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Volksawgen Beetle

How Volkswagen tried and failed to replace the Beetle

Volksawgen Beetle

Too 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.

This week, the final Beetle was once again produced, 21 years after it returned from the great scrapyard in the sky. The last models off the line are going to VW’s ever-expanding heritage collection, presumably to sit alongside the previous final Beetle.

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

Chrysler Voyager heritage

Chrysler: Why it was a UK motoring disaster – more than once

Chrysler Voyager heritage

In 2015, Chrysler withdrew from the UK. Not that there was 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 left 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 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 were 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.

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 were 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.

Fiat Croma

Fiat Croma: the ‘wrong kind of crossover’ styled by Giugiaro

Fiat Croma

Had the Fiat Croma sported those slender wheelarch extensions that frequently signal a crossover, a more masculine-looking cross-hatch grille, a raised ride-height and the gratuitous application of the word ‘cross’ somewhere in its name, this story might have been a different one.

To complete the effect, it could also have come with a rarely-ordered four-wheel drive option, bigger alloys, extra plastic cladding and, perhaps, a pointless but symbolic compass in the dashboard. Then it could have been an urban crossover, Nissan Qashqai-style, advertised scudding across the city’s mean streets to shrug off all comers. Then it might, just, have sold better as a machine for family adventures (mostly dreamt of in the owner’s head) rather than the shocking-as-magnolia machine that it actually was.

Which you very likely might not remember at all. Or if you do remember a Croma, it will likely be the near-extinct hatchback sold here from the mid ‘80s (pictured below). That big Fiat was a close relative of the Saab 9000, Lancia Thema and Alfa Romeo 164, an executive quartet co-developed in a bid to give their makers half a chance of making some money from a segment that was increasingly the territory of a well-known trio of premium brands from Germany.

The so-called Tipo Quattro project kicked off in 1978, although it would take a lengthy and doubtless argument-filled six to nine years for all four models to finally appear. First to go on sale was the 9000 in May ’84, followed by the Lancia five months later. The Croma was launched in 1985, and the Alfa in 1987, almost a decade after Fiat Auto and Saab had signed the deal.

The big Fiat was not pitched quite as ambitiously as the other three, its hatchback underlining the functionality of a neatly nondescript Giorgetto Giugiaro style and a blackly busy dashboard. Still, its 2.0 litre twin cam provided plenty of rorty go – though rather less than you were hearing – the Fiat’s eager handling the pay-off for a ride as soothing as a pneumatic drill thumping beyond your bedroom window.

The Croma was almost as noisy, too, its structurally-challenged body producing an orchestra of twitters, creaks and squeaks that had you wondering if poltergeists had come along for the ride. Still, you could grab a moment of calm by stopping to slam its big hatchback shut, body-flex occasionally prompting the tailgate to pop its lock on B-roads.

Ordering the range-topping Croma i.e. Turbo allowed you to experience the torque-steer of its classier Type 4 stablemates for less cash, against a backing track of enthusiastically chafing cabin plastics. But it was undeniably quick, and well-kitted too.

And rare, this ultimate version of the Croma finding few takers. The less ambitious versions did better, and while never a big seller in Britain, Fiat nevertheless shifted 438,000 of these large Fiats during its 11-year career, most of them in Italy. The Croma also achieved a first with the production debut of the first direct-injection diesel engine in a passenger car, although this is little reason to remember it.

And so to the Comfort Wagon, which sounds like a euphemism for a portable toilet. But that was Fiat’s description of the new Croma, this version a mix of MPV and estate. This second-generation Croma arrived after a long nine-year pause, debuting in 2005.

Fiat Croma

Like the previous model it was fairly big, front-wheel drive and had a hatchback. It also shared its platform with other cars, in this case the Vauxhall Vectra and Saab 9-3, an extended version of their GM Epsilon platform yielding both the Croma and the Vauxhall Signum, this oddball another smash-hit success (sarcasm alert – Ed).

The Croma’s Ecotec petrol engines were also provided by General Motors Europe, Fiat financially tied to the US giant at the time. In product terms this collaboration produced a few benefits to both, though none as fat as the multi-million euro fee that Fiat’s wily boss Sergio Marchionne extracted from GM to allow them a divorce.

But for Fiat, there was no escaping the bad dream that was the Croma. Like the previous model it was styled by Giugiaro, and like the previous model it made you wonder where the great man’s talent had gone.

He would have a had a design brief to grapple with of course, and that was to produce something similar to the Honda Avancier, a tall estate that sat on an extra-long wheelbase, just like the Fiat that it mystifyingly inspired. The Avancier was a domestic market-only machine – wise choice – that sold badly, lasting only four years from its 1999 launch.

Fiat Croma

Besides echoing the Honda’s stellar sales career the Croma also shared its proportions, the same high-mounted gearlever and a slightly elevated driving position. Despite the emphasis on functionality the Fiat wasn’t especially versatile – its rear seats didn’t fold flat nor slide like they did in the Signum.

Still, the Croma was a pleasant enough device on motorways, easily housing four adults in enough quiet to allow them to muse on what Fiat was thinking of when it created this machine. It even handled decently well given its height, but bumps rippled at its occupants as emphatically as they had aboard the original Croma, if without the rattling accompaniment.

But if this big Fiat’s cabin plastics were clipped home more convincingly than two decades years earlier, they were short of the tactile quality expected from a 21st century car.

In fact, the Croma was short of quite a few things needed in a 21st century car, the most glaring of them the desirability that might have arrived had its makers read the market better. Instead, Fiat produced the wrong kind of crossover, which produced the wrong kind of sales, the Croma withdrawn from the UK just two years into its life and four years before its 2011 demise on mainland Europe.

This time there was a speedier replacement, Fiat rebadging the Dodge Journey crossover from the Chrysler stable that it had acquired. The Journey was pretty ordinary too – we got it only with Dodge badging – but at least it would have cost a whole heap less to develop into a Fiat.

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Alfa Romeo 156

Alfa Romeo 156: the car that failed to take on the BMW 3 Series

Alfa Romeo 156

Cast your mind back to the 1990s. Just when we were thinking that every new saloon was as tedious as a rush-hour queue, along came the Alfa Romeo 156 and made us all think again.

In motor industry-speak a saloon is a three-box car – the bonnet is one box, the passenger compartment another and the boot the third – and there have been legions of dull examples over the decades, many from Britain, many more from Japan and a sizeable heap from the U.S. too.

By the mid 1990s, Europe’s preference for the hatchback had long been dominant. The few remaining saloons came from premium manufacturers, their higher quality, often sporting intent and a slice of brand sheen making a BMW 316i a whole lot more appealing than a Sierra Sapphire or a Toyota Carina E.

But when the Alfa 156 appeared in 1997, it was impossible not to breathlessly conclude that the three-box saloon had become massively desirable all over again, simply because it was so shapely.

There was the obvious appeal of the famous Alfa Romeo three-piece grille, which had displaced the numberplate to one side in an intriguing arrangement not seen on a car in decades. There was the almost voluptuous surface of its flanks, the creases floating above its wheels fading to nothing as they blended into the smooth, ground-bound curve of the doors. The Alfa’s tail was quite abruptly cut, its lights a pair of soft-cornered, horizontal parallelograms to create a back-end almost as appealing as the front.

Those taillights were just one example of the 156’s fine detailing which also included recessed rear doorhandles. The idea here was to create the impression that the car was a two-door, an idea much copied since.

And the front handles were a retro-look pair of elegant polished aluminium grips that were hard to miss. The 156 sat well on its wheels, too, whether they were plastic covered steels or Alfa’s well-known telephone dial alloys.

A cabin free of quirks

Alfa Romeo 156

The good news continued inside. The 156’s fulsomely curvaceous dashboard was dominated by the torpedo-like twin binnacles of speedo and rev counter, its centre console topped with a trio of driver-angled minor gauges, a look referencing the dashboards of the GTV and Spider of the ‘60s.

The cabin looked well finished and free of quirks too, unlike its distant Alfa 75 predecessor with its finger-pinching U-shaped handbrake and electric window switches bizarrely mounted in the roof. Above all, though, the 156 looked tastefully sexy, just like a good Alfa should.

The car it replaced was the Alfa 155, a sorry Fiat Tipo-derived front-wheel drive device that was a lot less fun to drive than the preceding rear-drive 75. The 155 improved vastly when the so-called wide-bodied version emerged, this race-inspired version sitting on a broader track with blistered wings.

It did drive a lot better as a result, but by then there were better cars around, Alfa’s often spectacular, two-wheeling successes in the British Touring Car Championship doing almost nothing to boost sales.

The 156 shared some of the 155’s mechanical innards, including its rorty Twin Spark four cylinder engines, while the centre section of its floor came from the near-forgotten Fiat Marea saloon, but most of it was new, including the suspension.

Which consisted of exotic double wishbones up front and McPherson struts at the rear, anchored by a trio of rods per side to provide solid location and touch of rear-wheel steering in a corner. Fairly sophisticated for the day then, although the running gear’s most striking feature was steering that needed only 2.2 turns from lock-to-lock, promising a responsive car on the road.

Besides a trio of 1.6, 1.8 and 2.0-litre Twin Sparks there was also a 2.5-litre version of Alfa’s tuneful V6, and a mighty impressive diesel. It was impressive because it was fuelled using a new injector system known as common rail, the cylinders fed via this solenoid-controlled distribution tube rather than individual pumps.

The result was more accurate fuelling, which improved economy and considerably reduced a diesel’s rude clatter.

Common rail was already being used in a more mechanical form in commercial vehicles, and had been used in submarines as early as 1916, but the Alfa was the first car to feature it, and with a clever electronic control unit that heightened its effectiveness. So much so, common rail is now commonplace.

The debut of a significant new diesel technology in an Alfa might seem a bit like Jessica Ennis-Hill promoting pills for arthritis, but the system had been under development with Alfa’s parent company Fiat, and introducing it in a premium model to rival BMW and Audi was right on the money.

Right on the money was what Fiat could have been had it not passed over development of the clever part of the system – the engine’s brain – to supplier Bosch for completion. Alfa got first dibs of the system in the 156, but Mercedes followed in the same year with the C220 CDI.

It wasn’t long before Bosch has sold the system to a torrent of manufacturers to make fat profits that Fiat badly needed. It was the first strategic error around one of Alfa’s best-planned models in years, although the loss of this revenue wouldn’t be apparent for some time.

Meanwhile the 156 enjoyed a reception bordering on the rapturous. Alfa Romeo had badly needed to pull something magical out of the bag and amazingly, it had. Not only did this car look great but it drove well too, and appeared to have none of the obvious drawbacks that Alfa’s so often had.

The 156 won the 1998 European Car of the Year award and over 30 more awards besides. Customers couldn’t wait to get their hands on the keys.

Sales success

Alfa Romeo 156

Less than two years later Alfa had already sold 365,000 examples, the 156 enjoying success that the marque hadn’t experienced since the ‘60s. More versions came of course, including an elegant (if barely more useful) Sportwagon estate, the rapid but troubled 3.2 V6 GTA and before these, a pair of automatics.

One was a conventional torque-converter transmission for the V6, the other a robotised manual called Selespeed. Its gears you could select manually via wheel-mounted buttons, or automatically by pressing the ‘city’ switch. Either way it shifted gears like a man with a peg-leg, and developed problems with a regularity that would have made the Philae lander spacecraft seem a technological impossibility for mankind.

Other problems emerged too. Misaligned suspension chewed through tyres. The rear suspension’s bushes were eventually crushed to clunking uselessness. Alfa’s once fine reputation for producing tough, long-lasting engines was being trashed by a deluge of troubles more complicated than the 156’s trim options.

Diesel engines flung off their timing belts, causing pistons to hit valves, the Twin Sparks quite often did the same, the variable valve timing system was prone to failure and the 2.0 suffered oil starvation. The Selespeed was best avoided if you didn’t want to double your trouble and the diesel versions sometimes had brake issues.

Far from every 156 was unreliable, but there were enough to have the eager buyers who had switched to Alfa Romeos from BMWs and Audis despairing at what they had done. Their doubts were only reinforced – massively – by the often ludicrous delays for spares and patchy dealer service. All of which hit the 156’s residual values as hard as filling its boot with dung.

Alfa Romeo 156

Huge damage was done to Alfa’s reputation and perversely, the more 156s it sold, the more at-risk it became. Sales began to slow, and while a neat Giorgetto Giugiaro facelift, and a new 2.0 JTS petrol engine, prolonged the decline, it was obvious that the explosion of enthusiasm shown for the car originally was depressingly misplaced. Proof of this came with launch of the 159 that replaced it.

While not as refreshingly original as the 156, the 159 was a pleasing update of the kind that any of Alfa’s evolution-oriented German rivals would have pursued. It was better finished, had more advanced engines, vastly improved safety performance and significantly greater body rigidity.

But because it was born out of a troubled development programme with General Motors, it was also too big and too heavy. Those drawbacks certainly slowed sales, but it was Alfa’s poor reliability and the often shabby way it treated its customers that mainly did for the 159.

It lived only six years to the 156’s eight, and scored 240,000 sales to its predecessor’s 650,000. The 156’s sales record is one of Alfa’s best, although its ‘60s ancestor the Giulia saloon got close with almost 580,000 sales in a much smaller market, and the smaller Alfasud topped it with over a million sales.

The 156 could have permanently revived Alfa had it been properly engineered and backed with decent service. Time will tell whether Alfa’s learned from the 156 with its new Giulia, not to mention Stelvio SUV.

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Austin 1800

Austin 1800: the ‘big Mini’ that helped break the British car industry

Austin 1800

The dipstick. It used to be one of the simplest parts of any car and even today, when most cars’ engine oil level is measured electronically, it’s still a pretty uncomplicated thing. Back in the early 1960s a dipstick was exactly that – a stick sunk into the engine’s sump to measure the volume of oil in there. The stick is stamped with ‘min’ and ‘max’ lines on it, a collar fixed to the upper part of its stem ensuring that it stops at the correct point when pushed home into its orifice. Not much to go wrong there, you’d think – unless the markings are in the wrong place. And that was one of several engineering errors that poisoned the life of the 1964 Austin 1800. And there were quite major errors from other British Motor Corporation departments too.

But after three massive hits and one miss, it was easy to think that Mini designer Alec Issigonis could produce another runaway winner with his largest front-wheel drive model yet. The hits were the Mini itself, which after a slow start was now selling fast, the Morris 1100, which rapidly became Britain’s best-selling car and before these the Morris Minor, which was the first British car to make over a million sales. The miss was a V8-powered Alvis with rubber suspension, development of this big, expensive and complex saloon fortunately abandoned before it made production. Issigonis had gone to this long defunct luxury car-maker after designing the Minor, but was later lured back to BMC where he would eventually be given the task of engineering the Mini. Before that, he worked on a replacement for the Pinin Farina-styled Austin Cambridge and Morris Oxford, these stolid saloons and their pricier Riley and MG stablemates as British as pie and drizzle. That car was codenamed XC9000, and would probably have emerged in 1960 had it not been for the 1956 Suez crisis and the petrol scarcity it provoked. BMC switched its efforts to building a small car – the 1959 Mini – in favour of XC9000, followed by the 1962 Morris 1100.

The 1100 was effectively a bigger, more sophisticated Mini, and the 1800 would be a still bigger version of that. The 1100 had the same transverse engine as the Mini, the same astonishing roominess and the same grippy, low-roll handling. The differences were four-doors, a flourish of Pininfarina styling and engineer Alex Moulton’s ingenious Hydrolastic suspension. Hydrolastic combined rubber springs and interconnected, fluid-carrying pipes to produce a ride vastly less painful than the Mini’s, even if an 1100 turned almost comically bouncy at times. BMC engineers nicknamed it the shirt-lifter (the term had yet to gain seamier resonances) the 1100’s jiggling occupants likely to have their shirts untucked from their trousers.

Despite the dubious ability to part-undress its passengers, the 1100 was the most advanced car in its class and had dynamics to match. But before this or the Mini were launched the XC9000 project was revived and converted to front-wheel drive, prompting a codename change to XC9001. The idea was still to replace the Oxford and Cambridge with a medium-sized, front-drive 1500cc saloon, but that ambition was soon critically deflected.

Morris 1800

Morris 1800

BMC was also developing a larger version of its so-called ‘B’ Series engine, which propelled a wide variety of models including the MGB, whose 1622cc version was being expanded to 1798cc. Issigonis figured that this engine would make a better job of hauling XC9001 along – and he was right – but the capacity increase would push the car away from its target market. Worse still was that the car grew, and in unusual ways that made it look distinctly bigger than the Farina saloons that it was replacing.

In fact it was almost a foot shorter, but XC9001 looked longer because its wheelbase had grown six inches, and it was also much wider. The result was spectacular interior space, but a car of unconventional proportions and a radical mechanical layout likely to deter Farina saloon buyers, who would have felt as uneasy driving this car as they would leaving the homes without a jacket, tie and trilby.

Not that this was apparent as the project evolved. The task of styling the car fell to both Austin Morris’s own designers and Pininfarina, and this time it was the in-house team proposal that got the go-ahead, the Italian coachbuilders cleaning up this version’s details. The end result was more appealing than the prototypes, but unlikely to trigger involuntary mouthings of ‘beautiful’, ‘elegant’ or ‘stylish’.

More likely, once it was launched, would be the mouthing of expletives as disappointed owners discovered that BMC had once again failed to finish the development process. Launched in October 1964, XC9001 had undergone a codename change to ADO17 and built on the innovations of the smaller 1100. But the new Austin 1800 was undone not by these features but that pesky dipstick, whose faulty calibration caused the engine to be overfilled with oil, which it burnt in ominous plumes of blue smoke. Other problems included failing engine mounts, scuffing front tyres, rattling steering racks and a gearlever that couldn’t resist a fight. And once you’d actually battled your way into first or second, the lever would often jump back out.

Infuriation would be heightened by the Austin’s switchgear, which was so distant that when you were strapped in with static seatbelts, you couldn’t reach much of it. A distant underdash handbrake and an awkwardly angled steering wheel made this supposedly semi-luxurious saloon a physical battle to drive.

Morris 1800

Morris 1800 | © Defacto/Wikicommons

All of which smothered a long list of positives. Apart from its almost improbable interior space, the 1800 had roadholding, handling and steering vastly superior to the wallowing Ford Zephyrs and Vauxhall Veloxes it ended up competing with, and made the Farina saloon feel as wieldy as an encyclopaedia-packed bookcase. Its body was immensely strong to compensate for the deletion of suspension subframes, it mostly rode without too much short-lifting and performed decently with its 1.8 engine. But proof of BMC’s unfinished work came mere months after the launch with the rapid addition of reclining seats and a rear armrest as options, a change in the final drive ratio to quieten the engine at a cruise and a series of modifications to fix its mechanical maladies.

But the biggest modification of all was to BMC’s production forecast. Doubtless boosted by the success of the 1100 and Mini, its dealers reckoned they could shift 4000 Austin 1800s a week. Without investigating much further, BMC tooled up to produce just that number. Had they done more market analysis – incredibly, BMC had no market research department at the time – it would have uncovered the fact that cars in the 1700-1800cc category accounted for five percent of new car sales, while those in the 1400-1500cc class accounted for almost a fifth of the market. The 1800 also cost 14 percent more than a Farina saloon, which by the time of the new car’s launch BMC had decided to keep in production, having recognised that it had not produced a replacement. It didn’t take many seasons for it to also realise that it had not produced a winner in the 1800, which managed no more than 40,000 sales per year at its peak, compared to the predicted 200,000.

The 1800 was the wrong size, the wrong shape and the wrong price, a hurricane-force set of headwinds that its not inconsiderable qualities couldn’t overcome. Proof of its toughness came with a near-victory in the gruelling 1968 London-to-Sydney Marathon, and it was in Australia that the 1800 sold best, achieving a much healthier market share than it ever did in Britain, before being facelifted into the Kimberley and Tasman models that the UK never got.

The 1800’s failure marked the start of designer Alec Issigonis’s gradual falling from favour, and was the first of many serious mistakes that drove BMC into merger with British Leyland and yet more trouble. But that’s another disaster story.

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2006 Lotus Europa

Lotus Europa: why the ‘softer’ Elise failed to win buyers

2006 Lotus Europa

When a car company starts using famous names from its past on mildly reheated models, it’s a sure sign that ideas, and money, are in short supply.

Aston Martin’s short-lived Virage, catalogued for one year between 2011 and 2012 is one, this DB9 a pointless shadow of the original, which at least had a mission (keeping Aston alive) despite its many flaws.

Few will remember it, and those that do will wish they hadn’t, but the miserable excuse for a company car that was the Talbot Solara was issued in limited edition form (phew) as both a Minx and a Rapier. The first of these stick-on names – literally – once belonged to a dull but long-lived and successful series of family cars, the other two a series of lightly sporty coupes.

And then there’s the Lotus Europa. The original was an extraordinary low-roofed, mid-engine coupe that stood out, in a close-to-the-road kind of way, for its flat-deck of an engine lid and the shapely wall of glassfibre that framed it. That certainly made the Europa hard to reverse, but helped it scythe a low-turbulence passage through the air. A clean shape and low weight were everything for this car, which was a fine example of Lotus founder Colin Chapman’s mission to ‘simplify and add lightness.’

Unmissable results of this mantra included fixed door windows, your cool supposedly kept by big air-vents and an enthusiastic fan, curse-inducing luggage arrangements and the need to fold yourself like a collapsible bike to get in it. But the result was a kerbweight of 614kg and handling reckoned to be the closest thing to an open-wheeled race-car that you could drive on the road.

Originally powered by a lightly tuned Renault 16 engine, the Europa eventually gained Lotus’s potent twin cam motor which turned it from a brisk car into a quick one. Lotus also cut back the walls surrounding its engine lid, to create what looked like the world’s lowest (and most useless) pick-up truck.

Though never quite the favourite that the 1962 Elan became – it was too extreme, and unavailable as a convertible – the Europa was nevertheless a landmark Lotus, not least because it was one of the very first mid-engine road cars (only the Lamborghini Miura and Matra Djet got there before) and because of its arresting shape.

The 2006 Europa S, on the other hand, was no landmark at all. It looked the mutation of the Elise that it was – and by that time there had been plenty, including the close-roofed Exige – and rather than being an attempt to transfer the sensations of a track car to the road, it was supposed to be a more luxurious grand tourer.

Few were fooled. The Europa was just as difficult to get in, it wasn’t a whole lot less noisy than an Elise (and that meant rush-hour noisy), you still couldn’t carry much despite its hatchback and the Europa’s dashboard was pretty much identical to the cost-controlled Vauxhall’s Speedster’s, whose General Motors 2.0-litre turbo motor it shared.

But there were plusses, of course. The GM motor pumped more torque at lower revs than the Elise’s rev-heavy Toyota engine, this and the fixed roof usefully lowering the decibel count, even if there was no need for Lexus to panic. Being small and constructed from lightweight materials meant that it was quick, its 203hp yielding a 5.6 second 0-60mph time. And while the Europa’s Elise roots were hard to miss, there was no denying that it did look a little different, Lotus having clothed it with entirely new fibreglass mouldings.

The Europa also delivered crisp handling and exquisite steering, just like a good Lotus should. It wasn’t quite as sharp as the lighter Elise, the understeer demon appearing much earlier, but against its softer rivals – the Audi TT, for instance – it was a properly thrilling driver’s car.

2006 Lotus Europa

But as a machine to carry you from Aberdeen to Brighton it was a masochistic choice, especially as the thin seats felt ever thinner as the miles roared by. Still, there was relief to be had at petrol stations, which you’d need to be visiting often to replenish the undersized 43.5 litre fuel tank.

It didn’t take Lotus long to realise that the Europa fell short, its bosses enlisting senior engineer Roger Becker to lead a much-needed going over. Becker added a din-dampening NVH pack, recalibrated the chassis to banish the understeer, fitted wider tyres, boosted the power output to 225hp and upgraded the brakes to create the Europa SE. There was also an all-leather interior that vastly enhanced the cabin’s allure and an improved sound system that you had a real chance of properly hearing although the lesser entry-level Europa did without these things.

Becker couldn’t do much about the ludicrously small fuel tank, the Europa’s already heavy thirst deepened by the power boost, and his fatter rubber amplified road noise. So this Lotus still wasn’t especially comfortable, but it was undeniably fun and its cabin at least looked more sumptuous in SE trim.

As always with cars whose development is finished after the launch, the 21st century Europa never got much of a tyre-hold in the market, especially as the budget to promote it was small. All of which confined it to playing a small role in Lotus history, and more importantly, in its showrooms.

Only 458 were sold in four years, vastly less than achieved with the more imaginative original. And it would soon be rendered irrelevant by the new Evora, a car that had actually been designed the roof down as a GT. And it’s tempting to wonder whether the troubled Evora wouldn’t have been a better car at birth had Lotus’s engineers not been distracted by the Europa.

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Vauxhall Astra Belmont

Great Motoring Disasters: Vauxhall Belmont

It sounds like a dangerous policy, but sometimes car adverts brazenly major on a car’s biggest weakness, and hope that you’re sufficiently blinded by their beautiful images and snake-charmer words not to notice. There was, for instance, the British Leyland ad that trumpeted ‘Style. It’s hard to define, but easy to recognise.’

A promo for the Jaguar XJ6, perhaps, or the Triumph Stag? Nope. The Morris Marina.

A couple of decades later came Nissan’s more subtly hopeless line for its QX, a dull-as-a-puddle V6 saloon about which they announced, ‘It exists. The new QX’. It was hard to see what they were driving at, but there was no denying that the QX’s presence was worth pointing out, because it had the stand-out qualities of a weed.

The Vauxhall Belmont, then. ‘Not just an Astra with a boot,’ Vauxhall bleated vainly. Except that this car was exactly that, being an Astra all the way to the trailing edge of the rear door, behind which you’d find a protruding boot rather than a tailgated fastback, and a couple of slim-pillared extra side windows. But other than that, the Belmont was Astra all the way. It was even called the Astra Belmont, in case you were in any doubt.

Its marginal existence as an individual model was mostly the fault of Volkswagen and Ford, both of them producing saloon cars out of hatchbacks. In VW’s case it was the Jetta, born out of the Mk1 Golf back in 1978, and in Ford’s the Orion, which sprang from the first front-drive Escort in 1983. The Jetta sold quite well over here, but its big market was in the US, where for some reason they consider cars with liftgates (hatchbacks to you and me) to be some kind of unmentionable automotive mollusk.

Ford Orion Wikipedia

The Orion, on the other hand, became a big seller in Britain. By the time it had launched the 1980 Escort and 1982 Sierra, both very popular, Ford had switched from mainly being a maker of saloons to a major seller of hatchbacks. It would follow up with a five-door Granada Scorpio in 1985. But before that came 1983’s Orion, which was aimed at traditionalist Ford buyers still pining for a car with a boot. There were a lot of them, it turned out – the Orion was a regular top 10 best-seller in Britain for six years from 1984. And it was this sales hit that encouraged Vauxhall to give its booted Astra a name all of its own.

The 1986 Belmont turned out to be one disappointment piled on top of another, although this second heaping was admittedly smaller than the first. Disappointment one was the reality of a car that looked excitingly dramatic in spy shots. The Vauxhall Astra was actually a German car, this rebranded Opel Kadett a front-wheel drive replacement for the Vauxhall Chevette and the last rear-drive Kadett. Launched in 1978, it was a very capable car of modestly handsome style, several of its revvy new overhead cam engines a world away from the grumbling old motors found beneath the bonnets of Fords.

But the next-generation version completely abandoned the original’s square-cut look for a nose neatly rounded to slice the air, a fastback hatch and a guillotine-cut tail. The new shape was all about aerodynamics and flaunted plenty of neat detailing to prove it, from a tidily integrated one-piece egg-crate grille, impact bumpers and front valance to its mirror fairings, the distinctive, grey plastic filler piece behind the rear doors and its gutterless roof design. The hatch made a Cd of 0.32, the GTE 0.30, impressive numbers for the day. The ’84 Astra made the Ford Escort look fussy, and the still newer Austin Maestro look like a relic from the previous decade.

And there was more modernity inside, most dramatically aboard the GTE hot hatch, whose instrument binnacle was filled with a colourful LCD instrument display featuring a digital speedo and a rev-counter resembling a power curve. Neatly moulded door cards, a shapely dashboard and a deep-sculpted front seats made this Astra the most modern-looking family hatch to be found in a UK showroom during 1985.

Trouble was, the drama of the looks weren’t quite matched on the road. The smooth-revving 1300 and 1600 engines were still there (as were the less impressive pushrod motors) but the mostly unchanged suspension was not much of a step forward, a conclusion you would rapidly reach amid the light turbulence of a decaying road. The Astra’s steering precision didn’t bring lasers and scalpels to mind either. So while it looked like a new tomorrow, the Astra’s aerodynamic shell hid much that was from yesterday.

You could travel still further into the past with disappointment number two – the Belmont. The addition of a boot unavoidably lost much of the drama of the hatchback’s looks, and its badge was the kind of pretentious name used for British and American saloon cars from the early 1960s, or found in housing estates from the same era. Still, it had a big boot, and its slim rear pillars made it easier to reverse than the hatch.

It came with most of the trim and engine choices offered with the Astra hatch and estate, including a supposedly sporty SRi version. The bottom quarter of this car was finished in matt grey to match the bumpers – a look more pleasing than it sounds – and it wore a set of strikingly stylish wheel trims. The best bit lay under the bonnet, where you’d find the fuel-injected 122bhp 1.8 that had powered earlier versions of the Astra GTE. It was good for 121mph, a speed far higher than its net curtain-twitching target audience was ever likely to see other than on a Monarch jet or a high-speed train.

Vauxhall spent big on the advertising for this car, parking it beside a land-speed record challenger on the Utah salt flats, a habitat as appropriate to the Belmont as Mars. ‘You’ll be surprised what the Belmont SRi can take on’, was the strapline, the copy going onto point out that unlike the single-seat jet car at its side, the Belmont could carry five, enough luggage for a trip to Utah and go 550 miles on a tank escaping the place. You also got sports suspension, and – for the day – ultra-low profile tyres. This £8996 machine was not the ultimate Belmont, however.

That came in the luxuriant form of the Belmont CD (for Corps Diplomatique, this Vauxhall an obvious ambassadorial choice) which provided the same fearsomely potent engine and enough velour trim to spike global oil prices. It also had a chrome grille, a grey applique on its oversized bootlid, a centre console cassette holder and… not much else to justify its lamely ambitious badging.

Today just 0.09% of the 49,900-odd Belmonts sold between 1986 and 1991 remain on the road, these 47 surviving with another 61 on SORN, according to How Many Left. If you fancy a mint, blue 16,000-mile SRi, there’s one on eBay for £3500. Actually, 50,0000 Belmonts isn’t a bad number. But it wasn’t good enough to allow this dubious name to live on, the next Astra with a boot being just that – an Astra with a boot.

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SEAT Toledo Mk3

Great Motoring Disasters: SEAT Toledo Mk3

SEAT Toledo Mk3You could sort of see the logic, but not the beauty. True, the SEAT Toledo has never been automotive eye candy, but when version three arrived in 2004, it suddenly became a whole lot easier to appreciate the modestly inoffensive style of versions one and two.

The first Toledo, released in 1999, was a five-door hatchback that looked like a saloon. Designed by ItalDesign’s Giorgetto Giugiaro, it was also distinctive for the arrow-like shape of its rear doors, and manners rather better than you would expect of a budget machine mainly aimed – very successfully – at Spanish taxi drivers.

SEAT Toledo Mk3

They liked its spacious back seat, enormous boot, keen price, mechanical robustness and local build. The Toledo was based on the innards of the Mk2 Volkswagen Golf, and in GT form proved a surprisingly adept and very enjoyable drive with it. This despite its cabin’s habit of exfoliating plastic trim under the duress of big bumps, high heat and hard cornering. Most early Toledos would end up with at least one piece of plastic trim surfing the carpet, and often a small shoal.

Toledo edition two was simply a Leon hatchback with a boot. The Leon was quite a handsome hatch and sired a reasonable-looking Toledo. It was more sophisticated and better made, its interior components tending to stay where they’d been screwed, clipped and glued.

SEAT Toledo Mk3

But it was less distinctive, despite the option of a 2.3 litre Volkswagen V5 engine that made for a subtly swift machine. Keen prices and a tempting pile of equipment produced a good package, especially as it was reliable. And like the previous Toledo, its boot was enormous, once again endearing it to Spanish cabbies.

But in Britain this Toledo was completely overshadowed by its Leon sister, the handsome look and performance orientation of this hatch one of the high-points of Seat’s short history.

Sportiness, and big boots then. SEAT was becoming known for both by the time this second-generation Toledo was in production, but the brand was also becoming known around the car industry as the Volkswagen Group’s problem child. Lack of profit was the issue, and a shortage of ideas on how to make one.

Most of the brands in VW’s ever-growing portfolio had long histories and a strong sense of the kind of cars they should be making. SEAT, by contrast, had started life as a licensed builder of Fiats during the early 1950s, and while it had occasionally gone its own way during this era, most impressively with the 1975 1200 Sport coupe – still a pretty thing today – it was more an assembler than a creator of cars.

The 1982 break-down of its relationship with Fiat produced one-and-a-half cars of its own making, the half being the SEAT Ronda that was an obvious evolution of then Fiat Strada that it had just finished making. The entire car was the 1984 Ibiza, this the first SEAT developed during its brief period of independence, albeit with substantial help from ItalDesign and Porsche, whose engineering consultancy helped developed the car’s so-called ‘System Porsche’ engines. By this point the company was already making Volkswagens, the two companies rapidly edging closer until VW took a 51% share in 1986.

VW’s investment saw SEAT continuing to develop new models using VW platforms, its Polo-based Mk 2 Ibiza proving a big hit, and not only in Spain. VW boss Ferdinand Piech’s decision to place Seat under Audi’s management roof in 2002 – together with Lamborghini – saw the Spanish brand attempt to provide Alfa Romeo-like cars at keener prices.

But having allegedly decided to head this way, the company then proceeded to produce a series of family-oriented models, starting with the Altea, a not unattractive cross between a hatchback and a higher-riding MPV. Then came the Mk2 Leon, and shortly after that, the third Toledo series.

SEAT Toledo Mk3

All of which has several things in common beyond their Volkswagen Group platforms and powertrains. Which was that they were essentially the same car, but of different heights and lengths. The trio shared the same nose, all had flanks sporting an unmissable descending crease line vaguely suggestive of sportiness and all three were the work of a Walter da Silva-lead design team that included British designer Steve Lewis. Lewis had a major influence on the trio’s design, and would later become SEAT’s design boss.

Both the Leon and Altea were good-looking designs with some contemporary flair. The Toledo, by contrast, was less happy. Most of it was the same as the Altea for budget reasons, severely limiting the designers’ scope, but in order to provide it with a reason to exist they had to add the Toledo’s trademark big boot. And from the rear there was no mistaking that it had a very large booty indeed, its back-end protruding like J Lo’s, if rather less arrestingly.

SEAT Toledo Mk3

What it looked more like, in fact, was the back-end of another big miss from Europe’s car industry during the early part of this century, in the unfortunate shape of the Renault Vel Satis, an executive car that has almost finished sinking without trace. And the 2005-08 Toledo looks like heading the same way.

Although the Altea robbed it of many customers, the effect of the third-generation Toledo’ arrival was much the same as jabbing a balloon with a knife. Functionally it was great, providing a boot big enough for an ambitious camping holiday – or multiple balloons – but buyers weren’t interested.

Toledo sales tanked, tumbling from 39,000 in 2004 to 21,000 the following year. And this was nothing to 2005’s spectacular plunge below 9,000, or the less-than-5,000 the year after. Strangely, there were slightly more Toledo in 2008 but by then it was all over, the last few hundred selling the following year.

SEAT Toledo Mk3

After the collapse came a hiatus, while SEAT wondered what to do next. The answer came with the opportunist 2012 Toledo, otherwise known the Skoda Rapid, the two near-identical. And both have big boots.

Now that SEAT is pursuing family SUVs, it’s quite possible that the Toledo will fade out, and with it a once major piece of Spain’s car-making history. But the Toledo’s best year was its first, when the Mk 1 sold an impressive 106,000 copies – many more than the Mk 3 managed during its entire back-end blighted life.

Triumph TR7

40 years of the Triumph TR7: the story of Britain’s forgotten sports car

Triumph TR7Forty years ago, Triumph broke with tradition and launched its wedge-shaped TR7 sports cars. The advert claimed it was ‘The shape of things to come’, and from some angles it even looked like it.

Nose on from above, for example, when you’d see a sleek, steeply-raked bonnet and pop-up (sometimes) headlights. Or from the side, provided you could only see the front half of the car, its gently flared wings, dipping bonnet-line and neatly integrated black impact bumper – a novelty in the mid ‘70s – promising, well, the shape of things to come.

So, what about the rear half? That was the shocking bit. There was so much to take in, too, from the abruptly cut roof and its sharply plunging, flat-paned rear window to the clumsily protuberant rear bumper, plus a curious crease line that arced from behind the front wheels to the tip of the rear wing.

Triumph TR7

Legend has it that designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, then entering the zenith of his career, said ‘My God! They’ve done the same to the other side as well’ when he first saw the TR7 at a motor show.

Today, you can buy a TR7 from around £2,000 – a fraction of the cost of its more traditional predecessors. Perhaps its time as a prized classic will come, but life has never been easy for the TR7…

Journos: startled and confused

Triumph TR7

The TR7 wasn’t only criticised for its startling style. UK motoring journos asked why it wasn’t mid-engined like the Fiat X1/9, Porsche 914, Lancia Monte Carlo Spider and any number of supercars, especially when British Leyland was known to have been working on a mid-engined MG sports car.

Instead, this new TR was merely a front-engined, rear-wheel-drive machine, and more than that, its rear axle was of the cheapskate live variety rather than independent.

But most controversial of all was the fact that this sports car’s roof was steel and firmly welded shut. Weren’t sports cars supposed to be about feeling the summer breeze and seeing the sky above your head?

This, the lack of a six cylinder motor and the TR7’s wedgy contrast to the masculine, brick-like TRs that had gone before added up to a package that was even more controversial than the equally wedged Leyland 18-22 Series (soon to become the Princess) revealed at much the same time – and the Allegro that had lurched onto our roads two years earlier.

Bullet tipped

Triumph TR7
However, quite a bit of thought had gone into the Bullet project, as the TR7 was codenamed. Two top British Leyland engineers had travelled to the United States – by far the biggest market for Triumph and MG sports cars – to sound out a range of experts on how the Triumph TR6 should be replaced.

Almost all of them said that mechanical simplicity was essential – they didn’t want the independent rear suspension of the TR6, they wanted a simple four cylinder engine and they certainly didn’t want an exotic and difficult-to-repair mid-engined layout.

So Bullet got all of these things, and a fixed roof, because it looked like the US government was going to legislate convertibles out of existence for safety reasons.

And while it had that live axle, it was well-located with four links. This and long suspension travel provided the car with ride and handling far more sophisticated than any previous TR had managed.

Triumph TR7

But Bullet wasn’t necessarily going to be an adventurous wedge-shaped car at this point, British Leyland’s management and boss Sir Donald Stokes had yet to decide on design proposals coming from Triumph and from the Austin Morris design department.

Austin Morris was involved because BL also had the problem of replacing the MGB, although the sports car and its GT coupe stablemate were still setting sales records in the US.

But with BL as cash-poor as a gambling addict, there were thoughts of badging Bullet either as an MG, a Triumph, or with minor modifications (that would probably be badges, then) both.

A new TR was the priority though, and Triumph put forward a model based on earlier work by Italian designer Giovanni Michelotti, who had produced several very successful models for the company, the Herald, Spitfire, GT6 and TR4 among them.

TR7: a clean-sheet design

Triumph TR7

Austin Morris design boss Harris Mann, on the other hand, had the ideal clean sheet of paper and set about creating a more dramatic sports car with American tastes in mind. The decidedly rakish angle of his car’s windscreen was designed to allow the driver to see America’s overhanging traffic lights, for example.

The result was as arresting as a giraffe in a shopping mall, his startling slice of wedge worthy of a blister-packed Hot Wheels toy.

And it was Mann’s design that won the styling model face-off, with only a handful of management attendees voting for the more old-fashioned Triumph proposal. But Triumph’s engineering team did at least get the job of developing the car, and providing the so-called ‘slant four’ engine that enabled Mann’s steeply-sloped bonnet to emerge in production.

Triumph TR7

What didn’t make it were Mann’s hidden door handles and his neat flip-up headlamp covers, the engineering department forcing a shape that was distressingly close to a pair of toilet lids. At least they were body colour, until the paint began to peel off their top surfaces.

Not that this was the most serious of the early TR7’s deficiencies. “Unfortunately the (styling) buck was the only TR7 where the panels fitted and the wheels filled the wheel arches,” reckoned one of BL’s senior US managers. And he was not wrong.

The Speke factor

Triumph TR7

The TR7 was to be produced at BL’s Speke plant in Liverpool, a factory notorious for an unruly, strike-prone workforce that had transferred to the assembly line many of the skills they’d learned from the docks they were recruited from. Among these were gold-standard pilfering, and a lack of cooperation as shocking as the TR7’s style.

There were workers who wanted to work, but their efforts were undermined by the political militants, whose rebelliousness was fired by the presence of the Workers Revolutionary Party and the International Socialists, few of whom actually worked at the plant.

All of which meant that the TR7 was shoddily built and often not built at all, so frequent were the strikes. Not all the faults were introduced by its assemblers, however. Inaccurate body tooling ensured that the doors were too big for their apertures, for instance.

Rain often prompted one or both of the car’s headlights to go on strike, like their assemblers, and on some cars an emergency stop would have the screen popping out, its advanced, heat-bonded seal failing to stick.

Successful launch against the odds

Triumph TR7

Despite all this, dogged work by BL’s US team (who cobbled together a barely acceptable bunch of press demonstrators by cannibalising some cars) meant the TR7’s 1975 American launch was a success.

Poor brakes and a vibratory engine were criticised, and many found the styling less than beautiful, but they welcomed a car that looked refreshingly radical and loved the comfort of its exceptionally well-designed interior.

It was quite keenly priced, it rode and handled well, delivered adequate performance and was far more civilised than any British sports car that had come before. And Americans were already migrating to coupes from convertibles, encouraged by the earlier arrival of the highly desirable Datsun 240Z.

Europe did not see the TR7 until 1976, the priority being the US. And just two years later the car’s career looked like it might be all over, thanks to a five-week strike that began on the day BL’s new South African boss Michael Edwardes arrived, tasked with sorting government-owned British Leyland out.

Some early sorting saw the shutting of the section of Speke factory that made the TR7.

But, despite the fact that the car itself had made no money – and that even Prime Minister Jim Callaghan, to whom Edwardes was ultimately answerable, reckoned it should be killed off – the car was transferred to Triumph’s Coventry plant.

The TR7 survives

Triumph TR7

Over 200 improvements were made in the process, most of them aimed at fixing poor quality – although the doors still didn’t quite fit – and the TR7 briefly entered a more stable period.

Highlights were the arrival of a convertible, which rid it of the turret-top roof that many hated, and for the US, the impressive V8-powered TR8. Convertible-killing legislation never came to the US, and the drop-top TR7 turned out to be a pretty agreeable machine.

More upheaval was to come – literally – with the closure of Triumph’s Canley plant, which saw TR7 production moved once again, this time to Rover’s Solihull factory. With the move came another mild quality upgrade, and plans to introduce the TR8 in Europe.

Unfortunately, by now the TR7’s sales trajectory was much the same as the sinking crease lines on its flanks, and it would not be long before its viability was called into question.

That saw the European TR8 programme cancelled, and by 1981 the plug was pulled on the whole project in spite several attempts, one of them a risible MG rebranding, to save the car.

The TR7 dies (and so does Triumph)

Born 40 years ago, the last TR7 was built on October 5th 1981, ending the long and (mostly) successful career of TR sports cars and in truth of Triumph too. The Acclaim saloon launched at much the same moment was little more than a rebadged Honda.

With a tumultuous history like that, and styling that still startles for many of the wrong reasons, it’s easy to view the TR7 as a total failure.

In profit terms it almost certainly was, but the 7 turned out to be the most produced of all the TRs, scoring 112,368 sales during its six turbulent years.

Triumph TR7 Project Lynx

Had it been better made that number could easily have been higher, enabling the fulfilment of a development programme that also included the Lynx 2+2 coupe (pictured above) and a 16-valve model besides.

But like so many British Leyland stories, this is another one peppered with wistful what-ifs.

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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.