One half of a Zuffenhausen V8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still today, a nice place to spend time in!

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

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

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

Street finds: the A112 Abarth!

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

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

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

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

The double pipes ensure a great sound to this day!

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

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

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

Dieppe – France’s own Maranello

Renault is not a brand that is featured very often on this blog given, if you allow me to be a bit harsh, it mostly consists of a bunch of boring small cars and family SUV’s, that partly have some, hmm, intersting looks (Avantime anyone?) but are never associated with any kind of thrill of driving. Yeah, I know there’s a few racier versions of the Mégane that some love, but that’s never really been my thing. What is very much my thing on the other hand, is what a crazy bunch of engineers in the French town of Dieppe, traditionally the home of Alpine, developed in the late 70’s: the Renault 5 Turbo / Turbo II. And then 20 years later, also in Dieppe, a similar (same?) group of engineers reinvented the whole concept with the Renault Clio V6. This week will therefore be the story of the two siblings with twenty years between them, but sharing the same crazy concept and making them two of the if not greatest, then at least most exciting hot hatches ever!

Turning the clock back to the late 70’s, Renault had quite a strong rally tradition and had been racing the Alpine A110 for a number of years. The car was getting old though and a replacement was needed. As always the budget was a bit tight so the project started internally using the Renault 5 as basis. The R5 had been around since 1971 so it wasn’t the most inspiring starting point, but that’s before the guys in Dieppe came into the picture and did a few rather major modifications… In becoming the R5 Turbo, the R5 not only gained 20 cm in width, the engine also moved from up front to behind the front seats, i.e. mid-mounted, and the car went from front- to rear-wheel drive. The result was a body that all of a sudden looked spectacular (and still does!), an interior that was more or less untouched and thereby an ocean of 70’s plastic, and a weight distribution that changed quite radically, with around 60% over the rear axle (counting with the driver).

As a rally car the R5 Turbo and subsequent Turbo II (built from 1983, looking the same but technically improved) saw some success. It raced in the legendary Group B until the end in 1986 and won a total of three races which could probably have been more, had it not been for the fierce competition from notably Audi and Lancia at the time. What made the legend of the car was however not its rally pedigree but rather the total of around 5.000 homologation cars, split roughly as 1/3 Turbo and 2/3 Turbo II. Back in the early 80’s, at least in France this was the really cool car to have (which was good since price-wise it was on par with true sports cars!), but it was also one that required some basic driving skills, as you’ll guess from a combination of a short wheelbase, a mid-mounted engine and rear-wheel drive! The pengine’s position helped contribute to what was a great engine tone, making the 1.4 litre, turbo-charged 4-cylinder sound like far more than it was. 160 hp was not a huge power output, but with the setup as described and an 80’s ketchup turbo lag, more power was not really necessary.

No other Renault 5 has a natural place in the port of Monaco!

After the R5, Renault went back to its slumber and the Dieppe engineers went for a well-deserved break that lasted for around 15 years. This takes us to the late 90’s when Renault presented a study based on the Clio with a mid-mounted, V6 engine. The interest was so big that Renault decided to produce the car, this time in collaboration with Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR). The engineers in Dieppe were back from their break and developed what was at least in concept a true follower of the R5 Turbo. As the Turbo 20 years earlier, the Clio V6 had a considerably widened body, exactly the same boring interior as the standard Clio, rear-wheel drive and a mid-mounted engine behind the front seats. This time the engine was however a naturally aspirated V6, producing between 226-254 hp. It made the V6 only slightly quicker than the Turbo though, since the Clio also weighed i400 kg more at 1400 kg. A lot of that weight was actually not linked to the Clio being a new car but rather to the heavy modifications from converting the regular Clio to a rear-wheel drive, mid-engined two-seater.

The similarity in concept also means a certain similarity in the driving experience, even if the lack of a giant turbo gap given the Clio V6 is naturally aspirated makes it, shall we say not quite as full of surprises… What remains is however the rear-heavy weight distribution combined with a short wheelbase, so being slightly careful cerrtainly doesn’t hurt. Again, both the looks and the sound are (almost) as good as the old R5 Turbo and no doubt the Clio V6 will age as well.

Under the official, very selling name Renault Clio V6 Renault Sports, the V6 was built in two versions called phases, the first between 2001-2003 and the second until the end of production in 2005. It was thus built roughly as long as the R5 Turbo, but with only around half as many produced. That doesn’t show price-wise yet with a good Clio V6 coming in at around EUR 40-50.000 whilst the R5 Turbo / Turbo II is at least twice as much. There is no objective measure in this world that makes it rational to buy either one of them, but then again rational is boring and if that’s your philosophy, these cars are both a lot of fun and not seen on every corner.

Had they spent 1/10 of what they spent on the exterior on the interior…

The new Alpine A110 is being built in Dieppe since 2017, a car that I covered last summer in a post you can read here. We’ll come back to the upcoming F1 season in the coming weeks but it’s no secret that Renault’s F1 team has been renamed Alpine from this season, so there’s no doubt Dieppe is going strong with hopefully some other great cars coming out over the coming years!

Street finds: the great Bizzarrini!

A great thing with writing this blog is that whereas in some weeks I know well in advance what to write about, in others I don’t have a clue. This is a bit of a thrill since inspiration (at least so far) then comes somehow, but very rarely does it do so in such an inspired way as this week! Taking a lunch walk on Tuesday in the currently locked-down and therefore half empty city of Zurich, I turned a corner and saw something low and red that looked very much like a 60’s Ferrari but was… something else. A model name I didn’t recognize, and a logo that said Bizzarrini. I know we have some really knowledgeable readers here and as those of you familiar with Bizzarrini will know, seeing one doesn’t happen every day; nor every week, month or year! I had never seen a Bizzarrini before which is perhaps not very surprising, given the whole production of Bizzarrini automobiles in the 60’s amounted to a few dozen cars (more on that below). The 5300 GT I had in front of me looked spectacular, and when doing some research around Giotto Bizzarrini and his brand, a wonderful story of great engineering in a bygone era combined with the temper of several protagonists, including a certain Enzo Ferrari emerged. So this week will be about Giotto Bizzarrini and his cars, from the age when cars were sketched with a ruler and built with sweat rather than computers!

What I couldn’t identify straight away – a Bizzarrini GT 5300 Strada!

Giotto Bizzarrini was born in 1926 close to the port city of Livorno near Pisa in Italy, and as a young engineer started working for Alfa Romeo where he quickly made a name for himself as a very promising and talented engineer with a special love for racing cars. He was in fact so promising that the great Enzo Ferrari became aware of him and quickly recruited him, so from 1958, Giotto worked at Ferrari where he led the development of several Ferrari GT cars, notably the legendary 250 GTO. No doubt that Giotto had his career cut out for him at Ferrari had it not been for Enzo’s strong personality, Latin temper – and love for his wife Laura. Laura was not as loved by other key Ferrari employees, especially on the sales side where Ferrari’s sales manager Girolamo Gardini was getting very tired of Laura messing up his sales plans by always requesting special deliveries of race cars for personal contacts and friends. Betting on his long and successful background at the firm, Gandini together with a group of other senior executives, including Bizzarrini, one day walked into Enzo’s office and basically told him “it’s her or us”, confident Enzo would see the logic. He didn’t. Laura stayed and Enzo fired the senior executives (consisting of most of the race team at Ferrari) in what was referred to as the Palace Revolt or the Great Walkout. You’d better know what you’re doing before you mess with the boss’s wife, especially if that boss is (or rather was) Enzo Ferrari!

The Ferrari 250 GTO – 36 built, all of them still in existance, changing hands at USD 50-75m…

Giotto Bizzarrini was especially passionate about engines and before the Palace Coup had started a department within Ferrari where engines were tested and notably the Testa Rossa 3-litre engine was developed. When he left Ferrari, Giotto went on to found a company named ATS with the ambition to build a Formula 1 car (which he never did), before founding his next company called Società Autostar as a freelance design house (chassis and engines) in Livorno. One of his first clients was a a certain Ferruccio Lamborghini who was set on building a V12 engine and much like Bizzarrini, wasn’t best friends with Enzo. Bizzarrini took on the project and thus built Lamborghini’s first V12, with an architecture that was far ahead of what Ferrari was producing at the time and so powerful it had to be tuned down from its original 375 hp for street usage. This is in other words how Lamborghini’s first V12 came about, and you have to believe Giotto wasn’t too displeased to indirectly get back at Enzo…

The first Lambo V12 – Bizzarrini to the far left

Autostar under Bizzarrini also worked on a number of other cars, notably for Iso, another small Italian automaker from the 60’s, including the Iso Rivolta and Grifo, especially the race version of the Grifo called A3/C. For these, as well as for the later cars in the Bizzarrini name, he would however not be using that Lambo V12 but rather the small block Chevy V8 from the Corvette. Throughout his career he had developed a love for the larger volume, US engines, and even tried (unsuccessfully) to convince Ferrari to build a larger volume engine. A year later Giotto ended the collaboration with Iso, took the A3/C with him and fulfilled his dream by starting Automobili Bizzarrini Spa, where the A3/C was to become the first Bizzarrini car under the name GT 5300.

The GT 5300 was produced both in a Corsa (race) and a Strada (street) version, with a power output from the Chevy small block of between 350-400 hp. The car was front-mid-engined with the engine sitting behing the front axle, probably sharing quite a lot of heat with the passengers but above all, producing a sound out of this world… The body was a combination of aluminium and fibre glass, the rear axle was independent and brakes were inboard i.e. mounted on the axles such as to remove weight from the wheels, as notably on the Citroën SM. The box was a Chevy four-speed manual. Giotto raced the Corsa version himself notably in Le Mans, and it’s hard to believe today when you learn that doing so, he drove the car himself from Livorno to Le Mans, won his class and then drove back home!

The rear is the part most will have seen of the 5300 GT, and it’s a good-looking one!

Unfortunately, although there’s no doubt about his capabilities as an engineer, car designer or for that matter driver, Giotto Bizzarrini wasn’t very talented as a businessman. The race career never really took off, notably since Giotto didn’t have enough money to homologate the GT 5300 Corsa. Even worse, the whole company was permanently under-capitalized, the GT 5300 never became a success, and after the bankruptcy filing of the company in 1969, Giotto even admitted that he had not keep track of how many cars had been built. This is still a debated topic today. It’s clear that the GT 5300 Strada was the most popular car with presumably 50-75 cars produced. The Corsa version is estimated to have been built no more than 10 times, thus making it three times rarer than a GTO, and the following and last race car, the P 538, was only built a few times. So the total production of Bizzarrini during five years was probably no more than 100 cars. Those still in existance mostly sit in car museums (if you happen to be in LA, the Peterson Automobile Museum is said to have one) or personal collections, so I was indeed a lucky guy to see one parked in the street with the window half-opened!

I’m not a 100% sure but as late as last November Giotto was still alive, so chances are he still is, in that case 95 years old and most probably quite surprised to see the prices his cars fetch on the few occasions they change owners. A Bizzarrini would have been a great investment around 20 years ago when they traded for somewhere around USD 100.000, today you need to add a zero to that. But that’s of course not what makes the story special. Rather, it’s the story of a man who today counts as one of the gratest racing engineers ever, not only in Italy but globally, who developed Lamborghini’s first ever V12 and,who could probably have helped Ferrari became even more successful as a racing team, had Enzo had his wife and temper under control!

The most exciting Citroën ever!

What do Leonid Brezhnev (ex Soviet leader), Idi Amin (ex Ugandan dictator) and Adam Clayton (present U2 member) have in common? Well, hopefully not more than the fact that they were all proud owners of one of the most legendary cars of all times and the subject of this week’s post – the wonderful Citroën SM! Actually so did further, less democratic guys like Haile Selassie and the shah of Iran, but let’s please not consider this wonderful automobile creation as a transport for dictators – it was more a testament to the position of the SM as one of the most spectacular cars in the world at the time of launch, and therefore something political leaders of different kinds (and also including some more democratic ones like the French president) were keen to be seen in.

I’ve wanted to write about the SM for a long time as to me, no other car symbolizes the true innovation and great engineering from the mechanical age. Long before computers, the SM had some features that it’s taken the automobile world 40 years to catch up with, as we’ll see below. And it was all packed in a format that in my opinion has stood the test of time better than most. And…. Hold it. Before I get too carried away, let’s take it from the beginning, which in the case of the SM means going back to the early 60’s.

Some of you may remember my post on the Goddess, the Citroën DS last summer, that you can otherwise read here. The DS had been launched in 1955, and ever since, Citroën had wanted to add a more luxurious but beyond that, initially quite undefined luxury car to its line-up. This project went under the name S and was officially started in the early 60’s. When Citroën aquired Maserati in -68, the plans to build a GT had taken shape, and the SM was launched in 1970 with an engine provided by the new Italian colleagues. Or rather, an engine newly developed by them, since there was not enough room for the Maserati V8 of the time under the bonnet of the SM, and so it had to be shortened to a V6 with an unusual 90 degree angle. The volume was limited to 2.7 litres, a tribute to France’s fiscal system that ever since WW2 has been very mean to large engine volumes. And so, the Citroën SM also became known as the Maserati Citroën, and was the only Citroën ever to use a Maserati engine.

V6 far back behind the gearbox and suspension clocks

The DS had a futuristic form when it was launched back in 1955, and the SM was no less remarkable in that regard. The body has the shape of a droplet with a wider front than rear axle, as was also the case in the DS. The sleak body with the typical back wheel covers and the abrupt rear all helped achieve a wind resistance CV-value of 0.26, basically unheard of at the time. In its low position (more on the suspension below) the car looks very futuristic still to this day, and it should be noted that in spite of the shape, the SM offers sufficient room for 4, including a boot of a reasonable size. It was only sold in one version that equipment-wise was very complete, and the SM was in other words a true GT.

So what about all the innovations? Well, to start off, the SM obviously retained the hydraulic, self-leveling suspension system from the DS. I covered it in the post last summer I won’t do so again, but given it can be adjusted in height, the SM can go from very low to indeed very high by using a mechanical lever on the left side of the driver’s seat. The high position could for example be used on uneven roads or in snow, the lowest corresponds to its “resting” position. But there is a lot beyond the suspension to be mentioned. This includes the turning headlights that saw into corners, and that were also featured on late DS’s. There are the rain-sensitive windshield wipers, a first that it took decades for other car brands to replicate, the inboard front disc breaks, reducing the unsprung weight of the wheels and thereby improving ride quality, and of course the steering called DIRAVI, providing much assistance at low speeds and progressively less as the speed increases, again a first at the time. The DIRAVI steering in the SM had only 2 turns from lock to lock and a very strong centering back. In combination with the mushroom brake, another feature taken from the DS, the steering makes anyone driving an SM for the first time look like a beginner. Just as you will always apply too much breaking pressure, you will also steer far too much. The SM is a car that you have to learn, but when you do, boy does it allow you to travel in utter comfort and style!

The rear is the least beautiful part, but the shape helped the CV value

Unfortunately the Maserati wasn’t very spectacular but it sure sounded better and was more powerful than the 4-cylinder Citroën had used in the DS. With a power output of 174 hp it put the SM in the middle of the GT pack at the time in terms of performance, with a time of something like 8.5 seconds to 100 but given the aerodynamic shape, a top speed around 220 km/h, making it the fastest front-wheel drive car in the world in 1970. The shape also saves fuel as an SM will roll better than most modern cars without loosing much speed. Given it’s a 50-year old construction, that in itself is quite remarkable!

Citroën thus built a Maserati-powered car that was unlike anything the world had seen, and unlike anything it had driven as well. The car is far sportier than the DS with the exhaust providing a relatively raw exhaust note. Ride comfort is exquisite and superior to the DS, and once you get used to the steering and breaking, the SM is a cruiser by excellence. it’s actually capable of much more than that, as proven by some rally wins in the early 70’s. The standard power output didn’t make it a sports car however, and today few would think of doing more than cruising, something it excels in.

Ferari-like gear shift, radio between the seats, as it was later on the CX

Unfortunately, after a 5-year run and 12.900 cars produced, the SM story came to an end due to a number of factors. For one, Citroën had gone bankrupt in 1974 and been taken over by Peugeot who were far less keen on the SM and also on Maserati, that they sold a few years later. Secondly, the SM had always been destined for the US but ran into various issues in the US market, notably the fact that headlights at the time had to be fixed in the US, so the turning headlights had to be replaced by some of the ugliest fixed lights the world has ever seen. Thirdly, Citroën messed up a bit in terms of after-service both in the US and elsewhere. They didn’t give the US market the attention it deserved and they didn’t make buyers aware of some quite critical timing chain adjustments. This latter point was also a more general problem with the Maserati engine, which Citroën garages often didn’t know how to handle, meaning owners basically had to visit two different garages to service the car. Not a recipe for success and after five years, production of the SM came to an end.

Like so many other youngtimers, finding a good SM today has become an expensive story that starts somewhere around EUR 50.000. As said there is only one version and most cars are also manual, as they should be. Injection models made up some 3500 of the total production are to be preferred, all else equal. Otherwise your attention should go to a thorough check of the body where rust can hide in many places, and a likewise very thorough check of the engine. The timing belt issue can be fixed and has been so on many cars, make sure to choose one of these. Obviously check the suspension as well and how it has been maintained, but of the three areas mentioned, that’s by far the least worrisome one.

I don’t fall in love with all cars I write about, but I find the SM very, very hard to resist. No doubt there are many astounding innovations on our modern cars, but there is something truly special with the revolutionary stuff that was developed by engineers with the help of nothing but brains and tools. No other car pays tribute to the mechanical age better than the SM with its unique shape, its many ground-breaking innovations and of course, the lovely sound of the Maserati engine. A few weeks ago when writing about the DeLorean, I got some criticism for referring to it as legendary. Point taken in that regard, but I’ll dare use the word again when speaking of the SM – I really struggle to imagine a more legendary car!

DeLorean – back to the past

If you’re a petrol head born sometime between the mid-60’s and the mid-70’s, there’s probably few cars that you were more excited about in your youth than the famous DeLorean. Thinking of it, you probably didn’t even need to be a petrol head to find the car exciting. The looks, the gullwing doors, the unpainted, stainless steel body, the story around John DeLorean himself and of course, the car’s appearance in the “Back to the future”-movies have all contributed to this being one of the most famous cars from the 80’s.

In 1981 this was really back to the future!

Somewhat surprisingly we’ve never written about the DeLorean on the blog and it definitely feels like it’s time to change that, also as I met a very nice DeLorean owner with his car not too long ago. This week’s post will therefore be on the car with almost a decade-long delivery time but that was only in production for 18 months, that at the launch was hopelessly overpriced and under-powered, and likewise the car whose creator was charged in a major drug smuggling case!

The car commonly referred to as the “DeLorean” was the only car ever built by the DMC, the DeLorean Motor Corporation, founded by John DeLorean in 1973. DeLorean had previously made a name for himself at General Motors in the muscle car era as lead engineer and vice president at Pontiac and later at Chevrolet. After many years at GM he got bored with what he perceived like a lack of innovation. He decided to leave, set up his own company and launch what he called an ethical sports car with notably more focus on safety than was the standard at the time.

The DeLorean was designed by Giugiaro, however based on an existing proposal Giugiaro had submitted to Porsche as an idea for the coming Porsche 928, but that Porsche had turned down. By 1975 the design was completed and apart from (very) minor tweaks remained unchanged until the car was finally launched in 1981. The initial plan was to use a 6-cylinder engine from Ford. That was then dropped for the four-cylinder engine from the Citroen CX (yep, really!), but in the end even DeLorean he had to realize that the power at just over 100 hp in the US due to stricter emission regulations was not enough. Finally it was decided to use the so called PRV 6-cylinder engine from notably the Renault 30 and the Volvo 760. In “US mode” the engine put out around 130 hp, better than 100 but still far less than somewhat comparable competitors.

The long development time was also caused by DeLorean realizing that his thinking around safety features wasn’t viable in the end and that some features such as a full-width knee bar in the interior had to be rethought. He therefore took in Colin Chapman from Lotus quite late in the process, who looked at the prototype and saw a need for re-working large parts of the car. When it was finally launched in 1980, the DeLorean was built on the Lotus steel chassis from the Esprit and had the engine not in the middle but in the rear, as the 911 (but unfortunately without the power of the latter). During the car’s development, the intention had been for it to be named the DMC-12, where 12 would refer to USD 12.000 as its sticker price. By the time deliveries started that price tag had more than doubled and the name was thus dropped for the more neutral DeLorean.

All cars were unpainted at delivery, so any other colour is an after-job

Around 9.000 DeLoreans were built in total in 1981-1982 in a factory in northern Ireland before being shipped to the US. The factory was financed by UK taxpayer money as a way to bring jobs to the region but didn’t last long as DeLorean filed for receivership at the end of 1982. As illustrated by the selling price, the long development time had caused costs to spiral out of control and although the car was well received for its futuristic looks, many prospective buyers were disappointed by the lack of innovation on the inside and again, the lack of power. To be fair though, had DeLorean gone on a bit longer such as to start selling cars in Europe, the power output would have been significantly higher at around 160 hp, thanks to more generous regulations, which would have been more in line with comparable cars at the time. There were also thoughts around a double-turbo version with over 250 hp, but that was never to be.

Interior was available in grey or black and wasn’t bad, but quite conventional

Back then to my newfound friend a few weeks ago who graciously showed me his DeLorean. It is indeed a spectacular car with notably the steel body panels looking really timeless and very cool, as do of course the doors. Who knows, if the first “Back to the future” had come out in 1981 rather than 1985, perhaps that would have given DeLorean enough of a boost to go on a bit longer? The car’s interior is far less innovative with a very 80’s feel to it. Here DeLorean had wanted a more futuristic thinking with digital displays and gauges, but again delays and costs forced him to adopt a more conventional look. The owner told me that driving-wise the car is much more of a cruiser than a sports car. He says he was happy to have a manual box rather than the slow automatic, but also that the PRV isn’t the sportiest of engines. He also mentioned what all DeLorean owners can probably testify to, which is that half the pleasure from driving the car comes from all the happy smiles, thumbs up and photographies from bystanders and other drivers.

Not a car for those not comfortable with being in the limelight!

Next to the lack of power DeLorean was also criticized for bad build quality, especially in the interior. This was probably true but then again I can’t really think of an 80’s car with an interior that has stood the test of time. The truth is that interiors were pretty bad over the board at the time and seen from that angle, the DeLorean at least doesn’t look worse than the rest. The owner hadn’t had any major issues but admitted that small things do break, a lot of them electrical. From that perspective it was probably a good thing that DeLorean didn’t have enough money for his more futuristic ideas… What is very good however, is that the car enjoys a very strong following and very active owner clubs in varous countries. It is believed that more than 6.000 of the 9.000 DeLoreans produced are still on the road today which is a truly impressive number, testifying both to a quality that can’t be that bad, and also a well functioning parts supply through the owners’ network.

So what about the drug dealing charges? Well, it’s kind of a strange story, but in 1982 DeLorean was arrested and charged with cocaine smuggling. He fought the case several years in courts and was finally acquitted of all charges, and it appears the whole thing had been an FBI setup, the purpose of which isn’t really clear. What is, is that following the bankruptcy of DeLorean, John tried to start a number of new businesses but was unable to find investors for any of them. Having been charged in a drug smuggling case probably didn’t help, even if he was acquitted…

Dreamcar builder, playboy, indirect filmstar – but probably not a drug smuggler

So there you are – almost. Because following the demise of DeLorean, in 1983 all remaining parts and stock of unsold cars were shipped to Ohio where they sat a few years until they were acquired by a company in Texas called… the DeLorean Motor Company. Still in existance today and present across the US, the “new” DMC built new DeLoreans out of spare parts, sell spare parts, and service and restores DeLoreans. They’ve also had plans to bring back the DeLorean as an electric car for a number of years, but whether that will ever happen is unclear at best – the original launch date was in 2013. If you’re interested in finding out more, check out http://www.delorean.com.

The new DeLorean company, the many owners’ clubs and hereby the good supply of spare parts along with an engine that was widely used and for which parts can also be found thus make the DeLorean a less problematic car to own than you may suspect. Should you be convinced, it should be noted that values of DeLoreans have gone up in the last years and around EUR 50.000 is what a good car will cost you. Looking across the Atlantic could definitely also be worth it, notably thanks to the new DeLorean Motor Company. As with all cars from this period, the manual version is to be preferred over the automatic which will make the experience even slower. The limited power means it’s not much of a sports car and the interior is nowhere near as spectacular as the stainless steel body with the gullwing doors, but few designs have stood the test of time as well, few still catch as much attention and arguably, few cars make you feel more like an 80’s filmstar!

A morning dog walk in December

The good thing with being a dog owner is that it gets you out three times per day, rain or shine, cold or warm. During this Covid year with lots of time spent in the home office, that’s something I’ve really come to appreciate, but having said that, the cold morning walks in December aren’t my favourite ones, especially with drizzling rain from a grey sky. Usually there aren’t even any interesting cars to look at, as the precious ones tend to slumber in a warm garage at this time of year. And then, out of the blue it happens, you run into…. yeah, what exactly?

What on earth is is?

The front has a strange look , a bit frog-eyed, slightly surprised. The body has some strange cracks, indicating this is a fibre class construction. Somehow the car looks like different parts have had different designers before coming together. The only badge had the name “Avanti II” on it. It’s little known but Switzerland has had a couple of car brands over the years, Monteverdi probably being the most well-known, so was this perhaps another one I didn’t know about? Once the dog had done his business and gave me “it’s time for breakfast” look, I briskly went home and started googling. And never would I have thought that I had come across such a rarity!

It turns out Avanti wasn’t the brand but rather the model name. Or…. was it? The Avanti was created by Studebaker, the Indiana (US)-based company who built their first petrol car more than a hundred years ago in 1904 (having built an electric car in 1902!) and that went bust in 1967. Studebaker built an impressive number of models over their 75-year history, arguably because not many saw any success, and the Avanti wasn’t any better, sold only during 18 months in 1963 and 1964. It was positioned as the only 2-door, luxury 4-seater coupé and the main alternative to Ford’s Thunderbird or the Chevy Corvette Stingray. Mind you, this was also the year the 911 was launched, but that wasn’t a big thing on the other side of the Atlantic – yet.

A 1963 Avanti a presented at the launch

The body was designed by none less than Raymond Loewy, THE industrial designer at the time, responsible notably for the shape of the classic Coke bottle, the Shell logo and the Lucky Strike cigarette pack. I’ll leave it to you to judge whether he had smoked one too many when designing the car, especially the front, but with a fibre glass body and an aerodynamic shape, it was true to Loewy’s motto to build light and aerodynamic cars, notably to reduce consumption. Fibre glass was however a new material at the time and one that caused some difficulties in production, just like for the Corvette. Also like the Corvette, the Avanti had a big V8 up front (what else?) which with an optional supercharger put out up to 300 hp. That made the Avanti a fast, futuristic car for the time, but perhaps a little too futuristic for what the US market was ready for. Studebaker only built some 4.900 of the 20.000 planned Avantis, less than a fifth of Chevy Corvettes over the same period, and the company threw in the towel a few years later.

The rear looks better, but looks disconnected from the front

So normally that’s where the story would end. However in this case it takes an unexpected turn, as after Studebaker stopped production, two dealers of the brand bought the Avanti brand name and continued building the car in a small numbers by hand, using original parts, under the name Avanti Motor Company. When parts ran out in 1965 the car was renamed the “Avanti II”. Both parts and engines were now sourced from GM, and the Avanti II would be powered by various Corvette V8’s going forward . This went on until 1982 when the company was sold to a real estate developer under whom notably a convertible was added. He then went bust in 1986 and Avanti was sold again and so it went on, all the way to… 2006. That’s right – the Avanti was built during more than 40 years, albeit with varying engines, chassis and bodies, making it one of the longest model production runs in history! Looking at the design especially of later cars does however make you think that it might have been better to stop production a bit earlier…

4-door Avanti II from the 90’s – someone must have had a really bad day…

So there we go, under the motto “things that can happen on a dog walk”. I don’t expect I’ll ever see an Avanti again and most of you probably won’t either. Should you desperately have fallen in love with the futuristic car there’s a really nice one for sale in Switzerland, pictured below, and there’s 3-4 in Germany and Holland. EUR 50.000 seems to be the entry ticket for a really nice one, the alternative however being to head over the Atlantic were both offer and prices will probably be better. Whereas the mechanics are basic GM it will be pretty impossible to find any body or interior parts anywhere, so make sure you get a nice one. You will practically be guaranteed to drive the only one in your city, country or even continent!

A very nice 1975 Avanti II, currently for sale at Phantomcars in Switzerland

The stunning Swede!

Arguably many beauties have come out of Sweden over the years, but next year the Volvo P1800, hands down the most beautiful Volvo in history if you ask me, will celebrate its 60th birthday. Let’s therefore wind back the clock to the early 60’s and have a closer look at what is not only a good-looking but arguably also one of the most robust oldtimers you can buy. And in the ES shooting brake shape, an even more beautiful and practical one!

An early “English” car – the design didn’t change much through the years!

The P1800 planning at Volvo in Gothenburg started in 1957. Volvo was in full expansion and its management and especially CEO Gunnar Engellau wanted something that would be an eye-catcher both in showrooms and at auto salons. Volvo had already given the sports car segment a try a few years earlier with the roadster P1900, modelled on the Chevy Corvette, but that had proven to be an utter failure with only 67 cars produced. That did however not change Volvo’s enthusiasm for the idea of a sports car, and the design mandate for what was this time going to be a coupé was given to the Italian design firm Frua – where, as became known much later, the 25-year old Swedish design trainee Pelle Petterson was responsible for it… Swedish readers of the blog will know that the same Petterson then went on to become a famous sailor and boat designer.

Launched in 1961, the P1800 was thus an international project form the start. Planned in Sweden, designed in Italy (by a Swede), premiered at the car show in Brussels in 1961, and initially built by Jensen Motors in the UK, as the strong demand Volvo enjoyed meant there was no free production capacity in Sweden. Volvo was lucky to get away with that, as the first 6.000 P1800 built in the UK suffered from massive quality issues. From 1963 onwards production was relocated to Sweden, however the bodywork was still handled in Scotland until 1969. The UK build years 1961-1963 can be seen in the model name “P1800” as the cars subsequently built in Sweden were called “P1800S” (S for Sweden). The injection version from 1971 was referred to as the “P1800E”.

A later, 1967 car in the popular “off-white” colour

The P1800 saw very few modifications through the years. Design-wise the body was left untouched with only minor modifications to turning lights, chrome applications etc. A testament to a good design from the start! In fact the design was deemed so good that the P1800 was chosen as Simon Templar’s (Roger Moore) car in the British cult TV-series “The Saint” that aired through the 60’s. To be honest though, the producers had first asked Jaguar, but when they declined their attention turned to the P1800, which certainly didn’t hurt the popularity of the car.

If the body stayed the same until the end in 1973, the engines did evolve, however moderately. All P1800 derived their engines from the P121 Amazon, with the first British-built cars having the Volvo B18 engine with 100 hp (later 108 hp and 115 hp in the Swedish-built ones). From 1971 the cars had the B20 engine with 135hp. Not only the engine but also most other parts under the body were derived from the Amazon, no doubt one of the most solid creations that has ever been built and pretty much in a league of its own at the time. But whilst solid is good, was the P1800 any fun to drive?

Probably a renovated interior, but with original parts and seats

Well, the honest answer is that compared to some other sports cars at the time, the P1800 was a rather heavy-footed companion. The solidity no doubt came at the expense of the thrill of driving, and there were certainly more fun cars, roadsters and others, if that rather than the looks was the priority. Today it’s of course a different story. You don’t really buy a 60-year old car to drive it on two wheels through the corners and the solidity is probably of bigger appeal, as are the four disc brakes on cars from 1969. The car has aged very well and few oldtimers turn as many heads as the P1800, but one that does is its own sibling – the P1800 ES.

With an E for Estate added to the name, the ES was only produced during the two last production years 1972-1973. Aggressive US emission rules combined with the first oil crisis together contributed to the ES not seeing the interest it deserved, as this was an early version of what we would today call a shooting break. The whole concept was new at the time and looked upon a bit more critically than today, and the car earned many nicknames in different countries, not always very flattering. In the German-speaking part of Europe it went by the slightly morbid “Schneewitchensarg” (Snow White’s coffin), in Sweden it was called the fish car… Beneath the body work, the ES was exactly the same as as the last version of the “normal” P1800 with the 135 hp B20 engine.

The ES didn’t – and still doesn’t – look like any other car!

Finding a P1800 today is becoming tricky and also expensive, even more so the ES, and you may not have the luxury of choosing between model years. That’s however less important given how similar the cars are. If presented with a choice, the first, second and third priority is to check everything, really everything, for rust, which was a big issue at the time. Next, you probably want to avoid the early English cars unless we’re talking about a complete renovation. Finally, you would want to find a late car with the B20 engine and disc brakes all around. If the P1800 ES is your thing, then there’s really only one version to choose from, but in terms of ES colours, my preferred one is not the most common gold but rather the oh so cool 70’s orange one as pictured below! Expect to pay at least EUR 25′-30′ for a decent P1800 today, and probably an extra EUR 10′ for an ES in the same shape. If you’re thinking of renovating then do make sure you know where to find the necessary parts before signing the contract, as some have become increasingly hard to come by.

Perfect colour with the optional roof rack – the practical oldtimer!

So there we are – a Swedish beauty from the 60’s that if treated well will run for a very long time (there’s reportedly a P1800 out there with more than 4 million kms on the counter, still with the first engine!), that is solid as an ox and easy to maintain, and that will turn heads more than most – what more could you possibly wish for?

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Four is more than two!

quattro (always with a lower-case “q” ). It’s difficult to find a word that has meant more to a carmaker than quattro to Audi. But the quattro concept goes beyond Audi and was to re-define the car world from the early 80’s until four-wheel drive became a common feature in all types of cars. So with the days getting shorter and the roads more slippery, and the original Audi quattro (Ur-quattro, as the Germans would say) celebrating its 40th birthday this year, let’s have a closer look at it, its brilliance as a rally car, and also at the genius of the late legend Ferdinand Piëch, without whom the quattro wouldn’t have happened.

The Audi quattro was truly innovative at the time, including the boxed arches!

To get some perspective we have to wind the clock back to the late 70’s. This wasn’t a very exciting period in the car world in general, and four-wheel drive was at the time something you only found in traditional utility cars like Land Rovers and G-wagons. In Ingolstadt, a bunch of talented Audi engineers under the leadership of Ferdinand Piëch had however started thinking about the possibilities of using four-wheel drive in normal passenger cars, thanks to a room-saving, innovative new differential system.

In parallel there was also talk in the rally world of allowing four-wheel drive on rally cars, which until then had been forbidden. As the visionary he was, Piëch saw the opportunity of developing a new, four-wheel drive sports car and enter it in the world rally championship such as to provide a unique marketing window. This was the first true example of what would become Audi’s long-lived slogan “Vorsprung durch Technik” (something like “head start through technology”). The quattro was introduced at the Geneva Motor Show in 1980 and given the rally rules had been re-written in 1979 to allow for four-wheel drive, the timing was perfect.

Not the most pleasant man – but Ferdinand Piëch was both an amazing engineer and marketeer!

Given the Audi quattro was a new concept when it was introduced, Audi weren’t really sure of the demand and modestly estimated it at a few hundred cars. They would be wrong by about 11.000, which was the total number of original Audi quattro’s built between 1980 and 1991! Using the Audi 80 chassis, the quattro also inherited the five-cylinder engine that had so far powered the Audi 100 and 200 (with turbo in the latter). The engine was an engineering tour de force in itself, born out of the need for a smoother engine than a four-cylinder, but in Audi’s case with too little room to fit a front-mounted, longitudinal six-cylinder engine, given the gearbox was placed right behind the engine.

The solution was one of the first mass-produced five-cylinder engines that would come to define Audi over many years almost as much as the quattro concept, and that was said to combine the smoothness of a six-cylinder with the fuel consumption of a four-pot. The first part is true, and it can be added that it does so with a very distinctive sound. The part on the fuel consumption is very much dependent on the driver… In the quattro, the turbo-boosted engine produced 200 hp in the 10-valve version until 1988, which was increased to 220 hp in the 20-valve version for the last three production years.

The radiator had to be placed to the right of the engine, with the turbo to the left.

When you look at the quattro today, the “Vorsprung durch Technik” motto (sorry, sticking to the German version as the translation doesn’t sound as good…) quickly comes to mind. Not that the car is ugly, but it’s certainly not a design masterpiece (then again, neither was the Lancia Delta, the Renault Turbo 2 or other somewhat similar cars from the period). It does however look very purposeful, notably with the the lovely boxed arches that many years later would also come on cars like the Lancia Delta but were very much a first in the early 80’s. They also helped distinguish the quattro from the “standard”, 136 hp Audi Coupé. The interior has that lovely 80’s feel of hard plastic but offers lots of room for four and their luggage, meaning the quattro is a real all-rounder.

The single headlights came in 1982, only early cars have four separate headlights.

When you get behind the wheel, as in most 80’s cars you’re struck not only by the cheap plastic but also by the large windows and the excellent visibility. 200 hp is of course not a lot today, but then again the quattro weighed in at just under 1300 kgs and the turbo character means the car feels rather quick even by today’s standards, helped by an excellent, tight gearbox and, by 80’s standards, precise steering. It also feels solid, obviously not like a modern Audi but more so than many other cars from the period. It’s let down slightly by the breaks that feel soft and not very confidence-inspiring. All in all though, this is a car you can live very well with, knowing that as soon as a twisty back road opens up, the car is ready and will not let you down.

The 80’s won’t be remembered for the interior quality….

As was so often the case, Ferdinand Piëch had been right about entering Audi in the world rally championship and in the early 80’s the quattro became a true rally legend with a total of 23 race wins and four world championships until 1986, thanks to legendary drivers such as Hannu Mikkola, Stig Blomquist, Michèle Mouton and of course Walter Röhrl. However, once other brands caught up, the quattro was soon a victim of the less-then-ideal weight distribution that five-cylinder engine pushed all the way to the front of the car caused. Audi stood no chance against the mid-engine competition from 1986 and onwards, but that’s a different story.

The quattro was far more successful than he Sport quattro in rallyes

Interestingly, afraid that the “standard” quattro would be too big and heavy for the new Group B class, Audi presented the Sport Quattro in 1983, a 32 cm shortened group B car of which 164 homologation cars were built for road usage. However the Sport quattro was said to be more difficult to handle and never became as successful on the rally scene as the “standard” quattro. At around 200.000 DM the road version of the Sport quattro was Germany’s most expensive car in 1983, twice as expensive as a 911 Turbo. Today, Sport quattros don’t change owners very often but when they do, it’s at around EUR 500.000.

32 cm less overall length gave the Sport strange proportions, but it remained a very capable rally car!

Should you wish to make the original quattro yours, the good news is that you can take off a zero of the Sport quattro price, as good “standard” quattros trade at around EUR 50.000 today. The 20 valve version from 1989 and onwards cost more but are hardly worth it. Ten years ago both could be had for less than half, but even today a good car, meaning one with a known history and a “tight” driving feel still remains a stable investment – and how could it be different, after all it’s an Audi!

PS. In a class that existed only between 1982 and 1986, the group B rally cars were some of the wildest and most powerful in history. Click the link below for a reminder of what it was like deep down in the Finnish forests, when a 550 hp Sport quattro flew by: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cDRkHXMHqFo

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When the going gets tough…

This week we’ll explore three truly unique cars. Unique in the number of years they’ve been built. Unique in being able to take you practically anywhere cars can be imagined to go. They could also be claimed to be uniquely basic, and actually uniquely bad for many quite normal driving conditions. And for two of them, they’re also uniquely cheap. But finally, and perhaps most importantly, I would claim they’re unique in having a soul and a cult factor that only very few automobiles ever reach, an that really has nothing to do with the budget.

We’ll start by going to Tuscany where we enjoyed a few days off a couple of weeks ago, notably visiting friends that have a house down there. As so many houses in the Chianti region it’s a bit isolated and lies at the end of an unpaved road, that can at best be described as rather rudimentary. Slightly more than 2 metres wide, with a hill on one side and relatively little on the other, and in addition it had been raining quite a lot the days before we came down. Luckily it wasn’t my “new” 650 we had taken for the trip but rather the family XC90, so I was quite relaxed about the whole thing – until I first realized that the car was almost as wide as the road, and then the wheels started spinning. You see, our modern, fancy SUV’s are technically more than capable of mastering far more than a muddy road, but not with the low profile tires they’re typically equipped with. They’re also quite simply too big for many off-road situations, not to speak of all the nicely painted body parts that could be damaged in the process. Eventually we made it both there and back, and no, I’m not going to claim it was very dramatic, but it gave me reason to think about the 4×4-driving aspect of the thrill of driving, and cars really adapted for a bit rougher conditions.

If it gets too muddy, just switch the tires!

If you look around in Tuscany the car you see more than any other is the good old first generation Fiat Panda, many in the higher-riding 4×4 version. This is obviously not a coincidence. Next to switchable all-wheel drive, some other features that make up a good terrain cars include a short wheel base, short overhangs and good clearance. That’s the Panda 4×4 for you, adding the further advantage of a low weight of only 850 kg, meaning it doesn’t need a massive engine (and that’s good since the power output is around 50 hp). This makes it a perfect car in a hilly region with many narrow roads such as Chianti. Somehow there’s always enough room for a Panda!

Not much that can break here!

The first generation Panda was built for all of 23 years between 1980 and 2003, with two minor facelifts, although emission regulations prevented it from being sold in Europe after 1996. The four-wheel drive version came in 1983 and was built by Puch in Austria. Its interior (very similar to the standard Panda) redefines the word basic, with hard plastic, exposed metal and chairs that look like they’ve been stolen from a camping site. But who cares? Definitely not the people down in Chianti, and not those of us taken aback by the charm of the capable little fellow, something the modern Panda will never get close to. In addition this is really a car on a budget, as EUR 3.000-4.000 will get you plenty of Panda (and no, you don’t need a mint condition car for the usage you should be planning for it), and insurance, tax and fuel consumption will all be so low you’ll hardly notice them. If you can, try to get one with the large canvas sunroof!

Change of scenery: In the early 90’s I spent a couple of years in Moscow, in the transition between the old Soviet Union and the new Russia (that at the time, many hoped would turn out differently than it did…). If you were a real high-flyer in the Soviet era, one of the cool cars to be had was the Lada Niva. The car never really made it in the West, deservedly so as the general quality was extremely poor, but boy was it a capable off-road car. Again, much the same concept: it’s larger than a Panda but still a small car with a short wheel base, low weight, and even more capable, bigger tires. Built since 1976, the Niva (or 4×4 as it’s called today) is still being manufactured and is practically unchanged since the beginning – that’s enough to give it a huge cult factor, and also makes it the car still in production that has been so the longest, since production of the true record holder, the Land Rover Defender, ceased in 2016.

70’s Niva commercial – happy faces all around!

I had a few interesting rides in different Nivas during my time in the wild East, most often with the omnipresent smell of petrol competing with the vodka smell in the driver’s breath. Comfort-wise it’s a catastrophy with uncomfortable seats, terrible suspension, a useless heating system (big problem in the Russian winter!) and the list goes on. But when you turn off the road towards a muddy hill or a forest track, everything changes. Permanent all-wheel drive and switchable differential lock, along with the short wheelbase and low gears make it practically unstoppable. The model year isn’t important since not much has happened anyway, and 3.000-4.000 EUR is plenty of budget in Niva land.

A high-tech Soviet interior

Speaking of the Defender, you can of course not write about long serving cult 4×4’s with true soul without mentioning it, although budget-wise, it puts us in another league. The Defender has a strange appeal across generations: when my son was about five and I took him to the Zurich auto show, the “Africa car” was the only one he was interested in, and when a few years later I borrowed one over a weekend from a friend, pretty much the last thing I was expecting was my wife to say “this is a pretty cool car”. But the Defender is as unique as it is bad in terms of comfort, seating position, noise level etc.

No other car appeals as much to your cave man instincts…

So much has been said and written of it over the many decades it was built (from 1948 to 2016, and I doubt that’s a record the Niva will break!), that not much is left, and there’s not enough room here to go through all the different models. The Defender is a hugely capable terrain car, especially in the 90″ body given the shorter wheelbase, which also looks cooler. They model year is not very important and a car with little terrain usage is obviously to be preferred. Surprisingly enough there’s quite a lot of these, since be it in London or Zurich or elsewhere, for some strange reason this is a car that competes with 911’s as preferred commuting vehicle…

Around EUR 20.000 is where the Defender fun starts, with modern versions or those equipped with high-duty features or camping tents going up to far, far more, making it one of the cars with the least/best depreciation. It’s also been claimed to be the most environmentally-friendly, as no other car averages as many life years as the Defender!

Thie above original Defender from the James Bond “Spectre” movie is currently for sale in Switzerland – for CHF 85.000. Details on request.

So there you go: a charming Italian, a crude Russian and a posh Englishman. All of them a heap of driving fun in their right element, be it in Chianti, Russia or the Scottish highland, and useless in pretty much all other conditions. Why would you buy one unless your house is at the end of a muddy road? Maybe your dream house will one day be just that, and knowing it can easily be handled with the right vehicle puts yo in a better position for the price negotiation. Or maybe, just for the feeling of knowing that if you had to cross the jungle, you could!

A pit stop in Maranello!

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…

In one of the “non-race” rooms, the Enzo sits next to a LaFerrari – difficult choice!
Ferrari’s long Le Mans tradition also receives the attention it deserves.
The F1 room well illustrates the increasing complexity of especially the aerodynamics on the F1 cars through the decades
Indeed – Forza Seb & Charles for the end of the last season together!

The Bavarian long-runner!

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.

Some of the best looking wheels in the last 40 years!

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!

Check control far left, board computer far right – this owner was king of the hill in 1982!

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).

M635csi – 30mm lower, larger front spoiler

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!

A late 635 with a custom center piece – the coolest back seats ever!

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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L’unica Cinquecento!

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.

Let’s just say they spent more time on the interior design…

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.

Aston Martin did actually try with the Cygnet, but at another, wrong time.

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.

In 1957, the sun was shining on Italy again!

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.

The original interior wasn’t a source of much confusion!

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…

An estate with the standard canvas roof and rear-hinged, “suicide” doors

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.

Chess-board roof , red stripes and open hood – signs of a true Abarth!

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.

“No thanks, we’ll take the boat instead…”

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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The irresistible big cat!

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…

The rear buttresses (the triangular shapes on the sides of the boot) caused major issues for German clients

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.

A targa convertible currently for sale in Switzerland

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 engine choice, the beautiful interior remains the same

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.

The convertible is generally not more expensive than the coupe

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!

The Goddess in the 1950’s

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?

Paris in 1955 – color returning to a city still showing the scars of war.

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.

A “Déesse” from 1957 – like nothing seen before!

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.

A design study of the original DS

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.

A DS suspension sphere, at the core of a suspension system that was revolutionary.

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.

Should you not have four wheels, three will do the trick!

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.

The black round thing on the floor is the break “mushroom”. The non-intrusive steering wheel was originally designed in 1904.

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!

Alpine A110 – enjoy it while it lasts!

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.

Très cool! Antenna on the smaller side though…

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.

Très – ugly, from the front as well as from most other angles.

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.

The interior doesn’t disappoint either!

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…

If it wasn’t for those Germans…

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!

The unbreakable, 90’s Mercedes SL

There was a time when Mercedes had a well-deserved reputation for building unbreakable cars. That period reached its peak in the mid-90’s but unfortunately ended with the E-class internally known as the W210, launched in 1995, which tainted the reputation for solid quality quite heavily. In parallel however, Mercedes still built cars based on the previous generation, and one of them, the Mercedes SL (R129), is no doubt the most attractive car from the era – and still a bit of a bargain.

The R129, here with body kit, one of Bruno Sacco’s best designs. Cars from 1995 had white turn signal glasses.

The R129 was built from 1989 through to 2001, an incredibly long lifetime if you compare to today. But again, Mercs from this period were pretty much indestructible, and their buyers, typically elderly German doctors, didn’t look much at driving thrills – so from that perspective, why change a winning concept?

The 90’s SL had a number of different drive trains through the years, from a relatively modest 2.8 litre straight six to a monstrous 7.3 litre AMG V12 developing 525 hp. No doubt the most well-known models in Europe are the 300 SL with a sraight six, and the V8 500 SL developing 326 hp – probably one of the most reliable engines in the modern era.

The 500 V8 with 326 hp in a well-filled engine room.

The SL had some innovative solutions such as an automatic, invisible roll bar and seat belts integrated in the seat backs. The larger the engine, the better the equipment level, but interestingly all cars were delivered with a hard top, to complement the regular soft top. Some cars have (very small) rear seats whereas others only have a flat surface, but in both cases, the area is really only useful as extra luggage space. The SL is a two-seater and an Autobahn cruiser by excellence, steady, heavy, reliable. It will not give you the thrill of an Italian full-blood, but if you choose somewhat wisely, not anywhere near the same running costs either.

A good place to be. The SL is a two-seater, whether it has back seats or not.

A solid, relatively low-mileage SL 500 with the indestructible 326 hp V8 is easily yours for EUR 25.000 or even less, and that’s the wisest choice in the line-up. Cars with smaller engines will not necessarily be cheaper and certainly not give any additional thrills. The same money will buy you a 600 SL with the 394 hp V12, but besides huge running costs, driving-wise that also becomes a very front-heavy car. Finally the AMG models are very rare and correspondingly expensive. Little reason to go there – a 500 SL is good enough, there are plenty of good cars on offer, and it’s doubtful they will get cheaper than today.

A gullwing on a rainy Tuesday…

It’s not every morning that a 300 SL is parked in front of your office, especially not on a rainy day such as this Tuesday, with no real weather improvement in sight… But if the sun doesn’t light up your day, a Gullwing certainly does, especially the coupe, of which there were only a total of 1400 produced between 1954 and 1957! At the time it wasn’t even the most expensive car in the Mercedes line-up, today at an estimated value of EUR 1.2-1.5m, it probably is…

Speaking of red Gullwings, enclosed below is quite a legendary on board video from the Arosa Classic Car race back in 2012, giving a close-up feel of what it’s like to drive one of these for real – enjoy!

British Car Meeting 2018

I had the pleasure of attending the British Car Meeting on the Swiss countryside today, an annual gathering where some 1300 British cars of all ages gather to admire each other and be admired by others. A few picks of some of today’s participants. Scroll over the pictures to see the caption.

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Against a very Swiss background, some 1300 British cars gather each year in Mollis, canton of Glarus

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This gentleman subsequently found his bagpipe and entertained the crowds…

The hard guys!

Many of us oldtimer drivers have a tendency only to take our jewels for a spin when the sun is shining and temperatures are mild, completely forgetting that it actually rained when the cars were built as well. This time of year our beloved cars are mostly sleeping in a garage somewhere, with batteries disconnected. It is only the hard guys that drive in any weather, but even among the hard ones, only the REALLY hard ones would even think about taking the 356 for a spin on a rainy December day with temperatures around 6 degrees. The only thing missing is the ski rack! Dear owner, I did not get to meet you but I salute you!

We use the occasion to wish all our readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, with plenty of great cars and great drives!

Porsche