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.