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”

Sterling Devaluation (Part Two)

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

Sterling in hatch and saloon form. Image: Favcars

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

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

Sterling Devaluation (Part One)

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

1987 Sterling 825 publicity shot. Image: Motor Authority

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

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

Modest Hero

Although not as instantly recognisable as the Wrangler, the 1983 Jeep Cherokee was a well-conceived and thoroughly engineered vehicle that served its maker well over three decades.

1985 Jeep Cherokee Limited (c) hemmings.com

Genericization is a rather ugly word, but it describes a phenomenon whereby a market-leading proprietary brand name becomes so dominant that it is used to describe a generic product. It can be a double-edged sword for manufacturers. On one hand, it recognises their market leadership but, conversely, it can lead to the loss of valuable trademark protection.

Cellophane, escalator, zipper and aspirin are all examples of formerly trademarked proprietary names that Continue reading “Modest Hero”

The Doyen has Departed – Graham Robson 1936 – 2021

With the death of Graham Robson on 5 August 2021, the world of automotive history has lost an extraordinary and prolific chronicler.

Graham Robson. Image: TR Register

Graham Robson was born and schooled in Skipton, a North Yorkshire market town. His family, middle-class but certainly not moneyed, had no connection with the motor industry other than his father’s interest in motorcycle racing. His interest in cars and engineering evolved from his early years, and the clever and motivated grammar-school boy was awarded a place at Lincoln College, Oxford, where he studied Engineering Science.

On graduation in 1957, the young Robson joined Jaguar as a graduate engineering trainee. Without doubt, Coventry shaped him, and in his free time from Jaguar, he was active in club rallying, making important contacts which led to co-driving opportunities with the Rootes factory team, and in 1961 a new job at Standard-Triumph, first as a development engineer, and in due course taking on the role of Competition Secretary.

Robson had a useful sideline in writing rally reports for Motoring News, and in 1965 he left Standard-Triumph to join Autocar’s Midlands office to Continue reading “The Doyen has Departed – Graham Robson 1936 – 2021”

The Tri-Shield’s Silken Road

The Buick Origin Story.

Image: GM/ Wieck Media Services

David Dunbar Buick was but two years old when the family emigrated from Arbroath, Scotland for a new life in Detroit, 1856. Upon leaving school he worked for and then later owned a plumbing goods company (The Alexander Manufacturing Company). With an inventive mind, David produced a lawn sprinkler alongside a vitreous enamel coating for cast iron baths. By the 1890’s, the internal combustion engine held more interest than ablutions – the company was sold.

Afforded both time and financial independence, Buick indulged. Incorporating the Buick Auto-Vim & Power Company in 1899, his market was agricultural engines. Very soon the automobile enveloped his life and swiftly draining his finances with just a single car made in 1902 under the new name, Buick Manufacturing Company. Ploughing what little cash he retained into developing an OHV engine, a loan of $5,000 was had from close friend Ben Briscoe in order to make the Buick Motor Company. 

Briscoe had doubts concerning Buick’s acumen; on hearing of a new automobile project in Flint, over a hundred miles from Detroit, he persuaded Buick to Continue reading “The Tri-Shield’s Silken Road”

Missing the Marque: Opel / Vauxhall Sintra

We recall Opel / Vauxhall’s first large MPV, once branded the worst car in Britain.

1997 Opel Sintra. Image: drivemag.com

In the automotive world, truly innovative design concepts do not come along that often, but 1984(1) saw the arrival of one such design in the US. The minivan was capacious and versatile, and offered an alternative to the large station wagons that had long been a fixture in the lives of suburban American families.

European manufacturers looked on with interest, but a degree of ambivalence, as the minivan grew rapidly in popularity in the US. Coincidentally, Renault had also introduced a similarly sized monobox vehicle in 1984, the Espace, but this was not initially considered to be a mainstream model. It was produced by Matra in small quantities as the potential market for such a vehicle was untested. Continue reading “Missing the Marque: Opel / Vauxhall Sintra”

Role Call

A woman’s place is in the… Design Studio.

Image: The author

Even now, well into the 21st century, the automotive industry and its related fields employ and attract more men than they do women, and the styling studios are no exception. There certainly has been a noticeable influx of women in the design departments over the past few decades: Anne Asensio, Marcy Fisher, Juliane Blasi and Michelle Christensen being a few latterday examples.

Wind back the clock some 90 years however and it was a different environment – and not just within the car industry. It took a determined and strong-willed woman to overcome the prejudice, condescendence, resistance and occasionally, outright hostility she would often confront if she dared enter an arena hitherto considered to be the sole domain of men.

Some of the women presented herein might appear a tad overdressed in period photographs, but it is important to Continue reading “Role Call”

Own-Brand Cassoulet

Volkswagen Group’s mass-market brands are losing their individual identities under the dead hand of corporate conformity.

They don’t make them like this anymore: 2009 Škoda Yeti. Image: autocentrum

The automotive colossus that is the Volkswagen Group includes four mass-market brands that might be rather simplistically defined as follows, in descending hierarchical order:

Audi: premium sporting
Volkswagen: semi-premium luxury
SEAT: mainstream sporting
Škoda: mainstream value

I am conscious that such a bald statement might elicit howls of protest from those who Continue reading “Own-Brand Cassoulet”

Missing the Marque: Ford EcoSport

A product designed for developing markets with mere adequacy as its guiding principle, the EcoSport was foisted upon Ford of Europe with wholly predictable results.

It has a letter from its mum, excusing it from heavy lifting duties… Image: carwow

In a former era, when cars were regarded by the vast majority as primarily a means of transport rather than a status symbol, Ford was highly successful in mobilising the masses reliably and (relatively) cheaply. That earned the company a reputation as something of a working-class hero.

This perception subsequently became a liability as increasing affluence made buyers Continue reading “Missing the Marque: Ford EcoSport”

Lost Legend (Part Two)

We continue the story of the Honda Legend, a car that will soon be consigned to history.

1990 Acura Legend sedan (second-generation). Image: hondanews.com

The second-generation Legend was launched in October 1990 in both saloon and coupé form. Surprisingly, given the relative youthfulness of the superseded model, the new car was not a reskin, but an all-new design which shared nothing with either it or its Rover 800 sibling.

The new Legend was a significantly larger car. The saloon’s wheelbase grew by a substantial 150mm (6”) to 2,910mm(1) (114½”), while overall length grew by 140mm (5½”) to 4,950mm (195”). The growth in size negated the possibility of a smaller, more tax efficient JDM version(2). The new model was now a more direct competitor for the BMW 7 Series and Jaguar XJ saloon.

The most significant mechanical revision was that the engine was now mounted longitudinally rather than transversely. Honda indicated that this layout was more conducive to achieving the best levels of mechanical refinement and minimising noise in the cabin. To Continue reading “Lost Legend (Part Two)”

Fanfare for the Common Van (Part 5): Long at Last

We conclude our Transitory aria.

Image: Ford Netherlands

In 1974, Ford at last gave serious consideration to a Transit replacement, instigating “Project Triton” by employing a French consultancy to produce studies for a new van to go on sale towards the end of the decade. The timing was inauspicious, in the midst of a global oil crisis and industrial and political turmoil in the UK.

Within the narrower confines of Ford of Britain, development of the strategically important Cargo medium sized truck range was running behind programme and over budget. Integration of the German and British operations was proceeding rapidly with priority for all resources going to the Fiesta supermini, the most expensive project in the history of the Ford Motor Company.

As Transit demand remained strong, it was decided to Continue reading “Fanfare for the Common Van (Part 5): Long at Last”

Lost Legend (Part One)

Honda recently announced that its flagship saloon will not be replaced when the current model is discontinued in March 2022. We remember the Legend.

1988 Acura Legend Sedan and Coupé. Image: curbsideclassic.com

The Honda Motor Company as we know it today was incorporated in 1948 and built its first complete motorcycle in the following year. Its rise thereafter was meteoric: just fifteen years later, Honda had become the largest manufacturer of motorcycles in the World. The company’s ambitious founder, Soichiro Honda, then turned his attention to automobiles and launched the T360 pick-up truck and S500 convertible sports car in 1963.

Although the diminutive S500 and 1970 Z360 / Z600 microcar achieved some export sales, it was the 1972 Civic that marked Honda’s arrival in the mainstream global passenger car market. This was a neatly styled front-wheel-drive B-segment model produced in three and five-door hatchback, saloon and estate versions(1). Its arrival coincided with the 1973 Middle-East Oil Crisis, which caused a huge increase in demand for small and economical cars, especially in the US. The Civic quickly acquired a reputation for excellent engineering, build quality and reliability(2). Continue reading “Lost Legend (Part One)”

A Smart Cut, or the Final Cut?

After decades of resolutely conventional if well executed D-segment offerings, Peugeot has tried something different with the latest 508. It deserves credit for doing so, but has the market recognised and rewarded its innovation?

2018 Peugeot 508  Image: ANE

For over a century, Peugeot has been the very essence of French conservative respectability. Its automobiles have, by and large, been well engineered, durable and reliable, with quietly elegant and unflashy styling. At the heart of its range has always been a medium / large saloon car, a natural and uncontroversial choice for middle-class professionals in France and beyond.

The post-WW2 series of such cars began with the Pininfarina styled 403 in 1955, a neat and contemporary looking RWD car with smooth ponton(1) styling. It was manufactured for over a decade in saloon, estate, coupé, van and pick-up versions and sold in excess of one million units. Continue reading “A Smart Cut, or the Final Cut?”

We Interrupt This Programme

Is that a gun in your pocket?

Image: Corrado Belli

The name of this vehicle has nothing to do with Auntie Beeb, being simply composed of the initials of Messrs. Beretta, Benelli and Castelbarco – all three of them distinctly Italian. The first two names will sound familiar as they are those of the arms maker and motorcycle manufacturer respectively; the third was a member of the Italian nobility.

Pietro Beretta had inherited the family company, founded in the 16th century, in 1903 but found his factories seized by the German army upon the allied invasion of Italy in 1943. When hostilities ended two years later there was understandably little demand for Beretta’s traditional offerings. Postwar Italy – its confidence, its infrastructure and its economy – had to be rebuilt and providing mobility for as many private individuals and businesses as possible was of course one of the vital aspects that needed to be addressed in order to Continue reading “We Interrupt This Programme”

Beyond Infiniti (Part Three)

We continue the story of Infiniti, Nissan’s troubled luxury brand, from 2010 to the present day and ponder its future.

2016 Infiniti Q30 (c) carmagazine.co.uk

Infiniti had spent its second decade rather more productively than its first and introduced models like the G35 compact premium saloon, coupé and convertible that were broadly class-competitive against their German rivals. However, sales growth still proved elusive. In 2010, Infiniti US sales were 103,411(1) vehicles, representing a 0.89% market share. In the same year, BMW and Mercedes-Benz were closely matched with US sales of 220,113 and 224,944 vehicles respectively, giving them market shares of 1.90% and 1.94%.

Infiniti’s Japanese nemesis, Lexus, edged ahead of the German duo with 229,329 sales, a market share of 1.98%. Even Acura outperformed Infiniti, with US sales of 133,596 vehicles, a market share of 1.15%. European sales for Infiniti in 2010 were an inconsequential 2,393 vehicles, representing a tiny 0.02% market share. Continue reading “Beyond Infiniti (Part Three)”

Beyond Infiniti (Part Two)

We continue the story of Infiniti, Nissan’s troubled luxury brand, as it enters its second decade.

2001 Infiniti Q45 (c) autoevolution.com

As the new millennium dawned, Infiniti found itself far adrift of its two Japanese rivals, Lexus and Acura, in the US luxury car market. This was largely a result of an unconvincing and substandard product line-up. The J20 compact executive, which should have been Infiniti’s volume seller, was a barely disguised Nissan Primera P11 and had comprehensively failed to attract buyers.

At the other end of its range, the Q45 was a bland and generic luxury saloon that was hugely outclassed by its competitors. The only bright spots in its range were the two mid-sized models, the I30 saloon and the QX4 SUV, both of which were little more than rebadged Nissans. Together, these two models accounted for 78% of the company’s sales in 2000.

Infiniti’s parent company, Nissan, was also in deep trouble. Facing a real prospect of bankruptcy, it had entered into an alliance with Renault in March 1999, with the intention of cutting costs by sharing development on new platforms and mechanical parts, while retaining their individual marque identities. There was little doubt as to which company was the senior partner: Renault purchased a 36.8% stake in Nissan, while the cash-strapped Japanese company could only promise to Continue reading “Beyond Infiniti (Part Two)”

Short Story (Part One)

Brevity is an art.

Image: The Author/ Encyclautomobile fr/ Wouter Huisman

Although a much less common course of action compared to stretching a pre-existing vehicle, several car manufacturers have at times explored this avenue nevertheless. There can be several reasons for this; the main ones being motorsports competition requirements, creating a smaller and cheaper entry level variant, responding to customer requests or complaints, and unique geographical market circumstances.

The just for fun variants are left out of the equation here, those (however amusing in some cases), for the most part being one-off amateur concoctions and mobile billboards. Continue reading “Short Story (Part One)”

Beyond Infiniti (Part One)

Nissan’s luxury brand is reportedly facing another reinvention as its long struggle for relevancy continues. We examine Infiniti’s chequered history and ponder its future.

1989 Infiniti Q45 (c) Nissan Heritage Collection

When Toyota launched its first Lexus LS400 in 1989, the automotive world was simply stunned by the ambition and audacity of the Japanese automaker. Previously best known for vehicles that were carefully designed, well-built and reliable, but largely uncharismatic, Toyota had created a luxury saloon that easily matched and, in a number of respects, surpassed the best that either Stuttgart or Munich could offer. It was good enough to Continue reading “Beyond Infiniti (Part One)”

Moving Down, Scaling Up (Part Three)

The 1963 Hillman Imp was Rootes’ answer to BMC’s Mini, but a latecomer to the market and, ultimately, a commercial failure. We conclude its story.

1965 Hillman Imp Mk2 advertisement (c) somethingawful.com

Autocar magazine had been given early access to an Imp De Luxe for testing and published its road test just a day after launch. The price including tax was £532, a £24 premium over the standard version. The reviewer praised the new engine’s smoothness, quietness and willingness to rev. They noted that, despite an unusually high 10:1 compression ratio, it ran without any trace of ‘pinking’ or ‘run-on’ on Premium(1) grade petrol.

The recommended top speed of 70mph (113km/h) was easily exceeded, and a maximum of 83mph (134km/h) was recorded one-way. The 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time was measured at 23.7 seconds. Fuel consumption over the course of the road test was 38.1mpg (7.4 L/100km).

No coolant temperature gauge was fitted, and the reviewer had to Continue reading “Moving Down, Scaling Up (Part Three)”

Moving Down, Scaling Up (Part Two)

Continuing our recollection of cars developed in response to the demand for smaller and more economical models. Today we feature the Hillman Imp.

Image: motor-car.net

In the 1950’s, the cars produced by the Rootes Group were the very embodiment of middle-class respectability. Brothers William and Reginald Rootes, with the backing of the Prudential Assurance Company and Midland Bank, had assembled a stable of marques, including Hillman, Humber, Singer, Sunbeam and Talbot, all of which occupied the broad middle market.

There were some distinctions between them; Humber was the more upmarket brand, whilst Sunbeam models had a slightly sporting appeal, but the differences were marginal and largely historic. What Rootes emphatically did not possess was a small car brand, or expertise in that segment of the market.

Rootes was also initially slow to Continue reading “Moving Down, Scaling Up (Part Two)”

Slegs Vir Suid-Afrikaners*

The South African variants.

Image: BMW SA/ Drive-my.com

The main reasons for certain countries to develop (or have developed for them), unique variants of established car model lines can roughly be traced back to tax laws, vehicle or traffic legislation and domestic motorsports homologation requirements. BMW is a brand that has sired several bespoke cars only available in certain markets. Italian and Portuguese legislation resulted in the E30-series 320iS which was fitted with a 2-litre version of the M3 engine, avoiding the severe tax hike for engines with a displacement exceeding 1999cc.

BMW South Africa gave birth to an E23-series BMW 745i with a different and arguably better engine than the 3.2 litre turbocharged six with which it was originally equipped (because the turbocharger got in the way of right hand drive conversion), and homologation rules put cars such as the E30-series BMW 333i on public roads, again in South Africa, which turned out to be a fertile ground for deviant model versions. Today, let’s Continue reading “Slegs Vir Suid-Afrikaners*”

Moving Down, Scaling Up (Part One)

Two European automakers entered the small car market for the first time in the early 1960s. Both cars featured a similar rear-engined layout, but only one can be judged a success. 

Image: stubs.centreblog

The 1950s was a decade of recovery for the economies of European countries that had been devastated in the Second World War. Increasing affluence put car ownership within the reach of families for whom this was never previously feasible. Much of Europe’s road network, however, remained primitive and relatively unsuited to large and unwieldy cars. The 1956 Suez Crisis(1), although a relatively brief event, also heightened the importance of fuel economy to potential buyers.

West Germany had its distinctive bubble cars, but these were regarded with some distaste elsewhere in Europe, being seen as unacceptably small and crude. It was the somewhat larger 1955 Fiat 600 that achieved an optimal mix of comfort and economy in a small car and provided a template for other makers to Continue reading “Moving Down, Scaling Up (Part One)”

Newsgrab

Reviewing the automotive week ending 25 June 2021.

Peugeot 308 SW. Image: autoitocka

It has of late become a little predictable to begin these (relatively) infrequent news-related pieces with the latest machinations of the Stellantis auto group, but that’s hardly my fault given that they are the only carmaker these days truly capable of genuine surprise. This week, the continent-straddling motor giant sprinkled a few more crumbs of their plans for Alfa Romeo, which are believed to encompass a range of three crossover CUVs – (small, medium and large), a Giulia-esque saloon and if the tabloids are to be believed, a coupé.

Speaking to journalists, Alfa Romeo’s new CEO, Jean-Philippe Imparato intimated that he was “very interested” in the idea of a GTV-badged model (a statement that could quite literally mean anything), but given how little actual detail he was prepared to reveal, the space for conjecture and wishful thinking to Continue reading “Newsgrab”

Quelle Quatrelle! (Part Two)

We conclude our sixtieth anniversary celebration of the Renault 4, France’s most successful car.

Image: lautomobileancienne

The Renault R4 was formally launched at the Paris Salon in October 1961(1) in base and L trim. The two versions were immediately distinguishable by the fact that the base model had no third light in the rear quarter panel, just a very wide C-pillar. The L version was priced at a premium of 400 francs (£29 or US $82) over the base model. Both shared the same Billancourt 747cc 26.5bhp (20kW) engine.

Also launched at the same time was the R3, which was similar to the base R4 but had a smaller 603cc 22.5bhp (16.8kW) version of the engine, which placed it in the cheaper 3CV taxation class. The R3 was targeted directly at the Citroën 2CV and undercut the entry price for the latter by 40 francs (£3 or US $8). Also unveiled was the Fourgonnette van version. This was identical to the R4 ahead of the B-pillars but had a large cube-shaped bespoke body aft of the pillars with a single, side-hinged rear door(2). Continue reading “Quelle Quatrelle! (Part Two)”

Quelle Quatrelle! (Part One)

The Renault 4 celebrates its sixtieth birthday. We salute a French automotive icon.

1961 Renault R4 Image: weilinet

Certain cars seem perfectly to encapsulate a vision of their country of origin. It is easy to imagine a gleaming black Mercedes-Benz S-Class carrying a German government minister or plutocrat along an Autobahn at great speed and in discreet, sybaritic luxury. Likewise, one can dream of a pastel-coloured Fiat Nuova 500 driven by a strikingly attractive olive-skinned young woman, nipping adroitly through the narrow twisting streets of a sun-baked Italian hillside village.

Less romantically, one can readily visualise a metallic grey Vauxhall Cavalier sitting at a steady 80mph in the outside lane of a British motorway under a leaden sky, its driver grimly contemplating another difficult meeting with his boss about his failure to Continue reading “Quelle Quatrelle! (Part One)”

Bulletproof, Baby

The art of protection.

Looks can be deceiving. Image: Motor1.com.

Well, you’ve made it. King of the hill, head honcho. Now to get the country sorted, getting to grips with the nitty gritty. But, you’ve made more enemies than friends getting here. Some of those policies have disgruntled the populace. Changing the whole economy didn’t help, nor banning Sunday morning lie-ins. And as for pulling out of the Tufty Club.

Fortunately, some bright spark in procurement realised you might Continue reading “Bulletproof, Baby”

The Future Started Here

From the most modest of beginnings, Audi has become an automotive titan. We remember where, and how quietly, it all began.

1966 Audi Super 90 (c) honestjohn.co.uk

If truth is the first casualty of war, then Audi was a close second in 1940. Having been subsumed seven years earlier into the Auto Union combine that also included the DKW, Horch and Wanderer marques, Audi’s presence in Germany withered away to an inconsequential 0.1% market share before the outbreak of hostilities.

Demand for its large if slightly idiosyncratic Front UW 225(1) saloon evaporated as a result of the economic privations of the 1930’s. Auto Union instead concentrated on small and economical two-stroke engined saloons carrying the DKW brand. The Front was succeeded in 1938 by a 3.3 litre six-cylinder RWD model, the 920, which was manufactured at the Horch plant and was an Audi in name only. The 920 was itself discontinued without a replacement in 1940.

When production resumed after the war, the company remained focused on building small cars under the Auto Union and DKW brands. Mercedes-Benz acquired a controlling stake in Auto Union in 1958, but failed to Continue reading “The Future Started Here”

Heroic Failure

A noble project to mobilise rural India safely, the Tata Nano was a failure. Today we examine the reasons why.

2009 Tata Nano (c) slideshare.net

The Tata Group is one of India’s oldest and largest industrial conglomerates. It encompasses a hugely diverse range of manufacturing and service companies, including steel, chemicals, consumer products, home appliances, energy, telecommunications, hotels, finance, investment and, since 1954, motor vehicles. Tata’s first domestically designed and built car was the 1998 Indica, a supermini-sized five-door hatchback that went on to Continue reading “Heroic Failure”

Born in the USA

The Euro-pick-up truck is unwell.

FORD Ranger. Image: What Car

Broadly speaking, we have a good deal to thank our American neighbours for in automotive terms, notwithstanding of course, the fact that some influences have been better received than others. Nevertheless, the automobile evolved more rapidly, and improved in ways we could scarcely have imagined largely due to US market forces. For instance, the modern styling studio was very much an American innovation, and it’s probably fair to say that nobody did more to Continue reading “Born in the USA”

Phoenix Follies (Part Two)

Today, we feature the CityRover, a cynical and poorly executed attempt to plug a perceived gap in MG Rover’s model range.

2003 CityRover (c) parkers.co.uk

In 2000, the newly independent MG Rover found itself without a contender in the sub-B city car segment. As the formerly BMW-owned Rover Group, it had continued to field a version of the long-running 1980 Austin Metro, subject of three major facelifts before being renamed Rover 100 in 1994.

Despite its antiquity, it remained popular, at least in the UK, where it was valued for its compact size and nimbleness. A disastrous Euro-NCAP crash test in 1997 however, where the 100 received a uniquely poor one-star rating for adult occupant safety, caused sales to collapse and the model was discontinued the following year. Continue reading “Phoenix Follies (Part Two)”

Going Up

Introducing the MegaPanda…

Emelba Chato. Image: Esacademic.com

After the fall of Generalissimo Franco’s regime, Spain became free in more than one way; its market could now be opened to more products and brands produced outside of the country. This revitalization of the market stimulated the foundation of many new businesses, of which coachbuilder Emelba was one.

Commencing operations in 1978, Girona-based Emelba swiftly developed close ties to the national car maker SEAT and started producing the SEAT 127 Samba for them – the Spanish sister of the Fiat 127 Scout. At the time the market for small utility vehicles in Spain was dominated by Renault (4 F4 and F6) and Citroën (Acadiane). Oddly enough SEAT never brought its own version of the Fiat 127 Fiorino to market, instead Emelba built the SEAT 127 Poker: a 127 with a Fiorino-like rear section but executed rather more crudely.

The 127 Poker was still more a worklike van than people carrier, prompting Emelba to Continue reading “Going Up”

Phoenix Follies (Part One)

At a crucial moment, and to the detriment of their mainstream business, MG Rover’s management squandered time and money on frivolous distractions.

2004 MG Xpower SV-R (c) topspeed.com

It had all started so well, or so it appeared. It was May 2000 and, after months of uncertainty and worry, Rover Group, the UK’s last remaining indigenous volume car manufacturer, was independent again and back under British ownership. Phoenix Venture Holdings, a consortium of businessmen led by John Towers, had secured ownership of the bulk of Rover for a nominal fee of £10 and negotiated a generous ‘dowry’ of £500 million from BMW AG. The German automotive giant was just relieved to Continue reading “Phoenix Follies (Part One)”

Understanding the Welsh Air. And Yoghurt.

Lucid dreams. 

Lucid Air. Image: yankodesign

We aim to make not only the best electric car but also the best car in the world.” This may sound somewhat boastful but the chap expressing these words has quite the curriculum vitae to back it up.

Peter Rawlinson began life in South Wales, raised and schooled in the Vale of Glamorgan, later graduating in Engineering at Imperial College, London. Jaguar employed his young talent, where he reached the heights of Principal Engineer before quitting to assist Lotus. During his stint at Hethel, Rawlinson managed to Continue reading “Understanding the Welsh Air. And Yoghurt.”

The Brakeman

Let’s slow things down for Sunday.

I’ve driven under this bridge many times in my home town. The bridge remains but the slogan, lost. Sheffieldhistory.co.uk

Ever since cavemen realised the wheel was more conducive to transportation, reducing vehicular speeds safely has been a problem, to say the least. Fine to get motion rolling but just how do you make that cart or wagon slow down and stop, preferably before the impending river/edge/group of people?

Boughs from trees, old boots, metal, bricks, rocks – all of the above have at one time or another been employed to Continue reading “The Brakeman”

Searching for the Next Big Thing

We recall three vehicles from different European manufacturers, each trying to offer a new twist on the large executive/family car formula, but all failing comprehensively to break the stranglehold of the status quo.

2001 Renault Vel Satis (c) Haessliche Autos

It is the Holy Grail for automakers: coming up with a design that defines a whole new automotive genre. You reap the rich rewards of first-mover advantage while your rivals struggle to catch up. Sticking your corporate head above the parapet of automotive convention is not without risks, however. For every Nissan Qashqai there is a Suzuki X90, selling in tiny numbers before being canned, then hanging around like a bad smell to remind the public how foolish you were.

To compound your embarrassment, it will also Continue reading “Searching for the Next Big Thing”