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.