Range Rover Classic – the grand daddy of SUV’s !

Last week I wrote about the popular trend of re-creating classic cars in their former beauty but with modern technology beneath, what is also known as restomods. One of the examples I gave was the UK firm Kingsley that does this kind of work on the first series of the Range Rover, also referred to as the Range Rover Classic. This 50-year old creation that rightfully counts as the grand daddy of all modern, luxury SUV’s is getting rare on our streets, which given its age isn’t surprising. I was however lucky not only to see one last week but also to strike up a discussion with the owner who opened my eyes to the fascinating story of this marvelous piece of UK automobile technology, that we’ll look closer at this week!

The first version of the Range Rover (hereinafter RR or Classic) was produced for almost 40 years, from 1969 to 1996. That’s remarkable in itself and among the longest production runs of any car model, but it’s also remarkable as the US market entry didn’t happen until 1987, by which time the car was 17 years old! Less known is also that during the first 11 years of existance the RR was only available in a 3-door version. The 5-door car didn’t appear until 1981 with the 3-door version being phased out in the years thereafter. It does however remain the favourite version of restorers and restomod builders, including Kingsley.

The earliest cars were all 3-door and were without c-pillar vinyl.

The Range Rover story and subsequently brand starts with the Land Rover that had been built by the Rover Group since 1948. it was a pure utalitarian car with no luxury or comfort whatsoever. As it evolved, it dawned on the Rover Group that there was appetite for a terrain-capable car that was more comfortable and a bit later in the 60’s, the first SUV-like jeeps from Ford (the Bronco) and Jeep (the Wagoneer) started appearing in the US. After having tried to develop the concept on some other models without much success in the 50’s, Rover finally bought a Bronco which served as development car for what was to become the first Range Rover, presented to the public in 1970.

The split tailgate is a feature of all RR’s since the very first.

The first RR may have been a wonder of comfort compared to a Land Rover but was obviously far from being so by any modern standard – or for that matter compared to the luxury cars of the time. It did however have something they didn’t, namely outstanding offroad capabilities, and it was of course that combination that made its success. The four-wheel drive system along with the long suspension and ground clearance made it almost as capable as a Land Rover offroad, and onroad, the Rover V8 helped it to a top speed of over 150 km/h and a 0-100 km/h time of less than 15 seconds (both considered fast at the time…) while also being able to tow up to 3.5 tons. Rover referred to the RR as “a car for all reasons” and the public seemed to agree.

Luxury is certainly relative, but it was much better than a Land Rover!

There weren’t many changes to the RR during its first ten years of existance but a vinyl coverage of the c-pillars that was introduced around the mid-70’s made it easier to distinguish the really early cars. What all the 70’s cars had in common was the complicated access to the back seats given the car only had two doors. This was solved by the four-door version in 1981, with further updates in the mid-80’s including the quality of the interior, updated transmission and the front design. Moving into the 90’s the Range was getting old but still kept popular by further improvements to the suspension, the engine, and also through a long-wheel based version. As production of the Range Rover MK II started in 1994, the first generation was given the name “Classic” and remained in production for another couple of years.

A 1986, four-door car, still very recognizable as a Range Rover!

Most SUV’s sold today in Europe are of course diesel-powered but Rover had great difficulty finding a diesel engine that suited the RR. A diesel option didn’t come until 1986 and even then, although the engine was quite advanced for the time, it was seen as inferior to the petrol V8. Most Classics thus have a petrol V8 under the bonnet, something that remained the case well into the MK III. This certainly didn’t help the RR during the 70’s oil crises but even as consumption generally became more important, the Classic retained its loyal fans who wouldn’t really consider any alternatives to petrol- and still don’t!

The feeling of entering, or rather stepping up into a Range Rover is something truly special and perhaps conveyed best by the Classic. Given the old construction the pillars are very thin and the glass areas enormous, providing a brilliant view all around. You obviously sit high and although the car is large it’s not difficult to see where it starts and ends. Cars from the first years didn’t have power-assisted steering which is a bad idea, but cars after that provide a truly special driving experience, but obviously one that is far less exact and more floating than a modern SUV. It doesn’t matter as much as for some other types of oldtimers though since a RR is not one to be stressed – never was, never will be.

The interior of a 1990 car – a nice place to be!

If you want to get the genuine British tweed countrylife feel, I would claim no car does it better than a Range Rover Classic. There is a bunch of people out there who will look upon you as a complete maniac if you say you’re considering one, claiming it will fall apart the minute you’ve handed over the money. I would say sure, things can break as they can do on any old car, but the best proof of an RR’s inherent quality is that Range drivers are among the most loyal owners out there. Many of them would never consider another car, they’ve stayed with the different models through the decades and often have more than one RR. I find it very hard to believe they would do that if the car was as bad as those (who typically have never owned one) claim. In any case, there’s is no RR that has less things that can break than the first series!

The good news is that getting a good RR Classic is still quite affordable. What’s even more affordable is the MK II that came out in 1994, but would claim it’s very doubful if that car will ever claim the same classics status as the MK I, and I would definitely pick a late MK I car over a MK II. Somewhere around EUR 25.000-30.000 is where you find the really nice ones. I’d go for a later one from 1986 and onwards, but in terms of collectibles it’s clearly a three-door RR you should go for, but then again one of the later production years. If you can find one Britannia will surely rule all the way and you will just have stepped up a level in your car experience!

Winter may be here, but you won’t care!

Restomods – best of both worlds?

When I wrote about the Zurich Auto Show last week (see here if you missed it), I mentioned that a whole floor had been dedicated to the classics, mostly restored to their former glory by experts in the field either belonging to the marks, such as Mercedes-Benz Classics, or being individual outfits. I also mentioned that this floor was one of the most visited on the show, and typically so by men in their 50’s and 60’s which I guess are the typical clients for this kind of automobiles – and lucky they are!

A beautifully restored Mercedes or Ferrari from the 60’s is difficult to beat in looks, but not very hard in driving experience, at least if you’re after the relative perfection of a modern car. What I mean is that although driving a classic is a special feeling, it means driving something with inexact steering, pretty useless suspension and breaks that require a bit of planning to stop the car before it’s too late. That’s no wonder considering the cars are several decades old. In other words the driving experience hasn’t really stood the test of time, but the looks definitely have. And it’s in that junction that the concept of restomods saw the light of day.

The E-type is a popular restomod base

Restomods (the word combining “restoration” with “modern”) have been around on a somewhat larger scale for the last 4-5 years or so, but whereas they used to be confined to a barn on a yard somewhere and only be known to the real enthusiasts, their popularity has grown tremendously lately. Obviously this has also led to a multitude of manufacturers, typically focusing on different sportscars – but not only. The basic concept of a restomod is that of taking a classical design and modernizing everything below it, but quite often the design itself is also changed a bit on the way, notably with larger wheel arches and – especially – larger wheels. Most body panels may still look old but are usually new and quite often made out of carbon. Restomod builders are small outfits, in many cases building cars with unique parts as basis, which obviously means they aren’t cheap. What they provide is however a car that can be a true one of a kind, as even the largest restomod outfits only produce a few dozen cars per year.

Of all the possible candidates I’ve picked three builders as examples of the various iterations of the restomod world. The first is the most legendary of them all, specializing in the most legendary sports car of all. The second is a bunch of UK-based, Italian racing enthusiasts, and the third specializes in creating a modern driving experience for the world’s first luxury SUV. Three different cars, three different approaches, but also three different visions of what a restomod can be.

California-based Singer Vehicle Design, founded by ex-rock star Rob Dickinson, focuses on optimizing 911’s (964) according to the firm’s motto “everything is important” and the principles of “Restored – Re-imagined – Reborn”. To Singer this means starting with a 911/964 that can be transformed however the owner wants it, within the limits of the classic 911 design. Singer offers a multitude of options for the chassis, engine, suspension and body, including manufacturing specific parts in very small runs. In collaboration both with Williams and Cosworth the result is absolutely outstanding as a work of art, and journalists that have had the honour of driving the unique cars usually talk about it as allowing the 911 to reach new levels of perfection. It’s important to note that it’s not about raw power as Singers are usually around 300-350 hp. As we all know however, a great drive is about so much more than straight-line speed, and no one does it better than Singer. Also, no one does it more expensive, as prices start somewhere around USD 500′ + a 964 delivered by the client, and obviously have no upper limit – Singers have been sold for more than USD 1.5m.

Alfaholics, based in Bristol may be far from California, but is without doubt the world’s leading specialist on the Alfa 105 series. Founded by Richard Banks and today run by his two sons Mark and Andrew, the racing inspired family with a true love for the Italian brand renovate 105’s to very high standards, sell standard as well as custom-made racing parts for the 105 and some other models – and then they build the GTA-R, which can be described as the modern iteration of the 105. Just like with Singer the specification of each car is largely up to the client, but the basis is usually the classic 2-litre twin spark engine, developed to produce 240 hp. The rest of the car is completely reworked and notably through extensive use of carbon, the end result is a car that weighs 800 kg and thus can be said to have all the power anyone can ask for. It also produces all of the sound anyone could ask for, and it’s a wonderful one. Costing from around GBP 250′ and upwards, the GTA-R is a very driver-focused car, clearly better in every way than the original 105, but also very much a racing car.

Finally, something completely different. We’re now up in Warwickshire in central UK where as a child Damon Oorloff (yes, written with two oo’s) didn’t have a playground and therefore spent his time in the Land Rover factory yard. He thus grew up with what was built at the time, meaning the Defender and the first generation Range Rover, and fell in love especially with the latter. He went on to found Kingsley and has today built a business of restoring the Range Rover Classic and bringing it into the modern world in terms of technology and driving experience. This is no small achievement since the Classic is a construction from the 1950’s, so it basically means rebuilding the whole car. The extent of the work, updates and modifications is individual, however always staying within the original design and thus being the purest form of restomod, according to the original concept. The result is of course magnificent: the ultra-coolness of the original RR, combined with modern comfort and an updated driving experience. Kingsley’s start around GBP 50′ and GBP 100′ pretty much gives you the full experience.

So there we are – three different interpretations of the broad restomod concept, and three that have different objectives in mind. Singer is all about 911 perfection, but also about creating unlimited cars for unlimited budgets. Alfaholics has a clear racing focus in their builds that they share with many other restomod builders (but where most are not a the same level), and that take in this case a 60’s car to the modern racing standard. Finally Kingsley gives you a pure, classic design with modern features and an up to date driving experience.

Should you really mess with something as good as the 964?

Looking at these but also at the concept of restomods in general, I admit I’m split. Taking Singer as example, the first thing to note is that a fraction of the total budget buys you a pretty perfect 964, and at least I would be more than slightly reluctant to start re-working the original build. And if you still decide that’s the way you want to go, then you have other types of specialist such as Ruf that we looked at a while ago (see here), the provide another interpretation of the 911 concept which is also highly attractive and almost as exclusive. In the other ring corner, Kingsley transforms the RR Classic and from many angles make it a modern car – but not from all. The general body design with its overhangs, wind resistance and thereby wind noise, old-fashioned exploitation of the interior space and obviously things such as modern security thinking – all that can be improved on the margin, but essentially remains the same, as in the original, which is to say very far from a modern car.

An original 105, not as performing – but still as beautiful!

You thus need to put up with a bit if you want to make a Kingsley you daily driver. Not to mention a GT-R from Alfaholics, that in many aspects is a true race car. Of course you can drive a Singer as a daily driver if your budget is right, but for most it will probably be a Sunday car – but what a car! If a Singer is the best Sunday driver, the Alfa is clearly the best race car, whilst still not on the level of modern race cars. And the Kingsley classic RR is far better than the original car, but not as good as a modern Range Rover, making you wonder on what day of the week you should use it. My conclusion is therefore that whilst restomods are beautiful and technologically fantastic creations and I fully understand if you fall for them, I would probably rather stick to the original 964 as a daily driver and an original RR Classic for the Sunday family drive, with all its original imperfection and charm. And if I had a race track somewhere near, I sure wouldn’t mind having a GTA-R in the garage!

Zurich Auto Show 2021 – the classics ruled!

After a pause last year because of a certain virus, the Zurich Car Show was back during four days last week. By no means comparable to the far bigger Salon de l’Automobile in Geneva, the Zurich version still attracts auto enthusiasts from in and around the city, of which my son and I were part this year as well. I was very glad he was there to confirm that what I thought didn’t necessarily mean I’ve turned into a grumpy old man, namely that in a world where new cars increasingly look the same, it was nice to see how it was the classics that saved the day, not only for us! Here are a few general thoughts following the visit last Sunday.

1. Luxury goes mainstream: there was a time when a plush leather interior and high-quality plastics were reserved to premium brands, but technical and production developments have made sure that is no longer the case. From relatively budget cars and upwards, you can get basically any car with at least a fake leather dash, and an interior quality that was unthinkable just 5-6 years ago. That’s obviously great, but as I’ve mentioned previously, it does make life much tougher for the traditional luxury brands in terms of positioning.

An MB 560 SEL limo – now that was a backseat worth the name!

2. Luxury isn’t what it once was: along the lines of the above, it’s also noticeable that whereas mainstream brands have mvoed upwards quality-wise, traditional premium brands, at least in some cases, go the other way. The two most striking examples of this were on one hand Mercedes’ all-electric new EQS and on the other, the far more traditional Range Rover. The former has been hailed as a true electrical S-class, but either those who say so never entered its back seat or they’ve never been in an S-class. Hard plastics dominate the interior from the middle of the doors downwards, on the back side of the front seats as well as on the doorsills, and it’s quite all very far from S-class standard. Yes, it does have three huge screens upfront that look pretty cool, but then again it’s not all about screens. What Land Rover has done with the Range Rover is less clear to the eye but there’s no doubt that although looking identical, the last model of this generation (knowing the new generation has just been presented) feels cheaper than the same car from ive years ago.

The Manta makes a strong, electrified return!

3. Electricity is probably here to stay: I realize that’s not a bit revelation and neither is the fact that electrification was everywhere at this year’s show and will no doubt be so going forward as well. The point is more that although I’m a fan of the great potential of fuel cells and synthetic fuels but when you are at an auto show and realize practively every brand shows more than one electrical car, you have to ask yourself is so much has no been invested in electrification that there’s no way back. Most of these cars are moderately interesting, but it was great to see that electrification has now also reached the restomod cars (a concept we’ll come back to in the coming weeks), and the coolest electrical car was hands down…. an Opel Manta!

A perfect Ferrari 250 GT Lusso, one of many classics beauties!

4. The classics saved the day: except for Morgan and modern versions of classic cars that are still in production, the auto show has never been about classic cars. Until this year this, when a full floor had been reserved for classics coming both from Mercedes and Porsche’s own classical restoration departments, but also from some of the large, Swiss classic car garages. It was interesting to see how many people like us seemed to find this the most interesting part of the show, and most of these classics make you wish you had a far larger garage, far more time – and a far bigger wallet!

A perfect Countach in an unusual – but decent! – colour scheme

The other 80’s supercar legend!

A few weeks ago I wrote about the original Lamborghini Countach, one of the biggest dream cars of my generation of which a fair number of us had posters on the wall (I may have mentioned those posters often sitting alongside Samantha Fox or Sabrina…). Obviously most of us had more than one wall in our rooms and it certainly happened that on one of the others, there would be a poster of another supercar legend from the same period: the Ferrari Testarossa. The Testarossa was no doubt the Countach’s main competitor and a car that even influenced its later iterations, notably in forcing the development of a more powerful engine. And whilst referring to a Ferrari as the “other” supercar will not go down well with the Ferraristis, it just so happens that the Countach was around before the Testarossa – which doesn’t in any way make the story of the latter any less interesting, as we’ll see today!

An unmistakeable line until this day!

The Testarossa saw the light of day the first time at the Paris auto show in 1984. It was designed by Pininfarina and it’s difficult to think of a single item from the 80’s that is more representative of the era than this car. This is of course especially true for the giant, grille-covered air intakes on the sides and the fat, wide, grill-covered back, but also for the front with the typical pop-up headlights. It certainly looked the piece then and today it remains a brilliant representative of its time period. Luckily it wasn’t just about the looks though as the Testarossa was also quite a car, as we’ll come back to. Staying with the design slightly longer, another thing to remark is obviously that it’s a less dramatic car than the Countach but also that the Countach somewhat surprisingly is actually the wider car, including over the rear. At 197 cm the Testarossa is certainly not slim, but Pininfarina’s masterful design makes it look even wider than it actually is.

Early cars had a single rear view mirror high on the a-pillar, as here.

If the rear was all about design, the side air intakes actually had an important function as the radiators had been moved back and sat next to the mid-mounted engine. And the engine was of course nothing less than the Ferrari 4.9 litre, flat 12-cylinder putting out 390 hp, enough for a top speed of 290 km/h and a 0-100 km/h time of 5.2 seconds. The engine certainly looks the part and the red top of the valves is also what gave the car the name Testarossa (“red head”), a name Ferrari has used before in its history. It sits slightly higher than you would expect as the gearbox is located underneath it. Everything was in other words concentrated between the cabin and the rear axle in a relatively small space. This complicates one of the more frequent jobs on the car, namely the need to change the cambelt regularly. To do this, the bad news is that you need to remove the whole engine from the car. The good news is that Ferrari actually though of making this relatively easy, but according to good sources you’re still talking about around 20 man hours of work, and that’s by a guy who knows what he’s doing. That all fades into the background though when you see the fantastic engine, presented to your eyes in the same masterful way Ferrari always does. And when you turn the key…

It doesn’t get much better!

Move to the inside, which in most cars was black or tan, and you’re again taken back to the 80’s. Certainly not an interior worthy of the price Testarossas trade at today but well of the 80’s, meaning angular forms and as in many Ferraris from back then, switches and buttons sometimes in places you wouldn’t expect them. Given how few of them there were however, that doesn’t really matter, and the poor sound isolation certainly has the benefit of letting you hear the full drama of the 12-cylinder! The car is much more modern than its predecessor, the 512 BB, and not in any way complicated to drive. It received some early criticism for being a bit light in the front at higher speeds, but that will hardly be an issue today as you probably won’t drive your 35-year old Testarossa north of 200 km/h (you certainly don’t need to go that fast to enjoy the engine!), In other words, except for the cambelt, the Redhead doesn’t have to be the nightmare to drive or maintain that many believe.

Comparing to today’s interiors, it’s amazing people got to their destination, and in one piece!

The Testarossa in its original form lived until 1991, but its life was then extended by the slightly modified and 428 hp strong 512 TR until 1994, and after that another two years through the at 440 hp even more powerful F512 M (Modificata). The TR is distinguishable form the side where it has a design close to the 348, and the F512 M is from both the front (no more pop-up headlights) and from the rear as well (see below). When production of the F512 ended in 1996 it also meant the end of the Ferrari flat 12-cylinder engine, and the Testarossa was also the last unlimited (in production numbers) mid-engined Ferrari. As for the numbers almost exactly 10.000 cars were built of the three versions, split as around 7.200 Testarossas, 2.300 512 TR’s, and only 500 F512 M. That is also reflected in the prices they go for today. A Testarossa will be yours for around EUR 100′ and upwards, the TR for around EUR 50′ more, and the Modificata for more than three times an original Testarossa – if you can find one. If you buy it to drive, which I would dare hope, those that have tried all three say the price difference isn’t worth it as the “base” Testarossa conveys both enough power and even more of the original Ferrari spirit from the golden 80’s. Also, you’ll probably want to make sure that cambelt was replaced not too long ago!

The F512 M is rare – and expensive!

F1 2022: a whole new ball game!

Formula 1 is up for some big changes next year, with the aim of making cars and thereby racing more competitive. Feel like you’ve heard it before? I agree, but if you look closer, what’s happening this time is not some new restrictions on tire width, nope, we’re talking about the largest changes to F1 that have ever happened. Had it not been for a certain pandemic they would actually have come into effect already this year, so those of us who enjoy F1 in its current form got another year to do so. That’s not to say that the planned changes won’t be positive – the proof will be in the pudding as always.

The 2022 F1 show car, as shown on Silverstone

For this season there was a budget limit of USD 145m imposed on the teams with the same objective of reducing differences between teams and thereby improve racing, but it didn’t change much given firstly that this year’s cars were designed before the cost cap and secondly and perhaps even more importantly, the large teams have developed quite an infrastructure over the years that it will take smaller teams time to catch up with. That together with a few loopholes here and there meant that the cost limit didn’t have the desired effect, and the fact that races are generally less one-sided this year has more to do with the large teams not investing more in the current cars given next year’s changes. These changes are in turn not focused on further cost reductions but rather on the cars themselves in terms of mainly aerodynamics and tires, so let’s have a closer look at that.

Starting with the most visible aerodynamics changes, what we’re seeing is basically a return to the technology of the 70’s and 80’s before wings became the main tool to create downforce. What made F1 cars looked simpler before is that downforce was created by leading air through tunnels under the car, sucking it to the road, instead of pushing it downwards through wings. This form of downforce serves to reduce wake and also the upwash of air exiting takes a much higher trajectory, in both cases reducing turbulence behind the car and thus allowing followers to come closer and improve their chances of overtaking. Numbers show a following car to retain 86% of its downforce at a distance of one car length, compared to 55% today. It also means the front and rear wings will look different and much simpler than today.

Jacques Villeneuve in South Africa in 1979 – glued to the ground!

The reason this technology was banned 40 years ago was that the teams back then went a bit over board, complementing the wind tunnels under the car with side skirts and hereby gluing the car to the road like an iron, thereby becoming too fast for their own – and the drivers’ – good. The skirts won’t be back, however we will see the introduction of wheel caps that aren’t necessarily pretty, but that also serve to reduce air turbulence.

There are differences to the suspension and tires as well and as goes for the tires, these are no less visible than the aerodynamic changes as we’ll be going from the current 13-inch tires to a whole 18-inch! The new larger, low-profile tires will be less temperature-sensitive while still degrading enough to keep the team tire-changing strategy interesting. That’s the theory, let’s see how it works out in real life and also how much they slow the cars down, which they most probably will. Changes to the suspension as essentially mean that hydraulic components have been outlawed and it’s all springs and dampers going forward.

Lewis testing the 18-inch wheels earlier this year

As for the engines, there is actually not much to say since except for having to run on an E10 fuel mix they’ll stay the same. That might well be good since the full package they’ll have to push forward will be a very different one, and introducing changes to the engines could have been a bit too much at the same time. The same goes for planned changes to the race weekends, qualifying and possibly other aspects of the races that have been pushed one year forward to 2023.

There is no doubt that next year’s changes will fundamentally change the nature of races and, you have to believe, also make these more competitive, which would of course be welcome. It remains to be confirmed how well the different parts work out in the end and it will most probably not be a completely even playing field given again the resources and infrastructure of the larger teams (and the quality of their drivers!), but it’s clear that the room for manoeuvre has been heavily reduced, and that can only be a good thing!

The perfect family car!

A few years ago, one of my close friends who is no longer with us but who I will always carry in dear memory and who was one hell of a sales guy, pitched his 911 (993) convertible to me as the perfect family car. His logic was that it was four-wheel drive, he had fitted a ski rack on the back (i.e. the hood), his children were small enough to fit in the back seats and he wasn’t much for carrying luggage, saying it was better to buy what you needed once you arrived. I have no idea whether the guy on the picture below follows the same logic, but when I saw this 911 last week it made me think back on the above, but also on what at least to me seems to be an eternal question, namely what the ideal family car really is?

He doesn’t seem to have the family with him…

Addressing the same question from another angle, I sold my 2017 XC90 last week, having owned it for two years. In many ways the XC90 can be claimed to be the perfect family car. Roomy, safe, comfortable, silent. Comes to that what the Geely money has allowed Volvo to do, namely create a really nice interior, install a hi-fi system from Bowers & Wilkins that kills it (if you’re in the market for an XC90, this is a must-have option!), and letting the designers build one of the best looking SUV’s out there, in my humble opinion. As someone who grew up in Sweden in the 80’s and 90’s with Volvos on every corner looking like they’d been drawn with a ruler, including on the inside, that’s quite a sensational development.

Unfortunately however, the Chinese money apparently ran out before Volvo got to the “fun to drive” part. The different driving settings are basically useless, the optional 4C air suspension seems to be missing any air whatsoever and shakes the car in its passengers even at small bumps, and whereas the four-cylinder T6 engine has enough power, it has the character – and sound – of a sewing machine. So yes – the XC90 is the ideal family car for the parent who’s into transporting both small and large children and lots of stuff, but not really for the one who as me, though that could be combined with at least a little thrill of driving.

The perfect family car – but not for the car enthusiast…

One reason I thought so is that before the XC90, long-time readers of this blog will remember that I had an AMG E63 Wagon from 2014, and that was a car that was splendid on achieving both of those, and was (and is) thereby descsribed by many as the perfect family car. Roomy, comfy and discrete enough to transport all your belongings together with grandma without her noticing anything, yet at the turn of a switch (or push of the right pedal), a beast that eats 911’s for breakfast and allows mum or dad to have a bit of fun when they’re on their own. And it does all this with a build quality that is Mercedes at its best – something I feel they’ve lost in the new E-class.

So why on earth did I replace? Well the problem is that to my mind the concept doesn’t hold up. To start with the fun to drive part, if you have more than one car, you will typically drive that when you’re alone. Whilst more fun to drive and definitely faster than most other Mercs, the E63 remains a 5-metre long, 2-ton heavy estate – that’s right, it’s made for transporting stuff, not racing around a track, and when you do so, most family members don’t want to feel like they’re being driven around a track. Secondly, although discrete, everyone who knows (and there is, as I discovered, quite a few who do) wants to race you. That’s fun at first, much less so in the long run. Finally, if you live in any other country than Germany, having 600 hp under the hood that you’re never able to exploit in full leads to a certain frustration and thereby, strange behaviour. I started realizing something was really wrong when I was engaging the launch control at the exit of toll stations in northern Italy. Pathetic is only the foreword.

Perhaps not the ideal family car, but definitely the best E-class every built!

Three examples, three different types of cars, in my view none of them ideal for the driving-inspired parent with family needs, seeking perfection. So if none of these, what is then the perfect family car? Let’s start with the build quality side of it. This isn’t specifically related to family cars, but it is related to any car claiming to be perfect. My remark would be that although Volvo and other brands, notably Asian, have come a very long way in terms of build quality, they’re not quite there yet. I saw Volvo as a leader in this regard and bought the car thinking they had, but was forced to note that in some areas, it isn’t yet the case, something that certainly goes for others as well. You may be able to live with this better than I could, but when shopping outside of the traditional premium brands (you know who they are) this is something to be aware of, and to be checked.

The next observation should be an obvious one, but looking at the current trend in car sales numbers, clearly it isn’t: for the fun-seeking perfectionist and all other things equal, an estate will always be superior to an SUV. On one hand this simply reflects the laws of physics: just like an electric car is glued to the road thanks to the low center of gravity, an estate is lower than an SUV. I truly don’t understand why you would buy, say a GLE 63 AMG rather than an E63 AMG, or a X5 M instead of an Alpina B5 Touring (given BMW refuses to build an M5 Touring). At a weight of 2.5 tons or more and the mentioned higher center of gravity, engineers will always be on the losing end in their fight against the forces of nature, trying to compensate what cannot be compensated and essentially ruin the good sides of an SUV (read comfort) withouth really improving the driving experience.

Perhaps an extreme example, but you get the point…

Given how few of us travel on snowy mountain roads with any regularity, that leaves practicality as the only additional argument for an SUV I can think of. Well, I had to lift my bags around 15cm higher to get them into the XC90 than into the E63, and the latter had a larger boot. The estate also doesn’t put dirty marks on your trousers when you get in and out of it. This is certainly not an argument against four-wheel drive which is one of the most underrated safety features of these last years and sure, if you live in a place where four-wheel drive isn’t enough and you need an SUV, you have my full understanding, but I would in that case prioritize comfort over driving thrills and try to maximize that (Range Rover anyone?). For the rest of us the praticality argument doesn’t really work, so assuming driving pleasure ranks higher on your agenda than showing off, an estate will be superior.

Ok, so a four-wheel drive estate from a traditional brand then. We can disregard Porsche who doesn’t really build one (the Panamera Touring is still a bit small), and as mentioned, the current E-class isn’t a favourite of mine. Sven, my co-writer on this blog, argues that an Audi RS6 is, perfect, ticking most boxes and being less “racy” than an E63. I would still claim others would love to race it though, as its fabulous looks send a clear message. And over in Munich, BMW for some strange don’t seem to identify the market opportunity I’m chasing here, since they refuse to give us a 5-series with anything more than the supercharged straight six in the 540i, which is a fine engine but not more. Alpina does though (I wrote about this wonderful in a recent post you can find here), in the form of the very understated B5 – is that the anwer?

Perhaps the answer is to be found in Buchloe…

I’m not going to waste more of your time since for the moment, I don’t have an answer. I do need a replacement for the XC90 though so I’m giving this quite a bit of thought right now. If you have any thoughts and ideas feel free to share them, they will be highly valued!

Street finds: the Canadian Alfa Romeo!

The sun has been out in Zurich lately which certainly doesn’t hurt given it seemed to be very far away during most of the summer. This obviously means that some classic car owners have extended the season, but it was still a very nice surprise to walk out of the office door last week and see… an Alfa Romeo Montreal! It certainly doesn’t happen often, and as can be seen below, it was also a Montreal in very nice condition.

To start with the not very Italian name, why on earth did Alfa name the Montreal after a town in Québec? The simple explanation is taht the Montreal was first shown at the world exhibition in 1967 in, you guessed it, Montreal, and Alfa apparently had no better name in mind than that. Production started three years later in 1970 and ended in 1977. The beautiful coupé was designed by our old friend Marcello Gandini at Bertone and the most striking feature is certainly the covers over the headlights that move back when you turn them on.

Sleak lines with characteristic headlights and side air intakes

The second most noticeable feature of the Montreal is certainly what looks like air intakes for a mid-mounted engine. The Montreal however never had, and was never intended to have a mid-mounted engine, so what you first think are intakes for the engine is actually intakes to cool the passengers. It is true that at the time of the original design Alfa indeed had the idea of a mid-mounted engine, but when the project moved on, this was scrapped but the air intakes were kept and certainly help the design of the car!

Ample space for two on the way to the Côte d’Azur!

Even if the engine is in the front, it’s clearly the highlight of the car. The four-cam, eight-cylinder engine had been developed for the Tipo 33 that Alfa had raced before it moved into the Montreal. At 2.6 litres it was quite small but still developed 200 hp, but did so using quite a lot of fuel which wasn’t ideal in the early 70’s, as we’ll come back to. As so often Alfa then ran into a bit of a money problem and therefore chose to use the chassis and brakes from the Giulia GT, meaning they were a bit under-dimensioned for the car given the powerful engine. In other words acceleration was better than braking, so staying up in front was a good idea!

The Montreal interior doesn’t reach the heights of some other Italian legends from Modena or Sant’Agata from the period, then again the Montreal was cheaper to buy and is still a nice place to be, and ties into the tradition of GT cars from the 70’s. Unfortunately all these also had in common that they drove straight into the 1973-1974 oil crisis, which in the case of Montreal certainly didn’t help the sales numbers. In the seven years of production, only around 4.000 cars were therefore built.

Many cars had leather seats rather than cloth

They were however built with surprisingly good protection against corrosion, which wasn’t a typical feature of Alfa for the period but which means that Finding a nice Montreal today isn’t that difficult. As in so many cases, buying one of those five-six years ago had been far cheaper than today with nice cars now trading around EUR 60-80.000. Although it’s easy to love the design and even more so with a V8 under the hood, at that price level there a bit too many interesting competitors for me to be swayed by the Canadian Alfa!

F1 pit stop: racing until the end!

It’s high time to do a quick pitstop and check the status of the F1 season as we’re around 3/4 in. The short answer to that is that it’s tighter and more open than it’s been in many, many years, which is of course really exciting. Since my last update from July after the Austrian GP that you can read here if you missed, it, we’ve had another seven races counting the one today in Turkey, and on these we’ve had no less than five different winners. That’s right, even though the title will go to either Hamilton or Verstappen, we’ve reached a stage where more teams and drivers fight for individual wins, and that’s of course exactly the way it should be!

Esteban Ocon won the Hungarian GP

As mentioned this summer, this is partly driven by the fact that next season will see radical changes to the cars, something I will come back to in the coming weeks, but which means that development efforts on this season’s cars have stopped or at least been heavily reduced. Small tweaks are certainly still done, but somehow the mid-sized teams seem more successful doing so than the large ones. It does however have the positive consequence of more open racing, and that will most probably remain the case until the end of the season.

In my last post from July, Red Bull had won the last five races and Max Verstappen had won four of those. I therefore stated that if Mercedes didn’t wake up rather quickly the season risked being over and indeed, Mercedes did wake up however, and I guess no one really expected less. Starting in Silverstone, traditional a track favorable to Mercedes, it was a 1st and 3rd position for Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, and Lewis than moved on to win in Russia as well, finishing on the podium of most other races. Bottas then also won today’s race in Turkey, but with the two Red Bulls on the podium as well. That allowed Max to move ahead of Lewis again in the standings so it’s pretty clear that this will go down to the wire and for the first time in a long time, Lewis is seriously challenged for the world title.

He’s got the smile and momentum back!

So what about those other teams? Well, McLaren has only become more competitive, partly that goes for Renault as well, Aston Martin is somehow also part of the mix, at least when conditions become a bit unpredictable, and what George Russell delivers in an improving but still inferior Williams car continues to impress. Lando Norris (Mc Laren) is currently fourth in the standings betwen Valtteri (third) and Perez (fifth), but should really have been third as there is really no excuse for him not winning one of the best races so far, that in Sotchi two weeks ago. He led the whole race and when the rain came with a few laps to go, he refused to follow team orders to come in and switch tyres and ended up in the sand with two laps to go. That’s a real rookie mistake but it’s one that shouldn’t have happened.

This is when you should have come in, Lando…

The other big news in the last weeks is of course that Valtteri Bottas is leaving Mercedes at the end of the season, and that George Russell is taking over his seat. This was widely expected but it was nice to see it being done in an amicable way, with Valtteri departing not directly but rather at the end of the season. He will then go to Alfa Romeo Racing, taking over retiring Kimi’s seat, and that Russell replaces him is of course no surprise. What George has managed to do with the under-performing Williams car this season is simply sensational, and of course we also remember when he replaced Lewis during a race at the height of Covid and was very close to winning it. For him, this is a terrific chance of showing how good he really is. For Valtteri it’s obviously quite a large step in the wrong direction, and thus probably one towards retirement.

My guess is that Russell will make life tougher for Lewis than Valtteri did.

A final thing to note in this more competitive field than we’ve had in many years is how close many teams’ drivers are. Sainz and Leclerc (Ferrari) are sixth and seventh in the standings with half a point between them. Alonso and Ocon (Alpine) and Vettel and Stroll (Aston Martin) follow, next to each other, and even though Lando is ahead of his team mate Ricciardo and Max is a head of Sergio Perez, the distance is getting smaller. I guess the way to read this is that we have a season of very good drivers, in most cases getting as much of their cars as is possible – and that’s exactly how it should be!

Celebrating the real legend!

You may have seen that Lamborghini has re-introduced the Countach. Yes, you read that right, the most legendary of all sports cars of the 80’s – scrap that, of all times! The one a fair number of us born in the early 70’s with a head full of petrol dreamt about and put a poster of on our bedroom wall, next to Samantha Fox, Sabrina or Miami Vice. Just hearing the news, I imagine I wasn’t the only one filled with not just a little excitement. It didn’t last long though. The fall back to reality was heavy a few moments later as I learnt more about the new car.

You see, what Lambo dares calling the new Countach, under the official name LPI 800-4, has precious little to do with Marcelo Gandini’s jawdropping design from back then – nor is it a modern interpretation of the same theme. Nope, visually the new Countach is nothing more than a relatively modestly re-designed Aventador with some clumsy Countach references, of which 112 will be built (that’s good as it reduces the risk of being disappointed seeing it “live”). They’re of course extremely expensive (price not known at this point but probably around USD 3m), atrociously fast with 814 hp leading to a 0-100 time of below 3 seconds, naturally hybrid with a small electric engine making up 45 of those 814 hp, supporting the V12 and, it goes without saying, all sold, presumably to buyers of which a majority will park them in a garage and never drive them. Disappointed? Me?

The new Avent… sorry, Countach.

That is however all I’ll say about the new Countach and I also promise not to make this a long rant about how much modern supercars lack the heart and soul of the true legends. Instead we’ll do something much more fun: we’ll travel back to our younger years when our jeans were stone-washed, our socks white and our shoulders impossibly wide. For a few minutes, we’ll return to that poster on the bedroom wall (no, not Samantha) and have a good look at the original, REAL Countach! Interestingly, doing so also involves coming back to some legendary Italian car builders that have been featured on this blog earlier and only serve to highlight the true legend that the original Countach is.

The story begins in the early 70’s with Bertone being commissioned by Lamborghini to come up with a replacement for the Miura, which had only been on sale for a few years but already faced strong competition from the new Ferrari Daytona, introduced in 1969. Marcello Gandini, lead designer at Bertone, had a few years earlier started to experiment with a new design language as notably shown in the Lancia Stratos: a much more wedge-like, angular shape, and he took on the new Lambo project in the same spirit while the engineers were working on the engine. It was clear that the new car would remain rear-wheel drive with a rear-mid 12-cylinder engine as on the Miura, but for weight distribution along with some mechanical reasons, not transversally mounted as on the latter.

The true legends – from left to right, Giotto Bizzarrini, Ferruccio Lamborghini and Gian Paolo Dallara in 1963, admiring a prototype of the coming Lamborghini V12, designed by Bizzarrini!

The name Countach has always been a bit of a riddle and is a story in itself. Countach doesn’t mean anything in Italian and is also not following Lambo’s tradition of naming cars after bulls or bullfights. The story goes that one of the mechanics in the Sant’Agata factory only spoke Piedmontese, a regional language closer to French than to Italian in which there is the word “contacc”, an expression showing astonishment. The unnamed mechanic used it quite frequently when working on the car and Marcello Gandini therefore half jokingly sugested it as a possible name to Bob Wallace, Lambo test driver at the time, who confirmed it worked in English with a minor adaptation. The most spectacular supercar of all times was thus named on the factory floor and not in a board room! The first prototype was presented to the public at the Paris Auto Show in 1971 with sales starting three years later in 1974. They wouldn’t stop until 16 years later, in 1990.

A 1974 Countach, with 14″ inch wheels and lovely rear wheelarches!

Next to the long production time itself, it’s impressive how well the new design held up (and still holds up if you’re lucky to see one!). If you remove the increasing amount of spoilers and skirts that were added over the years, the basic design of the car remained unchanged throughout the 16 years of production. I guess I wasn’t the only one who in my youth found things like the giant spoiler on some later cars ultra-cool, but looking back with (slightly) more mature eyes today, it’s pretty clear the the first iteration was the cleanest and best-looking. I’m not sure beautiful is the right word, but spectacular definitely is. The wedge shape, the side air intakes, the forward movement created by the cutting of the rear wheelarches – and of course the scissor doors. The doors did not only come about for show though, as given how wide the Countach is and especially how massive its doorsills are, fitting conventional doors would have been both unpractical and complicated. Owners of later Countaches with the dome on the engine are especially thankful for that given for them, sitting on the doorsill with the door open and turning your head backwards is the only way to have any kind of rear-view visibility. If the Countach was wide (almost 2 metres) with poor rear visibility, it certainly wasn’t long. At 4.15 metres it’s far smaller than you would imagine, and actually shorter than a Lotus Evora!

As long as your garage is high enough, you’ll never have issues getting in!

If the design was spectacular, the engine was of course not less so. The V12 came from the Miura and as shown in the first picture, had its origins back in 1963, having been designed by Giotto Bizzarrini, whom you can read an earlier post of here. Also as mentioned it was longitudinally mounted such as to improve notably weight distribution and solve some other issues, with the 5-speed manual transmission being placed in front of the engine. The initial Countach LP-400 had the same 3.9 litre volume as the Miura, with a power output of 375 hp. It was later increased first to 4.7 litres in the LP5000S in 1982, and then 5 litres in the LP5000 QV (Quattrovalvole, four valves per cylinder) version from 1985 with 440 hp. It’s noticeable that until the end in 1990, the engine retained carburettors when everyone else had switched to fuel injection (for emission reasons the Countaches going to the US had to be injected). Having originally been side-mounted, the carburettors moved to the top of the engine on later cars, explaining the dome over the engine. This wonderful machine would outlive the Countach over the Diablo all the way to the Murcielago, meaning a production time of almost 50 years! Contrary to what you would maybe think, it also has a reputation of not being very primadonna-like, but rather very reliable.

Except for in my dreams I’ve never been in a Countach, much less driven one, but this is very high on the bucket list (you wouldn’t happen to own one, would you?). I have however peaked in to several of them and as anyone who does so, you may not realize that the window you look through only opens 5cm or so, but definitely that the money had run out before the time had come to design the interior. Not that it’s worse than on many other 80’s cars but the grand plans Lambo had for notably digital instruments never materialized and the interior is thus very conventional compared to the spectacular body. The seats are however a wonder of comfort compared to modern bucket seats, but they can only be adjusted in length. If you’re taller than 180 cm you should also be prepared to have contact with the roof lining (here, the later cars helped, giving another 3cm of head space in the “high” versions). And when it comes to driving, taking it from multiple reviews, it’s all hard work with an unassisted steering, a heavy clutch (those six carburettors are partly to be thanked for that, but you can’t have it all!) and a general experience of needing to work hard to get the most out of the car. Then again, isn’t that the way it should be in a true supercar?

Initial plans for a singe-spoke, Citroën-style steering wheel were also dropped

Production of the Countach came to an end in 1990, with the 25th anniversary edition introduced in 1988 with a certain Horacio Pagani (on whom you can read more here) being responsible for a lot of the restyling. The final iteration wasn’t loved by everyone given it departed from some of the most classical design features on previous Countaches and had a bit too many skirts, even for the late 80’s. It was however the fastest version of the Countach, capable of a top speed of 295 km/h and a 0-100 km/h time of 4.7 seconds. Remember this is 30 years ago on a car that was equipped by 345 mm rear tires, however only 15″ in wheel size! At the time, those were the biggest tires on the market.

The Anniversary edition was also the most popular version in production numbers, built 657 times and thus making up a third of the total production of around 1970 Countachs ever built. That’s right, the most legendary supercar of all times was built less than 2.000 times, to be compared for example with the over 7.000 Testarossas (not counting the 512’s). Not only that, a third of all Countaches were sold when it had already been on the market for 14 years! Another third was made up of the Quattrovalvole version (610 cars), thus leaving just a third of the early Countachs. Good luck finding one of those today… The easiest one to find today is the QV with prices starting around EUR 300′, with real jewels going for up to EUR 700′. That’s a lot of money, and a lot more than you would have paid ten years ago. Having said that, it’s still a couple of million less that you would pay for the new 2022 version if you were on the list of the selected 112 owners, and seen in that light, probably one of the greatest bargains out there! Junior may have more power and features, but in the Countach world, there’s no doubt that Daddy still rules big time!

One year with the 650i convertible!

As we all know time flies and it’s already a year since I bought my 650i convertible that I told you about in a post at the time, that you can view here if you missed it. It’s in other words time to make a brief pit stop to tell you how the first year has been, what the suprises, if any, have been and perhaps also if my initial statement from a year ago on the 650i being pretty sensational value for money still holds true. Given this is not a thriller movie I’ll allow myself to take that last piece of excitement away right here: the 650i is for all intents an purposes a bargain as has been confirmed many times over the last 12 months!

Given it’s a converible, the big Bavarian of course didn’t move in in the right season, but I managed to have some really nice drives during Sept-Oct last year before it got cold and wet and it was time to park it for the winter. You’ll tell me that given the four-wheel drive, the thickness of the hood and the quality of a BMW there was really little reason for this and you’d be right, except that as it happens we have a family SUV as well and if I don’t use it during the winter, when should I then use it… Also, the condition of the 650i being as good as it is, I would feel physically bad if I drove it on salty roads. So for the 4-5 months between November and March, the only thing that happened were a few drives long enough to get the engine warm and make sure the tires stay round.

It’s helps living in a country where a nice drive is never far away!

Spring came and was nice and it was then time to put the car a bit more to the test. As I noted in my last post, the 650 is much more of a GT than a sports car, also given its length of almost five meters and its weight of around two tons. Given that it’s pretty amazing how BMW managed to create an interior space that is so limited. There are absolutely no complaints up front where supreme comfort reigns, and sure, the back seats work for adults for shorter trips, but I wouldn’t take the kids for more than a couple of hours given how cramped the seats are. Then again I was well aware of that and the intention is to use the car for two. No doubt the long body adds a bit of elegance and I guess the point of a large convertible is also that you can be allowed to be a bit wasteful with space, even if it doesn’t make much sense. At least the boot is suprisingly large (even more so when the roof is up) which is definitely a plus in this family!

There are A LOT of positives I’ve noted during my first 12 months of owning the 650i so in order not to bore you, let me just focus on some of the main ones. The first thing I noticed was how precise and well weighted the steering was, especially in the sports setting. The comparison that jumped to mind was my previous E63 AMG, but I would say the 650i is marginally better, and the wheel is in BMW manner definitely thicker, but not too much so. Secondly, I was positively suprised that behind the elegant appearance lures quite a hooligan. Hit that Sport button and floor it in a tunnel, and if the roof is up, lower the back window (yes you can, and thank you very much whoever thought of that!), and if the resulting roar, pops and other guttural sounds don’t put a smile on your face, then do indeed buy an EV. The 450 hp double-turbo V8 delivers just the right amount of power and the double-clutch gearshift is so smooth you don’t even notice it.

Perfectly weighted steering and a nice thick wheel!

Thirdly, the suspension is superb and I’ll tie this to the overall quality of the build which is absolutely amazing. Take the roof off a car means removing a lot of the inherent rigidity of the body, usually leading to the odd squeek here and there. Not so in the 650i, which remains as silent as a Bavarian forest. I made a point on this in my initial post, namely the logic of buying a heavily depreciated luxury car rather than a less depreciated middle class one, as so much more effort has been invested in the original build. Finally, at least for a middle-aged man, the level of infotainment is exactly right. BMW’s solution from 2013-2014 was pretty much on the edge of what was done then, and it works absolutely fine to this day with nice physical buttons to press rather than a flimsy screen with fatty marks where you desperately try to aim for a word in the upper corner.

What I don’t like? To be honest not a lot, but then again the initial brief was quite clear and didn’t leave room for mant surprises. What you definitely need to be aware of is that it’s a big car, which is to your advantage for the long trips on open roads but obviously less so in tight cities or garages. There are of course cameras and warning sounds all around, but you do need to be careful especially towards the front where the sloping hood is very difficult to estimate. In the section of minor complaints I would also question BMW’s decision in a convertible to only put a lock on the compartment under the center armrest but not on the glovebox, that you can thus not lock if you park the car with the hood down? That’s probably it though, and it sure isn’t a lot. Most importantly I haven’t had a single issue with the car so far, and now that the one year warranty has run out, I do hope that remains the case!

In the small segment of unpractical four-seat convertibles, the 650i thus shines as much now as it did 12 months ago. I love it and plan to keep it for a long time. It’s also nice to see that prices seem to have bottomed out, with cars currently being in the market being a few thousand more than what I paid. That confirms the saying that luxury cars fall like stones until they don’t do so anymore, and that seems to be the case for the 650i. If it corresponds to your brief and needs, I can thus only recommend that you join the club!

When the number plate costs more than the car

This week we’ll talk about number plates. Not very exciting you tell me, but just wait. In most countries and for most of us, getting a number on your car is a pure formality. For some and in some countries, it’s possible to get your personalized number plate at low or even no cost. And then there’s Switzerland. Here, number plates are personal and follow you rather than the car. This is not unique in itself. What is however, is the way you get a personalized number – and how much it costs. You see, Swiss car owners’ willingness to pay a small fortune for a specific car number puts millions in the local cantons’ deep pockets – every year.

A canton is a Swiss region, comparable to a US or German state. Being a federation, Switzerland is split into 26 of them, with Zurich being not the largest, but with around 1.5m inhabitants the most populous. Registration plates indicate which canton the car comes from with two letters (“ZH” for Zurich, “GE” for Geneva etc.), and then any number between one and six digits. Given number plates are personal you will have guessed that those which have been in circulation long have few digits. This is of course also the case in smaller cantons. In Zurich on the other hand we will soon see the first seven-digit registration plate. That will of course be the number “ZH 1 000 000”, which you could imagine someone being willing to pay a few bucks for. That’s what the cantons have realized as well, in the case of Zurich as long as 30 years ago.

A normal Zurich number plate

Cantons therefore regularly organize auctions for especially interesting number plates. Using Zurich as example, it’s here done on a weekly basis. Numbers which are auctioned are either interesting numbers that have been handed in because someone has died or otherwise stopped driving, but also numbers that have been picked out of the regular series. Anyone can register and take part in the auctions, but no information is given out beforehand on the numbers that will be auctioned, and all auction proceeds flow into the canton’s budget. In the case of Zurich as a large canton, this is the not so trivial amount of around CHF 4m (USD 4m) each year.

Against this background and in a country with a lot of money, it’s easy to imagine that a certain craziness has developed around this. You see, in Zurich having two (very rare), three or four digits in your number plate signals prestige, around some logic of old money. And then it’s of course true that having a number such as the one on the picture below is quite cool. It’s just that most of us would probably put the value of this at a few hundred bucks. Not in Zurich.

This plate cost the owner at least CHF 50.000 – in other words, much more than the car is worth…

Three years ago in 2018, the number plate “ZH 987” was auctioned away for CHF 150.000. Yep, you read that right. Before that, the record had been set by “ZH 1000” at CHF 130.000 back in 1998. These are obviously records, but every week the canton of Zurich auctions around 30 number plates where as a rule of thumb, not so spectacular four-digit plates fetch around CHF 8.000 and three-digit ones around CHF 20.000. It can be much more however, with for example “ZH 1313” being auctioned for a solid CHF 75.000. Even an average, five-digit plate will cost you around CHF 4.000. When “ZH 1 000 000” comes out, it’s by the way expected to set a new record.

The full craziness of the above doesn’t become apparent until you realize that there’s no secondary market once you have paid for your dream plate. It’s a sunk cost which therefore also doesn’t need to be declared as wealth in your tax filing, as there is no way of selling the number on (it is in some cantons, but not in Zurich). This is probably a very good thing as you could easily imagine this going completely bonkers if that was the case, but what it means is therefore that whoever paid CHF 150.000 for number plate “ZH 987” will never see that money again. Basically, he or she made a hefty lump sum tax payment and got a number plate in return.

Some cantons such as the mountainous Graubünden allow personalization as well

I can produce a very long list of desirable cars for a budget of CHF 150.000, as I’m sure you can as well. Actually I could do the same for CHF 20.000 and thinking about it, my son’s newly bought Lupo GTI didn’t cost much more than CHF 4.000. All these scenarios feel vastly superior to large, lump sum tax payments yielding a specific number plate as only payback. Then again what do I know – I’m the type of person who still struggles to remember my own number plate, although I’ve now had it for 19 years. Obviously, that’s not the case for everyone…

Arosa Classic Car 2021!

A bit of a different post this week since last Sunday I had the pleasure of attending the Arosa Classic Car rally here in Switzerland, unfortunately only as a spectator, but still with some pictures from the race that took place for the 17th time in front of a record audience of almost 30.000 people with and 175 cars.

The race takes place on the 7.3 km road from the small village of Langwies to the quite well known ski resort of Arosa, on a road that has no less than 76 turns of which a few hairpins. Cars built between 1905 to 1986 compete in different categories between regularity and outright speed. The whole thing started in 2005, having been called to life but some car passionated locals, and is today part of the FIA calendar.

There’s always a bit of show around the race itself which explaines the far more modern Porsche cars in the pictures – this year’s host was the Porsche center in close-by Maienfeld. Hope you enjoy the picks of some of the beautiful cars from the weekend!

(Southern) street finds – SLS or SLR?

There haven’t been many outstanding street finds in Zurich lately, which hopefully means the owners have taken the really nice cars on a trips to sunnier locations than Switzerland has offered this summer. In such situations it helps having a son who last week happened to be in another city that is a rolling car Mecca, namely Monaco. He drove there with his friends from Nice in the morning, texted me in the first hour that there were more Brabuses on the streets than regular Merc’s, and then once they made it up to the Casino square, he sent me the top two pictures below.

The reason he didn’t send more was that the police came and told him it’s no longer allowed to photograph cars outside of the Hôtel de Paris, next to the Casino. Given this has been the favourite past-time of any car lover who’s ever been in Monaco for as long as anyone can remember and that car owners certainly didn’t mind, this is indeed very strange. Then again it’s still mandatory in Monaco to wear face masks everywhere, including outside, so Covid seems to have left some traces that this is maybe a consequence of. Leaving that aside however, the picture brings about the interesting question: which one of these highly competent but also highly collectable supercars would you go for, if you were fortunate enough to have the choice?

The SLR not only precedes the SLS by a letter but also by seven years as it was introduced in 2003 as its direct predecessor. It was built until 2009 by McLaren in Woking, having been developed jointly by the two manufacturers. The production was limited to 3500 cars but in the end only 2157 were built and of these, around 25% were roadsters. The engine was developed by AMG and was a compressor-charged V8 mounted behind the front axle and producing 626 hp in the first version until 2006, and 650 hp in the so called 722 update available from 2006 onwards (722 being Stirling Moss’s start number back in the day in the Mille Miglia race with the car the SLR takes its inspiration from, the original 300 SLR). Both SLR versions have a top speed of over 330 km/h which is truly sensational for a 15-year old car, and are paired to Mercedes’s 5-speed automatic from the time, which is far less sensational and probably the biggest drawback with the whole car, simply being too slow for a true supercar.

The SLR is to me a beautiful creation, a combination of an original and aggressive design and a slightly “old school” supercar construction, unfortunately with an interior that is not at all as spectacular as the exterior. Today these beauties cost from EUR 250.000 upwards for the coupé and from EUR 350.000 for the roadster as shown on the piture, with the 722 coupé as well as really low-mileage cars being more expensive and the 722 roadster, of which only 150 were built, far higher, if you can find one. There is currently one for sale in Switzerland at CHF 850.000.

The SLS was introduced the same year production of the SLR ended in 2009 and around 5.000 cars were built over the coming five years until 2014. Its official name is Mercedes-Benz SLS 63 AMG but even if AMG comes at the end, this was the first car that was completely developed by the company, although the car was put together at Mercedes in Sindelfingen. The engines were of course hand-built in Affalterbach. The SLS had true gullwing doors rather than the butterfly doors of the SLR, by far the most distinctive characteristic of the car (the roadster version obviouysly has conventional doors). Another far more important difference to the SLR is the SLS’s naturally-aspirated V8, the legendary 6.2 litre AMG engine developing 571 hp initally, 20 hp more in the GT versions from 2012, and 631 hp in the Black Series version in 2013. It also had a more modern, 7-speed, double-clutch speedshift box in all versions.

Finding an SLS is both easier and cheaper than finding an SLR. Both the first version and the GT start at or even slightly below EUR 200.000, going up to around EUR 250.000 for low-mileage cars. The Black Series is a different story, starting at twice that price and going all the way up towards EUR 700.000.

So to come back to the initial question, which one would you choose? If you’re in the market for these cars then the initial price difference is probably not decisive. Design-wise my vote goes to the SLR (just look at it!). It brings much more drama than the more restrained SLS, but clearly both cars are beautiful creations. Engine-wise however, a 6.2 litre, naturally aspirated AMG V8 will always beat a supercharged engine if you ask me, especially when it’s paired to a much better gearbox. Finally, if reason is to play any role at all here, whereas the SLR will be truly horrendously expensive to maintain, the SLS will just be very expensive.

Both these cars are true collectables but they are also and above all, true driving machines. If you’re lucky enough to consider either one of them, please don’t just park them in front of a nice hotel for others to see, even if they’re not allowed to take pictures of them anymore!

The last real Citroën (sort of…)

When you speak to fans of the French automaker Citroën (something which unfortunately happens less and less often as most of the true enthusiasts are getting old!), one of the most sensitive topics is no doubt which model of the legendary brand constitutes the last real Citroën. To a real “citroënniste”, nothing in today’s line-up is even close to fitting the bill. Some say it all ended with the legendary DS that I wrote about a while ago (see here). Others are more progressive and would draw the line at the 90’s XM, a strange, space-ship like creation and certainly a true Citroën in terms of quirkiness, but to me a car that lacked both looks and innovation. I’m rather in the camp in between the two. To me, the last real Citroën is the CX launched in 1974, notably as it was the last Citroën designed and developed before Citroën was bought by Peugeot and became a part of the PSA group the same year. Next to that however, the CX can be described as the every day version of the SM that I wrote about in January (see here), but also taking the best of the DS and modernizing the rest in a packaging that was truly Citroën. It thus forms the last chapter in the trilogy of the DS-SM-CX, reason why we’ll look closer at it this week!

An aerodynamic design with (today sough after) TRX wheels.

It’s never easy to succeed a true legend and with very few exceptions, there’s really no greater legends than the DS and SM. The CX however did a great job, being built during 15 years until 1989 (the estate all the way to 1991) and selling more than 1.1 million times. Given that it’s surprising how few have survived until today, something that also goes for its two predecessors. Then again, quality is not the first word you think about when talking about cars from the 70’s and it didn’t prevent people from being amazed when the CX was first shown to the world in 1974. The name makes reference to the wind resistance coefficient in French which for the CX was 0.37, not as good as the SM but still much better than most cars at the time.

When the development of the CX started in 1969 as an “inofficial” successor to the DS, a clear objective was to make the car easier and thereby cheaper to build than its complicated predecessor. That goal was achieved in a Citroën kind of way, meaning that everything except the bodyparts was fixed onto the chassis, with the body being screwed onto it at the very end of the production process and fixed with six rubber-metal fixings. No one but Citroën would probably think of this construction as a good way to save costs, but it worked well in terms of rigidity and also in isolating passengers from vibrations. Here, the legendary hydro-pneumatic suspension that the CX inherited from the DS was obviously a great help as well.

The cavernous CX station wagon, here in the first series

Another arbuably less glamorous thing the CX inherited from its predecessor was the engine. Not that Citroën didn’t have grand plans here as well. The original idea was to fit the car with a Wankel engine which with a planned 170 hp would have given the car sportscar like performance, and also suited it well given the Wankel construction’s lack of vibrations. That plan had to be scrapped for cost reasons though and instead, the CX inherited the 2-litre and 2.2-litre engines from the DS, developing 102 and 112 hp respectively, a bit later complemented by a diesel with 66 tired horses. These engines helped sell more than 100.000 CX’s in the first year of production, more than the DS had sold in any year but one. In 1975 Citroën also introduced the CX station wagon, a 25cm longer version of the car with a cavernous luggage space in the back. It was that same extended chassis that would also be used for the Prestige model that appeared shortly thereafter but where the extra 25cm instead benefitted the back seat passengers, making it a favourite car for many heads of state. Interestingly though, it wouldn’t be so for the French president until Jacques Chirac in 1995, when the CX was no longer manufactured.

An ocean of 70’s plastic around a bathroom scale!

If the CX was a revelation on the outside, it was no less so once you entered it. Once you’ve taken place in the extremely soft seats, you look out over, or rather through the one-spoke steering wheel at something which at first looks like a bathroom scale, but is in fact the speedomoter and rev counter. You then notice the lack of levers on the sides of the wheel, as the CX instead had two satellites with all necessary functions that you are supposed to operate with your left and right hand finger tips. The right satellite includes the horn, but any need for it will probably have passed by the time you find the right switch. The turn signal on the left is no less surprising since you have to actively turn it off – it doesn’t reset automatically when you straighten the steering wheel. Better? Not really. Different? Bien sûr! And by the way, if you think the CX is a hatchback, think again. In fact the concave and thereby self-cleaning rear window doesn’t open, meaning it has a traditional boot below it which is quite low and small. This was one example of the CX’s success becoming its enemy: it was well known that CX owners wanted Citroën to make the car a hatchback, something that could easily have been done, but the responsible people at PSA just looked at the strong sales numbers, shrug their shoulders and put that budget somehwere else in the large group.

Not a hatchback – that would have been too… logical.

The first series of the CX was built until 1984 and luckily the strong sales numbers didn’t prevent PSA from improving the engines on offer with more powerful versions. The 138 hp GTI was introduced in 1983 and the most powerful CX in the line-up, the 2.5 litre turbo developing 168 hp came a year later. The turbo had an impressive top speed of 220 km/h, of course thanks to the excellent aerodynamics. When the second series was presented in 1985 the most notable difference were the plastic front and rear bumpers which replaced the previous metal ones and helped further lower wind resistance to a quite astonishing 0.28, in line with the SM. A turbo was now fitted also to the diesel engines but the most powerful version remained the petrol 25 GTI Turbo II, the “II” coming from it now having an intercooler. The interior of the second series was modernized and for the Turbo II even quite sporty with red piping on the seats and dash in some countries, but not necessarily more logical. As an example the radio was moved from the dashboard to down between the seats, next to the handbrake. Changing radio station had just become something you needed to look away from the road for a couple of seconds to do…

A turbo II with optional leather seats – note the radio’s position…

If the above all sounds irrestistible and owning the – perhaps – last real Citroën is something you cannot go through life without having done, the good news is that the CX remains and under-apprecitated car to this day. It’s not easy to find a good one but when you do, it will still be cheap – we’re usually talking EUR 15-20.000. That means it’s much cheaper than either a good DS or a good SM, and much cheaper to own, while still giving you a good piece of the real Citroën experience! The second series looks more modern but the first has all the coolness of the original car, and the metal bumpers resist sunlight better than the 80’s plastic. Most CX’s were sold as manual which was a good thing. It’s also good to know that cars after 1981 have better rust protection, a big issue with earlier cars. As someone who grew up in the 80’s, the thought of a Turbo II is hard to resist. Objectively though, the best one to go for would probably be a late first series GTI – less prone to issues than the turbo, and with all of the Citroën genius intact!

Note the T for turbo in the wheels!

The Zuffenhausen Express!

The Porsche 911 is no doubt the most successful sports car of all time. However, it’s also a car which Porsche tried to kill off around 911 times before it earned the unshakable position it has today. The first try dates all the way back to the mid-70’s when the idea was that the newly developed 928 would take over from the ageing 911. As we all know it didn’t work at the time and it’s never worked since. Today we’re glad that Porsche failed and be that as it may, the 928 became a great complement to the 911 when it was launched and today remains one of very few old Porsche’s that is both a great car and something you could (with a bit of a stretch) still call a bargain. That’s more than enough reasons to look closer at it this week!

A 928 from the first model year 1977

Although I don’t like discussing design since it’s a matter of personal taste, I think most of us would agree that design-wise, the 70’s weren’t a happy period. The world was brown and orange and most cars looked like they’d been drawn with a ruler by someone loving 90-degree angles. When it was launched in 1977, the 928 was therefore a true revolution design-wise with the long hood and the “reversed” pop-up headlights, earning it the nickname “landshark” in some countries, and the rounded rear with integrated shock absorbers. It would be exaggerated claiming that it could just as well have been designed today, but it’s to my mind the car design from the 70’s that has best stood the test of time. This was also proven by the production which ran until 1995 with the main parts of the car’s design remaining pretty much unchanged until the end.

Having said that it’s difficult to see how Porsche actually thought that fans of the air-cooled, rear-engine 911 would ever consider the 928 as a replacement. Firstly it was obviously a larger car, even if it’s better described as a 2+2 seater than a real 4-seater. Secondly it has quite a large boot, meaning the engine was up front. Thirdly, that engine was a newly developed, water-cooled V8 rather than a legendary, air-cooled six-cylinder. Finally all this led to a heavier car, much more at home on the Autobahn than being thrown around curvy mountain roads. To this day, the 928 is a true motorway cruiser that sits nicely alongside a 911 from the time, although it never saw its success its smaller brother did.

The “phone dial” wheels are sought after today

Even though the 928 was heavier, Porsche were very focused on keeping its weight down. The doors, front aisles and hood are all made out of aluminium and the front and rear bumpers were as mentioned made in composite material (arouna metal core). The original, 4.5 litre V8 with 240 hp was at the time the second most powerful engine from Zuffenhausen, losing out only to the 911 Turbo, and the 928 was thus well motorized from the beginning. It was available with either a 5-speed manual or a 3-speed automatic from Mercedes (later a 4-speed) from the start, mounted on the rear axle and thus contributing to the excellent balance. The 928 was generally an advanced construction with notably double wishbone suspension all around and Porsche’s so called “Weissach axle” in the back of which I’ll spare you the technicalities but which can be described as a system for greater stability and less oversteer. That system was certainly never fitted to the 911’s of the time, and even 911 fans would probably agree that the 928 was in many areas far ahead of not only it, but of most other cars at the time as well.

…as is the psychedelic, pepita square interior offered on the first series!

The first series was built between 1977-1982, with the 300 hp 928S launched as a more powerful version in 1980 (and a couple of years later becoming the only version available). The S managed the sprint to 100 km/h in 6.6 seconds, a very respectable time in the early 80’s. It was also the car Porsche ran for 24 hours non-stop on the Nardo track in Italy, achieving an average speed of 250 km/h! Think of that a minute – we’re talking 24 hours with the pedal to the metal at top speed, back in the fully mechanical age! Porsche kept improving the S interior- and equipment-wise, but also technically with notably ABS breaking before it was replaced by the 928 S4 in 1987.

The S4 was the first car with the face-lifted body, best visible in the rear through the new lights and the standard-fitted wing. Engine-wise it went form 2 to 4 valves and hereby to an output of 320 hp. The 0-100 km/h time was now sub-six seconds with a top speed of 270 km/h. The even sportier GT was introduced in 1989, adding another 10hp and only being available as five-speed manual. Both versions were replaced by the 350 hp GTS in 1992, produced until 1995 and actually Porsche’s last GT car until the Panamera 15 years later. Over 15 years of production a bit more than 62.000 cars were built. Not a huge but still quite a large number, and in that sense it’s surprising how few of them you see on the roads today.

The rear part of the S4 shows where the Panamera inspiration came from!

Unless you’re not a die-hard, nothing-but-911 kind of person, a 928 will deliver the true Porsche feeling from behind the wheel. The engine is like a solid companion at all speeds, especially in combination with the manual box. The suspension is superb given the car’s age, but It’s clear from the first meters you drive that although smaller than modern cars and in spite of all the Porsche attributes, this is a true GT that is most at home on long distances with two (or 2+2) passengers and surprisingly, quite a lot of their luggage!

When writing about classics I usually add a sentence along the lines of “make sure you check the history and the condition”. Never ever has that sentence been more true than if you consider a 928. As mentioned, the car is a complex construction. Parts have always been expensive and haven’t become less so today, only in some cases harder to find. The engine and gearbox are of course the most critical parts and inspecting the car from underneath before the purhcase is mandatory. If you’re unsure about what you’re looking for, get a specialist to help you or take it to a Porsche garage. Trust me on this but also know that even if you go through all the checks, you shouldn’t buy a 928 with your last money, but rather keep a reserve for things that may come up.

As in late 944’s, the interior has stood the test of time surprisingly well

So which one? Well, no surprise that a manual is preferrable, but the automatic is actually not as catastrophic as you may think, so potentially try it if the rest of the car is good. Design-wise it’s a matter of taste between the first and second generation, but be aware that the 2-valve engine is easier (and thereby cheaper) to service than the 4-valve from the S4 onwards. If that doesn’t scare you, the 928 GT of which only around 2000 were built is especially interesting. Otherwise, the 300 hp second series is also a good choice. Please don’t go for the Strosek or Gemballa 80’s versions with massive plastic wings but rather try to find a car that is as original as possible. For the first series, both the phone dial wheels and the pepita interior you can see higher up are sought after today.

A good first series 928 will set you back around EUR 25-35.000, probably around 50% more than 10 years ago (but you’ve hopefully gotten richer in those 10 years as well!). The second series will typically cost around EUR 10.000 more with the GT and GTS potentially even more for low-mileage cars. High kilometres need not be a problem though, if the car has a solid and well documented history – but only then. In terms of value for money, this means that you still get one of the best GT’s ever built for less than half of a classic 911. That my friends not only makes this a bargain among Porsche classics, it does so among classic GT cars in general as well!

3 budgets – 3 naturally-aspirated legends!

Will our automotive future be completely electric? The political will of making it so is certainly there and although a number of questions haven’t been answered (where all the electricity in the Western world is supposed to come from if at the same time we close down base-power providing nuclear energy is one, what to do with all the millions of existing cars is another) at least right now, the signs all point in one direction. Reinforcing that is clearly also the important advances that are made in battery technology, examplified by the brand new Mercedes EQS that has a real life range of 700 km. And although e-fuels such as the solutions Porsche is exploring off Chile’s coast (see here a recent post on it) could present an alternative for making combustion engines “clean” and thus part of the future, they are still far from mass production.

This and other charging stations will not be empty for much longer

Whatever direction the world takes, it’s clear that downsizing is here to stay. All new combustion engines we see from here on will be smaller, supercharged versions of their predecessors. No one in their right mind would today build a new 10 or 12-cylinder naturally aspirated engine, and thus the large cylinder engines we have on the road today will be the last of their kind. If a big, naturally aspirated engine is your thing (and if you read this blog, I guess there’s a good probability of that!), it’s probably time to act and make that old dream of owning a naturally aspirated 10 or 12-cylinder car come true!

To help you on the way I’ve therefore taken the liberty of selecting three candidates in the price categories up to 30′ EUR, from 30-50′ EUR, and up to 100′ EUR. My logic doing so has been that they should be at least 10 years old such as to be out of the depreciation “J-curve”, and also have no more than 100.000 km on the clock. engine should be a 10- or 12-cylinder naturally aspirated one, sporty in nature and together with the car it’s fitted in, also have the potential for some value appreciation over the coming years. Doing this has been a fun exercise that I can recommend, You could of course have picked different cars across the three price segments, but here is what I came up with!

Up to 30′ EUR – BMW M5 E60/61

507 hp in a rear-wheel drive car means… smoke!

You can now find nice E60 sedans for as little as 30′ EUR, which is a true bargain in view of what the car and its fabulous engine offers. The latter, a 10-cylinder, 40-valve, 5 litre naturally aspirated engine developing 507 hp was also used as basis for the M6 of the E63 generation and was BMW’s only 10-cylinder engine. In the M5 it was coupled with an early 7-speed SMG box (i.e. single-clutch, automatic manual) that won’t shoot the lights out today but does the job. There was even a manual version which was however only sold in the US. That’s a shame, then again rumour has it that even the manual isn’t that great. Another rumour also has it that you need a bit more than the initial 30′ EUR as the 10-cylinder isn’t the most reliable engine, certainly a reason for being thorough when selecting the car. The E60 was built between 2005-2010 with a face lift in the first half of 2007, to a total of around 20.000 cars, making it the most popular M5 series.

Still a nice place to be!

Interestingly the E60 is so far the only M5 that has been offered as an estate/combi. From 2007 around 1.000 M5 Tourings were built and these are today even more desirable than the sedan. They are however also more expensive at around 50′ EUR, so that would move you to the next price class. In both cases, this generation of the M5 is a great car and the 10-cylinder engine one of the true legends of the naturally-aspirated world!

Between 30′ and 50′ EUR – Dodge Viper RT/10

It certainly looks the part on the outside

The Viper is quite a rare car in Europe and in many ways a true American muscle car with a massive, 8-litre 10-cylinder engine developing 408 hp (394 hp in Europe) and an even more impressive torque of 664 Nm! It was hereby an odd bird in Europe from the start and is so even more today. It was built during 15 years between 1992-2007 and later cars also had other engines, but the RT/10 is the first generation which was in production until 2002.

…but you’ll have to apply for example some carbon (as here) to help it do so on the inside.

The Viper and especially the first generation was really a car built around the engine, meant as a modern day Cobra. That’s to say that a very minor part of the budget was spent on things like the interior, which is basic, to put it mildly. Other standard items in other cars such as door windows, door handles and airbags were also not prioritized. You have to reach inside the door to open it and the door windows were delivered in a separate bag, to be stuck into the door if you wanted them. Not many did. The Viper also doesn’t have any kind of driving aids, so in many ways it is indeed a true muscle car, something that becomes very clear when you turn the key and are greeted by the sound of the giant engine. Any thoughts on the crappy interior will vanish quickly and as long as you’re slightly careful with applying the power, you’re set to enjoy every meter in this American legend!

Up to 100′ EUR – Ferrari F550 / F575

Looks are a matter of taste, but you cannot not like the F550!

Long-term readers of this blog may remember my post on the F550 from back in 2015. I speculated then that it may start appreciating soon which so far hasn’t happened. Depreciation has however stopped and prices have been stable ever since, meaning you can get a fabulous, mechanical 12-cylinder Ferrari for a bit less than EUR 100′. That is as much a bargain today as in 2015 and I’ll stick my head out again and say prices may well be starting to climb soon. I’ll ask you to go back to the 2015 post for full details on the car, but at its heart is the fantastic, 5.5 litre 12-cylinder engine producing around 485 hp, which is paired to a six-speed manual box (the F575 had a slightly bigger and more powerful engine). I wouldn’t bother with the F575 as the very limited facelift and increased power don’t warrant it, especially since most F575’s came with one of those semi-automatic boxes. A good F550 with a full history is a buy you will never regret!

The world’s most famous gear change!

There you go – three budgets, three cars. Grab them now and enjoy them while you can, and I promise you won’t regret it. And if Porsche or someone else is successful with an alternative fuel solution that allows our combustion cars to stay on the road, you’ll definitely be a long time winner!

The beautiful Dino from Torino!

it’s time to leave the world of over-powered and over-priced SUV’s and return to a more traditional, and dare I say classy thrill of driving, which after all is what this blog is all about. We’ll do so by going back to a theme that I explored almost two years ago in a post entitled “The best Ferrari is a Maserati”. The reference here was the Maserati Coupé from the early 00’s, equipped with the brilliant 4.2 litre, Ferrari V8. The coupé is however not the only way to profit from a Ferrari engine in a car of a different – and usually cheaper – brand. Another example of that was the breathtakingly beautifful Fiat Dino Coupe from the mid-60’s, one of the highlights of that decade and a car we’ll look closer at today!

Classic 60’s, sweeping GT lines!

It’s the early 60’s, the Vietnam war rages, the mini skirt is the latest fashion and Americans are told smoking is dangerous through warning labels on cigarette packages (Europe wouldn’t get these for another few years). Our American friends however also had the Mustang whereas in Europe the English drive Minis and the French the eternal 2CV and the clever but not very beautiful Renault 4. Design-wise therefore, you had to go to Italy to find the true masterpieces (yep, some things don’t change!), and south of the Alps, Fiat is planning for an upmarket GT coupé and convertible, without having a suitable engine to power it.

Further east in Maranello, Ferrari’s world is a little less rosy. Enzo is still deploring the loss of his son Alfredo (“Dino”) in 1956, only 24 years old. Dino was credited with the development of the Ferrari 2-litre V6 engine that over a few years had been used in various racing cars. Ferrari now needs precisely this kind of engine, i.e. no more than 2 litres and 6 cylinders for its Formula 2 cars, but the engine needs to be homologated through serial production of at least 500 units. At the time this was too much for a small manufacturer like Ferrari and it was therefore agreed with Fiat that they would build the homologated engine and also be free to use it in future Fiat cars. Contrary to what Enzo Ferrari had wanted, Fiat insisted on the engine being built in its Turin factory and not in Maranello, meaning that the Dino engines in cars like the Ferrari Dino 206 and 246 will have the Fiat logo casted somewhere on the motor block. Fiat now also gives the green light to Bertone to design the coupé and to Pininfarina to design the convertible. This was of course not very logical and led to the two cars looking rather different with most people (including me) agreeing that Bertone did a better job – judge for yourself. The convertible was introduced in 1966 and the coupé a few months later, in 1967.

The Dino engine was indeed quite special. A 2-litre V6 with an alloy block, it’s most famous for its unusual, 65 degree angle but also features quad cams and triple Weber carburettors, bringing the output to 158 hp (and also the need for a specialist to make sure those Webers are aligned as they should be!). The face-lifted engine that came in 1969 when homologation was no longer an issue was increased to 2.4 litres and was the world’s first serial engine with electronic injection. Power increased to 180 hp with notably improved torque, and all this was fitted in a magnificent coupé body with flowing lines, an aggressive front with a big grill, and a sweeping, lower rear. I owned a Fiat 124 Coupé from 1965 a few years ago which was also designed by Bertone and the similarities are clearly there but the Dino is a larger, more elegant car. The interior matches the exterior in a plush combination of leather (one of few options but a feature on many cars) and wood with a thin, large steering wheel. The gearbox is five-speed, there are dual-circuit disc brakes all around and even electric windows (still quite rare in Europe at the time). Even though the later 2.4 litre engine has more power and greater torque, enthusiasts will often tell you the smaller 2-litre is actually the sweeter one to drive. The later car was however also updated notably with independent rear suspension, improved brakes and some othe features making it a more modern car.

Leather was one of few options, switches and gauges standard!

Around 5800 2-litre and 2.4 litre Dino coupés were built between 1967 and 1974, with latter cars being assembled not in Turin but at Ferrari’s plant in Maranello. Of all these, few remain today and although only around 2000 convertibles were built, these are easier to find than the coupé. That hasn’t meant they haven’t gone ballistic price-wise though, with good convertibles today costing at least EUR 150.000, and the 2.4 litre being even more expensive as only 400 were built. A good coupé will still be yours for somewhere around EUR 50-60.000. Unless you have a very firm idea of what you want, the individual condition of the car is probably more important than which engine it has. One of the few available options was metallic paint and the dark grey metallic you can still find some cars in is to me the colour which really highlights the car’s beauty!

The Ferrari logo in the grill wasn’t a factory option…

The most beautiful Dino in my eyes indeed carries the Fiat badge (except the one in the picture above…) and to finish where we started, even though they’ve gone up in price in the last years, a Fiat Dino Coupé is still more than EUR 300.000 (!) cheaper than a Ferrari Dino 246 with the same engine! That’s of course an even more legendary car but it’s not a GT and it also doesn’t have the elegance of the Fiat Dino, one of the most beautiful cars of the 60’s. Good design never goes out of style so if there’s still room in your garage, get one while you still can!

The AMG G63 – still king of the hill!

Last week was about the Aston Martin DBX and all the reasons why to me, it won’t save Aston. This notably has to do with the fact that the segment of luxury SUV’s is more contested than ever before, with new models being launched at a steady pace that doesn’t look likely to slow anytime soon, especially if you include all the electrical versions that are planned in the coming years.

Next to all these modern creations there is however another SUV that is still there, dating back to the days when this type of car was still referred to as terrain vehicle. It’s a car as popular among American rappers as with Zurich millionaires, and which costs as much as a DBX. It’s not pretty by any objective standards and about as aerodynamic as your fridge, yet it has a street presence like basically nothing else. I’m obviously talking about the legendary Mercedes G-class (G for Gelände, terrain in German), the long history of which we’ll look briefly into today before focusing on what is to some people, is a hot candidate to the title “most pointless vehicle on the road”, but to others the only SUV worth having: the AMG G63.

The new G63 as it looks since 2018, or actually since 1979

It’s difficult to imagine a car which saw the light of day 42 years ago, in 1979, yet where the most successful sales year was 37 years later, in 2016. That’s is however what happened with the G of which in that year 20.000 were sold, out of a total of over 300.000 cars of the original car, built until 2018. The new G-class which then came out looks exactly like the old one and continues to sell at a pace (and in spite of price) that is very surprising. It’s abundandly clear that there’s a certain magic surrounding the G and to try to understand that, we’ll start by winding the clock back to the early 70’s and the Middle East.

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, more known as the shah of Iran, was a very powerful and wealthy man until he was removed from power through the Islamic Revolution in 1979. In the early 70’s he owned almost 20% of Daimler through common shares and thus felt entitled to request a few special services, such as the production of a new terrain car for his personal hunting trips but also for his Iranian border patrol. Keen to oblige but also believing it could sell quite a few of the same car to the police, firemen and other public services in Germany, Daimler started a collaboration with Steyr Puch in Austria (today Magna Steyr), a car and parts manufacturer with a large production facility in Graz where the G-class is still being built. The joint company decided to start production and the first cars were delivered in 1979. i.e. in the same year the mullahs ousted the shah in Iran. It’s therefore unclear but highly unlikely that he ever got to hunt in his new G-class. The collaboration lasted until 2000 and also explains why, until then, the G was sold under the Puch brand in a number of markets.

How the shah imagined it, but he wasn’t there to enjoy it…

Initially the G was produced in a short 3-door version, a long 5-door version and a 2-door convertible. This first series had a power output of between 102 and 156 hp and was obviously very far from what AMG builds in Affalterbach. All models were however highly capable off road with three differentials compensating a lesser axle interlock than the natural rival, the Defender. The G also had a tipping angle of 38% and short overhangs. As a solid and to a large extent (still today) hand-built car, the quality has always been excellent, as has been recognized notably by the UN that uses G’s in various areas of the world. Unbreakable doesn’t equal extremely comfortable though, something the two rigid axles always reminded passengers of in the old G.

The G has always been a fantastic terrain car, although today, no one cares…

The first series was built unchanged from 1979 until 1990. We’re not going to go through all the subsequent series and engines given the car basically remained unchanged with small variations and different engines until 2018, but a highlight was the first AMG version called G55, launched in 2004 and developing 476 hp. Mercedes now started to pay a bit of attention to the G’s looks, adding a bit of plastic and spoilers here and there and thus giving the car a slightly less utilitarian look. This had the desired effect and the G started attracting a new group of more urban clients, laeding to future G’s being driven far more on the shopping miles of Western cities than in any kind of terrain. In 2011 and 2012 production of the short-wheel, 3-door version and the convertible was stopped. From then and until the end of production of the original G in 2018, the 350d was the only diesel, complemented by the two V8’s in the G500 and the the G 63 AMG, launched in 2012, and then the completely crazy, 612 hp double-turbo, 12-cylinder G65, built from 2015.

Next to these “regular” versions, the G has also been built in a variety of small series by Mercedes itself, and also been treated by various tuners, notably Brabus, adding another couple of hundred hp as if that was ever required. The more spectacular versions include the completely insane G6x6 built for the Australian Army in 2007 but these days very popular in the Middle East, and the 12-cylinder G650 Landaulet that Mercedes presented in Geneva in 2017 as a last iteration of the old G-class. 100 were built of these with an asking price today of over EUR 800.000.

The G 6×6 -a perfect shopping car for really heavy bags!

As mentioned initially the G has a street presence like nothing else. Although it isn’t, it looks smaller than modern SUV’s given it stands higher. It’s the only car in production today which to my knowledge has a completely flat front window and it’s certainly the only one with wing-mounted turning indicators and visible door hinges. The thing is however that the original G drove exactly as it looked, making the popularity difficult to understand. I drove a G for the first time around 10 years ago, a 400 cdi which by then was 6-7 years old. The 8-cylinder diesel engine suited the car perfectly and the view and commanding position from the “upper deck” were fantastic. If ever there was a car that makes you feel like the king of the hill, this is the one! That’s however where the positives end. The drive itself (on tarmac) was absolutely horrific, stiff and noisy, and with fear for your life as soon as you neared a corner at any speed. I’ve never driven another car where the EPS kicks in in city driving, and the idea of having more than 600 hp under the hood as in the G65 was truly terrifying.

Never has any ESP system been as busy as in the old G65

In 2018 Mercedes launched a completely new G that in spite of looking almost exactly like the old one is practically a new car underneath, and apparently, that was exactly the right call. The new car is slightly longer but also around 12 cm wider which makes a huge difference on the inside, the old G having had the Defender syndrome of the driving seat being very close to the door. The technical changes underneath are too many to mention but importantly include individual suspension on the front wheels and almost 200 kg less weight all in all. Finally the interior today looks like any modern Mercedes SUV with the MBUX screens and the rest. The top version is now the G63 with the 4-litre, 585 hp double-turbo AMG V8. This is also the most sold versions and the one everyone wants, and that both the diesel G350d and the V8 G500 make more sense objectively seems completely irrelevant. And if 585 hp is still not enough, you can still take your new G63 to Brabus who for an additional EUR 100.000 will increase the power to 800 hp and rebuild the interior according to your wishes.

A drive in the new G63 is nothing like the old one. The positives are still there – you do really feel like you’re above everything and everyone else, including other SUV’s. The grunt from the side pipes is just wonderful and the acceleration feels absurd as it takes the car to 100 km/h in less than 4.5 seconds. The ESP is still there and is still needed although it intervenes far less than before. Also the car is really well isolated but if you drive something that looks like a fridge at highway speeds, you will have more wind noise than in a more aerodynamic form. Given however how it’s used these days the G63 does the job as well as a modern SUV, and with tons of more presence. And should you, God forbid, venture outside of a city center onto something like a terrain road, you’ll soon discover that the car is still hugely capable and in that sense, still a true terrain vehicle. You may however have to switch those 22-inch, high-speed tires to something with a bit more rubber before doing so.

If the exterior still looks utilitarian, the interior certainly doesn’t!

If a G63 is your thing you’ll quickly notice something else about it: it has some of the best resale values in the world. A 7-8 year old G63 with more than 150.000 kms is still around EUR 70.000, and the new G’s from 2018 and later have hardly lost any value at all. Mercedes doesn’t limit the number of cars produced but the production takes time given the manual part, meaning there’s quite a long wait for new cars. In 2018 this actually led to available cars being sold at a premium, something that doesn’t happen often with “normal” cars. The unique feel and presence but also the incredible solidity and quality the car oozes of make it understandable why, if you have the money, you would actually spend it on a G63, and financially given strong resale values, it would actually not be completely unwise. The old G is of course much cheaper but there’s a reason, so if you’re thinking of it, then please test drive it extensively to make sure that it’s really your thing. You’ll have none of these worries in the new G. It will never make any rational sense buying this or any other 500+hp SUV such as the DBX, but then again, rational was never fun – the G63 is!

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!