Saturday, December 30, 2006

Looking forward to 2007

The Chinese are coming

On all fronts... Daimler Chrysler have just announced their agreement with Chery for production of an un-named car, probably the Dodge Hornet, for the NAFTA territories and Western Europe, Great Wall (Changcheng) have a European dealer network in place for the trio shown here - Perey, Florid, and Coolbear - Cool names apart from Florid which suggests to the Anglophone high blood pressure or the effect of sustained alcohol abuse.

In the UK the established manufacturers are likely to put up the same sort of barricades against the onslaught as they did when Daewoo first entered the market. Franchised dealers could well be forbidden to take on Chinese makes or even accept cars in trade-ins, but the world has moved on since 1994, with car supermarkets now the key players in moving metal. The attraction here must be potential profits - if the products are as cheap as is rumoured they could be sold at £2000 less than an equivalent Fiesta, Yaris, or Micra, and still provide a healthy profit by comparison with the wafer-thin margins the European or Japanese products offer.

Threatened species


It's becoming evident that Saab is at best an irrelevance, and at worst an embarrassment, to GM's grand scheme. Is there no Scandinavian entrepreneur out there ready to make an offer to allow "The Swedish Patient" to fly free from its uncomprehending American master and recover its true identity?
It would be refreshing to see a successful challenge to current automotive industry orthodoxy, which dictates that a carmaker is neither serious nor viable unless it produces at least four million vehicles a year, covering every market and sector with a portfolio of brands, nurtured by marketing, yet becoming ever more meaningless through adoption of shared platforms and components.

What's not to like about a car manufacturer producing fewer than 100,000 cars a year which understands its history and ethos and the aspirations of its customers. At that sort of volume they could practically know them by their first names. Such a company would have to rely on other manufacturers for key components, but it was very much in the Saab tradition to get by with a little help from their friends. Imagine what a newly independent Saab could achieve with Subaru or Toyota as a 'technology partner' Let?s hope something happens while some of us can still remember what Saab once stood for.


If rumours are to be believed, post-regime change VW doesn't want three mainstream nameplates, and Seat's the one to be sold off or run down. There's a certain swashbuckling confidence about the Spanish economy at present, as evidenced by recent high profile takeover activity; Santander / Abbey, Telefonica / O2, Iberdrola / Scottish Power.

What's the possibility of a local consortium buying Seat from VW and, possibly with the support of a far eastern manufacturer, setting up a stylish good-value alternative to the Koreans and lower-league Europeans and Japanese?


Could there be a worse keeper for the Smart brand than DaimlerChrysler?

Probably not on the strength of recent history. The promising but overpriced roadster is dropped after two years for no reason other than the feeling that three products in the range is too many and Daimler Chrysler can't afford to step away from the agreement made with Mitsubishi to supply the ForFour. Then they drop the ForFour anyway. The new ForTwo is launched and is near-indistinguishable from the ten year old one.

So where will Smart's salvation be found? In the USA, according to DC, although the rest of us would think it hardly the most auspicious territory for a sub 1 litre 2.5m long two seater.

So much of Smart's promise still remains. Let's hope DaimlerChrysler see the sense in disposing of Smart to a manufacturer who could make something of it, rather than let the venture disappear into oblivion, saddled with failure.
PSA are right there in the territory both geographically and with the 107 / C1, a far better ForFour than the original. They could certainly handle a third brand, possibly in alliance with Mitsubishi, who make the bits anyway, and whose I-Car is an indicator of how the second generation ForTwo might have looked, had the creative juices not leaked down the drain immediately the original was signed off.

More hopes for the New Year follow...


It really does seem that the US fixation with ever-larger 4x4s, never used for their intended purpose, is on the wane. Not so here in the UK where SUV ownership seems to be on the crest of a wave, with the bigger the better as first rule. As I write this, the fading winter light in my inner-suburban street is occluded by a Touareg, an X5, a Jeep Commander and a Hyundai Santa Fe. In each case mud and towbars are conspicuous by their absence.

That's the big stuff. The small ones are now adopting the weapon of hideousness as compensation for lack of bulk. Witness the gargoyle-like visages of the Citroen C-Crosser and Peugeot 4007, and the 'gurning' aspect of latest Honda CR-V, which appears to have frontal treatments intended for two different vehicles, both of them ugly. We can now see that Pontiac Aztek was not an abhorrent aberration as once thought, but a product years ahead of its time. (Then again, as I look at the picture - what were they thinking?)

Hopefully something's going to stop the inexorable rise in the sales of these symbols of contempt for neighbours, other road users and our planet itself. It's reached the point where I'd be prepared to suffer a little just to see the back of them.

It's not the end of automotive history

Audi TT, Smart, MINI, I'm referring to you. In the past when sheet metal was expected to last a decade and engines and gearboxes a generation, new bodywork, often concealed barely changed components. Sometimes the less that was new underneath, the more radical the wrapping, for example the 1994 Ford Scorpio and its fish-faced contemporary range-mates.

This year has seen a succession of entirely new platforms and mechanical components under bodies near-indistinguishable from what preceded them. It's arrogant, creatively bankrupt, and will ultimately do the manufacturers concerned no good. Look at Jaguar, whose present woes are at least partly due to their inability to move forwards from a design vocabulary established in the 1960s.


Not included among threatened species, given its past capacity for survival. The heady days when TVR was the Clown Prince of the British specialist car industry seem a distant memory, the last two years under new ownership have seen nothing but a downward spiral of uncertainty.

The Smolensky era seems to be truly over with the company in administration as of 22 December. With a new buyer sought for the company as a going concern, we once again have some cause to be hopeful. A new owner with a firm commitment to remaining in Blackpool and a return to Griffith / Chiamera era product values would be a great start to 2007.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Please give up your Seat...

To somebody who needs it more than you do!

If Reuters is to be believed, the industry is a-buzz with the rumour that one of the first actions of the new regime at VW will be to put Seat up for sale.

I haven't yet trawled the speculation on possible buyers, but surely SAIC and First Auto Works must be front-runners - they're already making many of the parts and must have their eyes out for a bridgehead into Europe. If Seat is Shanghai-bound, the synergies with Roewe/Rover look attractive - the product ranges don't overlap, and Seat would presumably be sold with their European dealer network.

Could a Seat / Roewe / Ssangyong showroom could be a feature of your local motor park some time soon?

It's a possibility, but we need to consider what VW want out of reversing away from Seat.

Seat's greatest strength is that it is a live namplate, with a with a relatively fresh product range and an independent dealer network.

Its weakness is lack of clear identity and historical resonance.

Until the 1984 Ibiza was launched, the company mainly produced Spanish-market variations of Fiat products. Licensing arrangements ensured that they could not be sold in the rest of Europe and were only exported to markets like Malaysia and Egypt. The brand was largely unknown outside Spain as their cars were externally identical to the equivalent Fiats.*

Move on to the Volkswagen era, and the parent company tried to re-invent Seat as an Iberian Alfa Romeo. Even poaching Walter da Silva didn't carry that one off, so they moved swiftly on to producing some of the strangest-looking people-carriers on the planet.

If VW intend to dispose of the brand it doesn't look good for those on the ground in Martorell. Were a Chinese company to buy Seat, the attractions would be the intellectual property, use (even on a temporary or licensed basis) of VW technology, the European dealer network and the badge, in that order. If the buyer was one of the existing VW partners, components from China could easily supplant the VW group shared parts from European factories, reducing costs. Do VW want to sell the company only to create a competitor for Skoda and their own cheaper cars?

It's not improbable that VW's hidden agenda involves putting the Seat name 'beyond use' while limiting the liabilities associated with closure. They could offer Seat with such restrictive covenants on design rights and use of the name that it would be unsaleable. With no buyer the name would soon disappear and downsizing or closure of the production facilities would follow.

Then again, they could encourage a management buy-out, offload the liabilities for a nominal sum to some local entrepreneurs with venture capital backing, who could then go in search of a new partner in the hope of achieving a sustainable future for the business.

Does any of this sound familiar to anybody out there?

*With this late 1970s exception. Still looks good even now.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Irony Update

If popular rumour is to be believed, BMW, recognising the limitations of the Rover KV6 engine, developed a Valvetronic V6, which was ready for production at Hams Hall when they sold Land-Rover and MG Rover in 2000.

The engine was intended solely for the Rover 75 and Freelander as the parent company's straight sixes wouldn't fit a transverse engine layout. With its intended recipients out of the BMW picture, the V6 was dropped from their production plans.

Move forwards six years and Ford launch a new Freelander with a transverse straight six, despite having no shortage of V6s.

Ironic* or what?

*Fivegears is unable to confirm whether this is an example of Socratic, dramatic, cosmic, or Morrisette irony, having skived off that particular class.

Stumbling in the footsteps of Issigonis and Giacosa

It's hard to believe, given the orthodoxy of their subsequent products, but in the early 1990s, deep within the Ford organisation, designers were challenging automotive engineering orthodoxies with some vigour.

At the 1991 Detroit Motor Show, Ford showed the Contour, a radical prototype featuring an aluminium spaceframe, four wheel drive and a transverse 3.4 litre straight eight. The powertrain concept, titled T-drive, featured power taken from the middle bearing of the crankshaft by spiral bevel gears to a longitudinal gearbox which offered the options of front, rear or four wheel drive.
Other highlights were transverse leaf springs (Dante Giacosa would have liked that) the use of plastic and light alloy for doors and unstressed external skin panels, (Pierre Boulanger and Spen King likewise) and remotely located electrically powered auxiliary drives. (Only M&E engineers like that sort of boring rubbish!)

Great claims were made for the layout's advantages for space utilisation, weight reduction and manufacturing flexibility, but even 5ivegears could spot a few flaws. Taking power round 90 degree bends more often than is entirely necessary is never a good idea, and the designers admitted that more engine capacity could only be achieved with fewer cylinders. They had six in mind, but surely a straight seven would have been the icing on a very strange cake.

With the benefit of fifteen years of hindsight, I am not too surprised that nothing in the least like the Contour or T-Drive ever appeared in a production Ford in the years that followed.

Inspired and informed

The one 5ivegears missed...

The Ford 24-7 concept was the most convincing element of Ford's unrealised turn-of-the-century bid to seduce the planet's fashion-conscious youth.

Shown at the 2000 Detroit Motor Show, the concept was underpinned by an adaptable platform with pick-up, four-door fastback, and wagon bodystyles.

The potential of the last seems not to have been lost on Honda, who launched their Element SUV in 2003.

The promising 24-7 project disappeared without trace - or perhaps it didn't...

The profile of the 2002 Transit Connect is strikingly similar to the 24-7 wagon. It would only take a modest re-skin and some of the concept's avant-garde interior design ideas to create something with real panache and no direct competition in the European market.

A missed opportunity? Perhaps not. Even Honda, in their infinite wisdom, don't think the Element could possibly be of any interest to anyone outside Japan, the USA, and Canada.

Once again 5ivegears seems to be in a minority of one.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Flog the sleeping dog

Those with an interest in the extraordinary journey of MG Rover's temporal remains and intellectual property have been puzzled and perplexed by SAIC's new website for their 'Roewe' brand to be found at

The video shows the car, a mildly facelifted long-wheelbase Rover 75, being driven through a surreal vision of a British landscape. My interest was excited by the introduction, showing a Viking longship appearing out of a misty sea. SAIC don't own the Rover name so the longship reference loses its point immediately. The badge adopted for "Roewe" is an Olde English capital 'R' in a cod-heraldic shield of the type one might find on a pompous idiot's personal letterhead, and which, ever so conveniently, fits the space left by the Rover badge.

It could be that the video was made when SAIC believed that BMW would accept their offer, or is it possible that SAIC think that the Rover name will still come their way? Export plans are on hold for at least two years, so there's time for negotiation.

If a Financial Times article of 18th November is to be believed the Viking Longship's berth at Solihull is but temporary, and it will soon weigh anchor for a long voyage east.

I prefer to think better of Ford than to imagine that they paid BMW £6 milion for the Rover badge in order to sell it on for a quick buck, but there is some logic to selling it on once their legal people have protected any compound names, such as Trail-Rover, Track-Rover or even Street-Rover, which could be identified with Land-Rover.

Solihull to Shanghai by way of the Grand Union Canal anybody?

Sunday, November 26, 2006

...and get down with the young folks

It occurs to me that Ford may be better served by establishing a youth and fashion orientated brand on the lines of Toyota's Scion and BMW's Mini.

In 1999 the Marc Newson designed 021C concept was launched in a 'mosh-pit' (whatever that is!). At the same time there were indications that Ford would expand the Ka range as a sub-brand - the Puma, StreetKa and SportKa suggested that this was the company's next major marketing direction.

Somehow the idea withered and died in the years which followed, along with the delightful Puma, and, more happily, the StreetKa. At this moment, at least in Europe, Ford's inexpensive small car offering comprises the worthy but ancient Ka, and the current Fiesta, more an item of street furniture than an object of desire. PSA, Renault, Seat, and even GM do far better. Look worldwide and the Ford cupboard is full of possibilities:

  • Ford do Brasil's EcoSport - Appalling name, but who'd have thought a Ford Fusion could look so sexy?
  • The South African Ford Bantam pick-up. Based in the old Fiesta, but could be sold very cheaply, with lots of customisation options.
  • The 2006 Reflex prototype. Drop the hybrid powertrain and silly doors and sell it at Puma money. A convertible would be nice too...
  • And how about a surfer-orientated Transit Connect? Give it a surfwear designer label connection and some cool Microbus-inspired visuals and open a new market sector at almost no cost.

Apart from the Reflex it's all ready and waiting, and could be an easier route to profit than the PAG brands.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Inspired and Informed

The Toyota Porte and the Peugeot 1007. Two solutions to the 'high supermini with electrically operated sliding doors' brief. Didn't coming up with answers to questions nobody asked used to be Suzuki's job?

Both cars were launched in 2004. Did Toyota and Peugeot collaborate on the car as a side project to the development of the 1007 and Aygo? The Porte uses a Yaris platform, the Peugeot is based on 206 / Citroen C3 underpinnings. That two such similar products could appear in the same year seems stranger even than the cars themselves.

And if you had the choice? Well, the Peugeot has the gutsiest engines, but the Toyota shares its title with the Holy Roman Emperors. No contest then!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Y Indeed!

Could there be a hidden message of despair in the registration of this X-Type, appearing in Jaguar's current publicity material?

Monday, November 13, 2006

Commercial Break

For the last decade the Japanese home market has been gripped by the cult of 'Utilitarian Chic'. Boxy and unashamedly practical vehicles such as the Suzuki Wagon R, Nissan Cube, and Honda Element have been consistent best sellers and the inspiration for dozen of imitators.

The 'Utilitarian Chic' class, in all its permutations of size and form, is imbued with a sense of knowing high fashion which could be characterised as post-modern irony or inverse snobbery.

It is surprising, therefore, to find that the real workhorses in Japan are possibly the most style-free vehicles made anywhere on the planet. Described as 'vans', the ground rules are; five-door estate car at least appearing to be based on a very old small saloon, 1.5 to 1.8 litre petrol engines, a conspicuous absence of brightwork or colour-keyed frippery, and, curiously and invariably a 4WD option.
The four above are the Toyota Probox, the Nissan AD van (the name sounding rather Citroen-ish...), its Mazda doppelganger the Familia Wagon, and the Honda Partner. The first, and youngest, breaks ranks by looking a little er, arch in the company...

Just about every manufacturer offers something in the class, even if they don't make it in their own factory - the Mazda is a re-badged Nissan AD.

I can only conclude that either Japan's plumbers, photocopier repairers and couriers are the world's stingiest and most conservative car-choosers, or else there's some sort of tax break based around a rigidly set specification. Our most basic Kangoos, Doblos, Caddies and Transit Connects look like motor show concepts by comparison.

5ivegears has an enduring fascination for the unpretentious Japanese transport tools which rarely reach our shores; Land Cruiser Troop Carriers, Nissan Crew taxis, and pick-up trucks devoid of the egregious designer-label vulgarity of the UK export offerings.

Something in my Calvinist soul takes a guiltless delight in mid-grey plastic interiors and instrument clusters and control stalks unchanged since Hirohito was a lad. Am I alone in this, or is the western world, ridden with meretricious boutique cars and German status-insecurity symbols, ready for an influx of Japanese anti-fashion, off the shelf, retro anti-chic?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Inspired and informed

Rover's 'Spiritual' concept was shown at the Geneva Motor Show in 1997, almost exactly forty years after BMW launched their 600 uber-bubblecar. No more than a stop-gap until the the 'proper-car' 700 was ready, the BMW 600 combined a stretched Isetta platform with a horizontally opposed motorcycle engine, with styling ameliorated by Michelotti.

Remarkably, the 1997 concept originated within Rover as a proposal for a new Mini and had already been rejected by BMW two years before.

Could stylist Oliver Le Grice's apparent homage to BMW's 1957 proto-monospace pehaps be a polemic against the faithful, but sometimes uncomprehending Issigonis pastiche which the German parent approved for production?

Friday, November 03, 2006

Hansa-man Vibrations (1)

5ivegears could not have made this up...

Christian Borgward, grandson of Carl Borgward is seeking venture capital to support the revival of his grandfather's marque, dormant in Europe since the company, based in Sebaldsbruck, Bremen collapsed in 1961.

The plan involves the introduction of a 'prestige compact' car in two bodystyles priced between the Mondeo and Vectra bracket and its intended competitors, the BMW 3-Series, Mercedes -Benz C-Class and Audi A4.
Other details:
  • Body design by a first-rank Italian styling house, Bertone and Pininfarina being the names mentioned
  • Production sub-contracted to an established specialist such as Magna-Steyr or Karmann
  • Production volume 10,000 per annum

Taken at face value, the business plan might be kindly described as audacious.

Herr Borgward intends to enter a market sector where the market leaders are manufactured in volumes approaching 500,000 per annum, are backed by huge R&D budgets, and are widely recognised to be "the best cars in the real world".

Recent history reminds us that the BMW / Mercedes-Benz / Audi hegemony is near-unbreakable. Consider the collapse of MG Rover, GM's tribulations with Saab, and the Jaguar X-Type debacle.

That's the half-empty glass view. Reading a little further, I discover the project has interest from a number of potential Far Eastern backers. Its best hope would be to have a proper carmaker as component provider and underwriter.

There are already several Chinese manufacturers who would fit the frame, and then there's Hyundai who were reputedly interested in Jaguar when Ford hinted it may be for sale. Hyundai Kia Borgward. Could just work...

My favourite potential partner for neue-Borgward would be Subaru. The Impreza and Legacy could provide a pair of platforms Carl Borgward would have admired and would return a favour in the process. (Of which more later...)

If the re-launch of Borgward really does happen it's not going to change the landscape of the global motor industry, but what's not to like about the return of an old name, and the possibility of righting a historical wrong. The best of all possible luck to Christian Borgward.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Uninspired and ill-informed...

I'd have thought we could have counted on Mazda to have known better.

The Verisa, presently for Japan only, appears to be an attempt to make a pointless tall supermini appealing by dressing it up as a Porsche Cayenne.

Readers will excuse me for not including an illustration of the latter for comparison purposes. If you don't know what a Porsche Cayenne looks like, just count yourself lucky.

Necro Cars

Another car which is Not For Us. The lucky Chinese will soon be offered this resurrected Peugeot 206 wearing a Citroen mask.

Ironically it looks more at home in the present range than the European C2. That car was, of course, designed by an elite cabal of Max Power readers in a darkened room with a school geometry set and photocopied images of an Audi TT, a Bond Bug, and a Lancia White Hen.

5ivegears suspects that Flaminio Bertoni wouldn't have rated either offering.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Viva Retro!

5ivegears has had something of a Disraeli* policy towards car magazines recently, but one that's always eagerly awaited is Retro Cars.

For the unenlightened, the magazine's constituency is (mainly UK) popular cars from 1960 to the early 1980s upgraded with modern components. To the hardened 'classicist' this might seem sacrilegeous, but the ingenuity and rather skewed regard for history is a constant source of delight. The magazine is reminiscent of nothing quite so much as mid-70's 'Hot Car' except that the modifier's pallet is augmented with components from thirty years into the future.

Many of the shibboleths are familiar - VG95 pads, 829 cam, 28/36DCD... To these can be added the Vauxhall XE, this being the modern engine of choice regardless of the marque of the receiving vehicle. (I seem to recall this elite group included a revived Munch motorcycle) It's a living reminder that nerd-ery was very much alive when the zenith of desktop technology was a multi-function sliderule.

More to test the philosophy than stretch it to the outer limits, I mentally concocted 5ivegears' fantasy Retro Car.

Casting away thoughts of a VW Passat VR6 powered Lancia Fulvia, or a Honda Z600 (see above) with a Blackbird motorcycle powertrain in place of the back seat, I came up with a Mk.1 or Mk.2 Escort shell with a fast road / tarmac rally suspension set-up. Restored bodyshells are available, at a price, but far more rigid and rustproof than when they originally left Halewood. Just about everything else can be bought new. Power would come from a 2 litre Zetec with a Type 9 five-speed gearbox. According to the adverts (always a signifier of a publication's quality) an engine management system is available which allows an internally unmodifed engine to develop a reliable, economical and tractable 204bhp. (There may be some significance in this figure...)

The whole thing would probably cost more than a new Focus ST, or a decent used E46 M3, but would test my notion that a powerful and utterly reliable modern engine in a light 1970s bodyshell, unencumbered by windbags, air-con, powered electrics and intrusion bars, but with evolved tyres, dampers and bushes, could be a perfect recipe for driving pleasure.

Other demands on my limited funds will ensure it won't happen, but I can still find £3.99 for the entertainment Retro Cars provides. Follow my example, buy it in vast quantities, be inspired and amused.

Or, as Mr. Honda said, "Never underestimate the power of dreams".

* Former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) - "When I want to read a novel I write one"

Saturday, October 21, 2006

All for one...

The elegant saloon above is the new Fiat Linea, launched at the Istanbul Show. The choice of venue might give the clue that it's Not For Us. Built in the Fiat / Koc Group joint-venture factory that gives us the Doblo, the new car is a big brother to the 'world-car' Palio/Siena and is destined for Turkey, China, and South Africa. As with the Palio Weekend, the car will be sold in some EU markets, but as a supplementary offering rather than part of the mainstream Fiat range.

That's a summary of the basic facts. What excited my interest is that the car uses the platform of the Grande Punto (not joking there, Luca!) but is 4.6m long - in my money only five inches shorter than a Mondeo.

In this era of the enormous supermini, it seems wholly possible that volume car manufacturers could base their entire ranges from supermini to Mondeo class car on one platform or at least component set. VW's Passat and Golf already have far greater commonality of parts than their comparative sizes would suggest.

Of course such a strategy would restrict top end variations like petrol and diesel V6s, and pumped-up all-wheel-drive uber-sedans for the speeding policeman market, but in Europe nobody much buys these anyway. The continent's demand for the universal two-litre turbo-diesel may have peaked, but the sales success of VW's 1.4 litre petrol TSI engine suggests that engine capacities could begin to reduce.

That's one trend. The Fiat Linea may set its own. It may be a car for the developing world, but it could well point the way for the developed world's carmakers.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Just supposing...

(Looking at the X-Type from a different perspective)

Imagine a hypothetical scenario whereby Ford had managed to obtain the Triumph name as part of the deal with BMW which brought Rover home to Solihull.
5ivegears thinks the world could be ready for a 21st century Dolomite, and the X-Type could make a perfect platform. The sketches show how the transformation might be achieved.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The cat that choked on the cream

You may have noticed that, unlike either Peugeot-Citroen or Ford's Premier Automotive Group, 5ivegears has had some difficulty in upping and moving outwith Coventry's city limits. I feel a Lancia article coming on, but there's some unfinished Warwickshire business still to be done.

It seems an opportune time to consider that perplexing and ill-starred car, the Jaguar X-Type - forever to be known in 5ivegears-speak as "the Mark X Cortina".
Four years have passed since the launch of the X-Type, in a wave of hyperbole which spoke of annual production volumes of 200,000. This car, promoted as the Jaguar for 'Generation X', would, unlike any before, bring Ford's PAG strategy to fruition by 'leveraging' components shared with mainstream Fords into the compact prestige sector. The new product would challenge the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Audi A4 and the BMW 3-Series, the car credited with establishing the segment, although this orthodoxy will be challenged to this day in Solihull and Canley, or even by a few old men in Bremen and Dingolfing.

Sisters under the skin

As a basis for their new compact car, Jaguar's design team pondered the alternatives of either a shortened S-Type platform, or the CD132 Mondeo underpinnings. The S-Type option was quickly rejected on grounds of cost. The CD132 platform was front wheel drive, but a 4x4 estate had been developed and this provided the inaugural X-type chassis, curiously shortened by two inches by comparison with the Ford original in order to avoid a conflict with the scarcely more spacious S-Type.

The design priority for the 4x4 Mondeo had been traction in demanding terrain and conditions, and it had been criticised from its launch for transmission noise and general lack of refinement. It can be assumed that considerable effort went into endowing the drivetrain with the finesse expected in its upmarket role, as the all wheel drive 2.5 and 3.0 litre petrol V6 X-Types launched in 2002 made a favourable impression for their dynamics, refinement, and performance.

Any European observer of real-world buying trends in the 3-Series class would have recognised the contrivance behind the platform strategy. Around 80% of sales in the sector are near-baseline four-cylinders, and Jaguar would have to reduce specifications ruthlessly to compete in the heartland of this class. Purists feared that a front wheel drive X-Type with a 1.8 Zetec engine and plastic wheel trims was just around the corner.

Ironically, as potential X-Type buyers worldwide stayed away, unconvinced by the extreme mutation of the Jaguar identity, the features incorporated to retain a veneer of affinity with the company's historic ethos were stripped away in pursuit of market share and profit. Front wheel drive came first, with a sub-£20,000 2.1 litre V6 in late 2002, rather sooner than we had expected. Conversely, the four cylinder diesels considered essential to class competitiveness did not appear until early 2004. All had their undoubted merits but were they Jaguars? How could a front wheel drive estate car built in Halewood with a four cylinder Ford diesel ever be?

The unasked question

It's never been asked before as far as I know, but how difficult would it have been to re-engineer the 4x4 Mondeo platform to accommodate a longitudinal engine and rear wheel drive? The propshaft and rear suspension were already in place. Observers of recent car design will recall the Renault 21, which accommodated transverse and longitudinal engines, and also the Escort Cosworth, but there is a much more relevant paradigm in the shape of the 2000 Ford Transit, the X-Type's stablemate and near contemporary, whose engine compartment allows either transverse front wheel drive or longitudinal rear wheel drive configurations to be built as production line options.

So near yet so far...

Geoff Lawson and his styling team produced a shape which touched on brilliance, but were ultimately defeated by the constraints of the Mondeo platform. The work around the rear three-quarters evokes both the original XJ6 and Pininfarina's 1979 Series 3 facelift, but surpasses both. The XK8 inspired tail is a particularly elegant solution to the perennial problem of retaining the tapering Jaguar leitmotiv and incorporating decent luggage space.

Regrettably, forward of the front bulkhead, the CD132 componentry overwhelmed the best intentions of the styling team. The high bonnet line, short nose, and long front overhang precluded anything resembling the signature long bonnet, which had been a distinctive Jaguar feature since the company produced their first cars in Blackpool.

It's only a personal opinion, but the X-Type might have had a better chance with a variant of the Mark II-inspired grille which had played a large part in the S-Type's acceptance and success. The oval grill and inboard headlights have become a 1960s visual icon, enduring long after Mark. II production ended. The most succesful of the recent 'British revival' cars, best exemplified by the Mini have a cartoon quality, rather than stilted deference to the original.

The X-Type's 'XJ in miniature' grille appears needlessly reverential to the company's past although the headlight surrounds, intended to recall the air intakes of the Comet airliner, were a stroke of referential genius.

Rights and wrongs

The parent company's notion that Jaguar's growth in sales and profitability should be won in the 'compact prestige' sector demonstrates scant understanding of the recent history of its competitors:

BMW's present reputation, and indeed the company's survival is founded on the 1962 'Neue Klasse' 1500 and 1800, and the 1966 1602/2002, in each case smaller cars than the current 3-Series.

Audi's VW-backed resurgence effectively began with the 1968 100, and 1972 80. Acceptance of the A6 and A8 in their higher-priced market sectors, (Jaguar's heartland) has been hard-won.

When Mercedes-Benz launched their brilliant 190E in 1982, its pricing made clear that it was a compact Mercedes, not a downmarket one. Mercedes Benz's reputation and brand values are arguably founded on design thoroughness and engineering integrity, rather than a particular driving experience or size class.

Defining the values associated with the Jaguar nameplate is a complicated task, but the XJ-era ethos is one of graceful styling, effortless power, supreme comfort and isolation from the outside world combined with dynamic prowess.

The combination of all of these is well-nigh impossible in a compact vehicle - Jaguar's quintessence is founded on large-car strengths.

Was the negative effect of a move downmarket for Jaguar's brand equity considered? Before the X-type, a Jaguar, unlike its German competitors, was perceived as a singular and idiosyncratic £30,000-plus prestige car, not part of a range with a base entry level set below £20,000.

It is an indication of how far the industry has moved on that a competent and apparently reliable car should miss its sales targets and be branded a failure so soon after its launch. Perhaps the reality is that the buying public actually are sufficiently discerning to recognise that they were being offered a set of existing Ford components in moderately seductive wrapping, rather than a design which in any way embodied true Jaguar values and tradition in a compact package.

Future? What future?

I have a feeling that it may not be long until Ford pull the plug on the X-type venture - there's no sign of commitment to a replacement and no investment in the present four year old design. A few rhetorical questions:

  • What has become of the mid-term facelift?
  • Where are the four wheel drive diesels, the V6 diesel, or indeed a diesel automatic?
  • Why is there no Type R hardcore Audi RS4 rival? We have seen the potential of the V6 engine as used in Noble sports cars. Such a variant may not sell in big numbers or save the X-Type single-handed, but the streets of any British business district are full of incontrovertible evidence that the company car user-chooser likes a veneer of RS4 or M3 on his or her four cylinder A4 or 3-Series motorway-pounder.
  • Where is the high-riding 4x4 estate in the style of the Alfa Romeo Crosswagon Q4? This last idea is mildly abhorrent, but the hardware is all there to produce one within a budget of the sort MG Rover had for product development, and people are buying these things in big numbers.


Ford have lately affirmed their intention to retain Volvo, Jaguar and Land-Rover. In order to assure shareholders that this commitment is not born of inertia and indecision, they will need to demonstrate resolve and ruthlessness, and could well seek a lamb for the slaughter, as did DaimlerChrysler's directors when they axed the Smart Roadster and SmartForFour.

The first indications of healthy demand for the new Freelander, could present the ideal opportunity for Jaguar's masters to cut their losses on the X-Type, shift the under-used X-Type tooling to Chongqing or Chennai, and bury the bad news behind a face-saving Halewood success story.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Inspired and informed?

(The one in white is a 1991 Toyota Paseo)

Further evidence that there's some kind of game going in BMW's design studios involving surreptitiously passing off elements of forgettable 1990s Japanese mediocrity in every new model.

They thought they got away with the E90 3-Series' Mitsubishi Carisma tail-lights, but a whole car may be taking it too far...

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Stranger than this it does not get

With a couple of hours of free time in Coventry I had two possibilities. Visit Coventry Cathedral, and have my spirit uplifted by one of the masterpieces of post-war British architecture, or go to the Museum of British Road Transport.

The choice was really no choice. I knew the museum had an example of the Commer TS3 two-stroke diesel engine which has been an object of fascination ever since I gained a rudimentary understanding of engine design.

This remarkable engine was inherited by Rootes Group through their 1950 takeover of Tilling-Stevens, a small lorry and bus manufacturer based in Maidstone, Kent. Although a comparatively small operation, Tilling-Stevens' history could be traced back to last years of the 19th century, and the company had a lifelong reputation for bold and innovative design.

The two-stroke TS3 upheld this tradition with distinction - there cannot be many production engines which so wholeheartedly defy convention in almost every aspect of their design.

First commercially produced in 1954, the Roots-supercharged TS3's opposed piston design entailed each cylinder having two pistons, four connecting rods and a pair of rocker arms finally transmitting motion to a conventional crankshaft situated beneath the cylinder block. The engine's distinguished antecedents were the Junkers 'Jumo 205' aircraft engine of the 1930s and the 1950 British Napier Deltic engine. The latter, an 88 litre, 18 cylinder unit, was developed to power minesweepers, but achieved iconic status in the eponymous railway locomotives.

Despite its complexity, the Commer engine was a reliable and versatile power unit used in trucks, buses and even a late 1950s bespoke racing car transporter built for Ecurie Ecosse by Alexanders of Falkirk. The engine's unique selling proposition was that, by providing power comparable to an eight litre conventional diesel in a much lighter and smaller package, operators could carry more freight within the prescribed GVW limits. The TS3's specific power output, astounding for the time, anticipated today's high-performance diesels by nearly half a century. In its final production form in the early 1970s, the 3.3 litre TS3 developed around 130bhp. The contemporary petrol Rover V8, 200cc larger in capacity, produced 145bhp in its most powerful version.

The opposed-piston design offered the possibility of developing a modular range and although all production versions had three cylinders, a batch of four-cylinder prototypes was developed in the 1960s but never proceeded to series manufacture. Development of the Commer engine ceased following Chrysler's takeover of Rootes' car and commercial vehicle interests. Those who have heard one say it is one of the best sounding engines ever. It is a pity that the baton has never been taken up by another manufacturer - perhaps they are wary of the two-stroke's problems with emissions compliance.

Good ideas abandoned in the past often re-emerge when the time and supporting technology are right - in 1906 Tilling-Stevens introduced their first petrol-electric vehicles, and continued to produce them for the next two decades.
The observant reader may have noticed that such 'hybrid' powertrains have become something of a cause celebre of late...

Sunday, October 01, 2006

They've taken my timewarp away

Driving past my neighbourhood Jeep Chrysler dealer this weekend, I discover it's undergone a makeover - new facia, new signage, Jeep and Chrysler branding joined by the Dodge ram's head looking disturbingly Satanic in red on black.

What's noteworthy is not however the new face of Chrysler, but what went before. When Chrysler returned to the UK after a long absence, along with the Jeeps and Neons, there suddenly appeared perfect simulacra of pre-Peugeot, pre-Talbot, pre-1978 Chrysler UK showrooms, with the Pentastar on its light blue and white facia scarcely different from the days of the American takeover of Rootes.
Life on Mars

For those of a certain (fairly advanced) age it's possible to imagine taking a 'Life on Mars' type step into a world of kipper ties, broad lapels, 1970s haircuts, and most importantly, vinyl-roofed Avengers, Hillman Minxes with hose-out interiors, and brand new Hillman Imps.

Of course, it's just a moment's middle-aged fantasy, but the British High Street, or more likely edge-of-town 'motor village', is a poorer place now that this unintended anachronistic throwback has gone for good.

Letting sleeping dogs lie

The announcement on 18 September that Ford intend to exercise their option to purchase the Rover trademark from BMW caused scarcely a ripple of excitement even in the automotive press, but the Blue Oval's move prompts some speculation on the future relationship between the established carmakers and the increasingly sophisticated and highly ambitious motor industry in China.

As several Chinese manufacturers such as Great Wall, Geely Automobile, Chery, and Lifeng ready themselves to enter sophisticated western markets with indigenously developed products, a number of names of 'companies which used to make cars' could become very valuable commodities.

Just look round the electrical department of your local hyper-market and you will find numerous resurrected brand-names on generic products from the People's Republic. I don't doubt that most consumers approach the purchase of a car with more thought than buying a kettle or DVD player, but adoption of an established name, even one carrying negative historical baggage, could give an unknown manufacturer a five to ten year advantage in brand recognition in a new market.

Nanjing Automobile Group's purchase of the physical and invisible assets of MG Rover looks shrewder by the day. Even if Nanjing themselves have no use for the Austin, Morris and Wolseley trademarks, they could soon be saleable for far more than was paid for MG Rover's assets.

Such thoughts also bring to mind other dormant nameplates which have the potential to be resurrected:
  • The various Rootes brands now held by PSA, along with Simca and Panhard
  • Riley and Triumph, now owned by BMW, probably never to be used
  • The others, held by Fiat, VW, BMW and possibly nobody - Autobianchi, Borgward, Daf and DKW

Volkswagen Group are unhappily saddled with one unused trademark which the Anglophone now more commonly associates with a genito-urinary disorder, but Simca and Sunbeam could have international potential, and was there ever a trademark given up so carelessly as Triumph?

Rover's Viking longship is unlikely to appear on a Ford product any time soon, although the move does support Ford's reassurances that Land Rover has a future within Premier Automotive Group. The greater significance is that they are willing to outflank SAIC to put the Rover trademark 'beyond use' by potential Land Rover competitors. Let us not forget that thwarted bidder SAIC's portfolio includes a majority shareholding in the ambitious 4x4 specialist Ssangyong.

It may be no more than a straw in the wind, but Ford's purchase is a clear indicator that the established carmaking groups recognise the potential threat of an increasingly autonomous and competitive Chinese industry, and will guard these trademarks as fiercely as they have done the intellectual property rights for their licensed products. If they do not, they could find themselves staring down the barrels of the guns they have just sold.

Welcome - look forward and look back

Welcome to 5ivegearsinreverse, a very personal look backwards and forwards at the automotive world. The observations are occasionally informed by an arcane body of obsessively-garnered knowledge, but more often simply by disbelief, bewilderment, and spite.

For most of the past thirty-five years, I've had a car magazine going on inside my head. Few around me knew, and those who suspected despaired that the mental capacity was not put to a more beneficial purpose.

Unlike its real-world counterparts, my one-reader magazine has matured over the years. Bedroom-wall-poster 'Supercars' and activities involving getting from A to A more rapidly than the next fellow were never of more than peripheral interest. Instead my curiosity was aroused by how and where vehicles were made, and the often irrational machinations of the industry's corporate bodies.

The purpose behind this site is to make occasional observations on the progress of a 120 year old industry which still seems far from mature, and seems set, within the next ten years, to undergo a cataclysmic change unparalleled in the previous fifty. We are living in exciting times.

As a lighter counterpoint, this site will take a somewhat idiosyncratic look into the past, celebrating prophets without honour, unsung heroes, heroic failures and downright oddities.

Hold tight for the ride - even I don't know where we're going.