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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.

Fiat Croma

Great Motoring Disasters: Fiat Croma

Fiat CromaHad 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.

Fiat Croma

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.

Fiat Croma

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.

Fiat Croma

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.

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).

Fiat Croma

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.

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.

Fiat Croma

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.

Fiat Croma

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.

Vauxhall Astra Belmont

Great Motoring Disasters: Vauxhall Belmont

Vauxhall Astra BelmontIt 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.

Vauxhall Astra Belmont

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.

Vauxhall Astra Belmont

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.

Vauxhall Astra Belmont

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.

Vauxhall Astra Belmont

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.

Alfa Romeo 156

Great Motoring Disasters: Alfa Romeo 156

Alfa Romeo 156Cast 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.

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.

Alfa Romeo 155 BTCC

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.

Alfa Romeo 156

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.

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. Lessons we must hope that Alfa remembers for the new Giulia…

Cadillac Allante

Cadillac Allante: the curious motoring disaster that had its own private jets

Cadillac AllanteWhen it comes to building cars cost-efficiently, it’s generally a good idea to manufacture the body somewhere in the vicinity of the final assembly line.

Next door is ideal, the freshly stamped and welded body immediately making its way to the paint shop, before being baked, undersealed and despatched to the moving conveyor that will see it built into a complete car.

It’s a manufacturing sequence that most car-makers follow, although there have been a surprising number of models whose bodyshells have been built on sites some distance from the assembly line.

Rolls-Royce used to buy in shells for its Silver Shadow and Silver Spirit from British Leyland, which manufactured them on what is now the site of the BMW Mini factory in Oxford. And today, a Roller’s bodyshell comes from Germany.

Ferrari sourced bodies from coachbuilders Scaglietti, Lamborghini from Goldencar, both of these local to their factories.

Less clever was British Leyland’s habit of transporting primered bodyshells around the Midlands during the ‘60s and ‘70s, a pretty inefficient activity when most of a raw shell is air.

Cadillac and Pininfarina

Cadillac Allante

But that was nothing to the manufacturing process that produced the Cadillac Allante. This two-door convertible, which debuted in 1986 as an alternative to the Mercedes SL and Jaguar XJS, was the progeny of America’s most upscale car-maker and Italian design house Pininfarina.

Cadillac had flirted with the Italian company before, the body of its ’59 Eldorado Brougham saloon handbuilt and assembled in Turin on chassis’ sent from the US. Once Pininfarina had finished with it, the Brougham was shipped back to America for final finishing.

This was the last hand-made, coach-built Cadillac and you certainly paid for it, the Pininfarina Brougham costing three times the price of the spectacularly flamboyant standard version made in the US.

Unsurprisingly, this US-Italian hybrid sold slowly despite its more tasteful elegance, only 200 finding homes in 1959-60. There were quality problems too, the lead-loading used to smooth its hand-beaten bodywork causing the paint to fracture.

How not to learn from history…

Cadillac Allante

Despite such mixed results, GM decided to have another crack at creating something special with Pininfarina a couple of decades later.

This time, Italy got the task not only of designing a classy two-seat roadster, but also of building and painting its body as well. The broad basis of the Allante was Cadillac’s front-wheel drive V8 Eldorado, although its bodyshell, and most of its platform, were unique to the convertible.

And the name? That was generated by a computer that produced 1700 possibilities, the chosen badge being meaningless, although its did sound a little like the sea that this Cadillac’s body had to cross.

Cadillac Allante

That body was neat, slender, crisp and excitement-free, the Allante’s potential athleticism undermined by an over-short wheelbase, a curiously high-riding stance and a powertrain that was never going to threaten a sprinting SL or an XJS.

There may have been 4.1 litres of V8 beneath its long bonnet, but this engine was good for no more than 170bhp and a 0-60mph time of 9.8 seconds, languidly delivered via four-speed automatic.

All of which meant that the most dramatic aspect of the Allante was not the car itself but its crazy method of construction.

Building cars with Boeing

Cadillac Allante

Once Pininfarina had finished the bodies, which were painted, fully trimmed and equipped with their folding roofs, they were transported from Turin to America by jumbo jet.

GM called it the ‘Allante Airbridge’, a trio of Boeing 747s specially modified to carry the part-finished Caddys across the pond. Detroit installed the sub-frames, suspension, drivetrain, fuel tanks and wheels to complete the car.

Cadillac Allante

Although it was not quite complete when Cadillac launched it in autumn 1986, Pininfarina having realised that the soft-top was prone to leaks and squeaks. They wanted to delay the launch and fix the problems, but GM insisted on sticking to its timetable.

And Mother Earth stuck to her familiar weather patterns, unhelpfully showering the Allantes bought by eager owners. Who soon found that some of that rain wasn’t returning to earth, but pooling in the footwells of their prized new convertibles.

Stemming the leaks cost Cadillac tens of thousands of dollars, besides staining the Allante’s reputation. And its carpets.

Leaks were not the last of the Allante’s functional troubles. Bosch discovered problems with its ABS anti-lock brake system, and the Bose sound system made strange cracking noises that could have been mistaken for failing trim.

Cadillac didn’t give up

Cadillac Allante

By the early ‘90s, the Allante’s reputation was glittering like an old tyre. But Cadillac didn’t give up on it, despite slow sales.

The pushrod 4.1 motor was tuned to produce 204bhp before being replaced in 1992 by GM’s excellent new 4.5 litre 32-valve quad cam Northstar V8, which delivered a far more convincing 285bhp.

Despite its front-drive chassis, the Allante drove well, too, blending refinement with a decent show of twisting road agility.

And it had plenty of the toys that Cadillac owners expect, including sumptuous power leather seats, digital LCD instruments, traction control – necessary, with front-drive and 285bhp – and later in life, electronically controlled suspension too.

‘Quite decent’, eventually

Cadillac Allante

By the end of its career, the Allante had become quite a decent grand touring convertible. Trouble was, the 1989 Mercedes SL, a tour de force of engineering and quality, had the one thing that the Allante was missing, in the shape of a one-shot power roof. Which didn’t leak.

Cadillac ran hard to fix and improve the Allante in the first few years of its life, but it never ran hard enough to keep up with the SL and XJS despite some substantial improvements.

Like most cars that gain an unsavoury early reputation, it never fully recovered. Still, the ’93 model year Allante was the best yet, featuring revised rear suspension with electronic dampers, upgraded brakes and myriad detail improvements.

It was also the best sales year for the car, the 4670 sold far higher than had been achieved in earlier years. But Cadillac nevertheless announced the Allante’s demise in the same year, the model still falling short of its 6000 annual sales target.

Profligate, yet loss-making

Cadillac Allante

It’s hard to imagine GM making much money on this car when it sold an average of around 3000 copies a year, was produced by such tortuously profligate methods, shared relatively little with other Cadillacs and almost nothing with Oldsmobiles and Buicks.

The total Allante production tally was 21,430. Today you can find them on sale in America from around $8000, while the best examples, often with mileages well below 40,000, cost under $20,000 – a third of the $60,000 or so that this Cadillac cost at the end of its career.

The Allante was not Cadillac’s last two-seater, the company taking another shot at the SL with the XLR. This time without the help of Pininfarina and a small fleet of jumbo jets.

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.

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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.