This week the pictures will do most of the talking as we’re currently enjoying the last warm days of the year in lovely Tuscany. On the way here though, we did make a pit stop in Maranello and spent a few hours at the Ferrari museum, where you can admire a large amount of mostly red Ferrari beauties from different time periods and read up on your Ferrari knowledge.
Should you be in the region a visit is highly recommended, but be aware there is also a second museum a few kilometres away in Modena. I haven’t been there but have understood it’s smaller and more focused on the life of Enzo Ferrari than the cars (and especially the racing cars, which is the focus in Maranello). You can also buy combined tickets for both museums, but be aware that in Covid times, all tickets must be bought online in advance.
At the end of your visit you have the opportunity to try out your own skills in one of three F1 driving simulators. The feeling of slipping into the very tight space and gripping the wheel is a special one, simulator or not, and at least I didn’t feel the urge to be in the real thing. There is however also the opportunity to test drive various “standard” Ferraris both on nearby streets and the nearby Fiorano track, from various providers in immediate vicinity to the museum. Should you want to try that, make sure you have enough reserve on your card both for the rental itself, and for the carabinieri who could be seen in large numbers on surrounding roads…
This week will be all about Colin Chapman’s lovely, lightweight cars from Hethel and his motto “adding power makes you faster on the straights. Subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere”. We are of course talking about Lotus and more precisely about a nice selection of one Elise and two Exiges. You see, writing interesting pieces on this blog every week isn’t always easy, and finding time for great test drives even less. The blessing then comes in the form of other petrol head friends who are kind enough to share their experiences!
This week I’d therefore like to thank my friend Erik, a fellow Swede and car enthusiast who currently studies here in Zurich, and who over the previous two weekends had the pleasure of driving two different Exiges and an Elise. Before going into his very interesting experience though, a few words on the two models for those less familiar with the Lotus line-up.
The Lotus Elise saw the light of day in 1995 and has since been built in three series: the S1 until 2000, the S2 until 2010 and the S3 ever since. An untrained eye would be forgiven for not immediately seeing the difference between them, although the S1 is a bit more frog-like than the others. The Elise has always been about a maximum of driving pleasure for a minimum of weight, and things normal in other cars like carpets, A/C etc. are not standard in the Elise world. It’s notably famous for its aluminium chassis, weighing only around 65 kgs! With engines delivering between 136-220 hp (Cup and other special versions being more powerful) and a total car weight of only 800-1000 kgs depending on version, power output has never been an issue, although the engine character can still be, as we’ll see further below.
The Lotus Exige was developed with the Elise as basis, originally as a race car but unlike the Elise as a hatchback. It was intended to be a more mature car than the Elise and other differences include a sportier body with wider fenders and track, allowing for larger wheels, and larger front and rear spoilers. Launched in 2000, the S1 was only built during two years and the story of the Exige really starts with the S2 in 2004, built with the same 192 hp Toyota engine as the Elise as basis. The S3, where deliveries were delayed a couple of years and only started in 2013 after Lotus had survived yet another financial crisis, was a heavily modified car with a new chassis and importantly, a 3.5 litre, V6 compressor engine developing 350 hp. As with the Elise, the Exige was also built as Lotus’s own “Cup” and other more powerful versions.
Coming back to my friend Erik’s experience, the first car he got to test was an Exige S2 from 2005 with the 192 hp, 1.8 litre Toyota engine. Being young and agile he got into the car without too much difficulty, something that shouldn’t be underestimated for the somewhat elder among us. Once inside though, there is enough room for both young and old. The unassisted steering is surprisingly light at low speed and the radio is better left turned off, given the sound is nowhere near where it should be – it’s far better to listen to the engine instead! With the soft roof off, my friend took off towards some nice alpine roads, earning some sympathetic looks from cyclists on the way (which I can tell you isn’t always the case!), a good testament to the friendly design of the little car.
This is of course the kind of roads the car is made for, and the description of it as a go-cart on steroids nails it pretty well. The chassis is extremely well balanced, the steering, gradually heavier as the speed increases, is among the most precise in the industry, and the grip, even without any form of electronical helps, is tremendous. The gearbox is less precise than it could be, something that has often been commented on, and although 192 hp for a ton of car sounds plentiful on paper, the engine does require a lot of revs to come into its full right around the 6.000 mark, which is of course a bit limiting in daily usage.
In terms of quality, the Toyota-built engine is however the least of your worries. The fact that the car is quite loud and that you hear squeaks an scrambling from various parts is so to say part of the package, as is the limited comfort. The passenger seat can’t be moved at all, the driver seat to a limited extent. The cabin is obviously reduced to a minimum, true to the lightweight philosophy, so if you’re looking for anything but a driver-focused experience, look elsewhere.
Second in line in my friend’s Lotus weekend was the car he would later describe as hands down the most fun car he’s ever driven – an Exige 350 Sport (S3) from 2016. The difference to the 11 years older S2 Exige was in his words striking. As noted above, the S3 was heavily re-worked and is a much more refined car, the scrambling parts are gone, thereby leaving more room for the wonderful engine sound. There is a constant mix of gurgling, pops and bangs going on from the rear part of the car, enough to put a big smile on any petrol head’s face.
The S3 Exige is around 200 kgs heavier than the S2 and also rides on wider tires, both contributing to the (still unassisted) steering being very heavy at low speeds. It’s also very communicative, as motor journalists love to put it. “Feeling” the road is obviously an important feature of any true sports car, but one should be aware that this also means feeling every single imperfection of the road every time you take it out, and also experiencing the occasional sideways jump, as a tire catches a track in the road (I should probably add here that roads are pretty good in Switzerland…).
The 350 hp the compressor engine puts out gives the S3 a phenomenal acceleration. This is combined with very confidence-inspiring breaks, much more so than on the older car. The gearbox is still not the best on the market but it does excel in the way it looks – very similar to a Pagani Huayra or Spyker c8!
Finally a week later when his adrenaline had returned to normal levels, Erik also drove an Elise SC RGB from 2011. RGB stands for Roger Becker, a phenomenal chassis engineer that spent 44 years of his life working for Lotus before retiring in 2010. When he did, Lotus developed special editions of both the Elise and Exige with Roger’s choice of options as a tribute. The RGB Elise has the 1.8 litre engine, however with the S3 front. The car in question had additionally been worked on a bit such as to put out an extra 20 hp, bringing it to a total of 240 hp.
As you may suspect, Erik’s experience of the Elise falls between the two Exiges. The car is much more responsive than the older Exige without compressor, although not as manoeuvreable at lower speeds. The driving experience is very similar to the later Exige, however with a fair amount of squeaks and scrambling, so quality-wise more on the level of the older Exige.
If I allow myself to summarize Erik’s experiences with my own an those of other friends, it’s clear that any Lotus (and I would include the Evora in that, although Lotus fans tend to see it as a GT car) is among the purest and best driving experiences you will find, and a great proof that from a driving perspective, low weight is more important than high power. At the same time, the lightweight concept makes it quite a raw experience that only comes fully into its own right on a race track and country or mountain roads, provided you know there are no cameras around. The Exige is more mature than the Elise and arguably the better car, although an Elise with the right engine is of course highly enjoyable and the difference shouldn’t be overstated (again, if you’re looking for comfort, look elsewhere). The 192 hp of the base engine may be enough on paper, but the high revs it requires means the compressor engines are a much better proposition. Finally, quality: it is what it is, and as Lotus owners know, its mostly not a problem free experience. That being said, the list of things that can break is shorter than in most other cars, the engine is usually not one of them, and servicing costs as well as tax treatment in most countries are quite low.
If an Elise or an Exige sounds like the thing for you, as you would suspect the price points of the above cars differ quite a lot. A 10-year old basic, 192 hp S2 Exige is yours for around EUR 30-35.000, whereas the a 10 years younger, S3 350 hp version will set you back from EUR 50.000 and upwards. There are few RGB Elises around, but otherwise a 10-year old basic S2 192 hp one will cost you around EUR 20.000 and you’ll need to add around 10.000 for the more powerful ones. In other words these cars hold their value really well, which combined with low ownership costs make them a more attractive proposition than most other great “driver’s” cars.
For a company that has had more lives than a cat, it’s nice to see that Lotus’s future now looks to be somewhat secured. Next to the bonkers, GBP 1.7m, 2.000 hp electrical Evija, Lotus has an ambitious agenda of new cars in different segments over the coming years, with notably an all new model for 2021. Fingers crossed that they get there, because from a pure driving experience perspective, the world would be a much poorer place without Lotus!
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A first week with the 650i is now behind me (if you missed the story from last week you can read it here), and thankfully the weather Gods were kind enough to let the sun shine from a blue sky everyday, meaning I’ve been able to enjoy the car as it should be, with the roof down. Impressions so far are very positive and having now experienced a bit more of the quality, comfort and power train of the 650i, my unofficial rating of it as the most mispriced used car in the market is confirmed – not that I’m complaining!
Therefore, feeling a bit Bavarian this week (and thus sad to hear earlier in the week that this year’s Oktoberfest is cancelled), I thought we’d have a look at last time BMW had a 6-series, back in the 70’s-80’s. The first 6-series indeed still has a lot going for it, as is proven notably by the fact that its 13-year production run is the longest of any BMW model!
The 6-series was introduced at the Geneva Motor Show in 1976 and was produced with relatively minor updates until 1989 to a total of over 85.000 cars. The E24 as it’s called internally replaced the E9, and although it mostly resembles the 7-series that followed a year later in 1977, it was built on the smaller, 5-series chassis, as a true four-seat GT car, that over the 13 years of production was only ever available with 6-cylinder engines.
The original line-up included the 630cs and the 633csi, complemented in 1978 by the 218hp, top of the line sport version 635csi that I’ll focus on here since it’s the car to have in the range. The 635csi was easily distinguishable already in the first generation through its front and rear spoilers and ultra-cool, 80’s-style BBS wheels.
The first (and only) major model update in 1982 was important as the chassis was more or less replaced by that of the second 5-series, giving the whole car far more rigidity and stability in combination with lower weight. From 1982 ABS breaks came as standard on the 635csi, and on the inside, the equally-sized speed and rpm gauges so typical for BMW had now found their place in the gauge cluster. Various other cosmetic touches contributed to give the car a more modern look. Oh, and I almost forgot that the pre-infotainment check control, that allowed the driver to test various functions in the car, was now automatic and didn’t have to be activated by pushing a button. There was also the optional board computer that let the driver check the outside temperature, the average consumption and the total distance driven. That was advanced stuff back in the early 80’s!
In 1984 BMW introduced the top-of-the-line M635csi with a re-worked version of the M1 engine, with four valves per cylinder and dual overhead camshafts (DOHC). The M-version produced 286hp and from 1986 260hp with catalyst, and was only available as manual (by then, catalytic cleaning meant the regular 635csi was down to 185hp).
In 1987, a second and last facelift mostly consisting in various chrome pieces being replaced by black metal and plastic, helped the by now quite old 6-series live for another two years. The last car was produced in April 1989 and the 6-series was replaced only a few months later by the the 8-series and the 12-cylinder 850i, but that’s another story (that I’ve written about here should you want to read it).
The clean lines of the 6-series are purest in the simpler versions, but to me the 635csi has always been the one to have. That is except for the M-version of course, but at the EUR 60.000 and upwards good M-cars cost today, they are at roughly double the price of the standard 635csi, which given the car’s age in my view delivers sufficient power and driving pleasure. And driving pleasure there is, in a very 80’s style; I drove a 185hp, 635csi recently, briefly considering it as I was selling my Triumph. No doubt it’s a car that works perfectly as both a daily driver and a GT car for longer trips. The steering is surprisingly good, the manual gearbox is distinct, although with long throws, and the breaks work just fine. The six-cylinder has a nice tone to it and you’re left with the feeling that the only thing missing is an old Modern Talking cassette in the standard Becker cassette radio!
Although it was produced in a total of more than 85.000 cars, the original 6-series is becoming increasingly rare, and if you ask me it’s no doubt one of the best cars coming out of the 80’s. Its combination of good looks, great engine and practicality make it a very usable youngtimer at a still attractive price. I would opt for a manual 635 from after 1982, paying more attention to the car’s history and condition than the exact model year. Go through all the usual checks and in terms of equipment, make sure you get the original BBS wheels, a nice leather interior and a Becker cassette radio, and you should still be on the right side of EUR 30.000. The only thing left before hitting the road will then be trying to remember in which box you stuck those 80’s cassettes many years ago…
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This has been a big week for me as a long thought-about change in my modest car stable finally happened. I’ve been thinking of replacing my Triumph TR4 that’s been with me for close to ten years (and thereby by far the car I’ve owned the longest!) since it didn’t really fit the bill any longer and spent far too much time in the garage.
In my post about oldtimers guaranteed to increase in value (see here if you missed it), I made the point of thinking through the purchase well in terms of how much you will be able to use the car, as you otherwise risk ending up in my situation. I wouldn’t claim that I thought through the purchase along those lines ten years ago, but it’s also true that needs change and in my specific case, this has meant the kids now being grown up and my wife and being in the phase of life where we can drive down to Tuscany or southern France over a long weekend. You don’t do that in a TR4 from -65.
It took a while to find a buyer, but I finally sold the Triumph at a reasonable price which was around 20% more than what I paid for it ten years ago. In parallel, the brief for what was to replace it was beginning to take shape. I imagined a GT car that could seat four but was really made for two, preferably a convertible, modern enough for the weekend escapes mentioned above, with enough power and sound to put a smile on my face and with enough luggage space to handle the surprising number of things my better half thinks are necessary for a few days.
I thought long and hard about both a 996 Turbo and a 997.2 4S, but they neither transport four, nor have enough luggage space. I met a perfect gentleman with a perfect XJS V12, but again, the back seats don’t work and there was a risk I would always have been about nervous about that V12. A few other, classic candidates were also considered but then it got complicated, also because of the increase in value many classics or future classics have seen these last years. So maybe it was think about something newer, something where the second-hand value is a true disaster, and the value for money is truly spectacular. I guess it also gives some credibility to what we write on this blog to know that we follow our recommendations… (see here). Anyway, that’s how yesterday a BMW 650i convertible ended up in my garage!
My new car has had one owner since new in 2013 and over the 57.000 kms he has driven it, he must have spent at least as much time cleaning, polishing and speaking kindly to it, because the car is truly in mint condition. Importantly, being a 2013 model, it has the improved V8, double-turbo 450 hp engine, which hasn’t had the problems that were quite common with the previous 408 hp version. As mentioned in my post I’ve always liked the design, which i think is truly beautiful both with the top and without it, and i liked the color combination (the so called citrin black, which is a softer, brown-black color, with the white interior) and the equipment which is quite complete. Rounding it off were good summer and winter tires on alloy wheels and a one-year complete warranty. And for all this, I paid exactly 20% of the price new price of CHF 180.000 in 2013, or if you will, a couple of thousand more than I got for my TR4.
That’s how I left the classic car scene for now, but honestly I don’t see it as very dramatic. I will always have a heart for beautiful automobiles but as long as both time and space are limited, it’s about that brief and usability. And to be perfectly frank, something else is worth considering as well: things were not better before, which also includes cars, and for the kind of usage we plan, it actually feels quite re-comforting to have a modern car. Yeah, I know, I’ve grown old…
The 650 is not a future classic and not a car that will increase in value (although the downside at that starting point and with free maintenance until 2023 is rather limited!), but it’s a great car that perfectly fits our current needs and can of course be used as my summer daily driver. The first 70-80 kms have been great. Being too big and too heavy, the 650 is not a sports car, yet it sticks to the road in a very capable way, with just enough of the V8 bass tones coming through on acceleration. The kids had enough room in the back seat with minor adjustments to my ideal driving position, and luggage space is sufficient. So far I love it and really look forward to a couple of those trips a bit later this autumn!
As was announced on Thursday, Sebastian Vettel has signed with Racing Point / Aston Martin (the team will be renamed next year) and will replace Sergio Perez as second (first?) driver alongside Lance Stroll in 2021. Vettel thus grabbed the last straw available to stay in F1 in a somewhat competitive team and proved this blog writer wrong. In my defence though, this wasn’t really an opening since Perez had a contract for 2021 and beyond, and had received no signals indicating the team wouldn’t respect it until he got a call from Lawrence Stroll on Wednesday…
You have to believe that Seb is still motivated and has the fire to go to a team that through Stroll has plenty of money and will no doubt be more entrepreneurial and open to Vettel’s inputs than Ferrari was in the last years. As for their chances, I still believe they are a couple of years away from more than occasionally climbing the podium, but I’d welcome Vettel proving me wrong again. It would certainly be nice to see him end is career on a podium rather than next to the track!
When you’re wrong I’ve learned to double down, so here goes: if things don’t turn around at Ferrari until the end of the season, I think Mattia Binotto will not return as team principal in 2021. There you go – let’s see if he proves me wrong as well…
With half of the strangest Formula 1 season in memory being completed, it’s time for a short update on where things stand. The strangeness obviously comes from the fact that all races are run without audience and that every driver has apparently been threatened with both this and that unless he puts on a mask the second he steps out of his car. I have no problem with masks, but given everyone in the F1 circus is tested on a regular basis, couldn’t they let the guys breathe some fresh air for a few seconds first?
In terms of racing, the more things stay the same, the more they change. What is unchanged is obviously the Mercedes dominance, and within the team, Hamilton’s dominance over Bottas. Mercedes has won six of the seven races so far this season (the exception being the UK GP which Verstappen won) and of the six, Hamilton has won five. The team seems to be in good harmony and it’s very difficult to see another outcome than Mercedes clinching both the driver and constructor titles this year.
Bottas will have to fight for his second place in the rankings though, being threatened by Verstappen and Red Bull, the clear runner-up behind Mercedes. Verstappen has been on five podiums this year, three times as second and twice as third. The second Red Bull driver Alex Albon is nowhere to be seen, and half-way into the season when he was supposed to start delivering, he has been very far from doing so until now. Red Bull and Christian Horner aren’t really known for their patience, so the question is how long Albon has unless things start to happen soon.
The team missing from every podium but two this year (Leclerc finishing second in the first race in Austria, and third in the UK) is obviously Ferrari, which increasingly looks like a team in complete disarray. Next to Vettel’s more or less consistent underperformance, Leclerc is now also dropping back, with the latest race in Spa being a complete low point. Vettel and Leclerc finished 12th and 13th after Vettel proved unable to overtake Räikkönen (Alfa Romeo Racing) in the last laps… Ferrari has lost the speed and if that wasn’t enough, team spirits seem to be at an all-time low. A nice example was when during the last race in Spa, Leclerc enquired about the pit strategy over the intercom and was told “we’ll explain it to you later”. Team principal Mattia Binotto is trying to buy himself some time by talking of until 2024 before the team recovers, but I’ll eat a face mask if Binotto is still team principal in 2024 if things don’t improve before then.
On the positive side, it’s interesting to see how some of the middle-of-the-field teams are making progress, none more than McLaren and Lando Norris who so far this season is clearly ahead of the more experienced Carlos Sainz Jr., having so far scored as many points as Charles Leclerc. As we know Sainz is switching seats with Daniel Ricciardo at Renault at the end of the season, so again, motivation may play a role here. Renault is also clearly improving, as is Racing Point and especially Lance Stroll who has really started to deliver. No doubt that makes majority owner and Lance’s father Lawrence Stroll happy, and it also bodes well for the team’s rebirth under the name Aston Martin next season.
In the back of the field, the biggest news is no doubt that the Williams saga is coming to an end after 40 years. The team has been sold to the US private equity firm Dorilton Capital for GBP 136m and Frank William’s daughter Claire will step down as team principal after the Italian GP this weekend. It’s unclear who will take over her role or what the new owners will bring, or even if they retain the Williams name. After 40 years the Williams era comes to an end, and we should all remember the team in happier days!
Finally, Sebastian Vettel still doesn’t have a seat for next season and it looks increasingly probable that he will leave F1. The only possible remaining option that is being rumoured is Vettel joining Racing Point/Aston Martin, but speaking against that is obviously the fact that with Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll, the team has already signed up two drivers. I for one also doubt that Vettel would be motivated enough to join a team that although making progress, is still most probably a few years away from any podiums.
Update after Monza:
By the time you read this the Italian GP at Monza has taken place over the weekend and was to become the most dramatic one this season,with the most unexpected result. Having said that, nothing in the outcome changes the general assessment above. For the first time this year no Mercedes was on the podium, Hamilton having been penalized by a 10-second start and stop penalty that cost him the race, and Bottas being caught in traffic after a bad start, again proving the difficulty in overtaking at Monza. Both Ferraris crashed out in the first half of the race, having both qualified outside the top ten (and Vettel not even making it to Q2). Pierre Gasly in the AlphaTauri won his first F1 race ever, a great revenge for the talented Gasly who lost his seat at Red Bull to a certain Alex Albon and was degraded to AlphaTauri (previously Toro Rosso). Albon in the far superior Red Bull this time finished 15th, and Verstappen didn’t finish the race. Christian Horner has had better weekends and just maybe starts regretting letting Gasly go – as he should.
I saw a Lancia Y10 the other day, which doesn’t happen very often. Arguably it’s not something a person not contaminated with the very sticky automobile virus would notice or find interesting. To those of us that are heavily infected, there are however few cars that aren’t of some interest, and the Y10 is a bit quirky in the sense that it was the first real (although a bit halfhearted) attempt to build a luxurious, small city car, with its alcantara or leather-dressed seats and dashboard.
Speaking of virus, there is another one out there that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. I wrote back in May (see here) that I thought Covid would lead to a comeback of the car as preferred means of safe transportation, which has definitely been the case both during the summer and as business now resumes. Given the congestion of major cities that is now back after the empty streets in summer and after that, during the lock downs, I wonder if the trend will continue towards more comfortable small cars for short, mostly work-related transport? These would most probably be electric (which arguably would have been the logical route for electrical cars to take in the first place). You’ll tell me that’s nothing new and mention cars like the the BMW i3, the Zoé or other small hybrids. I’m however thinking of on one hand far more comfortable and a bit luxurious creations, and on the other even smaller cars, towards that 3-metre segment the Y10 represented.
Time will tell but whilst thinking of small cars, this week we’ll pay tribute to a legendary Italian creation that over 2.5 metres meant a lot not only for Italy, but actually for all of Europe: the original Fiat 500!
The 500, or Cinquecento in Italian, was launched in 1957 and thus in the same period as the Citroën DS that I wrote about a few weeks ago (see here). Much like in France, life was looking up in Italy and the post-war, economic boom was in full swing. Fiat was convinced there would be strong demand for a small, cheap car that everyone could afford. There was also a bit of urgency since the preceding Fiat 500 Topolino was by now a 20-year old, pre-war model.
Dante Giacosa was given the mission of designing the Cinquecento, and what a success his design proved to be! Over a total length of only 2.5 metres, the 500 still managed to accommodate four people (at least 1950-sized ones…) and through its limited size it was immensely practical on the small cobble streets of Italian villages. Having said that, the very first Cinquecentos were actually very basic two-seater cars with a 480 cc, 2-cylinder, rear-mounted, air-cooled engine developing a massive 13 hp. Derived from the Topolino, it gave the car a top speed of 85 km/h. The two-seat configuration did however not produce the sales numbers Fiat had expected, and the initial version was replaced by a four-seated car with an updated engine and all of 15 hp(!) the same year. This new Normale version was to become the basis for various models all the way through 1975, i.e. for almost 20 years.
Among these special versions, the Sport with 21.5hp built from 1958 to 1960 should be mentioned, as should the 10 cm longer Giardiniera estate, built from 1960 to 1968. Other modifications to the 500 through the years included more power, but were otherwise mostly cosmetic and equipment-related. An important but for many, sad development was the replacement of the rear-hinged, “suicide” doors by conventional doors in 1968. Rumour has it that the replacement was frowned upon by mostly men, as the traditional doors didn’t offer the same view of women’s legs as these got in and out of the car…
Various performance versions were designed with the 500 as basis, and the ones coming out of the (in modern language) tuning shop Abarth are the most well-known ones. This is especially true for the Abarth 695 SS, launched in 1966 and distinguishable by various stripes and Abarth logos, its flared arches and perhaps most notably, the fact that it’s best driven with the (rear) engine hood open for additional cooling. Various improvements to the engine almost doubled the power output over the standard car to 38 hp and the top speed to 140 km/h, accompanied by a sound that would make you think there’s a zero missing both in the hp number and speed! The SS was built until 1971 and very few remain today.
Seeing a 500 these days actually happen more often than seeing an Y10, and it’s definitely a sight (and sound!) that always puts a small on your face. The air-cooled tone is unmistakable, how sympathetic the car looks impresses as much as how small it is, and quite often, the shape of a somewhat larger driver in 2020 than in the 60’s looks a bit comical, with the side window rolled down as much for fresh air as for additional room. And should you be lucky enough to see an Abarth, you will know long before you actually see it as the sound precedes it!
The Cinquecento’s importance cannot be overstated as without being technologically advanced in any way, it’s the car that put Italy on wheels, that I bet our Italian readers have driven or been riding in many times, and that actually was a success in many other European countries, with versions built also by other manufacturers, notably Puch in Austria. When it was replaced by the 126 in 1975, that also meant a more conventional car age would start. Rear-mounted engines had notably been popular in the late 1950’s but now increasingly moved up front.
A new mini car in the age of Covid would most probably never attain the legendary status of the original 500, but the 500 should definitely be a source of inspiration. My son is very much of the same opinion and when he gets his driving license next year, he has the idea of finding a cheap 500 and converting it to electrical drive. Maybe he’s on to something, but I would still go for the original, air-cooled version, notably for the sound. Both him and I should hurry up though, as values for 500’s are on the rise. Today you can expect to pay at least EUR 15.000 for a nice example, with early models with rear-hinged doors and of course Abarth cars being sold for as much as EUR 45-50.000. That’s indeed a lot but then again, there is no better proof that there is indeed a good substitute for cubic inches!
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In the last ten years, interest rates in the developed world have been close to nil across the board, and you need to look no further for an explanation to why various kinds of real assets have seen steep increases in price. Cars are definitely part of that group, although it’s unfortunately not the family Volvo that has become a good investment, but rather classic cars and selected sports cars.
If you read this blog, chances are you also read other car blogs or follow some car Youtube channels (perhaps even one or several on my favourite list that you can see here). You don’t need to look far to find someone that describes a classic car such as the Jaguar XJ-S that I wrote about last week (see here) as “a good investment” or something that will “most definitely increase in value”. Personally my stomach turns at such unsubstantiated, general statements, but let’s look into whether there’s any truth to them.
In 2015 we launched the new sub-section “The Thrill of Owning” on this blog. We did so seeing the price evolution many enthusiast cars were starting to take, and I wrote about some cars I believed (without guarantee!) would increase in value over the coming years, adding an economic upside to the ownership experience. The first 5 cars I picked were the Lancia Delta Evo, the Honda NSX, the BMW Z4M, the Porsche 996 and the Ferrari 550. Looking back now five years later, it’s clear that had you bought an NSX, a Delta or a 550 in 2015 that you would sell today, you would get substantially more than you initially paid – the first two have basically doubled in price. For the Z4 and the 996, the evolution has been less steep but still in the right direction. Buying and selling is one thing though. Owning is another that should not be forgotten.
Since close to ten years I’m the owner of a Triumph TR4 from 1965, a car that has brought me great joy and that I’ve been extremely lucky with. It hasn’t left me standing a single time and has generally been close to as problem free as a classic car can be. Nevertheless, and even if I haven’t driven thousands of kilometres per year, it still needs regular servicing and old parts will wear out and need replacing. Also, not to forget on a classic car is that the engine will typically need more adjustments than a modern one. In ten years I have thus had it thoroughly serviced and revised three times, redone the breaks once, and replaced more regular wear and tear parts such as the battery, tires etc. in between. A rough estimate is that the car has cost me around EUR 12-13.000 in servicing and parts costs over my years of ownership. To that should be added tax, registration, garage etc., but given how different those costs are depending on your circumstances and country, we’ll leave them aside for this exercise. You shouldn’t though, when you budget your ownership!
Had I instead bought that Delta Evo in 2015 my costs would most probably not have been lower, as the Deltas are known as cars needing lots of love an attention. That said, the economic upside would definitely have been higher. On a higher level for the 550 as well, at least with the right car. The bullet-proof NSX may have been cheaper to own, had I been lucky. But again, all this will depend on the particular car you buy, its history, condition – and luck. This is why a statement such as something “definitely increasing in value” is quite simply not true. Firstly, it’s very difficult to say which models will increase in value (although if you know your stuff, I agree you can have a pretty good idea). Secondly, it’s all about the condition of the individual car.
Has my Triumph been a good investment? Price-wise it’s worth around CHF 10.000 (30%) more today than I bought it for, thus covering a fair part of my running costs. In my particular case living in Switzerland where owning and running an oldtimer is cheap, I’ve nevertheless had to rent a garage for the ten years I’ve had it and I’ve certainly not covered the costs for that. It should also be noted that a TR4 is quite a basic oldtimer, with an extremely robust, 4-cylinder engine. Friends of mine who own E-Types, Aston Martin V8’s and other, more advanced cars, will give you a number considerably higher than mine, even though most of them are more capable in a garage than I am and thus do a lot themselves.
That’s the economic side of it. On the emotional side, there is no doubt that it’s been a good investment and has brought me much joy and great memories. And that is really the point of all this. Don’t buy a classic car purely as an investment, but also as something to love, drive and enjoy! There will never be any guarantee that an XJS or any other car will be worth more 5 years from now and if you buy the wrong car, you will most certainly not make any money. Arguably it will also reduce the pleasure of ownership, but if this is the car you’ve been dreaming of since you were young, believe me, you will forgive a lot!
Unlike a painting, a car is made for driving. Be thorough in your checks, but also buy with your heart in the sense of loving what you buy, enjoying it, and not to be forgotten, knowing that you will be able to use whatever your dream car is on a regular basis. Good luck!
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If last week was all about Italianità in all its simplicity with the lovely Alfa Romeo Spider (if you missed the post you can find it here), this week we’ll turn things around a bit and talk about an undisputed future classic, but also a car that complicates things quite a bit in comparison, and replaces pasta al dente under the Tuscan sun with rainy skies, tweet jackets and lush, green country roads: The Jaguar XJ-S (or as it was written in the last years of production, the XJS).
Long time readers of this blog may remember that I wrote a piece about the XJS back in 2016 (read it here), however that was more around its mechanical 12-cylinder engine than the car itself. Given that and also that quite interestingly, and in stark contrast to many other future classics, not much has happened on the price front in the last four years, I felt a fuller description of this true icon of English car manufacturing was called for. Still to this day, the XJS remains something of a bargain – at least in purchase price. That will most probably change in the future.
The XJS was launched in 1975 and produced all the way through 1996, in three distinct series. For a combination of factors, it was far from a resounding success at launch. Firstly, although recognized as rather good-looking, it did succeed the E-Type, one of the greatest designs of all time, which wasn’t to its favor. Secondly it was also a bit misunderstood, as Jaguar never intended the XJS to be a replacement of the E-Type. Instead they were aiming to produce a GT car, comparable to the later Mercedes CL or similar. In that they succeeded, but it took a while for the market to recognize it. Thirdly Jaguar ran into stupid difficulties in some markets such as Germany, where the buttresses behind the windows were deemed to restrict the rear view, and German authorities refused to grant the XJ-S type approval, meaning individual owners had to obtain individual road approvals for their cars – not something that boosted sales numbers… Finally, although there were other 12-cylinder cars in the market at the time, the XJS launched in the wake of the oil crisis and as you will suspect, fuel consumption has never been its strong point…
So after a difficult launch, the first series was built between 1975-1981 in around 15.000 units and was only available with the 5.3 litre, V12 engine. In the first year the manual gearbox from the E-Type was actually available as an alternative, but that was soon scrapped for the 3-speed, automatic box. The engine developed around 270 hp and made the XJ-S comparable to other V12 cars from Ferrari and Lamborghini at the time.
The second series ran for 10 years until 1991, and now a number of things happened. Next to the coupe, in 1983 a targa convertible was introduced, based on speculation at the time that the US would ban full convertibles for fear of roll-over accidents. That luckily never happened, and Jaguar subsequently replaced the targa with a full convertible in 1988, which contrary to the former became a great success. That of course makes the targa a rare and quite interesting find today, since no more than 5.000 cars were produced in total.
In 1983, the 12-cylinder was also complemented with a 3.6 litre straight six engine that was only available with a manual transmission until 1987. It produced around 230 hp as compared to the 265 hp of the V12, obviously with considerably less torque but also less fuel consumption. Importantly, in 1987 the much outdated, 3-speed automatic was replaced by a more modern, 4-speed ZF one.
By the time of the third series that started in 1991 and ran until the end of production in 1996, Jaguar had been taken over by Ford and was part of Ford’s so-called Premier Auto Group. A number of changes were done to the XJS, both in terms of design (front and rear bumbers and lights, slight changes to the windows and famous buttresses etc.) and engines. The 5.3 litre V12 was increased to 6 litres and around 300 hp, and the straight six was replaced by a 4 litre version.
Irrespective of age, there are few cars that have the same level of road presence as an XJS in a very British, understated way, very far from the screaming lines of a Lamborghini. By today’s standard it’s also a much smaller-looking car than it was initially, and its smooth lines obviously only add to the attraction. Driving it is a very similar experience. The 300 hp of the final V12 version that I’ve had the pleasure of trying are enough to make the cat roar should it have to, and steering and body roll are actually much better controlled than could be expected. Where the XJS excels still to this day is however in the smooth gliding department. It’s a comfortable cruiser, very quiet even by modern standards, and with a giant booth that will easily accommodate luggage for two. That’s also to say that the rear seats in the coupe and some convertible versions (the other ones being strict two-seaters) are not meant for humans with legs.
Whether to opt for the most common, 5.3 litre V12 version or rather one of the straight sixes is obviously a decision that can have quite wide-ranging, economic implications. There is no doubt that the V12 is the engine that suits the car best, but you could also argue that the straight six has enough power and is obviously much cheaper to own. Whichever engine you go for, a complete service history is critical – do not take any chances here! The 6-litre V12 from the Ford era has a better reputation for reliability than the previous 5-3 litre version, although both engines are actually quite solid if serviced correctly.
Coming back to the price mentioned initially, a good XJS can still be had for EUR 15.000-20.000, with top cars rarely going beyond EUR 30.000. That’s probably the cheapest V12 you can buy and gives the car a clear upward potential price-wise. As I will come back to in next week’s post however, one reason for the low prices is as so often the far higher running costs, where the V12 is a prime example. But as long as you’re aware of that and find the right car, there are very few cars that provide a similar experience. I would recommend a post-1987 car such as to benefit from the 4-speed automatic box, and if you like the styling of the third series and want a V12, then preferably a post-1991 car. The (full) convertible is the ultimate glider, but the lines come through better in the coupe. It’s really a matter of choice as the convertibles are not more expensive than the coupes. Finally, the targa convertible is the hardest to find but should be most interesting from a value preservation perspective, even though it’s also the most expensive model today.
Find the right car, put on your tweet jacket, make sure there’s fuel in the tank and double-check whether you did start the engine, given how silent it is – silent enough for your passenger to hear you whistling “Rule Britannia” as you set out on your roadtrip!
We spent a wonderful week in northern Italy in late July, something I warmly recommend to anyone having some unplanned vacation time left this year. Enjoying the beauty of cities like Venice, Bologna and Florence without the crowds is a fantastic experience, and as long as we return to some kind of normality before hotels and restaurants go bust, my impression is also that the local population in a tourist hot spot like Venice enjoy the “break”. So go if you can and enjoy the quality of life and the beauty of the country, you won’t regret it!
If you do so, what you shouldn’t expect is however coming back with lots of pictures of old Fiat 500’s or some vintage models from nearby Maranello or Sant’Agata. At least in northern Italy the automotive scene has moved on and become as bor… dominated by the large, mostly German brands (preferably in grey or black) as in other countries. For us, it took until the last day with only a few kilometres left to the Swiss border until we spotted a beautiful example of a true legend of Italian car manufacturing, and with a total production time of 28 years, likewise the modern car with the longest production I can think of: the Alfa Romeo Spider.
The Spider saw the light in 1966 as a two-seated roadster with rear-wheel drive. Launched at the Geneva Motor Show the same year, it was a direct successor to the Giulia Spider and was in its first version produced until 1969 with a 109 hp, 1.6 litre, twin cam four-cylinder engine. From the beginning the car was equipped with a five-speed gearbox and disc brakes on all four wheels, something that was far from being the case on all cars at the time, even more expensive ones. Speaking of price, a new Spider was at the time around the same as a Jaguar E-Type, something that is definitely no longer the case!
In 1968 a slightly larger, 1750cc engine replaced the 1.6 litre in the version called the 1750 Spider Veloce, and a smaller, 1300 cc engine developing 88 hp was introduced in the Spider 1300 Junior. The smaller engine was replaced by a larger, 1600 cc four-pot in 1977, while the 1750 engine was increased to 2 litres in 1971. Whilst being further improved through the years with its power increasing to 128 hp at most, the two engines would equip the Spider until the end of production in 1993.
In spite of continued refinements through the years, you could still argue that the main differences between the four series are mostly cosmetic. From the lean lines of the first two series, over the spoiler-and-skirts third series of the 80’s to the surprisingly clean-looking, last series, the Spider evolved with time and managed to keep a classic look, never getting too old. To me, the first and last series are the best looking ones.
The Spider was a light car, but even with a kerb weight of at most 1100 kg in the fourth series, it’s clear that 128 hp doesn’t make it a race car. Then again, that was never the intention. The Spider is a cruiser from the mechanical car age, with no driving aids but with lots of road presence. The first thing everyone will notice next to the large, wooden steering wheel that equips most cars, is the gear lever that is basically mounted on the dashboard in an angle that you do however get used to pretty quickly. The chassis does not excel in rigidity to put it mildly, meaning a squeak here and there will always mix with the nice sound from the four-pot. Taken together, you will never wish for more power but rather quickly settle in to the cruising-type of drive the Spider was built for, and excels at!
When production ended in 1993, a total of 124.000 Spiders had been produced, of which a fair number have survived until today. Prices have started to move upwards, especially for the first series where nice cars now cost from EUR 40.000. My guess is that especially the later series that today can still be had for EUR 20.000 or even less for nice examples, still have further to go. Also, unlike something like the E-Type, a Spider with its uncomplicated mechanics is cheap to maintain, making it something of an ideal classic for country roads in Tuscany or elsewhere, but wherever you are, always with enough Italianità!
AMG. One of the most famous abbreviations in motorsport, and obviously to Mercedes what the M cars are to BMW. The three letters stand for the first letters in the two founders’ names, Aufrecht & Melcher, with the addition of the G for Großaspach, the German town where Mr. Aufrecht was born and where AMG was founded in 1967 as a tuner of Mercedes cars.
The firm moved to Affalterbach in the 70’s and following an increasingly close collaboration with Mercedes-Benz over the years, Mercedes became AMG’s majority shareholder in 1999. No doubt the addition of AMG has greatly helped improve Mercedes’s image, but that has however come at a price, namely an inflation not far from Venezuela’s in terms of how AMG badges are applied to all product lines and most cars in the Mercedes line-up. For obvious reasons that’s not to everyone’s taste. Fortunately though, there is a very good remedy, one that will celebrate its 15-year anniversary next year: the AMG Black Series cars.
It was the newly created performance studio of AMG that in 2006 set out to start producing very limited numbers of more focused versions of some cars in the existing Mercedes line-up, under the name Black Series. The cars were thoroughly re-worked, including performance increases but also chassis changes and improvements to suspension systems (typically adjustable) and brakes. Weight reduction was also high on the list, notably by an extensive use of carbon fibre. What wasn’t reduced was the price, as Black Series cars were typically at least 40% more expensive than regular AMG models. 5 different Black Series models have been built so far that I’ve summarized below.
SLK AMG 55 Black Series
Launched in 2006, the SLK started the Black Series range and early on made clear that a Black Series is not a convertible, as it was changed to having a fixed (carbon) roof. Power was up 40 hp to 400 hp, weight was reduced around 50 kg to around 1500 kg, suspension was stiffened, the chassis was widened and brakes were re-enforced. Around 120 SLK 55 Black Series were built all in all, the smallest production number of all Black Series cars so far.
CLK 63 AMG Black Series
The CLK followed a year later and became the first car to use the well-known 6.2 litre V8 engine that has equipped three of the five models so far, here developing 500 hp. The track was much wider than on the standard car, meaning both the body and tires increased as well. No doubt the Black Series took some inspiration from the DTM version of the CLK at the time. 700 CLK Black Series were built until 2008.
SL 65 AMG Black Series
The monstrous SL 65 Black Series followed in 2008 and was actually built by the independent race engineering firm HWA Engineering in collaboration with AMG. The SL 65 has an extravagant design were basically only the doors were retained from the original car. Like the SLK, it also got a fixed roof. It’s also the only car in the Black Series line-up to use the 6-litre V12, here developing 670 hp. 350 cars were built all in all.
C63 AMG Coupé Black Series
Less spectacular but arguably more efficient was the C63 Coupé launched in 2011. The 6.2 litre V8 was back, now developing 507 hp, the track was widened, the suspension was reworked, and if the changes weren’t enough, further track packages could be added on top. 800 C 63 Black Series were built in total, the most of any Black Series so far.
SLS AMG Black Series
Finally the SLS AMG Black Series was launched in 2013. The 6.2 litre V8 now delivered 631 hp and weight was down by around 70 kg compared to the standard version, mostly through extensive usage of carbon fibre. Only 350 of the SLS Black Series were built and although it’s not easy to add to the drama of the standard SLS, the Black Series does a good job of trying!
Black Series cars are no weekend cruisers but rather the most track-focused cars in the AMG line-up. The earlier cars were a bit hampered by having to resort to the standard AMG automatic transmission with no manual version available. The double-clutch box introduced on the SLS in 2013 solves the issue, but I can’t help thinking that a stick shift would have been a nice alternative on the early cars.
A Black Series car would be an alternative to the more hard core versions of other Porsches, Ferraris or Lambos. Thanks to the very limited production numbers they hold their value well, and in some cases such as the SLS, prices have risen quite steeply since new. The SLK 55, CLK 63 and C 63 are the cheaper cars, with the SLK 55 starting at just under EUR 100.000 and the CLK and C 63 between EUR 100.000 and EUR 150.000. The SL 65 starts at around EUR 250.000 with the SLS coming in between EUR 500.000 – EUR 700.000.
There is a lot of activity at the AMG performance studio right now, as it’s become official that the AMG GT Coupé will be the next and sixth Black Series model. The car has just been presented and Shmee, one of the Youtubers I follow (as mentioned in my post a few weeks ago that you can read here), just did a very detailed walk through of the new car, so I’ll let him do the honours – enjoy!
So it’s time to talk about Tesla. Again. I did so addressing its shaky finances in 2019, and I wrote about a first glance of the Model 3 in Q4 2018. As in 2019, the reason this time is mainly financial. This is obviously a car blog, not a financial one, but then again, under all the bells and whistles, Tesla is a car company. And in that sense, when its stock price values it at $300bn or 13 times Ford as it did earlier in July at a stock price of around $1750 per share, you should notice (it’s come back to $1417 at the time of writing, so we’re probably down to something like 11-12 times Ford now). The first reflex is of course to think something major has happened, but that’s not the case. Tesla’s more than tripled stock price since it dip under $400 earlier this year could be called the definition of momentum for future financial text books. Congratulations to all that were part of the ride. I wasn’t.
I’ll happily spare you all the explanations of why the stock has rallied and in any case, the stock price is a poor reflection of a company’s quality. You could probably argue that it’s especially poor in the case of Tesla. Not that things haven’t improved for the California-based car maker. They just turned in their fourth quarterly profit in a row, including $104m in the very lacklustre second quarter 2020. That said, on one hand profits are rather modest and on the other they’re always a bit clouded, including various subsidies and tax breaks. But the trend looks positive, better than in the poor scale of the diagram below.
Tesla is also delivering more cars. Elon Musk has set his target at 500.000 cars in 2020 which doesn’t seem fully unrealistic as Tesla has delivered more than 100.000 cars per quarter in the last quarters. It’s not all rosy though, as the Model 3 now makes up over 80% of all deliveries. Total deliveries of Models S and X have fallen from 28.000 in Q4 -17 to 12.000 in Q1 -20, i.e. less than 10% of all deliveries. This basically means that going forward (and until the cyber truck, that however looks to be a few years away), Tesla profits are riding on the Model 3 and the new Model Y.
There are however problems as well. Quite a lot of them. One is the EV market in total which both in Europe and the US is growing but is still very small. In Europe’s leading car market Germany, EV’s now make up around 3.7% of new car sales. In the US where EV’s is basically synonymous with Tesla, the share is below 3% in all states but California and Washington DC. In most of them, it’s below 1%.
Another problem for Tesla is that the big car brands have woken up and as the EV market grows, competition will only intensify. Were the big guys late to the game, as is so often claimed? Not sure if you look at the above stats of the total EV market. They’re anyway here now and you can already see the effects in Germany where Tesla’s trend is negative since a while back. 4367 Model 3’s were sold in the first six months of 2020, but VW and Renault sold more than 7.000 each of the E-Golf and the Zoe, and the Model 3 will probably also be overtaken by the VW E-Up and the Audi E-tron still this year. An E-Golf or a Zoe are not comparable to the Model 3, but neither is an E-tron – in the other direction. The EV mass market will no doubt be in Zoe land, but the premium market will increasingly move from Tesla towards Audi, Mercedes and other large brands. This is not a big surprise. Tesla was never a premium product in quality – only in pricing.
This brings us back to the stock price, because of course, Tesla doesn’t need to dominate the world. It’s already turning a small profit on the current production of around 400.000 cars per year, and if it can increase that by a few ‘000s, it would look pretty good. That would however also be necessary for coming necessary capital expenditure. In any case, it’s not enough to put a value on the company at 13 times Ford, who by the way sold 1.13 million cars worldwide in Q1 -20, a 20% drop on the previous quarter.
I have no clue where Tesla’s stock price is going next, but personally I stay away from emotionally driven companies, and this is a prime one in that regard. It may be useful to remember that in the dot.com boom and bust 20 years ago, a young online retailer called Amazon lost 94% of its share value before it turned things around and moved to dominate the world. That’s not something Tesla will ever repeat, but irrespective of the stock price, I wish Tesla all the best and think it’s amazing what they’ve managed to achieve. My guess is however that when we look back at this in five years, if Tesla is still around, it will be selling almost all its cars in the US where the EV market share will still be in single-digit territory.
It’s vacation time! But this year being like no other, for many of us it has made changing plans or holiday habits. Most won’t fly far, we cannot visit certain countries and generally, many feel an unease for the hole concept of travelling. In our case it will mean spending our well-deserved weeks close to home, or rather within driving distance. A bit like it was back when our parents were young in the 50’s and 60’s. So this week, whether you’re at home or not, let’s take a trip down memory lane back in time, more precisely to France in 1955. Because there and then, “la révolution” was about to hit the car world!
First though, let’s picture what Europe was like in 1955. The war was over since 10 years and the worst memories had faded somewhat. The economy was strong as Europe was rebuilding – in fact we were already 10 years into the 30-year expansion period that lasted until the mid-70’s and in France was referred to as the “30 glorieuses”, the 30 glorious years. There were plenty of jobs, things were looking up – maybe peace would last this time and Europe had a bright future?
With a bit more money in their pockets, people started going on holidays. In France, the first motorway construction projects had just started, but “la route des vacances”, the holiday road, was still the Nationale 7 that ran for almost 1000 kms from Paris to Menton on the Côte d’Azur, just next to the Italian border. This is the road most holiday makers took in cars that were a mix of pre-war models and some early 50’s models. Many were French, and many were Citroëns, at the time the second largest French brand behind Renault but just ahead of Peugeot, with Simca in fourth place. Citroëns at the time were mostly the famous 2CV and the Traction Avant. But in 1955, Citroën introduced the car that would leave a mark for many decades to come – the DS.
Citroën at the time were not only innovative when it came to building cars but also in naming them. Pronouncing DS in French can be transcribed as “Déesse”, meaning Goddess. The DS would have many nicknames through the years, but notably in Germany it was most known as the German translation of the word – “Göttin”.
When the Salon de l’Auto opened its doors in October 1955 the car got more attention than anyone could have hoped for, and by the time it closed its doors, Citroën had taken 12.000 orders for the new car, almost equivalent to half the brand’s total annual production at the time! This was obviously a great success and the start of the DS story, that was to last no less than 20 years with more than 1.3 million cars sold in total. What was it then that was so exciting about this car, and that gave it such a long life?
Let’s start with the design. In 1955 cars didn’t look like the DS. If you don’t believe me, have a look at the above selection, all cars from the same era. In comparison, the DS was modern, daring and futuristic. The front axle was 20mm wider than the rear, giving the car a droplet form. The roof-mounted, rear turn lights looked like small turbine engines. The sloaping front was a clear break with other cars at the time. And when other cars still had flat windscreens, the DS’s was arched in a way that was hugely complicated to produce. Given the the car also offered generous interior space (for the time), it quickly became General de Gaulle’s official presidential car.
There was also the technology and innovations that were at a level to make a 1950’s Elon Musk blush. From the start the car offered hydraulic, assisted steering (a first on mass-produced cars) and hydraulic front disc brakes. The steering wheel, originally a model from 1904, was constructed such as not to pierce the driver’s torso in case of accident. The wheels had a single, central bolt until 1966. During the car’s life a number of other technological features were added, most notably the turning headlights in 1967, that turned in the same direction as the steering wheel. Other car brands needed more than 30 years to come up with a similar solution!
Then again, this was a French car, meaning all ideas weren’t necessarily logical to the non-French. Putting the spare wheel under the front hood in front of the radiator was smart, the fact that you needed to remove the rear side body part to change a back wheel less so. And in spite of thousands of tests having been performed, it took Citroën a few years to find the right liquid to circulate through what the car has become most famous for – its hydraulic system and hydraulic suspension.
Citroën had actually launched its hydraulic suspension system already in 1952 on the Traction Avant, but it wouldn’t become famous until the DS. To provide a simplified explanation, where a normal car has springs and dampers, a DS has spheres filled with gas in one half and hydraulic fluid in the other. Given gas compresses but fluid doesn’t, gas takes the role of a spring and the fluid of a damper. The system was often accused of being complicated and a nightmare for later owners, but provided it doesn’t leak and is being regularly maintained, it basically relies on the laws of physics who work as well today as in 1955.
The hydraulic suspension gave the car a ride quality that was sensational for the time, and still today is a fascinating experience. A DS literally floats over the road, so much so that some people feel seasick when riding in one. Further advantages with the system are notably that you can raise and lower the car, and Citroen’s innovative marketing people were also happy to show how the car could ride on three wheels in case… you had forgotten the fourth one. In 1962 a very capable driver actually managed to save President de Gaulle’s life, escaping from an attack on him at high speed down a bad road – with two flat tyres. Perhaps even more suprising to most is that the DS during 15 years proved a very capable rally car, winning a number of classical rally races such as Monte-Carlo, Marocco and the Thousand Lakes up in Finland.
The DS was built at a high technological level for the time, and a couple of years after it had been introduced, the mechanically far simpler and thereby cheaper ID model was produced in parallel. ID cars had vinyl roofs, a different dashboard, less equipment but above all, a simpler hydraulic system, not including for example the hydraulic steering. They did however retain the same suspension system.
A DS provides a peaceful, floating driving experience. Power evolved through the years from initially 75 hp with the old Traction Avant engine during the first years, to 130 hp for the later years, adequate but not more. The steering is a strange experience with no natural feel whatsoever and requiring very little effort. Much has also been said about the breaking as the DS doesn’t have a conventional brake pedal but rather a sort of mushroom-like rubber button sitting on the floor. Every person driving a DS for the first time will apply too much breaking pressure as you really only need to touch the mushroom lightly for the car to stop.
In the 1970’s the DS started to age and even more importantly, the way it was built was no longer at a modern standard. Citroën was losing money on every car and had run into great financial difficulties in the early 70’s, so that Peugeot had stepped in as owner. This meant the end of the DS that was to be replaced by the no-less futuristic CX – but that’s a different story.
Should you wish to have a bit of French history in your garage you would have been able to pick up a nice DS for EUR 10-15.000 no longer than 10 years ago. Today you won’t find a good one below EUR 30.000, with no real difference between model years or even the ID/DS models as the condition is far more important. Should you want to go for the beautiful convertible model, of which only some 1300 were built by Henri Chapron, it will set you back quite a bit more, currently around EUR 200.000. Whatever you choose, why not take it for a ride this summer? Maybe even to France? Parts of the Nationale 7 are still there and I’m sure the sun will be shining as you gently float towards the south!
In the last weeks I’ve published posts about Porsches, Aston Martins and Alpines. All fantastic cars, but also cars that you – more or less frequently – see on the streets. There is nothing wrong with that, and you could argue that a car that is never seen is probably not worth seeing. Yet, precisely that is the point for some of us. Having a car that is unique. That makes people point fingers, ask what it is, even give a thumbs up (when did that happen to a 911 driver the last time?). And contrary to what you may think, there are indeed cars that for various reasons never reached high production numbers but are still very much worth considering!
If you’re part of the club of those loving the unknown, here are three great but rare sports cars that definitely deserve a place in the dream garage, and perhaps even the real garage one day. We’ll go from my own assessment of most known to least known and at the end, some general thoughts on small scale productions and their often visionary founders.
The story of the German manufacturer of BMW-powered roadsters and coupés starts in 1988 when brothers Martin and Friedrich (forming the MF in the model names) went from producing hardtops to cars. They had a vision of building a beautiful and luxurious but mechanically rather traditional roadster, and so they did. The Wiesmann design is timeless and features a (very!) leather-rich, beautifully crafted interior. Attention was also given to keeping the weight low, with Wiesmanns weighing in at between 1100-1300 kg. Last but not least, getting access to BMW engines meant that the cars were equipped with some of the best 6, 8 and 10-cylinder engines in the world!
The first Wiesmann to see the light of day was the MF3, powered by the brilliant 343 hp strong, straight-six from the BMW M3 (E46). The design later models remained more or less the same and it’s difficult to say anything negative about it!
The MF4 coupé presented in 2003 was Wiesmann’s first coupé, now powered by BMW V8’s. The MF4 roadster followed in 2009 before the last model MF5 saw the light, also available as coupé and roadster. The MF5 featured the BMW 10-cylinder from the late 00’s M5 and M6, developing first 507hp and later in the twin-turbo version 555hp. The MF5 was sold in parallel to the MF4.
My only experience with Wiesmann goes back a few years when I was passenger in an MF3. It was a true, hardcore roadster experience with a brilliant engine roar, but also lots of other mechanical sounds. There were no squeaks or rattles though, even though the car was a few years old, and the owner also said he had practically had no issues at all with the car that he had owned since new.
Wiesmann increasingly ran into financial difficulties in the 10’s and went bankrupt in 2014 after a failed rescue attempt. About 1600 cars had been produced when the lights went out, and finding one today is actually easier than you could expect. At the time of writing there are about 80 cars available in Germany, by far the largest market. Prices depend on version and engine but are generally between EUR 120.000-EUR 250.000, meaning quite close to their price as new. With a weight of 1100-1200 kg, my choice would be the MF3 with the 343hp six-cylinder from the E46. Power is plentiful, the engine is lighter and you’ll be towards the lower end of the price range.
Usually, car brands are born out of more or less eccentric engineers or designers with rather empty pockets, who manage to convince someone with somewhat deeper pockets to finance the initial stage. Not so Artega which was born as a project of the very established German car supply firm paragon AG, at the time an established supplier of auto electronics to all major German car brands. Feeling he knew a thing or two about the car industry in which he had worked for 25 years, and that he could do things better, paragon CEO Klaus D Frers set out on the project that was to become Artega GT, a light, mid-engined sports car built on Volkswagen technology, initially intended only as a showcase for the company but later making it into production.
The Artega was designed by Henrik Fisker, known from beauties such as the BMW Z8, the Aston Martin DB9 an obviously his own Fisker Karma. The whole development process was advised by a number of German car gurus and car professors, the likes of whom you only find in the land of free speed. The car was finally presented at the Geneva Car Salon in 2007 and received wide praise from the motoring press, being referred to by some as “the Porsche killer”. An innovative construction with an aluminium space frame and other light-weight materials helped keeping the weight down to 1285 kg, an easy match for the 300 hp VW V6 engine and the DSG gearbox.
Various tests of the Artega speak of a very accomplished sports car that was for example still quicker around Hockenheim than a Porsche Cayman in 2013, four years after its market introduction. it is however a small (4m long) and low (1.12 m high) car, so large drivers may have problems finding a good position. Obviously also, the selling point of being a technology showcase ten years ago feels a bit different a decade later.
153 Artegas were produced between 2009 and 2012 when the company went bankrupt. Reasons are a bit unclear but if you are to believe CEO Frers, the Mexican financiers he had manged to pull in didn’t understand the car business, an almost-made deal with a Chinese group never came through, and there were disagreements within the company where some wanted to make Artega a European Tesla and switch to electrical power.
Given the low production number, it’s surprising how relatively easy it is to find one that will be yours for around EUR 50.000-70.000 – not bad for a very capable sports car relying on both the knowledge of VW and a leading automotive supplier, and that you are guaranteed never to see in the supermarket parking lot!
The Venturi story starts in 1983 when engineer Claude Poiraud and designer Gérard Godfroy come up with the somewhat crazy idea of launching their own sports car brand. Having found some money, they manage to present a full-scale, mid-engined mock-up at the car salon in Paris in 1984. In the following years, production starts under the company name MVS (Manufacture de Voiture de Sport) which literally translates to Sports Car Manufacturer…
A few hundred cars are produced between 1987-1990, mostly equipped with the PRV V6 engine from Renault. The cars are very much hand-made with a luxurious interior according to the taste of the time. The handling and driving experience are said to be brilliant, weight distribution with the engine in the middle is next to perfect, and the body, very much reminiscent of the Ferrari F355, is maybe a bit anonymous but has aged quite well until today, although the 80’s lines are clear for all to see.
Sales never take off though, with no more than 200-300 cars produced until 1990 when new ownership and capital lead to the Venturi Atlantique, the most accomplished car that will be built in various models until the company’s bankruptcy in 2000. The shape is still that of the original Venturi, but in the 400 hp Atlantique 400 GT race version, this was actually the world’s first car with carbon brakes, on par with Ferrari and other sports cars in terms of power, and generally highly praised by motor journalists as one of the best drives on the market in the 90’s. It’s also the most powerful sports car built in France to this day!
When Venturi threw in the towel in 2000 it had sold less than 700 cars in the 13 years of production. And unlike the other cars presented here, finding a Venturi of any type today is hard work – a quick check before writing this post indicates there’s less than 10 available in Europe (including a bit surprisingly 3-4 in the UK). Based on this very small sample, prices at around EUR 40.000-50.000 seem quite reasonable for car that not only is a great drive but that also will make you truly unique on the road, knowing you’re driving a bit of automotive history from La Grande Nation!
Is buying a car produced in such small numbers as the three described here synonymous with economic ruin? Not necessarily. These three examples all rely on technique from large manufacturers (in order BMW, VW and Renault), so mechanically they don’t present too much of an issue. The bodywork is obviously a different story – here it may well be impossible to find old parts, meaning repairing collision damage could been having to produce new parts…
The examples also illustrate that as could be expected, financing is the hardest nut to crack for the visionary creators. Wiesmann, Artega and Venturi all struggled with somewhat unclear financing from parties not always aligned or serious, and when these then run out of cash or bow out, bankruptcy comes quickly. The main problem is obviously that going to see your bank and asking for a loan to start a new car company has never been easy – neither in the 80’s, nor today.
What these cars also illustrate is the at the same time creative and traditional thinking of their founders. Traditional in their conception of a true sports car as light-weight and rear-wheel drive, focusing on driving pleasure, creative in their usage of modern materials to get there. It’s indeed a shame that with the possible exception of Lotus and Alpine, all large manufacturers today seem to move in a different direction.
Finally if all goes well, all three brands presented here may re-appear in the coming years. The rights to Venturi have been bought by a Monegasque millionaire who wants to produce an electric super car. Artega presented the Scalo at the IAA in 2015, basically an electric version of the GT but only build on order, so not really a mass production item. Finally Wiesmann are planning a comeback still this year with Project Gecko, a rather traditional roadster said to resemble the MF5 and equipped with a BMW 4.4 litre V8. Nothing wrong with that either. Sounds good to me!
If Aston Martin were a cat, it would slowly but surely run out of lives. The car maker that has spoiled us with some of the most beautiful sports cars through history has declared bankruptcy no less than seven times. In 2018, an IPO was supposed to solve its financial problems but in the two years since, Aston has missed more earnings estimates than its had bankruptcies, leading to a stock price declining by 90%, The Gaydon-based company lost GBP 104m in 2019 and a further GBP 120m in Q1 2020, and now has total debt of around GBP 1bn. But as has emerged over the last weeks, there may be hope for Aston – yet again.
That hope has three names. The first is Tobias Moers, the long-time and very successful AMG boss that will take over the helm at Aston after Andy Palmer’s five-year reign. Moers is credited with having taken AMG from a tuner among many to a very profitable division of Daimler, even if it’s been at the cost of some AMG brand dilution. That is also something Aston and Andy Palmer know something about, as under Palmer’s reign, the Aston symbol has through licensing deals appeared on everything from clothes to boats. To his credit is having kept Aston’s outgoing models running longer than anyone thought, but also having launched three new cars in as many years – the new Vantage, the DB11 and the DBS.
The second name that bodes well for Aston is its new shareholder and financier Lawrence Stroll, who has already injected GBP 540m in the company for a controlling stake. Stroll’s F1 team Racing Point will be renamed Aston Martin next year, it is Stroll who appointed Moers, no doubt also with the thought of developing the existing collaboration with Mercedes further, and Stroll certainly has a role in getting Aston’s other new major shareholder aboard, Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff. So for the future of F1 it looks quite solid – but what about the road cars?
The volume car in the current line-up is of course the Vantage. The problem is that it doesn’t sell very well. Its looks have been debated and whatever you think of it, no one thinks it looks better than the car it replaces. That shows in the sales numbers and puts even more importance on the new DBX SUV being a success. It seems to be a car that has a lot going for it and it’s certainly in a segment that is growing strongly, so time will tell. Most people – me excluded – also seem to think it looks quite good, which would be a first among luxury SUV’s (see my thoughts on that topic here).
Can Moers as Aston’s new boss, Stroll as its new shareholder and an intensified collaboration with Mercedes, for example in Mercedes using Aston’s newly developed V6 engine, save Aston Martin, and is it then time to buy the stock? This isn’t the place for stock tips but the downside is obviously limited, and what should also be said is that neither Mercedes nor Lawrence Stroll have become successful by losing money, so there is indeed hope. Time will tell.
In other news it should be noted that a very strange F1 season started on Sunday with the Austrian GP. Face masks everywhere, obviously no audience, and overall quite a strange feeling. The race itself was also strange, with Bottas (Mercedes) winning ahead of Leclerc (Ferrari) and Lando Norris (McLaren), no doubt the surprise of the day but the result of no less than 9 cars retiring, and Hamilton (Mercedes) being penalized for having put Albon (Red Bull) in the sand. You would think the teams would have had enough time in the last months to solve really all technical issues, but apparently that’s not the case… Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) started outside of the top 10 and spun himself to the very end of the field after half the race, before finishing in 10th place. As we learnt last week Ferrari didn’t even offer him a contract for 2021 and as per the time of writing, no one else has either. I stand by my assessment from earlier this year (see here) that Vettel will leave F1 after the season.
Maybe you’ve been saving up for some time. Maybe you’ve had a nice run in the stock market (which, a bit surprisingly, hasn’t been too difficult in the last months). Maybe you’ve cancelled your holiday plans because of… we all know what. Anyway you find yourself with enough money to realize that dream you’ve nurtured for a long time – buying a 911.
For the following exercise we’ll assume your budget is around €100.000. We’ll also assume that although there’s a number of other really nice cars out there, it’s a 911 you want. You’re still open to different generations though, preferring if possible something a bit special, but knowing full well that the real “special” 911’s have price-wise left the earth’s orbit a long time ago. Given that, what does a budget of EUR 100.000 buy you today?
Fortunately the answer is quite a lot. And what is so fascinating in doing this exercise with the 911 is that it’s the only sports car I can think of where that budget buys you either a 5-year or a 50-year old car – and a few interesting ones there in between!
Below is my personal 911 top 3 for different types of usage. They are probably not the same as yours and luckily I should also add that you can have great 911’s for far less money – the 996 Turbo or the 997.2 4S are two that spring to mind for around half the budget. But today, we’ll look closer at the 100.000 top list.
Porsche 911 (930) Turbo 1978-1989
If you’re anything like me and grew up in the 70’s and 80’s , this was pretty much the coolest car around. The 911 had been available as turbo since the early 70’s, but 1978 saw the engine volume increased to 3.3 litres and the power boosted to 300 hp thanks to an intercooler. This was the one to have and as anyone who’s driven one knows, it’s not a car for the faint-hearted. The combination of a rear engine on a short wheel-base and a perceived 5-minute turbo lag leads to some pretty heavy over-steering. In the current days of digital safety systems, let’s just say it’s quite a refreshing experience! The rest of the package with the giant wing and the massive rear wheel arches is still spectacular to this day, as is the wonderful, analogue interior.
Refreshing as it may be, you should remember that this is now a 40-year old car based on an even older construction, so a 930 is not a daily driver. It is however a great car for special occasions and definitely solid enough for a weekend getaway.
You can find a good 930 Turbo for EUR 100′ but it will take a bit of effort. It’s well worth it though, and although prices have risen strongly in the last 10 years, the risk of 930’s starting to drop in value is very minor indeed.
Porsche 911 (996) GT2 or GT3
Moving on to the 996 range means going from the purists’ air-cooled engine to a water-cooled one, but that’s a move to the modern era that no one really disputes anymore. The reason for including both the GT2 and GT3 here is that the GT2 is turbo-charged and built on the wider 911 Turbo body whereas the GT3 is based on the leaner, regular 911 Carrera body with the naturally aspirated, legendary Mezger engine. This also means the GT2 is up roughly 100 hp on power on the GT3, depending on version. Both GT2 and GT3 were built from 2000 until 2005 and could be had in Clubsport version, with gripping bucket seats and other racing attributes.
Although none of them were homologation models, both cars feature a lot of racing technology and are both driving- and comfort-wise quite far from a regular 911. To enjoy them fully to the car’s full potential, you will want to take them to a race track now and then. When you do, it will no doubt be one of the greatest drives you can have until this day!
Pricing-wise the GT3 at around EUR 80.000 comes in around EUR 20.000 cheaper than a good GT2. Many GT’s have been modified but try to go for an original and if you do, it’s difficult to imagine a more entertaining and value-preserving use of your money!
Porsche 911 (991) Targa
The 991 range was built from 2011 until 2019 to a total of more than 230.000 cars, so this is very much the modern 911. It’s come a long way from the 930 we started with above, but 40 years later it’s still one of the very best sports cars you can buy. In the range and for the budget, I think a targa is a great combination of the coupé/convertible you want a daily driver to be, and a bit more special than the regular model. it also looks better and can be expected to preserve its value better with fewer built.
The Targa 4 (345 hp) and Targa 4S (395hp) started in 2014 and the GTS version (430 hp) was added in 2015. You’ll struggle to get that into your budget, but you’ll quite easily get in a Targa 4 or even a 4S. That also means enjoying the modern version of a naturally-aspirated engine… Targa or not, it’s stil difficult to predict how well a modern 911 produced in such large numbers will preserve its value, but you’ll sleep well knowing you have bought one of the best cars on the market at roughly half its price as new.
It’s amazing how much the 911 has evolved from its origins in the 60’s to today’s cars, and just as amazing is the price evolution these cars have seen in the last 10 years. That has also meant a change in the market, with many models (especially those more expensive than the ones listed here) looked upon more as an investment than the fantastic cars they are. The point of this exercise was not that – it was finding a great 911 for a €100.000 budget to enjoy on a Sunday, on a track day or everyday. As we’ve seen, that is still possible!
With the ever-increasing offer of digital media, the written word is certainly challenged today. We’re therefore grateful that you still read this blog and if you do, chances that you follow a few car-focused Youtube channels is obviously quite high. Today I want to bring you my top 5 in this large universe – some you may be familiar with, but perhaps some can bring new inspiration. The list is by no means exhaustive and there’s certainly a lot of other good stuff out there – your suggestions are more than welcome!
The listing below goes in some kind of fame-based order and I’ve chosen to focus on non-professional car enthusiasts who have developed their channel from scratch, built a following and today in some cases made it something they can live off. If you’re toying with the idea, be aware though it takes a lot of work, time, patience and luck. An additional difficulty is of course that a car vlogger (without his own car collection like Shmee) will only win followers if he drives exciting cars, but he’ll only get access to those cars if he has a large following… Let’s just say I will keep my daytime job for now and stick to writing this blog! So here we go (clicking the title will take you to the Youtube channel):
Having made good money selling an electronics web store, the London-based Tim aka Shmee we all love to hate started vlogging ten years ago and has over the last decade in parallel built himself an impressive car collection. Updates around these are at the center of his films and Shmee also has a great network of friends especially in Germany, who also have highly interesting garages. The focus is clearly on super cars which he sometimes also takes to the Nürburgring and other exciting places. Yes, it is definitely irritating that this school boy looking guy with the high pitch voice has more money than you, but a lot of people have learnt to live with it and Shmee today has over 2 million followers.
Everyone knows Doug and no one is indifferent to him. This California-based, ex-Porsche mechanic writes columns for various car sites and started filming car tests in 2016 which are today followed by more than 3.5 million people. No one can compete with Doug’s focus on a car’s ”quirks and features”, partially making you forget that the actual driving in his 25-minute videos is down to a few minutes and doesn’t give much away in terms of the actual driving experience. Doug has also developed an index, ranking cars in various weekend and practicality categories. His preference is certainly for super cars but these have become quite diluted with a bit of everything – not all of it exciting.
Two Canadian guys who put the focus on driving mostly on roads in Ontario, including their favourite cliché corner that filters well-behaved cars from less well-behaved ones. Jakub is a big fan of launch controls, Yuri is the interior entertainment specialist. Unlike Doug de Muro who went into the Covid lockdown with a large reserve of videos, Yuri and Jakub had to resort to virtual tests for a few months. They are however back for real now and enjoy around a million followers. The guys test a bit of everything, from family to sports cars, typically in the top versions.
Canadian Thomas started the channel in 2016 that English-born James, today living in Canada, later joined. Throttle House today has around 700.000 followers with focus on exciting sports cars where driving both on roads and tracks is at the center of the films. There are a bit too many bad jokes based on English-Canadian language differences, but it’s nice with a blog with a pure driving focus.
Lotus-loving Englishman James is a car-loving photographer who is a member of the Clarkson & Co Drive Tribe. He started making films 5-6 years ago but has struggled with the challenge mentioned initially, access to attractive cars needed to get a nice following. Today he’s reached 100.000 followers, making it a bit easy, and his driver-based videos filmed on the English countryside are entertaining, since he knows his stuff. The focus is on sports rather than supercars, including gems from the 80’s and 90’s.
I hope you’ll enjoy some of the above-mentioned, and do please post your suggestions in the comments!
I had the privilege to spend part of my childhood in the late 70’s and early 80’s in Monaco. I had caught the car virus already back then, although the 8-9-year version of myself was mostly interested in counting car antennas (these were the days where cars would regularly have 3-4 antennas, and the really cool guys would have a 2-meter, roof-mounted one, making it look like they were receiving from the moon…).
Monaco is obviously embedded in France, and France is obviously very French, also when it comes to cars. In this period there were two French sports cars that easily (at least according to the French) held up with the competition from both Germany and Italy. The first was the Renault 5 Turbo / Turbo 2 nicknamed “the steel mouse”, basically a Renault 5 with a wider body and the engine moved back to sit where the back seats used to be, and developing anything between 160-300 hp depending on version and year. Few of these are left today and when they change hands, it’s at stratospheric prices.
The other came from the small French manufacturer Alpine, established in 1955 and mostly known for the A110, built during the 60’s to the mid-70’s. Alpine had always had a close relationship with Renault who took over the company in 1973 and after the A110, sold its successor the A310 (later A610) until 1995 when the Alpine name disappeared.
In 2017 Renault then re-launched Alpine with the new A110, a small, light sports car clearly reminiscent of the original from the 60’s, and in many ways inspired by Lotus (Lotus Exige bodies were even used during the development process). The A110 received a warm reception especially from the motor press since it was a car that finally went against the logic of ever-increasing power in ever-heavier sports cars. The car magazine Evo (the tagline of which this blog uses as its name) even elected it runner-up in its Evo Car of the Year in 2018. In addition, a small engine with low emissions in a light body made the car cheap to own, which is very important in France but increasingly also in other European countries.
I obviously no longer live in Monaco but our family typically returns to the south of France every year (typically doesn’t include this year by current looks…) and we stay close to a large Renault dealer with a separate Alpine showroom. I visited it last summer, got a personalized demonstration of the car as well as a test drive in the adjacent back country that was really an experience.
Firstly I love the looks, that for me strike the right balance between old and new and are quite unique. Secondly you sit really low with the car wrapped around you. Thirdly, it’s a great drive. The mid-mounted, turbo-charged, 250 hp four-pot (now also available in a 295 hp, “S” version) delivers more than enough power to the rear wheels for the 1.100 kgs it weighs. The engine is in great harmony with the 7-speed DSG box and handling is sharp with a notable absence of body roll. It’s also very well made and doesn’t need to be thrown around a corner to be enjoyable. As Renault has shown previously, all the way from that R5 Turbo to modern incarnations of the Mégane, it knows how to develop great drives, and the A110 is a testament to that. At a starting price of around EUR 55.000, I would also claim that it’s quite competitive, being far cheaper than any new Lotus (and in comfort and finish, only the Evora could compete) or Porsche Cayman (that is however more than 500 kgs heavier), the two most obvious competitors.
Apparently though, not a lot of people agree with me on that last point – because very few Alpines are being sold – and this is even before the whole Covid thing. A total production of around 7.000 so far of what was always going to be a niche car doesn’t sound too bad, but sales in large markets are in free fall and in December, the daily production was cut from 15 cars to 7. As noted in my post on Daniel Ricciardo’s switch to McLaren a few weeks ago (that you can read here), Renault’s finances are also in bad shape, with 15.000 employees currently being cut as part of an EUR 2bn savings plan.
The Alpine is a great sports car at a good price, and although the brand may be less-known than Porsche or Lotus, the reputation and tradition should appeal to at least some of the mid-aged sports car enthusiasts that are the target group. The problem is rather to be found on the distribution side. Given Alpine is not in line neither with the rest of Renault’s line-up nor with its clients, the cars are sold over separate dealers that are few and far between (11 in Germany, 2 in Switzerland, 3 in Austria and not more than 20 in the home market France, that has more than 3.700 Renault dealers). Taken together, that 6-month old Cayman that can be serviced around the corner, that is certainly the safer option and that definitely carries the more prestigious brand, all of a sudden sounds quite attractive…
A mother company in severe financial straits with the French state as 15% owner does not bode well neither for Renault in F1, nor for niche projects like the Alpine. If sales don’t pick up, which is highly doubtful given what’s happened, I wouldn’t be surprised if for the second time in its life, Alpine is laid to rest. That may be sad for Alpine but not necessarily for A110 owners, who can still enjoy a great car that will never be seen on every corner and that can be expected to hold its value really well!
Chris Bangle is a name associated with everything from love (for some) to dislike of various degrees (for most) in BMW circles. The 65-year old American designer who today runs his own company out of Italy, notably working for Samsung, came to BMW in 1992 as chief designer and was responsible for mostly everything that came out of Munich in the following 17 years. Of all the various models he led the work on, one of the more controversial was no doubt the 6-series grand tourer, internally known as E63/64, launched in 2002, and available both as coupé and convertible. Pretty much everyone agreed that whereas the front and side views were more or less ok, the rear view was not, looking lack the trunk lid of another car had been fitted by accident.
Fortunately the launch of the successor F12/13 range in 2011 and built until 2018 meant a vast improvement. The range now included the previous coupé and convertible but also a four-door grand coupé, that I will however not focus on here. The new car was the work of Adrian van Hooydonk who had succeeded Bangle as head designer (but who was partly responsible of the E63/64 as well, so he doesn’t come out completely unscathed…) and produced a far more appealing package from all angles. In V8 650i-version, both body shapes usually cost between EUR 120.000-160.000 with options. Today, excellent cars can be had for EUR 30.000-40.000 with less than 100.000 kms on the clock, for a less than ten year old car that looks as modern now as it did then. That makes it a very compelling proposition!
Coupé and convertible share the same, almost 5 meter long body, but the convertible is around 150 kg heavier, pushing it on the wrong side of 2 tonnes. More weight is added if you opt for the 4WD Xdrive version that could be had with all engines, although the rear-wheel drive ones are more common. You would think such a big car offers ample interior room, but whereas you sit like a king up front and have room for all your luggage especially in the coupé, the rear seats are cramped for any person bigger than a mid-sized child, especially in the leg area.
BMW offered four different engines in all three versions and whereas the 6-cylinder, 308 hp diesel can perhaps be an option for the coupé and for lovers of torque (knowing it produces 680Nm), I still personally struggle with a diesel engine in combination with a convertible. That leaves the two petrol options, a single-turbo, 6-cylinder with 315 hp, and a double-turbo V8 with 402 hp until 2013 and 444 hp thereafter. The same engine is also boosted to 553 hp in the M6 version, which today is however almost twice as expensive as the 650i. The six-cylinder 640i certainly has enough power for the character of the big Bavarian, but the V8 in the 650i excels in outright power, torque and sound, and would be my choice.
Steering away from the M6 is also based on the 6-series not being a track car, or really a sports car in that sense at all. It’s a fantastic machine for the left lane on the autobahn or for large open roads, but neither size nor weight invite to being thrown around narrow mountain roads or on track days. The 6-series is much more of a well-behaved cruiser, enjoying high speed transport in luxury and comfort to St. Tropez as much as posing in front of Club 55 once you get there. That’s why I would also choose the convertible over the coupé – it’s the perfect body for this car!
Contrary to what the reputation would you have you think, the 6-series only comes out average in quality surveys, with problems notably linked to the very extensive electrical system, the A/C system and also coolant leaks. This shouldn’t be exaggerated but buying form a dealer with a warranty is certainly a good idea. You also want to make sure all electronics are working and, for the convertible, that there are no strange noises or issues with the hood – open and close it a few times just to make sure. Owner and service history are obviously also important, but fortunately, many of the owners tend to be on the right side of 50 from a pre-owned car perspective.
All in all , a pre-owned 640i or 650i is a wonderful proposition and quite unbeatable in terms of value for money. This is after all a modern car with all the luxury you would expect at the original price point – but not really at the one they can be had for today. Interestingly, especially in convertible form, it’s also a car without real competition. A Mercedes SL of corresponding age is more expensive and a strict two-seater. Audi never built a larger convertible than the A5-series, which in terms of comfort, luxury is on a very different, inferior level. A Maserati GranCabrio/Coupé is was never a very convincing car and additionally may make you look like something you don’t want to. It will also cost you far more. If you ask me, go for a 650i, choose wisely and enjoy the satisfaction of having done a good deal on a very complete car, and looking very good this summer!
In the absence of driving, the F1 circus has still managed to produce some entertainment these last weeks. Mid-May we learnt that Daniel Ricciardo is leaving Renault after only 12 months to join McLaren, and around a week before the real bombshell was dropped, namely that Sebastian Vettel is leaving Ferrari at the end of the season. He will be replaced by Carlos Sainz Jr., and will move on to…. Right. We don’t know, even three weeks after the announcement (and waiting for that piece of news has now made this post a bit old…).
To start with the less surprising news, Daniel Ricciardo leaves Renault after only one season, in a move that made Renault F1 principal Cyril Abiteboul frustrated and speak of a lack of trust. My guess is that Ricciardo is at least as frustrated by a car that last season failed to show any kind of progress over 2018, and you have to believe didn’t give any reason to think it would be better this year. Renault didn’t deliver on everything Ricciardo was promised when joining, and Cyril should thus stop complaining and work on getting his team to perform instead.
That of course assumes he still has a team, which is far from certain given Renault’s and France’s current status. The French state owns 15% of stumbling mother company Renault, which sacked 15.000 employees last week and has seen demand rock bottom in Covid times. It wouldn’t be a massive surprise that the French state pressures Renault to pull the plug on F1, making Ricciardo’s move look even wiser. Let’s be honest: Daniel should never have left Red Bull and joined Renault in the first place. But with McLaren, he’ll at least be driving for a team that seems to be on a roll, that has plenty of money from Lando Norris’s father Adam, who seems to be slightly more business-minded than the French state, and where next to Lando, he’ll probably have a first driver status.
The far larger surprise came a week earlier with Vettel announcing he’s leaving Ferrari at the end of the season (if we end up having one), when his contract comes to an end. Given it’s unclear where he’s going or if he’s leaving the sport altogether, this has led to loads of speculation as to his reasons. It’s unclear if he was offered more than a one-year extension and on what terms, some therefore claiming money played a role. A lot has also been focused on the lack of a cultural fit at Ferrari after Luca di Montezemolo left and was replaced by the not-very-FI-loving Sergio Macchione and his foot soldier Maurizio Arrivabene. There may be some truth to both points, but you have to believe Vettel is mainly in it for winning races, not for the money. And in terms of culture, the changes didn’t happen yesterday. Vettel has been driving under new management since 2015 and there didn’t seem to be any issues until he started making mistakes. And that was after a certain Charles Leclerc joined, and regularly drove faster – and better.
If there is indeed a cultural issue, it has no doubt been complicated by the Monegasque Leclerc, a true Southerner who is fluent in Italian, both language- and cultural-wise. Leclerc is also young enough not to have demands on anything but driving his car, which he does very well. But I doubt this is fundamentally about culture. My guess would be that it’s more related to Vettel sensing he’s losing his first driver status and as a four-time world champion, maybe just not having the energy to go for it again. He has nothing left to prove, which is also the reason he may be leaving the sport.
If Vettel says on, his options are rather limited. That he would go to a smaller team with no chance of winning races doesn’t feel very likely. That basically limits it to one option, given Albon doesn’t seem to be at risk at Red Bull (and Verstappen most certainly isn’t). That would be to take the second seat at Mercedes next to Lewis, replacing Valtteri Bottas who’s been on rolling one-year contracts since joining the team in 2017. However, whether Mercedes would be prepared to open such a potential powder keg and whether Lewis Hamilton would agree to it is far from certain. It’s also highly doubtful whether Vettel, who could never challenge Lewis’s first driver status, would accept to play second fiddle to him.
The winner in all this is of course Carlos Sainz Jr, son of legendary rally driver Carlos Sainz, who did an excellent job at McLaren in 2019. By contracting him for 2021, Ferrari also completes the transition to the next generation of drivers. If Albon starts delivering, Red Bull can be said to have done the same thing, leaving Mercedes trailing behind – and making it even less probable they would engage an ageing Sebastian Vettel. The most likely option therefore seems to be that it’s “Tschüss, Seb” thanks for everything!