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Suzuki SJ - Great Motoring Disasters

The Suzuki 4×4 that cornered like a motorbike

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

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

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

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

Suzuki SJ - Great Motoring Disasters

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

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

Suzuki SJ - Great Motoring Disasters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suzuki SJ - Great Motoring Disasters

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

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

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

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

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

Suzuki SJ - Great Motoring Disasters

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now watch the video that caused all the fuss…

NSU Ro80

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

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

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

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

Fit for a Prinz

NSU Prinz

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

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

NSU Wankel Spyder

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

‘Unbelievably smooth’ engine

Dr Felix Wankel

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

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

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

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

But not for long.

Disastrous NSU rotary engine reliability

NSU rotary engine

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

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

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

Mazda Cosmo

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

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

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

Enter the NSU R080

NSU Ro80

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

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

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

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

A brilliant driver’s car

NSU Ro80

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

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

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

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

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

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

NSU finances: a tsunami of red ink

NSU Ro80

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

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

Volkswagen K70

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

NSU and Audi join forces

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

The legacy of the NSU Ro80

NSU Ro80

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

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

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

Fiat Stilo

Great Motoring Disasters: Fiat Stilo

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

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

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

Fiat Stilo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiat Stilo

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

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

Fiat Stilo

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

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

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

Fiat Stilo

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

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

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

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

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

Fiat Stilo

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

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

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

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

Fiat Stilo

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

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

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

MG Rover CityRover

Great Motoring Disasters: MG Rover CityRover

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

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

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

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

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

The Tata Rover

MG Rover CityRover

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

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

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

Not good enough for MG Rover

MG Rover CityRover

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

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

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

MG Rover CityRover

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

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

The £900 brand new Rover?

MG Rover CityRover

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

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

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

Self-inflicted sabotage – and James May

MG Rover CityRover

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

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

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

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

40,000 sales a year, they thought…

MG Rover CityRover

 

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

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

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

The facelift that never was

MG Rover CityRover

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

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

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

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

Sinclair C5

Great Motoring Disasters: Sinclair C5

Sinclair C5The Sinclair C5 came in a cardboard box delivered to your door, it was built in a Hoover washing machine factory and it was narrow enough to drive down your hallway. Which many concluded was the best place for it.

This was a cheap new revolutionary vehicle for the masses, reckoned millionaire computer whiz Sir Clive Sinclair, whose qualifications for this forecast were founded on his successful launch of one of the earliest pocket calculators and the famous ZX Spectrum home computer. Well, the Sinclair C5 was certainly cheap compared to a normal car, and it certainly looked revolutionary. But not in a good way.

Genesis: 1979

Sinclair C5

Its emergence was the result of Sinclair’s long-running interest in electric cars, which lead to the start of the C1 project in 1979. Sinclair asked a former Radionics colleague Tony Wood Rogers to consult on the project, and design specialists Ogle to style it.

Ogle subsequently revealed that they never believed in the project, their concentration on its aerodynamic properties – critical for an electric vehicle, even with the modest 30mph target top speed of the C1 – resulting in an unhelpful weight gain that probably undid all the aerodynamic wins. That made the C1’s 30 mile range a near-impossible goal, despite a lightweight polypropylene body built only for one.

Better than a moped?

Sinclair C5

Sinclair’s aim was to build a better vehicle than a moped, and at a price vastly undercutting a car’s. But by spring 1983 he abandoned this project to raise more funds, undeterred by Ogle’s prophetic view that the C1 wouldn’t sell because its range was limited, it wasn’t weather-proof and it was too slow.

Sinclair raised £12 million by selling shares in Radionic, over £8 million of it dedicated to the newly formed Sinclair Vehicles. Within months the project was back on, and the Hoover domestic appliance company contracted to build the vehicle, as Sinclair preferred to call it, at its Welsh factory. And at the staggeringly optimistic rate of 8,000 a week – quantities to rival Ford.

Lotus engineering

Sinclair C5

The project got a boost of sorts when the government introduced legislation, lobbied for by bicycle-maker Raleigh, that allowed electrically-assisted two and three wheelers onto UK roads. But only at speeds up to 15mph. That the electric motor could only be as powerful as 250 Watts and the vehicle weigh no more than 60kg also had an unhelpful impact on Sinclair’s motor-assisted recumbent tricycle.

But within these limits, it was well-engineered, Lotus hired to develop the C5 from Wood Rogers’ prototype. Like a Lotus it had a backbone steel chassis, a welded composite two-piece body and it was built down to a weight. An electric fan motor drove a single speed, belt-driven gearbox and it was steered by handlebars that lay below you, where they were easy and relaxing to reach, an ingenious solution devised by Wood Rogers.

Sinclair C5 engine: you

Sinclair C5

But the main source of drive was not so much the motor as you, and the Sinclair’s big, square pedals. The C5 was simply a tricycle with a part-time 12-volt motor, and it should have been sold that way to avoid disappointment. But marketing it as a tricycle would never have scored the colossal publicity that came its way because it was presented as a car, all of this preceded by the usual pre-launch fanfare.

Spin it any way you like, but the Sinclair C5 launch was a disaster. Problem one was that it took place on January 10 1985, the cold not only reducing the range of its puny 12-volt battery but also treating the assembled hacks to the shivering reality of pedalling a C5 in the cold, wind and rain.

Problem two was the location. North London’s Alexandra Palace is an attractive venue, partly because it’s built on a hill. But it didn’t take long for the hacks, serial long-lunchers among them, to discover one of the C5’s many problems.

Hill-climbing often overloaded the motor to the point of cut-out – a state signalled by a forlorn electronic peeping – and when the motor wasn’t overworked a modest gradient would soon flatten the plastic trike’s battery. Some C5s didn’t decimate their batteries – but that was only because they didn’t work at all.

Still, orders came, but at nowhere near the rate needed to absorb the 8000-a-week torrent spilling from Hoover’s Merthyr Tydfil factory. There was plenty of brave talk from Sinclair Vehicles on the fizzing interest in their £399 transport revolution, and how better weather would help sales.

Surging criticism

Sinclair C5

But it wasn’t enough to staunch the surging criticism. Testers found the range was more like 10 miles rather than the claimed 20, and less on a clement day. They felt hugely vulnerable on the road, a feeling undiminished by the optional high-visibility mast, which added to the deep feelings of foolishness that swept over anyone stepping into this pedal-powered plastic bath.

Although that was nothing to the embarrassment you’d feel at fitting – and wearing – the Sinclair’s wet-weather gear, which consisted of fabric panels covering its sides and your legs, and a matching hooded anorak. Putting all this on would have added another 15 minutes to your dismally slow journey, and made you feel almost as humiliated as a naked hotel guest trapped in a lift.

There was no heater – although you’d soon get warm pedalling when the motor stopped whining – there was no reverse gear and it had the turning circle of the trucks threatening to squash it.

Beautifully designed… in parts

Sinclair C5

Examine the C5 in detail, though, and you’ll spot some subtle industrial elegance. It wasn’t a beautiful design, but parts of it were beautifully designed. Gus Desbarats, a Royal College of Art graduate hired to style the C5, later described his contribution as ‘convert[ing] an ugly pointless device into a prettier, safer and more usable pointless device.’

Its pointlessness was proven by the fact that of the 14,000 produced – less than two weeks’ production at full tilt – only 5000 were sold.

Sir Clive Sinclair: deep belief – in the wrong idea

Sinclair C5

The C5 was the product of a man with the means believing deeply in the wrong idea. No more than rudimentary market research would have revealed the C5’s flaws and near uselessness in the harsh environment of a late 20th century road network.

Its vulnerability made a superbike look safe. But perhaps the most powerful killer of C5 sales was that you looked an idiot when driving it. And cars – or bikes – that humiliate their users make a hard, hard sell.

Some might say that the C5 was ahead of its time, but it’s doubtful that a tricycle travelling at snail-speed in the company of artics would be allowed on the road today. It would face the same construction and use troubles impeding the decidedly more brilliant Segway, which isn’t allowed on the road either, but has many more uses.

Curiously, one of those is providing ‘safari’ rides in the grounds of Alexandra Palace.

Ford Scorpio

Great Motoring Disasters: Ford Scorpio

Ford ScorpioFord knew it had a problem. How it got to have this problem is a little harder to understand.

But in the few remaining months before the 1994 Scorpio’s launch, Ford’s communications machine realised that it must try to adjust the media’s minds – and fast.

What it had to talk up, explain or at worst excuse, was the look of the company’s new big car. Of which a few scoop pictures had appeared in the press, and with them some uncomfortably acidic words.

Before all this, the Granada had been a comfortably familiar machine, the population well used to the bold, almost Citroen-esque car that arrived in 1985. This smooth-nosed, curve-windowed hatchback was an arresting contrast to the quietly handsome, square-jawed Granada that had gone before, but the public was better prepared for the shock of the Blue Oval’s new, the jarring arrival of the Sierra three years earlier thoroughly softening their senses.

Ford Scorpio

The Granada sold well, its near-spectacular cabin space, comfortable ride and hatchback practicality winning sales, as did its standard-fit ABS anti-lock brakes and a long toy list. Those unable to adjust to its hatchback silhouette were eventually offered a saloon.

The birth of the Scorpio

But by the mid-’90s the Granada needed renewing. Ford had already performed one light facelift and should really have been replacing the car completely given its age. But the market for executive models for mainstream makers was dying, so Ford chose a light mechanical upgrade and a reskin instead. With came a rebadging to Scorpio, this name used for the high-end Granadas in Britain and the entire model line-up elsewhere.

The word ‘reskin’, however, doesn’t really describe the transformation that was effected. The usual battery of words from the designer’s lexicon, like ‘stance’, ‘dynamic’, ‘looks like it’s moving when it’s standing still’, ‘proportion’ and ‘muscular’ didn’t really do it either.

Instead, you had to reach for adjectives used to describe some of the less winsome of earth’s creatures, the Ford Scorpio resembling something that David Attenborough might reveal from a dank cave in Borneo. Especially Ford’s front-end, which your eyes would irresistibly be drawn to before your brain fought over whether to focus upon the globular triangles of its headlights, or the reptilian gurn of its grille.

Ford Scorpio

With a face like this, the new Scorpio’s oddly fat flanks were easy to pass over until you arrived at a plump rear-end resembling a giant cushion. Decorating it like an ill-chosen necklace was a gratuitously narrow strip of chrome-capped lights. Apart from the uncertain use of glitter, this was a tail that seemed to have little in common with the Scorpio’s nose beyond the doors that joined them.

Which prompted many to mouth that old cliché about the car’s front-end being designed by people who had never allowed anywhere near its rear.

‘Gargoyle-ugly’

Ford Scorpio

So, the new Scorpio was gargoyle-ugly. And all of a sudden the press was going to be shown the car, months before any test-drives, in an effort to persuade them that black was actually white. The (re) education was to take place at Ford’s Cologne engineering and design centre.

New European design boss Fritz Mayhew, who defended the car stoutly despite having no hand in it, kicked the proceedings off. And he gave the assembled hacks, your reporter included, an interesting and very plausible account of where car design had been heading during the past decade. Which was towards a uniformly bland, identikit look with grilleless noses, flat flanks and rounded corners that made loads of European cars – Fords included, although he didn’t say that – look two-dimensional rather than three. And he was not wrong.

Prescient Ford?

The antidote to this, Mayhew reckoned, would be the re-emergence of the radiator grille – as per the facelifted Rover 800 now outselling the Granada – the dawn of more sculptural lamps and the return of chrome. Mayhew was right about all of this – these trends are still in vogue today – and he was right about the shift towards the more sculptural, less blocky dashboards that he also forecast.

Ford Scorpio

Then came a quick-fire sequence of pictures of handsome classic cars, each with distinctive grilles. Surprisingly, given what the 800 was doing to Granada sales, the first of these was of a Rover P5, followed by an Austin-Healey 3000, a Bristol 401, a Jaguar XK120, a Facel Vega and an Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider.

There was much admiration in the room for Ford’s willingness to acknowledge the existence of good design from other car-makers, something that big corporations can rarely bring themselves to do. But admiration was in short supply when the new Scorpio was unveiled, mostly to looks of wonderment. And not of the positive kind.

Ford Scorpio

But you couldn’t argue with the design’s content. The new Scorpio was distinctive rather than Euro-clone in its looks. It had a face, it had chrome and it had a strikingly curvaceous dashboard, though much of this was filled with nasty ‘Timberlex’ wood rather than the aluminium that Ford’s designers had presciently reckoned it should flaunt.

Sales: a struggle

Mayhew considered the Scorpio a signpost towards a newly individual design trend for Ford rather than a breakthrough look, even if this was a worryingly unpromising start. The Scorpio proved worryingly unpromising in the showroom too, the new car struggling to sell despite a considerable improvement in the way it drove down the road.

Ford Scorpio

Ford’s designers gave it one more tweak, darkening its headlights to make it look less bug-eyed two years before it death in 1998.

Yet despite its unsettling aesthetics, the Scorpio previewed a rich era for Ford styling, the company’s adventurous New Edge design philosophy producing ground-breakers that included the 1996 Ford Ka and the 1998 Focus. The success of these soon eclipsed the embarrassment of the Scorpio.

Jowett Javelin

Great Motoring Disasters: Jowett Javelin

Jowett JavelinThink of revolutionary, post-WW2 cars from Britain, and one small thought immediately comes to mind – the 1959 Mini. But 12 years before the country’s most famous car was launched came another quietly brilliant, rule-bending machine.

Like the Mini, that car would win silverware in the Monte Carlo rally, it would demonstrate that fast, family car cornering needn’t be a torrid affair and – wait for it – it was the first British car to have a curved windscreen. And again like the Mini, its design was largely the work of one man.

That car was the 1947 Javelin. Compared to most of the warmed-over, upright, separately mudguarded pre-war throwbacks that most British car-makers were building in the late 1940s, the Javelin was a peek into a brighter future. Its origin was as much a surprise as its streamlined silhouette, the Javelin made by the Yorkshire-based Jowett company.

Jowett Javelin

This was relatively small outfit compared to the dominant Austin, Morris, Ford, Hillman and Vauxhall of the day, its pre-Javelin range mostly centred around a tough 1.0 litre twin cylinder that the founding Jowett brothers had developed in 1910. This engine was usually found propelling vans and utilitarian family cars that would have complemented homes with no bath and an outside toilet.

The vehicle Jowett was most dependent on for its business was the Bradford van, a 1946 rework of a 1932 design that nevertheless found 38,000 buyers, many of them overseas. And presumably, given its 55mph top speed, most of them had time on their hands. The Javelin, however, would be capable of a far headier 80mph, an eye-widening pace for a late ‘40s family car. And it had the looks to go with it.

But what made the Javelin especially special was a lot more than its clean, fastback shape. Its creators were well ahead of their time for conceiving it as a world car, suitable not only for the UK but Europe, North America and Africa. Designer Gerald Palmer was better qualified than many for the task, having grown up in southern Africa. His dirt road experience determined several Javelin fundamentals, among them eight inches of ground clearance and the unusually strong chassis structure partly responsible for its fine handling.

Like Mini designer Alec Issigonis Palmer was a lot more than a stylist, his considerable engineering skills enabling him to design the entire car, engine included. Apart from aiming for the robust, he also wanted an aerodynamic car with plenty of passenger space. The Jowett’s aerodynamic properties were part guesswork, the car never seeing the inside of a wind tunnel, but there was a widely held view at the time that ultimately, cars would resemble the teardrop shape of a fish.

Jowett Javelin

In many ways that was right, Palmer’s attempts leading to the sloping tail, the fared in rear wheels and the absence of running boards. The curved windscreen would have helped too, glassmakers Triplex offering Jowett the chance to be first in the UK with this feature.

The roomy cabin – a bench front seat allowed room for six – was achieved by mounting the Javelin’s 1.5 litre engine well forward. The engine was a bit more compact than a conventional in-line four cylinder because of its Subaru-style boxer layout, yielding a shorter block.

Flat-fours were not new to Jowett, the company selling some before WW2, the layout a logical development of the company’s flat twin. But this engine was all-new, and the work of Palmer.

He also designed the car’s space-efficient, all-independent torsion bar-sprung suspension, most other rear-wheel drive cars having a live axle suspended by cart springs. The result was a ride that kept a Javelin man’s tobacco in his pipe, and roadholding grippy enough to get aunty Gertie begging for mercy.

Jowett Javelin

All of this contributed to the car’s slightly unexpected class win in the 1949 Monte Carlo rally, in which Palmer was a co-driver. This success was followed by a still more impressive class win in the Spa 24 hour race, the car soon gaining a name as a car for the sporting chap.

It also gained plenty of press accolades, ‘The Motor’ concluding that the Javelin had ‘a combination of qualities rendering the car unrivalled in its field.’ Jowett’s gamble on a new car, a new engine and advanced new factory equipment to build it with looked like it was paying off. And having finished this design, Palmer was head-hunted by the Nuffield Organisation to design new models for Morris, Wolseley, Riley and MG.

But he left behind a company whose success would turn to failure. In an effort to save money, Jowett designed its own transmission to replace the bought-in unit, but the ‘box was not up to the job. Of the first 1000 cars fitted with it, 78 suffered failures, early cars also prone to overheating and worse, fracturing crankshafts.

Jowett ultimately upgraded the engine into quite a tough performer, but by then the Javelin’s poor reputation, and a shrinking UK market, saw sales the sales graph plunge.

The Javelin’s body supplier had also been bought by Ford, which continued to honour the contract to the point that Jowett ended up having to store bodies around Bradford, football ground included, because sales were so slow. Body supply was temporarily halted in 1952 and was never restarted, because Jowett ceased trading in 1954.

Jowett Javelin

The company had over-reached itself, introducing too many new components and systems and failing to test them adequately, a common failing of the British car industry. Had the Javelin been more reliable it could have propelled Jowett to new heights. As it was, only 22,700 were built – less than the geriatric Bradford van.

The British car industry has many stories of brave failure, just as the American, German, French, Italian and Japanese industries do.

But what made the Javelin different, apart from its striking looks, was the quality of thinking that went into its design. It’s a real shame that the same effort wasn’t invested in its testing.

Chevrolet Volt

Great Motoring Disasters: Chevrolet Volt

Chevrolet VoltIt promised to be a revolution. A revolution of propulsion, a revolution of design and a revolution for a newly-adventurous General Motors. But today it looks like an irrelevant revolution, and a very expensive one at that. Yet there is little wrong with the Chevrolet Volt in itself, and a hell of a lot that’s right. And genuinely revolutionary, too.

But this car, and its slightly more handsome Vauxhall Ampera cousin, are that rare in Britain that it’s worth reminding ourselves of what this wheeled revolution is. Which is an E-REV, or extended-range electric vehicle.

On battery power alone, it’s capable of travelling 30-50 miles, which is more than enough for most commutes. When your volt and amp supply is exhausted, you have an 86hp petrol engine that kicks in to part-replenish the battery, and provide the 150hp electric motor with juice, enabling you to travel another 310 miles without needing to plug your E-REV into a power supply or pump petrol in its tank.

Chevrolet Volt

The revolutionary part of all this is that you have a zero emission electric vehicle with a more than decent range when the battery’s exhausted, a pretty economical car when the petrol generator is running and a spectacularly economical car when it’s running on electricity alone. And a spectacularly green one should the electricity used to recharge it comes from renewables or a nuclear source.

All of which sounds relatively simple conceptually, but required a gargantuan research and development push (and money pile) from GM to realise, its tasks including the development of lithium-ion battery packs for safe use in cars, and evolving safety systems that would enable the Volt to score the full Euro NCAP five stars.

Chevrolet Volt

Indeed, when GM triggered the serious investment phase in the programme, the project’s bosses freely admitted that they weren’t actually sure that the Volt could be developed for the showroom because the battery technology wasn’t where it needed to be.

Which might make you wonder why GM wanted to make such a large bet on a semi-unknown technology. There are lots of reasons, of course, but a major one was that this often troubled organisation began to get fed-up with the positive PR that Toyota was getting with its Prius, and how few glowing column inches GM was winning for its (admittedly unbuyable) fuel cell initiatives, the cost-effective hybrid system it had developed for its big trucks and the fact that its recently acquired Hummer brand was being vilified despite its trucks being no less thirsty than many rivals’. Including Toyota’s.

Plenty of the kicking was justified – a ‘Breaking Bad’ Pontiac Aztec, anyone? – but not all of it was and a man getting particularly cheesed off with this situation, was one Bob Lutz.

Chevrolet Volt

Car guy, business book author, fighter-jet flyer, classic car collector and serially successful auto executive, Lutz made several failed attempts to convince his bosses that GM should build a new electric car to take on Toyota.

That his bosses were reluctant is understandable when you consider their all-too recent memories of the ill-starred, patchily admired, feature film-inspiring PR disaster that was the EV1. GM eventually crushed most of these neat and rapid little electric coupes, squeezing the life out of any PR advantage they might have garnered and prompting widespread (and misguided) accusations that General Motors had killed the electric car. It hadn’t, but it could certainly have handled the project more eptly.

Chevrolet Volt

So Lutz’s attempts to trigger a new EV project were repeatedly batted away, until the day that Tesla launched its Elise-based Roadster with a lithium-ion battery pack, a 200 mile range and a 0-60mph time of 4.0seconds. That a silicon valley start-up was showing GM the way was enough to get Lutz a grudging go-ahead and the chance, he hoped, to win back some of Toyota’s hybrid advantage.

His electric car very rapidly turned into something else when engineering boss colleague Jon Lauckner persuaded Lutz, with the aid of a pad and a gold-knibbed fountain pen, that what was needed was a range-extending hybrid and not a pure EV. The batteries required to give an EV a decent range (ie, something a lot more than the 100-mile maximum that most of today’s EVs give you) would have been more expensive than the entire car at that point, argued Lauckner, who saw a range-extender as a way to reduce the size and price of the battery pack to (semi-) affordable levels.

GM showed a sexily styled concept called the Volt at the 2007 Detroit show which won the kind of headlines Lutz was dreaming of, and gave itself the headache of delivering on its promise, something this American giant often failed to do. Four long years and many press briefings later a Volt emerged that looked nothing like the sexy original, whose shape sliced air about as cleanly as a combine harvester. But it certainly contained the promised technology and what’s more, it worked.

Chevrolet Volt

True, there were some early troubles. GM’s foolish claim that the Volt only ever ran on electric power was eventually uncovered, the petrol generator engine occasionally lending a direct hand when the car was running flat-out to save the battery, and a fire from a parked test car didn’t help its case either, but mostly the reviews were positive. Positive enough to win it a heap of awards, including the 2011 World Green Car of the Year.

But none of this was enough to overcome the one big problem with this revolution. Which was that it was not a revolution of the people, the Volt and Ampera simply too expensive to silently glide onto people’s radar. Even after generous government subsidies here and in the US, the pair cost getting on for double the price of a similarly sized Vauxhall Astra or Chevrolet Cruze.

Chevrolet Volt

 

There was the further drawback of only four seats rather than the usual five, the bulky T-shaped battery pack stealing the back-bench’s middle seat. And the Lehman Brother stole much of the Volt’s PR thunder, the collapse of this bank and the subsequent whirlwind economic depression tipping General Motors into bankruptcy. Suddenly, the angst over Toyota’s perpetual PR advantage was dwarfed by GM’s need for survival.

Chevrolet Volt

By the time a leaner, more humble General Motors had emerged, the Volt’s moment in the sun was passing, and the realisation that fuel prices simply weren’t high enough to interest American buyers in amazing fuel consumption were undermining its economic case. The payback period for the extra outlay required to acquire a Volt over an equivalent Cruze has never been definitely calculated (though many have tried) but there’s no question that you’re looking at a around eight years or more. And that’s too many.

Chevrolet Volt

That led to GM selling far too few Volts, only 65,000 finding US buyers since 2010. At one point, previous GM boss Dan Akerson reckoned on selling 60,000 a year in North America alone. In Britain, few Volts and Amperas have been sold, and the model will go unreplaced later this year. In the US, however, there is an all-new new Volt that we won’t get. It goes further on amps and gasoline, fields the missing fifth seat and critically for GM, costs an alleged $10,000 less to make. And that should give the second-generation model a better chance. Especially if the oil price goes up.

Audi A2

Great Motoring Disasters: Audi A2

Audi A2An advanced, lightweight aluminium body structure. A super-slippery silhouette to cheat the wind. A drop-down front panel allowing access to essential servicing items – this sounded like the sportscar of tomorrow.

But the Audi A2 was a five-door hatchback, and a tall one at that, its outline dangerously close to a sensible-shoes people carrier’s, its most powerful engine a 1.6 litre of 110bhp.

It was also brave, brilliant and if you’re thoughtful about design and its functionality, deeply appealing. The A2 was also a car years ahead of its time.

The ultra-aerodynamic Audi A2

Audi A2

That sounds like the copy from an Audi A2 advert, but it really was. The A2 emerged in 1999 (it’s pictured above at launch), but was built around the engineering obsessions of today, namely light weighting, a low drag coefficient, highly efficient engines and a suite of lesser economy boosters ranging from intelligent alternators to low rolling resistance tyres.

None of which obstructed its functionality. Unlike most ultra-aerodynamic cars you didn’t strike your head on the roof when you were trying to get in, its boot wasn’t so tiny that you needed to take a light weighting approach to packing and you could even turn your A2 into a van by extracting its removable rear seats.

Audi A2

Mind you, Audi was rather mean with these, providing only two in the rear as standard, no doubt in the interests of weight-saving, the fifth place being optional. Which was consistent with Audi’s fairly sparse approach to equipment too, much of it extra.

Audi A2

Still, no point in undoing the good work done by the body engineers, who had designed a shell that was 43% lighter than the steel equivalent, enabling the lightest A2 to weigh in at an impressive 895kg (bantamweight in modern car terms).

A Cd (aerodynamic drag factor) as low as 0.25 for the least wind resistant versions – that’s a number only just being reached today – and some economical engines produced the kind of fuel efficiency car companies are chasing now, the 1.4 petrol good for 45mpg, the diesel’s consumption in the 60s.

The 1.4 diesel was a three cylinder, its charming throb also ahead of the times – and for some markets (not ours, sadly) Audi built so called three litre 1.2 version, the three litres referring to the car’s potential 3 litres/100km, 94mpg fuel economy. Its 81g/km CO2 emissions sounded like a number from this decade rather than the last, too.

Power steering and air conditioning were stripped out to save fuel, the three litre’s economy further boosted by low rolling-resistance tyres, direct-injection, an automated manual transmission, stop-start and lightweight suspension, although this high-tech kit made for an expensive car.

‘Disastrous’ for Audi

Audi A2

If the three litre A2’s money-saving economics were dubious for owners, the economics of the entire A2 project were disastrous for Audi. The company is alleged to have lost £4000 on every A2 sold, partly because its light alloy body was expensive to make, but also because the company sold nowhere near the numbers intended.

During its shortened six-year life 176,377 found buyers, this a poor contrast to the one million or so A Classes that Mercedes sold. The A2’s high price didn’t help and nor did its flaws, although there were less of these than the Mercedes presented. And A2s didn’t fall over at the sight of an elk, either.

But the A2 had a few issues, and seeing out of it was one of them. The big distance from the driver’s eyes to the A pillars sometimes made it hard to see past them, while the abruptly curved tailgate glass distorted a rear view further impeded by a spoiler and tinted glass. Water-repellant tailgate glazing didn’t compensate for the missing rear wiper, either.

The A2’s other big issue was its ride, which had you wondering whether you really wanted to save fuel that badly, and whether the A2’s engineers had inflated its tyres to 100psi in a misguided quest for economy. It was expensive to repair after a crash, too, a factor that has sent many to an early rendezvous with the crusher.

An automotive design school thesis

Audi A2

Yet if you’re a lover of rational design, it’s hard not to admire – and even desire – an A2. It might have resembled an automotive design school thesis, but the ridged roof, the single pantograph-action wiper, the lack of any wiper at all at the rear, dent-proof plastic wheelarches, removable rear seats, and maintenance features accessed via the closed-off grille (pictured below) all pointed to a project fashioned by young and slightly naive idealists. All of which adds to its retro-future charm today.

Audi A2

Not that you’d call it pretty, now or then, its university project styling clearly failing to trigger the mass extraction of credit cards from pockets.

Audi A2

But for all that it was a mightily far-sighted car, its emphasis on low emissions, high economy and clever practicality all the stuff of today’s showrooms. And only BMW has dared to pursue a lightweight body structure for a car in this class since, with its i3.

Audi engineering ambition has been a little more cautious since the A2. But failure or not, this car certainly shone a light on the future.

Peugeot 1007

Great Motoring Disasters: Peugeot 1007

Peugeot 1007About eight years ago, I happened to be standing in a Peugeot dealer’s parts department. I can’t remember why.

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