March 29, 2011

2011 Avignon Motor Festival part one: not just the usual suspects.

The 9th annual Avignon Motor Festival closed its doors on Sunday night after a rainy last day. As with every year the event is divided up into three parts. The first is the parts and model car swap meet, the second is the auction and the third is the collection parking lot, where participants who show up in a classic car can display it and get half off the entry price.

The most impressive part of this year's show was the growing number of late-1970s, 1980s and even early-1990s cars on display. Until recently these so-called "youngtimers" were shunned from events like this in favor of more traditional classics but times change: Citroen Tractions are interesting but they're ancient history. 2CVs and air-cooled Volkswagens are hideously expensive and Dauphines, 403s and the like are almost 60 years old. There are less and less of them to go around, parts are harder to find and as the overall interest in them wanes a little, younger collectors move on to different cars, cars that they remember from their childhood and that are still relatively affordable.

This is the beginning of a new wave of classic cars and some of the first ones to surf it are the cars featured below. Enjoy the photos and get your hands on these while you still can.

Mercedes-Benz 240D (w123):

Mercedes-Benz 230CE (w123):

Mercedes-Benz 560SEL (w126):

Fiat Abarth Ritmo 130TC:

Alfa Romeo Spider (916 series):

Volkswagen Golf & Golf GTI (mk1):

Volkswagen Golf GTI G60 (mk2):

Peugeot 205 CTi:

Citroen AX GT:

Citroen XM:

Citroen CX (mk2):

Saab 900:

March 26, 2011

Avignon 2011 preview.

A couple of quick snapshots of what we have in store over the next few days.

March 24, 2011

Caption contest.

How would you caption this 1950s Borgward ad? Drop us a comment below.

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.


Which of these cars would you most like to have in your garage? Which would you like to read a full article on? Give us your feedback by going to our Facebook page.

March 13, 2011

A quick look at the Fiat Tempra Coupe.

Every now and then a car manufacturer comes out with a car that no one saw coming, the kind of car that generally marks a break from the past and a leap into the future. On the opposite end of the spectrum there are cars that almost go unnoticed when they are launched. The Fiat Tempra falls in the second category. Launched in 1990, it was essentially what everyone expected Fiat would build to replace the Regata: a four door version of the Tipo.

In Europe the Tempra slotted between the aforementioned Tipo and the Croma as Fiat’s midsize sedan. It was powered by a variety of gas and diesel engines ranging from 1.4 to 1.9. Early gas engines were carbureted but the copious amount of laws passed by the European Union in 1992 killed them off in the name of emission restrictions so the Tempra soon adopted fuel injection. Perhaps the most interesting variant in Europe was a 4x4 wagon named the Tempra SW that was powered by an 8v 2.0 gasoline engine to cope with the extra weight of the 4x4 system.

The Tempra was also built in Brazil starting in 1992 but since the Croma was not available there, it had to take on the vocation of Fiat's flagship sedan. This was problematic because the European version of the Tempra was not flagship material. To be able to sell it in Brazil as an upscale car Fiat of Brazil made several changes inside and out, including larger exterior mirrors, a different suspension setup to make it more adapted to local roads, and a longer list of standard equipment.

To further add to the luxury image, the Brazilian Tempra was available as a premium coupe starting in 1993, a bodystyle that was not available anywhere else in the world. The coupe was powered by either a 2.0 Turbo or a 2.0 16v but both engines lost power when they were adjusted to run on Brazilian fuel, which often times contains alcohol. The coupe’s dash was given a new round design and the rear window wiper was judged as unnecessary and deleted. The 2.0 16v caused a huge amount of ink flow in the Brazilian press because it was the first engine sold there to have four valves per cylinder. It put out 127hp (or 28hp more than its 8v sibling) and hit 62mph in 9.8 seconds.

The turbo 2.0 only had eight valves but was good for 165hp thanks to a Garrett turbocharger. It took 8.2 seconds to reach 62mph which earned it the title of fastest car in Brazil at the time. Both the turbo and the 16v Tempra coupes had numerous standard and optional luxury equipment that included fake wood trim on the dash, electric leather seats and ABS brakes.

The Tempra coupe was short lived: production ended in 1995 while the Tempra sedan lived on in Brazil until 1999 and in Europe until 1997.

When the European press caught wind of the coupe certain rumors spread that it would soon be arriving on European shores but it never did and many wonder why. The answer lies in another car that shared space on a Fiat showroom at the same time, the Bangle-designed Fiat Coupé. It was introduced in 1993 and shared many aspects with the Brazilian Tempra coupe, including its Tipo platform and both 2.0 engines. In the Coupé the 2.0 turbo was pushed to 195hp and the 2.0 16v to 142hp. It was well-equipped, very quick and reasonably priced and Fiat feared that if they sold the Tempra coupe in Europe it would cannibalize the Coupé.

Above: an early Fiat Coupé. Later in the production run it was available with a 5-cylinder 2.0 20v turbocharged engine that logged 220hp and 0-62mph in 6.5, making it one of the fastest Fiats ever built.
We've updated our display case page dedicated to scale models, you can find it here.

March 1, 2011

The custody battle for the Ritmo.

Fiat has been tied to the Seat (Sociedad Española de Automóviles de Turismo) name since the company was born in 1950. The idea came from Spain’s Franquist government who hoped the brand would put the country on wheels. In the early days Fiat held 7% of Seat, miscellaneous Spanish banks held 42% and the remaining 51% belonged to the Instituto Nacional de Industria, a branch of the Spanish government.

Seat got off to a discrete start: they sold their first car in 1953, the Seat 1400. It was an exact replica of the Fiat 1400 and completely out of tune with the needs of the majority of Spain’s population at the time.

Things took a turn for the better in 1957 with the launch of the Seat 600. It was a Xerox copy of the Fiat 600 launched two years earlier on the other side of the Mediterranean and it was precisely what Spain needed to motorize its population. Sales skyrocketed; the 600 became so popular that certain dealers even had to turn down orders. The 600 spawned some interesting versions reserved for the Spanish market, including the four-door 800 and the 600 Formichetta, but those are a different story for a different time. Throughout the 1960s and the 1970s Seat continued to build replicas of Fiats such as the Seat 850, the Seat 124, the Seat 127, 128 and 131.

When Fiat launched its highly-anticipated Ritmo in 1978 they gave Seat a version of it as well. On the outside the biggest difference between the two was that one had a Fiat badge and one had a Seat badge. On paper, the Seat borrowed its gasoline engine from the 124’s parts bin. The diesel engines were the same. The Ritmo was sold as the Seat Ritmo in Spain and as the Fiat Ritmo throughout the rest of continental Europe. It was dubbed the Fiat Strada in the UK and in North America.

By the late 1970s Seat had reached a comfortable cruising speed and enjoyed healthy sales but all was not well under the surface. The second oil crisis in 1979 had hit them hard and their expansion strategy had left them with heavy debts. Fiat refused to inject more money into the company; instead, they wanted the INI to help them restructure the company so they could later buy it entirely. When the INI rejected Fiat’s offer, the latter sold off its shares in the company for the symbolic price of one peseta per share. When all was said and done, the INI owned 95% of Seat.

The problem that arose is that Seat’s lineup consisted entirely of Fiats built under license and it wasn’t clear whether or not they could still produce them after the divorce. Fiat knew that refusing to let Seat produce these models would kill the Spanish company so the two came to an agreement that they signed in 1981: Seat could keep the Panda, 127 and Ritmo provided they redesigned them inside and out, including renaming them. Seat did just that and the cars became the Seat Marbella, the Seat Fura and the Seat Ronda. All had minor aesthetic differences to set them apart from their Fiat counterparts but the Fiat influence was clearly visible.

In August 1982, while Seat and Volkswagen were busy mulling over a potential collaboration, Fiat was drafting a letter to Seat to inform them that they were not satisfied with the changes they had made to the Ritmo. An article published in Spanish newspaper El País on November 11th, 1983, claims that Seat made several attempts to contact Fiat and discuss the problem but Fiat never responded in writing. Instead, on November 17th, 1982, Fiat filed a lawsuit against Seat in a Parisian court. The court accepted the lawsuit and notified Seat of it on November 25th.

The judge selected for the lawsuit was Italian lawyer Franzo Grande Stevens. Seat's first move was to request a different judge on the grounds that Stevens was part of Fiat’s board of directors and would be unable to deliver a fair verdict. Seat got its way and a panel of three judges (from France, Spain and Switzerland) was appointed to the trial. Seat also filed a counterclaim against Fiat, accusing them of trying to stop them from exporting cars.

Fiat noticed they were losing ground and rephrased their arguments against Seat. Their problem with the Ronda was that while Seat had sufficiently redesigned the front and rear, the middle section of the car was still too similar to the Ritmo. Seat had no arguments to defend itself against that claim: the side of the Ronda was very similar to the Ritmo. One could lift a door from a Ritmo and fit it on a Ronda.

Seat was determined to win and instead of focusing on what was similar, they focused on what was different. They took a black Ronda and painted in yellow every exterior difference between the Ritmo and the Ronda. An El País journalist who covered the trial claimed that the result was spectacular.

The trial carried on with people traveling to Paris from either Spain or Italy to personally testify for one side or the other. Several important folks in Fiat were marked absent including Umberto Agnelli, future president of Fiat, and Cesare Romiti, general director of Fiat at the time and the man who orchestrated the company's purchase of Alfa Romeo from the Italian government.

In the end the ruling was kept secret but the court sided with Seat, saying they had modified the Ronda enough to keep selling it. The ruling also meant Seat was free to export it where they pleased, which they did, but the Ronda was not particularly successful outside of its native market. The Seat Malaga, a mix between an Ibiza and a Ronda, benefitted from the court's decision and kept the same doors as the Ronda.