Gems on the Assembly Line…

…and it was not one of the cars.

Image: classiccarstodayonline.com

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

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

E1 before i3

Two decades before BMW launched its first production EV, there was the E1 Concept.

Image: cartype.com

Energy Density and Specific Energy are the twin holy grails for any automaker wishing to bring a viable electric vehicle to market. These two units of measurement are often confused, even by people who really should know better(1). In simple terms, energy density is the amount of energy that can be stored in a given volume, whereas specific energy is the amount of energy that can be stored in a given mass. The S.I. unit for the former is joules per cubic metre and for the latter is joules per kilogramme. In the context of electric vehicles, the energy component is more usefully measured in kilowatt-hours, since the joule is a very small unit of energy(2).

Petrol has a specific energy(3) of around 12.5kWh/kg. Diesel is slightly lower at around 11.5kWh/kg. These numbers might appear meaningless in isolation, but compare them with the specific energy of a traditional lead-acid battery, which is a tiny 0.04kWh/kg and you can Continue reading “E1 before i3”

Swedish Iron (Part Three)

Concluding the story of Volvo’s long-running and successful 100/200 series.

Image: media.volvocars.com

After eight years and 1.25 million sales, the Volvo 100 series was heavily re-engineered and restyled to produce its successor. The budget for the research, development and updated production facilities for the new model was a relatively modest £60 million. The 200 series was launched in the autumn of 1974.

It retained the body of the 100 series from the A-pillar rearwards but was given a completely new front-end, inspired by the 1972 Volvo Experimental Safety Car. This was designed to improve passenger safety in a frontal collision and added a substantial 172mm (6¾”) to the overall length(1), which was now 4,823mm (189¾”) for the saloon and 4,844 mm (190¾”) for the estate. Unfortunately, the ‘shovel-nosed’ new front-end, again designed by Jan Wilsgaard, looked rather ungainly, and it unbalanced the proportions of the saloon(2) somewhat. Continue reading “Swedish Iron (Part Three)”

The Circus is Leaving Town

Farewell Fiesta.

Image: ar.motor1.com

When Ford began work on what would become the Bobcat programme in 1969, the small car market had not wholly coalesced around a single format. Even amid the developed nations of Europe, there was no real clarity, although there were vehicles in development, not least in France and Italy which would before long help change that.

The previous year, Ford of Europe had introduced the conventional rear-wheel-drive Escort as its entry level offering, a car which built upon the success of the UK-developed Anglia, offering similar virtues in a more updated, slightly larger, more refined package. However, apart from one or two high-tax markets, the Escort had moved above the Anglia’s one-litre entry point.

Escort’s (slight) shift upmarket was a wholly logical strategic decision at the time, one entirely in keeping with the blue oval’s growth plans. Customers were more affluent and had become more discerning and anyway, Ford did not Continue reading “The Circus is Leaving Town”

The Man Machine

Pressing concerns.

Image: Acharts.com

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

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

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

Swedish Iron (Part Two)

Continuing the story of Volvo’s long-running 100/200 series.

Image: Veikl

In July 1968, Volvo unveiled its new range-topping 164 saloon, based on the 144. As the model designation implies, the 164 featured a six-cylinder engine, making it the first Volvo for twenty years so powered. The new B30 engine was simply an six-cylinder version of the B20 inline-four and shared many common parts. It had a capacity of 2,979cc and, fitted with twin Zenith-Stromberg carburettors, it produced maximum power of 145bhp (108kW).

The engine was mated to a four-speed manual gearbox or three-speed Borg-Warner automatic transmission. An overdrive, which operated on top gear only, was an option with the manual gearbox. From the A-pillar rearwards, the 164’s body was identical to that of the 144. However, the longer engine required a 96mm (3¾”) extension in the wheelbase to 2,700mm (106¼”) while the overall length grew by 63mm (2½”) to 4,651mm (183”).

Volvo took the opportunity to Continue reading “Swedish Iron (Part Two)”

Swedish Iron (Part One)

Remembering Volvo’s long-running and highly successful 100/200 series.

Image: autoevolution.com

One of the near-constants of the automotive industry is the model replacement cycle. It typically works like this: a new model is introduced, given a facelift (for better or worse) after, say, four years, then is replaced by an all-new model after a further four years. Of course, ‘all-new’ is a term used pretty casually by automakers. Often, beneath the shiny new bodywork, many carry-over parts will be found.

A number of factors conspire to enforce this cycle. Ever tighter active and passive safety standards and regulations need to be incorporated. Likewise, developments in technology, both for the vehicle itself and the machinery used to build it, will, in the best of circumstances, allow the redesigned vehicle to Continue reading “Swedish Iron (Part One)”

Show and Tell (Part Five)

Look and you shall find.

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

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

Geneva 1988:

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

Wrong Number

The story of an Asian doppelganger coming to grief.

Image: soeyonogaleri.com

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

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

Sierra: brave or foolish?

Image: autoevolution

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

Breakthrough (Part Two)

Concluding the story of the seminal BMW E30-generation 3 Series.

Image: engineswapdepot.com

Sales of the new 3 Series, initially available in two-door saloon form only, started briskly around the end of 1982. Renowned automotive journalist Leonard (LJK) Setright drove the new 3 Series for the first time and reported his findings in the January 1983 issue of Car Magazine. Whilst largely agreeing with Georg Kacher’s assessment of the car, published in the previous month’s issue of the magazine, he took a more nuanced view of the handling issue.

Setright acknowledged that a base 318 fitted with the ZF three-speed auto was likely to Continue reading “Breakthrough (Part Two)”

Breakthrough (Part One)

Forty years ago, BMW launched a car that would help to propel the company into the automotive stratosphere.

Image: autoevolution.com

Automotive historians often identify two models as seminal in the history of the storied Bavarian automaker. The first is the BMW 700, a modest car that quite literally saved the company from bankruptcy after it plunged to a huge DM 15 million loss in 1959, mainly thanks to its misadventure with the beautiful but financially ruinous 507 roadster.

Launched in the same year, the 700 was a small rear-engined model available in two-door saloon, coupé and convertible variants. Styled by Giovanni Michelotti, it was an attractive and contemporary looking car that was well received and sold strongly from the off, bringing desperately needed income and stability to the company. The 700’s success encouraged the Quandt family to Continue reading “Breakthrough (Part One)”

Forty Two Years Apart

We carry out our own Giant Test: Car 1978 versus Car 2020. 

Image: supercarnostalgia

‘What’s best’ arguments rage year on year. Be it a question of professional drivers, iterations of nunelfer, or which brand of cigarette used to be advertised, anything displaying sufficient longevity can be channelled into column inches. Today our unyielding gaze is on the rear view mirror that two issues of Car magazine provide. 

For the princely sum of ten pence, the January 1978 issue was purchased at a pre-pandemic local village show. Atop a pile in an unkempt cardboard box of what turned out to be the sole vein of automotive lore (the remainder a house/home/cooking combination) the cover of a Lamborghini Countach surrounded by young boys had me reaching for a silver coin. Even the admirably reconditioned H-van selling coffee alongside waited its turn being viewed – two score years car journalism more heady than an espresso served from a vehicle probably as old.

Fast forward to September 2020. A non-scheduled fuel stop saw me stump up the courage to Continue reading “Forty Two Years Apart”

A Niche Too Far?

Sometimes it pays to be brave. Sometimes. 

Image: motoimg

Editor’s note: A version of this piece was first published on 6 January 2014.

As the new Millennium approached, motor manufacturers, having established that engineering integrity would only take them so far in the quest for market leadership, would increasingly rely upon the spreadsheets and focus groups of their product planning departments. The key differentiator would henceforth be defined by one word: Segmentation. Departments sprang up in demographically significant hotspots such as Miami, London and Southern California, all tasked with seeking the elusive new market niche that enable them to Continue reading “A Niche Too Far?”

From the Neckar to the Nile and the Rio Negro

An NSU with Royal aspirations, and its first and only station wagon that came as far as an audition with NSU management in Neckarsulm.

Image via Pinterest/ Vaderetro.com.ar

The Ramses brand, named after the ancient Egyptian dynasty of kings was founded in 1958 by the Egypt Light Transportation Manufacturing Company (ELTRAMCO), in collaboration with the Egyptian government, NSU and Carrozzeria Bertone. Later, Vignale would also do some work for the Egyptian firm. Because Egypt did not have any experience in building cars, the German firm’s role was to Continue reading “From the Neckar to the Nile and the Rio Negro”

The Rocket Men Will See You Safe (In But Three Weeks)

Prepare for some exceptional acronyms 

No Skodas were harmed while writing this article. (Okay, that’s not strictly true…) Image: Skoda-storyboard.com

The German and Swedish car manufacturers have long tested the safety of their products, with even non-car enthusiasts applying the safe label to the solidity of a Mercedes or Volvo. But hidden behind the Iron Curtain fifty years ago, Škoda was also to participate in regular crash testing with an independent team bringing such action to light.

The ÚVMV (Ústav pro vŷzkum motorovŷch vozidel), the Czechoslovak Motor Vehicle Research Institute, were tasked with providing coherent and central research for engineering companies, not solely car manufacturers. Under leadership from ČAZ (Československých automobilových závodů), or Czechoslovak Auto Works General Division, the ÚVMV beginnings can be found at the end of the Second World War.

Soon after, a directive was procured to Continue reading “The Rocket Men Will See You Safe (In But Three Weeks)”

Try A-Coke-Ah (Part Two)

Iacocca – the Chrysler years.

Image: Time

Reeling from his part-expected firing by Henry Ford, Iacocca was almost immediately offered roles in companies across the globe. One being as a global consultant for Renault, which he turned down, citing a desire for a more hands on role. He also envisaged what he termed Global Motors, a collaboration between Chrysler’s engineering prowess, Volkswagen’s scale and dealer saturation, along with Mitsubishi’s technologies.

Iacocca even had finance plans in hand and seemed openly confident of attracting, if not these car manufacturers, then others such as Honda, Fiat, Nissan or Renault to create a global car superpower to Continue reading “Try A-Coke-Ah (Part Two)”

The Cost of Complacency

An admirable philosophy that ultimately proved to be unsustainable.

Brochure images: the author

Unwillingness to compromise in any way on craftsmanship and quality may be a noble pursuit but, in a highly competitive business, it can ultimately prove to be one’s undoing. Founded in 1908, the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company produced automobiles that were unequivocally aimed at those of elevated social status and discriminating taste. Imposing in size and, in some cases, larger than life(1), they found favour amongst the chauffeur-driven elite to make a suitably impressive entrance at high society social functions.

When the highest authority in the United States commissioned the first official car for the White House in 1909, it seemed only natural that Pierce-Arrow should be chosen to Continue reading “The Cost of Complacency”

Try A-Coke-Ah (Part One)

Lee Iacocca – The Ford Years

Image: Ford Motor Company

Searching for a horse’s mouth account of that pioneering purveyor of horseless carriages, a recent read was the well known autobiography of the irrepressible, late and lamented Lido Anthony (Lee) Iacocca. (1924-2019) With the internet nowadays a deep-mine of information, such a move maybe described as unnecessary, but to this author at least, that misses the point.

For those of you who seek the inner nuances concerning his fathering of the Mustang, therein lies a smattering – just eighteen pages given over to that mother of all car launches, but since other aspects of his career overwhelmed such matters, we ought not Continue reading “Try A-Coke-Ah (Part One)”

Tyger, Tyger Burning Bright

Remembering GM Europe’s pretty but clawless felines.

1994 Opel Tigra. Image: Ultimate Car Guide

Over the past fifty years or so, the B-segment supermini has been a staple of the European automotive landscape, to the extent that it has, so far at least, managed largely to resist the onslaught of the crossover. In the early days, there was some experimentation with the precise mechanical layout, but most automakers quickly settled on what they realised was the optimum in terms of cost and packaging; a transverse four-cylinder engine with an end-on transaxle gearbox and unequal-length driveshafts to the front wheels, MacPherson strut front suspension with a torsion-beam axle at the rear, disc front and drum rear brakes, all wrapped up in a three and/or five-door hatchback body.

Many young people began their driving careers in a supermini, not least because they were so popular with driving schools, then widely available second-hand. They were cheap to buy and, crucially, relatively cheap to insure, even for a novice driver without the benefit of a no-claims discount and with a better than evens chance of having a bump in their first year on the road.

Given the ubiquity of the supermini and the resulting economies of scale for its component set, it is unsurprising that European manufacturers were keen to Continue reading “Tyger, Tyger Burning Bright”

Maserati for the Masses (Part Three)

Concluding the story of the Biturbo and the models developed from it.

Image: weilinet

Apart from the coupé, saloon and Spyder variants, the Biturbo’s platform and mechanical package was the basis for an additional five closely related Maserati models. The first of these was the 228, unveiled in December 1984 for launch a year later as a 1986 model. This was a two-door coupé, but was based on the Biturbo saloon’s longer 2,600mm (102½”) wheelbase. The 228 was intended to be a grand touring coupé in the Maserati tradition and featured the first application of the enlarged 2.8-litre V6 twin-turbo engine. Although superficially similar in appearance, it shared no body panels with the Biturbo coupé, being both longer and wider than even the saloon.

The 228 was again designed in-house by Pierangelo Andreani. Overall length was 4,460mm (175½”) and width was 1,865mm (73½”), making it 60mm (2¼”) longer and 135mm (5¼”) wider than the Biturbo Saloon. The Biturbo’s geometric lines had been softened, with a gently upswept lower DLO line and more curvature in the bodysides. Continue reading “Maserati for the Masses (Part Three)”

If All the World Were Paper and All the Sea Were Ink…

What if the Golf wasn’t the average car?

Image: piston.my

Editor’s note: This piece originally dates from 2 May 2014.

It is always useful to consider a counterfactual. For example, by asking what would have happened if the Archduke, Franz Ferdinand had survived his assassination attempt, we ask about how avoidable the first World War was. Another counterfactual might be to ask what if REM had disbanded after their drummer Bill Berry retired? That is to ask what was the importance of Bill Berry to the band. The answer to that second question is easier than the first. REM should Continue reading “If All the World Were Paper and All the Sea Were Ink…”

Danelaw

Lock up your kinfolk. 

Zenvo TS1 GT. Image: Motor Authority

A long time ago on this sceptred isle, hordes of Danes visited the land, leaving behind language and place names, farming principles and legal terminology which (given plenty of time) helped the establishment of parliament. Many years on, the Danes have returned, albeit in far lesser numbers but equally as fierce. Behold Zenvo.

Using the first two and last three letters of his surname, Troels Vollertsen founded the company in 2007. Not that his eponymous cars require more muscle, the badge has that name underlined. Should you Continue reading “Danelaw”

They Came From The East (Riding)

The story of Armstrong Dampers.

Image: isaydingdong

New Year’s Day: Normally a time of headaches, compromised hand/eye co-ordination and the avoidance of anything remotely complicated. Perhaps using a shoe horn to ease into the day, but certainly no haste or sudden movements. Definitely not one for starting a business. But 117 years ago, twenty two year old Fullerton George Gordon Armstrong, who clearly hadn’t indulged in anything intoxicating the night before, did just that. With initial plans to build cars bearing his surname, his venture would eventually lead to a global empire which followed the path of many a British enterprise, with a dash of turmoil thrown in.

Whether aware of the Chinese proverb of the long walk beginning with the first step or not, Gordon had inculcated his younger self with an engineering apprenticeship, twelve months spent at sea as a marine engineer, chief mechanic, then proprietor at a larger, land-based garage. His opening gambit in the auto business would take place in a small rented workshop in Beverley, East Yorkshire, entitled The East Riding Garage & Engineering Works. On Whit Monday 1912, competing with his own 8hp car, Armstrong won both Scarborough speed trials and hill climb on the same day, but had to Continue reading “They Came From The East (Riding)”

The Ant and the Ox

Its makers openly cited the Africar as an inspiration for the Ox, but why not the Hormiga?

Images: autocosmos.com and oxgvt.com

The Ox, the Africar and the Hormiga were specifically conceived to help countries in the developing world with a poor quality road infrastructure achieve and hopefully reap the benefits of improved mobility at the lowest possible cost. It may come as a surprise to some (as it was to your author when he discovered the fact) to realise that the nearest Third World country to the UK is the Republic of Ireland(1) but none of these three vehicles has likely ever been driven on or off the Irish road network.

Philanthropist, former toy manufacturer and banker Sir Torquil Norman came up with the basic idea of the Ox and, together with Gordon Murray(2), developed the concept into fully functional prototypes under the GVT (Global Vehicle Trust) banner. Continue reading “The Ant and the Ox”

Luxury and Genius

Luxgen: Made in Taiwan. 

Image: cartype

Taiwan may not be your first port of call as regards car manufacturing, but this relatively small island in close proximity to China has been producing motor parts for many years. Alongside this essential line of work, several factories are involved with car production, usually under license from GM, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Mitsubishi and Honda.

Yulon is a sixty-year established Taiwanese vehicle manufacturer and importer who branched out in 2009 to create the Luxgen Motor Company Limited. Combining the words Luxury and Genius with their Think Ahead motto, the new carmaker accrued a gamut of technologies from long standing partners such as Aisin (transmissions), Delphi (steering), LMS (NVH suppression), Magna for suspension along with Prodrive for the dynamic set up.

Their first vehicle was a seven-seater MPV, effortlessly named the Luxgen 7. Based upon the 2009 Renault Espace, the chrome-winged nose and cascading grille lent the DRG a somewhat sit up and beg stance. A 2.2-litre diesel motor powered the front (or four-wheel) drive 4.8 metre long car. Co-developed with the HTC smartphone company, the car’s Think+ system incorporated 23 ECUs which controlled the myriad of sensors and eight cameras through a Windows operating system. Home sales encouraged Luxgen to Continue reading “Luxury and Genius”

Maserati for the Masses (Part One)

DTW marks the fortieth anniversary of the Biturbo, a car that sired a range of more affordable Maserati models.

Image: maserati.com

As seems befitting for an Italian company manufacturing sports cars, grand touring coupés and luxury saloons, Maserati S.p.A. has had a colourful and occasionally tumultuous history since its establishment in 1914. One brief period of relative calm began with the company’s takeover by Citroën in 1968. The deal was predicated on a joint-venture project whereby Maserati would design and build a new V6 engine for Citroën’s forthcoming flagship, the SM. Financed by French investment, Maserati introduced a new range of models, notably the 1971 V8-engined Bora, the company’s first mid-engined supercar, its smaller brother, the 1972 V6 Merak, and the stillborn SM-based 1974 Quattroporte II saloon.

Unfortunately, the Middle-East Oil Crisis of 1973 caused a collapse in demand for the sort of cars in which Maserati specialised. Citroën, struggling with its own mounting losses, put Maserati into receivership in May 1975. Political pressure to Continue reading “Maserati for the Masses (Part One)”

Ordinary Joe in a Sharp Suit

Remembering Ford’s blue-collar big saloons of the early 1960s.

Image: classiccarsunder80.blogspot.com

If such a thing is possible, then its fair to say that America had a good Second World War. Provoked into action by the surprise Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour on 7th December 1941 which caused the death of over 2,400 service personnel and civilians, America mobilised its vast industrial resources to produce military vehicles, ships, aircraft and armaments. Unemployment was virtually eliminated and the economy boomed during the war years.

When the war ended, Europe was bankrupt and its infrastructure shattered. Both winners and losers suffered equally from the privations of the years that followed. For many, life was little better than it had been during the war as the long struggle to Continue reading “Ordinary Joe in a Sharp Suit”

An Abundance of Caution

Toyota’s switch to front-wheel-drive began very tentatively in 1978.

Image: iheartjapanesecars.blogspot.com

The Toyota Motor Corporation vies with Volkswagen Group as the world’s largest manufacturer of motor vehicles. Global sales in 2021 were just shy of 10.5 million vehicles, earning revenues of approximately US $250Bn. The underlying philosophy that has taken Toyota to this dominant position has been one of cautious, iterative product development over decades, always giving the customer exactly what they expect from the company; finely engineered and meticulously constructed vehicles that deliver a long and reliable service life.

As the automotive industry has evolved, Toyota has tended to demonstrate an abundance of caution, not wishing to Continue reading “An Abundance of Caution”

X-Ray

Examining the Skeleton of the modern motor car.

Volvo S90 body in white. Image: Volvo.media.com.

Call me a Luddite, hurl vitriol to my face, shake your head in disbelief, but one thing cannot be denied. Since strolling onto this site as a wet behind the ears enthusiast, the act of reading, researching and writing about cars has improved my level of knowledge to that of a rounded enthusiast. Few can ever learn everything, but the journey is often more interesting than the destination. And as the saying goes, if beauty is only skin deep, here, the inner beauty of the car is allowed, encouraged even, to shrine through. 

Formula One was something of a catalyst, showing the way with their tyre temperature thermal cameras, often making for more excitement than the race itself. Witnessing those temperatures rise and fall drew me like seagulls to tractor’s rear amid a freshly ploughed field, dazzled as those pale blues and burning reds danced a Celsius Cabriole, if you will.

Obviously we see but the tyre, only the sensors (and cameras) can permit such internal vision. Having these secrets revealed has made me Continue reading “X-Ray”

Avida Dollars

Of Dali’s car, peppermills and ice cubes.

Image: wikiart.org

Filing the coffers is the name of the automotive game, be it through finance incentives, software investment or the plain shifting of tin. Of course, entrepreneurial spirit lies strong within the field – new avenues to pursue, lucrative boulevards to not only build but furnish, to the delights of old and potential customers alike. These can take many forms, especially when one combines celebrity and the historical record.

When one is a self-described (and wealthy) genius, allowances can curve toward the over exaggerated. Take the moustached dreamscape decorator, Salvador Dali. A marketers dream, then as now, the artist never drove a car, yet became absorbed by the American luxury only Cadillac could deliver.

Not obsessed with the motorcar per-se, for Dali, the looks of the car either dismayed or delighted – the technicalities were of no concern. Having had a great deal of success with the de Luxe, General Motors, on asking for Dali’s input, received his request to Continue reading “Avida Dollars”

A Gilded Cage?

Is Land Rover overawed by its own success?

Spot the imposter. Images: Land Rover Media.

Range Rover’s success over the past two decades in establishing itself as the pre-eminent manufacturer of luxury SUVs is truly remarkable, particularly when one considers JLR’s chequered and occasionally traumatic ownership history. British Leyland, BMW and Ford all attempted to impose their plans on the company, with decidedly mixed results. It was only in 2008, when JLR was acquired by Tata Motors, a subsidiary of the giant Indian industrial conglomerate, Tata Group, that the company finally enjoyed both the financial stability and management autonomy to Continue reading “A Gilded Cage?”

Independent Diptych (Part One)

Clever innovation from the smaller American automakers.

Image: the author

With pockets much less deep than those of the US ‘Big Three’ automakers, independent American manufacturers needed to be clever and creative to come up with new cars in response to an expanding market as the 1960s dawned. Studebaker’s solution was to use the mid-section of its existing full-size sedan that dated back to 1953 as a base, while American Motors resurrected a model, albeit with several updates applied to it, that it had discontinued years earlier.

One notable advantage of this forced strategy was that it enabled both companies to Continue reading “Independent Diptych (Part One)”

Folie Française

An Anglo-French automotive curiosity remembered.

Image: ranwhenparked.net

Over the past fifty years, the global automotive industry has witnessed an ongoing consolidation to the extent that it is now largely under the control of a handful of major players(1). The reasons for this are all economic: the costs associated with the design and manufacture of a new motor vehicle are now simply enormous, given the raft of fitness for purpose, safety and environmental regulations and legislation with which any new model must comply. Moreover, the product liability implications of putting into the hands of the public a machine that could be potentially deadly to themselves and others are truly terrifying. Only a lunatic and/or a genius(2) would now Continue reading “Folie Française”

Feeling Like a Spare Part

You find us today in pieces and parts.

Image: tradekey

I bid you dear reader to recall the chastisement you once received from your parents, irate at the bomb site you’d made of the room as you built that model car, tank or plane. This usually plastic model kit required careful assembly, with precision and adjustments, where necessary. That missing, vital piece which caused untold distress, the carelessly applied glue which resulted in delays and rectification – the admiring glances over coming months of a job well done.

Assembling a modern motor vehicle is in essence little different to the description above. Components, sub-assemblies, fasteners, grommets; any typical car is made up of hundreds if not thousands of the things. The assembly plant merely has to Continue reading “Feeling Like a Spare Part”

Modern Family [Part Four]

Taking on the world

Image: quattroruote

A true test of any successful product design is whether its popularity can be replicated outside of its country of origin, where tastes, loyalties and latent patriotism, for instance, tend to count for less. The immediate success of BMC’s 1100 within the home market was both justified and understandable, but not only would it prove popular elsewhere, it could be argued that ADO 16 would become as close to a world car that the organisation would create.

Sold in almost every continent, and assembled in fourteen distinct countries[1], the 1100/1300 it seems made friends everywhere, with perhaps one exception – a former British colony which would prove impervious to its charms. North America had already proven a difficult nut for BMC to crack throughout the 1950s, with efforts to Continue reading “Modern Family [Part Four]”

Keeping it Real

Musings on the US automotive landscape.

Image: the author

I am writing this on our flight home from Chicago after spending ten most enjoyable days exploring the city and surrounding areas. Chicago is one of the great American cities and, with so much to see and experience, it is well worth a visit. Over the past thirty-something years, I have had the opportunity to travel to the US many times for both business and pleasure. One of my abiding fascinations is the country’s automotive landscape and how it has evolved over these decades.

When I first arrived on those shores in the late 1980s, the US car market was still dramatically different to its European equivalent, thrillingly so for a car-obsessive like me. Despite the downsizing precipitated by the 1973 fuel crisis, there were still plenty of US-manufactured ‘land yachts’ traversing the streets of the big cities and the country’s broad highways. American cars retained their highly distinctive style amongst a plethora of different marques, each with its own signature design features. Continue reading “Keeping it Real”

Boxing Clever (Part Two)

Concluding the story of the 1982 Citroën BX.

Image: motorpassion.com

Following a successful launch, the BX sold strongly, although there were some early build quality issues that were overcome during the first year of production. A year after launch, the BX range was augmented with the addition of a Break estate version. Production of the estate was outsourced to the French coachbuilding firm Heuliez.

Unusually, the estate retained the hatchback version’s rear passenger doors. This was problematic in that the hatch featured a roofline that fell noticeably towards the rear of the car, and the rear door window frames followed suit. However, in order to maximise load capacity, the estate, although only a little taller overall, was instead given a horizontal roofline. The solution was slightly makeshift: the estate’s additional rear side windows were mounted higher than the rear door windows, with long horizontal air vents below them. The mismatch was partly disguised by satin black trim and paint surrounding the DLO on all but the base versions, where it was readily apparent. Continue reading “Boxing Clever (Part Two)”

Boxing Clever (Part One)

Confounding the cynics, the 1982 BX was a proper Citroën.

Image: honestjohn.co.uk

The 1976 takeover(1) of the bankrupt Citroën company by Peugeot S.A. caused consternation amongst diehard fans of the products of the Quai de Javel. Since the days of the Traction Avant, Citroën had been fêted as a manufacturer of technically advanced and highly innovative cars, noted in particular for the superlative ride quality delivered by their unique Hydropneumatic suspension system. Would Peugeot, noted for its technical conservatism and financial rectitude, be respectful of this tradition, or discard it in favour of cars that were Citroën in name only?

The first(2) post-takeover all-new Citroën was the 1978 Visa. While heavily based on the Puegeot 104, the Visa at least looked sufficiently different(3) and had enough quirky details to be accepted as a proper Citroën in the mould of cars such as the Ami and Dyane. However, Citroën’s small cars were historically relatively simple in technical terms, so the bigger test of Peugeot’s commitment was yet to Continue reading “Boxing Clever (Part One)”

Bold and Pure

The lesser-spotted 2022 Astra

Image: Autocar

The evergreen Astra: around these environs, you might be hard pressed to believe that seasons five, six and, to a lesser degree, seven have ceased production at all. Examples of each of these generations still ply their trade, from the local builder’s grubby estate car or faithful family holdall, to the noisome kerbside cruisers beloved of maxed-up youth. These and other variants remain daily sightings, their longevity a credit to the brand.

But wherefore the latest incarnation? Astra achter was revealed to this fair land during the Summer of 2021, becoming available to download[1] (sorry), purchase from November, yet your North Western correspondent has yet to Continue reading “Bold and Pure”

A Diamond in the Dust

The 2005 Chrysler 300 was as good as it got for DaimlerChrysler.

Image: parkers.co.uk

The 1998 merger of Daimler-Benz and Chrysler Corporation was the brainchild of Jürgen Schrempp, Daimler’s ambitious CEO. Schrempp was on a mission to drive up the profitability and shareholder value of the group, following the disastrous early-1990s acquisitions spree of his predecessor, Edzard Reuter. Reuter had tried to turn Daimler into a broad-based global technology conglomerate, but instead oversaw a collapse in profits and share price that precipitated his sacking in 1995.

Schrempp believed that there was enormous untapped potential in Daimler’s automotive division, Mercedes-Benz. He wanted to leverage this to achieve a step-change in sales and market share for the traditionally conservative and upmarket automaker. This could (and indeed would) be achieved organically by extending the company’s traditional range downwards into mainstream territory, but this would take time and Schrempp was a man in a hurry, driven at least as much by quarterly financial reports as long-term strategy. Continue reading “A Diamond in the Dust”

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

Fiat’s Soviet project faces politically-charged setbacks.

The first VAZ 2101. Image: vadim/Wikimedia Commons

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

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

Endgame

The fate of the Punto epitomised FIAT’s decline into irrelevance.

Image: parkers.co.uk

For the millennials amongst DTW’s readership, it must be barely conceivable that FIAT was once the largest manufacturer of passenger cars in Europe, an automotive powerhouse with a full range that stretched from the diminutive 126 runabout to the luxury 130 saloon, between which extremes were a multiplicity of saloon, estate, hatchback, coupé and convertible models. FIAT’s market presence was strongest at the smaller end of this spectrum and its 127 model of 1971 was the definitive modern supermini, or at least it became so when, a year after launch, it received the hatchback it was so clearly destined to have.

All the elements were there: a transverse engine with end-on gearbox driving the front wheels, making for a compact powertrain that allowed passenger space to be maximised. At around 3.6 metres in length, it was about half a metre longer than Alec Issigonis’s packaging marvel, the original 1959 Mini, but it put that extra length to good use, providing more than tolerable accommodation for four adults to Continue reading “Endgame”

Billeted By The Waterfall

Buick tantalises, but disappoints.

2013 Buick Riviera Concept. Image: topspeed.com

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

Don’t Try This at Home…or Abroad

Testing brand equity to destruction.

2008 VW Routan. Image: autonews.com

For almost half a century, Volkswagen has occupied a sweet spot in the global automotive market. It might be described as semi-premium, but that prosaic term hardly does justice to its achievement in developing and sustaining an image amongst the car buying public that places the marque consistently half a step higher than its mainstream competitors.

The brand equity, as marketing types would say, is of enormous value to the company. It has allowed Volkswagen to get away with producing some distinctly sub-standard products(1), ignore often middling scores in reliability and customer satisfaction surveys, and even recover relatively unscathed, in reputational if not financial terms, from the Dieselgate scandal that might have been an existential threat to other, less well regarded marques.

Occasionally, however, Volkswagen has pushed its luck too far and the market has pushed back hard. One such event was its attempt to Continue reading “Don’t Try This at Home…or Abroad”

Life in Monochrome

Understanding the 1985 Fiat Croma.

Image: Automoto.it

Platform sharing, the practice of developing superficially unique vehicles for different marques within an automotive group based on a common architecture, is so widespread today, so obviously logical and cost-effective, that to do otherwise would seem perverse. Back in October 1978, however, a ground-breaking deal was signed between Fiat-owned Lancia and Saab to develop a common platform upon which each maker would build its own large D-segment contender. Lancia chief Sergio Camuffo led the programme from the Italian side. The platform would be called the Type Four and feature a transverse-engined front-wheel-drive layout. Alfa Romeo would later(1) sign up to become a partner in the project.

The attraction of the deal to Continue reading “Life in Monochrome”

Shift Happens

A tale of ambition and overreach.

Image: Monamicitroen.blog

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

Salvador Dalì

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

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

Excellent, but still not Good Enough

Fine cars, but victims of badge snobbery?

Image: wallpaperup.com

Half a century ago, there was still a place in the European car market for large saloons from mainstream automakers. These typically offered excellent value for money by being more spacious and better equipped than similarly priced cars from what are now referred to as premium marques. BMW and Mercedes-Benz(1) in particular facilitated their would-be competitors by offering entry-level specifications that included all the features and comforts of a mediaeval prison cell. Air-conditioning, alloy wheels and even a radio were all expensive options. What you got was finely engineered, certainly, but there was little or nothing to Continue reading “Excellent, but still not Good Enough”

Simplify, Then Add Lightness

Trying to understand the Lotus Eletre.

Front elevation. Can you guess what it is yet? Image: Lotus Cars Media

Even I have come to accept that sports car marques can barely survive, and certainly not thrive, without having an SUV or crossover in their portfolio. Indeed, it seems that even developing a saloon car is not worth the R&D these days, given the news that Mazda will not be replacing the Mazda6, although its new FR platform, RWD, straight-sixes and all, looks tailor made for that job.

Not that I am trying to Continue reading “Simplify, Then Add Lightness”

Keeping Up Appearances

A tale of two half-sisters.

Opel Rekord D. Image: best-selling carsblog

US multinational corporations are often caricatured as having a heavy-handed We Know Best approach to managing their overseas businesses. In the automotive industry, however, the opposite appears to have been the case, at least historically. Over the course of the twentieth century, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler all built up substantial European operations, either through acquisition or organic growth. Not only did these corporations allow their European businesses to operate with a high degree of autonomy from Detroit, they were also markedly reluctant to Continue reading “Keeping Up Appearances”