The DBX won’t save Aston Martin

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?

Short overhangs helps making it a great drive – for an SUV.

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.

Beautiful but squeeky materials, non-touchscreen tech from 2014, dash gear buttons

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.

If it’s really about cornering speeds, why does this thing keep selling like never before?

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.

Those were the days!

The AMG story – from Grossaspach to Stuttgart!

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.

AMG’s first factory in Grossaspach – how things have changed since!

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!

The DTM series in 1988, here in Eiffel, was completely dominated by AMG-MB’s.

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.

The 300 SEL 6.8-litre AMG, the company’s first, and still most famous car

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.

True – and great – AMG’s are still being built!

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!

F1 pit stop – the future looks orange!

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!

The Dutch fans didn’t miss Max’s win in Austria!

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.

Lewis is only ahead of Max outside of the track these days

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.

In reality, Lando’s car is mostly far ahead of Ricciardo’s

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!

The spirit of 007!

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 clean, wedge-like shape of the S1

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…

Enough space for two to lie in the 70’s, checkered seats

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.

The second Esprit iteration looks – and is – a far more modern car

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.

There are worse surprises you can run into in the Alps!

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…

A nice – but low – place to be!

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!

The wolf in sheep’s clothing…

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!

A sympathetic face, largely forgotten – undeservedly!

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.

Leather was one of few options available

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.

Quite a lovely sound from those double pipes!

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.

That’s not going to work very well…

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…

Street finds – the Saab 95 V4!

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.

Curious lines and angles – maybe not Saab’s most beautiful creation…

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.

Not a bad paint job – the sun plays tricks

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.

Saab actually raced an estate long before Volvo did!

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!

“Why do we always have to sit back here….”

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!

Ruf – the better, Bavarian 911!

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!

Where it all started, more than 50 years ago.

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 Ruf CTR1

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…

The Ruf CTR2 with the air-leading rear wing.

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 CTR3

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.

The SCR in the Ruf boot in Geneva 2018 – note “Ruf” in the headlights…

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!

When Volvo went racing!

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!

Volvo 850 T5-R – no other Volvo had ever been like it

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.

Four-wheel drive is for whimps…

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.

Dutchman Jan Lammers showing a different type of 2WD

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.

The T5-R has part-alcantara seats, otherwise it’s a standard 850

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!

Can E-fuels save traditional mobility?

Readers of this blog know of my scepticism towards EV’s, not as a concept but as a solution to climate-related issues. I wrote about this in a recent post you can find here, so I won’t repeat myself. To be fair, things are moving in the right direction at least with regards to some of the issues raised, as I also highlighted in my recent post about Mercedes’s new EQS (see here). It does however remain the case that even if EV manufacturers become climate-neutral in their production, as long as the country they produce in is not 100% based on green energy, what they achieve is basically nothing put pushing the dirty energy consumption on to the next guy.

Even the steel is said to be climate neutral in a few years in the production of the EQS and other MB EV’s

There is however another BIG issue around EV’s that no one seems really keen to talk about, namely what on earth we’re supposed to do with the millions of fully functional cars we currently have on our streets, if the plan is to roll out EV’s for all? Don’t laugh, the question risks becoming very real as various European governments start fixing end dates for the sale of new combustion engines. A logical next step is then to start discussing bans on existing cars. But what is the plan for millions of existing and fully functional cars, and even more, what is the carbon footprint of destroying millions of existing cars and building new EV’s? Funnily, this is an aspect that is completely absent from the discussion.

I’m of an optimistic nature so I’d like to think that realism will prevail in the end – a realism that for me needs to be based on a future for traditional mobility – especially (and I’m finally getting to the topic of this week’s post), since traditional mobility doesn’t necessarily mean traditional fuels going forward. The development of so called e-fuels is progressing rapidly, and this week we’ll look at whether they are the solution that will allow for a more reasonable solution to the issue of traditional, personal mobility.

A new 12-cylinder will never be built, but it would be nice if we could still save the old ones!

Electrofuels, also called e-fuels or synthetic fuels, are produced exclusively from renewable energy. Without going into the technical details, in the case of car fuel it means producing hydrogen from clean energy, to which CO2, extracted from other sources, is added. The result is emission-free hydrocarbon, and the resulting synthetic fuels are no technically different to conventional fuels. They can thus power the same cars without modifications and also use the existing fueling infrastructure. A further big advantage is that e-fuels don’t compete with food production, a big problem for example with ethanol production that isn’t very compatible with the world’s need to feed another 3bn people until 2050, using less resources. Disadvantages? Unfortunately, there are a few, and they’re rather big.

Firstly, e-fuels don’t solve the issue of clean energy going to its use as long as the full economy doesn’t use clean energy, as you’re basically just pushing the emission onto someone else. As we’ll see below the clean energy used for e-fuels is produced very far away and thus not cannibalizing on anything else, but this is not a viable, long-term concep. Secondly, e-fuels offer far less efficiency than electricity, as long as electricity production is local. This is however an important point given that, as noted, most countries are still not 100% green in their energy production. So either you push the emission problem onto the next user as noted above, or, and this is not unrealistic, we’ll start importing for example solar energy from a sunny place such as the Middle East. If that becomes the case, then hydrogen all of a sudden becomes very competitive in terms of efficiency as it can be transported much more easily. Thirdly and lastly, as you will have guessed, the production process for e-fuels is far from cheap, and it will still take time and probably also some further technological innovations to solve both the cost and thereby also the required scale issue.

Wind turbines of Project Haru Oni off Chile’s coast

A number of automakers are looking into e-fuels as an alternative or complement to EV’s, none more than Porsche which currently runs a project called Haru Oni off the coast of Chile (where it’s very windy). They do so together with notably Siemens, and the logic for Porsche is that because of the points above and others, conventional electricity alone will not be enough to move to a clean car fleet fast enough, in view of other – rising – electricity needs in the world. The project is still in its early days but by removing CO2 out of the air through wind power and combining it with hydrogen, it aims to produced 130.000 litres of fuel next year, and 550 million litres in 2026. As a reference, around 23bn litres of fuel were consumed in Germany last year so although a lot, it would take many more such installations to get anywhere near the volume required to make this a viable alternative on a larger scale. The cost so far remains a mystery, but it’s clear that it’s nowhere near being a reasonable consumer alternative at this stage.

So at least for now, it remains at best unclear whether e-fuels will give a future to combustion engines. It’s however good to see that some thinking around fuel alternatives is going on and who knows, as so often before, maybe there will be other innovations along the way that allow for even better solutions in the end. It would however be high time for some realism to enter the discussion around EV’s and our future mobility. It would also be desirable with some political willingness to engage in discussions on where the electricity is supposed to come from in the emission-free world, when many countries in parallel wish to phase out nuclear? This can’t possibly be something only a few engineers at Porsche have thought about? And finally, perhaps someone can tell us what the plan is for the many millions of fully-functioning cars in the world? Reality is slightly more complex than what the current debate would have you believe and the sooner we’re mature enough to engage in a difficult but highly necessary discssion on it, the better.

Alfa GTV6 – the coolest 80’s coupé!

As a young boy growing up in central Stockholm in the late 70’s-early 80’s, what I saw on the streets were mostly a mix of more or less boring Volvos and Saabs. There was however one memorable exception – a car I would regularly pass on my way home from school. It was a black Alfa GTV that to my young eyes had not only a cool, coupé shape, but was also the only car I had ever seen (still to this day!) that had what looked like fish nets in the center of the headrests. It was love at first and regular sight, and since my father was about to change company car (a common feature in Sweden back then…), I begged and implored him to go for the Alfa. He didn’t and we ended up with a Saab Turbo instead. Given that the winter in Sweden is VERY long and that there were at the time at least 30 Saabs for every Alfa sold, that was probably a wise choice. To me, the Saab could however never compete with the Giugiaro-designed GTV which since that day has a solid place on my 80’s car list. That’s a reason as good as any to have a closer look at it in this week’s post!

Face-lifted GTV left, original 70’s version right.

The GTV was born in 1974 and was called Alfetta GT for the first two years of production. This was the time when Alfa was still Alfa, i.e. before being taken over by Fiat. Business was however far from good, with the company only managing to scrape by thanks to frequent capital injections from the Italian state, and with limited success seen for its various models. The Alfetta on which the GTV was based, was a 4-door sedan produced since 1972 in a transaxle construction and with the same chassis that all rear-wheel drive Alfas would use until the takeover by Fiat in 1986 – including the GTV. The looks of the Alfetta however had very little to do with the GTV. The former was a very unspectacular family sedan, the latter a cool coupé with a low, four-eyed front and a sloping, hatchback-like design. Giugiaro did an excellent job at the time and the GTV looks as cool today as then, in my own, completely unbiased opinion!

The GTV (“Grand Turismo Veloce (speed)”) from 1976 and onwards was powered by two four-cylinder engines, one 1.6 and one 2-litre, the latter producing around 130 hp and the only engine in many export markets. As Alfa prepared for a face-lift of the GTV in 1981, they had the brilliant idea of adding a more powerful engine and for a while considered the V8 from the Alfa Montreal, before the final choice fell on the 2.5 litre, six-cylinder engine from the limousine Alfa 6 (a big, luxurious Alfa limousine launched in the mid-70’s). The power output in the GTV remained at around 160 hp but there was a small problem in that the engine didn’t really fit the car, so the bonnet of the GTV6 has a “hump” that differentiates it (and makes it look even cooler!) from the 2-litre version. As other popular coupés in the early 80’s the GTV6 had fuel injection, another difference to the smaller engines with carburettors. The transaxle construction with both the gearbox and the battery in the back gave the car a nearly perfect weight distribution, and as mentioned, it was also rear-wheel drive. All in all, a very promising package!

The original GTV as 1.6 or 2-litre

The pre-face lift, four-cylinder GTV’s had a lot of chrome in typical 70’s style, but to keep up with the times, the face-lifted versions after 1981 took on the typical 80’s black plastic look, and the GTV6 was only ever avaiable in the face-lifted version. This makes the styling of both cars rather different, seen with today’s eyes. Pre-face lift, the GTV comes across as more elegant than sporty, with some nice details such as the visible GTV inscription on the left c-pillar. The face-lifted version looks sportier, especially the GTV6 with its hump and (at 15″), at least slightly bigger wheels. Unfortunately many cars today have fallen victim to all kinds of transformations, generally of bad taste. The cool black plastic unfortunately also looks less cool 40 years after, as it tends to become grey with time.

The GTV6 with the characteristic “hump” on the bonnet

Driving-wise the GTV provides the typical 70’s and 80’s Alfa experience in everything from the mechanics to the seating position. The latter was a constant point of debate, being referred to as a “monkey position” requiring short legs and long arms. Having experienced quite a few Alfas, I never agreed to that as especially on longer drives, that position actually works quite well. Other typical features include a steering that is precise enough but very vague around the center, and a gear change that requires a good warm-up and a precise hand. None of this really matters though from the moment you put your right foot down and hear the lovely engine note both engines put out. This is clearly the highlight of the car, and there is no doubt the six-cylinder in the GTV6 sings more than the still enjoyable, 2-litre four-pot in the GTV 2.0. The general comfort including the suspension also deserves praise, and even though the GTV has a conventional boot rather than being a hatchback, it’s quite roomy which together with the reasonable room in the back makes this a practical GT car. In the 80’s, it was enough for a family of four. Today, its width is almost exactly the same as a modern Fiat Panda…

Altough produced to a total of around 135.000 cars over its 13-year existence, the GTV couldn’t save Alfa from being taken over by Fiat in 1986 and the GTV production stopped the year after. Since then, a chassis and body more prone to rust than most, together with generally poor build quality have quite drastically reduced the number of cars that have survived until this day. As mentioned, many of these have also been tuned, lowered or otherwise modified to something you don’t want. Finding a good car of either engine, pre- or post face-lift can thus be difficult and starts getting expensive. EUR 20.000 will buy you a good car, be it a four- or six-cylinder as the market doesn’t really differentiate between the two, the general condition being more important. The GTV6 will always be the “all else equal” pick, but on the other hand, a well preserved pre-face lift car has stood the test of time better than the face-lift version. Then again the GTV6 that this post is about was only available in the face-lifted version, as were the seats with the fish net headrests!

PS. You may remember my post on the Ferrari FF from a few weeks ago, which you can otherwise find here. This week Doug De Muro featured the FF much under the same tone as me, i.e. that at today’s price-levels, it’s quite a bargain. I’m not saying this because I think Doug’s inspired by the blog (although it would be nice…), but rather as you may want to check it out!

Alpina – the exclusive BMW cousin!

Everyone knows AMG, the independent company specialized in the tuning of Mercedes engines that the latter took over in 2005 and that is since fully owned by MB. Next to building the most powerful version in most product lines, having AMG inhouse also enables MB to stick various AMG logos on lots of other models as well (and whether that “logo inflation” is a good thing or not is something that certainly can, and perhaps will be discussed in a future post). AMG is thereby comparable to the M-division at BMW. M didn’t start as an individual company, but today represents the same for BMW that AMG does for Mercedes, i.e. various cosmetic sports packages as well as the most powerful models.

But if you’re a BMW fan. there’s also the option of getting an Alpina. To clarify, given this is sometimes misunderstood, Alpina is neither an M car badged differently, nor is it a brand owned by BMW. It is something far more exclusive. An Alpina can be viewed as the grand tourer version of BMW’s M offer, different in character, very individual and built in small quantities. BMW and Alpina work closely together since more than 50 years, but BMW has no ownership in the little known manufacturer from the small town of Buchloe, close to Munich. Today we’ll look closer at the company’s history and whether, if you’re a market for a “real” BMW M, you should consider the corresponding Alpina before deciding. I don’t think I’m ruining the party by answering that last question straight away: in most cases, yes you should!

Burkhard Bovensiepen from Buchloe (an alliteration as good as any) could have had an easy if not very exciting life, had he decided to take over the family’s thriving typewriter business. But somehow, back in the early sixties, he decided that this wasn’t what he wanted his life to be about. A couple of years earlier, Bovensiepen had owned a Fiat 1500 he felt needed more power, so on a trip to Italy he had visited a local tuner who sold him the standard kit of improved camshaft and double Weber carburettors, thereby managing to squeeze out a bit more power from the small engine. Unfortunately though the treatment wasn’t long-lived, and the motor literally fell apart on Bovensiepen’s way back to Buchloe. That convinced him of two things: firstly, more power was fun (as long as the engine doesn’t break), and secondly, professional tuning had to be done in a way adapated to the specific car, rather than as standardized after-market kits for various engines. On the basis of that philosophy Alpina was born in 1962, and Bovensiepen decided to focus on cars from the automaker right around the corner in Munich: BMW.

Alpina’s first car, the 1500, in an alpine setting!

BMW had at this time launched the 1500 (yep, same name and nope, that wouldn’t be possible today!) that was to become Alpina’s first project car. Bovensiepen bought one and started working on the carburettors, exhaust and various other parts, hereby improving the output by 10 hp to 90 hp. The rather basic marketing effort consisting of sticking notes under the wipers of BMW 1500’s, inciting owners to give their cars the Alpina treatment for around 1000 DM. The very basic marketing proved surprisingly successful and in 1965, BMW approved of the modifications and went as far as granting Alpinas the same guarantee package as the original cars. That’s how a close collaboration that lasts until this day started, with Alpina, initially with only 8 employees, tuning most new BMW models and with time, also offering further options for interior design and suspension.

During the 70’s Alpina competed in German car races with its own team next to BMW, in both cases based on the BMW 02-series. Both teams were very successful and with drivers such as Niki Lauda, James Hunt and Jacky Ickx, they would go on to win most races both in the European and German championships, be it touring, rallies or mountain races. In 1977, Alpina ended the racing adventure as other projects had now become more important, most notably three new developments: BMW Alpina B6 2,8 based on the 3-series, the B7-Turbo based on the 5-series, and the B7 Turbo Coupé, based on the 6-series. Both B7’s, thanks to a KKK turbo and intercooler, would develop up to 330 hp and had a top speed over 260 km/h, but were at the same time very civilized to drive, thereby setting the mark for Alpina’s niche: powerful but not edgy, more grand tourer than sports car.

The Alpina B7 Turbo Coupé – powerful yet civilized

Alpina continued to grow and develop through the years, although the number of cars built on each specific BMW model in the 80’s and 90’s could be as low as 20-30, so very small series, obviously making these very sought-after today. A further recognition of the seriousness of the Alpina proposition came in 1983 when the company was registered as a car brand in Germany, i.e. not just a tuner. Other notable developments were the first bi-turbo engine in 1989 and the first diesel Alpina ten years later, in 1999. Today, diesels make up close to half the cars produced.

It’s difficult to summarize all the models Alpina have worked on over the years and the highlights are to a certain extent a matter of personal preferences, but a couple of noteworthy ones are clearly the two BMW Alpina Roadsters based on the Z1 and the Z8 (and where Alpina fitted an auto box to the otherwise manual Z8 to boost US sales), as well as the Alpina B6 GT3, based on the BMW 6-series and that in 2010 marked Alpina’s return to racing, going on to win the German GT3 series the year after. Today the company offers a version of most BMW models, including the big X7 SUV (of which there is no M-version). Many of the engine parts as well as gearbox, instruments and wheels are today sent to BMW from Alpina. BMW then build and paint the cars before returning them to Alpina for fitting of tailor-made interiors and aerodynamic kits etc.

The B12 5.7 Coupé – rarely have wheels looked better on a car!

There’s basically three ways to distinguish an Alpina from the corresponding regular BMW: firstly by colour, at least if it’s in the specific Alpina green or blue, both rather bright and flashy, and colours Alpina also like to do interior stitching in. Secondly, by side stripes. Because yes, the stripes that to all intents and purposes look like something straight out of the 70’s and aren’t necessarily very elegant, is something Alpina still sticks on its cars if they owner wants them to. There seems to be roughly a 50/50 split between those opting for and against them. Finally though, and by far the nicest mark of an Alpina, are the lovely, 20-inch and beyond multi-spoke wheels. Interiors can be individualized and are again, often a matter of taste, but typically include different steering wheels, gauge clusters, seats, wood trim etc. Nothing very spectacular, and arguably also not always of good taste, but with a high degree of individualization.

An 80’s B6 interior – still BMW yet distinctive

Whether an Alpina is a better proposition than an M-car depends on what you’re looking for. Driving-wise it’s been described pretty well as the M-version being the track car, and the Alpina the car to get you to the track. After the racing era in the 70’s, Alpina’s focus has been to build powerful but easy to drive cars, which in most tests are described as less sporty than M-cars, but also a more rounded experience all in all. So it’s really up to your personal preferences. If you’re looking for the sports car characteristics of an M-car, that’s probably the way to go. If however you’re looking for more of a GT nature, then you really can’t go wrong with an Alpina. Warranties are the same as for any BMW car, and the local BMW garage will also not have any issues servicing it. The starting price of an Alpina tends to be close to the corresponding M-car (net of some equipment differences) with resale values typically higher, obviously due to the fact that in spite of its success, Alpina even today sticks to building no more than 1500-1700 cars per year. You’ll thus pay more if you buy a used one (especially if it’s one of the smaller series), but future values can be estimated to remain very stable. Given this, although there’s nothing wrong with answering the question on what car you drive with “BMW”, saying “Alpina” definitely has a more exclusive ring to it!

F1: same same but (not very) different

Four races into the new F1 season and it’s time to make a first pit stop and see what’s happened so far. Any unexpected positive surprises, any upsets, or for that matter any disappointments? So far the four races have taken place in Bahrain, Italy, Portugal and today in Barcelona, Spain, and we now have a two-week break before race number five, the most traditional of them all in Monaco on 23 May. The executive summary so far would go something like same same (as last season) and so far not very different, but if you read on I’ve done my best to add a bit more colour to that.

What is very similar to last season is the two top teams. No changes neither here, nor in the respective top drivers – Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. After Lewis’s win today in Barcelona, Mercedes have an 29-point lead in the constructors’ championship, with Lewis leading the drivers’ by 14 points ahead of Max. The difference is smaller than last year however, with Max pretty much breathing down Lewis’s neck, as shown by the podiums so far where he’s been on all, and winning in Italy. Behind the two, Bottas isn’t surprising on the upside any more than last year, continuing to play the role of the good soldier, but also to show that he’s slower than both Lewis and Max. Red Bull newcomer Sergio Perez on the other hand is off to a promising start (already far better than his predecessor Albon was at any point during his time), and it will be interesting to see if with a few more races under his belt, he can challenge the top duo, or become the natural number three on the podium.

Lews and Max fighting it out at a rainy Imola GP

So to use some hockey terminology (but with no respect for the fact that a hockey line always has three players…), if the first line is made up of Mercedes and Red Bull, the second is also relativeliy clear, at least so far in points, consisting of McLaren and Ferrari. For McLaren this is a continuation of the positive trend from last year, with Lando Norris so far ahead of Daniel Ricciardo, even clinching third place in Italy. Then again, Ricciardo was ahead of Norris today in Barcelona, so things may be turning more even. Over at Ferrari it’s a bit disappointing as the car doesn’t seem to have become more competitive than last year. So far newcomer Carlos Sainz Jr. is also well behind Charles Leclerc. Before the season I wrote that I saw Leclerc-Sainz as perhaps the best driver-duo of any team this year. I guess it’s too early to say, but Carlos Jr. needs to step up his game for that to come through. As for Ricciardo, it still remains to be seen whether his move away from an uncontested first seat at Renault to McLaren was the right one, but there is no doubt that McLaren is faster than Alpine (ex Renault).

Norris continues to deliver at McLaren!

The third line is quite crowded this season, regrouping Alpine, AlphaTauri, Aston Martin (ex Racing Point) and Alfa Romeo (and no, it’s not because they all start with an A…). Except for Aston Martin, the remaining three can be said to be roughly where they were last year, and again, with the established drivers so far ahead of the newcomers. Fernando Alonso (Alpine) shows that he hasn’t forgotten how to drive a car although he’s still behind Esteban Ocon who this year is faster than at any point previously. Yuki Tsunoda still needs to prove himself at AlphaTauri, and especially vs Pierre Gasly. The big disappointment so far is Aston Martin and within the team, unfortunately again Sebastian Vettel. The car seems far less competitive than last year (I’ll leave it open as to whether that’s because it’s no longer a copy of the Mercedes…), and Vettel is so far far well behind Lance Stroll and yet to score a point. Finally Kimi Räikkönen and Antonio Giovinazzi are quite even at Alfa Romeo, which is pretty much where it was last year, meaning at the end of that third line.

That leaves Williams and Haas in the fourth line, which is a bit unfair to Williams who are so far clearly better and well on their way up if they keep progressing. Pretty much all of this is thanks to George Russell who continues to deliver as much as the car allows for, so far scoring 8 points. Haas on the other hand is even more disappointing than last year, something not even the talent Mick Schumacher clearly displays can change. The Haas is simply not competitive, but arguably the even bigger issue is the team’s second driver Nikita Mazepin who came as a condition for the Russian sponsor money from his billionaire father, and who is outright dangerous on track. The list of incidents so far has resulted in an equally long list of Instagram jokes on him and the new nickname Maze-spin, and his private behaviour isn’t making him any new friends either. Haas is in dire straits and in desperate need of sponsorship money, but this is of course the worst side of F1, when a team is forced to, and accepts taking on an unfit driver as part of the package. I really do hope things improve before something really bad happens, as Mazepin is a danger both to himself and others.

One of the funnier Mazepin jokes making the rounds on Insta…

There we go – we still have 19 races left this season so things can, and hopefully will still change around a bit. Will Verstappen be able to challenge Lewis for real this year? Will Perez become as fast as Max, and will Ricciardo prove that his move was the right one? Time will tell as we get further into the season, stay tuned!

One half of a Zuffenhausen V8

The car we’ll have a look at this week can very truthfully be described as a well-designed, well-built, practicle and perfectly balanced transaxle coupé with a real Porsche engine. Or, as is far more common, looked down upon as a Porsche-badged Audi. You’ve guessed it, this week we’ll look at the Porsche 944 in its different iterations, a car that is far better than generally believed, and in my view one of the few remaining bargains in the Porsche line-up!

The year is 1981, Ronald Reagan is the new US president, pope John Paul II gets shot (but luckily not killed) and Kim Carnes tops the charts with “Bette Davis Eyes”. The Porsche 924, the car that was indeed more of an Audi, had already been produced five years by then, and interestingly, was originally not intended to be a Porsche at all, but rather a Volkswagen. Had Porsche not picked up the project when Volkswagen decided to abandon it in the early 70’s, the 944 may never have existed (and, Volkswagen could potentially have had a far cooler image than it does today, had it not abandoned it!). As known though, when VW pulled the plug, Porsche picked up what was to become the 924 and thereby inherited quite a few parts along with it, notably the Audi engine with a power output of only 125 hp in the base version. Both the origin of the engine and its lack of power were always the weakest points of the 924. So in 1981, when Porsche decided it was time to launch the beefed-up 944, the first priority was more power. The six-cylinder from the 911 was not an option, notably since there were rumours at the time that rear-mounted engines would be banned in the US, and the only other engine Porsche had in stock was the newly developed, aluminium V8 in the 928. Cutting the V8 in half became the solution, and resulted in the original 2.5 litre four-cylinder of the 944, in its first version developing 163 hp (in Europe, 20 hp less in the US). Better, although still not shooting the lights out.

Porsche ads were frequent – and funny – in the 80’s

Apart from the engine which we’ll come back to in a minute and which except for the power output had a lot going for it, the rest of the 944 did and still does so as well. Firstly it looks good, in a nice 80’s way. At the basis it’s obviously the same body as the 924, but the more muscular, wider rear part makes a big difference and makes the 944 look like a real sports car. It’s also quite a practical car, with back seats (that can be folded) offering reasonable comfort for children, and quite a large luggage space under the glass lid. Secondly, the transaxle construction witth the new engine in front and the gearbox in the back gave the car a near perfect weight distribution of 49/51, making it very well-balanced. The advantage of the aerodyamic shape was also to give the 944 a very respectable top speed of far more than the 210 km/h Porsche had officially quoted. Thirdly, after the face lift in 1985 it also offered a nice interior, far better than the one of the first years that had been identical to the 924, and also far nicer and more modern than the 911’s (911 Carrera or 964) of the time.

Until 1985 there was only one version of the 944, but in 1986 the Turbo was added, producing no less than 220 hp and thereby putting it in a different league to the base model and improving the 0-100 km/h time by all of three seconds, to 5.9 seconds. The Turbo had various other improvements to it as well, notably larger breaks. A year later, the even stronger Turbo S (a name that is obviously still around today for Porsche’s strongest versions) took that up to 250 hp, making it the strongest four-cylinder engine in the world at the time. During the last three years of production until 1991, the S-engine then became the standard engine in the Turbo. There were however also improvements made to the naturally aspirated engine, through the “S” version in 1987 that thanks notably to 16 valves took the power to 187 hp, and then the “S2” in 1989, increasing that further to 208 hp, by now with an increased engine volume of 3 litres. All these engines were also available in the convertible version of the 944, that in my taste however loses a lot of the nice lines of the coupé, with a strange convertible top and through that also a strange looking boot.

Later 944‘s had a low “diffusor” spoiler, improving the rear looks

It’s a couple of years since I last drove a 944 in the 187 hp S version, but interestingly I remember doing so in the same week as driving a 964. No doubt the latter conveyed more of the “true” Porsche feeling, largely also thanks to the engine which is far stronger at lower revs than the 16v four-pot in the 944 S, which needs a bit of revs to reveal its best side. When you do rev it, it does however turn out to be a very nice companion that in no way feels short on power. The 944 also left a very positive general impression in everything from the steering over the surprisingly precise gearshift to the nice cabin, which as mentioned feels quite modern, especially compared to the 964. I actually struggle to remember a single car from the 80’s that presents a better total package for the money in question if its a true sports car feel you’re after. There are clearly atlernatives, some of which we’ve explored here such as the BMW 635i (see here) or the Jaguar XJ-S (see here), but those convey more of a GT than a true sports car feel.

Still today, a nice place to spend time in!

EUR 25-30.000 buys you a nice, late 944 in the S or S2 version, which would be the ones I would for. The first 163 hp version is a bit too weak, and the Turbo is on one hand at least EUR 10.000 more expensive and also more prone to problems. Potential issues are less costly than with a 911 but owner and maintenance history are nevertheless critical. The precise feel in both steering and gearshift that I mention above is a notable sign of a well maintained car, but also something that can vary a lot. Equipment-wise there wasn’t much to be had in the 80’s, but a well-maintained leather interior is nicer than the textile one, and the sunroof is indeed quite special, as it can be tilted but also fully removed in a slightly complicated procedure – nice as long as it works!

Sunroof off almost gives a true convertible feel, with wind deflectors!

If your set on a Porsche but don’t think it necessarily needs to have six cylinders in the back and your budget is around EUR 30.000, options are still few and far between. I’ve mentioned the 911 Carrera (G) and 964 here, which in a comparable condition cost two to three times as much as a 944. You could obviously also go for not only half but all of the engine, i.e. the V8 928, but that will also set you back at least EUR 10-15.000 more. It will also mean losing a bit of the sports car feel and vastly higher maintenance costs (as the 911’s will as well). That leaves the more modern 996, which is comparable in price and equally underrated. I can’t believe it’s almost to the day six years since I wrote about it, in a post you’ll find here. Compared to six years ago the 996 is still a bargain (albeit slightly less so) and the better car, but also one you see if not on every, then at least on many corners. If you buy the right car you can’t really go wrong with either one of them leaving it down to personal preferences. What is clear however is that the 944 is a true Porsche and we should be thankful to its “Audi” cousin 924, without which it would probably never have existed at all!

The EV market takes off for real

Ten days ago, in a flashy, high-tech online show that you can watch here if you missed it, Mercedes-Benz presented the new EQS, the fully electric version of the S-class. I would claim that rather than just another car launch, the EQS is a real game-changer in the EV market, and likewise the last confirmation needed that the big guys are now entering this segment for real. Interestingly, it’s also a (positive!) game changer with regards to environmental factors and sustainability. This week we’ll take a look at the new EQS, which even without considering the drive train looks to be one hell of a car, and talk a bit more about why it’s important and how it will influence the market going forward. If your love for traditional cylinders (to which we’ll return next week) runs so deep that it prevents you from reading any further, in summary I think you can say that whereas the planned Super League in European football came to a very sudden death this week, there will be nothing stopping the EV Super League from taking off in 2021!

Starting with the EQS, In one simple sentence it can of course be described as an electric S-class, whis is perhaps what many people will do – but that would mean missing the whole point. Because by bringing an S-class to the EV market, Mercedes is also bringing a whole new level of luxury and car quality, where until now the only luxury has been Tesla’s giant infotainment screen.

The new EQS – notice the very long wheelbase

Starting from the bottom (literally), the EQS is built on Mercedes’s first EV-specific platform. So far EV’s not only from the Stuttgart brand but also from other large manufacturers have been built on traditional platforms, and this makes a big difference as one specifically developed for EV’s can take into account the absence of an engine and battery space far better. The new platform can also be adapted to different car sizes, something Mercedes intends to do as it rolls out an electric version of all cars in its current line-up over the coming years, some of them already in 2021. To those who know Tesla this is obviously not new, however what happens above the platform, inside the car, definitely is.

The EQS doesn’t look like an S-class and is actually a hatchback (without a frunk, as that space is taken up by various air-cleaning filters). At over 5.20 metres it’s a big car, with lots of interior space, and luggage space of around 650 litres (in addition to which you can fold the rear seats). If the design can be debated, what cannot is the fact that it’s the most aerodynamic car currently in production, with a Cw/Cd-value of 0.20. Also not open to debate is not only the quality, but also the innovativeness of the interior space, at or beyond S-class level. The most spectacular parts are probably the (optional) self-opening-and-closing doors and the gigantic so called hyperscreen (actually consisting of three screens) that extends over the whole dashboard and enables the passenger to for example watch Youtube whilst the driver has access to the navigation. Noteworthy is also that front and rear passengers are independent both in infotainment and speech commands, and chan thus address the car by “Hey Mercedes” independently of each other. The EQS also sets new standards in driver profiles and indiviualization, and the list goes on, and on, and on. Two interior design lines are planned, a more elegant and a more sporty one, and if the hyperscreen for some reason isn’t your thing, you can opt for the mid-mounted “iPad” of the new, “normal” S-class instead – a simple example of how a large car manufacturer can cross-fertilize various items between product lines.

The hyperscreen in the elegant layout version

The EQS is set to come to dealers this summer and will initially be available with 333 or 524 hp as rear- and all-wheel drive. An AMG version is set to follow later. The range will be up to 770 km WLTP, which should translate to something like 600-650 km in real life under pretty ideal conditions. This is a really important point, as no one has so far been able to compete with Tesla’s superior range – until now. Prices aren’t known, German media expect them to start around EUR 110.000 (with as always an almost unlimited upside…), which means pretty much on par or actually even slightly below the regular S-class. Mercedes have stated that they will earn less by car produced than for conventional cars, which in turn means they believe strongly in the growth of the EV segment. If pricing at this level is confirmed it goes against what has been the case so far, where EV-versions from traditional brands such as the Audi E-tron or the MB EQC tend to come at a premium to diesel or petrol versions.

The hatchback rear with the mandatory light bar

As stated previously on this blog, I don’t subscribe to the view that the big car companies have missed the EV train, quite simply as it hasn’t left the station yet. Although the amount of media attention it gets would make you believe it’s already a significant percentage of new car sales, the global EV market is still around only 2%, however with growth really starting to take off in selected markets in Europe, as well as in California and other places. Also, if you except small EV’s with a 150 km range, the market has basically been owned Tesla until now, as we know a three-model car company with only one of them, the Model 3, selling outside of the US, and with the exception of improved range and software, no significant facelifts or updates since the models were launched. I’m sure most large car brands have watched the market carefully whilst preparing in the background for the day growth takes off, and nowhere more so than in Germany. From that perspective, Mercedes’s timing looks pretty impeccable to me. The VW group is about to introduce its new EV platform with notably 20 electric Audi models rolled out over the coming five years, and others will follow close behind. Given the expertise all of these have in building not only cars, but also real luxury cars, the fundamentals of the market are probably about to change, which in turn will make life hard for Tesla, especially in Europe.

Last but not least, let me come back on the sustainability of EV’s that I was very critical of in my post back in January (see here), and that indeed still deserves to be looked at critically, notably in terms of the “CO2 cost” of battery production. If you saw the introduction of the EQS, you may have noted Mercedes CEO Ola Källenius saying that the battery train of the EQS will be produced in Germany in a carbon-neutral way. This sounded a bit too good to be true, so I was in touch with Mercedes’s customer relations this week to have it confirmed, and very impressively, they came back to me in 24 hours. Not only did they confirm that from the first car built, the EQS’s battery pack will be produced exclusively with fossil-free, CO2-neutral energy. They also said that every Mercedes factory in the world will be carbon-neutral by 2022, with some of those in Germany already being so. This is obviously very good as it resolves one of the main issues around EV’s, and will hopefully influence both the public and competitors..

The car can still charge quicker than most stations, but Ionity has really taken off!

EV’s have a lot going for them, and resolving some of the issues with the battery production adds to the positive list. I believe that what Mercedes now starts with the EQS will be a game-changer for the direction of the EV market, as others can be expected to follow close on their heels. In parallel, the European Ionity charging network is growing quickly, already providing a far better coverage than could be expected a few months ago. So whereas I still don’t think you should take your 10-year old car to the car scrap, it definitely looks like the future is electric, and that it may happen quick than I would have thought only a few months ago. Thus, if I were in the market for a new S-class, I would probably think twice about which one to get. In a couple of years, maybe that won’t even be the main question for the typical S-class buyer, but rather if an S-class can really be a hatchback…

Hypercar winds from Argentina

There has been a lot about hypercars on the blog in the last weeks, at least relative to what there usually is. Starting with the post on Koenigsegg (see here) and following on with last week’s interview with Supercars Invest Fund’s Theis Gerner Stanek (see here), the latter notably mentioned his strong love for another supercar brand than Koenigsegg, the cars of which he referred to as true works of art. He was of course right, and it would feel incomplete to move on from supercars to other exciting themes without having looked a bit closer at the Argentinan-born artist Horacio Pagani and his masterpieces, commonly referred to as cars. This week is therefore about Pagani and its unique take on the hypercar segment!

As an Italian born and bred in Argentina, you may think that a man who has dedicated his life to building some of the world’s most extreme hypercars would be a flamboyant, loud character, but you couldn’t be more wrong. Although driven by his life-long passion, Horacio is a soft-spoken artist that grew up in the small town of Casilda in Argentina to which his great grandfather had emigrated from Como, Italy. He started drawing cars and motorcycles as a child, having a dream of one day building sports cars in Modena, far away from the Argentinian pampa. A few years later he went on to study fine arts and engineering while drawing Formula 2 and 3 cars in his spare time. He was so good at it that he was allowed to work with Renault formula cars, and through that met a certain Juan Manuel Fangio. Fangio became so impressed by the young Horacio that he took upon him to write letters to the Italian sports car builders, telling them to hire him. Pagani himself was also convinced that his future was to be found somewhere in northern Italy, and returned to the old country before he knew he had a job. A while later, he did however get a call from Lamborghini and that’s when his career started for real.

The master himself: Horacio Pagani

Having spent some time wiping the floors in Sant’Agata, Horacio wasn’t shy about his ambition to become a great supercar builder¨ and made sure to tell the senior people at Lamborghini about it. He started to move up the ranks, ultimately becoming a chief engineer engaged with notably the Countach Evo and the Diablo. In the process he also became highly convinced of carbon fibre as a material for the future and tried to convince Lamborghini to buy a so called autoclave, basically a machine that would allow for larger usage of carbon fibre going forward. Lamborghini refused with as main motivation that Ferrari didn’t have one – perhaps not the most visionary type of business management… Horacio wouldn’t take no for an answer and borrowed enough money to buy his own autoclave. He left Lamborghini an in 1991 set up his own company – Pagani Automobili. The development of the Zonda now started, but it would take until 1999 before the first cars were finished.

No car maker uses as much carbon fibre as Pagani!

Let’s make a short pit stop here to point out some key differences to Koenigsegg, arguably Pagani’s only real comparable hypercar competitor. Firstly, although carbon fibre is a prominent material for both, it has always been the lead material for Pagani from the first prototype until today, very much at the heart of the company It’s everywhere, from the chassis, over the bodywork to the interior, and all in a very visible way. Secondly, unlike Koenigsegg, Pagani decided from the start not to develop his own engines, instead partnering up with AMG, a partnership that has lasted to this day. Thirdly, if Koenigsegg can be said to follow a Scandinavian, toned-down design language, Pagani couldn’t be more different.

If this isn’t your colour don’t worry – you can have it any way you want!

The Zonda C12 premiered in 1999 and was built through 2011, and new versions were again introduced in 2013 and as late as 2017. Around 130 Zondas have been built in total, in a mix of coupés and convertibles. Fangio, who helped launch Pagani’s career, was involved in the development of the car until his death in 1995. Built largely out of carbon fibre and carbon-based synthetic materials, the Zonda is light, weighing in at between 1100-1300 kg, which given the opulence notably in the interior is pretty impressive. It’s also a bit surprising given the wonderful but not very light 6-litre, naturally aspirated AMG V12 that sits in the middle of the car and in 1999 produced 394 hp, enough already then to give the Zonda a top speed of over 290 km/h. On later versions the engine volume was increased up to 7.3 litres and power up to 800 hp in the Zonda Revolucion, introduced in 2013. The initial C12 is therefore the only Zonda with a top speed under 300 km/h, the others are well above. It’s also noteworthy that until 2013, all Zondas had a 6-speed manual box, only then becoming a 6-speed sequential.

Introduced in 1999, the C12 was the first Pagani Zonda

Everything about the Zonda is spectacular. The four pipes in the back, the purpose-built carbon fibre body, the interior quality and materials – it just goes on. It’s however practically impossible to find two cars that are alike, given again the number of special versions, but also that owners can obviously tailor-make their cars pretty much as they want. Pagani has several times reiterated that building a Pagani easily costs ten times more than building a more normal car, but that part of his proposition is precisely never to compromise to save costs. The whole car is hand-built and each car takes more than a month to finish. The number of cars built is by the way not fully up to Pagani, it’s part of the agreement with AMG who will not deliver more than a pre-agreed number of engines. After all, AMG also does a bit of business with the mother company in Stuttgart…

The naturally aspirated V12 in a Zonda R

In 2012, Pagani introduced the successor Huayra (yep, pretty difficult to pronounce and if you’re wondering, both Huayra and Zonda are south-American winds), although both cars were in the end built in parallel until 2017. The Huayra can be said to be slightly toned-down in its looks, although it remains a spectacular car. It’s also a more modern car than the Zonda, with the body notably including “active” aerodynamic elements such as the two flaps behind the seats that rise during breaking. The gearbox is now a 7-speed sequential, but that it remains a single-clutch also show Pagani’s way of thinking: a double clutch would have added 70 kg in additional weight, thus cancelling out any advantage in acceleration obtained through quicker shifting. But even with a single-clutch box the Huayra is far from slow, with a 2.8 seconds time to 100 km/h and a top speed of 383 km/h.

The Huyara Roadster

The biggest change versus the Zonda however and the fact that many Pagani owners still prefer the latter, is the fact that the Huyara no longer has the naturally aspirated AMG V12, but rather a new, 6-litre, twin-turbo V12. It still comes from AMG and neither power output nore weight have suffered, but even those not obsessed by naturally-aspirated engines will note a far less spectacular engine note than in the Zonda. The Huayra was also built as coupé and convertible in a lot of different series and versions, with the last of around 300 cars said to have left the factory in 2020. Based on what happened with the Zonda that’s probably not the final date though, notably with rumours of a coming Huayra R (the R being the most extreme version of the Zonda) that would return to the naturally-aspirated V12.

There are also rumours of an all-new Pagani coming out soon (here probably defined as years rather than months) notably with talk of something aircraft-inspired (but then again maybe that’s the Huayra R). Few details are known, but one thing is sure: it will again be a multi-million creation largely out of carbon fibre, with an amazing interior and a large V12 engine behind the seats – hopefully at least, maybe a hybrid this time? Pampero is by the way a strong, northern wind that often blows down over Uruguay and Argentina. Whether Pagani stays with the wind theme and calls the new car Pampero or something else doesn’t really matter: Horacio more than achieved his dream as a boy of building true supercars, and he does it in a way that lets all of us all dream a little. If Koenigsegg is the Scandinavian supercar, then Pagani is very much the southern European one. Playing with the thought of which one you would choose if you could, is interesting!

SpecialCars Invest – the Danish supercar fund!

There is a new investment option out there for car enthusiasts, and would you believe it, it comes from Denmark. If you’ve visited the small kingdom between Sweden and Germany, you’ll know that both the country and its people are lovely, but notably because of a tax system that seems to be built around the idea that it’s good that people drive around in old, crappy cars, it hasn’t really been the home of many exciting car projects. Things are however changing and will continue to do so, at least if you speak to Theis Gerner Stanek, founder of SpecialistCars up in Copenhagen. Theis runs a new fund specializing on super- and hypercars, the SpecialCars Invest Fund, and I recently caught up with him on a Zoom call to hear a bit more about the whole project!

Theis makes your supercar dreams come true!

As you would expect, and as quickly became clear in our conversation, Theis is a car guy through and through. He says that he’s liked cars since a young age and has been importing cars to Denmark for 25 years. With an Austrian father and speaking German fluently, Germany became a natural place to go initially, and has remained so to this day. Theis’s first import as an 18-year old was his first own car, a Golf VR6, and for the last 15 years he has made his hobby into a more solid business, importing cars and selling them in a leasing package, something that makes the Danish taxes a bit less penalizing. He currently has around 500 cars on leasing for clients in Denmark, many of whom are high-net-worth individuals, for whom he’s also imported more special cars over the years. And it’s here somewhere that the idea for a fund was born, notably when Theis imported an MB SLS Black Series eight years ago, paying EUR 330.000 at the time, knowing it’s today worth more than twice that. That kind of value appreciation is preserved a small number of cars, and it’s these that Theis and the SpecialCars Invest Fund target. It’s obviously also part of the general value increase we have seen over the last decade in many kinds of real assets, and that Theis doesn’t see an end to, as least not with regards to supercars.

The SLS Black Series has shown great value appreciation!

The fund has a focus on new super- and hypercars, not older than 6-7 years (but having in such cases not been really driven). 90% of cars come from Theis’s network in Germany, with some additionally being sourced from places like Monaco. A couple of weeks before my call with Theis, he had been to Germany to pick up a Bugatti Chiron Sport, and shortly before that, he secured Denmark’s first McLaren 765LT. He currently also owns a Zagato Shooting Break, a Pagani Huayra Roadster BC (with rights secured to buy Pagani’s upcoming model) and has secured a contract for an Aston Martin Valhalla. We are in other words firmly in hypercar territory, with the exclusivity and small series of the objects being the most solid indication of an expected price increase. Having said that, you don’t just go out and buy a Valhalla without good contacts, and it’s these that Theis has been cultivating over the last 15 years of car trading. He is in the right circles and he gets the right invitations. There are however also periods when fewer hypercars hit the market, as the deal flow in this segment isn’t constant, hence my question to Theis why he doesn’t include oldtimers and vintage cars as well. His answer is very honest, saying that given the long and sometimes complicated history most classic cars have, he simply doesn’t have the required expertise.

You don’t see a Chiron Sport every day, not just in Denmark!

Every car that is added to the fund will be so with a pre-planned length of ownership, from a few months to a few years, something that can obviously change along the way. During the time the cars are owned by the fund, they are stored in Denmark in secured facilities and are taken care of as is required. Investors also have the possibility to visit the facilities and see the cars. When the time comes to sell, Theis has a strong wish for the cars to remain in Europe, as that’s where he’s bought them from, and will thus look primarily for European buyers.

The cars are bought by the fund in a format of several vintages, i.e. a “sub-fund” will be started and closed at an indicative size of 10-20m, and the money will be invested before the next fund is opened. The entry value of the car into the fund is always the first price listing of the car, and the fund itself is set up as a Danish Alternative Investment Fund, which cannot be marketed outside of Denmark, but remains fully investable for non-Danes. As for the expected performance, every car will not perform as the Black Series mentioned above, but Theis and his fund management company give investors a performance target of 8-10% net p.a. Having said that, you should have a long horizon given firstly the illiquidity of the market, secondly the fact that the funds are closed-end with a legal term of 10 years, although the aim is for a somewhat shorter fund life.

Pagani is a favourite brand of Theis’s, who speaks of Horacio’s cars as “works of art”

A few days after our chat, Theis was able to go public with the information that his company SpecialCars has been purchased by Selected Car Leasing, one of the largest car leasing groups in Denmark, and will take on its name going forward. Theis, who has built a business from scratch during the last ten years, says he finds it great to be part of a larger group with the resources that brings. For investors, it will be most interesting that Selected Cars is owned by Danish billionaire Torben Østergaard-Nielsen, an equally large car enthusiast and someone who will no doubt bring both contacts and clients to the SpecialCars Invest Fund!

I’m sure you’ll join me in wishing Theis and the team lots of luck in this new adventure, which given his network and focus, I believe he has a very good chance in being successful with. Should you wish to find out more about the fund or be interested in coming in contact with Theis, do let me know in the comments below.

Street finds: the A112 Abarth!

The morning dog walks in our sleepy village outside of Zurich usually don’t bring much in car excitement, and after a premature summer left Switzerland after Good Friday and had changed into a rather grey and chilly morning on Saturday, I wasn’t expecting much of anything. But then there it was, the car which from afar looked like a Mini, but on closer scrutiny was the today very rare A112, and as I was to discover, even a perfectly kept / restored 70 hp Abarth! Some of you will know the A112 as an Autobianchi, an Italian brand from the 70-80’s. Today these lovely small cars have become unusual, especially in one of the early 70’s series as this one was. Back in the day however, (when 70 hp in a small car was still something worth bragging about), the A112 was a frequent sight on the roads especially in southern Europe, and Autobianchi was on the technical forefront of motor engineering, at least in the small car segment. So a bit unplanned as street finds tend to be, this week we’ll have a closer look at the racy A112 Abarth!

The very cool 70 hp Abarth I saw on the streets, with stripes and a white roof!

Autobianchi had its roots in Bianchi, an Italian manufacturer of bicycles (cycle enthusiasts will know it very well!) and motorcycles founded in 1886. 20 years later Bianchi started producing cars as well, but that was met with a moderate success and by the 50’s, the firm was close to bankruptcy. To try to save what could be saved, together with Fiat and Pirelli, the car business was separated into Autobianchi, initially co-owned by the three companies but taken over by Fiat in 1968. Fiat’s idea with Autobianchi was to position it as a more exclusive version of the “regular” Fiats and a brand under which technical innovations could be tested without risking Fiat’s reputation. The most notable of these included the relatively new concept of combining front-wheel drive with Fiat’s first transverse engine. Autobianchi’s first models had names such as Primula and Giardinera, more reminiscent of gardening than anything on four wheels, but then in the 60’s first the A111 and subsequently the A112 were introduced. The latter would be built during 17 years until 1985 in a total of 1.2 million cars, making it by far the most successful car in Autobianchi’s history.

With a total length of 323 cm, the A112 was based on a shortened Fiat 128 chassis. Marcello Gandini, the man behind cars such as the Lamborghini Miura, Countach and Diablo, was given the task to design the car, but it’s quite obvious that he took less inspiration from what he had done for Lamborghini and more from another car that had already illustrated how successful the small, front-wheel drive concept could be: the Mini. The A112’s original engine was the 0.9 litre four-cylinder from the Fiat 850 initially producing 42 hp, later increased to 48 hp. Already in 1971 however, the Torino-based car engineer Carlo Abarth, founder of the company of the same name, saw the potential in the small and light A112 and came up with a 107 hp prototype. This was considered far too much fun by Fiat, and also too expensive to put into production, and power was therefore reduced to 58 hp in the first Abarth versions, and then from 1975 increased to 70 hp. This was notably achieved thanks to a sports exhaust, bringing the additional benefit of a wonderful sound! Combined with the fact that the A112 Abarth was the first A112 version with a five-speed gearbox, it quickly became a favourite among drivers with ambition, of which according to the buying statistics, as many as 35% were women.

The double pipes ensure a great sound to this day!

That takes us back to my morning discovery as what I had in front of me was indeed a 70 hp Abarth version from the mid-late 70’s. Having studied it a bit I’m pretty certain this was the third series of the car, meaning it was built between 1975-1977. 70 hp isn’t much these days, then again the car only weighs around 700 kg, almost half of a modern, small car. The nice, 70’s bucket seats looked perfect, as did he rest of the interior (sorry for the reflections int he picture). The Abarth drive is said to be sporty with a typical front-wheel understeering tendency, but notably the short wheelbase meant that the A112 could also switch to oversteering, making the whole thing slightly adventurous. In Italy there was a rally class champinoship for the A112 in the late 70’s – early 80’s, and more recently, fans of Gran Turismo will also know that it’s a car featured in the game. Undoubtedly, the fact that the cars were driven quite hard has had quite a severe effect on the numbers that remain today!

Brilliant Abarth steering wheel, wonderful bucket seats, long wooden stickshift – what more do you need!

So what happened to Autobianchi? well, given Fiat also owned Lancia with a similar brand positioning, over time it became increasingly difficult to separate the two brands. The A112 was replaced by the Y10 in 1986, which was to become Autobianchi last model and was actually sold under the Lancia brand in some markets outside of Italy. Fiat officially discontinued Autobianchi in 1995, it has never had a rebirth since, and probably never will. That doesn’t change anything to the fact that the Abarth 70 hp is a really cool small city car of a kind that isn’t built anymore, and that provides lots of fun (including the sound!) until this day. Nice ones are around EUR 10′, perfect ones as the one I saw proabably around EUR 15′. Try to find another modern supercar with bucket seats, plenty of Abarth badges or a 70’s double exhaust pipe for that money!

The Swedish hypercars from Ängelholm!

If, like me, you were born in a country and live in another, you know well of all the things that remind you of your place of birth (or that others will remind you of). If, like me, you were born in Sweden, these include music from Abba to Avicii, herring and crispbread, and of course Zlatan (Ibrahimovic). In car terms it’s always been about Volvo and Saab, even though the former is nowadays Chinese and the latter went bankrupt a couple of times before finally pulling the plug ten years ago. There is, however, one other Swedish car brand from the small town of Ängelholm in southern Sweden that is very far from bankruptcy. Not only that, it was founded less than 30 years ago and has in less than three decades developed into what I consider the world’s leading supercar manufacturer. So, if you ask me what makes me most proud of being Swedish, it would be coming from the country of Koenigsegg – and this week we’ll have a closer look at the Swedish hypercar brand and its founder Christian von Koenigsegg, who knows how to do a lot of things, including dreaming big and building the fastest cars in the world!

The story starts in 1994 when 22-year old Christian has already shown both interest and talent for technical innovations as well as drawing, and has also made some money in his young years. Fascinated by cars since his early childhood, the Stockholm-born Christian from the originally German noble family Königsegg, set up a business in southern Sweden with the modest ambition to build the greatest supercar the world had ever seen, combining Swedish design with state-of-the-art technology. Fast wasn’t enough – his car was to be the fastest in the world. You could basically describe him as the Zlatan of the car world in his ambition, however with a very different attitude and modesty (the latter a word Zlatan can’t spell…). Doing this anywhere in the world with a far more solid background is hard – very hard. Doing it as an inexperienced 22-year old in Sweden should be impossible, but wasn’t, and only two years after Koenigsegg was founded, the company presented their first prototype, the CC. From there on, it took another 3-4 years until Koenigsegg’s first small-series model, the CC8S, was introduced at the Paris auto show. Production then started two years later, in 2002.

The CC8S was highly innovative and clearly illustrated what the company’s ambition was, as it already included some noteworthy innovations, such as the synchro helix door actuation system (the folding-knife doors) and a free-flowing exhaust system, both patented by Christian and part of his more than 10 personal patents. He is in other words not only the founder and CEO of Koenigsegg, but very much its Chief Technology Officer as well! The engine of the CC8S was a heavily modified, 4.8 litre Ford V8 producing 655 hp, enough in 2002 to get it into the Guinness book of records as the world’s strongest engine in serial production. The series was however small as only 6 cars were produced in 2002-2003. Its successor, the CCR, brought some important improvements when it came out in 2004, including an 806 hp and 920 Nm power output. Remember this is 2004, i.e. more than 15 years ago, when such numbers were still truly spectacular. This is also where Koenigsegg’s quest for various speed records start. With a top speed of 388 km/h, the CCR was at the time the world’s fastest car. Unfortunately for Koenigsegg, the record would only stand for a few months before it was beaten by the Bugatti Veyron with 408 km/h…

In 2006 the CCR became the further evolved CCX, a car that was an important milestone for the company. Although still based on the CC8S it was heavily modified and for the first time featured an engine developed in-house and producing 817 hp. Importantly the engine could run on 91 octane fuel and also passed the Californian environmental regulation. The CCX was in other words the first Koenigsegg car to be sold in the US, and the “X” in the name commemorates the 10-year anniversary of the first ever test drive with the CC prototype in 1996. Its environmentally-friendly sister car, the CCXR followed a couple of years later and could be driven on ethanol, bringing the benefit of some more power for those who felt they needed it. On ethanol the CCXR produces 1018 hp and 1060 Nm of torque, cracking the 1000-mark both for hp and Nm for the first time – but not the last.

Fast forward to 2010 and Koenigsegg presents the Agera (“act” in Swedish) that over the coming seven years would be built in various versions with between 910 and 1175 hp. Although based on the CCX, the Agera featured a new body, new interior and a new engine. The car’s monocoque is made of carbon fibre which brings us to a central theme of all Koenigsegg cars, namely keeping the weight under control. Whereas a Bugatti Chiron weighs in at just under two tons, Koenigseggs have so far managed to stay under 1500 kg, bringing lots of benefits but also a much rawer experience than the super fast but also super plush ride of a Chiron. The Agera set one of Koenigsegg’s most notable speed records so far, namely 0-300-0 km/h in 21 seconds, more than 10 seconds less than a Chiron, and in 2017 professional driver Niclas Lilja would set a new top speed record at 447 km/h in the Nevada desert. And then end 2019, the Agera did a 0-400-0 km/h run in 31 seconds. It’s difficult to compare these numbers in a way that really illustrates the size of the achievement, but as some kind of reference, a McLaren 720 does 0-300 km/h in 21 seconds. However, by then the Agera is already back to 0…

The Agera RS in Dubai, one market where it has lots of success…

Koenigsegg has today established itself as one of the leading hypercar constructors in the world, going from a very small operation of about 50 people to today around 300 employees, still based in Ängelholm in Sweden. Demand has never been stronger and Koenigsegg have in total so far built around 250 cars for some 190 clients at prices from USD 1.5m and upwards (with no upper limit…). As you understand from the numbers, some owners have more than one car in their garage. Life isn’t fair…

From the mid-2010’s, Koenigsegg has kept busy. In 2014 it launched the surreal One:1, which at 1360 kg had a power output of 1 hp per kg, and at 1371 Nm, practically the same torque… In 2015, the hybrid Koenigsegg Regera (“reign” in Swedish) was launched with an 1115 hp engine and was built until 2019. In the same year the Agera was replaced by the Jesko, which takes its name from Christian’s father. As per Christian, the Jesko is the fastest car the brand will ever build. With a twin-turbo, 5-litre V8 engine producing 1622 hp (running on ethanol) and a perfect aerodynamic shape, the Jesko in the Absolut version is said to have a top speed of 531 km/h. Finding a place to test that isn’t easy, but Koenigsegg is working on it to reclaim the world’s speed record which in between has been lost to the US small-scale brand SSC.

The most exciting car in today’s line-up is however not the Jesko but rather the Gemera (“give more” in Swedish), the world’s first real four-seater hypercar, including a decent, 200-litre luggage space. Its drivetrain is highly impressive: a two-litre, three-cylinder engine producing 600 hp (!!) is combined to three electrical engines to a total power output of 1700 hp on ethanol. The company targets a production of 125 Jeskos and 300 Gemeras, which given current demand they will most certainly reach, but take a number of years to do so, as the current annual production is around 20-30 cars.

The closest I have been to a Koenigsegg was seeing an Agera at the Geneva Motor Show in 2019 and I don’t expect to come closer to one anytime soon. What I find so impressive with the company however, is the philosophy of never resorting to a less than perfect solution. If there is a piece or system available in the market Koenigsegg will be happy to buy it, but if it’s anything less than perfect, they will rather build it themselves. If you can charge your clients the kind of money the company does this is no doubt easier, but it also translates a very high ambition. It’s also truly impressive what Christian has invented and developed through the years. His technical genius combined with a pretty stunning design on most models has made Koenigsegg into a supercar company like no other. Most of us would probably have been equally impressed had the cars had a few hundred hp less, but not Christian: 27 years ago he set out to build the fastest hypercar in the world, and that’s what he’s done over and over again. If Zlatan is the God of football, then Christian is no doubt the God of hypercars!

The F1 season 2021 kicks off!

Next week on 28 March the 2021 F1 season kicks off in Bahrain, and it promises to be an interesting one! To start with the Covid part, the season was really supposed to start in Australia but the Melbourne GP has been postponed. In Bahrain, vaccinated and Covid-recovered will be allowed as audience, but it remains to be seen how many subsequent races will follow the same policy. At least for the first half of the season, my guess is that races will tend to be without audience, but perhaps that will improve as the season (and vaccinations!) progresses. Do remember however that the first races of last season were completely cancelled, so things are progressing, and even with empty stands there promises to be enough excitement on the track to compensate for a lack of spectators. So with one week to go, here’s a round-up of the teams and their drivers, and also a few words on where those went who left since last season.

Starting with the teams, we’ll have the same 10 this season as we did last, however with two of them having changed names and looks. Racing Point has changed both name and colour, going from the quite spectacular pink to a less flashy but more classy Aston Martin green as the team takes the Aston name, making it the first time in over half a century Aston Martin has its name on cars in F1. Renault on the other hand has decided to revive the Alpine name not only through the A110 street car, but also on the F1 track. Renault F1 has thus becomes Alpine with the colour changing from yellow to an Alpine blue with red elements. I’ve written about Alpine on a couple of occasions and in my first post on the A110 that you can find here if you missed it, I certainly didn’t count on the name having much of a future. As so often, I don’t mind having been wrong!

Moving on to the drivers, we’ll have three rookies and one comeback kid in 2021. Among the new entrants, none has a bigger pair of shoes to fill than Mick Schumacher, Michael’s son. Mick drives one of the Haas cars and Nikita Mazepin, an equally 22-year old Russian rookie the other. A student of the Ferrari Driving Academy, Mick also won the F2 championship lsat year and the F3 one in 2018, so there’s no doubt he brings more than a legendary name to the party. We’ll see during coming years if it’s enough to take him beyond the Ferrari academy into the actual team, and whether his career will be as successful as his father’s. The third new driver is Yuki Tsunoda in AlphaTauri, a 21-year old Japanese driver Red Bull has a lot of faith in, and who’s advanced from local racing in Japan to F1 in just four years. The comeback kid is of course none other than Fernando Alonso who return to Renault/Alpine, taking over Daniel Ricciardo’s seat. Alonso has notably won Le Mans since he left F1 two years ago and as he turns 40 this summer, it will be interesting to see how much fuel he has left in the tank!

Yuki Tsunoda to replace Daniil Kvyat at AlphaTauri F1 team ...
Red Bull believes strongly in young Yuki Tsunoda

As for the drivers who change teams, I find three of the moves especially interesting. The first is no doubt Carlos Sainz Jr. moving to Ferrari and teaming up with Charles Leclerc. This to me is probably the leading driver pair this year, in competition with Red Bull. However, it remains to be seen if Ferrari has found enough speed to allow them to compete. The second is Sebastian Vettel moving from Ferrari to Racing Point / Aston Martin. Seb turns 34 this year and has been on a downward slope for quite some time, so it will be very interesting to see if racing with Aston Martin will allow him to perform again. Finally, Sergio Perez was unsure of whether he would find a seat until the very last days of last season, when it was confirmed that he takes over after Alex Albon in Red Bull. I think this is extremely well deserved as Perez has always been a bit underrated, and whereas he won’t challenge Max Verstappen’s first-driver status in the team, I don’t think he will be far behind – if at all. The last and to me far less interesting move is Daniel Ricciardo’s move to McLaren. It was hard to comprehend when Ricciardo joined Renault and even harder to understand when he left them for McLaren, as Renault was getting better as last season progressed. Then again, maybe Ricciardo sees the same thing happening with McLaren, let’s hope he’s right in that case.

If the car is up to it, I’m sure Sainz will deliver!

So where did the drivers who left after last season go? Alex Albon is still with Red Bull as reserve and development driver and is set to race in the German Touring League DTM this year. Romain Grosjean (ex Haas) has moved to the US where he’ll be racing in the Indycar Series and perhaps compete against Kevin Magnussen (also ex Haas) who has also moved over the Atlantic, however not to Indycar but rather for IMSA, notably driving the Daytona 24hrs this year. Finally Daniil Kvyat (ex AlphaTauri) hasn’t gone anywhere at all, staying in F1 as reserve driver for Alpine in 2021.

So there we are, and by this time next week we’ll have a first idea of how far the different teams have come, even though the season will of course be a long one. Given how terribly bad I am at it I won’t even try to predict the outcome, but if Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari have somewhat comparable cars, I think we’re in for a really exciting season. It would be really great if Ferrari has found the way back to a winning concept, and I don’t think I’m the only one who look forward to see what Mick Schumacher will be able to achieve. Until next week, if you want to have a behind the scenes look back at last season, the third season of “F1 – Drive to survive” has just premiered on Netflix!

F1: Haas mit großem Interesse an Mick Schumacher - Eurosport
Schumacher Jr., racing for Haas in 2021

Maranello’s best daily driver!

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the Panamera (see here if you missed it), a family hatchback that translates the true Porsche feel as much as its format and weight allows for, and the first generation of which currently offers pretty exceptional value for money. But whereas to my mind, the Panamera is the daily driver that presents the best “price-adjusted” offer in the EUR 40-50.000 price segment, it’s not the only car out there providing a nice bridge between a word leading sports car tradition and something that actually qualifiees as (almost) reasonable with daily driving potential. This week we’ll therefore travel south from Zuffenhausen, over the Alps to Maranello, to explore Ferrari’s best offer in this regard: the splendid, 12-cylinder Ferrari FF. Just like the Panamera, in addition to all its practical benefits (and there are a lot!), it remains one hell of a car that right now offers exceptionally good value for money – albeit in a higher segment.

Looks that have aged very well!

The FF (Ferrari Four) was presented in 2011 and built until 2016 as successor to the 612 Scaglietti, and as could be expected, it split opinions among Ferraristis right from the start. Obviously this wasn’t the first four-seater from Ferrari, but “Four” in the name also referred to this being the first four-wheel drive Ferrari in history. The system was developed by Ferrari and doesn’t weigh more than 45 kg. Without becoming too technical, a second, two-gear gearbox right over the front axle complements the main, 7-gear dual clutch box and transfers power to the front axle over two multi-plate clutches. The low weight comes at the expense of function as the system only works in gears 1-4, which doesn’t change that it’s perfectly useful for example on snow. On solid ground and in all gears, the car is otherwise rear-wheel drive, and the 45 kg are a reasonable price to pay for the increased function, although the true purists will remark that the driving experience becomes less playful than with a rear-wheel drive, “classic” Ferrari. All others will find it a true sports car to drive, also with an almost perfect 53-47% weight split (rear-front). The FF also has an adaptive suspension with five driving programs, controlled by the “manettino” on the steering wheel, and the car can and will be raised a few cm as required.

Not where you would take your 458!

The other area of contention ten years ago was the looks. 2011 was still a few years before shooting breaks became as popular as they are today, so for most, those concerns are largely gone by now. Looking at the FF today I think it’s aged extremely well. Given we started this with a comparison with the Panamera, there’s no real contention on which one looks the best… Pininfarina has done an excellent job in a classic combination of a long front and a short, dynamic rear gives the car perfect dimensions.

All this is of course fine and good, but the most exciting part of the FF is no doubt what you find under the hood, namely a 6.3 litre, naturally aspirated V12, derived from the Enzo and the biggest V12 Ferrari had ever put into production at the time. Producing 660 hp and 683 Nm torque, those who don’t get goose bumps when it comes alive are either deaf or completely heartless. Ferrari will tell you that the incredible sound is helped by the 65-degree angle, i.e. 5 degrees more “open” than a typical V12 engine is built in. I find it hard to believe that it would have sounded much less with less of an angle though… Once alive, the incredible engine will take the FF all the way to 335 km/h, of which the first 100 km/h only need 3.7 seconds.

The wonderful engine behind the front axle, with the second gearbox in front

If this doesn’t sound like an (almost) reasonable daily driver so far, let’s look at the practical side of the FF. Firstly, it’s a true four-seater rather than a 2+2, and the rear seats are really quite comfy, even for grown-ups. Secondly they as well as the central part can be individually folded, the central part for example to transport skis. Thirdly, with all seats in place the FF offers 450 litres of luggage space, which increases to over 800 litres once the seats are folded. What Ferrari will not offer, but offer you to buy, is of course a very chic luggage set to help you make the most of that space to arrive in style! And finally the FF has a 91-litre tank, meaning you can do at least 500 km before you have to stretch your legs and admire it from the outside, which certainly won’t hurt. The quality of a daily-driver however also lies in its quality and reliability, and it’s here that the FF impresses even more. The interior looks fantastic and is well built – clearly a level above the previous generation. Guarantee and service packages when the car was new were extensive in most markets, and the quality is also proven by how unlike many other Ferraris, most FF’s have a lot of km on the clock and it’s rare to find a car that has barely been driven.

The FF offered owners a lot of options for individualization and it’s not rare to find cars that cost EUR 350.000 or more as new. This can obviously be interesting when you look to pick one up today, and if you plan on buying one and will be more than two persons using it, I would be on the lookout for the panoramic glass roof which makes the rear much lighter. Quite obviously though, the most important by far is making sure the car has been properly serviced and that both the engine and the electronics are in order. Ideally, one owner will have used the car in a way where it wasn’t his city driver and where he didn’t require assistance of the four-wheel drive system too often. If you can find that, then it’s less important if the car has 20.000 or 50.000 km on the clock. And if you know your Ferraris, there’s nothing hindering you from considering cars with even higher mileage. Those will start at EUR 90-100.000, those with less km start coming in at EUR 120-130.000, and there’s quite a few cars in the market, so realistically some negotiating potential as well. That price fall is not unique compared to other Ferrari models but at one third of the price as new, to me the FF is the one that offers the best combination of many qualities, making it an (almost) reasonable purchase, and one that will make you smile every time you turn the key!