Friday, 14 October 2011

The Best Year Ever?

I know I haven't been sharing my thoughts with my reader recently (hello Pat!), but it doesn't mean that the internal lights have been entirely extinguished.

Something I keep coming back to is the idea that somehow and at some point in the recent past, the motor industry has lost sight of what makes a truly satisfying car - at least one that appeals to intelligent and thoughtful enthusiasts. Oh sure, all the moderns are quiet, safe, comfortable and generally amazingly more efficient than they were in the past, but at the same time, somehow the fun's been lost.

A lot of this is because cars are now massively heavy, and are equipped with numb steering, overservoed brakes and so many electronic gizmos that all that fingertip control and feedback that used to satisfy has disappeared. And while anything with performance credentials (think R Line or M Sport)now has a rock crushing ride that makes it positively painful to drive on the UK's crumbling roads, even manufacturers of humdrum stuff appear to have lost the knack of developing spring + damper combinations that deliver a mix of compliant ride with decent body control. Meanwhile, over in Germany, 20 years of performance wars have produced cars with over 500bhp and a potential for speed its next to impossible to enjoy on most of the world's roads.

So I found myself wondering when did it all start to go wrong? And therefore, when was the highwater mark of motorcar development - at least through my eyes?

I headed up to the loft.

Up there is about every issue of CAR magazine from 1978 to 2008 (when the new editor had a brainfart, decided it was all about celebs, and I finally cancelled my subscription). In fact, a complete history from when cars finally got good, to moderns. And I worked backward.

I found the answer: 1992. Around the month of May in fact, and from there it all went tits up.

In mid 1992, Porsche had launched the 964RS, their finest ever GT (928GTS)and were working on the 968 Clubsport, all now recognised as amongst the best of road going Porsches. The 993 was waiting in the wings for launch in September at the Frankfurt show.

VW had just finished building the mk2 Golf (oh for a nice clean 16V 3-door in Oak Green) and were about to lose the plot completely with the mk3. Mercedes still made cars from ingots -the 190s and E & S class had a build quality that's really never been bettered - but were about to follow these gems up with the gigantic mid-90's versions, and a range increasinglycomplex, poorly built and unreliable techno-fests. Audi still built the original aero-car, the 100, but again the newly launched S2 was a lame replacement for the ur-Quattro.

Over in Munich, the E30 M3 had just bowed out with the 2.5l Sport (I heard one recently sold for £85,000), and had perfected the sports car in a Savill Row suit with the M5. Their replacements, especially the 6 cylinder M3's, were 300kgs heavier, and frankly, rubbish.

In the UK, TVR announced the stunning Griffiths. Ok, it was built with Bostik and cable ties, but was again a highpoint in their troubled history. Bentley offered the handbuilt Turbo R and the Continental R, Jaguar finally produced a customer ready XJ12 and XJS (with lots of help from Ford), and a Range Rover may have fallen apart but still had the original David Bache shape (and didn't weigh 3 tonnes). Rover had also reversed one of the most idiotic decisions in their history and had a Mini Cooper in the range, and the simple, light and efficient K series engine was used in countless 200s. And Ford's glorious Sierra Cosworth just got all sensible with a 4wd system, before bowing out entirely, mainly because you had to be a 65 year old vicar living in Skye to be allowed to insure one.

At Peugeot, they were still building the best Gti of the lot, the 205 1.9 Gti, and the sublime (and so under-appreciated) 405, and still didn't rely on anyone else to build their dampers. Citroen were still selling the lightweight (and so much fun to drive) AX, BX and XM, and poor Saab hadn't yet become the unwanted ginger haired step-child of the car world, and were turning out rugged (and turbo'd) 900s.

The Japanese were also in a zone, you could buy one of Honda's finest ever (NSX), Lexus had arrived with the LX400, Mazda's little MX5 still didn't need more that 1600ccs to provide thrills although down the road Toyota had just screwed up the MR2 by listening the 'Merkins and producing the fat, twitchy mark2. Their rallying inspired Celica turbo 4 was an brilliant (and underated)road-car even without a very clever (and supremely dodgy) air-restrictor. Even Suburu had their DNA sorted, the 4wd Legacy was given a turbo and a whole new future on the special stages before heading off down chav street with the Impreza.

Gordon Murray's Rocket was out, and he was working on the F1 - Albert was running around with a V8 and F1 running gear.

See what I mean? Somehow the world of motoring reached its peak, then had a global crisis of confidence, and was about to head up the blind alley we now find ourselves in.

There is a flaw in my argument.

I don't know what was happening in Italy, but there had been a collective loss of nerve a few years before, the Alfasud, rear-drive Alfa's and Integrale were mostly history, Maserati hadn't built a decent car for a generation and Fiat had long forgotten what it was about. It took until the end of the decade before the Italians finally reached the same automotive peak the rest of the world climbed in 1992.

In 1992 Ferrari had lost its Pininfarina mojo, forgotten about the F40, and was building 348s, Mondials and a handful of lardarsed Monaco millionaires special 512TRs. Lamborghini had followed up the sublime Countach with the dumb Diablo, and apart from the Integrale, Lancia churned out sad Fiat Tipo derivatives.

So there you have it. Unless you live in Italy, we've been over the hill since 1992.


No comments: