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)”

The Bridgehead Falls (Part One)

Octav Botnar turned Datsun into the UK’s best selling automotive import, but it would all end badly for him.

Small beginnings: 1967 Datsun 1000. Image: Nissan Global

The first Japanese car to be offered for sale in the UK was, surprisingly, not from one of that country’s leading automakers, but from Daihatsu, a minnow of the Japanese auto industry. That car was the Compagno, a diminutive but pretty(1) conventionally engineered small car, offered in saloon, estate and convertible forms from mid-1965. The lack of any name recognition and a steep list price(2) meant it had little chance of making an impact, and the importers managed to Continue reading “The Bridgehead Falls (Part One)”

A Car for Sunday: Ford Mustang Mach-E

A chance encounter afforded an opportunity to assess Ford’s first bespoke mainstream EV.

All Images (c) the author

Taking the air on a lovely crisp late autumn morning, my eyes were drawn to the vehicle you see pictured here today, the Ford Mustang Mach-E. To the uninitiated, however, its manufacturer would remain a mystery, as there’s no sign of the blue oval badge anywhere on the exterior. Neither, for that matter, does the word Mustang appear. The only verbal clue to its provenance is the legend Mach-E positioned low down on the front doors. We will return to this curiosity later.

Launched in December 2020, the Mustang Mach-E is Ford’s first(1) bespoke mass-production electric vehicle. Continue reading “A Car for Sunday: Ford Mustang Mach-E”

Coming to America (Part Four)

The Z-car transcends.

1989 Nissan 300ZX 2-seater. Image: wallpaperflare

Despite its considerable technical and dynamic advances over its dull-witted predecessor, the 1983 300ZX still had an outdated and frankly, rather naff image. It looked like the sort of car that Austin Powers, the 1960’s throwback and International Man of Mystery in the spoof comedy spy movie series might have driven, cheerfully referring to it as his Shagmobile. Nissan realised that it was now (past) time to reinvent the car and lend it a more contemporary mien.

The new model arrived in 1989. While it retained the 300ZX name, it was dramatically different to its predecessor(s). This time, the opportunity was taken to Continue reading “Coming to America (Part Four)”

Coming to America (Part Three)

The Z enters its Vegas period.

Nissan 280 ZX. Image: DTW Collection

The major change to the 280ZX during its lifetime was the addition of a turbocharged version in 1981. This produced maximum power of 180bhp (134kW) and torque of 203 lb ft (275Nm). With a three-speed automatic transmission(1), the 280ZX Turbo  achieved a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 7.4 seconds and a maximum speed of 130mph (210km/h). The rear suspension was stiffened to improve stability, but the brakes, already marginal, were even more prone to Continue reading “Coming to America (Part Three)”

Coming to America (Part Two)

The Z-car evolves.

Image: vintagecarbrochures

The first significant change to the 240Z came in 1974 after five years on the market. The engine was enlarged to 2,565cc by lengthening its stroke. This increased its maximum power output to 165bhp (123kW). Unfortunately, US specification cars had to be fitted with new emissions control equipment that stifled the engine and actually reduced maximum power output to 139bhp (104kW) which was 12bhp (9kW) down on the original 240Z. Hence, the 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time deteriorated to over 10 seconds.

The revised model was renamed 260Z. Its chassis was stiffened, and a rear anti-roll bar fitted. Other suspension tweaks improved both ride quality and high-speed stability, reducing the 240Z’s tendency to Continue reading “Coming to America (Part Two)”

Coming to America (Part One)

The Datsun 240Z transformed Nissan’s image – especially in the US.

Image: motor-stars

By the late 1960’s Datsun had been exporting to the US market for around a decade and had gained a reputation for offering cars that were meticulously built, well equipped and reliable, but were singularly unexciting, with slightly ersatz styling. Yakuta Katayama, who was president of Datsun’s US import company(1), was an ambitious and capable manager with a penchant for motorsport. It was Katayama who decided that the best way to change the US perception of Datsun was to produce a car that espoused the marque’s traditional virtues but was also fun to drive.

Katayama’s first such offering was the 1967 Datsun 510. Beneath its sober saloon styling was a 1.6 litre SOHC four-cylinder(2) engine producing 96bhp (72kW) and fully independent suspension employing MacPherson struts at the front and semi-trailing arms at the rear. The car weighed just 2,072 lbs (940kg) and was good for a 100mph (161km/h) top speed. It also handled sweetly and quickly became regarded as a ‘poor man’s BMW’ because of its similarity to Munich’s saloons.

This was a good first step, but Katayama knew that what he needed was a proper sports car as a halo model to Continue reading “Coming to America (Part One)”

A Car for Sunday: 1971 Ford Cortina Mk3

Once ubiquitous on the streets of the British Isles, the Mk3 Cortina is now vanishingly rare, and worthy of reappraisal.

1971 Ford Cortina Mk3. Image: The author

Walking through the lanes of the Suffolk market town I call home recently, I happened upon a car that I haven’t seen in the metal for many years. It was an arresting sight.

The car in question was a 1971 Ford Cortina, an early example of the Mk3 generation of Ford’s family stalwart. It was a four-door saloon, resplendent in dark metallic green. The lack of any additional badging on the boot lid and an absence of brightwork indicated that it was an entry-level base model. The cod-heraldic shields on the lower front wings behind the wheel arches proudly proclaimed it was a 1300, the smallest engine option available. Continue reading “A Car for Sunday: 1971 Ford Cortina Mk3”

Uncompromised, not Uncompromising

The 1978 BMW M1 should have been simply a road-legal version of a racing car, but it was so much more rounded and accomplished than that.

Image: automobile

More than any other mass-market(1) automobile manufacturer, BMW has built its reputation on producing dynamically accomplished cars, designed to appeal to keen drivers above all else. It is a moot point as to whether the vast majority of BMW drivers have the skills and talent to exploit such cars to their maximum potential, but many are surely flattered by the inference that they might Continue reading “Uncompromised, not Uncompromising”

People’s Coupé

The Beetle’s comelier cousin.

1961 VW Karmann Ghia Coupé and Convertible. Image: motorauthority.com

Mention the name Ghia to anyone who is not a car enthusiast, and they are most likely to recall plushly trimmed Fords from the 1970s. That is rather a shame, because Carrozzeria Ghia & Gariglio, established in Turin in 1916, had a long and distinguished history, designing and building upmarket luxury and sporting cars. Ghia’s best known work is, however, a much more modest car based on humble underpinnings.

In the post-war period, many European auto manufacturers were switching to unitary construction, where the platform and bodyshell is constructed as a single unit. This typically brought benefits of lower weight and greater torsional rigidity. However, it created a problem for both independent design houses and coachbuilders, as there was no longer a separate chassis to build upon. Instead there was a body-in-white, which severely curtailed the freedom of the designers to Continue reading “People’s Coupé”

Missing the Marque: Alfa Romeo 166

The automotive world had high hopes for Alfa Romeo’s late-’90s large executive saloon, but disappointment was not far away. We remember the Alfa 166.

1998 Alfa Romeo 166. Image: carandclassic.co.uk

The unveiling of the Alfa Romeo 156 at the Frankfurt motor show in September 1997 was cause for celebration amongst the Alfisti and, more generally, for all who love the automobile as an art form and expression of style. Following two decades of increasingly divisive and unhappy rectilinear designs, Alfa Romeo had produced a car of rare beauty. Its curvaceous, sculpted form received a hugely positive welcome, and sales started briskly.

Alfa Romeo’s next task was to Continue reading “Missing the Marque: Alfa Romeo 166”

Trojan Mule?

Was the Alfa Romeo Arna one of the ‘worst cars ever’?

Hybrid, of sorts: the 1983 Alfa Romeo Arna

At the beginning of the 1980’s Alfa Romeo was in grave trouble. Its reputation had been marred by the problems that afflicted its C-segment Alfasud. Built at the behest of the Italian government in a new factory in Pomigliano d’Arco near Naples, it was riddled with faults, the most serious of which was its tendency to dissolve into ferrous oxide at an alarming rate.

By 1980, the Alfasud’s build quality had improved noticeably, but not so Alfa Romeo’s reputation. A replacement model, the 33, was in development and would be launched in 1983. The 33 would be a somewhat larger and more expensive car, growing by just 20mm (¾”) in wheelbase, but by a more substantial 185mm (7¼”) in overall length. This left room for a smaller and cheaper car to replace the entry-level Alfasud. It is a moot point as to whether or not Alfa Romeo actually needed such a car in its range, unless it was really determined to Continue reading “Trojan Mule?”

Missing the Marque: Rolls-Royce Camargue

The 1975 Camargue proved conclusively that more is not necessarily better.

1975 Rolls-Royce Camargue. Image: mycarquest.com

The rules of automotive design that apply to Rolls-Royce motor cars are quite different to those that apply to other, less rarefied marques. Because of their low production volumes and the longevity of their model cycles, they eschewed the fashionable and ephemeral in favour of timeless elegance, understatement and peerless quality. The 1965 Silver Shadow exemplified these qualities perfectly, and Rolls-Royce was rewarded by it becoming the company’s best-selling model in history.

Despite the success of the Silver Shadow and the closely related Corniche coupé and convertible models, the early 1970s was a tumultuous time for Rolls-Royce Motors. The British government had been forced to Continue reading “Missing the Marque: Rolls-Royce Camargue”

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

We recall the ill-fated 1987 revival of Bugatti and celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the one car it produced, the extraordinary EB110 hypercar.

1991 Bugatti EB110 GT. Image: tcct.com

Bugatti is undoubtedly one of the most revered names in the automotive firmament. The company’s heyday was its first era, under the ownership of Ettore Bugatti, its eponymous founder. Bugatti was born in Milan in 1881, the son of a successful Art Nouveau furniture designer. Although he chose engineering as his profession, an innate understanding and appreciation of fine art was very much part of both his genetic inheritance and upbringing, with renowned sculptors, painters and architects in his extended family. This would manifest itself in a series of cars that were not only technically accomplished, but things of great beauty that are still held in the highest regard today. Continue reading “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi”

Driven, Written: 1996 Jaguar XJ6

Some might consider the 1994 reworking of the Jaguar XJ40 under Ford’s direction as a retrograde step, but the X300 was the best built Jaguar in years and is still a highly impressive car.

1996 Jaguar X300 XJ. Image: the author

An acquaintance of mine, Dennis, is a long-time Jaguar aficionado having owned a number of Browns Lane’s finest over the years. His impressive tally comprises Mk1 and Mk2 saloons, two XJ-S coupés, an XJ40 and a (previous) X300. After a period of abstinence, he took the plunge again in 2019 and bought the car you see here, a pristine 1996 XJ6 in metallic Solent Blue with a light grey leather interior.

First, a brief history. Ford purchased Jaguar for US $2.5 billion in 1990, ending its six years as an independent company. Under the leadership of Sir John Egan, Jaguar had in 1986 launched the technically ambitious XJ40 replacement for the venerable Series III XJ saloon. Egan had also cut Jaguar’s workforce by a third and improved productivity and build quality significantly during his tenure. Disentangled from the chaos and rancour of British Leyland, the external perception of the company had also improved markedly. Continue reading “Driven, Written: 1996 Jaguar XJ6”

Under the Knife: Hit and Miss (and Hit again)

The Fiat 131 Mirafiori was facelifted twice during its decade-long lifespan. The first was highly effective, the second rather less so. That was not, however, the end of the story…

1974 Fiat Mirafiori Special. Image: fiat.com

The 1974 131 Mirafiori(1) was Fiat’s replacement for its 1966 124 model. It was offered in two and four-door saloon and five-door estate variants. Like its predecessor, the 131 was a resolutely conventional front-engined RWD design, with 1.3 and 1.6-litre OHV engines derived from those in the 124 and mounted longitudinally. Transmission was via a four-speed manual gearbox, with the option of a five-speed manual or three-speed automatic on the larger engined model.

The styling was neat and conservative, and the car grew modestly in wheelbase, length and width compared to the 124. One notable change was the abandonment of the 124’s pronounced shoulder line: the 131’s glasshouse was pushed out to be almost flush with the lower bodysides, to increase shoulder room and the feeling of interior space. The design had few stylistic flourishes. These were limited to a groove in the bodysides and indented longitudinal pressings in the bonnet and boot lid inboard of the wings. Continue reading “Under the Knife: Hit and Miss (and Hit again)”

An Alfa Less Loved

The 2005 Alfa Romeo 159 had a tough act to follow in the delightful 156. We examine how it fared.

2006 Alfa Romeo 159. Image: pruebatucoche.es

The 1997 Alfa 156 was the first Alfa Romeo for many years that was greeted with near-universal praise for its styling. The company’s designers had spent the previous couple of decades playing with their geometry sets and producing rectilinear designs that were, to say the least, rather challenging in their appearance.

Under the styling leadership of Walter de Silva at Centro Stile Alfa Romeo, the designers of the 156 looked further back into the company’s past and produced a shape that was organic, lithe and sinuous, one that was regarded by many Alfisti as the most authentic expression of the marque’s qualities in years.

Those alluring looks did not come without some penalty, in this case limited accommodation for passengers and their luggage(1) and that old Alfa Romeo bugbear, poor reliability. Premature cambelt and tensioner failures were common on the Twin-Spark engines, forcing the company to Continue reading “An Alfa Less Loved”

Going South (Part Two)

The Alfasud lands to great acclaim. But trouble is just around the corner. 

1971 Alfasud N.  Image: estrepublicain.fr

The Alfasud was launched at the 1971 Turin motor show and was greeted with widespread praise. The compact mechanical package allowed for a low bonnet line and a spacious interior. Despite appearances, the Alfasud, like many contemporaries, was not a hatchback, but a four-door saloon with a conventional boot. The exposed boot hinges were just a minor visual flaw in what was a notably modern, attractive and aerodynamic design.

The front end featured integrated headlamp/indicator units framing a simple horizontal grille that contained the traditional Alfa Romeo shield. Eagle-eyed observers would Continue reading “Going South (Part Two)”

Going South (Part One)

More than merely a car, a state-sponsored project in political and social engineering. Celebrating the Alfa Romeo Alfasud on its 50th anniversary.

1971 Alfasud. Image: classicandsportscar.com

In the years that followed the end of the Second World War, successive Italian governments faced a seemingly intractable problem. Northern Italy had become increasingly urbanised, industrialised and prosperous, but the south remained largely a rural backwater. By 1950, income per capita in the south was roughly half that in the north, and the gap was widening. Much of the south’s agricultural land remained in the hands of large landowners and was poorly managed and often unproductive. Many unemployed young people simply migrated north, robbing the south of much of its potential labour force.

Acknowledging this economic and social divide, the Italian government established the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno (Southern Development Fund) in 1950. Its initial purpose was to Continue reading “Going South (Part One)”

Beta Variations

Imagining a brighter alternative future for the Beta, and for Lancia.

Lancia Beta Series III. Image: lancia.com

In an alternative reality, the Beta berlina would not have suffered the structural corrosion problems that proved catastrophic to Lancia’s reputation and prospects. Instead, it would have evolved into a full range of models in its own right.

Lancia attempted to Continue reading “Beta Variations”

Deserving Beta (Part Two)

Fate’s cold hand catches up with the Beta.

Lancia Beta Series II.  Image: autoemotodepoca

The Beta and its derivatives were developed progressively over its production life. A smaller 1,297cc 81bhp (60kW) engine replaced the 1,438cc entry-level unit in 1974, at which time power steering was offered on LHD models. In 1975, the 1,592cc engine was replaced by a slightly smaller capacity 1,585cc 99bhp (74kW) unit and the 1,756cc engine was supplanted by a 1,995cc 117bhp (88kW) powerplant. Electronic ignition was fitted from 1978 and automatic transmission became an option, making the Beta the first Lancia to Continue reading “Deserving Beta (Part Two)”

Deserving Beta (Part One)

The 1972 Beta heralded a brave new start under Fiat ownership for Lancia. We tell its story. 

Lancia Beta Berlina Series I.  Image: ruoteclassiche.quattroruote.it

Over six decades from its foundation in 1906, Lancia & C. had earned an enviable reputation for the excellence of its engineering and its finely crafted, innovative and desirable cars. Unfortunately, Vincenzo Lancia, his friend and business partner Claudio Fogolin, and Vincenzo’s son, Gianni, who took over the company when his father died suddenly in 1937, were far more talented engineers than they were businessmen. Consequently, Lancia always struggled to Continue reading “Deserving Beta (Part One)”

Lexus CT 200h Redesign Exercise

The 2011 Lexus CT200h was an awkwardly proportioned and unhappy design. Could it have been better resolved?

2017 Lexus CT 200h. Image: carbuzz.com

My recent DTW piece on the Lexus CT 200h contained an analysis of its design and identified the rear door profile and C-pillar treatment as the primary cause of its awkward proportions and stance. In particular, the too-short rear door glass and badly drawn shut-line between the door and rear quarter panel are poorly resolved and jarring details.

Accepting that the three-part backlight was a necessary compromise for production, could the side profile still have been better resolved without losing the essential character of the design? Continue reading “Lexus CT 200h Redesign Exercise”

Missing the Marque: Lexus CT 200h

Launched a decade ago, the CT was an uncharacteristic misstep for its maker and a failure in the market.

2017 Lexus CT 200h. Image: caranddriver.com

In the first decade of the new millennium, Lexus would have looked on with interest and a degree of envy as the German premium trio successfully marched downwards into the C-segment. Even though the Audi A3, BMW 1-Series and Mercedes-Benz A-Class(1) were not significantly (if at all) better than the best of the mainstream models in this sector, the appeal of their prestigious badges was such that buyers were happy to pay up for the kudos of having one on their driveway.

Lexus was slow to Continue reading “Missing the Marque: Lexus CT 200h”

Three’s Company (Part Two)

We recall the Talbot-Matra Murena, successor to the successful Matra-Simca Bagheera, and chart Matra’s departure from the automotive business.

1981 Talbot-Matra Murena. Image: secret-classics.com

1978 saw the departure from Europe of Chrysler, the US automotive giant that was in considerable financial distress at that time. It offloaded its European assets (and very considerable debts) to the PSA Group(1) for a nominal US $1. In the preceding years, Chrysler had replaced the individual European marque names it had acquired with its own, which meant that PSA now had to find a new name for its acquisition.

It might have resurrected the recently deceased Simca and/or Hillman names but chose instead to dig deeper into its past and found Talbot. This marque name, which had been retired in 1958, had the advantage of being perceived as British in the UK and French in continental Europe, and so was revived in August 1979.

In its last year of production, the Matra-Simca Bagheera was rebranded Talbot-Matra. A replacement was in the final stages of development under the project code numbers M551 and M552(2) and would Continue reading “Three’s Company (Part Two)”

Three’s Company (Part One)

The Matra-Simca Bagheera combined supercar-apeing looks and robust if rather prosaic mechanicals to produce a practical, everyday sports car.

1973 Matra-Simca Bagheera Series 1. Image: hemmings.com

Mention the name Matra-Simca to a car enthusiast of mature years and their mind will almost certainly turn to the 1977 Rancho, a modestly successful vehicle that was decades ahead of its time. The Rancho was based on the FWD Simca 1100 but had a bespoke fibreglass body aft of the B-pillars, with a raised roof and a large split tailgate. It also had a raised ride height, plastic wheel arch extensions and other faux off-road addenda. It was, in effect, a crossover, long before that term was coined.

There is, however, an earlier and less well-known vehicle that carried the Matra-Simca name. This is the 1973 Bagheera, a sports coupé, the most unusual feature of which was its three-abreast seating arrangement.

Matra(1) was a French industrial engineering conglomerate that was established in 1945. Its activities included aviation, satellite and defence technology. Following the acquisition of Automobiles René Bonnet in 1963, it also became a car manufacturer, albeit on a modest scale: it inherited Bonnet’s small two-seater mid-engined sports car, the Djet. This was succeeded in 1967 by the somewhat larger Matra 530, still mid-engined, but now with 2+2 accommodation. The latter was only produced in small numbers because Matra simply did not Continue reading “Three’s Company (Part One)”

French Polo

The 1981 Volkswagen Polo Mk2 hatchback was more French than Germanic in character with its functionality-led design.

VW Polo and Polo Classic. Image: polodriver.com

The original 1974 Polo was not a Volkswagen at all, but a repurposed Audi 50. Designed in Ingolstadt with some input from Bertone, the 50 was a pert and pretty supermini, intended as the ideal second car for an Audi-driving household. Volkswagen upended Audi’s plans by requisitioning the design for itself as a junior sibling to the Golf.

This was an expedient move for Volkswagen, but it stymied any prospect the 50 had of establishing itself as the first premium supermini, selling on style and badge-appeal rather than practicality. The Polo was obviously identical to the 50 and undercut it on price, hence the baby Audi remained in production for only four years.

When Volkswagen set about designing a replacement Polo in 1977, it decided to Continue reading “French Polo”

Missing the Marque: 2006 Jeep Compass

Another good idea poorly executed by Jeep – did the Compass simply start out with bad directions?

Boss-eyed? 2006 Jeep Compass. Image: autoevolution.com

By the mid-2000’s it was becoming clear that the market for SUV-type vehicles was changing. The vast majority of buyers liked the looks and versatility of such vehicles, but never put their off-road abilities to the test on anything more challenging than a high kerb in the supermarket car park. Good ground clearance and steep approach and departure angles were largely irrelevant to such customers. What buyers really wanted was to Continue reading “Missing the Marque: 2006 Jeep Compass”

Missing the Marque: 2005 Jeep Commander

The idea of a seven-seater Jeep model to compete with vehicles such as the 2002 Volvo XC90, 2002 Ford Explorer and 2004 Land-Rover Discovery 3 was a sound one. The execution, however, was disappointingly poor.

2005 Jeep Commander. Image: thecarconnection.com

The 2002 Volvo XC90 brought the benefit of viable accommodation for seven adults in a sophisticated large SUV. Other similar SUVs, like the 1999 BMW X5, were either strict five-seat vehicles or, like the 1998 Series 2 Land-Rover Discovery, had third-row seats that were only really suitable for children, or for adult passengers to Continue reading “Missing the Marque: 2005 Jeep Commander”

Sterling Devaluation (Part Two)

Concluding the story of Rover Group’s US Sterling misadventure. Why did it go so badly wrong?

Sterling in hatch and saloon form. Image: Favcars

A total of 14,171 cars found US buyers before the end of 1987, Sterling’s first year on sale in the US. This was a respectable number, if shy of the 20,000 to 23,000 sales that had been forecast by ARCONA. Even before the end of the year, however, reports were emerging about inconsistent build quality and poor reliability. There were many instances of faulty paintwork, poorly assembled interior trim and various electrical problems(1). Moreover, the quality of the dealerships was highly variable, many lacking the expertise(2) to deal effectively with issues that arose on the car.

The US Automobile magazine(3) ran a Sterling for a year and 24,500 miles to see how it would fare in the hands of a typical owner. The car had to Continue reading “Sterling Devaluation (Part Two)”

Sterling Devaluation (Part One)

We recall Rover’s US misadventure with Sterling and ask why it all went so badly wrong for the second time in a decade.

1987 Sterling 825 publicity shot. Image: Motor Authority

The 1981 Project XX joint venture agreement between Honda and Austin Rover to develop a large luxury saloon appeared to open the way for the British company to return to the United States. It was no secret that Honda was designing its version of the car, the Legend, with the US market firmly in mind. The Japanese company wanted to move upmarket, to raise US transaction prices and profitability in case volume import quotas might be imposed by the US government to protect domestic automakers. If the Legend was explicitly designed to appeal to US customers, then why shouldn’t the British version, the Rover 800, do likewise?

The company’s previous attempt to return to the US market was in 1980 with the SD1 3500 model. Eleven hundred federalised versions of the car were shipped to America to Continue reading “Sterling Devaluation (Part One)”

Owning and Driving a 1998 Jeep Cherokee XJ

The author recalls his experience of the Jeep Cherokee XJ, an impulse and irrational purchase that turned out rather well.

Not ours, but identical, 1998 Jeep Cherokee Sport (c) rnrautoblog.com

My partner and I had the use of a Land-Rover Discovery as my perk company car for three years until 1999. It was a thoroughly useful device and we missed it after it went back, especially as our other vehicle was a 1997 Mercedes-Benz SLK 230K convertible, by no means the most practical (or reliable) of cars.

We decided to look for a second-hand SUV but, fearing the Discovery’s reputation for unreliability(1), we chose to Continue reading “Owning and Driving a 1998 Jeep Cherokee XJ”