Falling back to Earth (Part Two)

Saturn makes a promising start.

1990 Saturn SC coupé. Image: consumerguide.com

There was great interest and excitement, both from the general and specialist automotive press, when the first car rolled off the production line at the new Saturn manufacturing plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, on 30th July 1990. Journalists were invited to tour the plant and engage with the workforce. They detected a certain evangelical spirit amongst the workers, who felt that the company was “people-oriented” and that they had a “voice” in the production process. This referred to regular team discussions with their managers and engineers, where problems were aired and suggestions for improvements were heard constructively and rewarded if adopted.

There were practical innovations in the manufacturing process too. The production line was called the Skillet(1) and the vehicles were carried, not nose to tail, but at right angles to the line, thereby reducing its length by 40%. The workers rode on the skillet with the cars and were free to allocate jobs within the teams, to optimise the use of individual workers’ proficiencies. Any worker could stop the line if they encountered a problem or fault.

Beyond the factory gates, Saturn’s management was also keen to Continue reading “Falling back to Earth (Part Two)”

Falling Back to Earth (Part One)

Saturn was General Motors’ response to the Japanese invasion of the US auto market.

Saturn S Series prototype. Image: blog.hemmings.com

The Japanese automakers’ penetration of the US market gathered momentum throughout the 1970s and ‘80s. By 1990, this was a major cause for concern, not just in Detroit, but also in Washington DC, where politicians observed the country’s ballooning trade deficit with alarm. The problem was exacerbated by the behaviour of the US automakers themselves, who were sourcing an increasing proportion of their vehicle parts from Japan.

In 1990, the US-Japan bilateral trade deficit in vehicles and automotive parts was $31.1 billion(1). This represented 28% of the total US trade deficit, and 76% of the country’s bilateral trade deficit with Japan. The deficit in vehicles was $20.6 billion, barely increased on the $19.7 billion deficit seen in 1985. The deficit in automotive parts, however, had more than doubled over the same period, from $4.4 billion to $10.5 billion.

The US automakers struggled in particular to Continue reading “Falling Back to Earth (Part One)”

Supplements Supplanted By Sunroofs!

Special Editions from the 1980s

1986 Nissan Sunny. favcars

Should you have been in the market to purchase a new vehicle in Berkshire just over thirty years ago, you had only to buy The Observer newspaper and locate the twenty eight page Motoring Supplement. From Section D’s headline (B and C dealing with sport and finance one guesses), matters boded well – readers being informed of the £552 million of joint Renault and Giugiaro money funnelled into project X53 – the 19.

Also included was a nicely written test report of the 1.8 litre 8-valve Passat GT (with 118bhp and sunroof as standard) and plenty of information regarding the impending arrival of the ‘F’ plate on August 1st 1988. I passed my driving test two days later and was fully charged to buy my first motor.

With surprising detail for page six, we Continue reading “Supplements Supplanted By Sunroofs!”

Striving for Adequacy

The 1995 Escort Mk6 was… an improvement.

1995 Ford Escort Mk6 Ghia Saloon. Image: auto-abc.eu

The 1990 Ford Escort Mk5 was a terrible car. It was designed to be manufactured as cheaply as possible and was woefully under-engineered, nasty to drive and uninspiring to behold. It was rightly lambasted by the motoring press, to the extent that some of the criticism even spilled over into the mainstream media, damaging Ford’s reputation for competency.

A facelift in 1992 attempted to deal with the most egregious faults but achieved little substantive progress, while making the car ugly rather than merely bland. Such was the strength of Ford’s marketing machinery and wealth of its advertising budget, however, that the Escort and its Orion(1) saloon equivalent remained strong sellers, despite the cars’ blatant inadequacy. Continue reading “Striving for Adequacy”

Missing its Moment: The Reliant Scimitar SS1

There was no reward for Reliant getting it right at the second attempt.

Sporting: 1984 Reliant Scimitar SS1. Image: Reliant

In the decade before the arrival of the all-conquering Mazda MX-5 in 1989, the choice in European small two-seater roadsters was very limited. The ancient MG Midget and MGB had finally been killed off in 1980, but not before their handling and looks had been comprehensively ruined by US regulations(1). The Triumph Spitfire also died in that year, while the more exclusive  Lotus Elan had been pensioned off in 1973(2).

Concerns about the possible outlawing of soft-top cars in the US had also caused delays or cancellations in the development of such models. The Triumph TR7 drophead finally arrived in 1979, almost five years after the launch of the fixed-head coupé. By this time, the TR7 had acquired a grim reputation for build quality and reliability, and both versions were discontinued in 1981 as a consequence of the closure of BL’s Solihull factory.

British manufacturer Reliant, famous for its Scimitar GTE sporting estate and equally infamous for its Robin three-wheeler, saw an opportunity to Continue reading “Missing its Moment: The Reliant Scimitar SS1”

Autour du Virage

Last of the old-school bespoke Aston Martins.

Aston Martin Virage. Image: supercars.net

There is a somewhat hackneyed old joke that summarises the colourful history of Aston Martin rather well:

Question: “How do you make a small fortune in the automotive business?”

Answer: “Spend a large fortune on a prestige British luxury car manufacturer.”

Over the company’s 108-year history, Aston Martin has changed ownership ten times and left most former owners, if not bankrupt, then rather poorer for the experience. Such is the allure of the marque name that a succession of wealthy and (mainly) smart and business-savvy individuals (and the Ford Motor Company) have thrown their hat in the ring, thinking that this time, it will be different. Continue reading “Autour du Virage”

Latin Escorts

Necessity makes for some strange bedfellows.

1994 VW Pointer. Inage: autorealidade.com.br

In July 1987, Volkswagen and Ford’s Brazilian and Argentinian divisions created a joint-venture company, AutoLatina. The ownership was split 51% to 49% in Volkswagen’s favour. Volkswagen would manage AutoLatina’s passenger car operation while Ford looked after the commercial vehicles business. Autolatina was established in an attempt to defend both companies’ market share in what was a distressed and shrinking market.

Rather than compete with each other directly, the joint venture would Continue reading “Latin Escorts”

Missing the Marque: Ford Escort Mk5

A seminal car, but not for the reasons anyone might have expected.

1990 Ford Escort. Image: honestjohn.co.uk

The 1990 Ford Escort Mk5 was a car keenly anticipated by the market, as it would be the first all-new model for a decade. Ford’s rather casual attitude to mark numbers meant that the 1986 Mk4 was little more than a competent facelift of the 1980 Mk3. When the latter was launched, its sharp, contemporary styling and switch to front-wheel drive was fêted as a bold move forward for the model. In reality, it flattered somewhat to deceive, as beneath its apparent sophistication was a car that was distinctly ordinary in dynamic terms, with rough engines and a brittle ride. Continue reading “Missing the Marque: Ford Escort Mk5”

Diminishing Returns

The Cortina’s less talented big sister.

1963 Ford Corsair. Image: storm.oldcarmanualproject

The arrival of the Cortina in September 1962 was a seminal event for Ford of Britain. Here was a light and efficient family car that was designed to be simple and inexpensive, both to build and to run. It offered everything the average motorist and their family needed, and nothing they didn’t. The Cortina exemplified the value engineering approach to design and manufacture that would come to define Ford for the next thirty years.

The Cortina also made the rest of Ford’s UK range suddenly look outdated. This was a particular problem for the Consul Classic and Capri models, which had been launched just a year earlier. Their introduction had been delayed by a couple of years because the Anglia small car was such a runaway success that Ford’s Dagenham plant lacked the capacity to Continue reading “Diminishing Returns”

The Hidden Side of Affalterbach

AMG: Big in Japan. 

Mitsubishi Debonair AMG. MMC.com

Prior to Mercedes-Benz rule, AMG was not limited to providing its services to just the products bearing the three-pointed star. A 51% subsidiary of Mercedes-Benz since 1999 and completely taken over and wholly integrated six years later, the company established by Hans Werner Aufrecht and Erhard Melcher (the G stands for Grossaspach, the birthplace of Aufrecht) has for obvious reasons been strongly associated with Mercedes-Benz from the outset.

To be sure, some sanctioned outside co-operations with Pagani and lately Lotus and Aston Martin has taken place but before AMG became part of the Stuttgart giant, there was nothing to Continue reading “The Hidden Side of Affalterbach”

Taking the Current When It Serves.

European Car of the Year shortlist 2022: Consumers’ companion or cleverly controlled chauvinism? 

archyewsy

The worth of the European Car of the Year contest has often been questioned, but at least it gives a regular snapshot of what’s been happening in the automotive world over the preceding 12 months.  2021 has been surprisingly fecund, despite Covid-19 and the chip crisis, but has not been without casualties.

The earnest ECotY jurors were presented with a provisional list of 65 vehicles, reduced to 39 for the longlist, despite the late inclusion of three Chinese EVs (Aiways U5, MG EHS and Marvel R). Most drop-outs were the result of delayed launches, but for the provisional listed Jaguar XJ and J-Pace it was the end of the road, with both projects terminated and – it would seem – erased from JLR’s corporate memory.

The ECotY shortlist was announced on Monday 29 November: Continue reading “Taking the Current When It Serves.”

The Bridgehead Falls (Part Three)

Disagreements, divorce and downfall.

Quietly revolutionary: 1990 Nissan Primera. Image: drivemag.com

Nissan did not like having so little control over its increasingly significant UK business and found Botnar’s forceful style of negotiation distasteful. In 1990 the Japanese company offered to buy Botnar out, or at least take a stake in Nissan UK, but Botnar demurred, determined to retain full control over the franchise. To this end, he refused to renew contracts with the independent dealers that had been key to the company’s early sales growth and began replacing them with his own dealerships.

These dealerships, owned by a Nissan UK subsidiary company, the Automotive Finance Group, were large and aggressively managed, with onerous sales targets. Botnar showed little patience with any dealership manager who failed to Continue reading “The Bridgehead Falls (Part Three)”

The Bridgehead Falls (Part Two)

Despite opposition, Octav Botnar asserts his growing power and influence.

Breakthrough: 1973 Datsun 120Y Sunny. Image: honestjohn.co.uk

Datsun’s breakthrough model in the UK was the 1973 120Y Sunny. Like its predecessor, the 1200, the 120Y had a rigorously conventional, conservative and well-proven mechanical layout, but was clothed in a smooth contemporary bodystyle with an upswept side DLO(1) that would become a signature for this generation of Datsun models. The styling flourishes, such as the ornate grilles and wheel covers, were rather ersatz for some tastes (including this writer’s) but the model really struck a chord with UK buyers and helped Datsun Continue reading “The Bridgehead Falls (Part Two)”

Dublin, Land of the Rising Sun

Empires can spring from unlikely places.

(c) Hino.com

With Hino’s ventures into the realms of car production hastily truncated, we now rewind to their more staple area of interest: the heavy commercials business.

Rudimentary as most vehicles were during the first two decades of the twentieth century, Hino produced their inaugural solid, reliable workhorse in 1917. The first Hino bus arrived some thirteen years later with another score passing before building Japan’s first trolleybus. Far from a delayed timetable, Hino ploughed on with purpose.

Once inside the comforting cradle of Toyota, Hino became the mirror to Toyota’s cars, their trucks providing plain, honest and reliable machines capable of heavy use and high mileages with minimal service. Over in Europe there were similitudes but tastes naturally showed through; nods toward comfort, adjustability, desirability, the States exacerbating this trend. Hino offered belt and braces trucks, engendering a loyal following.

As their initial car expansion plans loomed, so too did the big stuff. 1964 saw Thailand opening their first overseas truck service outlets. Many more would Continue reading “Dublin, Land of the Rising Sun”

The Bridgehead Falls (Part One)

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

Small beginnings: 1967 Datsun 1000. Image: Nissan Global

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

The Countess

The Franco-Italian-Japanese connection. 

Hino Contessa 900. leBlogAuto

From their origins as the Tokyo Gas Industry Company in 1910, another thirty two years would pass before the name Hino (Hee-no) Heavy Industry Company Limited began to develop and produce trucks and diesel engines. By the War’s end, their large marine engine production was halted but permission was granted by the ever watchful Allies to Continue reading “The Countess”

Stayin’ Alive (Part 2)

Exiles off main street – a conclusion. 

Austin Yema. Image: Cartype.com/ Autohome.com

Returning to our brief review of the automotive afterlife, we pop across the channel to arrive in the United Kingdom. Bidding here is opened by the Austin Maestro (1982-1994) which ended its days in China as the Yema SQJ6450 in 2010, resulting in sixteen years of continued production in exile. Yema also sold the F12 until 2014 which did use the old Maestro/Montego platform but with a totally different body and interior. Continue reading “Stayin’ Alive (Part 2)”

Coming to America (Part Four)

The Z-car transcends.

1989 Nissan 300ZX 2-seater. Image: wallpaperflare

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

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

Stayin’ Alive (Part 1)

Automotive exiles. A two-part study. 

Image: Nairaland.com/ Peugeot/ Favcars.com

The average shelf life of a newly introduced car before it is withdrawn and replaced by a new model has steadily shrunk over recent decades.[1] Whether this is due to the exponential speed at which technology is now developing or simply marketing-driven is a matter of debate, but in a number of cases the cessation of production in its country of origin does not necessarily mean that the car’s production life is over, many car lines continuing to thrive elsewhere around the globe.

There are several well known cases but equally some that have continued their career in relative obscurity. The ubiquitous Volkswagen Beetle will probably jump to mind for many because it was in production for close to 70 years. However, if we Continue reading “Stayin’ Alive (Part 1)”

Coming to America (Part Three)

The Z enters its Vegas period.

Nissan 280 ZX. Image: DTW Collection

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

Coming to America (Part Two)

The Z-car evolves.

Image: vintagecarbrochures

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

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

Coming to America (Part One)

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

Image: motor-stars

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

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

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

For the German Bands

Andrew Miles takes a hands-on approach. 

So taken at seeing an old flame, I forgot to zero in on the handle!

From DLOs to DRGs. Pillars, A through (occasionally) D, manufacturers and commentators spend countless hours unpicking these traits. Directives about placement, rules concerning dimensions, legislative measures, crash tests and, finally, the greasy paws of the customer. However much we admire (or admonish) a car’s looks, our first point of contact with any is that oubliette feature: the door handle.

Through an exhaustive half hour lunch break during the no longer recent summer – cobalt blue skies and the mercury nudging thirty degrees – my gaze became fixed upon the indents and recessed areas our digits seek out in order to Continue reading “For the German Bands”

Uncompromised, not Uncompromising

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

Image: automobile

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

Le Pas d’Acier

Two steps on the water.

BBC

Situated a thousand kilometres South East from Moscow on the banks of the historically troubled river Volga, lies an enormous industrial plant. Up to 650,000 vehicles wearing a handful of badges are built per year, the area having become known locally as the Motown of the East. But to understand the Autovaz plant, we must first Continue reading “Le Pas d’Acier”

People’s Coupé

The Beetle’s comelier cousin.

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

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

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

Send in the Paratroopers

Customer service? Who cares!

The former Art Deco style Mann Egerton Austin Rover dealership in Morden, South London. theminiforum via Merton Council.

Perennial kicking-post, Austin Rover. Years after their slow-motion demise – still fresh in many motorists minds, an incorrigibly persistent bad taste joke. And the material just keeps on rolling; we all know how the story ends but remain enthralled as there’s often a fresh nail awaiting the coffin’s hammer.

But it’s not all bad. Austin Rover attempted a turnaround, a stoic final stand against the enemy by dropping in the parachute regiment. A cynic might have called this project Operation Market Garden, as in the rather doomed Allied attempt at hastening the end of the Second World War by capturing bridges at Arnhem and Nijmegen. Praise the wag who chose to keep the parachuting theme but with a modern twist – that of the (at the time) clandestine 22nd Special Air Service. Who Cares Wins, the fight to keep the customer happy. Step up to the green light and Continue reading “Send in the Paratroopers”

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

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

1991 Bugatti EB110 GT. Image: tcct.com

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

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

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

1974 Fiat Mirafiori Special. Image: fiat.com

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

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

An Alfa Less Loved

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

2006 Alfa Romeo 159. Image: pruebatucoche.es

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

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

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

Confidence Might Be Z-Shaped but Knock-backs Wear Iron Marks

We take a brief dive into Volvo’s Italian coachbuilt past. 

Volvo GTZ Zagato. fijen.se

Turin based coachbuilder, Carrozeria Fissore had confidence aplenty. Founded in 1919 by the four brothers; Antonio, Bernardo, Giovanni, and Costanzo, the reins fell under Bernado’s control in 1936. Originally horse carriage experts then car repairers, by wartime the carrozzeria had moved on to manufacturing – mail cars, vans, even hearses after military service.

No prizes for guessing much of Fissore’s work lay within the Fiat purview. By the 1960s, Fissore may not have been the household name far outside the confines of their homeland but their reputation had grown. To the point that Motauto, the Italian import agent for Volvo believed the carrozzeria possessed the skills to Continue reading “Confidence Might Be Z-Shaped but Knock-backs Wear Iron Marks”

Drop the Subject – (Part Two)

Further precipitation. Continuing our examination of the streamlined monopod. 

Library.cshl.edu/ Greenprophet.com

Bridges Lightning Bug, 1936

Doctor Calvin Blackman Bridges (1889-1938) did not have the background one would expect of a car designer. He was a highly respected geneticist who had contributed the first paper ever to the journal, Genetics and had invented the binocular dissecting microscope.

Bridges built his car in his spare time, machining many parts himself on a lathe. Being rather safety-conscious by the standards of the time the doctor used an early plastic named Pyralin instead of glass for the windows, a forced air ventilation system to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning and a steel and asbestos firewall between engine and passenger compartment. Unusually the front suspension was constructed of a motorcycle fork on each side.

Bridges had this to say about his Lightning Bug: “My whole aim was to Continue reading “Drop the Subject – (Part Two)”

Going South (Part Two)

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

1971 Alfasud N.  Image: estrepublicain.fr

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

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

Deserving Beta (Part Two)

Fate’s cold hand catches up with the Beta.

Lancia Beta Series II.  Image: autoemotodepoca

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

Deserving Beta (Part One)

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

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

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

A View With a Room

We recall a legendary name in American coachbuilding.

Unattributed image via Pinterest

Today’s Escalade SUV is routinely paraded as the new-millennial personification of the classic full-size Cadillac sedan, but with the sort of ground clearance and utility the Cadillacs of yesteryear could only dream about. During the roseate era of fins, dagmars and chrome plating, Cadillacs were not created with practicality foremost in mind – these were profound statements, potent symbols of attainment.

Throughout the 1950s, Cadillac sales were seemingly impervious to market vagaries or the state of the economy. While its brash appearance may not have been to everyone’s taste – even in more-is-more boomtime fifties America – the Cadillac was the domestic car the vast majority of the American public aspired to. Cadillac customers were also said to be the most brand-loyal; even in more difficult times, a new Cadillac on the suburban driveway clearly illustrated to peers and associates that everything was ‘just swell’.

But for some particularly well-heeled customers, even a sparkling new Caddy, in sedan, coupé or convertible form was not quite going to Continue reading “A View With a Room”

Espace Invaders

The Matra-Renault Espace sired a number of imitators, but what about outright copies? Bruno Vijverman investigates.

Autodeautos.com/ Renault

The Renault Espace opened up a whole new market segment when it was introduced in 1984 (across the Atlantic the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager did likewise) and as soon as its commercial viability was confirmed, competitors rushed to their drawing boards to join the party. Not long after, several competing brands would introduce their own take on the monospace theme. And although conceptually they obviously followed the trail cleared by Renault, within the styling constraints of the monospace concept they produced designs that remained reasonably faithful to each make’s family appearance.

Years later however two suspiciously similar vehicles would surface in both India and Brazil. Even though one of them only went on sale shortly before the original Espace would be replaced by a new generation model, Renault nevertheless successfully threatened legal action, while the other clone never really reached series production at all. Let’s Continue reading “Espace Invaders”

Oblongs Look Better Than Squares

Mister Earl comes under the DTW spotlight. 

Big car – big fellow. Motoringhistory.com

The idea of designing or styling cars is almost as old as the industry itself. Stemming from coach and carriage works, in the beginning the car was made and effectively styled by those same engineers whose only goal was a mechanically powered carriage. Short framed, high bodied creations, and rudimentary in weather protection, imbuing style was barely considered. Wealthy customers hired craftsmen to create a unique automobile – America had dozens of such custom builders but even with Henry’s Model T, mass production barely stirred the creative soul.

Alfred Pritchard Sloan Jr wrote a letter to the general manager of Buick, H.H. Bassett in 1926 expressing his interest in styling a car in order to sell more. Cadillac general manager, Lawrence Fisher concurred with Sloan’s and Basset’s ideas on appearance. On a trip of Cadillac dealers in California, Fisher was introduced to Don Lee who aside from flogging Cadillacs ran a custom workshop in Hollywood. Contained within were those craftsmen building film stars their dream cars. Fisher was impressed by not only the workmanship, but by the young fellow directing the designers – Harley J Earl.

Earl’s father ran a carriage works which Don Lee subsequently purchased. With a keen eye along with such ideas as clay modelling, which allowed for fenders to Continue reading “Oblongs Look Better Than Squares”

Missing the Marque: Lexus CT 200h

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

2017 Lexus CT 200h. Image: caranddriver.com

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

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

Three’s Company (Part Two)

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

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

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

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

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

Chavant and Di-NOC

An unsung car design essential under the microscope.

Get it while it’s… hard? Image: Fredaldous.co.uk

We’ve simply never found anything better.

Prosaic words in a modern world where the non-use of a computer or software could be deemed a disability – thank heavens then for a material still requiring skilled human hands to shape and form – clay. Used for eons, clay in the automotive industry requires chemical alterations. Natural clay requires baking to gain its strength and rigidity but which renders the product non-alterable. To allow for modelling complex curves or knife-sharp edges, natural clay contains added oils or waxes and in the early days a volume filler, (sulphur) to maintain its pliable attributes.

Delivered in blocks (or billets), once warmed through, the clay can then be applied to a rudimentary shaped wooden buck or wire armature in clumps, literally thrown on then hand kneaded to express a basic shape. Once air dried, this automotive modelling clay maintains its malleable state and allows the skilled human along with a variety of hands tools to Continue reading “Chavant and Di-NOC”

Strict Tempo – Part 2. The Unassailable Matador

Image: ndr.de

Bostelbek’s resourceful and determined Kleinlaster manufacturer reached the mid-1950s in a state of existential crisis, with their promising Matador range in desperate need of a suitably powerful, efficient, and dependable engine. The smaller Wiking truck was selling satisfactorily, but the Land Rover joint venture had no future, and the once-staple Hanseat Dreirad was a vehicle type soon to Continue reading “Strict Tempo – Part 2. The Unassailable Matador”

Three’s Company (Part One)

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

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

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

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

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

Newsgrab

A highly selective, subjective (and lengthy) IAA-themed grab for the week ending 12/09/2021.

Audi Grandsphere. hum3d

The first indoor European motorshow since the onset of SARS CoV-2 is not something to be taken lightly, but neither is it of direct consequence to those of us who routinely fail to attend them. It’s not that I was ever particularly averse – in fact I rather enjoy perusing the putative, spectating over the speculative and free-associating over the fantastical, but the events themselves always seemed to have fallen at an inconvenient time. For the past 18 months or so this has been largely academic, but once again my coverage of a major motor event must by necessity be of a remote nature.

Impartial, in-person coverage is of course what anyone with a modicum of discernment would ideally Continue reading “Newsgrab”

Strict Tempo – Part 1. On a Quiet Street in Neuwiedenthal

A chance sighting in a Hamburg suburb prompts a DTW writer to contemplate the life and times of one of Germany’s lesser known automotive dynasties.

Tempo showroom on Ballindamm, Hamburg Image: ndr.de

For me, this story starts on a quiet street in a south-western suburb of Hamburg almost exactly two years ago, although the times we have lived through since make the experience feel far more distant. I had based myself in an apartment in west Harburg, close to the A7 autobahn, and on my first morning, set out further west in search of breakfast, and found myself on a street called Tempoweg, close to the Neuwiedenthal S-Bahn station.

The name triggered my memory. I knew that Tempo was a Hamburg-based vehicle manufacturer, and had occasionally encountered their rather quirky products at Oldtimer events. On that day I was bound for Kiel, to Continue reading “Strict Tempo – Part 1. On a Quiet Street in Neuwiedenthal”

Reaching for the Stars

Is it a bird, a plane? Nope, it’s a Firebird. 

All three Firebirds. Road & Track

Ještêd, at 1,012 metres is only the 347th highest of the Czech Republic’s mountains yet is a coveted location. The reason being since 1973, at the summit resides an award winning single piece circular building, hyperboloid in shape, pointedly aiming another hundred metres toward the heavens. Partly hotel, but mainly transmitting TV signals, this striking edifice which took six years to construct came from the mind of Karel Hubáček, co-founder of SIAL, a Czech architectural studio. 

Melding elements of beauty with science fiction, a sense of playfulness with functionality, the tower serves the important function of searching further into the great unknown. And whilst Hubáček, surviving enforced wartime labour, concentrated his work upon buildings for humans, he might perhaps have been influenced by something equally futuristic, but on four wheels.

GM’s Firebird I concept stood for high performance. II being the futuristic family car, whereas III was GM’s own trip to the final frontier – an earthbound automobile with otherworldly ideals. Continue reading “Reaching for the Stars”

French Polo

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

VW Polo and Polo Classic. Image: polodriver.com

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

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

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

Missing the Marque: 2006 Jeep Compass

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

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

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

Bisogna Navigare Quando il Vento e Propizio*

A trio of Italian oddities. 

Author’s image.

Alfa Spider Niki Lauda Special Edition

Double F1 world champion Niki Lauda switched from Ferrari to Brabham-Alfa Romeo for the 1978 season, and this highly publicised move was of course a prime publicity opportunity for Alfa’s marketing department. Although Lauda’s results in 1978 were certainly not bad (two victories and five podium appearances) the great expectations of bringing the Alfa Romeo name back to the top were never met: Lauda did not even Continue reading “Bisogna Navigare Quando il Vento e Propizio*”

Missing the Marque: 2005 Jeep Commander

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

2005 Jeep Commander. Image: thecarconnection.com

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