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”

It’s Such a Fine Line …

We consider two complicated entities – the Citroën DS and Pierre Bercot.

image : lignesauto.fr

For loyal enthusiasts, the sound of a hissy, lethargic A Series engine is essential to the holistic experience of the Morris Minor – none of the readily achieved Ford, Fiat, Rover, Toyota or other engine swaps could ever appeal. Likewise in the case of another car that did not receive the engine it was promised. For many Citroënistes, the wet-liner straight four, tracing its conceptual roots back to the early 1930s, is now part and parcel of the Citroën DS’s character, however much its uncultured sound rails against the rest of the car’s smoothness. But for others it is the one great disappointment, and mention is often made of the six-cylinder engine it should have had. But we ask the question, is the DS great, not despite its engine, but because of it?

Pierre Bercot was a complex man. An intellectual in the French tradition, after a doctorate in Law, he completed his education at the National School of Oriental Languages in Paris. With an impressive knowledge of Ancient Greek and an accomplished pianist, he wasn’t the average car industry boss. Joining Citroën under Pierre Jules Boulanger shortly before the War, he worked on lowering production costs of the nascent 2CV. Following Boulanger’s untimely death, in 1950 he took over the Voiture de Grande Diffusion project, encouraging engineer André Lefèbvre not to Continue reading “It’s Such a Fine Line …”

The Hurricane is as Tame as the Kitten

Toyota once took turbines very seriously indeed. We look back at Aichi’s efforts.

1987 Toyota GTV. Image: oldconceptcars.com

Automotive technologies have a natural tendency to evolve. With Rover of Solihull firmly closing the door on gas turbines by the mid-1960s, we open an eastward-facing door, to see how Toyota took up the baton.

First mooted in 1965, sixty months of intense development took place at an undisclosed cost. The results brought forth a two-shaft gas turbine, intended for a bus chassis. A further five years of research entailed, the outcome being a car based turbine, the flagship Century being the chosen home for such a noble power unit. With its V8 removed, the gas turbine was not mechanically connected to the drivetrain. Instead, those ultra high revolutions charged a bank of batteries, in turn feeding motors to both front wheels – the gas turbine hybrid[1].

The Century tests were reasonably positive but Toyota’s engineers quite naturally wanted to Continue reading “The Hurricane is as Tame as the Kitten”

South Bend Undead

The many afterlives of the Avanti.

All brochure images: Avanti / the author

As a Studebaker, the Avanti was short-lived and proved unable to prevent the venerable independent automaker’s demise not long after its launch. The death of Studebaker did not mean the end for the Avanti, however, not by a long shot.

In fact, even while Studebaker was still an active car manufacturer, albeit in Canada instead of South Bend, Indiana, as before, the first Avanti resuscitation was already underway. In July 1964, Nathan Altman and Leo Newman, two South Bend Studebaker dealers, signed an agreement with the company whereby they acquired the rights to the design, moulds and tooling for the Avanti as well as the rights to Continue reading “South Bend Undead”

The Accidental E-Type [Part Two]

The E-Type outstays its welcome.

Image: jag-lovers

As is frequently the case, what is given with one hand is taken away by another. By the late Sixties, the motorcar had become ever-more sophisticated, yet while speed and dynamic competence were on the ascendant, the unfettered enjoyment of high performance was already in retreat. Concerns too were growing over the automotive emissions and the affect they were seen to be having on air quality. Traffic congestion had become a grim fact of life, with motorists spending ever-increasing periods at a standstill. A shortlived period of unfettered freedom and self-expression was drawing to a close.

By the Series 3’s 1971 debut, a growing market for indulgent GTs had witnessed two new entrants which would in their respective ways, Continue reading “The Accidental E-Type [Part Two]”

VAZ: Diplomacy, Politics, and Urban Legends (Part Three)

Debunking the persistent legend of Russo-Italian rust.

Image: Scrawb/Flickr

Fiat’s cooperation in the establishment of the VAZ factory, along with Alexei Kosygin’s new policies(1), helped mobilize the Soviet citizenry en masse. With the quite excellent Fiat 124 as a basis, the end-product was arguably a better car to own and drive than anything offered by ZAZ(2), AZLK(3) or GAZ(4) at the time.

The establishment of the VAZ factory was, as we now know, politically motivated(1). For the Soviet government at least, the project was a major success: they took a good initial design and successfully adapted it to their country’s conditions and needs. They even sold it successfully in export markets. For the Italians, though, things played out somewhat differently: Continue reading “VAZ: Diplomacy, Politics, and Urban Legends (Part Three)”

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”

From Today Until Tonight, Onward They March To Yesterday

The 1990 E31 shown here is an example of what was up to then a rare bird in the BMW cage.

All images: the author.

The E31, also known as the 8 Series, embodied everything BMW knew about making cars. Oddly, it didn’t really move many people, didn’t change the gameplay or influence anyone much. What it did do was to exist as an example of excess everything. It also trotted in a race in which the public had lost interest, the race to make the fastest, most technically accomplished production road car in the world. As it happened, BMW won that contest, zooming over the finish line ahead of the competition(1).

Mercedes-Benz’s much-vaunted W140 S-Class appeared a year later and it too was met with a chilly disdain. (Audi was still trying to Continue reading “From Today Until Tonight, Onward They March To Yesterday”

Lights are Darker, Darks Lighter

Frank Wootton – illustrator, artist. 

A Frank Wootton advertising illustration for Rootes. Image: Motoringart

Widely hailed as the finest aviation artist of all time, Frank Wootton OBE (1911-1998) is equally well known and regarded for his artistic work in both equestrian and landscape fields. But his skills could be said to have been honed, be they in pencil, oils or in charcoal, during the earlier portion of his career, drawing and painting motor cars.

A Hampshire native, Wootton attended the Eastbourne School of Art, being subsequently awarded a gold medal and a £25 travel scholarship, which he used to tour Germany for a season painting murals. London called and led to a position as a commercial artist in the Grafton Studio. During the mid-1930s, Wootton’s employer pitched for Ford of Dagenham’s promotional business. The carmaker was seeking high quality, American-style illustrations, but most importantly, in colour. Just about to Continue reading “Lights are Darker, Darks Lighter”

Con Velocità Extra Per Favore

Alfa Romeo’s GTV given more muscle.

For power-hungry clients desiring a ‘maximum’ Tipo 116 GTV, the 2000 and later 2.5-litre GTV6 were, with the exception of the rare Autodelta turbocharged version, the limit. However, if you happened to live in South Africa, the USA or Germany, there were other exciting options, one of which also involved Autodelta. Continue reading “Con Velocità Extra Per Favore”

 The Accidental E-Type [Part One]

The E’s ‘pointless’ swansong.

Image: jag-lovers

The more advanced students of Jaguar lore will by now have recognised that a good many of the most well-loved cars from Browns Lane were at best, incidental, if not wholly accidental in conception. Similarly, when it came to the subject of mid or late-life facelifts, not only were they predominantly of a reactive nature, but rare indeed was the aesthetic revision that amounted to a palpable improvement. But while it might be considered a little provocative to describe the Series 3 E-Type as being accidental, it would hardly be inaccurate to suggest that it was unplanned.

While Sir William Lyons ran Jaguar in his benignly autocratic style, product planning was also somewhat reactive in nature, largely informed by the ever-shifting vagaries of the US market, a case in point being the Autumn 1968 refresh of the E-Type, the series 2. Beyond this, the intention was to Continue reading ” The Accidental E-Type [Part One]”

Swedish Cliffhangers

More lost prototypes from Volvo’s cutting room floor.

1952 Volvo Philip prototype. Image: Secret Classics

Measuring the strength of any influence can prove difficult. The film and TV industries revel in suspense, from those early monochrome Flash Gordon and Zorro weeklies to today’s greedy multi-franchised big-screen sequels. Leaving the audience wanting more invariably guarantees success, but do these eleventh hour on-screen nail-biting endings have much in common with those created within the car industry? More so than it might appear: that most conservative and safety-conscious of Swedish carmakers had several instances of the will they, won’t they?  cliffhanger, the first being named, of all things, Philip.

Whether Jan Wilsgaard was partial to Continue reading “Swedish Cliffhangers”

VAZ: Diplomacy, Politics, and Urban Legends (Part Two)

Fiat’s Soviet project faces politically-charged setbacks.

The first VAZ 2101. Image: vadim/Wikimedia Commons

No one could ever accuse Lyndon B. Johnson, President of the United States from 1963 to 1969, of lacking confidence in his own power or in the power of his office and country. Quite the contrary, as Greece’s ambassador found out in 1964, when Johnson told him in no uncertain terms what he thought of the smaller nation’s sovereignty(1). Yet, a persistent feature in US and US-aligned political discourse proved to be a double-edged sword for him: the words ‘Russia’, ‘Soviet Union’, ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’ were and remain veritable berserk buttons(2) for legions of politicians, pundits, and voters on the right of the political spectrum. This sort of sentiment, of course, is not unique to US political discourse, but it remained especially acute, even more than a decade after the McCarthyite purges of the late 1940s and early 1950s, which created near-hysteria at the time.

When such sentiment is prevalent in a society, it is easy for certain factions to Continue reading “VAZ: Diplomacy, Politics, and Urban Legends (Part Two)”

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”

Billeted By The Waterfall

Buick tantalises, but disappoints.

2013 Buick Riviera Concept. Image: topspeed.com

For the new millennium, GM tasked its Holden operation in Australia with creating a new global platform, which would be named Zeta. Costing around AUD $1Bn, Zeta was engineered for longitudinal engine placement and RWD as standard, with the option for AWD. It was designed to be highly flexible and could accommodate over half a dozen body styles with variable wheelbase lengths, ride heights, roof lines and windscreen rakes. The suspension comprised MacPherson struts with dual-ball lower A-arms at the front and a four-link independent set-up at the rear. With full-blown production models still another two years away, GM took the decision to Continue reading “Billeted By The Waterfall”

Spirited Away

More curiosities from Japan.

Image: author’s collection

Japan is a country where traditional values are held in high regard, yet outright wackiness at times abounds, where the business-suited salaryman shares a seat on the subway with a flamboyantly made up cosplay girl dressed in a frilly maid costume and nobody bats an eyelid. Hence, it is an environment where even normally conservative manufacturers are not afraid to Continue reading “Spirited Away”

Ciao Bambino! [Part Three]

From Bambino to Maluch.

Image: FCA Heritage

In the normal order of things, the cessation of Italian production by mid-decade should really have signalled the end for the Fiat 126. Outdated in concept, outclassed by an increasingly sophisticated and capable cohort of putative rivals in the budget car sector – not least Fiat’s own Panda model – its residual appeal largely a function of its cheapness, compact dimensions and miniscule running costs, the rationale for continuing appeared marginal at best.

Whether it had been FIAT Auto’s intention all along, or simply a happy confluence of factors, but the wholesale shift of 126 production to Tychy, not to mention the ongoing demand for the Maluch[1] in its adopted Polish home, would facilitate the 126 remaining available to those amid Western European markets[2] for whom nothing but a 126 would do[3].

This state of affairs prompted FIAT to Continue reading “Ciao Bambino! [Part Three]”

The Flying Burrito, Brother

Denied, or swerved? We examine a lost Buick concept.

1999 Buick Cielo concept. Image: Consumer Guide Auto

The conglomeration of niches and target customers explored by car makers in the conceptual realm have for the most part enjoyed a better than average tendency towards termination on dead-end street. Concepts may showcase design flourishes or preview the latest in technology, but rarely see production reality – more often appearing as a feature flick here, or a garrulous gamut there. But as the millennium approached, and their once-proud Riviera model withered on the vine, Buick sought to Continue reading “The Flying Burrito, Brother”

VAZ: Diplomacy, Politics, and Urban Legends (Part One)

Investigating the overlooked and unexplored history of VAZ.

Image: lada.ru

VAZ (in Russian: ВАЗ)(1) is well known in the automotive world. It was established in 1966 as a joint-venture between the Soviet Union and Fiat to mass-produce affordable, reliable, and technologically relevant family cars for the Soviet people(2). Its first product was the VAZ-2101 Zhiguli saloon(3), a more rugged version of the Fiat 124, adapted to cope with the adverse conditions of the USSR. The Zhiguli was so successful that VAZ/AvtoVAZ would become the country’s largest car manufacturer.

Much has already been written about both the Zhiguli, which was exported under the Lada (Russian: Лада) brand, and its maker. Here on DTW you can enjoy features on both the Zhiguli(4) and the factory in Tolyatti(5) where it was built, written by my fellow contributors Sean Patrick and Andrew Miles respectively. There are, however, unexplored and unreported details of the history of VAZ. This is precisely what we will attempt to bring to light in this three-part series, primarily by examining the US State Department’s historical archives. Specifically, we will examine the politics and the diplomacy behind the establishment of the Soviet automaker.

Astonishingly, these behind-the-scenes details seem to Continue reading “VAZ: Diplomacy, Politics, and Urban Legends (Part One)”

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”

Ciao Bambino! [Part Two]

Defying the naysayers. 

Image: FCA Heritage

The environmental non-starter” was how Car magazine’s Ian Fraser defined the 126 in December 1972, having attended the press launch along with fellow scribe and Car Editor, Douglas Blain, in its home town of Turin[1]. The thrust of their argument against the car seemed to pivot around the assertion that not only was the 126 “something of a throwback” in technical terms but also, in their estimation, that even Fiat themselves appeared unsure about as to its purpose in life.

This would hardly be the first time that the iconoclastic UK monthly took against a car largely on the basis that it failed to Continue reading “Ciao Bambino! [Part Two]”

X Marks the Spot

Flattery, both sincere and otherwise.

Image: muquiranas.com

Copied even before it was launched, and manufactured in modified form with a fibreglass body in Brasil until well into the current century, Fiat’s compact mid-engined targa-topped coupé inspired imitators both before and after its long career.

The Fiat X1/9 as launched at the 1972 Turin Motor Show was a productionised and consequently less radical evolution of the 1969 Autobianchi Runabout concept by Bertone, credited to Marcello Gandini. At the previous year’s Turin show, however, a vehicle that looked extremely similar to the planned but as yet unveiled Fiat was on display. To add insult to injury, the little yellow sportscar was parked almost within touching distance of Bertone’s majestic stand. What on Earth had happened?

Picking up the telephone in his studio, Tom Tjaarda barely had  time to Continue reading “X Marks the Spot”

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”

Improving the Breed

A man on a mission.

Image: caranddriver.com

The old adage of racing improving the breed was taken to another level when engineer, designer and talented race car pilot Zora Arkus-Duntov took up the development of the 1959 CERV – the first Chevrolet Experimental Racing Vehicle.

A Belgian-born naturalised US citizen, Arkus-Duntov is rightly regarded as the Father of the Corvette. Beguiled by Harley Earl’s beautiful styling but disappointed by the Corvette’s indifferent performance and handling, Arkus-Duntov wrote to Chevrolet Chief Engineer Ed Cole, offering his services to Continue reading “Improving the Breed”

The Seer of Loch Gilp : Bob Henderson 1932-2022

Paying tribute to visionary engineer and supercar designer Bob Henderson, who died in February aged 89.

Image: Sunday Times

“If you accept, as I do, that the internal combustion engine will be with us for some time yet, in either reciprocating or rotary form, then it is sensible to assume that even after all of this time it can still be developed further. In my view it is only in the wide field of pressure or forced induction that any worthwhile steps can be taken, as all others will be mere hair-splitting improvements to meet the long overdue pollution regulations. These are already showing signs of producing less power for more weight, a situation which must get worse.”

“The only long term saviour will be the blown engine which can double or treble the power output for only 10-20% increase in weight, and since cost and complexity could be less than the much-vaunted fuel injection systems, which only marginally improve efficiency, this is obviously the way to go.” Continue reading “The Seer of Loch Gilp : Bob Henderson 1932-2022”

Shift Happens

A tale of ambition and overreach.

Image: Monamicitroen.blog

“At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since.”

Salvador Dalì

André Citroën, the French industrial giant, may not have possessed a level of ambition quite as extreme as that claimed by the controversial Spanish artist, but few amongst his peers in the automobile industry could match his boundless energy and determination to lead the way, often eschewing received wisdom and conventional thinking in the process. These attributes brought him fame and fortune, but would also eventually prove to be his undoing.

A salient example of the double-edged sword of Citroën’s ambition and overreach was the Traction Avant of 1934. It was a revolutionary, highly modern and accomplished design in almost every possible way. Citroën’s original plan was for the Traction to be equipped with a newly designed fully automatic transmission, the brainchild of a prolific Brazilian inventor. Continue reading “Shift Happens”

Ciao Bambino! [Part One]

A matter of perspective.

Small, or far away? Image: FIAT Auto via the author.

It’s not you or me, or Fiat who will decide whether the 126 is a good car. History will make that decision.” These words were spoken, no doubt through clenched teeth by FIAT’s UK representative to Car magazine journalist, Ian Fraser in the wake of the UK imprint’s assessment of the new for ’72 Fiat 126. The Italian carmaker’s displeasure at Fraser’s trenchant review can be gauged by its reaction – FIAT UK pulling their advertising and banning Car’s staff writers from forthcoming press junkets.

The issue, if you could call it that, was one of perception. By 1972 Fiat was viewed as a progressive manufacturer of some of Europe’s most up to date motor cars, with a reputation for fine engineering and superior dynamic characteristics. By contrast, the 126, in Car’s estimation at least, was dismissed as a throwback to the 1950s. But it should behove us to first Continue reading “Ciao Bambino! [Part One]”

Coup d’État

An act of defiance against Dearborn created an exceptionally pretty Ford.

Image: newsdanciennes.com

Established during the Great War by the head of Ford of Britain, Percival Perry, Société Française des Automobiles Ford was Dearborn’s Gallic outpost, producing  Ford models T, A, Y and B as the twentieth century progressed. It would, however, prove to be a rather wilful and independently-minded offspring, resistant to the dictates of its parent company. In 1934, Maurice Dollfus, who had been appointed head of the company four years earlier, sought a means to expand its operations. An introduction to an Alsatian chap by the name of Emile Mathis led to the creation of Matford SA, based in Strasbourg, a joint-venture company in which ownership was split 60:40 in Dearborn’s favour.

Relations across the pond soured in the late 1930s, with Dearborn seeking to Continue reading “Coup d’État”

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”

1984 Opel Senator 2.5E Road Test

 Driving a 1984 Opel Senator. 

1984 Opel Senator 2.5E
1984 Opel Senator 2.5E. All images: The author.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on DTW on 14 February 2015.

Every time one has a reason to discuss the large cars from the ’70s and ’80s, the large cars that aren’t BMW, Mercedes or Audi, one seems obliged to talk about the status and success of these products in comparative terms. It seems incorrect to speak of the Granada, 604 or Senator without mentioning how they fared relative to the BMW 5 et al. I’ll avoid re-treading all that ground again.

By now even I admit that you would need to be very determinedly prejudiced to Continue reading “1984 Opel Senator 2.5E Road Test”

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”

A Luton Brougham

A look back to Vauxhall’s mid-’70s upmarket ambitions.

1976 Vauxhall VX Prestige prototype. Image: droopsnootgroup

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on DTW on 11 November 2017.

As automotive industry analysts ponder the fate of Opel / Vauxhall in the wake of the PSA takeover, one possible future being mapped out involves a shift upmarket. On the face of things, this appears about as likely as PSA getting a sudden rush of blood to the head and starting to take Citroën seriously, but as (im)possible futures go, it may not be entirely unthinkable.

Not everyone in the soothsaying universe seems to agree however, as a report in ANE yesterday suggests. Sanford C. Bernstein’s Max Warburton (We haven’t heard from him for a while.) suggesting PSA should “Dump the Vauxhall brand,” before going on to say, “Even the most jingoistic Brexiteers would rather buy a German car. There’s no room for a one-market brand in 2017.”

But leaving aside Warburton’s tough love analysis, can Vauxhall (a) survive, and (b) prosper in today’s increasingly febrile landscape? Taking matters further, could the Griffin (c) ever contemplate a move upmarket, given their current situation? While we ponder this, let us just for a moment Continue reading “A Luton Brougham”

Troubled Concoction

Remembering Chrysler’s misconceived transatlantic tie-up.

Image: The author / Chrysler Corp.

In the early eighties, long before both companies would find cover under the FCA and Stellantis corporate umbrellas, Chrysler and Maserati hatched plans for a luxury convertible to revive their tarnished prestige image. The two driving forces behind the venture were Lee Iacocca, the ex-Ford executive who had nursed Chrysler back from the dead a few years previously, and Alejandro de Tomaso, who at that time ran not only the sports car company that bore his name but also Maserati. He had taken the latter company over in 1976 with Italian government assistance after Citroën had bowed out. This would not, however, be Iacocca and de Tomaso’s first collaboration: in the early seventies the two had brought the De Tomaso Pantera to the USA(1).

In June 1984, both companies signed a contract to Continue reading “Troubled Concoction”

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”

Long Shadows of the Past

The Ascona C (1980-1988) cast a sizeable shadow over Opel. Is this the car that created the persistent impression of dullness that tarnishes the Opel badge?

1981 Opel Ascona. Image: Favcars

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on DTW on 27 February 2014.

Today’s inspiration is an Opel Ascona two-door saloon, spotted in the north of Aarhus. The recent resurgence (maybe that’s only in my own mind) of Opel has made me reconsider where, precisely, it all went wrong for Adam Opel AG. Lying on my psychiatrist’s couch, I turned over my impressions and images of Opel.

Under the rubble and tattered shreds of half-memories, I found this car. The Ascona is the car that, more than any other Opel product, shaped my attitude to the firm as a maker of vehicles soaked in mediocrity. That, and perhaps the Opel Omega A (1986-1993) which in the land of my youth was sold in fade-prone red with spartan grey cloth upholstery. The Ascona seemed only to come in beige with faded grey plastic trim. Continue reading “Long Shadows of the Past”

How Many Melodies there are to Forget.

Oh, dear. It’s another Suzuki article. 

Suzuki Ignis Mk2. All images: the author

How can I introduce this cheeky, useful, honest and endearing car without alienating readers who prefer uncouth, useless, dishonest and off-putting cars? This time it’s the Mk2 Ignis, which I considered to be quite horrible when I first happened to see one many years ago, but which I now consider quite attractive. What changed? Obviously my own opinions and values shifted and I came to see the inherent worth of a car that made credible efforts to Continue reading “How Many Melodies there are to Forget.”

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”

Lightning Flash

Lost causes – missing links – exhuming Jaguar’s stillborn XJ21.

1967 E-Type 2+2. Image: Classic & Sportscar

As descriptive metaphors go, bottled lightning requires little by way of explanation or exposition on the part of the writer. In 1961, Jaguar Cars successfully manged this seemingly impossible feat with the introduction of the E-Type, a car which itself would come to stand as metaphor for a now mythologised era of hedonism, permissiveness and social change. But in the Spring of ’61 all of that was for the future. Meanwhile, the manner in which the E-Type was received took Jaguar’s CEO somewhat by surprise.

Attending the E’s euphoric US debut in 1961, Sir William Lyons became painfully aware that while prospective customers were enraptured by the car, many simply couldn’t comfortably Continue reading “Lightning Flash”

Aborted Take-Off

India’s cancelled project to build a people’s car of its own.

Image: team-bhp.com

In different circumstances, Hyderabad could have been the birthplace of India’s first indigenously designed and manufactured car. In the early 1950s, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), a company unrelated to the well known Indian car manufacturer, Hindustan Motors, started work on a rugged and simple people’s car for India. In the end, it was not to be and the country instead went down the route of producing tried and tested foreign designs under licence.

The company, which was originally named Hindustan Aircraft Limited, was incorporated in 1940. In cooperation with the American Intercontinental Aircraft Company, HAL started its business by manufacturing under licence the Harlow PC-5 trainer, the Curtiss Hawk fighter and the Vultee bomber. HAL also designed and developed its own aircraft, starting with the 1951 HT-2 trainer. Over 150 of these were manufactured and supplied to the Indian Air Force and other customers. Continue reading “Aborted Take-Off”

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)”

Pushing the Envelope

The 1999 Mercedes CL redefined the term ‘back of an envelope’ design.

Image: Autoevolution.com

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on DTW on 14 June 2019.

Like most major carmakers, Mercedes-Benz, under the design leadership of Bruno Sacco at Stuttgart-Sindelfingen, assigned individual teams to specific product lines. However, Sacco also permitted all members of his styling team, irrespective of discipline, to submit proposals for evaluation whenever a new model was being considered.

These would be then whittled down to a shortlist, the favoured proposals being produced in quarter-scale form. A further evaluation would see these being reduced to a final shortlist of three proposals, which would be produced in 1 : 1 scale for final selection. This ensured that management had sufficient quantities of alternative styles to Continue reading “Pushing the Envelope”

Modern Girl

Taking stock of the Mercedes-Benz CL55 AMG.

All images: The owner

Exclusivity is a tricky balancing-act in the automotive industry, particularly for manufacturers who are (or aspire to be) regarded as ‘premium’ players. On the one hand, manufacturers need a level of sales that will allow them to amortise the ever-growing upfront investment required to develop new models, so they can ultimately return a profit. On the other hand, if their bread-and-butter models become too commonplace, the thin veneer of exclusivity could be stripped away.

Mercedes-Benz was, at one time, pre-eminent in maintaining its composure on this particular high-wire. City streets throughout Europe were thronged with smoky W123 200D taxis in mainly unappealing flat colours, yet the same car, in a nicer colour and (modestly) higher specification, was still the vehicle of choice for aspirational upper middle-class professionals. Continue reading “Modern Girl”

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)”

Voiture à Vivre [Part Six]

The everycar.

Image: Publicis Conseil – author’s collection

It may not have been the most commercially successful car of the 1970s, nor even the most technically significant. It did not win accolades for its ultimate handling capabilities or jaw dropping styling. Car of the decade may have been a title which eluded it, but none of the above should detract from the significance of the Renault 5 amid the automotive pantheon, nor Renault’s sound judgement in taking the car into production in such unadulterated form.

As an archetype of the art of product design, the Five was almost perfectly realised, certainly by the standards of its time. The practicality and robustness of its basic shape, the unmatched versatility offered by its hinging rear tailgate, combined with the subtle richness yet stark modernism of its detail design ensured its place as the first genuine hatchback supermini and the archetype for the modern B-segment motorcar. Such was its design integrity that Renault not only found themselves incapable, but unwilling to Continue reading “Voiture à Vivre [Part Six]”

Brother From Another Mother

An unofficial American take on the Citroën XM.

Like many European automakers, Citroën had a torrid time trying to establish a sustainable business in the US market during the second half of the twentieth century. It finally threw in the towel in 1972, but there remained a demand for cars bearing the double-chevron badge from a small hardcore band of marque enthusiasts.

To meet this demand, Dutchman André Pol and Malcolm K. Langman established CXautomotive, later renamed CXA, in the mid-1980s. Their plan was to import and modify Citroen’s CX model so that it would comply with US regulations, then distribute and sell the car nationwide. Bruised from its previous US experience and wary of potential ongoing liabilities, Citroën refused to Continue reading “Brother From Another Mother”

One Beermat, a Coat and a Brass Key (Worn).

Words have an effect, according to an old saying.

Volvo 480 headlamp and bumper plus litter. Image: the author

Journalist Richard Bremner’s ‘Parting Shot’ article on the Volvo 480 in the September 1995 issue of Car magazine is worth another look. I am revisiting it following my sighting of this late example of the car when in Dublin recently. It’s not a car one sees often. Volvo made just shy of 80,000 of them during a nine-year production run, beginning in 1986. Whenever I observe a 480, I think of my first impressions of one I spotted outside the Shelbourne Hotel (good) and Bremner’s caustic words (less good).

The irritating fact is that Bremner’s flippant goodbye to the 480 cast an unwanted pall over what is really an interesting, appealing and notable bit of design work. Volvo considered the design good enough to remind customers they should Continue reading “One Beermat, a Coat and a Brass Key (Worn).”

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)”

Voiture à Vivre [Part Five]

The 5 that really was a Supercar.

Image: lautomobileancienne

It is a truth universally acknowledged that no successful model line can attain true immortality without a competition pedigree, so it should surprise nobody that the Renault 5 gained one alongside its many other accolades. Motorsport had been a somewhat patchy activity within Billancourt in the run up to the 1970s, with the bulk of the heavy lifting being provided by outsiders like Gordini and Alpine[1].

In 1974, the Renault 5 became available in 85 bhp LS Kitée specification, a low-volume model for competition in the newly renamed Renault 5 Elf Cup. 150 were produced for the 1975 season of the race series which proved popular and competitive. Two years later, Dieppe’s technicians had completed their ministrations resulting in the Alpine A5, Renault’s official performance offering. This too would gain a competition career, being campaigned in the World Rally Championship’s Group 2 class, the A5s as fielded by Renault Sport developing 130 bhp. Early results from the 1977 Mille Pistes and San Remo rallies illustrated the promise of the Alpine 5, but the following year, a class victory by Jean Ragnotti in the Monte Carlo event[2] would mark the high point of the A5’s rally career.

Despite the occasional giant-killing performance, the standard R5 was never going to Continue reading “Voiture à Vivre [Part Five]”

Ashes to Ashes (Part 2)

Prying open a few more creaking doors, we conclude our trundle amongst the fallen.

1950 Plymouth. All images: The author

In 1948, Packard continued its longstanding leadership in the American luxury car arena. It remained the best-selling brand, with over 92,000 sales, compared to Cadillac’s tally of around 52,000. However, its dominance was coming to an end. That year’s bulbous restyling of a body that dated back to 1941 didn’t help matters and the car quickly earned the unflattering nickname ‘pregnant elephant’. From 1950 onwards, Cadillac took the lead and never looked back, while Packard withered and died before the end of the decade. Continue reading “Ashes to Ashes (Part 2)”