March 15, 2011

The Geneva historics.

Geneva’s 81st International Motor Show closed its doors a few days ago after a fascinating selection of world premieres. While most of the automotive press was busy writing about future cars, Ran When Parked was doing the opposite and taking a look at some of the cars that automakers premiered at previous Geneva shows.

1929: Mercedes-Benz SSK.

If we told you a car had a 7 .1 straight-six engine that made 220hp and gave the car a top speed of 120 miles per hour, odds are you wouldn’t imagine an expensive supercar. With a little bit of imagination you might imagine a lackluster 1970s American coupe the size of a train car. But by 1929 standards those numbers were amazing and the car in question was the fastest car around in its day: the Mercedes-Benz SSK. It was the last car designed by Ferdinand Porsche before he left to create the company that bears his name. Less than 40 were built and a good portion of them were raced with huge success, including first place in the 1931 Mille Miglia. If you see one, look under it to make sure it doesn’t have a Beetle engine – the SSK is one of the most reproduced cars in the kit-car world.

1967: Fiat Dino.

The Dino was the fruit of a cooperation between Fiat and then-independent Ferrari. Ferrari needed to quickly produce 500 V6 engines for Formula 2 homologation and feared that their 206 GT wouldn’t sell fast enough. They turned to Fiat for help, thinking that they could produce a car with that engine, market it for significantly less than the 206 GT and sell more of them. The result was the Dino coupe (by Bertone) and Dino spider (by Pininfarina). The only common point between the Fiat models and the Dino models was the 158hp 2.0 quad-cam engine; the rest was like night and day. Production carried on until 1972 with minor aesthetic changes and a displacement upgrade to 2.4. It’s worth noting that the 2.0 had an aluminum block whereas the 2.4 had a cast iron block.

1971: Maserati Bora.

The Bora was developed under Citroën's ownership of Maserati. It was drawn by Giorgetto Giugiaro for Ital Design. The Citroën influence was evident: the Bora had hydraulic brakes, hydraulic steering, a hydraulic clutch, hydraulically retractable headlights and even a hydraulic driver’s seat – small miracle that the power windows were electric and not hydraulic. The miles of hydraulic tubing that ran throughout the car sometimes failed, giving early cars a bad reputation.

The Bora was the first Maserati to have independent suspension. Under the hood was a 4.7 V8 that made 310hp. Later in the production run a 330hp 4.9 V8 was made standard. DeTomaso took over the brand in 1975 and the Bora limped on until 1978.

It’s worth noting that the Bora had a smaller sister, the Merak. The two looked almost identical but the Merak used the same V6 found in the SM.

1977: Porsche 928.

Rear-engined cars were quickly going out of style by the 1970s. Porsche designers were well aware of this so they started preparing a new, front-engined sports car that they presented in 1977. Porsche purists were outraged when they saw the 928: not only was the engine in the front, it was a V8, not a flat-six! And holy hell, is that a radiator? Blasphemy!

Once you looked past that the 928 was a very decent car. It had a transaxle mounted in the rear to give it a near-even weight distribution and aluminum body panels to save weight. The press was kinder to the 928 than purists were and named it the 1978 Car of The Year.

Several upgrades were made to the 928 during its long production run, including standard ABS from 1986-on. The 928 stayed in showrooms until 1995. The last version of it was the 928 GTS with a 320hp 5.4 V8.

1978: Toyota Starlet.

The first Toyota Starlet (called the 40 series) appeared in 1973 but its successor, the 60 series Starlet, was introduced throughout most of the world in 1978. The 60 series retained the 40 series’ 1.0 and 1.2 engines but Toyota added a 1.3 to the lineup. It was available either as a three door hatch or a five door hatch.

Toyota started sending the Starlet to the U.S in 1981. The timing was right; it was when Japanese cars were quickly overtaking Fiats and Renaults in the economy segment. The U.S. version of the Starlet used the 1.3 liter engine and was rear wheel drive, making it a bit of an oddity in a class flooded with front drivers. One of the Starlet’s most convincing aspects was its estimated 42 city/54 highway fuel economy. It left its place to the Tercel in 1984.

While the Starlet has been mostly forgotten throughout the world, it’s still fondly remembered in the drift and hill climb circles, where it’s not uncommon to see them competing.

1980: Audi Quattro.

The Quattro all-wheel-drive system that Audi is famous for today traces its roots back to the 1980 Audi Quattro. Audi started with a GT coupe and added a 2.1 turbocharged straight-5 that churned out 200hp, mated to the Quattro system and a five speed manual transmission. The Quattro is instantly recognizable next to a standard GT coupe thanks to its fender flares all around and its specific bumpers. Audi imported it to the United States in 1983 but very few of them were sold and even less of them are left today.

The Quattro was the first all wheel drive car in group B rally and was immensely successful until the FIA banned the group B in 1986 due to the high rate of deadly crashes. Certain rally versions of the Quattro were tuned up to 350hp

1986: Volvo 480.
The Volvo 480 filled a gap in the Volvo lineup that had been left empty since the demise of the P1800 in 1973. It shares certain styling cues with the P1800 ES like the glass rear hatch, though some have drawn an aesthetic parallel between the 480 and the Reliant Scimitar. Since it was Volvo’s first front wheel drive they had to experiment with an all-new rear suspension setup and consulted Lotus for advice. The engines came from Renault with the turbocharged variants looked over by Porsche. The end result was a quick little hatch with excellent handling.

Interestingly the 480 was designed for the US-market but an unfavorable exchange rate between the US and Sweden caused Volvo to cancel that project and confine sales to Europe. Production stopped in 1995 and it wasn’t replaced until the C30 came along at the 2006 Paris Motor Show.

1993: Citroën Xantia.

The Citroën Xantia replaced the BX, whose angular design inside and out already looked a little dated by the early 1990s. It was sketched by Bertone and used a variety of PSA gas and diesel engines, including the 1.9 carried over from the BX. Following the tradition started by the GS, a station wagon version complemented the Xantia lineup in 1995. A relatively unknown turbo 4x4 Xantia won five French rally championships in the 1990s but couldn’t shake the Xantia’s image of a grandpa’s car, an image that Citroën’s entire lineup suffered from in the 1990s.

What really set the Xantia aside from the competition was its hydraulic suspension, giving it a best-in-class ride and handling. More expensive models like those equipped with the 3.0 V6 benefitted from the XM’s more advanced hydractive suspension. The hydractive eliminated some of the body roll typically associated with hydraulic Citroëns and eliminated their tendency to drop when parked, all this at the cost of an extremely complex electronic system that was not always reliable.

It was given a slight redesign in 1998 (pictured above) and carried on until 2002.

2001: Lancia Thesis.

You wouldn’t think so by looking at their current and recent lineup but Lancia used to be an independent company that made excellent luxury cars. If you’re skeptical, a ride in a 1960s Flaminia will easily convince you of it. Since the Flaminia Lancia had struggled in the luxury sedan department and hoped the Thesis would help them restore that image.

The Thesis’ style was prefigured by the Dialogos concept shown at the 1998 Turin Motor Show. The production version looked similar but had lost the concept’s rear suicide doors. It was powered by a series of Fiat engines, including the straight-5 2.0 turbo and the straight-5 2.4 JTD.

Controversial styling and Lancia’s declining brand image were two illnesses that the Thesis suffered from. Poor advertising took a stab at the car, too. Few people knew the Thesis existed and the first thing that was really said about it in the press was that it was selling poorly. These factors contributed to the Thesis’ failure but the end could be seen a mile away.

In the late 1990s Lancia’s flagship was the Thema, based on the tipo quattro platform shared with the Saab 9000, the Alfa 164, and the Fiat Croma. In ten years they sold 358,000 Themas. Its replacement, dubbed simply the K (prounounced Kappa, from the Greek alphabet) came in 1994 and 117,000 of them found a home until 2001, a huge step backwards compared to the Thema. When Lancia axed the Thesis from its lineup in 2009, they had sold only 16,000 of them. A vast majority of them stayed inside Italy (the only country that’s still vaguely aware of Lancia’s existence) where the government still maintains a fleet of them.

2002: Volkswagen Phaeton.

Much like the Lancia above, Volkswagen’s Phaeton is a brilliant luxury car that has been unjustly ignored. It made its debut in showrooms in 2002 and competed directly against class heavyweights like the Mercedes S-Class, the BMW 7-Series and its cousin the Audi A8. It had all the luxury bells and whistles that these cars had like a four-zone climate control system and available air suspension. On the menu was a wide array of engine options including a VR6, a V8, a W12 and two TDIs.

In short, the Phaeton had everything a luxury car should have and should have been a serious contender in the segment but unfortunately, few found the idea of an expensive Volkswagen riding on a Bentley platform convincing. Sales were unspeakably low, leading Volkswagen to remove the Phaeton from the U.S. market, though the internet rumor mill says that it might be back soon. It still enjoys steady sales in Germany and in China; in fact, the facelifted 2011 Phaeton was shown at the Beijing Motor Show, not at a European show.


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