by Peugeot S.A. caused consternation amongst diehard fans of the products of the Quai de Javel. Since the days of the Traction Avant, Citroën had been fêted as a manufacturer of technically advanced and highly innovative cars, noted in particular for the superlative ride quality delivered by their unique Hydropneumatic suspension system. Would Peugeot, noted for its technical conservatism and financial rectitude, be respectful of this tradition, or discard it in favour of cars that were Citroën in name only?

The first(2) post-takeover all-new Citroën was the 1978 Visa. While heavily based on the Puegeot 104, the Visa at least looked sufficiently different(3) and had enough quirky details to be accepted as a proper Citroën in the mould of cars such as the Ami and Dyane. However, Citroën’s small cars were historically relatively simple in technical terms, so the bigger test of Peugeot’s commitment was yet to Continue reading “Boxing Clever (Part One)”

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”