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)”

Poundshop Porsche

Škoda brightens up the dreary Soviet automotive landscape.

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

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

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

Das universelle Motor Gerät

A simple idea, a brilliant execution.

Image: mercedes-benz-trucks.com

During the Second World War, Albert Friedrich was head of aero engine design at Daimler-Benz, but also found time to research another project, unbeknown to his bosses.  Friedrich was interested in developing a versatile agricultural vehicle that combined the best features of a tractor and a truck. He described his then nameless concept as an “engine-powered, universally applicable machine for agriculture.” The vehicle would in due course become a valuable tool for many occupations far beyond its originally intended application.

Late 1945 saw Friedrich seeking permission from the occupying US Army to obtain a production licence. This was duly granted, so Friedrich and fellow engineer, Heinrich Rößler, a former colleague at Daimler-Benz, commissioned Eberhard & Söhne in Schwäbisch Gmünd, a city in the eastern part of the German state of Baden-Württemberg, to help them Continue reading “Das universelle Motor Gerät”

Adding Some Fleet to the Repmobile

A South African twist on hot Fords.

Images: gumtree.co.za and carmonkey.co.za

The mildly derogatory term ‘Repmobile’ conjures up images of a medium-sized, medium-specification saloon or hatchback hammering along some endless motorway on a dreary weekday under leaden skies. The driver is a man sporting a shirt and tie, his suit jacket limply hanging from the coat hook behind his ear. Whether they be Vectras, Cortinas, Mondeos, Carinas or Sierras, for the motoring enthusiast, such cars represent a mostly barren field of interest. But far away and many years ago, Ford South Africa turned at least some of them into decidedly more stimulating steeds.

In Britain, Ireland and Continental Europe, the 2.3 litre V6 was as far as it went for the Cortina Mk5 and its Germanic twin, the Taunus TC3. Most sales reps would remain confined to the 1.6-litre four, although, if they exceeded their targets consistently and by a sufficient margin, a 2-litre version fitted with some extra trinkets might be their reward.

Ford South Africa, however, enjoyed a degree of independence from its parent company which sometimes resulted in the creation of interesting mutations. Continue reading “Adding Some Fleet to the Repmobile”

Keep On Holding On

A triumph of longevity, if little else.

1978 FSO Polonez. Image: autodata24.com

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

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

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

Voiture à Vivre [Part Four]

My brilliant career.

Image: Publicis Conseil. Author’s collection

1975 was not a year to be recalled with much fondness across the global automotive industry, as the effects of Yom Kippur 1973 hit home. A number of carmakers would not survive the year, while others would undergo painful reinventions under dramatically altered circumstances. Renault, to some extent insulated by French Government stewardship, would undergo change too, Pierre Dreyfus, the CEO who had steadfastly guided them for two decades had elected to retire, nominating Bernard Vernier-Palliez in his stead. Prior to his departure, Dreyfus made another significant appointment, luring design-lead Robert Opron to Continue reading “Voiture à Vivre [Part Four]”

Open One Eye when you Sell, and Both Eyes when you Buy

Recalling General Motors’ Middle Eastern misadventures.

Image: gbodyforum.com

The title of this tale is a Middle Eastern proverb, somewhat similar to our adage ‘Buyer beware’, but it expands on this in the sense that it also cautions sellers to keep an eye on proceedings at all times. On two separate occasions involving different Middle East countries, General Motors found to its cost what can happen if this advice is not heeded, dragging it into controversy and a hostile environment when the political winds changed direction.

A trade dispute between Japan and Iraq was the improbable cause of trouble for GM Canada. In 1980, Toyota was the number-one selling car in Iraq, and had been for some years. That same year, the Japanese manufacturer initiated talks with Ford about a possible joint venture. The fact that Ford operated an important assembly plant in Israel, however, did not go down well with the Iraqis, who in consequence started looking for a different supplier for the country’s official cars and taxi cabs. Continue reading “Open One Eye when you Sell, and Both Eyes when you Buy”

Not Smart Enough (Part Three)

Where next for Daimler’s problem child?

2015 Smart Fortwo. Image: Auto&amp

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

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

The Milwaukee Magician (Part Five)

Concluding our guided tour through the works of Brooks Stevens.

Image: stlouiscarmuseum.com

1964 Excalibur SS: Studebaker needed something special to display at the 1964 New York Motor Show. The cars that had been displayed at the Chicago event earlier in the year were pretty underwhelming, being mainly colour and trim variations on the regular production vehicles. Byers Burlingame, successor to Sherwood Egbert, who had been forced to resign as CEO of Studebaker for health reasons, discussed the matter with Brooks Stevens over the telephone.

Stevens later recalled that he asked Burlingame to ship a Lark Daytona chassis to him. When Burlingame asked what he intended to do with it, Stevens replied crisply that he was “going to build a contemporary classic.” When Burlingame asked “What in the hell is that?” Stevens had to think a few seconds, as the idea was new to him also, and finally replied: “Well, it’s a new old car.” Burlingame just hung up the phone, but the chassis was duly sent over.

Even though his designs in various fields were mostly quite avant garde, Stevens was also a lifelong fan of the great classic cars. His idea, unique at the time but subsequently copied by many others, was to Continue reading “The Milwaukee Magician (Part Five)”

Not Smart Enough (Part Two)

Smart’s struggles continue.

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

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

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

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

Voiture à Vivre [Part Three]

You Cannot Be Serious!

Le Advertising. Image: autoevolution

The North American market has always been tough, unyielding and, for a great many European carmakers, impenetrable. Lucrative for those who could find a way in, success however has always required an unswerving commitment and very deep pockets, characteristics which were in short supply at Bologne-Billancourt. Renault had made some tentative explorations into the US during the early 1950s, but it wasn’t until the advent of the Dauphine model towards the latter end of the decade that the French carmaker would put its shoulder to the metaphorical wheel.

While low-powered, potentially evil-handling European imports were by no means unfamiliar to US audiences by this time, the ones which America had taken to their collective hearts were not only considerably more robustly wrought at Wolfsburg, but were vastly better represented by a large and widespread support network.

Yet despite these apparent shortcomings, the Dauphine made significant headway, outselling Volkswagen in 1959[1]. But despite Renault Inc’s best efforts, the Dauphine’s reputation did not survive contact with US soil – a combination of a chronic lack of material quality, durability and a propensity to spontaneously dissolve into crumbs of ferrous oxide saw matters come to an inglorious halt. Indeed, so poor did the Dauphine’s US reputation become that when its replacement was introduced, early advertising billed it as a car for those who swore never again to Continue reading “Voiture à Vivre [Part Three]”

Not Smart Enough (Part One)

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

1998 Smart City Coupé. Image: autobild.de

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

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

Lady in Waiting

Honda meets 1970s modernism.

Image: autonxt.net

Founded in 1966, Carrozzeria Coggiola is located in the Turinese suburb of Orbassano, then also home to Giovanni Michelotti’s styling bureau. Coggiola is not nearly as well known to the general public as storied names such as Bertone, Pininfarina or Ital Design because, apart from cars like the SAAB Sonett III, not many Coggiola designs ever became available in showrooms. This small carrozzeria instead specialised in manufacturing bespoke cars for private clients. It was also employed by mainstream manufacturers to build prototypes and one-off concept cars, for example, the pyramidal 1980 Citroën Karin and 1988 Renault Mégane concept. Continue reading “Lady in Waiting”

Blit Spirit

An alien presence in rural Yorkshire.

Image: jpdjapan.com

Our typical Sunday morning walk involves a drive long enough to warm the vitals through, but short enough to get back home quickly, should the capricious Yorkshire weather intervene. We drive through farmland and on to a pretty village where, if it weren’t for the hourly strike of the church clock, time might have stood still for decades.

The automotive  population of the village usually comprises the inevitable assortment of SUVs, so mundane and commonplace as not to warrant a second glance. Today, however, an arresting sight met my eyes in the riverside parking area, an alien presence that had crossed both time and space to land in this rural idyll. The object of my fixation was a Toyota Blit. Continue reading “Blit Spirit”

The Milwaukee Magician (Part Four)

Continuing our guided tour of the works of Brooks Stevens.

Image: cartype.com

1962 and 1964 Studebaker Lark facelifts: In 1956, Studebaker parted ways with Raymond Loewy, the designer responsible (in name at least) for the creation of most of the Indiana company’s cars of the preceding decades. The reason was not so much dissatisfaction with Loewy’s services, but a lack of money: Studebaker’s sales were in the doldrums and the company simply could not afford him anymore. Styling responsibilities would henceforth lie with its in-house design team, led by Randall Faurot and Duncan McRae.

The compact Lark(1) was McRae and his colleagues’ first design. They ingeniously re-used the rather dated central body section of the company’s existing large Champion model, which had been introduced in 1953. Initially, the Lark sold very well and was wholly responsible for saving Studebaker from bankruptcy, at least for the time being. Sherwood Egbert became CEO of the troubled company at the end of 1960. Having previously worked for the McCulloch company, Egbert had already met Brooks Stevens on a few occasions, so it was to the Milwaukee designer that Egbert would turn to Continue reading “The Milwaukee Magician (Part Four)”

Eighties Eco-Concept Marvels: Epilogue – Endgame?

Where next for the Eco-car?


Citroen Ami (Source: Automotive News Europe)

Having enjoyed researching and writing about our three eighties eco-concept marvels, what thoughts now come to mind about the current state of the small car market? After all, the future as predicted by the ECO 2000, for example, has long since passed.

The car as we know it is, without doubt, experiencing something of a fin de siècle. Personally, I have felt a growing sense that car design and development has plateaued, become complacent and intellectually flabby, with form increasingly disconnected from function. I have also realised that this is reflected in my writings for DTW, which recently has been focused very much on the past rather than today or the future.

So, much as I enjoyed writing this short series, it has left me a little flat in terms of thoughts about the status quo and the future. Cue a stream of consciousness … Continue reading “Eighties Eco-Concept Marvels: Epilogue – Endgame?”

Voiture à Vivre [Part Two]

The Supercar cometh.

Image: renaultgroup.com

Unlike other major European markets, France did not particularly enjoy a love affair with the two-door bodystyle and by consequence, for sound commercial reasons, few mainstream French carmakers saw fit to offer one throughout the 1950s and 60s[1]. It was therefore not at all surprising that Renault CEO, Pierre Dreyfus and his marketing heads were initially dubious about the sales prospects for the new Renault 5’s two-door-with-a-tailgate style. The level of commercial risk was, not to exaggerate matters, enormous.

Misgivings were not only expressed within Billancourt itself however, Renault’s dealer representatives vehemently agitated against the two-door body style when the Cinq was previewed to them prior to launch. In fact, they wrote it off entirely, baldly stating that only commercial operators would Continue reading “Voiture à Vivre [Part Two]”

The Nearly Car (Part Two)

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

Image: telegraph.co.uk

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

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

Les Frères Sizaire

Remembering two French automotive pioneers.

1909 Sizaire-Naudin 12hp Type G Two-Seater with Dickey. Image: bonhams.com

In the early years of the twentieth century, the emerging automobile industry in Europe created something of a gold-rush, with a multitude of prospectors throwing their hats into the ring in the hope of achieving fame and fortune. Barriers to entry were low: anyone with a well equipped workshop and decent engineering skills could try their hand at building a car, often with mixed fortunes, occasionally with hilarious mishaps.

Two such would-be automobile moguls were Parisian brothers Maurice and Georges Sizaire, who fancied their own roll of this particular dice. Elder brother Maurice had some design experience, but in buildings, not motorcars. Three years his junior, Georges was an apprentice turner but, like his brother Maurice and their family friend, Louis Naudin, his consuming passion was for cars and driving.  Naudin worked for De Dion Bouton, one of the earliest French car manufacturers, so at least he had some relevant experience. Continue reading “Les Frères Sizaire”

The Milwaukee Magician (Part Three)

Continuing our guided tour of the works of Brooks Stevens.

Image: zeppelin70years.com

1954 Cadillac Die Valkyrie: snowplough, cow-catcher(1) and steam iron were just some of the likenesses offered by critics for the controversial frontal appearance of Brooks Stevens’ first design to be displayed at a European Motor Show. The last suggestion was particularly apposite in view of the Milwaukee designer’s successful ‘Steam-O-Matic’ iron of more than a decade earlier. The giant ‘V’ shaped front assembly was, according to Stevens, simply meant to emphasise the large V8 engine that provided the motive force for the car.

The Die Valkyrie was designed after Brooks Stevens became acquainted with Guy Storr, a French public relations specialist based in Monaco. Their meeting was timely as Stevens was eager to Continue reading “The Milwaukee Magician (Part Three)”

The Nearly Car (Part One)

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

Image: Chrysler Europe

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

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

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

Voiture à Vivre [Part One]

Big science in a small package. 

Image: largus.fr

The scientific approach to motor car design was one which was taken up with some enthusiasm in France during the post-war period, resulting not only in some of the more compelling examples of motive modernity, but the most significant of the modern era. The results of intellectual rigour and no small quantum of application, these cars were also imbued with another, more nebulous quality: a piquant and distinctive character. Certainly, it was a potent amalgamation of elements that in this instance created a car both of its time, yet also timeless. A car for living. A car for life.

Towards the end of the 1960s, amid Europe’s engineering centres and styling studios, a new evolution of car was being forged. With matters of powertrain layout and body format still to be definitively established, nobody was entirely sure what would emerge as the dominant strain. But while Mirafiori, Turin would in the fullness of time lay claim to the precise technical layout of the compact front wheel drive car[1], it was their Transalpine rivals at Boulogne-Billancourt who would go on to Continue reading “Voiture à Vivre [Part One]”

Eighties Eco-Concept Marvels: Number 3 – BL Technologies ECV3

We look at three small eco-concept cars from the 1980s and see what became of them.

BL Technologies ECV3. Can you imagine the shock of BL presenting this in 1982? (Source: AROnline)

The last of the cars featured in this series is the BL Technologies ECV3. This is a classic BL tale of burgeoning promise turning to wracking frustration as funds dried up for the development of a new small car. As might be expected, it is also by some margin the most convoluted and protracted of the three stories.

BL Technology was the R&D arm of the state-owned British car maker. In 1980, it was led by renowned engineer Spen King and given a home at BL’s new testing facility at Gaydon in Warwickshire. BL Technology and its Gaydon site was basically a sand-box environment, enabling King and his colleagues to propose theories about the future design of cars, then turn these into working prototypes to Continue reading “Eighties Eco-Concept Marvels: Number 3 – BL Technologies ECV3”

Blunt Sword

Not without merit, but vanquished by the Capri.

Sunbeam Rapier Fastback. Image: viaretro.com

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

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

The Milwaukee Magician (Part Two)

A guided tour through some of the notable works of Brooks Stevens.

Image: the author

1936 Zephyr Land Yacht: One of the earliest automotive creations of Brooks Stevens is this unusual trailer vehicle combination, the Zephyr Land Yacht. It was commissioned by thirty year-old millionaire playboy William Woods Plankinton Jr., heir to his father’s vast fortune. The tractor was based on an International Harvester chassis, while the trailer used a Curtis Aerocar as a starting point. The lucky occupants of the trailer wanted for nothing during their travels across the country: a complete kitchen, bathrooms with showers and hot and cold water plus sleeping accommodation for Plankinton, six guests and the butler were provided. Plankington was an avid hunter and fisherman, so ample storage for rifles and fishing rods was also incorporated into the design. Continue reading “The Milwaukee Magician (Part Two)”