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Volksawgen Beetle

How Volkswagen tried and failed to replace the Beetle

Volksawgen BeetleToo much success can stunt the mind. That can apply to the collective mind of a company just as easily as it can a music artist struggling with that difficult second album.

And back in the late ‘60s, Volkswagen was having exactly this kind of problem with its Beetle.

Volksawgen Beetle

Not that this famous car was anywhere near reaching its popularity peak in 1967, when a 30% sales slump in its native Germany prompted VW’s management to take the challenge of replacing it a whole lot more seriously.

Although it hadn’t been ignoring the task entirely. During that same year VW revealed a whole heap of prototypes to a press becoming increasingly critical at the absence of a Beetle replacement. In fact, VW had developed no less than 70 potential successors since 1952, but none had made production and all shared the same basic rear-engine layout.

Some had been under development for as long as five years before being abandoned, others were simply styling mock-ups. And what they all pointed to, apart from the waste of millions of pounds-worth of r&d money, was the lack of a solid idea for replacing a car that by 1967, had been in quantity production for 22 years, having started life before WW2.

Hitler’s people carrier

Great Motoring Disaster VW Beetle replacement

The ‘Strength-through-Joy’ KdF-wagen was commissioned by one Adolf Hitler from Ferdinand Porsche, the Fuhrer keen for the KdF-wagen to become the affordable car of the people. And it actually became that very thing, though not entirely in the way Hitler had envisaged.

A few were produced before and during the conflict, the war-damaged Wolfsburg plant restarted in 1945 by British Army officer and engineer Major Ivan Hirst. In 1948 he handed over the running of the plant to Heinz Nordhoff, an inspirational ex-Opel manager who expanded production and successfully established excellent sales and service networks for VW overseas, most notably the US where for well over a decade, the Beetle became part of the fabric of North American life.

Great Motoring Disasters VW Beetle replacement

In fact, it was not the only car that Wolfsburg was making. Volkswagen Type 1, as the Beetle was officially known, was joined by Volkswagen Type 2 (pictured above) in 1949, this the almost equally famous Transporter van and its Kombi brother.

Great Motoring Disasters VW Beetle replacement

And in 1961 came the Volkswagen 1500 saloon (pictured above). It was still rear-engined and air-cooled, like a Beetle, still a two-door and still largely uninterested in ploughing a straight line on a breezy day. Despite this the 1500 did well, the Fastback and Variant estate versions helping it to sales of over three million between 1961-73.

The Beetle replacement, take one…

Great Motoring Disaster VW Beetle replacement

But the 1500  wasn’t a replacement for the Beetle. Another prototype came close to doing the job in 1960, when project EA97 got to the point where the production machinery to build it was being installed, and the first 100 pilot-build cars had been assembled.

A rear-engined two-door saloon, it was powered by an 1100cc engine and would have competed with the Hillman Imp, Renault 8, Simca 1000, NSU Prinz and Fiat 850, several of these big sellers.

But as author Russell Hayes’ excellent book ‘The Volkswagen Golf Story’ explains, EA97 was reckoned to be too close to the 1500 saloon – they looked pretty similar, besides – and now that VW had bought the Auto Union company, acquiring the Audi 60 saloon in the process, it suddenly had another in-house competitor.

So EA97 was cancelled at the last minute, losing VW yet more millions. But it was making so much money from the Beetle that this mattered a lot less than it would have done for other car companies.

Great Motoring Disasters VW Beetle replacement

Its next attempt came in the gruesome shape of the 1968 Volkswagen 411, another air-cooled rear-engined car, this time with four doors. Its styling was as tortured as the VW management’s efforts to solve their new Beetle problem, this ugly beast living four short years and selling only 266,000 copies in the process.

By now mild desperation was setting in, Nordhoff’s replacement Kurt Lotz arriving to a largely empty new model cupboard, 411 apart, making him particularly eager for some quick-fix solutions.

Making slow progress

Great Motoring Disasters VW Beetle replacement

One of those came with Volkswagen’s acquisition of NSU, makers of the little Prinz and the radical rotary-engined Ro80 executive saloon. Sitting between these two was a yet-to-be launched modern, front-wheel drive saloon. Crisply styled and glassy, it was a vast improvement on the 411, if far from as gaze-freezingly handsome as the futuristic Ro80, whose design legacy can still be seen in the Audi saloons of today.

Nevertheless, an eager Volkswagen took this NSU design over, relabelled it the VW K70 (pictured above) and optimistically built a new factory capable of making it at the rate of 500 per day.

But like many hastily conceived plans in the motor industry, the K70 soon hit problems. It was expensive to build, sharing almost no parts with other cars in the group, expensive to buy for the same reason and rust-prone. That slowed, sales, as did VW’s activities within other parts of its empire.

Great Motoring Disasters VW Beetle replacement

When it bought Audi in the mid ‘60s it was simply to get its hands on another factory in which to build Beetles, because it couldn’t keep up with demand. Audi’s small 60 saloon (pictured above) continued to be made, but product development director Ludwig Kraus was instructed to halt new model development.

Great Motoring Disasters VW Beetle replacement

Instead he disobeyed, developing a new saloon in secret. It was eventually revealed to VW’s management, who got over their shock and annoyance to approve what became the 1969 Audi 100, pictured above. That car was a big hit, and would eventually keep a money-losing VW afloat, but in the meantime it seriously undermined the appeal of the less than stylish K70 that came a year later, giving VW yet another failure.

Replacing the Beetle bugs VW

Great Motoring Disasters VW Beetle replacement

If the K70 was a piece of misfiring opportunism, the EA266 prototype (pictured above) was the company’s main attempt to properly replace the Beetle. In fact, it was developed mostly by Porsche, whose engineers produced a hatchback with a water-cooled four cylinder that lay flat beneath the rear seats, to drive a gearbox and differential behind it.

In effect, this was a mid-engined hatchback, and development again advanced to the point of tooling being ordered. But despite its sporty mid-engined layout and Porsche parentage, EA266 apparently had handling issues, besides continuously perfuming its cabin with oily engine vapours via an access panel beneath a rear seat that was expected to get progressively grubbier as mechanics removed it to service the engine.

Nevertheless, EA266 was part of a major management review of VW’s new model plans in May 1969, along with a new front-wheel drive hatchback from Audi, its four-cylinder engine mounted longitudinally, and a similar prototype from VW itself whose front wheels were propelled by a Beetle engine.

Great Motoring Disaster VW Beetle replacement

It was this car, codenamed EA235, that would eventually lead to the VW Golf that became the Beetle’s real successor. A variation of it, codenamed EA276 (pictured above), can be found in Volkswagen’s museum.

At last: enter the VW Golf!

Great Motoring Disasters VW Beetle replacement

Neither prototype was a beauty, but one of VW boss Lotz’s best decisions during his brief and troubled career at the helm was to instruct Giorgetto Giugiaro’s ItalDesign to style the car that would become the Golf, pictured in launch guise above.

It would be released in 1974, at the end of seven troubled years that had produced one of the ugliest family cars of the ‘60s in the 411, had proved the riskiness of opportunism with the K70 and ultimately, threatened the very existence of VW itself.

Great Motoring Disasters VW Beetle replacement

And that’s without including all the abandoned prototypes built between 1952 and 1967, VW beginning its long and painful quest for a successor when the post-war Beetle was only seven years old.

But the lesson was learnt – many of us can count our lives out in Golfs, VW now building the seventh version of this car since 1974. And this multi-brand group is a long way from being dependent on only one model, the mighty Golf one of a number of big sellers.

Past master: the Beetle returns

Concept One

There is a footnote here. For decades, the original Beetle was moribund. It was still produced in South America for an increasingly diminishing market, but eventually faded away for good in 2003.

Then came the craze for nostalgia, one arguably accelerated by Volkswagen, which showed a ‘modern’ concept version of the original Beetle in 1994, called Concept One. The world swooned. Production for the Californian-designed concept was approved.

1998: the Volkswagen Beetle is back

New Beeetle

The New Beetle was introduced in 1998. Ironically, it was based on the platform of the car that sealed its fate back in the 70s, the Volkswagen Golf, but this did ensure it drove well.

Built in Mexico, it was shamelessly retro, taking the original cues of the Beetle and exaggerating them with cartoon-like emphasis: the separate wings, round headlamps and tail lamps, rounded roofline and chunky running boards.

New Beetle cuts a dash

New Beeetle

The interior was retro-inspired too. This meant packaging was dreadful, with a tiny boot and cramped, rear seats, but few at the time seemed to mind, because it was so bold. It even came with a vase on the dashboard.

New Beeetle

Yes, a vase.

2011: New Beetle take two

New Beeetle

Sales clearly convinced Volkswagen it was worth replacing. An all-new car arrived in 2011, with more of a fastback profile to the roofline and a more sophisticated, more practical interior – but still clearly a Beetle.

As with the original New Beetle, this second retro recreation also came in convertible guise, and was later offered with a tiny 1.2-litre petrol engine – the smallest since the original model ceased production. Luckily, it was turbocharged, so wasn’t quite as lethargic as the 1960s models…

Today: the Beetle’s second coming comes to an end

New Beeetle

But sales of this second remake never quite took off. And, like the original, soon started to go the wrong way. It seemed the world had moved on: a retro Beetle was nice as a passing fad, but didn’t seem to have staying power.

Rumours had thus circulated for years that this model would be the final Beetle – its second coming would come to an end. On September 13 2018, it was confirmed. The beetle will end production in 2019, 21 years after it returned from the great scrapyard in the sky.

Goodbye again, Volkswagen Beetle. It’s been an interesting ride, for sure…

Chrysler Voyager heritage

Great Motoring Disasters: Chrysler

Chrysler Voyager heritage

As the future of Chrysler is revealed in Italy, we look back to our 2015 piece on its last big retrenchment from the UK market…

So, Chrysler is withdrawing from the UK. Not that there’s a lot of withdrawing to be done, the American brand’s armoury having already shrivelled to three models following the Delta’s unnoticed deletion.

That leaves the little Ypsilon supermini, the Grand Voyager and the 300C, which not so long ago was the car that galvanised Chrysler’s UK appeal, many considering its handsome, square-edged look worthy of a ‘mini-Bentley’ epithet. Some even fitted glittery radiator grilles to heighten the illusion.

But the heavily facelifted 300C has failed to rekindle the appeal of the original, leaving its ageing mechanicals exposed to acid comparison. And while plenty of Voyagers, Grand or otherwise, have found berths outside British homes over the years, including one Tony Blair’s, the appeal of the big MPV has long since faded, not least against products of the kind sold by Chrysler’s sister brand Jeep.

Chrysler Fiat

And the Ypsilon? This imaginatively styled hatch pioneered the premium supermini over three decades ago with the flat-tailed Lancia Y10, but there are plenty of other tailgated babies that do plush a lot more effectively than this rough-riding Fiat Panda reskin.

Its prospects over here were not helped by the fact that neither it nor the Delta were Chryslers at all, both being rebadged Lancias launched here well after their less-than-rapturous Italian debuts. Cynical rebrandings don’t often work in car world, and that’s why you rarely see them today.

That said, the market-positioning ambitions of both Chrysler and Lancia do vaguely coincide in that both aim to play the premium game. Until Lancia disappeared from Britain in the early ‘90s that’s where it just about sat, while Chrysler has been attempting to reclaim the moderately upscale territory it occupied 60 years ago.

Which will not be the work of a moment in its homeland, and has no resonance in Europe because the brand was barely here back then. Instead, what Chrysler has been most consistent about during its half century or so of troubled European manoeuvres has been the annexing, hijacking, repurposing and general buggering about with other company’s hardware, of which the lazily relabelled Delta and Ypsilon are only the latest example.

Chrysler: classic badge engineering

If you’re old enough, you may remember the now-abandoned Chrysler pentastar adorning the front wings of machines as disparate as the Hillman Imp, Humber Sceptre, Sunbeam-Lotus and various long-forgotten vans. And if you’re French and of similar age you’ll recall that same badge appearing on the front wings of Simcas, a long extinct brand that in the early ‘70s made the best-selling car in Europe in the slightly ungainly shape of the Simca 1100, a car that successfully did the Golf’s job seven years before the VW arrived.

Chrysler Horizon

The reason for the pentastar’s occupation of front wing real estate was that Chrysler bought into and eventually owned the British Rootes Group that made Hillmans, Singers, Sunbeams and Humbers, and did the same with France’s Simca. Ambitions to emulate Ford of Europe and GM’s success with Vauxhall and Opel was its mission. Eventually it rebranded the Simcas and Rootes model as Chryslers, the French cars gradually supplanting the British ones because they were better.

That much better, in fact, that the Simca 1307/1308 won the Car of the Year award in 1976, this now-forgotten model known to us as the Chrysler Alpine. That victory was followed by another for 1978, with the Simca/Chrysler Horizon that replaced the Simca 1100.

A version of the Horizon was also sold in the US (and as the Dodge Omni, too) these ranges scoring an impressive three million sales in 10 years on both sides of the Atlantic. Less impressive was the fact that though ostensibly identical, the European and American Horizons shared no more than about two parts, Chrysler completely failing to capitalise on the cost-savings that such scale-economies ought to have generated.

‘Amateur corporate bungling’

It was the kind of amateur corporate bungling that would get Chrysler into plenty more trouble in the decades to come. But it did manage to offload its ramshackle European operations on Peugeot in 1978, which bought them for reasons that it was hard to fathom, despite the acquisition costing a nominal dollar. All Chryslers were renamed Talbots, and within a decade Peugeot had steered Talbot to its death.

But the Chrysler name returned to the UK in the 1990s, this time on 100 percent American cars, a UK importer shrewdly reckoning that it could usefully add a few choice Chryslers to supplement its Jeep line-up. These were selected from a range revitalised after another of this long-lived US brand’s near-death moments.

Chrysler Neon

The Voyager MPV wasn’t a bad alternative to a Ford Galaxy or Renault Espace, and despite being a saloon in a hatch-dominated market, America’s much-trumpeted Neon was engineered for right hand drive and shipped our way too. The trumpetings were mainly about the fact that Chrysler had finally managed to spit out an all-new car, and at a temptingly low price, the Neon making a certain low-rent sense in the US. Its super-low sticker price, surprisingly potent motor and cheeky face were some sort of compensation for the cacophonously chafing cabin plastics and the grim noises emerging from beyond the front bulkhead.

But travel to the UK inflated the Neon’s price towards the preposterous, the British importers cleverly (or cruelly…) speccing the car up with automatic transmission, plastic-look leather and moulded walnut that snagged a surprising number of geriatrics who thought they were getting a rattling good deal.

Dodge Viper

And excitement was added to the range via the familiar rebadging tactic, the victim this time the spectacular AC Cobra reinterpretation that was the V10 Dodge Viper. Not many were sold – it was a bit unsubtle for Britain, its roof possessed with the weatherproofing qualities of a broken window – but it certainly added excitement.

DaimlerChrysler calamity

Chrysler 300C Mk1

And then in 1998 Daimler bought Chrysler, a calamity for most concerned, although this unlikely liaison did yield a few interesting offspring, among the best of them the Chrysler 300C. This was a big car that should have bombed in Britain’s premium-obsessed executive market, but such was the brilliance of its confident, square-shouldered styling that it became gotta-have-it wheels for those of lightly blingish persuasion.

Chrysler PT Cruiser

Less convincing was the PT Cruiser, an American hot-rod-alike-turned mini-MPV that actually sold pretty here despite the minimal relevance of its hot-rod referencing and a cabin that did not reward close inspection.

It was followed by the Crossfire coupe, whose Mercedes SLK innards dulled an interesting design to numbing effect, and the Sebring, a style-free zone that had none of the 300C’s design panache, and when propelled by an obsolete VW diesel was as miserable as life with a pneumatic drill. There was an even more dismal Dodge version, but that’s another sorry story.

Did I mention the Sebring convertible? Chrysler UK didn’t, its publicists concluding that the best way to off-load these machines was to avoid subjecting its numerous shortfalls to the scrutiny of the press.

Squandered momentum; enter Fiat

The momentum gathered by the 300C’s success was about to be squandered during the ructions of Daimler’s departure from its self-made North American mess, Chrysler’s acquisition by clueless money-shufflers Cerberus, the 2008 recession and the company’s lifesaving takeover by Fiat. On the other side of the Atlantic that critic-defying, life-saving manoeuvre by Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne has ended up saving Fiat itself, Chrysler and Jeep in particular enjoying prosperous new times at home.

But Marchionne’s often cavalier approach to product development is how Chrysler’s UK range has ended up half-filled with ageing Lancias, this terminally wounded, once famous brand retreating to Italy with a Chrysler in its line-up called Voyager. There was a Thema-badged 300C in the range too, but that has already died.

Chrysler 200

Though Chrysler isn’t doing badly in the US with its all-new 200 (pictured above), Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has concluded that rebadging Chryslers as Lancias isn’t going to work in Europe, making the case for selling right-hand drive Chryslers here a slender one at best.

Instead the future is Jeep-shaped, and Chrysler will once again die a UK death. Given the brand’s pinball trajectory over the decades, I wouldn’t bet against it returning again one day.

Caterham 21

Caterham 21: has the sports car flop now come of age?

Caterham 21You are just buzzing. You’re left leg is hot, your right arm is damp and a hot exhaust has singed your calf as you wriggle free of a low-roofed cockpit whose door is almost slapping you in the face.

You’ve just driven 150 miles in a Caterham Seven in the rain – and loved every second. But you body is relieved to be releasing itself from the close grip of the Seven’s cabin, your ears are humming from the din and part of you wishes that the experience had been just a little more comfortable.

Wouldn’t it be great, you find yourself thinking, if you could have all the thrills of a Seven in a car with a sensibly scaled cockpit that didn’t roar like a North Sea gale?

And that very wouldn’t-it-be-great idea was exactly the one that Caterham had in the early 1990s.

Caterham’s modern classic Seven

Caterham 21

The plan was to rebody the Seven. Or more accurately, perhaps, to provide it with a body beyond the vintage wings, simple clam of a bonnet, that famous nose-cone and a big tray for a pair of seats and a spare wheel mounting.

Instead, the Seven’s tubular chassis would get enveloping bodywork that looked more sportscar-sensuous and pushed through the air with a load less blustery commotion.

Why 21? Not because Caterham reckoned it was three times the car that the Seven was, but because it had been making the Seven for 21 years, this car a celebration of the fact.

It must have been quite a challenge to extract a flowing shape from the Seven’s proportions, the closeness of the occupants’ rear ends to the back axle threatening to force the old-school proportions of a ‘50s British sportscar on this new Caterham.

And that’s what it got, although your eye was drawn away from this by the shapely tail and its Ford Mondeo lamp clusters, the long bonnet and a pair of air extractors whose exit ramps occupied much of the 21’s lower body.

Caterham 21

The result was a car that looked a bit Brit sportscar traditional and unusually narrow, despite adding three inches to the front track to provide slightly wider footwells. But it was neat and not unattractive.

The 21 looked more appealing inside, where a stylish twin binnacle facia replaced the Seven’s simple flat panel. The centre of the dash cascade into a narrow centre console and carried a strikingly stacked trio of dials, while the outer edges of the dashboard were bodycolour, as was much of the surface of the inner doors, making this cabin look a whole lot more contemporary. It was also very well finished.

The absence of window winders seemed contemporary too, the 21 having electric window lifts, you’d be thinking. Except that it didn’t, their opening a task for the driver, who would need to demount the glass and stow it in the boot.

Still it was an arrangement that made the 21 lighter, its 665kg generating an exciting 205bhp per tonne when the car was fitted with the 136bhp 1.8 version of Rover’s all-alloy K Series. It was 110kg more than a Seven, but still 60kg less than a Lotus Elise.

Fear the Lotus Elise

Ford Fiesta, Focus and Transit

Ah, the Elise. There was brief honeymoon for the 21 when the Lotus wasn’t present. The Caterham was unveiled in autumn 1994 with an alloy body, and appeared a year after that at the 1995 Earls Court show with its glassfibre production shell.

But not many months later the Elise went on sale and with the mid-engined layout that Caterham had originally considered, before concluding that this was too much of a leap for the tiny firm to take on.

MGF

The Lotus was also joined by the MGF, a milder-mannered sportster but an able one nevertheless, the appearance of these two alongside the Mazda MX-5 providing the 21 with formidable opposition. Those after a more extreme experience also had the Renault Sport Spider to choose from.

Still, the Caterham delivered formidable performance, its low weight allowing the 1.8 Supersport to burst to 60mph in 5.8 and onto a 131mph maximum that was far higher than most Seven’s could manage.

The more powerful 1.8 – there was a 1.6 version too – also got you Caterham’s excellent six-speed gearbox. All of which added up to a riot of a drive, if not quite as much rebellion as you’d enjoy aboard a Seven. The 21’s steering lost a little of the Seven’s blade-sharp edge, and it was heavier too.

‘Simmering vegetable’

Caterham 21

That would have mattered less if the 21 had delivered the extra civility implied by its bodywork. True, the ride was a little smoother, but you were still packed charter-flight tight into the Caterham’s cockpit, its mechanicals made as much noise as an all-night party and if you left the roof on and the windows up, you’d boil up like a simmering vegetable.

You needed the agility of a squirrel to get beneath the hood and bridge a bicycle lane’s width of sill before tumbling into your seat. In other words, several of the supposed advantages of a redesigned body failed to materialise.

Caterham 21

And the 21 was inevitably more expensive, taking it straight into enemy territory. While the ultra-modern Elise 1.8 cost £19,950, the 1.6 litre Caterham 21 was £21,995, and an ambitious £25,495 as a 1.8 Supersport.

An MGF 1.8i, meanwhile, was £17,440 and a base 1.6 Caterham Seven £17,850. It doesn’t take a marketing analyst to deduce that the 21 was going to sit somewhere between a hard and desperate sell, as proven by an eventual sales tally of 48 between the point of its announcement in 1994 and the end of production in 2000.

The 21 was a good effort for such a small company, but not quite good enough and unlucky to face a light barrage of fresh sportscar competition, ironically from Lotus, the source of its bread-and-butter Seven.

These days the 21 is almost entirely forgotten, but it makes a more convincing classic buy than it ever did as a new car. Provided you can actually find one for sale, that is.

Rover 75

Sabotaged! Why the Rover 75 was a disaster that killed the company

Rover 75This is a car whose career was cut short by talk. Talk that not only sabotaged one of the best cars that Rover ever made, but brought down the company, too.

10 British classic cars: which will be voted the best?

But a few hours before that poisonous outburst, things were looking quite good for Rover. It had just unveiled the 75 at the Birmingham Motor Show where Jaguar had just revealed its S-Type, and it was gradually dawning on the attending press that one of these cars was rather more convincing than the other. And it wasn’t the Jaguar.

The S-Type’s retro references to the 1960s S-Type look forced to the point of awkwardness, and its cabin was almost bereft of the kind of beautiful detailing, and quality, that makes a Jag cabin so appealing.

Rover 75

While the 75 was also a car with a wheel or two in the past, it was vastly better proportioned than the Jag, and had a strikingly original wood and leather interior of decidedly superior finish, although that would not be properly obvious until people started spending time with these cars.

Such was Rover’s battered reputation and long history of launching interesting cars that ultimately disappointed, no-one was getting too excited yet. That was despite the fact that this was the first Rover developed under BMW ownership, the German company buying the British one four years earlier in 1994.

Especially as the 75 looked like an obvious descendent of the Rover 600 that had come before it. This Honda Accord-based car was handsome enough, and reliable too, but it would be a while before the positive difference between BMW quality and Honda quality, as harnessed by Rover, shone through.

The Brits take over Birmingham 1998

Rover 75

Both Rover and Jaguar were unveiled on the morning of October 20th, 1998. This was press day at the Birmingham motor show, and the first time that either car had been seen finished and undisguised.

Late on the same afternoon Rover held a press conference expected to provide wider detail about the car. It was scheduled to start at 4.00pm in a room away from the motor show floor itself, and because the car itself had been revealed hours earlier, many journalists did not attend.

They missed a drama far more significant than the unveiling of a new car.

The conference started late, kicking off just before 4.30pm, the delay caused by the late rewriting of BMW Group boss Bernd Pischetreider’s speech.

Pischetsreider wanted to use the opportunity to petition the UK government. First, because the pound’s rise against the euro was crippling the business. In 1997, Rover’s losses had been cut to £91m. In 1998, the year of the 75’s launch, they were rapidly heading towards a stinging and near-unviable £600m.

BMW wanted the government to take action over the currency – Rover was easily the UK’s biggest exporter at the time – and it also wanted the government to contribute £200m towards the huge investment that the German company was about to make at Longbridge for the new Mini and for the smaller Rover R30 project.

Exchange rate issue ‘hugely serious’

BMW, which usually likes to conduct such business in private, was having trouble getting over to the government that the exchange rate issue was hugely serious, and that it needed help to update a plant that had seen no serious investment since 1980, 18 years earlier.

As it was, BMW was now planning to cut jobs and introduce more flexible working practices in an effort to save £150m a year for the next three years. But if it did not get the support, then Longbridge – one of the biggest industrial complexes in the UK, outdated or not – would be wound down.

And that is what Pischetsreider outlined during one of the most bombshell-laden post-conference question-and-answer sessions the UK car industry has ever seen. Criticism of Rover’s productivity, the possibility of Longbridge closing and an apparent admission from BMW that its commitment to the revival of Rover might be wavering, did a fine job of sabotaging the 75’s launch.

Enter The English Patient

Rover 75

It wasn’t so much a shadow as a total eclipse swamping the car’s birth, the following day’s papers full of the threat to its maker’s future. The stories also confirmed what many people within the car industry had known for months – that there was significant conflict between BMW and Rover management, and that there was a sizeable and fast-growing faction within BMW that wanted rid of Rover. ‘The English Patient,’ they disparagingly called it, after the film.

Yet the car itself did not look like the product of an ailing business. Granted a decent development budget, improving facilities at the Gaydon development centre, access to BMW’s considerable engineering resources and a parts bin studded with high-quality, up-to-the minute kit, the R40 development team produced a car to match the quality of Rovers produced in the 1950s and ‘60s.

The 75 had a particularly stiff bodyshell – essential for refinement, suspension effectiveness and crash performance – as well as BMW’s admired multi-link ‘Z’ rear axle and a sophisticated MacPherson strut layout. It was a layout intended to produce the world’s best front-wheel drive chassis.

Rover 75

The engine’s were Rover’s own four and six-cylinder ‘K’ Series – at this point, the issue of the four’s cylinder head gasket design had yet to boil up – and a strong BMW turbodiesel.

Award-winning styling

But the 75 impressed most with its styling. At first, the chrome grille and the body’s curvily understated sculpting looked unexceptional. But the more you looked, the better it got. The way the wings flared over the wheels, the clean-cut flanks, the tasteful deployment of chrome and the unfussy detailing still look good today, and won the 75 awards for its styling at the time.

Inside, it got a little radical. There was the expected wood and leather, but the sculpture of the dashboard, the cream instrument faces, the unusual door trims and the sumptuously upholstered seats produced a particularly inviting cabin, and one of genuinely high quality. The dashboard’s wood was real, and expensive, soft-feel plastics were used almost everywhere that wood, leather, cloth or carpet were not.

Rover 75

Better still, the 75 drove very well, impressive in particular for its ride, comfort and civility. Though its road manners were soft, it handled impressively when pressed. By the end of its first year it had attracted plenty of positive reviews, and 15 international awards. But it had not attracted remotely enough customers.

Sales targets: missed

The effect of Pischetsreider’s tirade was to severely limit 75 sales, the question of Rover’s survival once again in doubt and intensified by an increasingly regular flow of negative stories. BMW and Rover had originally planned to sell 140,000 75s annually – actually an optimistic ambition even taking account of plans to export more cars.

This forecast eventually fell to 100,000 by the time the car was launched six months late – for quality reasons – in June 1999. One year into its career, even that figure looked a distant dream, just under 60,000 cars coming from a Cowley factory that had the capacity for 140,000. Not only did it demand fail to push output to anywhere near that level, but it was not long before the Oxford stopped making 75s altogether.

Rover 75

In spring 2000 BMW announced that was to sell Rover, initially to the private equity business Alchemy, who envisaged a much-reduced business that would concentrate on MG, but ultimately to the Phoenix Consortium, lead by former Rover boss John Towers.

Phoenix euphoria ‘naive’

The Phoenix plan aimed to produce 200,000 cars annually, retained more jobs and was increasingly seen as a better future of BMW’s cast-off than Alchemy’s seemingly brutal plans. Phoenix won the day, amid euphoria that would soon be seen as naively misplaced.

MG Rover, as Phoenix renamed the business lasted a little less than five years. It went bankrupt in April 2005, having failed to find a partner of any significance that might enable it to invest in the much-talked about and ultimately mythical new medium car. In the meantime, the 75 was by far the strongest model in MG Rover’s range, being newer and more completely developed than the smaller 25 and 45.

MG Rover was not without its successes, the creation of three MG ranges out of the three Rover models unexpectedly successful, the conversion of Rover 75 to MG ZT producing an engaging and mature sports saloon. But none of this was enough, and nor were efforts to squeeze costs out of the business, a programme called Project Drive stripping components and quality out of the cars.

Rover 75

By the end of its life, the 75 had become seriously cheapened, and more like the penny-pinched cars that MG Rover’s predecessors had peddled for decades.

Production of the 75 never exceeded the 53,600-odd built in the first year, sitting in the low 30,000s for the next three years before dipping to 24,000 in 2004. In 2005, when MG Rover went bust, under 5,500 were produced.

But, the 75 has had a strange and surprisingly long afterlife in China, where it was produced as the MG7 and in facelifted form as the Roewe 750, this version still available today some 17 years after the original 75 first appeared.

There’s irony in its achievement of so long a life, given that the 75 was a commercial failure for its creators and a partial cause of Rover’s downfall.

Though not as much of one as Bernd Pischetsreider, whose bold acquisition strategy enabled Rover to build one of its best-ever cars, and ultimately killed the brand.

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Ford Pinto

Ford Pinto: the eco car that was an ethical disaster

Ford Pinto Ford PintoFord called it ‘The Little Carefree Car’. And a few years after its 1970 launch, there was good reason to suppose that a similarly cavalier attitude had prevailed during the Pinto’s amazingly short 22 month gestation period.

But that firestorm would come later.

The Ford Pinto was built to be affordable. Lee Iacocca, the Blue Oval’s ebullient executive vice-president and the so-called father of the Mustang, had in 1968 asked his designers and engineers for a 2,000lb sub-compact costing under $2000.

Detroit had finally woken up to the rapidly swelling volume of small imports, the ubiquitous VW Beetle joined by a fast-fattening stream of invaders from Japan.

Tiny American Motors jumped into the sub-compact market first with the riskily-named Gremlin, whose startling guillotined tail had appeared six months earlier than the Pinto. Arch-rival Chevrolet, meanwhile, debuted the pretty Vega one day before the Ford as a spoiler.

Ford’s revenge lay beneath the Vega’s bonnet, its much boasted-about all-aluminium engine vibrating hard enough to shake its carburettor loose. Which at least brought the torture to a close.

This was not the first time that Detroit had taken on the imports with cheap cars – the late ‘50s saw the launch of the Ford Falcon, Chevy’s rear-engined Corvair and the Chrysler Valiant – but this was the first time it had tackled the task with small, domestically produced cheap cars.

Ford Pinto

Despite the Pinto’s mechanical crudity – a leaf sprung live axle and drum brakes were as low as Ford could go for the basic version – it had the look of a larger car that had shrunk in the wash.

Its wheelbase might have looked too short for its length, especially when girder-like 5mph bumpers were added, but the Pinto sold fast, finding over 350,000 buyers in the first year alone.

Problems with the Vega’s engine and the retina-freezing weirdness of the Gremlin propelled the Pinto’s sales ever higher, peaking at over 540,000 in 1974. That was the year after the oil crisis erupted, making American buyers keen to buy machines that would get good gas mileage.

Ford Pinto

Many of them sensibly looked beyond this simple statistic and chose to buy Honda’s vastly better-engineered Civic, too.

Meanwhile, Ford expanded the range, offering a hatchback version a few months after the two-door’s launch, both sharing the same misleadingly rakish fastback silhouette, for the Pinto was not fast.

Most early examples used European Cortina engines that were praised by the press – unlike the chassis – though that underlines their low expectations as much as it does any Pinto positive.

The Pinto was better equipped to go than it was to stop, and it wasn’t much good at cruising either, preferring to meander along the interstate while reminding occupants of the delicacy of their spine’s via its painfully cheap seats.

Undeterred, a year after launch Ford added an estate, a van and a version called the Cruising Van (they’d never get away with that today) which had trendy bubble windows in its sides, potentially allowing a porthole view of the dissolute activities occurring within.

But it was activities beyond the dissolute that were Ford was soon to appear guilty of. In 1972 a Californian woman was killed when her Pinto was rear-ended and caught fire.

Her passenger, one Richard Grimshaw, survived but with burns to 90 percent of his body.

Unsurprisingly, he sued. And his lawyers discovered that the Pinto’s petrol tank, which was bolted between the rear axle and the back bumper, was prone to rupturing under impact.

In fact, this seemingly vulnerable location was used by plenty of American cars of the day (and European models besides) but the difference in the Pinto’s case was that the fuel filler neck was vulnerable to tearing away from the tank, which was itself prone to being punctured by bolt heads in the back axle.

In some cases, tanks were unloading their volatile load in under a minute.

But what turned out to be more shocking than this was that Ford had known about it when the car was under development. And done nothing.

Ford Pinto

Proof of this emerged in a magazine called Mother Jones, which in 1977 published a story exposing the fact that Ford had performed a cost-benefit analysis on the necessary modifications when the car was under development.

Modifying the car would cost an additional $11 per vehicle, Ford comparing this with the likely injury claims forecast for the death, severe burns and repair costs of pinto accidents.

The bill for re-engineering the cars, the cost of production delays and the extra parts for hundreds of thousands of cars came to $113 million, but the bill for compensation payouts, reckoned Ford, would be $49 million.

So it built the Pinto unaltered.

The documents obtained by Mother Jones came to be known as ‘The Ford Pinto Memo,’ and would often be cited in business ethics case studies. What Ford appeared to have done was attribute a cost to a life, and acted in favour of cost.

Meanwhile Grimshaw was awarded damages of $128 million the following year – reckoned to be all the profit Ford had ever made from the Pinto – although this was later reduced to $6.6m.

But not before three teenage girls had been killed when their rear-ended Pinto caught fire on August 1978. Ford had begun its recall two months earlier, but the family of the girls would not receive their notice until early 1979.

Ford Pinto

Sales of the Pinto were by now well off their half-a-million-plus peak, hitting 189,000 in 1978 but rising, surprisingly, to 199,000 the following year. In its final year the small Ford achieved 185,000 sales, taking the total tally to almost 3.2m over 10 years.

Fires or not, the car was a success, despite the whirlpool of bilious publicity around it. Its notoriety even made feature films, a very gently rear-ended Pinto erupting in flames in ‘National Lampoon’s Animal House’, a memorably taste-free 1978 comedy directed by John Landis.

In subsequent years the Pinto scandal was reassessed, a 1991 paper entitled ‘The Myth of the Ford Pinto case’, produced for the Rutgers Law Review by Gary Schwartz, concluded that the case against Ford was not so cut-and-dried.

Schwartz found that the Pinto Memo hadn’t been used by Ford employees, but was attached to a letter sent to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about some proposed regulations.

Schwartz also made the point that the Pinto’s fuel tank location was commonplace, and that the California Supreme Court not only accepted that manufacturers would trade safety for cost, but encouraged them to do so.

Nevertheless, the damage was done. And there was proof that Ford could do a better job within its own range, the fuel tank of Ford of Europe’s similarly-sized Capri less vulnerably located and shielded from the axle.

The Pinto’s unfortunate career continues to resonate, the car cited as one of Time Magazine’s 50 worst cars of all time in 2008.

That no-one wants a Pinto today seems evident in a US eBay search, which turned up just four (mostly miserable) examples of the 3.2 million made. It will probably live a lot longer in law journals.

Renault Wind

Renault trumped! Why the Wind failed to set sail

Renault WindIt probably wasn’t Renault’s plan to name one of its cars after a mildly unpleasant human condition, but the condition in question was what some people thought of when the Wind was mentioned.

Which is a shame, because wind of the wind-in-the-hair kind was what this dinky little Renault was supposed to be about. A completely reskinned and rather stylish two-seat machine based on the Twingo, the Wind also benefitted from RenaultSport tuned suspension.

It was a combination that promised some satisfyingly deft moments on country backroads, especially as both the engines offered were decently perky devices, one a turbocharged 1.2 of 100PS, the other a 133bhp variably-valve timed 1.6.

The Wind’s cool roof

Renault Wind

But the most intriguing thing about the Wind was its roof. Hinged at the rear, it would perform a 180 degree flip into the boot as an encore to the near-dizzying rise of its long rear deck lid, which lifted near-vertically to accommodate the Wind’s top.

Renault Wind

The whole process was automated and took only 12 seconds, although you needed to be stationary for the car to perform its lightly spectacular transformation.

Renault Wind

 

And this design avoided the humiliating surprise potentially suffered by occupants of Ferrari’s limited edition 550 Barchetta, whose flip-back roof simply folded onto the car’s bootlid. Come the sudden downpour, that rain-collecting lid could part-fill before spilling its contents over your head as you closed the car from the rainstorm above.

The Wind’s system was much better thought-through and would doubtless have been more expensive to make too, even if it was less complex than the folding roof of your traditional cabriolet.

Not cheap to develop

Renault Wind

The entire Wind project can’t have been cheap to develop, in fact. Not only were no exterior panels shared with the Twingo, but neither was its interior, the car getting a bespoke dashboard, centre console and door trims.

It was just the kind of intriguing niche derivative that journalists often chivvy manufacturers to build, rave over briefly at launch, and then forget about. Your reporter is among the guilty.

And there was quite a lot to rave about. The Wind’s low weight – just 1173kg as a 1.6 – and well-sorted suspension produced an entertainingly nimble drive, its agility heightened by its small scale and relative peppiness.

In some ways the 1.2 turbo was the better buy, this engine generating barely any less torque than the 1.6, and earlier in the rev range. Carefully weighted, well-placed pedals, a slickety-snick gearchange and revvy engines made a modest entertainer of this Renault, even if it wasn’t blazingly fast.

Cool Wind

Renault Wind

Windy downsides? Despite being an open-top car, this Renault’s curiously high flanks, big and steeply raked windscreen and small roof meant that you didn’t feel particularly exposed to the sky above, even if you dropped the windows.

Its steering was a bit too numb, the 1.6 motor needed a lot of revving to give its best and the road noise yelling from its mildly fat tyres could be enough to have you longing to get out. The will to escape was not countered especially strongly by the Wind’s interior, either.

Renault Wind

It may have been bespoke, and flaunted an instrument binnacle shrouding some rather sexy dial shrouds, but the low-grade plastics surfacing much of its cabin were almost as disappointingly as the steering wheel, which could have come from one of Renault’s vans.

But for all that it was quite an agreeable car, a lot more fun than your average cabrio on the right roads, and it looked pretty different. Renault launched the Wind in the middle of the summer of 2010 with prices starting from £15,500 and a range of no less than six models, later expanded when the GT Line and Gordini were added.

That turned out to be a lot of derivatives for relatively few buyers, the Wind’s life abruptly cut short by the sales and profitability crisis engulfing Renault UK during 2011.

Wound up

Renault Wind

A persistently unfavourable pound-to-euro exchange rate meant that models had either to be sold at a loss-making competitive price, or the reverse. And the effect was to trigger a sharp decline in sales and profits, prompting Renault’s UK managers to initiate a rather brutal cull of their range.

All the company’s low volume models were to be deleted, including several supposedly high-volume cars that weren’t, like the Laguna, Modus and Kangoo, besides the niche Wind and Espace.

So early in 2012, after not much more than 18 months on sale, Renault’s unusual sports two-seater had gone from the UK, and would only live another year in mainland Europe, being deleted in June 2013.

The result was that the Wind made as much impact on the British car market as the softest zephyr nuzzling a doldrum-marooned yacht. Only 2300-odd were sold, because the Wind’s UK life was cut short.

An ill Wind

Renault Wind

Like many specialty models it was a bit of a firework car, sales climbing high at first, only to fall to earth like a spent rocket. You could see that in its sales graph, the Wind initially registering around 300 sales per month, then 200, then 100 by the end of 2012. So it was already fading out when it was dropped.

That Renault also terminated around a third of its dealers around this time can’t have helped, but neither did the Wind’s slightly effete look, which ran counter to its more dynamic innards. It was not a bloke’s car, and that closed it off to plenty of sales.

Now it’s almost forgotten, unsurprisingly given that the already small pool (or should be whirl?) of 2300 Winds is now being reduced by attrition. You don’t often see one.

For Renault the Wind was ultimately an ill one (sorry), but the good news is that the company has not been discouraged from selling niche models, the next to arrive stemming from the rebirth its sporting Alpine marque.

Suzuki SJ - Great Motoring Disasters

The Suzuki 4×4 that cornered like a motorbike

Suzuki SJ - Great Motoring DisastersWhen it comes to road transport, four wheels are generally better than three, and if staying dry and safe bothers you, two wheels even more.

Suzuki’s baby SJ410 four-wheel drive, however, occasionally seemed uncertain over whether it was a four-wheeler or a two, a little too much of its maker’s proud motorcycle prone to sudden appearances while cornering.

See, the SJ410, a rather neat and temptingly affordable jeep-in-miniature, had a tendency to tip and fall.

Install someone young, fast and unaware behind its neat plastic wheel, show them a bend and they could rapidly learn about high centre’s of gravity and their potential effects on tall, narrow objects travelling at speed, as well as the unsuitability of off-roaders for speedy on-roading and how toppling over does not look cool.

Suzuki SJ - Great Motoring Disasters

Not that ‘cool’ was a cool word in the mid ‘80s, when the Suzuki SJ fad really took off. But the Suzuki suddenly became a very cool thing, particularly if it was white, had white wheels and was (usually) occupied by someone wearing white stilettos.

Commonly found outside night clubs in the era when George Michael, Madonna, Duran Duran and Frankie Goes to Hollywood sang floor-filling hits, the SJ was a favoured set of wheels for the legendary 1980s Essex Girl, who usually chose the soft-top version of this tiny four-wheel drive to better show-off her orange tan and peroxide streaked hair. Occasionally, this myth was even true.

Suzuki SJ - Great Motoring Disasters

The Suzuki SJ, however, was not originally designed for the cocktail-and-paper-umbrella world at all. It was a descendant of Suzuki’s 1970 LJ20, a miniature twin cylinder jeep with utility styling, selectable four-wheel drive and a price low enough to forgive its canvas doors.

Cleverly, its spare wheel was helpfully stored behind the front passenger seat so that it squeezed within the tight dimensions of a Japanese Kei car.

Despite its puny 25bhp it was an effective device in a quarry, and among others, began being bought by civil construction companies. They favoured it over Land Rovers, because the LJ was so cheap that its purchase price could painlessly be written-off over the life of the contract, the no-doubt heavily-abused Suzuki binned on the project’s completion. Others simply bought them as a cheap set of fun wheels.

Suzuki had discovered a new niche, and in 1975 enlarged the LJ’s 360cc twin to a heady 550cc, creating the LJ50. The spare wheel migrated to a mounting hung from the LJ’s rear-end, this big-engined export version not needing to comply with the Kei car rules.

It sold well in Australia, encouraging Suzuki to introduce the still more reckless LJ80, this time with a four cylinder developing a rampant 41bhp. The LJ80’s eventual launch into the Netherlands, the absence of inclines presumably flattering its performance, formed a bridgehead for an advance party of these baby jeeps into Europe.

But it was the 1982 SJ that led the invasion into Britain’s nightlife, although it took a while to warm up. Launched as the SJ410, it was propelled by a 1.0 four that could push it no further than 68mph on 45bhp and four speeds, which was fine for off-roading if less effective on the A118 towards Romford.

A separate ladder chassis, simple drum brakes and a quartet of leaf springs were designed to sustain a tough life on building sites and in the bush, spanners and a welding torch good for fixing anything that broke. Not that much did – the SJ was a tough little thing.

Like plenty of early off-roaders this Suzuki was part-time four-wheel drive, the price-reducing absence of a centre differential not only requiring you to jab a lever for all-wheel drive, but also to get out and lock the front wheel hubs.

Not good for footwear if you’d entered a bog, especially stilettos. But with low range as well you could get yourself across some pretty testing terrain and being light – just 850kg as a soft-top – the SJ could get about like a mountain goat. And without munching on the local vegetation.

In Britain sales were limited by the fact that there was a quota applied to the import of Japanese cars, the so-call Gentlemen’s Agreement largely devised in a (failed) bid to protect British Leyland’s tumbling market share.

Suzuki investigated building the SJ in Europe to circumvent it, and did a deal with Spain’s Santana Motor which ironically, also made BL’s Land Rover to its own recipe. Assembly of the SJ began in 1987, allowing Suzuki’s increasingly successful UK importer to bring almost unlimited numbers of SJs over here.

Suzuki SJ - Great Motoring Disasters

Two years earlier the SJ413 had been launched as an estate, its 1324cc motor putting out 66 ground-shivering horsepower to further tempt buyers. This and a five-speed gearbox boosted the SJ’s top speed by 10mph to 78mph, although it was still going to struggle against a white Escort XR3i cabriolet screaming its way to Millionaires.

But before that came scandal, and not of the Essex girl variety. An assortment of consumer bodies, including Britain’s Which? and America’s Consumer Reports, discovered that if you drove a tall and narrow vehicle into a bend faster than you would a Lotus, it tended to topple over.

In fact, you could be going a lot slower than you would in a Lotus and still momentarily reduce tyre-wear on the SJ’s in-board flank.

The discovery of this destabilising habit produced a small explosion of angry newsprint. And in America, a lawsuit, which uncovered the fact that Suzuki had tried to hide the truth about the SJ’s instability.

Little of which seemed to impede its sales and certainly didn’t produce a recall. Instead, salespeople were lamely told to make buyers aware of its on-road limitations.

Suzuki SJ - Great Motoring Disasters

Towards the end of the ‘80s the SJ had almost become a cult car, its UK importers cannily exploiting its appeal with the sale of special versions like the Rhino, complete with silhouette of said beast on the spare wheel cover, graphics packs, alloy wheels, bull-bars and side rails.

All of which allowed one nightclub guest to distinguish their SJ over another’s, though perhaps less successfully in a dark winter car-park.

In 1988, Suzuki supplemented by the decidedly more stylish Vitara, whose stabilising extra width usefully diminished the chance of scraping its roof. That sold well in white too.

Today the SJ is almost forgotten, partly because it became as unfashionable as shoulder pads, but also because most disappeared into the ether, their thin steel panels dissolving as fast as ice cubes after the party.

But if you want to relive some of the experience – though not the tendency to topple – you can buy the Suzuki Jimny, the SJ’s diminutive and long-running successor, debuting in 1997.

It’s not so great on road, but it’s brilliant off-it, and doesn’t cost much. Which was Suzuki’s original point.

Now watch the video that caused all the fuss…

NSU Ro80

NSU Ro80: the Car of the Year that killed the company

NSU Ro80It was a beautiful car then, and it’s a beautiful car now. But beneath its shapely skin lurked the germ of its makers’ destruction, as well as some technology that plenty of car-makers would fruitlessly spend millions on.

NSU, which made the 1967 Ro80 saloon (which was to become Car of the Year soon after launch), was better known for its affordable-to-cheap motorbikes. Only 20 years earlier it had become the world’s biggest maker of motorcycles and mopeds, including a device named the Quickly, this moped providing its rider with ample time to ponder on its manufacturer’s cruel choice of name. Despite this, over a million were sold between 1953 and 1963.

NSU started life in 1873 as a sewing machine maker, had completely switched to bicycles 20 years later and produced its first motorbike in 1901. The first NSU car was produced in 1905. But the company struggled with four wheels, and in 1932 was forced by its bank to sell its new car plant, which was bought by Fiat.

Fit for a Prinz

NSU Prinz

Its automotive ambitions resurfaced in 1957 with the Prinz, a small rear-engined, twin-cylinder saloon that was noisy if well-made, and did little to threaten the near-total domination enjoyed by the larger VW Beetle.

The Prinz evolved into a decent enough device that came to resemble our own Hillman Imp, the styling of both heavily influenced by Chevrolet’s rear-engined ’59 Corvair.During this evolution NSU adventured down an interesting side-street with the 1958 Sport Prinz coupe, a shapely variation styled by Bertone.

NSU Wankel Spyder

This adventure became a whole lot more intriguing when the company launched the world’s first rotary engined car, the NSU Spider (pictured above). A convertible version of the Sport Prinz, it was propelled by an engine designed by consultant Dr Felix Wankel and NSU’s Walter Frode, the latter doing much to make Wankel’s idea workable.

‘Unbelievably smooth’ engine

Dr Felix Wankel

The rotary engine ingeniously did away with the reciprocating engine’s pistons, conrods, camshaft and valves, replacing them all with a curve-sided triangle that rotated eccentrically within a near-oval, or trochoidal, void that provided the combustion chambers and valves.

It was a brilliantly clever design that eliminated the energy-wasting need to convert the reciprocating motion of pistons into the rotary motion of the crankshaft.

The result was an engine that was far more compact, lighter, had fewer moving parts and was unbelievably smooth compared to most of the wheezingly vibratory motors of the day.

It also made the Spider quick in a way that few NSUs, two-wheeled or four, had ever been.

But not for long.

Disastrous NSU rotary engine reliability

NSU rotary engine

The forces and heat applied to the tips of that eccentrically rotating triangle were greater than their constituent materials could stand, premature wear draining the Wankel engine’s energy away. Replacing these so-called apex seals cost NSU dear, even though it made only 2375 Spiders over the three years from 1964.

Despite this, the emergence of the rotary Prinz Spider rushed many manufacturers into buying technology licences from NSU, believing that Wankels were the future.

Among them were Citroen, which formed a partnership with NSU, and General Motors, which produced a beautiful rotary Corvette concept car but ultimately no production machines.

Mazda Cosmo

Citroen field-tested two batches of rotaries while Mazda got much further, its 1967 Cosmo (pictured above) triggering a Wankel-engined production run that did not stop until the demise of the RX-8. And it may yet restart.

But no other maker took up the option to make the engine, denying NSU the anticipated royalties that it would soon badly need.

The Spider’s troubles, which it believed it could fix, didn’t deter the company from leaping ahead with its most audacious plan yet. And that was to produce a saloon to challenge Mercedes and a fast-growing BMW.

Enter the NSU R080

NSU Ro80

The Ro80 was designed by the highly talented Claus Luthe, who had previously created the Spider out of the Sport Prinz and would go on to have an impressive career at Audi and BMW.

The Ro80’s curved nose, wedge-shaped waist, clean-cut flanks, deep glasshouse and neatly truncated boot were almost as adventurous as Citroen’s DS had been 12 years earlier, and like the French car it was very aerodynamic, recording a low-for-the-day Cd of 0.36.

It was beautifully detailed, too. Its headlights sat beneath shapely glass covers, as is fashionable today, its windows were elegantly bordered with polished stainless steel trim, its taillights were funkily frameless lozenges and its indulgently sculpted alloy wheels worthy of a Porsche.

The innovation didn’t end there. Under the bonnet was a larger, more powerful twin rotor 115hp Wankel engine that drove a three-speed semi-automatic transmission whose H-pattern gearlever contained a microswitch operating an electrically-triggered clutch. So it was two-pedal car, but you chose when to shift gears.

A brilliant driver’s car

NSU Ro80

The NSU was suspended by MacPherson struts at the front and semi-trailing arms at the year, previewing a layout common today, and it had disc brakes on all four wheels, the front pair mounted in-board to reduce unsprung mass.

Despite the engine’s inherent lightness, power steering was standard, the aim being to reduce driver effort, as with the transmission.

Not that keen drivers didn’t like the Ro80. Its excellent weight distribution, well-planted wheels, sophisticated suspension and super-smooth engine produced a car that responded brilliantly to keen pedalling, its agile chassis and rev-hungry engine producing quite a sporty drive.

And a civilised one too, the NSU’s pliant ride and general quiet making it a great long distance machine. Mostly.

Trouble was that many owners over-revved that revvy rotary, accelerating wear of its internal tips, the mix of metals used on the early cars causing further degeneration.

A badly abused engine could fail after just 15,000 miles, and even better cared-for motors were dying at 30,000 miles, their worn tips sabotaging the combustion process.

NSU finances: a tsunami of red ink

NSU Ro80

NSU behaved honourably over these failures, replacing hundreds of engines under warranty. Unsurprisingly this washed a tsunami of red ink through its ledgers, and two years later the company was bought by Volkswagen, not because it wanted the Ro80, but because it was increasingly desperate to find a replacement for its Beetle.

NSU, it reckoned, had a good stopgap in its development shed with a new saloon that slotted between the Ro80 and the baby Prinz.

Volkswagen K70

That car became the VW K70 (pictured above), but had nowhere near the visual appeal of the Ro80 and was priced too expensively to succeed. NSU itself was rolled into the clumsily named Audi NSU Auto Union AG subsidiary of VW, which would in time simply become Audi, killing NSU in the process.

NSU and Audi join forces

The Ro80 didn’t die yet however. NSU had managed to sort the rotary’s durability issues, and the car’s brilliant styling meant that it stayed perpetually fresh. VW allowed it to live on, but its early troubles and the fuel addiction of a tyre-smoking American muscle car slowed sales to the pace of a Prinz, especially when 1973’s energy crisis struck.

The legacy of the NSU Ro80

NSU Ro80

Production finally stopped in 1977 after 37,406 had been made – a modest number given its 10-year life.

But the impact of the Ro80, and NSU’s adventures with rotaries, still have resonance today. Look hard at an Audi A4, an A6 or an A8, and you can still see the elegant bones of the Ro 80 in their proportions, from their six-light glasshouse to their smooth flanks and wide-planted wheels. So far-sighted was its design that it wouldn’t take much to update the Ro 80 for today.

The rotary engine, meanwhile, is taking a rest, but Mazda says that it is still developing the engine for a possible return.

Fiat Stilo

Great Motoring Disasters: Fiat Stilo

Fiat StiloA couple of years back, a finance brokerage by the name of Sanford C. Bernstein published a list of Europe’s 10 biggest loss-making cars.

The cars were all made between 1997 and 2013, their calculations producing a fascinating list of losers. Top of the pile was the tiny Smart ForTwo, which at that point appeared to have lost Daimler, its makers, £3.35bn euros.

In the number two slot was the Fiat Stilo, produced from 2001-09 and a car that burned 2.1bn euros-worth of its maker’s money.

Fiat Stilo

The rest of this fine array of automotive hardware will be reserved for subsequent Great Motoring Disaster stories. For now we’ll linger over the sorry device that was the Stilo. In fact, it was three cars, the three-door decidedly more stylish than the deliberately dull five door – we’ll come to the dullness later – these two later joined by the Stilo Multiwagon estate.

Though a troubled car, the Stilo was the descendent of an impressive if disappointingly rust-prone machine born 32 years earlier. The 1969 Fiat 128 may not look very exciting today, its three-box silhouette simple enough that it could have been drawn by a child, but this was a modestly radical car back in 1969.

It was front-wheel drive, its engine transversely mounted as in the Mini that part-inspired it. But unlike the Mini, its gearbox did not sit under the engine to share its oil, but was positioned at the end of it, a layout that would be followed by almost every front-drive hatchback that has come since.

In fact, the 128 wasn’t the first car to use this layout, Fiat first trying the mechanicals on the Autobianchi Primula, Autobianchi selling mostly in Italy and France. The thinking was that if there were reliability troubles, they wouldn’t damage the Fiat brand, which sold cars in vast numbers.

Anyway, the Primula functioned without trouble, clearing the way for the 128, whose crisply revvy engines, tidy handling and generally enthusiastic personality won it a huge following, despite its neatly detailed but decidedly ordinary shape. Fiat won the 1970 European Car of the Year award for its troubles too.

Why is all this relevant to the Stilo? Because Fiat’s first 21st century small front drive family car was by then the fourth model aiming to emulate the 128’s success, the Strada, Tipo and Bravo/Brava having not quite managed it. And that had a bearing on the way the Stilo turned out.

So did the Bravo and Brava, which had plenty going for them when they debuted in 1995. The three-door Bravo and five-door Brava benefited from quite significant styling differences, the Bravo memorable for its large rear lamp clusters – pioneering then, if commonplace today – and its neatly pretty styling.

The Brava shared the same front section, but its rear was distinguished by a slightly tub-like lower tailgate and taillamps composed of three stacked ellipses per side. That looked even more radical, although the Brava was not quite as visually pleasing as the Bravo. It was also aimed at buyers who were almost depressingly conservative in their shopping habits, as revealed by Fiat’s subsequent research data.

Still, the duo got off to a good start, aided by appealing if slightly quirky interiors, decent enough manners and some rather moribund competition. But the honeymoon faded when another car with highly distinctive taillights appeared in 1998, the Ford Focus arresting not only for its red and orange identifiers but for the fact that it was way, way better than any Ford of this size that had been before. Not to mention all of its competition.

The Focus hit the Fiat hard, as so did the Mk4 Golf, whose unbelievably high cabin quality made the Italian car’s interior look cheaply finished despite its imaginative sculpting. Couple this onslaught to the fact that buyers didn’t much like the Brava’s back-end (although millions loved the weird new Focus), and Fiat reckoned it knew what it had to do for Project 192, the Barvo/Brava’s replacement.

Fiat Stilo

A sexily styled three-door it would keep, but this time the five-door would be decidedly more rational, functional and useful. The aim was to provide it with many of the convenience features of an MPV, this task eased by a new modular platform enabling it to be usefully taller and longer than the three-door.

You sat higher in it, making it easier to get in, its split rear seats slid back and forth and its front passenger seat folded forward. That was for long loads or a chaise longue, Fiat’s press kit optimistically reckoned, its occupant presumably lighting up to muse on why they were reclining there.

Fiat Stilo

Less indulgently, there was also a drop-down table in the rear for scribbling kids. All of which made the five-door Stilo five-door a pretty versatile thing.

But that was nothing to the effort that Fiat put into its equipment, starting with a telematics system called Connect. This concierge service was well ahead of its time, and in this class so was the ultimate 7in colour sat nav screen, and the four lower-grade infomatic systems on offer.

Mobile phone connections, internet access, sat nav and the ability to play MP3 files were advanced stuff for a car in this class in 2001.

Fiat Stilo

The Stilo could also be had with a so-called skyroof, a series of glass louvres electrically tilting skywards, radar-governed cruise control, electric front seats, climate control with a digital LCD display, eight airbags and more.

Fiat’s product planning logic looked impeccable. Its modular platform allowed it to develop two kinds of car for relatively modest extra investment, and it was bang-on with its view that connectivity was about to invade the car’s cabin.

Trouble was, the Stilo five-door looked about as exciting as a bag of flour, and that made the idea of spending indulgent sums optioning it unappealing. It just wasn’t that kind of a car. And though the three-door appealed, especially with its pleasingly blocky taillights, it wasn’t quite as temptingly bold as the previous Bravo.

The Stilo’s black, grey and gloom cabin wasn’t especially tempting either. This despite Fiat spending a heap on a soft-feel facia that was certainly a comfortingly pliant thing to prod, but had the texture of ancient petrified wood. And much of the hardware hanging around it was disappointingly low grade.

Driving the Stilo was a low-grade experience too, especially after a Focus. It was a little too heavy, its rear axle had been was an unsophisticated twist beam rear axle rather than the Brava’s independent set-up and its smaller engines lacked zest.

Fiat Stilo

Frustratingly for enthusiasts, the warm hatch 2.4 litre five cylinder three-door Abarth, actually quite a cool thing in the right colour, could only be had with a Selespeed automatic that made its user look like they were driving in clogs.

Because Fiat had driven deep into a pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap strategy in many markets, Britain included, buyers simply wanted the boggo versions and an irresistible price to go with it. Which meant that the long options list mostly went unticked.

To this day I have yet to see a Stilo with a Skyroof, nor any of the myriad intermediate Connect systems. And the radar-controlled cruise was soon deleted for misreading the road ahead.

Sales bombed across most of Europe, although the three-door didn’t do badly. But by the time Fiat offered the Abarth with a manual gearbox the moment had passed, even a fanciful Michael Schumacher limited edition part-engineered by Prodrive failing to heighten its appeal.

Fiat Stilo

The Stilo fell so far short of its sales projections that Fiat even offered a struggling MG Rover the chance to use the platform and some of the company’s manufacturing capacity to produce its ultimately mythical new medium car.

Fiat sold 767,000 Stilos during its nine-year run, many of those in Brazil where it enjoyed a three-year afterlife, one version unconvincingly badged ‘Attractive’. It’s not a number that compares well with the 3.1m 128s built between 1969 and 1985.

The tragedy of the Stilo is that a lot of deep thinking and money was sunk into this project, either in the wrong areas, or with the wrong execution. But the worst failing, and the one that usually kills the chances of any car, was that the five-door Stilo had no style. And that was the version that was supposed to bring home the bacon.

MG Rover CityRover

Great Motoring Disasters: MG Rover CityRover

MG Rover CityRoverIts name was the cleverest thing about it. Or it would have been, had the Rover marque not been so stained by years of messy history.

The next best thing about the this small supermini was the neat and classy array of chrome ‘C I T Y R O V E R’ characters across it tailgate, this one of the few positives to be found in this tale of the last whimperings of MG Rover.

In the broadest sense, acquiring the rights to use this Italian-designed supermini might have seemed a good idea for a company struggling to survive. MG Rover had not launched an entirely new model since the ludicrous De Tomaso-based MG SV.

A new supermini – even an old new supermini – was a model that might sell at a decent rate and make a profit, so cheaply could it be landed at a dock ready for UK sale.

Dock? The CityRover was not made at MG Rover’s Longbridge plant but at Pune in India, this car made by Tata Motors, whose sister automotive business these days is Jaguar Land Rover.

The Tata Rover

MG Rover CityRover

The CityRover was a (very) lightly modified version of the Tata Indica, the Indian company’s first car. The Indica was capably designed for Tata by Italy’s IDEA, whose previous credits included many Fiat Auto models from the early 1990s including the Fiat Tipo and Tempra, the Alfa Romeo 155 and Lancia Delta, as well as the Nissan Terrano/Ford Maverick.

The Indica was engineered to be very affordable, was powered by a modified 1.4 litre Peugeot engine of more than average grunt and had an interior spacious enough to carry inadvisably large numbers of passengers, as was highly likely in its home country of India.

It debuted in 1998 and sold very strongly until customers uncovered its patchy quality. Recalls and a reworked version recovered the Indica’s reputation sufficiently to restore its best-selling status and it was this modified version, known as the Indica V2, that became the basis for MG Rover’s version.

Not good enough for MG Rover

MG Rover CityRover

When MG Rover’s engineers got hold of an example for evaluation their improvements list was long, and included the need to improve a gearchange that moved like a blunt carving knife through gristle, the high-riding suspension and an interior finish barely worthy of a van.

But the management largely ignored their suggestions, allowing only light modifications to the suspension, which was lowered 20mm and used stiffer spring rates, these changes complemented by a quicker steering rack and larger wheels.

The engine was cleaned up to meet mandatory emission requirements, one of its mountings reworked to reduce vibration into the cabin and the transmission’s final drive ratio was altered to compensate for the larger wheels.

MG Rover CityRover

New front and rear bumpers, the application of the nastily-cheapened Rover Viking badge and the devising of Sprite, Solo, Select and Style trim packages completed the budget makeover, save for the issue of price. Which was clearly going to need to be low, despite the roomy interior, inoffensive styling and surprisingly peppy performance, 84bhp pushing 1040kg of Tata steel along quite effectively.

The low price was needed because this car was already a five-year old design, because no effort had been made to lifts its interior and its gearchange continued to provide pesky manipulation battles for your left hand.

The £900 brand new Rover?

MG Rover CityRover

Still, the pricing should have been easy to get right. There were rumours that the unit cost of a CityRover was somewhere in the region of £900-£2000. Even £2000 sounds on the low side, but whatever the truth there seems little doubt that the cost to MG Rover was easily low enough to allow it to make a decent profit, and return to a market that it had deserted when the long-running Metro was deleted.

But the Longbridge management seemed to be in the grip of the kind of reality loss that had so far produced the unsaleable MG SV, the rear-drive MG ZT V8 and a two-season assault on Le Mans.

So at its September 2003 launch, the basic CityRover Solo was priced at least £1000 too high at £6495, and the £8895 asked for the top-of-the-range Style was laughable against a mid-range VW Polo.

Self-inflicted sabotage – and James May

MG Rover CityRover

The self-inflicted sabotage didn’t end there, MG Rover proceeded to launch the CityRover by stealth. There was no significant advertising, no proper press launch and fatally, it denied Top Gear a test car.

Instead presenter James May got plenty of laughs testing a dealer demonstrator using subterfuge and a hidden camera. It was, he reckoned, the worst car he had ever driven while working for the programme.

Despite all this, other sections of the press gave it middling to positive reviews. They liked its space, go and paint finish, but the gearchange, the cabin plastics and the mean equipment levels knocked it back.

So did the arrival of a new Fiat Panda, this neat new basic car good enough to collect a Car of the Year award.

40,000 sales a year, they thought…

MG Rover CityRover

 

With all this against it, together with MG Rover’s wavering enthusiasm, the forecast sales of 30-40,000 units annually looked about as likely as BMW deciding to buy MG Rover back.

Even a speedy stabbing of a smartphone calculator indicates profits of at least £50 million a year on these numbers, making MG Rover’s reticence weirder still.

Sales accelerated like a New Year’s day road-sweeper, the inevitable price cut soon arriving along with plans for a mildly revised model, due in 2005.

The facelift that never was

MG Rover CityRover

And that was the fateful year in which MG Rover went under, though not before a boat-load of 1200 revised CityRovers had set sail for Britain.

These orphaned cars got no launch at all, being disposed of by receivers PriceWaterhouseCoopers, which is why you can find examples registered as late as 2007.

Around 8600 CityRovers were eventually sold, some 5000 surviving today despite super-low used prices that now start from under £500. The Indica’s underlying robustness must have plenty to do with that, along with the fact that many were bought by Metro-loving pensioners.

The CityRover shambles produced a dismal book-end to the small-car history of the company that that brought us the 1959 Mini, and still more dismal for the bizarre way in which the project was handled.