The sun has been out in Zurich lately which certainly doesn’t hurt given it seemed to be very far away during most of the summer. This obviously means that some classic car owners have extended the season, but it was still a very nice surprise to walk out of the office door last week and see… an Alfa Romeo Montreal! It certainly doesn’t happen often, and as can be seen below, it was also a Montreal in very nice condition.
To start with the not very Italian name, why on earth did Alfa name the Montreal after a town in Québec? The simple explanation is taht the Montreal was first shown at the world exhibition in 1967 in, you guessed it, Montreal, and Alfa apparently had no better name in mind than that. Production started three years later in 1970 and ended in 1977. The beautiful coupé was designed by our old friend Marcello Gandini at Bertone and the most striking feature is certainly the covers over the headlights that move back when you turn them on.
The second most noticeable feature of the Montreal is certainly what looks like air intakes for a mid-mounted engine. The Montreal however never had, and was never intended to have a mid-mounted engine, so what you first think are intakes for the engine is actually intakes to cool the passengers. It is true that at the time of the original design Alfa indeed had the idea of a mid-mounted engine, but when the project moved on, this was scrapped but the air intakes were kept and certainly help the design of the car!
Even if the engine is in the front, it’s clearly the highlight of the car. The four-cam, eight-cylinder engine had been developed for the Tipo 33 that Alfa had raced before it moved into the Montreal. At 2.6 litres it was quite small but still developed 200 hp, but did so using quite a lot of fuel which wasn’t ideal in the early 70’s, as we’ll come back to. As so often Alfa then ran into a bit of a money problem and therefore chose to use the chassis and brakes from the Giulia GT, meaning they were a bit under-dimensioned for the car given the powerful engine. In other words acceleration was better than braking, so staying up in front was a good idea!
The Montreal interior doesn’t reach the heights of some other Italian legends from Modena or Sant’Agata from the period, then again the Montreal was cheaper to buy and is still a nice place to be, and ties into the tradition of GT cars from the 70’s. Unfortunately all these also had in common that they drove straight into the 1973-1974 oil crisis, which in the case of Montreal certainly didn’t help the sales numbers. In the seven years of production, only around 4.000 cars were therefore built.
They were however built with surprisingly good protection against corrosion, which wasn’t a typical feature of Alfa for the period but which means that Finding a nice Montreal today isn’t that difficult. As in so many cases, buying one of those five-six years ago had been far cheaper than today with nice cars now trading around EUR 60-80.000. Although it’s easy to love the design and even more so with a V8 under the hood, at that price level there a bit too many interesting competitors for me to be swayed by the Canadian Alfa!
It’s high time to do a quick pitstop and check the status of the F1 season as we’re around 3/4 in. The short answer to that is that it’s tighter and more open than it’s been in many, many years, which is of course really exciting. Since my last update from July after the Austrian GP that you can read here if you missed, it, we’ve had another seven races counting the one today in Turkey, and on these we’ve had no less than five different winners. That’s right, even though the title will go to either Hamilton or Verstappen, we’ve reached a stage where more teams and drivers fight for individual wins, and that’s of course exactly the way it should be!
As mentioned this summer, this is partly driven by the fact that next season will see radical changes to the cars, something I will come back to in the coming weeks, but which means that development efforts on this season’s cars have stopped or at least been heavily reduced. Small tweaks are certainly still done, but somehow the mid-sized teams seem more successful doing so than the large ones. It does however have the positive consequence of more open racing, and that will most probably remain the case until the end of the season.
In my last post from July, Red Bull had won the last five races and Max Verstappen had won four of those. I therefore stated that if Mercedes didn’t wake up rather quickly the season risked being over and indeed, Mercedes did wake up however, and I guess no one really expected less. Starting in Silverstone, traditional a track favorable to Mercedes, it was a 1st and 3rd position for Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, and Lewis than moved on to win in Russia as well, finishing on the podium of most other races. Bottas then also won today’s race in Turkey, but with the two Red Bulls on the podium as well. That allowed Max to move ahead of Lewis again in the standings so it’s pretty clear that this will go down to the wire and for the first time in a long time, Lewis is seriously challenged for the world title.
So what about those other teams? Well, McLaren has only become more competitive, partly that goes for Renault as well, Aston Martin is somehow also part of the mix, at least when conditions become a bit unpredictable, and what George Russell delivers in an improving but still inferior Williams car continues to impress. Lando Norris (Mc Laren) is currently fourth in the standings betwen Valtteri (third) and Perez (fifth), but should really have been third as there is really no excuse for him not winning one of the best races so far, that in Sotchi two weeks ago. He led the whole race and when the rain came with a few laps to go, he refused to follow team orders to come in and switch tyres and ended up in the sand with two laps to go. That’s a real rookie mistake but it’s one that shouldn’t have happened.
The other big news in the last weeks is of course that Valtteri Bottas is leaving Mercedes at the end of the season, and that George Russell is taking over his seat. This was widely expected but it was nice to see it being done in an amicable way, with Valtteri departing not directly but rather at the end of the season. He will then go to Alfa Romeo Racing, taking over retiring Kimi’s seat, and that Russell replaces him is of course no surprise. What George has managed to do with the under-performing Williams car this season is simply sensational, and of course we also remember when he replaced Lewis during a race at the height of Covid and was very close to winning it. For him, this is a terrific chance of showing how good he really is. For Valtteri it’s obviously quite a large step in the wrong direction, and thus probably one towards retirement.
A final thing to note in this more competitive field than we’ve had in many years is how close many teams’ drivers are. Sainz and Leclerc (Ferrari) are sixth and seventh in the standings with half a point between them. Alonso and Ocon (Alpine) and Vettel and Stroll (Aston Martin) follow, next to each other, and even though Lando is ahead of his team mate Ricciardo and Max is a head of Sergio Perez, the distance is getting smaller. I guess the way to read this is that we have a season of very good drivers, in most cases getting as much of their cars as is possible – and that’s exactly how it should be!
You may have seen that Lamborghini has re-introduced the Countach. Yes, you read that right, the most legendary of all sports cars of the 80’s – scrap that, of all times! The one a fair number of us born in the early 70’s with a head full of petrol dreamt about and put a poster of on our bedroom wall, next to Samantha Fox, Sabrina or Miami Vice. Just hearing the news, I imagine I wasn’t the only one filled with not just a little excitement. It didn’t last long though. The fall back to reality was heavy a few moments later as I learnt more about the new car.
You see, what Lambo dares calling the new Countach, under the official name LPI 800-4, has precious little to do with Marcelo Gandini’s jawdropping design from back then – nor is it a modern interpretation of the same theme. Nope, visually the new Countach is nothing more than a relatively modestly re-designed Aventador with some clumsy Countach references, of which 112 will be built (that’s good as it reduces the risk of being disappointed seeing it “live”). They’re of course extremely expensive (price not known at this point but probably around USD 3m), atrociously fast with 814 hp leading to a 0-100 time of below 3 seconds, naturally hybrid with a small electric engine making up 45 of those 814 hp, supporting the V12 and, it goes without saying, all sold, presumably to buyers of which a majority will park them in a garage and never drive them. Disappointed? Me?
That is however all I’ll say about the new Countach and I also promise not to make this a long rant about how much modern supercars lack the heart and soul of the true legends. Instead we’ll do something much more fun: we’ll travel back to our younger years when our jeans were stone-washed, our socks white and our shoulders impossibly wide. For a few minutes, we’ll return to that poster on the bedroom wall (no, not Samantha) and have a good look at the original, REAL Countach! Interestingly, doing so also involves coming back to some legendary Italian car builders that have been featured on this blog earlier and only serve to highlight the true legend that the original Countach is.
The story begins in the early 70’s with Bertone being commissioned by Lamborghini to come up with a replacement for the Miura, which had only been on sale for a few years but already faced strong competition from the new Ferrari Daytona, introduced in 1969. Marcello Gandini, lead designer at Bertone, had a few years earlier started to experiment with a new design language as notably shown in the Lancia Stratos: a much more wedge-like, angular shape, and he took on the new Lambo project in the same spirit while the engineers were working on the engine. It was clear that the new car would remain rear-wheel drive with a rear-mid 12-cylinder engine as on the Miura, but for weight distribution along with some mechanical reasons, not transversally mounted as on the latter.
The name Countach has always been a bit of a riddle and is a story in itself. Countach doesn’t mean anything in Italian and is also not following Lambo’s tradition of naming cars after bulls or bullfights. The story goes that one of the mechanics in the Sant’Agata factory only spoke Piedmontese, a regional language closer to French than to Italian in which there is the word “contacc”, an expression showing astonishment. The unnamed mechanic used it quite frequently when working on the car and Marcello Gandini therefore half jokingly sugested it as a possible name to Bob Wallace, Lambo test driver at the time, who confirmed it worked in English with a minor adaptation. The most spectacular supercar of all times was thus named on the factory floor and not in a board room! The first prototype was presented to the public at the Paris Auto Show in 1971 with sales starting three years later in 1974. They wouldn’t stop until 16 years later, in 1990.
Next to the long production time itself, it’s impressive how well the new design held up (and still holds up if you’re lucky to see one!). If you remove the increasing amount of spoilers and skirts that were added over the years, the basic design of the car remained unchanged throughout the 16 years of production. I guess I wasn’t the only one who in my youth found things like the giant spoiler on some later cars ultra-cool, but looking back with (slightly) more mature eyes today, it’s pretty clear the the first iteration was the cleanest and best-looking. I’m not sure beautiful is the right word, but spectacular definitely is. The wedge shape, the side air intakes, the forward movement created by the cutting of the rear wheelarches – and of course the scissor doors. The doors did not only come about for show though, as given how wide the Countach is and especially how massive its doorsills are, fitting conventional doors would have been both unpractical and complicated. Owners of later Countaches with the dome on the engine are especially thankful for that given for them, sitting on the doorsill with the door open and turning your head backwards is the only way to have any kind of rear-view visibility. If the Countach was wide (almost 2 metres) with poor rear visibility, it certainly wasn’t long. At 4.15 metres it’s far smaller than you would imagine, and actually shorter than a Lotus Evora!
If the design was spectacular, the engine was of course not less so. The V12 came from the Miura and as shown in the first picture, had its origins back in 1963, having been designed by Giotto Bizzarrini, whom you can read an earlier post of here. Also as mentioned it was longitudinally mounted such as to improve notably weight distribution and solve some other issues, with the 5-speed manual transmission being placed in front of the engine. The initial Countach LP-400 had the same 3.9 litre volume as the Miura, with a power output of 375 hp. It was later increased first to 4.7 litres in the LP5000S in 1982, and then 5 litres in the LP5000 QV (Quattrovalvole, four valves per cylinder) version from 1985 with 440 hp. It’s noticeable that until the end in 1990, the engine retained carburettors when everyone else had switched to fuel injection (for emission reasons the Countaches going to the US had to be injected). Having originally been side-mounted, the carburettors moved to the top of the engine on later cars, explaining the dome over the engine. This wonderful machine would outlive the Countach over the Diablo all the way to the Murcielago, meaning a production time of almost 50 years! Contrary to what you would maybe think, it also has a reputation of not being very primadonna-like, but rather very reliable.
Except for in my dreams I’ve never been in a Countach, much less driven one, but this is very high on the bucket list (you wouldn’t happen to own one, would you?). I have however peaked in to several of them and as anyone who does so, you may not realize that the window you look through only opens 5cm or so, but definitely that the money had run out before the time had come to design the interior. Not that it’s worse than on many other 80’s cars but the grand plans Lambo had for notably digital instruments never materialized and the interior is thus very conventional compared to the spectacular body. The seats are however a wonder of comfort compared to modern bucket seats, but they can only be adjusted in length. If you’re taller than 180 cm you should also be prepared to have contact with the roof lining (here, the later cars helped, giving another 3cm of head space in the “high” versions). And when it comes to driving, taking it from multiple reviews, it’s all hard work with an unassisted steering, a heavy clutch (those six carburettors are partly to be thanked for that, but you can’t have it all!) and a general experience of needing to work hard to get the most out of the car. Then again, isn’t that the way it should be in a true supercar?
Production of the Countach came to an end in 1990, with the 25th anniversary edition introduced in 1988 with a certain Horacio Pagani (on whom you can read more here) being responsible for a lot of the restyling. The final iteration wasn’t loved by everyone given it departed from some of the most classical design features on previous Countaches and had a bit too many skirts, even for the late 80’s. It was however the fastest version of the Countach, capable of a top speed of 295 km/h and a 0-100 km/h time of 4.7 seconds. Remember this is 30 years ago on a car that was equipped by 345 mm rear tires, however only 15″ in wheel size! At the time, those were the biggest tires on the market.
The Anniversary edition was also the most popular version in production numbers, built 657 times and thus making up a third of the total production of around 1970 Countachs ever built. That’s right, the most legendary supercar of all times was built less than 2.000 times, to be compared for example with the over 7.000 Testarossas (not counting the 512’s). Not only that, a third of all Countaches were sold when it had already been on the market for 14 years! Another third was made up of the Quattrovalvole version (610 cars), thus leaving just a third of the early Countachs. Good luck finding one of those today… The easiest one to find today is the QV with prices starting around EUR 300′, with real jewels going for up to EUR 700′. That’s a lot of money, and a lot more than you would have paid ten years ago. Having said that, it’s still a couple of million less that you would pay for the new 2022 version if you were on the list of the selected 112 owners, and seen in that light, probably one of the greatest bargains out there! Junior may have more power and features, but in the Countach world, there’s no doubt that Daddy still rules big time!
As we all know time flies and it’s already a year since I bought my 650i convertible that I told you about in a post at the time, that you can view here if you missed it. It’s in other words time to make a brief pit stop to tell you how the first year has been, what the suprises, if any, have been and perhaps also if my initial statement from a year ago on the 650i being pretty sensational value for money still holds true. Given this is not a thriller movie I’ll allow myself to take that last piece of excitement away right here: the 650i is for all intents an purposes a bargain as has been confirmed many times over the last 12 months!
Given it’s a converible, the big Bavarian of course didn’t move in in the right season, but I managed to have some really nice drives during Sept-Oct last year before it got cold and wet and it was time to park it for the winter. You’ll tell me that given the four-wheel drive, the thickness of the hood and the quality of a BMW there was really little reason for this and you’d be right, except that as it happens we have a family SUV as well and if I don’t use it during the winter, when should I then use it… Also, the condition of the 650i being as good as it is, I would feel physically bad if I drove it on salty roads. So for the 4-5 months between November and March, the only thing that happened were a few drives long enough to get the engine warm and make sure the tires stay round.
Spring came and was nice and it was then time to put the car a bit more to the test. As I noted in my last post, the 650 is much more of a GT than a sports car, also given its length of almost five meters and its weight of around two tons. Given that it’s pretty amazing how BMW managed to create an interior space that is so limited. There are absolutely no complaints up front where supreme comfort reigns, and sure, the back seats work for adults for shorter trips, but I wouldn’t take the kids for more than a couple of hours given how cramped the seats are. Then again I was well aware of that and the intention is to use the car for two. No doubt the long body adds a bit of elegance and I guess the point of a large convertible is also that you can be allowed to be a bit wasteful with space, even if it doesn’t make much sense. At least the boot is suprisingly large (even more so when the roof is up) which is definitely a plus in this family!
There are A LOT of positives I’ve noted during my first 12 months of owning the 650i so in order not to bore you, let me just focus on some of the main ones. The first thing I noticed was how precise and well weighted the steering was, especially in the sports setting. The comparison that jumped to mind was my previous E63 AMG, but I would say the 650i is marginally better, and the wheel is in BMW manner definitely thicker, but not too much so. Secondly, I was positively suprised that behind the elegant appearance lures quite a hooligan. Hit that Sport button and floor it in a tunnel, and if the roof is up, lower the back window (yes you can, and thank you very much whoever thought of that!), and if the resulting roar, pops and other guttural sounds don’t put a smile on your face, then do indeed buy an EV. The 450 hp double-turbo V8 delivers just the right amount of power and the double-clutch gearshift is so smooth you don’t even notice it.
Thirdly, the suspension is superb and I’ll tie this to the overall quality of the build which is absolutely amazing. Take the roof off a car means removing a lot of the inherent rigidity of the body, usually leading to the odd squeek here and there. Not so in the 650i, which remains as silent as a Bavarian forest. I made a point on this in my initial post, namely the logic of buying a heavily depreciated luxury car rather than a less depreciated middle class one, as so much more effort has been invested in the original build. Finally, at least for a middle-aged man, the level of infotainment is exactly right. BMW’s solution from 2013-2014 was pretty much on the edge of what was done then, and it works absolutely fine to this day with nice physical buttons to press rather than a flimsy screen with fatty marks where you desperately try to aim for a word in the upper corner.
What I don’t like? To be honest not a lot, but then again the initial brief was quite clear and didn’t leave room for mant surprises. What you definitely need to be aware of is that it’s a big car, which is to your advantage for the long trips on open roads but obviously less so in tight cities or garages. There are of course cameras and warning sounds all around, but you do need to be careful especially towards the front where the sloping hood is very difficult to estimate. In the section of minor complaints I would also question BMW’s decision in a convertible to only put a lock on the compartment under the center armrest but not on the glovebox, that you can thus not lock if you park the car with the hood down? That’s probably it though, and it sure isn’t a lot. Most importantly I haven’t had a single issue with the car so far, and now that the one year warranty has run out, I do hope that remains the case!
In the small segment of unpractical four-seat convertibles, the 650i thus shines as much now as it did 12 months ago. I love it and plan to keep it for a long time. It’s also nice to see that prices seem to have bottomed out, with cars currently being in the market being a few thousand more than what I paid. That confirms the saying that luxury cars fall like stones until they don’t do so anymore, and that seems to be the case for the 650i. If it corresponds to your brief and needs, I can thus only recommend that you join the club!
This week we’ll talk about number plates. Not very exciting you tell me, but just wait. In most countries and for most of us, getting a number on your car is a pure formality. For some and in some countries, it’s possible to get your personalized number plate at low or even no cost. And then there’s Switzerland. Here, number plates are personal and follow you rather than the car. This is not unique in itself. What is however, is the way you get a personalized number – and how much it costs. You see, Swiss car owners’ willingness to pay a small fortune for a specific car number puts millions in the local cantons’ deep pockets – every year.
A canton is a Swiss region, comparable to a US or German state. Being a federation, Switzerland is split into 26 of them, with Zurich being not the largest, but with around 1.5m inhabitants the most populous. Registration plates indicate which canton the car comes from with two letters (“ZH” for Zurich, “GE” for Geneva etc.), and then any number between one and six digits. Given number plates are personal you will have guessed that those which have been in circulation long have few digits. This is of course also the case in smaller cantons. In Zurich on the other hand we will soon see the first seven-digit registration plate. That will of course be the number “ZH 1 000 000”, which you could imagine someone being willing to pay a few bucks for. That’s what the cantons have realized as well, in the case of Zurich as long as 30 years ago.
Cantons therefore regularly organize auctions for especially interesting number plates. Using Zurich as example, it’s here done on a weekly basis. Numbers which are auctioned are either interesting numbers that have been handed in because someone has died or otherwise stopped driving, but also numbers that have been picked out of the regular series. Anyone can register and take part in the auctions, but no information is given out beforehand on the numbers that will be auctioned, and all auction proceeds flow into the canton’s budget. In the case of Zurich as a large canton, this is the not so trivial amount of around CHF 4m (USD 4m) each year.
Against this background and in a country with a lot of money, it’s easy to imagine that a certain craziness has developed around this. You see, in Zurich having two (very rare), three or four digits in your number plate signals prestige, around some logic of old money. And then it’s of course true that having a number such as the one on the picture below is quite cool. It’s just that most of us would probably put the value of this at a few hundred bucks. Not in Zurich.
Three years ago in 2018, the number plate “ZH 987” was auctioned away for CHF 150.000. Yep, you read that right. Before that, the record had been set by “ZH 1000” at CHF 130.000 back in 1998. These are obviously records, but every week the canton of Zurich auctions around 30 number plates where as a rule of thumb, not so spectacular four-digit plates fetch around CHF 8.000 and three-digit ones around CHF 20.000. It can be much more however, with for example “ZH 1313” being auctioned for a solid CHF 75.000. Even an average, five-digit plate will cost you around CHF 4.000. When “ZH 1 000 000” comes out, it’s by the way expected to set a new record.
The full craziness of the above doesn’t become apparent until you realize that there’s no secondary market once you have paid for your dream plate. It’s a sunk cost which therefore also doesn’t need to be declared as wealth in your tax filing, as there is no way of selling the number on (it is in some cantons, but not in Zurich). This is probably a very good thing as you could easily imagine this going completely bonkers if that was the case, but what it means is therefore that whoever paid CHF 150.000 for number plate “ZH 987” will never see that money again. Basically, he or she made a hefty lump sum tax payment and got a number plate in return.
I can produce a very long list of desirable cars for a budget of CHF 150.000, as I’m sure you can as well. Actually I could do the same for CHF 20.000 and thinking about it, my son’s newly bought Lupo GTI didn’t cost much more than CHF 4.000. All these scenarios feel vastly superior to large, lump sum tax payments yielding a specific number plate as only payback. Then again what do I know – I’m the type of person who still struggles to remember my own number plate, although I’ve now had it for 19 years. Obviously, that’s not the case for everyone…
A bit of a different post this week since last Sunday I had the pleasure of attending the Arosa Classic Car rally here in Switzerland, unfortunately only as a spectator, but still with some pictures from the race that took place for the 17th time in front of a record audience of almost 30.000 people with and 175 cars.
The race takes place on the 7.3 km road from the small village of Langwies to the quite well known ski resort of Arosa, on a road that has no less than 76 turns of which a few hairpins. Cars built between 1905 to 1986 compete in different categories between regularity and outright speed. The whole thing started in 2005, having been called to life but some car passionated locals, and is today part of the FIA calendar.
There’s always a bit of show around the race itself which explaines the far more modern Porsche cars in the pictures – this year’s host was the Porsche center in close-by Maienfeld. Hope you enjoy the picks of some of the beautiful cars from the weekend!
There haven’t been many outstanding street finds in Zurich lately, which hopefully means the owners have taken the really nice cars on a trips to sunnier locations than Switzerland has offered this summer. In such situations it helps having a son who last week happened to be in another city that is a rolling car Mecca, namely Monaco. He drove there with his friends from Nice in the morning, texted me in the first hour that there were more Brabuses on the streets than regular Merc’s, and then once they made it up to the Casino square, he sent me the top two pictures below.
The reason he didn’t send more was that the police came and told him it’s no longer allowed to photograph cars outside of the Hôtel de Paris, next to the Casino. Given this has been the favourite past-time of any car lover who’s ever been in Monaco for as long as anyone can remember and that car owners certainly didn’t mind, this is indeed very strange. Then again it’s still mandatory in Monaco to wear face masks everywhere, including outside, so Covid seems to have left some traces that this is maybe a consequence of. Leaving that aside however, the picture brings about the interesting question: which one of these highly competent but also highly collectable supercars would you go for, if you were fortunate enough to have the choice?
The SLR not only precedes the SLS by a letter but also by seven years as it was introduced in 2003 as its direct predecessor. It was built until 2009 by McLaren in Woking, having been developed jointly by the two manufacturers. The production was limited to 3500 cars but in the end only 2157 were built and of these, around 25% were roadsters. The engine was developed by AMG and was a compressor-charged V8 mounted behind the front axle and producing 626 hp in the first version until 2006, and 650 hp in the so called 722 update available from 2006 onwards (722 being Stirling Moss’s start number back in the day in the Mille Miglia race with the car the SLR takes its inspiration from, the original 300 SLR). Both SLR versions have a top speed of over 330 km/h which is truly sensational for a 15-year old car, and are paired to Mercedes’s 5-speed automatic from the time, which is far less sensational and probably the biggest drawback with the whole car, simply being too slow for a true supercar.
The SLR is to me a beautiful creation, a combination of an original and aggressive design and a slightly “old school” supercar construction, unfortunately with an interior that is not at all as spectacular as the exterior. Today these beauties cost from EUR 250.000 upwards for the coupé and from EUR 350.000 for the roadster as shown on the piture, with the 722 coupé as well as really low-mileage cars being more expensive and the 722 roadster, of which only 150 were built, far higher, if you can find one. There is currently one for sale in Switzerland at CHF 850.000.
The SLS was introduced the same year production of the SLR ended in 2009 and around 5.000 cars were built over the coming five years until 2014. Its official name is Mercedes-Benz SLS 63 AMG but even if AMG comes at the end, this was the first car that was completely developed by the company, although the car was put together at Mercedes in Sindelfingen. The engines were of course hand-built in Affalterbach. The SLS had true gullwing doors rather than the butterfly doors of the SLR, by far the most distinctive characteristic of the car (the roadster version obviouysly has conventional doors). Another far more important difference to the SLR is the SLS’s naturally-aspirated V8, the legendary 6.2 litre AMG engine developing 571 hp initally, 20 hp more in the GT versions from 2012, and 631 hp in the Black Series version in 2013. It also had a more modern, 7-speed, double-clutch speedshift box in all versions.
Finding an SLS is both easier and cheaper than finding an SLR. Both the first version and the GT start at or even slightly below EUR 200.000, going up to around EUR 250.000 for low-mileage cars. The Black Series is a different story, starting at twice that price and going all the way up towards EUR 700.000.
So to come back to the initial question, which one would you choose? If you’re in the market for these cars then the initial price difference is probably not decisive. Design-wise my vote goes to the SLR (just look at it!). It brings much more drama than the more restrained SLS, but clearly both cars are beautiful creations. Engine-wise however, a 6.2 litre, naturally aspirated AMG V8 will always beat a supercharged engine if you ask me, especially when it’s paired to a much better gearbox. Finally, if reason is to play any role at all here, whereas the SLR will be truly horrendously expensive to maintain, the SLS will just be very expensive.
Both these cars are true collectables but they are also and above all, true driving machines. If you’re lucky enough to consider either one of them, please don’t just park them in front of a nice hotel for others to see, even if they’re not allowed to take pictures of them anymore!
When you speak to fans of the French automaker Citroën (something which unfortunately happens less and less often as most of the true enthusiasts are getting old!), one of the most sensitive topics is no doubt which model of the legendary brand constitutes the last real Citroën. To a real “citroënniste”, nothing in today’s line-up is even close to fitting the bill. Some say it all ended with the legendary DS that I wrote about a while ago (see here). Others are more progressive and would draw the line at the 90’s XM, a strange, space-ship like creation and certainly a true Citroën in terms of quirkiness, but to me a car that lacked both looks and innovation. I’m rather in the camp in between the two. To me, the last real Citroën is the CX launched in 1974, notably as it was the last Citroën designed and developed before Citroën was bought by Peugeot and became a part of the PSA group the same year. Next to that however, the CX can be described as the every day version of the SM that I wrote about in January (see here), but also taking the best of the DS and modernizing the rest in a packaging that was truly Citroën. It thus forms the last chapter in the trilogy of the DS-SM-CX, reason why we’ll look closer at it this week!
It’s never easy to succeed a true legend and with very few exceptions, there’s really no greater legends than the DS and SM. The CX however did a great job, being built during 15 years until 1989 (the estate all the way to 1991) and selling more than 1.1 million times. Given that it’s surprising how few have survived until today, something that also goes for its two predecessors. Then again, quality is not the first word you think about when talking about cars from the 70’s and it didn’t prevent people from being amazed when the CX was first shown to the world in 1974. The name makes reference to the wind resistance coefficient in French which for the CX was 0.37, not as good as the SM but still much better than most cars at the time.
When the development of the CX started in 1969 as an “inofficial” successor to the DS, a clear objective was to make the car easier and thereby cheaper to build than its complicated predecessor. That goal was achieved in a Citroën kind of way, meaning that everything except the bodyparts was fixed onto the chassis, with the body being screwed onto it at the very end of the production process and fixed with six rubber-metal fixings. No one but Citroën would probably think of this construction as a good way to save costs, but it worked well in terms of rigidity and also in isolating passengers from vibrations. Here, the legendary hydro-pneumatic suspension that the CX inherited from the DS was obviously a great help as well.
Another arbuably less glamorous thing the CX inherited from its predecessor was the engine. Not that Citroën didn’t have grand plans here as well. The original idea was to fit the car with a Wankel engine which with a planned 170 hp would have given the car sportscar like performance, and also suited it well given the Wankel construction’s lack of vibrations. That plan had to be scrapped for cost reasons though and instead, the CX inherited the 2-litre and 2.2-litre engines from the DS, developing 102 and 112 hp respectively, a bit later complemented by a diesel with 66 tired horses. These engines helped sell more than 100.000 CX’s in the first year of production, more than the DS had sold in any year but one. In 1975 Citroën also introduced the CX station wagon, a 25cm longer version of the car with a cavernous luggage space in the back. It was that same extended chassis that would also be used for the Prestige model that appeared shortly thereafter but where the extra 25cm instead benefitted the back seat passengers, making it a favourite car for many heads of state. Interestingly though, it wouldn’t be so for the French president until Jacques Chirac in 1995, when the CX was no longer manufactured.
If the CX was a revelation on the outside, it was no less so once you entered it. Once you’ve taken place in the extremely soft seats, you look out over, or rather through the one-spoke steering wheel at something which at first looks like a bathroom scale, but is in fact the speedomoter and rev counter. You then notice the lack of levers on the sides of the wheel, as the CX instead had two satellites with all necessary functions that you are supposed to operate with your left and right hand finger tips. The right satellite includes the horn, but any need for it will probably have passed by the time you find the right switch. The turn signal on the left is no less surprising since you have to actively turn it off – it doesn’t reset automatically when you straighten the steering wheel. Better? Not really. Different? Bien sûr! And by the way, if you think the CX is a hatchback, think again. In fact the concave and thereby self-cleaning rear window doesn’t open, meaning it has a traditional boot below it which is quite low and small. This was one example of the CX’s success becoming its enemy: it was well known that CX owners wanted Citroën to make the car a hatchback, something that could easily have been done, but the responsible people at PSA just looked at the strong sales numbers, shrug their shoulders and put that budget somehwere else in the large group.
The first series of the CX was built until 1984 and luckily the strong sales numbers didn’t prevent PSA from improving the engines on offer with more powerful versions. The 138 hp GTI was introduced in 1983 and the most powerful CX in the line-up, the 2.5 litre turbo developing 168 hp came a year later. The turbo had an impressive top speed of 220 km/h, of course thanks to the excellent aerodynamics. When the second series was presented in 1985 the most notable difference were the plastic front and rear bumpers which replaced the previous metal ones and helped further lower wind resistance to a quite astonishing 0.28, in line with the SM. A turbo was now fitted also to the diesel engines but the most powerful version remained the petrol 25 GTI Turbo II, the “II” coming from it now having an intercooler. The interior of the second series was modernized and for the Turbo II even quite sporty with red piping on the seats and dash in some countries, but not necessarily more logical. As an example the radio was moved from the dashboard to down between the seats, next to the handbrake. Changing radio station had just become something you needed to look away from the road for a couple of seconds to do…
If the above all sounds irrestistible and owning the – perhaps – last real Citroën is something you cannot go through life without having done, the good news is that the CX remains and under-apprecitated car to this day. It’s not easy to find a good one but when you do, it will still be cheap – we’re usually talking EUR 15-20.000. That means it’s much cheaper than either a good DS or a good SM, and much cheaper to own, while still giving you a good piece of the real Citroën experience! The second series looks more modern but the first has all the coolness of the original car, and the metal bumpers resist sunlight better than the 80’s plastic. Most CX’s were sold as manual which was a good thing. It’s also good to know that cars after 1981 have better rust protection, a big issue with earlier cars. As someone who grew up in the 80’s, the thought of a Turbo II is hard to resist. Objectively though, the best one to go for would probably be a late first series GTI – less prone to issues than the turbo, and with all of the Citroën genius intact!
The Porsche 911 is no doubt the most successful sports car of all time. However, it’s also a car which Porsche tried to kill off around 911 times before it earned the unshakable position it has today. The first try dates all the way back to the mid-70’s when the idea was that the newly developed 928 would take over from the ageing 911. As we all know it didn’t work at the time and it’s never worked since. Today we’re glad that Porsche failed and be that as it may, the 928 became a great complement to the 911 when it was launched and today remains one of very few old Porsche’s that is both a great car and something you could (with a bit of a stretch) still call a bargain. That’s more than enough reasons to look closer at it this week!
Although I don’t like discussing design since it’s a matter of personal taste, I think most of us would agree that design-wise, the 70’s weren’t a happy period. The world was brown and orange and most cars looked like they’d been drawn with a ruler by someone loving 90-degree angles. When it was launched in 1977, the 928 was therefore a true revolution design-wise with the long hood and the “reversed” pop-up headlights, earning it the nickname “landshark” in some countries, and the rounded rear with integrated shock absorbers. It would be exaggerated claiming that it could just as well have been designed today, but it’s to my mind the car design from the 70’s that has best stood the test of time. This was also proven by the production which ran until 1995 with the main parts of the car’s design remaining pretty much unchanged until the end.
Having said that it’s difficult to see how Porsche actually thought that fans of the air-cooled, rear-engine 911 would ever consider the 928 as a replacement. Firstly it was obviously a larger car, even if it’s better described as a 2+2 seater than a real 4-seater. Secondly it has quite a large boot, meaning the engine was up front. Thirdly, that engine was a newly developed, water-cooled V8 rather than a legendary, air-cooled six-cylinder. Finally all this led to a heavier car, much more at home on the Autobahn than being thrown around curvy mountain roads. To this day, the 928 is a true motorway cruiser that sits nicely alongside a 911 from the time, although it never saw its success its smaller brother did.
Even though the 928 was heavier, Porsche were very focused on keeping its weight down. The doors, front aisles and hood are all made out of aluminium and the front and rear bumpers were as mentioned made in composite material (arouna metal core). The original, 4.5 litre V8 with 240 hp was at the time the second most powerful engine from Zuffenhausen, losing out only to the 911 Turbo, and the 928 was thus well motorized from the beginning. It was available with either a 5-speed manual or a 3-speed automatic from Mercedes (later a 4-speed) from the start, mounted on the rear axle and thus contributing to the excellent balance. The 928 was generally an advanced construction with notably double wishbone suspension all around and Porsche’s so called “Weissach axle” in the back of which I’ll spare you the technicalities but which can be described as a system for greater stability and less oversteer. That system was certainly never fitted to the 911’s of the time, and even 911 fans would probably agree that the 928 was in many areas far ahead of not only it, but of most other cars at the time as well.
The first series was built between 1977-1982, with the 300 hp 928S launched as a more powerful version in 1980 (and a couple of years later becoming the only version available). The S managed the sprint to 100 km/h in 6.6 seconds, a very respectable time in the early 80’s. It was also the car Porsche ran for 24 hours non-stop on the Nardo track in Italy, achieving an average speed of 250 km/h! Think of that a minute – we’re talking 24 hours with the pedal to the metal at top speed, back in the fully mechanical age! Porsche kept improving the S interior- and equipment-wise, but also technically with notably ABS breaking before it was replaced by the 928 S4 in 1987.
The S4 was the first car with the face-lifted body, best visible in the rear through the new lights and the standard-fitted wing. Engine-wise it went form 2 to 4 valves and hereby to an output of 320 hp. The 0-100 km/h time was now sub-six seconds with a top speed of 270 km/h. The even sportier GT was introduced in 1989, adding another 10hp and only being available as five-speed manual. Both versions were replaced by the 350 hp GTS in 1992, produced until 1995 and actually Porsche’s last GT car until the Panamera 15 years later. Over 15 years of production a bit more than 62.000 cars were built. Not a huge but still quite a large number, and in that sense it’s surprising how few of them you see on the roads today.
Unless you’re not a die-hard, nothing-but-911 kind of person, a 928 will deliver the true Porsche feeling from behind the wheel. The engine is like a solid companion at all speeds, especially in combination with the manual box. The suspension is superb given the car’s age, but It’s clear from the first meters you drive that although smaller than modern cars and in spite of all the Porsche attributes, this is a true GT that is most at home on long distances with two (or 2+2) passengers and surprisingly, quite a lot of their luggage!
When writing about classics I usually add a sentence along the lines of “make sure you check the history and the condition”. Never ever has that sentence been more true than if you consider a 928. As mentioned, the car is a complex construction. Parts have always been expensive and haven’t become less so today, only in some cases harder to find. The engine and gearbox are of course the most critical parts and inspecting the car from underneath before the purhcase is mandatory. If you’re unsure about what you’re looking for, get a specialist to help you or take it to a Porsche garage. Trust me on this but also know that even if you go through all the checks, you shouldn’t buy a 928 with your last money, but rather keep a reserve for things that may come up.
So which one? Well, no surprise that a manual is preferrable, but the automatic is actually not as catastrophic as you may think, so potentially try it if the rest of the car is good. Design-wise it’s a matter of taste between the first and second generation, but be aware that the 2-valve engine is easier (and thereby cheaper) to service than the 4-valve from the S4 onwards. If that doesn’t scare you, the 928 GT of which only around 2000 were built is especially interesting. Otherwise, the 300 hp second series is also a good choice. Please don’t go for the Strosek or Gemballa 80’s versions with massive plastic wings but rather try to find a car that is as original as possible. For the first series, both the phone dial wheels and the pepita interior you can see higher up are sought after today.
A good first series 928 will set you back around EUR 25-35.000, probably around 50% more than 10 years ago (but you’ve hopefully gotten richer in those 10 years as well!). The second series will typically cost around EUR 10.000 more with the GT and GTS potentially even more for low-mileage cars. High kilometres need not be a problem though, if the car has a solid and well documented history – but only then. In terms of value for money, this means that you still get one of the best GT’s ever built for less than half of a classic 911. That my friends not only makes this a bargain among Porsche classics, it does so among classic GT cars in general as well!
Will our automotive future be completely electric? The political will of making it so is certainly there and although a number of questions haven’t been answered (where all the electricity in the Western world is supposed to come from if at the same time we close down base-power providing nuclear energy is one, what to do with all the millions of existing cars is another) at least right now, the signs all point in one direction. Reinforcing that is clearly also the important advances that are made in battery technology, examplified by the brand new Mercedes EQS that has a real life range of 700 km. And although e-fuels such as the solutions Porsche is exploring off Chile’s coast (see here a recent post on it) could present an alternative for making combustion engines “clean” and thus part of the future, they are still far from mass production.
Whatever direction the world takes, it’s clear that downsizing is here to stay. All new combustion engines we see from here on will be smaller, supercharged versions of their predecessors. No one in their right mind would today build a new 10 or 12-cylinder naturally aspirated engine, and thus the large cylinder engines we have on the road today will be the last of their kind. If a big, naturally aspirated engine is your thing (and if you read this blog, I guess there’s a good probability of that!), it’s probably time to act and make that old dream of owning a naturally aspirated 10 or 12-cylinder car come true!
To help you on the way I’ve therefore taken the liberty of selecting three candidates in the price categories up to 30′ EUR, from 30-50′ EUR, and up to 100′ EUR. My logic doing so has been that they should be at least 10 years old such as to be out of the depreciation “J-curve”, and also have no more than 100.000 km on the clock. engine should be a 10- or 12-cylinder naturally aspirated one, sporty in nature and together with the car it’s fitted in, also have the potential for some value appreciation over the coming years. Doing this has been a fun exercise that I can recommend, You could of course have picked different cars across the three price segments, but here is what I came up with!
Up to 30′ EUR – BMW M5 E60/61
You can now find nice E60 sedans for as little as 30′ EUR, which is a true bargain in view of what the car and its fabulous engine offers. The latter, a 10-cylinder, 40-valve, 5 litre naturally aspirated engine developing 507 hp was also used as basis for the M6 of the E63 generation and was BMW’s only 10-cylinder engine. In the M5 it was coupled with an early 7-speed SMG box (i.e. single-clutch, automatic manual) that won’t shoot the lights out today but does the job. There was even a manual version which was however only sold in the US. That’s a shame, then again rumour has it that even the manual isn’t that great. Another rumour also has it that you need a bit more than the initial 30′ EUR as the 10-cylinder isn’t the most reliable engine, certainly a reason for being thorough when selecting the car. The E60 was built between 2005-2010 with a face lift in the first half of 2007, to a total of around 20.000 cars, making it the most popular M5 series.
Interestingly the E60 is so far the only M5 that has been offered as an estate/combi. From 2007 around 1.000 M5 Tourings were built and these are today even more desirable than the sedan. They are however also more expensive at around 50′ EUR, so that would move you to the next price class. In both cases, this generation of the M5 is a great car and the 10-cylinder engine one of the true legends of the naturally-aspirated world!
Between 30′ and 50′ EUR – Dodge Viper RT/10
The Viper is quite a rare car in Europe and in many ways a true American muscle car with a massive, 8-litre 10-cylinder engine developing 408 hp (394 hp in Europe) and an even more impressive torque of 664 Nm! It was hereby an odd bird in Europe from the start and is so even more today. It was built during 15 years between 1992-2007 and later cars also had other engines, but the RT/10 is the first generation which was in production until 2002.
The Viper and especially the first generation was really a car built around the engine, meant as a modern day Cobra. That’s to say that a very minor part of the budget was spent on things like the interior, which is basic, to put it mildly. Other standard items in other cars such as door windows, door handles and airbags were also not prioritized. You have to reach inside the door to open it and the door windows were delivered in a separate bag, to be stuck into the door if you wanted them. Not many did. The Viper also doesn’t have any kind of driving aids, so in many ways it is indeed a true muscle car, something that becomes very clear when you turn the key and are greeted by the sound of the giant engine. Any thoughts on the crappy interior will vanish quickly and as long as you’re slightly careful with applying the power, you’re set to enjoy every meter in this American legend!
Up to 100′ EUR – Ferrari F550 / F575
Long-term readers of this blog may remember my post on the F550 from back in 2015. I speculated then that it may start appreciating soon which so far hasn’t happened. Depreciation has however stopped and prices have been stable ever since, meaning you can get a fabulous, mechanical 12-cylinder Ferrari for a bit less than EUR 100′. That is as much a bargain today as in 2015 and I’ll stick my head out again and say prices may well be starting to climb soon. I’ll ask you to go back to the 2015 post for full details on the car, but at its heart is the fantastic, 5.5 litre 12-cylinder engine producing around 485 hp, which is paired to a six-speed manual box (the F575 had a slightly bigger and more powerful engine). I wouldn’t bother with the F575 as the very limited facelift and increased power don’t warrant it, especially since most F575’s came with one of those semi-automatic boxes. A good F550 with a full history is a buy you will never regret!
There you go – three budgets, three cars. Grab them now and enjoy them while you can, and I promise you won’t regret it. And if Porsche or someone else is successful with an alternative fuel solution that allows our combustion cars to stay on the road, you’ll definitely be a long time winner!
it’s time to leave the world of over-powered and over-priced SUV’s and return to a more traditional, and dare I say classy thrill of driving, which after all is what this blog is all about. We’ll do so by going back to a theme that I explored almost two years ago in a post entitled “The best Ferrari is a Maserati”. The reference here was the Maserati Coupé from the early 00’s, equipped with the brilliant 4.2 litre, Ferrari V8. The coupé is however not the only way to profit from a Ferrari engine in a car of a different – and usually cheaper – brand. Another example of that was the breathtakingly beautifful Fiat Dino Coupe from the mid-60’s, one of the highlights of that decade and a car we’ll look closer at today!
It’s the early 60’s, the Vietnam war rages, the mini skirt is the latest fashion and Americans are told smoking is dangerous through warning labels on cigarette packages (Europe wouldn’t get these for another few years). Our American friends however also had the Mustang whereas in Europe the English drive Minis and the French the eternal 2CV and the clever but not very beautiful Renault 4. Design-wise therefore, you had to go to Italy to find the true masterpieces (yep, some things don’t change!), and south of the Alps, Fiat is planning for an upmarket GT coupé and convertible, without having a suitable engine to power it.
Further east in Maranello, Ferrari’s world is a little less rosy. Enzo is still deploring the loss of his son Alfredo (“Dino”) in 1956, only 24 years old. Dino was credited with the development of the Ferrari 2-litre V6 engine that over a few years had been used in various racing cars. Ferrari now needs precisely this kind of engine, i.e. no more than 2 litres and 6 cylinders for its Formula 2 cars, but the engine needs to be homologated through serial production of at least 500 units. At the time this was too much for a small manufacturer like Ferrari and it was therefore agreed with Fiat that they would build the homologated engine and also be free to use it in future Fiat cars. Contrary to what Enzo Ferrari had wanted, Fiat insisted on the engine being built in its Turin factory and not in Maranello, meaning that the Dino engines in cars like the Ferrari Dino 206 and 246 will have the Fiat logo casted somewhere on the motor block. Fiat now also gives the green light to Bertone to design the coupé and to Pininfarina to design the convertible. This was of course not very logical and led to the two cars looking rather different with most people (including me) agreeing that Bertone did a better job – judge for yourself. The convertible was introduced in 1966 and the coupé a few months later, in 1967.
The Dino engine was indeed quite special. A 2-litre V6 with an alloy block, it’s most famous for its unusual, 65 degree angle but also features quad cams and triple Weber carburettors, bringing the output to 158 hp (and also the need for a specialist to make sure those Webers are aligned as they should be!). The face-lifted engine that came in 1969 when homologation was no longer an issue was increased to 2.4 litres and was the world’s first serial engine with electronic injection. Power increased to 180 hp with notably improved torque, and all this was fitted in a magnificent coupé body with flowing lines, an aggressive front with a big grill, and a sweeping, lower rear. I owned a Fiat 124 Coupé from 1965 a few years ago which was also designed by Bertone and the similarities are clearly there but the Dino is a larger, more elegant car. The interior matches the exterior in a plush combination of leather (one of few options but a feature on many cars) and wood with a thin, large steering wheel. The gearbox is five-speed, there are dual-circuit disc brakes all around and even electric windows (still quite rare in Europe at the time). Even though the later 2.4 litre engine has more power and greater torque, enthusiasts will often tell you the smaller 2-litre is actually the sweeter one to drive. The later car was however also updated notably with independent rear suspension, improved brakes and some othe features making it a more modern car.
Around 5800 2-litre and 2.4 litre Dino coupés were built between 1967 and 1974, with latter cars being assembled not in Turin but at Ferrari’s plant in Maranello. Of all these, few remain today and although only around 2000 convertibles were built, these are easier to find than the coupé. That hasn’t meant they haven’t gone ballistic price-wise though, with good convertibles today costing at least EUR 150.000, and the 2.4 litre being even more expensive as only 400 were built. A good coupé will still be yours for somewhere around EUR 50-60.000. Unless you have a very firm idea of what you want, the individual condition of the car is probably more important than which engine it has. One of the few available options was metallic paint and the dark grey metallic you can still find some cars in is to me the colour which really highlights the car’s beauty!
The most beautiful Dino in my eyes indeed carries the Fiat badge (except the one in the picture above…) and to finish where we started, even though they’ve gone up in price in the last years, a Fiat Dino Coupé is still more than EUR 300.000 (!) cheaper than a Ferrari Dino 246 with the same engine! That’s of course an even more legendary car but it’s not a GT and it also doesn’t have the elegance of the Fiat Dino, one of the most beautiful cars of the 60’s. Good design never goes out of style so if there’s still room in your garage, get one while you still can!
Last week was about the Aston Martin DBX and all the reasons why to me, it won’t save Aston. This notably has to do with the fact that the segment of luxury SUV’s is more contested than ever before, with new models being launched at a steady pace that doesn’t look likely to slow anytime soon, especially if you include all the electrical versions that are planned in the coming years.
Next to all these modern creations there is however another SUV that is still there, dating back to the days when this type of car was still referred to as terrain vehicle. It’s a car as popular among American rappers as with Zurich millionaires, and which costs as much as a DBX. It’s not pretty by any objective standards and about as aerodynamic as your fridge, yet it has a street presence like basically nothing else. I’m obviously talking about the legendary Mercedes G-class (G for Gelände, terrain in German), the long history of which we’ll look briefly into today before focusing on what is to some people, is a hot candidate to the title “most pointless vehicle on the road”, but to others the only SUV worth having: the AMG G63.
It’s difficult to imagine a car which saw the light of day 42 years ago, in 1979, yet where the most successful sales year was 37 years later, in 2016. That’s is however what happened with the G of which in that year 20.000 were sold, out of a total of over 300.000 cars of the original car, built until 2018. The new G-class which then came out looks exactly like the old one and continues to sell at a pace (and in spite of price) that is very surprising. It’s abundandly clear that there’s a certain magic surrounding the G and to try to understand that, we’ll start by winding the clock back to the early 70’s and the Middle East.
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, more known as the shah of Iran, was a very powerful and wealthy man until he was removed from power through the Islamic Revolution in 1979. In the early 70’s he owned almost 20% of Daimler through common shares and thus felt entitled to request a few special services, such as the production of a new terrain car for his personal hunting trips but also for his Iranian border patrol. Keen to oblige but also believing it could sell quite a few of the same car to the police, firemen and other public services in Germany, Daimler started a collaboration with Steyr Puch in Austria (today Magna Steyr), a car and parts manufacturer with a large production facility in Graz where the G-class is still being built. The joint company decided to start production and the first cars were delivered in 1979. i.e. in the same year the mullahs ousted the shah in Iran. It’s therefore unclear but highly unlikely that he ever got to hunt in his new G-class. The collaboration lasted until 2000 and also explains why, until then, the G was sold under the Puch brand in a number of markets.
Initially the G was produced in a short 3-door version, a long 5-door version and a 2-door convertible. This first series had a power output of between 102 and 156 hp and was obviously very far from what AMG builds in Affalterbach. All models were however highly capable off road with three differentials compensating a lesser axle interlock than the natural rival, the Defender. The G also had a tipping angle of 38% and short overhangs. As a solid and to a large extent (still today) hand-built car, the quality has always been excellent, as has been recognized notably by the UN that uses G’s in various areas of the world. Unbreakable doesn’t equal extremely comfortable though, something the two rigid axles always reminded passengers of in the old G.
The first series was built unchanged from 1979 until 1990. We’re not going to go through all the subsequent series and engines given the car basically remained unchanged with small variations and different engines until 2018, but a highlight was the first AMG version called G55, launched in 2004 and developing 476 hp. Mercedes now started to pay a bit of attention to the G’s looks, adding a bit of plastic and spoilers here and there and thus giving the car a slightly less utilitarian look. This had the desired effect and the G started attracting a new group of more urban clients, laeding to future G’s being driven far more on the shopping miles of Western cities than in any kind of terrain. In 2011 and 2012 production of the short-wheel, 3-door version and the convertible was stopped. From then and until the end of production of the original G in 2018, the 350d was the only diesel, complemented by the two V8’s in the G500 and the the G 63 AMG, launched in 2012, and then the completely crazy, 612 hp double-turbo, 12-cylinder G65, built from 2015.
Next to these “regular” versions, the G has also been built in a variety of small series by Mercedes itself, and also been treated by various tuners, notably Brabus, adding another couple of hundred hp as if that was ever required. The more spectacular versions include the completely insane G6x6 built for the Australian Army in 2007 but these days very popular in the Middle East, and the 12-cylinder G650 Landaulet that Mercedes presented in Geneva in 2017 as a last iteration of the old G-class. 100 were built of these with an asking price today of over EUR 800.000.
As mentioned initially the G has a street presence like nothing else. Although it isn’t, it looks smaller than modern SUV’s given it stands higher. It’s the only car in production today which to my knowledge has a completely flat front window and it’s certainly the only one with wing-mounted turning indicators and visible door hinges. The thing is however that the original G drove exactly as it looked, making the popularity difficult to understand. I drove a G for the first time around 10 years ago, a 400 cdi which by then was 6-7 years old. The 8-cylinder diesel engine suited the car perfectly and the view and commanding position from the “upper deck” were fantastic. If ever there was a car that makes you feel like the king of the hill, this is the one! That’s however where the positives end. The drive itself (on tarmac) was absolutely horrific, stiff and noisy, and with fear for your life as soon as you neared a corner at any speed. I’ve never driven another car where the EPS kicks in in city driving, and the idea of having more than 600 hp under the hood as in the G65 was truly terrifying.
In 2018 Mercedes launched a completely new G that in spite of looking almost exactly like the old one is practically a new car underneath, and apparently, that was exactly the right call. The new car is slightly longer but also around 12 cm wider which makes a huge difference on the inside, the old G having had the Defender syndrome of the driving seat being very close to the door. The technical changes underneath are too many to mention but importantly include individual suspension on the front wheels and almost 200 kg less weight all in all. Finally the interior today looks like any modern Mercedes SUV with the MBUX screens and the rest. The top version is now the G63 with the 4-litre, 585 hp double-turbo AMG V8. This is also the most sold versions and the one everyone wants, and that both the diesel G350d and the V8 G500 make more sense objectively seems completely irrelevant. And if 585 hp is still not enough, you can still take your new G63 to Brabus who for an additional EUR 100.000 will increase the power to 800 hp and rebuild the interior according to your wishes.
A drive in the new G63 is nothing like the old one. The positives are still there – you do really feel like you’re above everything and everyone else, including other SUV’s. The grunt from the side pipes is just wonderful and the acceleration feels absurd as it takes the car to 100 km/h in less than 4.5 seconds. The ESP is still there and is still needed although it intervenes far less than before. Also the car is really well isolated but if you drive something that looks like a fridge at highway speeds, you will have more wind noise than in a more aerodynamic form. Given however how it’s used these days the G63 does the job as well as a modern SUV, and with tons of more presence. And should you, God forbid, venture outside of a city center onto something like a terrain road, you’ll soon discover that the car is still hugely capable and in that sense, still a true terrain vehicle. You may however have to switch those 22-inch, high-speed tires to something with a bit more rubber before doing so.
If a G63 is your thing you’ll quickly notice something else about it: it has some of the best resale values in the world. A 7-8 year old G63 with more than 150.000 kms is still around EUR 70.000, and the new G’s from 2018 and later have hardly lost any value at all. Mercedes doesn’t limit the number of cars produced but the production takes time given the manual part, meaning there’s quite a long wait for new cars. In 2018 this actually led to available cars being sold at a premium, something that doesn’t happen often with “normal” cars. The unique feel and presence but also the incredible solidity and quality the car oozes of make it understandable why, if you have the money, you would actually spend it on a G63, and financially given strong resale values, it would actually not be completely unwise. The old G is of course much cheaper but there’s a reason, so if you’re thinking of it, then please test drive it extensively to make sure that it’s really your thing. You’ll have none of these worries in the new G. It will never make any rational sense buying this or any other 500+hp SUV such as the DBX, but then again, rational was never fun – the G63 is!
Last week in my post on AMG, I wrote about the risk of diluting a brand when like Mercedes do with AMG, you start adding AMG badges to a large number of models in the line-up. In defence of Mercedes they build cars to make money and I strongly suspect they wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t good business. Also, they own all of AMG these days so they’re obviously free to use the brand how they wish even if as said, I think it risks scaring away some enthusiasts.
As I also mentioned last week, AMG have through the years done both engines and parts for a whole line of other manufacturers, and it’s one of these we’ll talk about today. Because if there’s a risk of brand value dilution within one group with too extensive use of a sub-brand, what about a brand that sells very pricey cars but where these no longer rely neither on their own engines, nor gearboxes, nor updated technology? I would claim this doesn’t sound like a recipe for success in the long term, but it is what Aston Martin offers today, including in the new SUV DBX, a car everyone says their future depends on. Aston’s new ex-AMG boss Tobias Moers has even said that he wouldn’t have taken the job as Aston CEO if the DBX hadn’t been in the line-up. I guess there’s a logic to that given everyone wants an SUV these days, but is the DBX a good enough SUV to motivate its price tag of around CHF 230.000-250.000 (roughly the same in EUR or USD), and is it still a real Aston Martin?
The first point to note is that the DBX is in no way a bad car. I seem to be one of the few who don’t like the looks of it so let’s pass on that, but the reviews, even the non-English ones, have generally been positive. With short overhangs and, well, being an Aston, it drives better than any other SUV and has a beautiful, hand-crafted interior that’s available in a multitude of trims and colours. Of course nothing less should be expected given the price tag, which puts it in the same segment as for example the Bentley Bentayga and various AMG SUV’s, from the G63 to the GLS-Maybach. Something like a fully equipped Cayenne Turbo or Maserati Levante is even cheaper as you’ll get one of those for around EUR 200.000 in top trim.
Aston these days fits Mercedes engines and so the DBX has the current, twin-turbo, 3.9 litre AMG engine, producing around 550 hp. That’s a brilliant power unit and one you find in all the AMG top models as well. What the AMG cars will also have is the latest version of Mercedes’s MBUX, the best infotainment unit in the industry. The DBX is however equipped with a screen that looks like a touch screen but isn’t, and behind it is Mercedes’s previous infotainment unit, the origins of which go back to 2014. That’s most probably older than your phone, and quite far from today’s standard. On the dash above the screen the DBX has large buttons to engage the different gears. I don’t know why Aston is so keen on these given they’re neither nice to look at, nor necessary. In the DBX they’re connected to a 9-gear box from, you guessed it, Mercedes. And that gearbox can be a bit laggy, especially if you use the paddles. And if you’ve sat in the car long enough to notice these things as I did last week (except the paddle slowness), you will probably also have realized that the beautifully handcrafted interior looks a bit too handcrafted in certain areas, with some parts not fitting exactly as they should. Tests have shown that when driving, it tends to squeek a bit here and there. That’s the DBX, and it costs a quarter of a million.
I get that everyone doesn’t want a mass-produced Cayenne, one of the various Mercedes-AMG SUV’s, or feels too young for a Bentayga, but surely the solution can’t be to use the Aston brand to sell an inferior product? You’ll tell me the Bentayga is an Audi underneath and that’s true, but it motivates its price because the total package is superior to anything in the Audi line-up. You’ll remind me that I’ve just told you AMG is a diluted brand, but that doesn’t change the fact that the real AMG cars are the best of what Mercedes offers, which means some of the best in the market. You’ll tell me Porsche did the same thing as Aston do now when they launched the Cayenne, banking on 911 owners buying an SUV if Porsche built one. That’s also true, but it was almost 20 years ago and then even more than now, there were far more 911 owners around than DB9 drivers. The DBX may well drive better than a Cayenne on the margin but it’s a family SUV we’re talking about here and if that argument counted for anything, our streets wouldn’t be clogged with less well-handling, 500 hp SUV’s.
Aston Martin has built some of the most beautiful sports cars in the world through the years. That’s where the brand value resides. That’s the kind of Aston most of us would love to have in our garage and where we wouldn’t care less about what type of infotainment solution it has (and that’s good, because the earlier ones were even more crappy), or if there’s a squeek here and there in the interior. The company jumped on the SUV bandwagon like everyone else but firstly, they were late to the party and secondly, where Bentley and Lamborghini have the full VW group behind them, including quality checks, Aston as an independent company at least for now has to content with what Mercedes is happy to sell them. On the whole, that makes the DBX an inferior product from a rational point of view, and that seems to be confirmed by sales numbers which have now been revised to roughly half of what they were pre-Covid (3000 for 2021). So far, around 2000 have been sold. Living in Zurich, a city that is like a rolling automobile exhibition, I’ve so far only seen two or three.
I don’t think the DBX will save Aston Martin, but that doesn’t mean Tobias Moers won’t. A man with his background can teach Aston a lot on everything from efficiency (he claims to already having reduced the number of work stations from over 70 to around 20…) to quality thinking, the DBX platform can obviously be re-used for future models, and Moers has all the connections needed within AMG to make sure that with time, Aston will benefit not only from the latest engines. That however takes us back to where we started this because when he’s done, Aston will have become yet another AMG outlet – albeit under a different logo.
In my overview of something we could call “Germany’s leading automobile improvers”, regular readers know that over the last weeks I’ve written about Ruf and Alpina, the boutique manufacturers specialized in Porsche and BMW respectively (you’ll note that I’m avoiding the word “tuner” lhere, since it doesn’t even come close to describing what these formidable companies do!). The overview would however not be complete if it didn’t include the three legendary letters A, M and G, i.e. the Mercedes-focused racing- and sports car specialist AMG. The story is a bit different than Ruf and Alpina’s given AMG has been part of Mercedes for many years, but it is nonetheless an interesting one, so let’s look into it this week and then at the end also spend a few lines thinking about the dilution the value of a brand, something I will cover from another, but no less interesting angle next week.
Back in the 60’s, Hans-Werner Aufrecht (the A) and Erhard Melcher (the M) were good friends and engine builders at Mercedes-Benz, with a special love for racing. Aufrecht lived in the small town of Grossaspach (the G), which according to Google has one restaurant and one hotel and is located around half an hour north of Mercedes’s home in Stuttgart. Going about their daily jobs, they noticed that the Bavarian competitor BMW not only built more performance-oriented cars themselves, but also worked with external companies (yep, Alpina), offering even more refined and powerful cars. BMW’s client demand on one hand and racing success on the other wasn’t lost on the two MB engineers who therefore started to develop a racing engine in their spare time. The work became increasingly intense but also increasingly interesting so that in 1967 they handed in their resignation at Mercedes and set up their new company AMG. They converted Aufrecht’s basement to the firm’s headquarters, and the future garage came soon after in the form of an old wind mill in Grossaspach.
Aufrecht and Melcher had started working on a racing engine for the 300 SE in their last years at Mercedes, a car they were especially fond of. Once AMG was up and running the pair quickly found a damaged 300 SE that they bought for a few thousand D-Marks and then used as basis for the Mercedes-Benz 300 SEL 6.8-litre AMG they would start racing with in 1970. In spite of their mechanical knowledge and extensive modifications it didn’t go very well in the beginning (not very surprising you’ll tell me given the size and weight of the SE) but given failure wasn’t an option, they kept at it and finally saw the turning point at Spa-Francorchamps in 1971. AMG finished second in the championship and all the hard work finally paid off. Word of the success spread quickly and AMG’s operations grew throughout the 70’s, as did the racing success. The multiple wins through the 70’s and 80’s are too extensive to mention, but to give an example of AMG’s dominance, the DTM 1988 series saw them win all ten races, with their two cars finishing in first and second position in six out of the ten!
Outside of racing AMG initially mostly tuned Mercedes engines in both power output and torque, but soon clients also contacted them for more individually customized vehicles, and the company was happy to comply. Experience from the race track was systematically applied to the “standard” cars, and word of AMG as THE Mercedes tuner started to spread. The wind mill in Grossaspach was by now far too small and the company moved to Affalterbach, a few kilometres away, where they are still located to this day. In 1990 the company signed a first collaboration agreement with Mercedes which also included selling AMG cars through the MB dealership network. Shortly thereafter plans were also drawn up for what was to be the entry on the US market in 1995.
Listing all the AMG’s that have been built through the years would make a very long post, since quite often, the same model was equipped with different engines. The 300 SEL 6.8-litre is probably the most well known, with the so called “Hammer”, a W124 E-class with a 5.8 litre V8 not far behind. But there’s also less well-known cars in the line-up, a few examples of which you’ll find below:
The C-class has been an AMG favourite, and notably the US market entry started with the six-cylinder C36 AMG. Far more exciting and only distinguishable through the front grille was the C55 with a V8 engine producing 347 hp. These are still a good deal by the way, being somewhat forgotten by the market.
In 1992 you could buy the six-cylinder, 234 hp 190 3.2 AMG. That was almost exactly the same power output as the 190 EVO II, however with far less drama and wings. It won’t be easy to track one down, but if you manage to do so it will no doubt be far less expensive than an Evo!
The CLK GTR of which only 25 were built is perhaps not that unknown, but all the more remarkable since AMG developed it in less than 6 months and Bernd Schneider won the inaugural FIA GT Champ title with it in 1997. Other CLK versions were also produced by AMG for the German DTM series during many years.
A more modern exotic is the family van R63 AMG, the top version of the not very successful R-range, where more than 500 hp from the 6.2 litre V8 took seven passengers and their luggage to 100 km/h in less than 5 seconds. Again, not many were built so finding one won’t be easy but if you do, that’s probably the most practical dark horse you can find for the school run to this day!
I could go on, but the major difference to somewhat comparable companies such as Ruf and Alpina is obvious – AMG has always been about quantity to a certain extent. The company has wanted to do everything for everyone, from cosmetics to diesels to petrol engines, and obviously also a lot for other manufacturers, going all the way from Pagani to Mitsubishi. The proliferation has therefore always been large, which is also reflected in prices. The small series and rare cars are pricey, those produced in large numbers far less so. They are however also far less exclusive.
The dilution only intensified when Mercedes took over the majority of AMG in 1999 and to a large extent coincides with Tobias Moers time as CEO, before he last year moved on to Aston Martin. Looking quickly at the current Mercedes line-up in Switzerland, there are a total of 22 models carrying the AMG brand from the factory, and in addition AMG styling packages that can be ordered to even more models. Engines called AMG go from four to eight cylinders but if you look closer into the range, you quickly realize that the “true” AMG cars in the line-up are far fewer. This smaller range is where the philosophy of “one man one engine” is still being followed, with engines being hand built and signed by their builder. This is also the range that can be said to be somewhat comparable to the Rufs and Alpinas of this world. The remaining offer is basically re-branded Mercedes products, and I can’t help thinking that even if it may make business sense, it diminishes the brand value to a point where true enthusiasts may start to look elsewhere.
Aufrecht and Melcher are both alive and well to this day. Melcher is 78 and still involved with AMG, but Aufrecht, who is the same age and who sold out all of his shares in AMG by 2005, had then already founded the racing specialist HWA (he’s obviously a fan of naming companies by initials) in 1998, where he is active to this day. The company called AMG which started in a wind mill in the 60’s is thus not really around anymore, but Aufrecht and Melcher no doubt took it a long way with impressive achievements through the years, both in serial cars but even more on the race track!
We’re nine rounds into the F1 season 2021 and it’s time to check the temperature and see where things stand before we move into the mid-season with the British GP in two weeks, the Hungarian at the end of the month and then the Belgian at the end of August. I dare say that even those who find F1 predictable and boring have something to cheer about this year, because so far, predictable is certainly something this season is not. Before moving into the action, let me just note that at the start of the season I wrote that if we were lucky, we may see spectatcors return to some of the races this year. Gladly that is now the case, and it’s great to see!
Going back to where we left off, in my last update I put up the question whether Max (Verstappen, Red Bull) was going to catch up with Lewis (Hamilton, Mercedes) and I believe we have the answer. Not only has he caught up with Lewis but he has in fact clearly passed him, just as Red Bull has passed Mercedes to become the team to beat in the line-up. The most recent five races have all been won by Red Bull with Max winning four and Sergio (Perez) one. But it gets even worse from Mercedes’s perspective, since Lewis has only been on two podiums in those same five races, clinching second place in France and in the first of two Austrian GP’s. Perez has meanwhile also found his footing and is ahead of Bottas, so currently there is little doubt that Red Bull and Max are favourites for this year’s constructor and driver’s title. The die-hard Mercedes optimists will note that Silverstone in two weeks is a typical Mercedes track and they’re right about that, making it a pretty decisive one: if Red Bull beats Mercedes in Silverstone, that’s probably it. If they don’t, my bet is that that’s it anyway.
Behind the two top teams, McLaren and Lando Norris’s progress is no less suprising. Lando drives like there’s no tomorrow and he does so in a fast car that is now very close to the two top teams. Daniel (Ricciardo) was apparently right in his call to join McLaren rather than stay at Renault, but he needs to up his game considerably to keep up with Lando who’s clearly emerging as the team’s first driver. He’s finished P3 three times this year and it’s probably only a question of time before he wins his first race. Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz are doing what they can in their Ferraris which are faster than last year but still inferior not only to Red Bull and Mercedes, but currently also to McLaren. With only two points between them, the two Ferraristi are no doubt the most balanced driver pair on the grid!
The mid-field sees roughly the same teams as earlier, except for McLaren. Aston Martin where Seb Vettel has found his footing which is very nice to see, but the car, although improving, isn’t really there yet. AlphaTauri, where Pierre Gasly continues to deliver strongly but Yuki Tsunoda, although having the speed, seems to have great difficulty in avoiding crossing white lines and getting penalties. Alpine is there as well with notably Fernando Alonso showing his routine, but the car is less performing than last year. Pretty much the same in other words but with Gasly’s continued strong performance and Seb finding the speed again standing out as positives.
Finally there’s not much to report on from the back of the field. Kimi (Räikkönen) and Antonio (Giovinazzi) can hope to take a point here and there in their Alfa Romeos if some of the top cars have problems, and George Russell will certainly do so in the coming races as it’s truly amazing how he manages to get every last hp out of the Williams car. By the way, speculation as to whether he will replace Bottas at Mercedes before the end of the season doesn’t go away. Finally, whilst Haas remain very much last in the line-up, at least Mazepin seems to have found some stability and stopped endangering other drivers in every race. Mick Schumacher beats him in most races, but he can’t work wonders either in a car that is nowhere close to where it was a couple of years ago.
If you’re thinking that Mercedes will never let Red Bull win the title this season without a fight, that would certainly be true in a normal year, but in view of the very big changes that will hit the F1 circus next season and that we’ll come back to in a separate post in the coming months, Mercedes as well as other teams have officially stated that they will not develop their 2021 cars any further. It’s therefore difficult to imagine that something could happen that fundamentally changes the outcome this year, and that would mean that we’ll see a new world champion, one who for the first time ever is from the Netherlands and whose name is Max Verstappen!
I’ve been told I was mean to Lotus last week, referring to them as unreliable in my post about the fabulous Lupo GTI and my son’s limited mechanical knowledge, so let’s deal with that straight away. I love Lotus deeply and was reminded of it when I had the opportunity to drive my friend Erik’s Elise a couple of weeks ago (I did a piece on when he bought it that you’ll find here), but I maintain that to describe them as reliable at the level of a modern VW would be about as true as claiming that Sweden plays entertaining football.
Growing up in the 80’s one of my real dream cars was indeed a Lotus, however for obvious reasons not the Elise. It was the true supercar-like Lotus Esprit that enchanted me, from the original, 007 one to the later versions. To me it looked cooler than a Ferrari and comparing a 308/328 to an Esprit, I think that holds true even today, as I was able to determine when by chance driving into a Lotus club gathering in the Swiss Alps a couple of weeks ago. One owner was kind enough to give me a close-up tour of his Esprit V8, and that’s obviously a very good reason to look closer at this legendary car, as we’ll do this week!
The Esprit was a true long-runner, coming to market in 1976 as replacement for the Europa, and being produced all the way until 2004, i.e. for 28 years. The wedge-shaped original car was designed by Giorgio Giugiaro and the Esprit’s father and developer was of course none other than legendary Lotus founder Colin Chapman, so the Esprit was a true symbiosis of Italian design and Chapman’s view of what a sports car should be like (read light-weight!). And then it also became a film star, featured in two James Bond films (“They spy who loved me” and “For your eyes only”), as well as in the 1990 classic “Pretty Woman”, where Julia Roberts teaches Richard Gere how to use a stickshift in the hills above LA.
When the Esprit was launched in the mid-70’s, Lotus was still a big name in Formula 1 with Mario Andretti as the star driver. Andretti took his world championship title in 1978 in a Lotus, and this was to be Lotus’s last of a total of seven F1 titles. It was perhaps not a surprise therefore that the first version of the Esprit (called S1, Series 1) actually had a lot in common with an F1 car: the driving position is pretty much the same, i.e. half-lying , the handling is perhaps not on the level of an F1 car but still superb, the whole car is 1.11 metres high, i.e. low enough to make an Evora feel like a family sedan, and with the engine located directly behind the seats, the sound is said to be fantastic, although perhaps not at the level of a 70’s F1 car. The S1 had a four-cylinder engine that until 1978 only put out 160 hp in Europe and 140 hp in the US, however the car weighed only 1050 kg and was therefore still as fast as a 911 SC. In terms of interior materials and quality, let’s just note that the world has come a long way since the 70’s, although there is actually more cloth in the S1 than in a modern Elise…
The S2 was introduced in 1978 with some minor cosmetic revisions but most famously also in the John Player Special edition with the same black paint with gold stripes as Andretti’s F1 world championship car. The big technical innovation was however the introduction of the turbo in 1980 that took the performance to 213 hp and gave the car a top speed of 240 km/h and a sprint to 100 km/h in around six seconds. The S3 which succeeded the S2 in 1983 was the list incarnation of the “original” Esprit and remained largely unchanged, albeit with a bit more power and offered both with and without turbo until 1987.
The second version of the Esprit that came out in 1988 and was designed by Philip Stevens was a largely different car. Although staying true to the original shape, the design was much more 80’s-like, but also more polished and offering occupants more room in an improved interior. The production process was also improved, as was the car’s rigidity. The mechanical components and engines would however remain pretty much the same until 1994 when the Lotus 3.5-litre V8 engine with twin turbos was introduced in the S4, taking the Esprit from a fast sports car to supercar territory. The V8 put out a very healthy 350 hp, 50 more than the regular, 2.2 litre S4 that was still produced, leading to a 100 km/h sprint in less than 4.5 seconds and a top speed of more than 280 km/h. From here on the Esprit remained largely unchanged until the end of production in 2004. It should however be noted that in addition to the main models described above, there was also a multitude of smaller series produced, often in very low numbers, and all of which are of course real gems today.
Coming back to the Lotus gathering I ran into a couple of weeks ago, even if this was a dream car in my youth, I had never even sat in an Esprit and was thus about as nervous as a 15-year old on his first date when I was offered to do so. That I’m no long 15 then became very obvious, as I tried to maneovre myself with some kind of elegance into the very low seat, with the smile on the owner’s face indicating I was less successful than I thought. Once you’re in and have assumed the half-lying but not uncomfortable position, you quickly note that visibility is comparable to how a good friend of mine says you should live life, i.e. with a big front screen and a small rear mirror. That’s to say that it’s very limited in all directions but forward, and if you look sideways your eyes will be on the same height as bystanders’ behinds. You also have a very limited feel for how large the car is, but interestingly, whereas back in the day the Esprit looked like a large car, today it feels rather small – as so often is the case.
The owner was kind enough to turn the key and rev the V8 of his S4 a bit, and the sound is of course wonderful and as he said, also a constant companion on the trip given where the engine is located, so you’d better enjoy it. Using a devoted Esprit owner as source for any kind of objective information is obviously not ideal, but going by his enthusiasm I have to believe that the car is indeed the tremendous drive the looks promise, with almost perfect balance, great steering and a gearshift that is far more precise than the rather chubby changer would have you believe. I did however sense a bit of hesitation as to whether the V8 is a better engine option than the four-cylinder, and even got an admission that from a budget perspective, it’s probably the four-pot you should go for…
Speaking of money, Esprits have been on the way up price-wise for the last few years. Around 10.000 were built all in all but many have died far too early and the offer is thus very limited, especially if you’re looking for a special series where you have to be prepared to pay big bucks. The market for good cars starts somewhere around EUR 40.000 and goes up to six figures for really well kept, low-mileage cars, or special series. Whether you go for the original Esprit (S1-S3) or the updated version is a matter of taste: the early cars seduce with their clean lines and 70’s charm, but the later ones are clearly more liveable, comfortable and, if I dare say so, reliable. As for the best engine, the four-cylinder is probably the sensible way to go, potentially even without the turbo given the car’s low weight. So to end where we started, whatever version you go for, do make sure you have enough of a budget left to give it the love and maintenance it will no doubt require. Then again, so does a 308/328 or any other sports or supercar from the same era. And choosing between those, at least to me, 007 was always cooler than Magnum!
Hot hatches is not something I write often about, quite simply because I’m less passionate about the segment than others such as supercars and intersting oldtimers. I will however be the first to admit that there is something very appealing with the concept of a small car with low weight and lots of driving fun, and I have at least touched on some classic hot hatches in past posts, such as the Peugeot 205 GTI and recently the oh so lovely A112 Abarth.
A problem with the hot hatch segment is however that it’s (also) become expensive: new ones easily cost as much as a mid-sized car, and the classics such as the Golf GTI Mk1, Peugeot 205 GTI, Renault Clio Williams (not to talk about the Turbo 2!) have today gone stratospheric. There are some exceptions though, and in my opinion, none more so than one of the smallest hot hatches on the market. Maybe it’s because of the size, or because it looks sweet rather than dangerous. Whatever the reason, I can’t think of a single car today that offers as much driving pleasure per your unit of money than the forgotten, underrated and undervalued VW Lupo GTI. Doesn’t ring any bells? Don’t worry, you’re not the only one, and that’s why we’ll look closer at it this week!
The reason I came to think of the Lupo is the current search for a car for my son, who (if all goes well) will pass his driving license in ten days. He’s inherited the car sickness gene from me and has therefore been on the lookout for an affordable while still fun car, with four seats, a decent amount of hp but not too many such as not to scare his mother, and at the same time with low consumption and being cheap in insurance. Affordable in this case is around CHF 5-6.000 (about as much in EUR/USD) but given his level of mechanical knowledge is lower than a Lotus Esprit, there’s also a strong wish for the car not to be something Esprit-like but rather quite solid. The task looked difficult for a while with not many more candidates springing to mind than a Mini, which is arguably an excellent choice but also something you see on every corner, which in this case doesn’t count as a positive. But then it struck me – the Lupo GTI actually fits the bill perfectly!
The Lupo (Italian for “wolf”, which is in turn the first half of the name of the town VW comes from, Wolfsburg) came about as a result of “size inflation”. The Golf, traditionally the small car in the VW line-up, was getting bigger and bigger and all of a sudden there was room for a smaller car below it. Launched in 1998 and built until 2005, the Lupo filled that gap, and whilst most of the almost 500.000 Lupos built were quite boring small cars selling rather on fuel economy (the Lupo 3l TDI consumed just that, 3 litres, on 100 km), around 6400 of these were the GTI model. That’s not a big number, and although most of them are still on the road today, it also explains why the supply is thin – there’s currently four for sale in Switzerland, and around 15 in all of Germany.
True to the philosophy shared by the Mini that a car should ideally have a wheel in each corner, the Lupo is a boxy little thing with practically no overhangs, bringing the advantage that you can actually seat four adults on far less than 4 metres (3.52 metres to be exact) and also a bag or two, as long as they’re not too big. The GTI sits 20 mm lower than the regular Lupo and looks the part with 15-inch wheels, xenon lights and some decent skirts and spoilers all around, complemented by the lovely, centrally-mounted dual exhaust pipes! The interior is typical VW, however with the (also typical) VW GTI feel, with nice touches such as sport seats, a leater shifter and chrome rings in the gauge cluster which together bring a bit of exclusivity to the otherwise solid but dull interior. It’s not fun, but it’s solid and quite nice. Most GTIs sold were in silver and black, which are also the colours that fit the car best. Importantly, try to find one from 2002 onwards, as those have a six- rather than five-speed gearbox.
Turning the ignition brings a lovely sound from those double pipes, which accompanies you all the way up to the 7000 rpm limit. That’s good since chances are you’ll spend some time up there, given the 1.7 litre engine needs revs. As long as you do rev it, power is however plentiful as the car weighs in at only 975 kg. The rest of the drive is also pure joy, with the Lupo offering as much gokart feel as you can get in a normal car. The driving experience has been compared to the GTI Mk1 and the 205 GTI which is obviously a huge compliment, but I woudl say the Lupo is actually a more modern drive than both of them, and more precise in most areas. Once again, it’s a great testament to the advantages of the light-weight philosphy!
As noted above there aren’t many Lupos around and many of those that are have also been modified, which doesn’t have to be negative as long as it stays decent and well-done. Lowered suspension combined with bigger wheels is probably the most common modification, and obviously you then need to make sure that the suspension leaves enough room for the wheels and provides at least a minimum of comfort. Engine tuning is less common, but there are a couple of cars in Germany where they’ve managed to squeeze the 300hp+ Audi S3 engine into a Lupo GTI. Having driven the standard car, that sounds like a truly terrifying experience! The high mileage you see on many cars is obviously a testament to the quality and shouldn’t put you off as long as the car’s been serviced regularly. Another testament to the quality is no doubt that of the around 1500 GTI’s sold in Germany, around 2/3 are still on the road 20 years later.
So where did we end up? Well, we managed to find a silver GTI from 2002 with around 160.000 kms on the clock, owned by a VW mechanic, in almost perfect condition. It’s been lowered a further 2 cm from standard with new suspension and combined with the almost new 16-inch wheels looks absolutely terrific. The driving experience is amazing and to my great surprise, the seller was happy to negotiate the CHF 6.300 asking price without me saying anything, as the car has been on sale for a while without success. He was therefore also happy to reserve it for us until my son’s test. If you ask me, the weak demand will soon be a thing of the past, as it’s difficult to imagine a more fun, more solid and more practical car for the city and short trips than the Lupo GTI. As for my son, he is now more motivated than ever to pass that driving test – as if that was ever needed…
I hadn’t seen a Saab 95 for probably 20 years when I bumped into this one in the old town of Zurich last week! As all Saabs of the 92-96 generation they’ve become a rare sight these days, but were they a frequent one when I grew up in Sweden… The 95 was especially popular out in the archipelago where we had our summer house, with the locals appreciating the combination of flexiblity and (low) price it provided. This was indeed Saab’s first estate, and interestingly the last until the modern 9-5 21 years later, carrying the same name but now with a dash between the numbers.
So what makes the 95 something to write about, except of course the fantastic condition of this almost 50-year old example? Well, the design is… interesting. I wouldn’t call it ugly, but it’s a bit unclear what Saab was trying to achieve. Especially seen from the side, the different windows and angles create an interesting mix that certainly takes some getting used to, but the front and back are rather cool. More interesting though is the fact that the car was approved for not four, not five, but seven passengers, all in 4.1 metres: two in the front, three in the back and two in a reversed foldable seat in the boot, the same system Mercedes used in the E-class over many years. The extra seat had to be removed during the last production years for safety concerns.
Around 110.000 Saab 95’s were built over 19 years from 1959 to 1978, in parallel to the more well-known Saab 96 sedan. The model range started with the Saab 92 back in 1949, Saab’s first production car. The 93 followed in 1956 and became known for its rally successes, mostly with the (for Swedish readers) famous Erik Carlsson “Carlsson på taket” behind the wheel (the nickname translates to “Carlsson on the roof” from Astrid Lindgren’s children’s book of the same name, and was one he earned in a rally where he ended up on the 93’s roof). The Saab 96 was the 93’s replacement and was built until 1980 when the range was discontinued in favour of the 99 that was already produced since a few years, and later the 900.
At the start, the 95 had a not very exciting two-stroke engine, but it then got the famous V4 in 1967 which in the last years developed up to 68 hp, in other words almost ten per allowed passenger! Then again, the car weighed less than a ton. From the two-stroke and onwards, all engines had the so called “free wheel”, an invention Saab made popular and that can be explained as the engine going down to idle as soon as you release the throttle. This was seen as a way to save fuel and also not having to use the clutch when downshifting. The system would actually survive mechanically until the Saab 99 and notably Toyota have used an electronic version of it on modern cars. Then again, it was never a lack of technical innovations that caused Saab’s premature death – this was after all the brand that popularized the turbo engine!
Very few 95’s are left today which isn’t very surprising when you consider these were work horses rather than Sunday cars. And they really didn’t have the best rust protection in the world… So seeing such a nice one on the street as I did was great, as finding one today isn’t easy. This is however one of those Swedish classics where there can be important price differences between Scandinavia (especially Sweden) and the rest of Europe. This is clearly explained by the offer of cars being larger, but unfortunately many of these are in poor condition. That said, even the few you would be interested in usually go for very reasonable prices, meaning around EUR 10-15.000 in the case of the Saab 95.
Whenever you see a car like the Saab 95 it’s also interesting observing how people react to it. Whilst I was taking the two top pictures of the car, a number of people stopped, pointed fingers and smiled. If you compare this to the rather testosterone-rich, guttural sounds you tend to hear around for example an Aventador, it’s clear how a car like the Saab 95 awakens positive memories and emotions. Mind you, this was even without the owner being there to ignite all the 68 hp of the V4… I’m not sure it can compete with an Aventador, but those who know it tend to remember it, even if like the Saab 95, it belongs to a bygone era!
I think we can all agree that if one car was to symbolize all sports cars through the years, it would have to be the 911. It’s one of the most legendary cars ever built, and one which has more lives than a cat, but also one which has evolved such as to always stay on top of its game. Matching the 911 has been difficult for any other sports car builder, not to speak of really small outfits with limited resources. And yet one of these, a family business based in the Bavarian town of Pfaffenhausen, is doing it successfully since more than 50 years, and is perhaps the most legendary Porsche specialist of all. I’m of course talking about Ruf, the small company which restores and perfects 911’s to new heights for a small number of very fortunate – and very rich – clients. Looking at what has made Ruf so legendary is however completely free, and that’s what we’ll do this week!
Launching any business in Germany in 1939 doesn’t necessarily sound like very good timing, but that’s what Alois Ruf did. It was a car repair shop and how it fared during the war is anyone’s guess, but it did survive and Alois also made some money on the side by working as a Sunday bus driver. Nothing very remarkable about that, until in 1963 his bus was overtaken by a Porsche 356 which went on to slid off the road and end up on the roof. Alois took the driver to the local hospital and promised to repair his car. So he did, and this was Ruf’s first contact with a Porsche. He bought it from the unlucky owner after the restoration and a few years later in Munich, he was stopped by a man offering him anything he wanted for his 356 – including his own 911. Alois accepted and realized two things: firstly, that the 911 was an even better car than the 356, and in his eyes with lots of further potential. And secondly, that all Porsche drivers are nutcases.
Ruf thus started by repairing Porsche’s, mostly 911’s, thereby learning everything there was to know about parts and the car’s general construction. As we get to the late 70’s, Alois Jr. had taken over the company from his father who died in 1974, and Porsche was planning to discontinue the 911 and replace it by the 928. The number of 911 versions was therefore reduced to the basis version and the turbo, but with the large following of 911 owners Ruf had as clients, Alois quickly realized that this wouldn’t work – the 911 crowd had precious little interest in a large GT that didn’t have the engine in the back, at least as replacement for the 911. He didn’t need more to start developing an alternative in 1979, which would become Ruf’s first, and to this day, most legendary car: the CTR1, also known as the Yellowbird.
The CTR1 was based on the Carrera 3.2 shell and the 935 engine and was built both on frames provided by Porsche, but also from existing 911’s. 29 “original” CTR1’s were built, with another 20-30 as reworked 911’s. Weight was reduced by removing the back seats and sound-deafening material, and where Ruf felt they had better parts to offer, the didn’t hesitate to replace Porsche parts with these, such as the braking system which became known as the best in the car world. Thanks to a double-KKK turbo, performance was increased to 469 hp for a total weight of the car of 1150 kg. In a famous test in the US magazine “Road & Track” in 1987, the CTR1 was matched against notably the 959, the Countach and the Testarossa, beating them all in top speed and thereby becoming recognized as the fastest car in the world, with a top speed of 339 km/h. The test car Road & Track drove was yellow, which gave it its more famous name Yellowbird. Ruf took the CTR1 to the Nürburgring as well and became known as having been there not to set the fastest time, but rather to record the most drifts…
Production of the successor CTR2, based this time on the 993 Turbo chassis, started in 1995. The philosophy was very much the same as with the CTR1, namely that every part on the car should have a clear purpose. In Alois’s words, a Ruf should fit the driver like a pair of tight trousers. The CTR2 does however have far more styling elements and the advanced thinking that goes into the cars can for example be seen in the CTR2’s rear wing, which is formed such as to provide down force but also lead additional cooling air into the engine. The car was offered both as rear- and all-wheel drive and a long list of other improvements, including a kevlar body with lightweight glass. The engine was this time based on the 962 Group C engine with 520-580 hp depending on year of production. Hereby Ruf reclaimed the title as fastest serial-produced car in the world, at 10 km/h more than the CTR1, now beating notably the Jaguar XJ220 and the Ferrari F50. All in all 28 CTR2’s were produced, around half of them in an optimized “Sport” version with up to 702 hp, raced notably in Pike’s Peak but still fully street legal.
The Ruf CTR3 which was presented at the 20-year anniversary of the CTR1 in 2007, no longer looked like the corresponding 911, as this time Ruf had built its own rear half, fitted to the 911 front. The 3.7-litre, twin-turbo 701 hp flat-six engine was mid rather than rear-mounted, as in the Cayman. A Clubsport version was trimmed to 777 hp, with both cars achieving top speeds of over 375 km/h and a 0-100 km/h time of three seconds. The standard car was discontinued in 2012 but the Clubsport version is built to this day. It’s not clear how many have been built all in all but it’s a small number, as with its predecessors.
the CTR’s 1-3 are the most well-known Ruf cars, but many others have been built from scratch or from existing 911’s through the years, as unique cars or in very small series. Of these, it is still the CTR1 that as no other has come to symbolize the Ruf philosophy and which is also the closest related to later cars, such as the SCR and the anniversary CTR the company now works on. It’s easy to focus on the performance and top speed when talking about Ruf, or indeed on its strong rally pedigree that I haven’t covered here, but it’s also worth remembering the tradition and craftmansship which goes into every car built. Every screw is tightened by hand by what almost feels like a family of technicians, many who have worked for the company for 30-40 years. There is great pride in the cars built, many of which today end up in Asia, but also in the production of parts that are difficult to get elsewhere. Alois Jr. is the company’s CEO and his wife Estonia handles marketing. Today the production consists of a variety of models where my favourite is hands down the Ruf SCR, a car I had the pleasure of seeing at the car show in Geneva in 2018. Not only does it look like a classic 911, only slightly better, but it also marries a 510 hp naturally aspirated flat-six to a weight of only 1250 kg. I personally spent more time in the Ruf boot that year than in all the others combined, where Estonia was happy to answer all questions I had.
There are Ruf’s for sale out there but they’re obviously few and far between and usually have six-zero price tags. The other alternative is of course to take your 911 to Pfaffenhausen and have it modified to your own specifications, and here the price will depend on what those are. Ruf will even build you an electric 911 today, should you for some reason want that. Luckily, business is good, and Ruf promises to be around for another few years. We should all be grateful for the fantastic cars, but also as what the company represents has become a very rare commodity in today’s world. Let’s hope companies like Ruf and others where true craftsmanship still rules will still have a place in the motoring world of tomorrow!
PS. In other news, the car vlogger Jayemm also picked up on the “Ferrari FF being the best bargain out there” angle in a video from this week you can see here (if you missed my post on it from March, see here). He makes the point that given the future of naturally aspirated V12’s looks about as promising as being one of the last remaining dinosaurs 65 million years ago, these could well become collectibles with rising values as a result. If you’re in the market for one, and I don’t see why you shouldn’t be, something worth keeping in mind!
As mentioned in my before-last post on the Alfa GTV6 a couple of weeks ago, one of the reasons I liked it so much was that pretty much all other cars you would see in the mid-80’s on the streets of Stockholm were various Volvos and Saabs, which to a young teenager were all rather boring. In the case of Volvo this was rather intentional, as the company at the time put security and practicality far ahead of any kind of driving thrills or exciting design. But as the 80’s became the 90’s things started to change, and when a few years later Volvo started racing with a large estate, by then it was clear that nothing was the same any longer at the Volvo factory in Torslanda, next to Gothenburg. No car examplified Volvo’s “new” profile better than the top of the line 850 T5-R, a racing estate that has today become a rarity on our streets. But how did it all happen, and should you secure a T5-R before it’s too late? That’s what we’ll look closer at this week!
When the Volvo 850 was introduced in 1991, it was a small revolution for both Volvo and many of its owners, arguably less passionate than Alfistas and other more engaged car owner groups, but still with a firm idea as to what a Volvo should be like. And for as long as anyone cared to remember, large Volvo estates had been rear-wheel drive and in their top version fitted with a big, longitudinal six-cylinder engine up front. The concept is actually quite surprising for a brand selling on practicality and security in… Sweden, a country not really known for its warm temperatures and with quite long, snowy and icy winters. There’s a saying that the when a client would complain about a slight lack of traction in his 945, the Volvo salesman would tell him to throw in a sand bag or two in the back. I never tried that, but I did own a Volvo 965 at one point and ended up precisely in this situation on the way up to the Alps. My mother was part of the trip, so we solved it by moving her back to the cavernous boot, to give it a bit of extra weight. It worked as intended, so I guess the Volvo people had a point.
I realize I just compared my mother to a sand bag, so let’s perhaps move back to the 850. Not only was it front-wheel drive but it also introduced a five-cylinder, 2.3 litre transversal engine, a combination that would from then become the Volvo standard for the coming 25 years, in a clear break with the past. Presented to the world in 1991 first as a sedan and from 1993 as an estate, the latter was a bit smaller on the outside than Volvo’s earlier large estates, but thanks to the transversal engine as well as the preserved boxy shape, it still offered a comparable luggage space. This was important as until then estates, and especially Volvo estates were were bought for their practicality and not for their coolness, but that was about to change… Various engine options were available, none of them terribly exciting, except the top-of-the-range 850 Turbo with 225 hp that came out in 1994.
1994 will however go down in the 850 history for a different reason. Volvo had decided to participate in the at the time very popular British Touring Car Championship (BTCC), primarily as part of a marketing drive to try to add some spice to the company’s profile. The 850 sedan was expected to be the basis of the new racing car, but some marketing genius up in Gothenburg realized how much more attention an estate would gather, and so Volvo lined up the 850 estate for the 1994 championship together with Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR). The plan worked wonders in all respects. Seeing a Volvo estate on two wheels through the corners of British racing tracks was very memorable, and the cars were fast as well. They didn’t win the championship but they caused enough commotion for BTCC’s management to change the rules for 1995, forcing Volvo to switch to the sedan. From a marketing perspective that no longer mattered – Volvo had gotten all the attention they wanted, now the only needed to follow up with an 850 version that connected to the racing car – and so enter the 850 T-5R.
The T5-R was introduced in 1995 and was based on the aforementioned 850 Turbo. Volvo worked together with Porsche (yep!) for the engine tuning that gave the engine another 18 hp, as well as the revised transmission. The mechanical developments were complemented by a large front spoiler and a rear wing which together made the car look rather cool and helped improve its wind resistance, enabling a time of around 7 seconds to 100 km/h and a top speed of 245 km/h. At the time, this made the T5-R one of the fastest estates in the world, and (by a margin) the fastest Volvo ever built. Available with a five-speed manual or a slow and not very motivated four-speed auto box, colour options were limited to a very bleak “cream yellow” or a traditional black.
The T5-R was so successful that Volvo had to revise the planned limited production of 2500 cars of the 1995 model year, extending it into 1996 and adding dark green as a third colour. When production stopped in 1996 a total of around 7.000 cars had been built. In the same year the successor 850R came out (offering far more colours!), essentially the same car but never being able to connect to the T5-R glory, also since it wasn’t a limited production run. A year later production of the 850 ended as it was replaced by the S70/V70.
Driving a T5-R doesn’t bring the same ketchup effect as an old 80’s-style turbo, but still gives much of the same feeling. Front-wheel drive may be beneficial on snowy roads in Sweden but as everyone knows, the concept does cause some limitations when you associate it to a relatively powerful, front-mounted turbo engine, meaning you need to manage power to the front wheels carefully at red lights and on curvy roads. Otherwise the T5-R offers all the qualities of a Volvo estate in a very cool, 90’s shape and remains an autobahn express par excellence until this day. And it still feels very fast, also since it weighs in at below 1500 kg.
Coming back to the initial question then, should you add a T5-R to your driveway while you still can? I certainly wouldn’t mind, given the car’s inherent qualities but already today, it’s easier said than done. Very few 850 T5-R’s are still out there and most of these are real high-mileage cars, with anything from 250′ to 350′ km on the clock. That’s often the case with old Volvos and is obviously a great testament to the quality of the cars, but it also means you need to be very thorough when considering one. Price-wise the T5-R is on the way up with cars coming in at between EUR 15.000-30.000 depending on mileage. It doesn’t end there though since to my mind, the only T5-R you should consider is a cream yellow, manual estate. If you find one of those you don’t want to miss it since not only is it one of the coolest estates from the 90’s, it’s also a car that played a significant role in Volvo’s history!