You Wait for Three Years and Then…

… along comes Donny 375.

All images: The author

A dozen or more reasons prevent your author from driving more diverse vehicles, but determination and perseverance can warrant its own reward. Anyone can pop down to a dealership and sample something new to them, but on the other hand, the total number of places you can Continue reading “You Wait for Three Years and Then…”

Elemental Spirit Part 5: Building the Perfect Beast

Drivin’ with your eyes closed. 

Image: spriteparts.com.au

From the moment the Austin-Healey Sprite met the world in Monte Carlo in May 1958, there was a widespread and urgent demand for much more power than the 42.5 bhp at 5000rpm delivered by its Healey-fettled 948cc A-series engine. Professional and amateur racing drivers, and road car owners who just wanted to Continue reading “Elemental Spirit Part 5: Building the Perfect Beast”

Swede Dreams are Made of These

A tale of some lesser-known Saabs.

Image: the author

Some will be of the opinion that ‘SAAB oddity’ is something of an oxymoron, in particular when it concerns the Swedish company prior to its acquisition (and homogenization) by General Motors. That may be so, but over the course of its existence, the Swedish marque produced and, in some cases, inspired its fair share of projects that were noteworthy and unusual, even by the company’s own sometimes eccentric standards. Today we will Continue reading “Swede Dreams are Made of These”

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”

Savannah Postcard (3)

Truly one of the great and lovely names in the back catalogues of car history: Electra.

1985-1990 Buick Electra in Savannah, Georgia

General Motors has produced some very charming cars and they have also been incredibly bad custodians of their brand equity. Here is an example of a great name on a good car, relics of an abandoned market and an abandoned badge. More than 30 years after it ceased production, the Electra name still casts bright-blue light, and it made my afternoon when I saw this one while I was about to Continue reading “Savannah Postcard (3)”

The Gest of Robin Hood

Prince of… supercars?

Horacio Pagani and his namesakes. Image: carthrottle.com

Gest (a hard G) is an old English word meaning acts, or deeds. While it’s unequivocal that Robin Hood lived in the fourteenth century – but a stone’s throw from my own abode – his character will forever be open to speculation. Was he a thief who gave his plunder to the poor (à la Hollywood), a vagabond cast out to live life alone in the forest, or a plain woodsman who like many Englishmen from that time was skilled with bow and arrow?

My personal thoughts are that Robin Hood was indeed skilled in the art of thievery, along with a flashing blade and the gentle twang of a bowstring[1], to fell boar or errant henchman. But a benevolent thief; head honcho with an understanding side, engendering a brotherly, welcoming mien, to Continue reading “The Gest of Robin Hood”

Welcome to the Machine – Part Six

More than one way to behead a cat.

The XJ-S at its Geneva 1988 debut. Image: Car Magazine

Following the carmaker’s remarkable return from near-death only three years previously, America’s movers and shakers were once again buying Jaguars in number. “The word has got out on the cocktail circuit that the Jaguar is the car to have”, as Jaguar Inc Press Officer, Mike Cook told journalists in 1983. But the lack of an open-topped XJ-S model would soon become a genuine impediment to sales growth. From this point onwards, US requests for a convertible would become increasingly strident.

The Jaguar board realised that the expediently engineered XJ-S Cabriolet could only buy them a certain amount of time, but meanwhile something needed to be done to mollify potential US customers, for whom nothing but a full convertible would suffice and who would otherwise simply Continue reading “Welcome to the Machine – Part Six”

Talk to the Hand

He who dares, not always wins.

Image: Pininfarina SpA

The revered Italian styling house of Pininfarina has designed, and in some cases also built, cars for a multitude of manufacturers spanning the globe. As far as French triumvirate of mass-market automakers is concerned, the decades long collaboration with Peugeot is, of course, well known. With Renault, however, the only styling work commissioned has been for the Argentinian IKA-Renault Torino and, with what could be argued is the most distinctively French of the trio – Citroën – the counter stands at zero.

A little over two decades ago, Pininfarina did, metaphorically speaking, ask for the hand of PSA’s ‘other daughter’ by presenting the Osée research prototype at the Geneva Motor Show in 2001. This was the first and so far only Citroën conceived and clothed by the Italian styling house. The word Osée is French for daring and, even ignoring its rather radical appearance, the moniker was certainly apt as the Osée was a mid-engined rear-wheel-drive sportscar, a specification unheard of for a Citroën. Continue reading “Talk to the Hand”

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”

SMS

Salmson – a brief history. 

Image: Bellina Classic Motors

Famous of course for being the spiritual home of Renault, but before Louis built his factory in Billancourt, an altogether different engineer set up shop here leading to some perhaps unexpected diversions. As with so many Victorian-era small time engineers, Émile Salmson (1858-1917) ran a workshop where he produced steam powered pumps for railway and military applications. Attracting the likeminded Georges Canton and Georg Unné, the company changed name to Émile Salmson & Cie, manufacturing pumps, magnetos and engines.

Further plans would include producing radial aero engines. Investment and excellent results found ES & C at the forefront of French aircraft engine production as the Great War began. At full capacity in Billancourt, some aero engine production migrated to Villeurbanne, near Lyon. This too would include an unsuccessful helicopter.

With hostilities over, priorities altered. Demand for aero engines fell, so typewriters and woodworking lathes would become the company’s mainstay, but the burgeoning private car business was seen as the way forward. Management realised the fastest route to Continue reading “SMS”

Gems on the Assembly Line…

…and it was not one of the cars.

Image: classiccarstodayonline.com

At the dawn of its existence, painting an automobile was done in the same manner as one would apply a coat of paint to a horse-drawn carriage: by means of a brush and, in some cases, paint-rollers. Since cars were in those days built more or less in the same manner as their animal-powered predecessors, this was only to be expected.

The introduction of the moving assembly line by Ford in 1913 and the consequent rising demand for cars revealed the limitations of this method of application(1), but it would not be until 1924 that the first car to be spray-painted rolled off an assembly line, not at Ford, but at competitor GM with the Oakland model, a precursor to the later Pontiac. Continue reading “Gems on the Assembly Line…”

Welcome to the Machine – Part Six

Giving the XJ-S a brake.

Lynx Eventer. Image: Autoevolution

Nobody ever purchased a grand turismo motor car for its load-carrying capabilities, there being vehicles better suited to such tasks. But for a select few, such binary propositions exist only as orthodoxies to be upturned. It requires a certain mentality to envisage the recasting of something as indulgent as a 2+2 GT into an estate car. But in order to fill a vacuum, one must first Continue reading “Welcome to the Machine – Part Six”

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”

Birthday Present, Birthday Past

“The Magnification of Inspired Performance

Infiniti Essence. Image: automobilesreview.com

The Japanese luxury carmaker had something it wanted to make clear in its 2009 Geneva press release: “What Essence is not is merely an indulgent birthday present from Infiniti to itself“, it asserted, immediately planting the germ of doubt into those of a more cynically minded bent.

2009 marked Geneva’s 79th motor show. Infiniti was present that year, celebrating twenty years since its inception. To mark this auspicious milestone, they displayed Essence, a petrol/electric/hybrid concept GT coupé. Essence’s mission it appears was twofold. To showcase a new design ethos, forecasting a range of more exciting vehicles to wear the Infiniti badge, but also to generate excitement around the brand as it made a late entry into the European market.

Nissan’s upmarket sub-brand needed to make up for lost ground. Having made its US debut in 1989, it arrived concurrent with, yet somewhat on the tail of Toyota’s more impactful Lexus nameplate. Over the intervening two decades, while its Toyota City rival became an accepted member of the ‘prestige’ firmament, Infiniti, owing in part to Nissan’s US-centric focus, not to mention a somewhat half-baked commitment to product development, remained something of an also-ran.

Nissan, never as strong or well-resourced as Toyota, probably bit off more than it ought by attempting to go head-to-head with Lexus. By 2009, not only had it the carmaker been forced to Continue reading “Birthday Present, Birthday Past”

Livonia, There’s Something About You

Four feral felines from Buick. 

1953 Buick Wildcat I. Image: oldconceptcars

Buick have form when it comes to concept vehicles, especially since a certain Harley Earl began such pioneering strides with 1938’s seminal Y-Job, which helped to define the Tri-shield’s design credentials. In 1949, GM’s Autorama car show was held at the Astoria Hotel in New York to promote new concept designs to a public desperate to Continue reading “Livonia, There’s Something About You”

Show and Tell (Part Seven)

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

Image: the author

Detroit 2000

Chrysler’s PT Cruiser was styled by Brian Nesbitt(1) with the assistance of Gilbert Clotaire Rapaille, a French medical anthropologist, which may well have been an automotive industry first. The reason for employing the services of Rapaille was to Continue reading “Show and Tell (Part Seven)”

Elemental Spirit Part 4: The Sisyphus Game

The Spridget turned out to be a difficult product to replace. We look at a diverse selection of proposals developed through the 1960s.

Image: MG Cheshire Owners Club

Far from perfect, and never very advanced in its design or engineering, replacing the Spridget became one of several long-running displacement activities within BMC and pre-Edwardes BLMC, although in a far lower league than The New Mini, and ‘The Little Engine That Could’ (replace the A Series). All turned out to be as pointless and unproductive as parlour games, with the participants’ abundant creativity never rewarded with a tangible prize.

When Leonard Lord and Donald Healey first imagined the low-budget car which would become the Austin-Healey Sprite, they probably envisaged a production life of possibly 3-4 years before technology and fashion left it behind. Within MG a ‘New Midget based on Sputnik FWD’, was registered in the experimental department register as EX 220, four months before Sputnik (better known as the ADO15 Mini) went on sale in August 1959. The project was given a proper Longbridge code, ADO34, despite the strong disproval of Alec Issigonis[a], and progressed for some time with competing design teams from Abingdon and Longbridge. Continue reading “Elemental Spirit Part 4: The Sisyphus Game”

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)”

The Man Machine

Pressing concerns.

Image: Acharts.com

Designers reap the plaudits whilst manufacturers soak up the awards, but without the hidden practice of metal stamping, the car making process would remain firmly in the carriage days, accompanied by a dirge rather than a more symphonic assurance.

While the engineering technology was pioneered in the Victorian era, nowadays many groups and global corporations deal with the stamping of metal. Today, we look at two well established companies who shape metal for a variety of manufacturers, whose methods, size and ownership have changed far beyond their humble beginnings. One must add that from this layperson’s perspective, the process is not only fascinating, but quite musical.

Schuler, now a member of the Austrian Andritz Group, was established in 1839 by Louis Schuler and a single apprentice. Based in Göppingen, a town around 40 kilometres east of Stuttgart, his small firm began to produce fruit and cider presses. By 1852, he believed his company had taken on too many projects too quickly and rather hot-headedly took an axe to his existing machinery in order to Continue reading “The Man Machine”

Show and Tell (Part Six)

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

Image: the author

Paris 1990

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

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

Elemental Spirit Part 3: When Donald Met Donald

When two West Countrymen clash.

Image: British Leyland (Austin-Morris) Limited

In his biography My World of Cars, Donald Healey recalled a meeting with Sir Donald Stokes in the first few weeks of British Leyland’s existence:

“I was summoned to Donald Stokes’s office at the Standard works in Coventry, he told me he was going to discontinue MG, together with the payment of royalties to the names associated with what were BLMC cars. This included John Cooper and myself, together with Harry Weslake, and John Thornley (MG General Manager) too, was eventually to be retired. He explained that he didn’t need the help of all of us people to Continue reading “Elemental Spirit Part 3: When Donald Met Donald”

Welcome to the Machine – Part Five

Opening up the XJ-S. In sections.

Image: erwinxjs

Even amongst luxurious and indulgent grand turismos the Jaguar XJ-S stood apart, alongside its other more contentious attributes for its disproportionate length-to-cabin ratio. Despite generous exterior proportions, the XJ-S was avowedly a 2+2, with the rear seats of only the occasional variety. But if close-coupled coupés might be considered the preserve of the sybarite, its drophead coupé equivalent was by comparison entirely the chariot of the hedonist.

During the early 1970s, convertibles began to fall out of favour on both sides of the Atlantic. The reasons for this are complex, but a major factor influencing carmakers involved fears of draconian United States federal safety proposals which threatened to outlaw open-topped cars entirely, or at the very least render them unsaleable. In Europe on the other hand, as socio-political tensions began to turn violent, the Riviera-set elected to Continue reading “Welcome to the Machine – Part Five”

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)”

Kenosha Kid

The immortal ‘Frogeye’ Sprite was a quintessentially British design, but could its roots have lain further West?

Image: amklassiek.nl

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2018.

The compact two-seat sportscar wasn’t necessarily a British invention, but for a period during the twentieth century, the UK was perhaps its prime exponent. Hardly surprising, given Britain’s traditionally serpentine network of narrow undulating roads and a taxation regime which dictated lower capacity, longer-stroke engines of limited outright power.

But the British are an inventive people and soon found ways to Continue reading “Kenosha Kid”

M Too

Born, raised and terminated during the Asian bubble economy- the story of Mazda’s shortlived design and performance skunkworks.

Images: ameblo.jp, architecturetokyo.wordpress.com and Mazda Motor Corporation

In Tokyo’s Setagaya ward stands a building that is hard to miss, thanks to its highly unusual appearance. Currently occupied by a funeral company, it originally served as the headquarters and showroom for M2, Mazda’s creator of limited-edition specials and prototypes. The eye-catching structure, designed by architect Kengo Kuma, is made out of reinforced concrete, although it is executed in such a way that it resembles masonry construction. A gigantic central Ionic column dominates the view and contains an atrium plus a glazed elevator shaft. Clearly, this was no ordinary showroom but then M2 was no ordinary outfit.

Established in 1990, M2 was no doubt partly inspired by competitor Nissan’s ‘Pike Factory’ success in selling uniquely styled limited editions such as the BE-1, PAO and S-Cargo. These were based on Nissan’s regular offerings and sold through the Cherry Stores network. Continue reading “M Too”

Elemental Spirit Part 2: Metamorphosis

The Second Face, and a short-lived dupoly.

Image: the Austin Motor Company

The final years of the 1950s were a time of advancement and renewal for the automobile industry. Fashions changed rapidly as American influence waned, and the European carmakers forged their own visual identities. Model replacement cycles were short, and consumers gravitated to whatever was new and progressive. The Austin-Healey Sprite’s designers never expected the expedient Frogeye design to have a long life, and not long after its launch, the designers at Donald Healey Motor Company in Warwick were working on a facelift, scheduled for production in 1961.

Even before this date, BMC’s Italian licensees had shocked their British supplier and delighted the world with their own version of the little Austin-Healey, presented at the 1960 Turin Motor Show in November 1960. Continue reading “Elemental Spirit Part 2: Metamorphosis”

Sons of Pioneers

A visionary BMW? It doesn’t seem so long ago.

Into the sunset. Farewell i3. Image: (c) Media BMW

It has become customary nowadays to discuss the carmaking giant of Bayerische Motoren Werke AG in anguished tones, akin perhaps to the sort of concern one might feel towards a once-reliable friend in the throes of an unnerving and potentially damaging life-crisis. But it wasn’t always thus. A little over a decade ago, the German carmaker was at the forefront of automotive future-thinking and a genuine pathfinder towards zero emission mobility. Not only that, the cars with which BMW entered the EV market were as futurist in appearance as they were beneath their arresting skin panels.

The birth of the BMW i programme goes back to the latter portion of the post-millennial decade, a time of unfettered expansion for the Vierzylinder, not only in commercial and product terms but also in the visionary sense. During this fecund period, in a quiet corner of BMW’s FIZ engineering nerve centre, a radical and potentially transformative project was gaining impetus and momentum. Project i brought together a small group of electrical engineers, chemists and product strategists under the leadership of Ulrich Kranz, to Continue reading “Sons of Pioneers”

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)”

Sayer’s Moodboard

The Jaguar XJ-S came from outer space – or did it?

Image: XJ story

Editor’s note: This piece was originally published in November 2017.

A shape which to this day repels as much as it fascinates, the Jaguar XJ-S remains a car which divides opinion. While the reasons for repulsion are easy enough to discern, its fascination lies not only as a function of its striking shape, but also from a sense that its styling came about without precedent. But surely no car is developed entirely in a vacuum?

Driven to Write has covered the XJ-S’ stylistic development in some detail already, so you might consider it a little self-indulgent to Continue reading “Sayer’s Moodboard”

Show and Tell (Part Five)

Look and you shall find.

Ending an aesthetically dodgy episode during the eighties, the final facelift made the Spider regain most of its former prettiness. Image: the author

Some envelopes with car show photos that were elusive when the first four instalments of this series were being written in 2020 have now resurfaced.

Geneva 1988:

Quite late into its life, the Jaguar XJ-S was finally offered as a true convertible(1). Although the conversion might at first glance seem to be relatively straightforward, no less than 108 new panels and 48 modified pressings were needed to make the car a production reality. Also required were reinforcements to the transmission tunnel, rear floor and both bulkheads. The car was available in V12 form only, making it the most expensive vehicle in Jaguar’s model range apart from the very limited production Daimler DS420. Continue reading “Show and Tell (Part Five)”

A Stock Car at La Sarthe

NASCAR comes to Le Mans

Image: Static.wixstatic.com

June 1976: The United States of America is about to celebrate its bicentennial. And what better way to mark such an auspicious event than conquering a certain French motor racing circuit with some all-American iron?

Three years before, the oil crisis affected the pockets of Joe Public and racing teams alike. Budgets were slashed, ideas sidelined but racing continued if perhaps not as freely as before. The Automobile Club de L’Ouest (ACO), fastidious organisers of the 24 Hours of Le Mans were struggling to fill the fifty-five-place grid for the ‘76 event. They turned to Big Bill France, owner of Daytona International Speedway, home to the Stateside version of the twice round the clock endurance[1]. In a spirit of International Exchange, the ACO would Continue reading “A Stock Car at La Sarthe”

Elemental Spirit Part 1: A Power Partnership

From Sprite to Midget – profiling BMC’s diminutive sportsters.

Image: The Austin Motor Company

Who would have imagined that the joyful, cartoonish little sports car introduced to the motoring media at Monaco on 20 May 1958, two days after the Grand Prix, was born out of the anguish and self-doubt of the most powerful man in the British automobile industry?

Leonard Percy Lord (1896-1967) was a brilliant production engineer whose breadth of ability led him to rapid promotion at Morris Motors, and then, after crossing sides, a fast-track path to Chairmanship of Austin in the early post-WW2 years. He had a consistent ability to Continue reading “Elemental Spirit Part 1: A Power Partnership”

Welcome to the Machine – Part Four

Supercat leaps back to life. 

Image (c) Auto-Didakt

If ‘efficiency’ is the watchword for the 1980s, what hope is there for the Jaguar XJ-S?” Opening their October 1980 test report of Jaguar’s embattled grand turismo coupé, UK magazine, Motor got right to nub of the matter. Because at the time, the auguries were ominous.

That Spring, Jaguar itself had come within squeaking distance of closure. With production having slumped to levels not seen since the 1950s[1]; convulsed by a bruising walk-out of production-line workers, a full-blown crisis at the Castle Bromwich paint plant, and high drama at boardroom level, the carmaker (if indeed it could still be described as such) was clinging by a thread.

This nihilistic mindset was echoed by striking line workers at Browns Lane, who had become convinced that BL management were determined to Continue reading “Welcome to the Machine – Part Four”

Wrong Number

The story of an Asian doppelganger coming to grief.

Image: soeyonogaleri.com

Economic booms entice businesses from many sectors to enter new markets with the aim of securing a slice of the potential money-pie, and car manufacturers are no exception. The Republic of Indonesia under President Suharto’s very pro-business ‘new order’ administration was enjoying just such an economic sweet-spot in the early 1990s, despite growing suspicions of widespread corruption. A country with a population of over 200 million people riding the wave of a steadily growing economy seduced none other than Porsche AG to Continue reading “Wrong Number”

Boxed

This Cube was no square.

Image: netcarshow

The design mantra of longer, lower and wider was largely, if not exclusively an American construct, but was not something which survived exposure to congested European and Far Eastern city streets. It is therefore little surprise to observe that two of the most prolific car designing nations to have eschewed such architectural nostrums are Italy and Japan.

Shorter, taller and narrower as a philosophy was something that perhaps could be said to have (in the modern idiom at least) originated in Turin, but was taken up with some alacrity in cities as diverse as Hamamatsu, Ikeda, Shizuoka and Yokohama, since Japan’s cityscapes are at least as choked and traffic-ridden as those of its Latin counterparts.

The inherent limitations of such potentially restrictive silhouettes had the effect of giving rise to considerable creativity and in Japan at least, a playful sense of absurdist fun. Not entirely confined to Kei cars, the wider Japanese car industry, despite its often deadly serious nature, has been known to occasionally Continue reading “Boxed”

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”

I Don’t Think You’re Ready for This Jelly

Sierra: brave or foolish?

Image: autoevolution

The Sierra came about on account of two intersecting imperatives. Head of Ford’s European operations, Bob Lutz had brought from BMW a sophisticated understanding of the semiotics of automotive desire; his avowed intention being to completely transform Ford’s image, especially in the West German market. This would dovetail with the determination of FoE’s Design VP, Uwe Bahnsen, to Continue reading “I Don’t Think You’re Ready for This Jelly”

Stepping Down Before Stepping Out

How independent Hudson enjoyed one last hurrah before meeting an ignominious end.

Images: the author

Like any American automaker returning to the business of making cars in the years after the Second World War had ended, Hudson realised that the lucrative post-war sellers’ market would not last indefinitely. A prototype of what would ultimately become the famous ‘step-down’ Hudson had been readied as early as 1942, but America entering the war halted any meaningful further development and moreover, Hudson President A.E. Barit was unconvinced by the concept at the time, finding it too low-slung.

When automotive operations recommenced in the autumn of 1945, chief designer Frank Spring managed to convince his boss to Continue reading “Stepping Down Before Stepping Out”

Into the Vortex – Part Three

The vortex claims its sacrifice.

Double-sided full-size Toni styling model – 1979. Image: (c) Steve Saxty

Despite what Uwe Bahnsen later stated publicly, both he and his design team were placed squarely in the firing line as Sierra’s disappointing early sales figures were thrown in their faces, as Patrick le Quément recalls: “Design was the centre of acrimony, we had designed a car that started slowly in the UK, the cash-cow land of Ford in Europe. We entered very difficult times”.

Having taken something of a leap of faith with Sierra rather than their usual practice of exhaustive market research, Dearborn’s executives wanted someone’s head. Bahnsen would be a convenient choice and at a Star Chamber interrogation at Merkenich, chaired by Detroit Ford executive, Harold A. (Red) Poling[1], and witnessed by a horrified le Quément, they got their man. “The end of Uwe Bahnsen’s career was a tragedy and they almost managed to break him, but he left, dignified and became head of Art Center Europe in Switzerland”. Continue reading “Into the Vortex – Part Three”

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)”

Second Division

A tale of two Toni’s.

Image: ford.co.uk

For the Sierra, the path to stylistic approval was lengthy and difficult. Given the Ford Motor Company’s scale and multi-national status, it was normal procedure to involve its myriad international styling studios to submit proposals for commercially significant models. We therefore know that innumerable rival proposals for the Toni programme were evaluated before the Merkenich scheme was green-lighted in 1979, but less known are what they were like.

For decades, Ford of Britain designed and engineered its UK model offerings. However, by the latter part of the 1960s, Dearborn management elected to bring these two entities together, eyeing reduced development costs and a more unified offering to the public. In 1967, an engineering and style centre was opened at Dunton Wayletts, near Basildon in Essex. Here, engineers and stylists would Continue reading “Second Division”

Occupation H. Monster

A commercial break that outlasted the programme.

Image: Citroen Origins

While it’s undisputed that the Raymond Loewy-designed International Harvester Metro van remains an icon of American commercial vehicle vision, it remains precisely the latter to this author’s eyes, in that I’ve never seen one. Today’s encounter on the other hand, far from veiled, may best be seen from just behind the covers. Welcome to the beast that many find beautiful – the Citroën H van.

Similarities between the Yankee and that oh-so Gallic commercial vehicle are limited to their periods of production. The Metro boasted a firm quarter century before changing in no way for the better, whereas the French fancy managed thirty one at a glacial rate of change. But for the worse? Don a beret, spark up a Gauloise and swing those rear doors open wide to Continue reading “Occupation H. Monster”

Stateside Slip-ups

America: land of unlimited possibilities. Of course, not all roads lead to success.

Image: the author

Cardin Cadillac Eldorado Evolution I

French couture designer Pierre Cardin* was no stranger to dabbling in the automotive sector: in 1972 and 1973 AMC offered a specially upholstered version of the Javelin with his name on it. Not only the seats but also the doors and headliner were treated to a very seventies motif in white, silver, purple and orange on a black base. The famous couturier developed higher ambitions than just car interior upholstery packages and founded Pierre Cardin Automotive in 1980, holding office in New York’s World Trade Center. The first – and, as it would transpire, last – product by Cardin’s automotive arm was presented in 1981: the Cardin Evolution I.

Developed in collaboration with Cadillac, the Evolution I was a restyled and very opulently equipped variant of the then current E-body Cadillac Eldorado. Contrary to previous projects, Pierre Cardin had not limited himself only to modifying the interior – the exterior appearance of the car was also quite different from its Eldorado base, although it is unclear whether the actual styling really was by Pierre Cardin Automotive, or that Cardin had simply agreed with a design proposal from a source within GM or Cadillac. Continue reading “Stateside Slip-ups”

Into the Vortex – Part Two

The headwinds intensify.

The Merkenich team discussing strategy at a Toni design review. Right to left: Uwe Bahnsen, Friedl Wülfing (Studio Chief), Patrick le Quément, Ray Everts and Dietrich Tenner (Chief modeler). Image (c) Steve Saxty

Early 1979, and as Patrick le Quément wraps up his assignment at Ford UK’s Dunton research centre for the Ford Cargo truck programme, he receives a summons back to Merkenich from Chief Designer, Ray Everts. [With] “6 months before the Go With Two[1] decision, I was asked to dedicate all my energy to the Toni project, for the battle was far from being won, there was much to do, to convince, to improve!”

Part of what Bob Lutz would later characterise as le Quément’s “decisive role” in the Toni design programme was to help build up a detailed analysis of Ford’s design strategy with a view to providing Uwe Bahnsen with the precise data he required to convince the Detroit board of the necessity for radical change. Using analysis and experience from both Erika and Cargo programmes (the latter a revolutionary design in itself), Everts, le Quément and the team concluded that promoting aerodynamic efficiency was the route to take. “We felt we were ready to appeal to our Lords and Masters for, after all, aerodynamics was to be had for free (or so we thought at the time), but it also gave us the opportunity to invent a brand new formal language and take a divergent route from the Me Too approach”.

Part of Bahnsen’s role here was to Continue reading “Into the Vortex – 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)”

U.S. Air Force

There were times when General Motors led the charge.

Images: Dale Jackson and the author

It is an easily overlooked fact that, despite enjoying widespread publicity and -in two cases at least- being successful additions to their existing model range, the BMW 2002 Turbo, Porsche 911 Turbo and SAAB 99 Turbo were not the first roadgoing, commercially available turbocharged passenger cars(1). The USA beat even the first amongst this European trio -the BMW- by a decade and while neither of today’s two protagonists could ever be declared a true commercial success, they still deserve their place in the spotlight.

America was no stranger to forced induction: starting in the early thirties the likes of Graham, Duesenberg and Cord employed superchargers, as did Kaiser and Studebaker around two decades later. The turbocharger, however, was thus far an unapplied technique for carmakers, although the idea had already been patented in the early twentieth century(2) and turbocharged engines had seen use in airplanes during World War Two. Continue reading “U.S. Air Force”

Into the Vortex – Part One

Defying Mittlemässigkeit.

Image: autophoto

In a three part series, Patrick le Quément speaks exclusively to DTW about the Ford Sierra’s troubled genesis.

All car designers set out to create beautiful objects, not simply for artistic reasons, but for commercial ones too. After all, a beautiful car is more than usually a successful one. But like success, beauty has many parents and midwives, whereas failure (and ugliness for that matter) is almost always an orphan.

Automotive design is a collaborative process, requiring no small measures of vision, craft, intelligence and determination, but in the final analysis, it requires a consensus; after all, no modern car design can be decided upon by a single individual. But with the cost of failure so high, the process can often appear as something more akin to an act of faith. Continue reading “Into the Vortex – Part One”

Ghosts of Saabs Unborn

Bouquet of lilies in hand, we ponder what might have been.

saab_9_x_biohybrid_13
The Future Of Saab (that was not to be), Image: thetorquereport.com

Editor’s note: Following the retrospective pieces earlier this week on ‘lost’ design concepts from both Saab and Lancia, we revisit this fine piece by our erstwhile Hamburg design correspondent, first published on DTW in February 2016.

The demise and desecration of that most idiosyncratic Swedish brand may well be the source of an endless stream of stories. Yet more interesting however is a less well-publicised aspect of the period when Saab was already taking its last breath: the cars that were not to be.

The very fact that Saab was a deeply mismanaged business would appear to be indisputable. And yet, at the very end of its existence, that other Swedish brand seemed to have developed a hitherto dormant will to Continue reading “Ghosts of Saabs Unborn”

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”

Number Nine Dream

Getting it right at precisely the wrong moment.

Saab biohybrid
2008 Saab 9X biohybrid. Image: Netcarshow

As the world’s auto press converged at Geneva in March 2008 for the annual motor show – blissfully unaware of what would unfold within the global financial markets that Autumn – it was all very much business as usual. For General Motors however, already fighting several fire-fronts at home (to say nothing of their perennial loss-making volume European arm), there were increasingly dissatisfied voices being raised with the performance of their upmarket Swedish satellite[1].

Relations with Saab AB had become strained, with senior GM management viewing the troubled marque as simply a problem child to be dispensed with. But while keen disagreements at senior board level over Saab’s future were still taking place, a striking concept was prepared for landing at Palexpo 2008, intended to demonstrate the mothership’s continued backing for the Trollhättan carmaker while its future was being decided.

With a good deal of Saab’s development being twinned with Opel’s Rüsselsheim engineering centre by then in an effort to curb costs, there was a belief that a smaller, C-segment Saab offering could broaden the marque’s appeal, especially in European markets where such cars still sold strongly. The 2008 concept did not however simply emerge out of the ether, it was in fact the apogee of a dialogue that had been initiated at the turn of Millennium[2] to Continue reading “Number Nine Dream”