Musings --- that was the year, that was...

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In a year of numerous new car introductions, one that included important Jaguar and Rover replacements, we asked our industry correspondent to seek significant technical progress. J.W. also identifies how the newcomers shape up to the establishment in the sales categories likely to be favoured by our readership…

Recalling 1986 is to remember the strides increasingly complex electromechanical equipment has made in the production car. We started the year with three Scandinavian sorties devoted to the revised Escort with Lucas-Girling anti-lock brakes amongst its options; Volkswagen’s Viscous Coupling four-wheel-drive Syncro Golf (£9,500 next Spring, “if no further currency disasters occur,” predicts VW at Milton Keynes) and Daimler Benz with a selection of traction aids, including part time (4Matic) all-wheel-drive instructed by microprocessor.

Later in the year Porsche permitted some circuit laps to preview the 959, certainly the fastest 4WD car in production with 400 twin turbo horsepower delivered from the flat six. The 959 was a 1986 Le Mans top ten finisher and has been ordered by 12 British owners, who will receive their cars only at the tail end of 250 strong model run in 1987 at  “whatever the prevalent Deutschmark price,” in the words of Porsche GB’s John Aldington.

Now, with 4WD sales apparently drooping in many markets, the most significant technical memories of those Scandinavian visits materialise as the spreading role of anti-lock brakes. Such systems really look set to make the kind of production impact that the disc brake provided.

Mercedes reported “over 60%” of their S-class saloons were equipped with the Robert Bosch system even before it became a standard part of the production recipe and avowed their intention to spread the system more widely: nearly a year ago the percentage of those picking ABS on the smallest 190 line was 15% “and growing fast.”

Ford reports brisk business on its £320 anti-lock option for the Escort, “about 20% are buying this feature on the 1.4 and 1.6 models.” reported its spokesman who added with refreshing candour, “now we have to spread the feature a little more widely. On OHV and diesel engines there are some packaging problems, but engineering is working on that aspect and the anti-lock system will be available on a lot more of our cars next year.”  I must confess I was not impressed enough to order the system on my wife’s 1.6 Estate, but I do admire the Alfred Teves £902 44 ABS offered optionally on 4×4 Sierras and as standard equipment on all Granada/Scorpio cars.

From a production performance viewpoint 1986 could be recorded as the year the turbo entered a decline, one that could be accelerated by its outlaw role in future Grand Prix and subsequent loss of status. Renault, 1977 pioneers of the system in Formula 1 and fervent supporters in turbo applications to cheer up every major strand in their model range, chose Paris Show 1986 to publicly reveal what they had been privately briefing the journalists on since the monsoon that passed as summer this year: 16 valve, DOHC, cylinder heads from La Régie.

First candidate in its own range looks like being the Renault 5 Supercinq which is currently the fastest accelerating Hot Hatchback around, courtesy of an old pushrod OHV 1.4 litre boosted by a Garrett T2 turbo and intercooled for 115 bhp in a four wheel disc-braked chassis.

For others four valves per cylinder are already commonplace. The suprise is just how far down the price scales the Japanese are spreading such sophistication. At this year’s Motor Show we witnessed the debut of the £6,750 Suzuki Swift GTi.A 1.3 litre of claimed 101 bhp/112 mph capabilities that opens one of those beloved marketing niches below even the current 1.6/2.0 litre Honda/Toyota Japanese 16 valve establishment of the CRX, Integra, and Prelude models from Honda and the Corolla GT, mid-engined MR2 and front drive 2.0 Toyota Celicas from Toyota. In Frankfurt last year and in Britain this, Honda’s motorcycle rivals over at Suzuki showed that they might pursue Honda along the sporting coupé path too, Suzuki displaying the ingenious mid-engined RS/1, which apparently is also propelled by the 1.3 litre 16 valve, which shares the Honda weight obsession of utilising hollow overhead camshafts.

Both Toyota and Honda progress into six cylinders and 24 valves too: Honda with the controversial 2.5 litre V6 found in Rover 800 and Legend.  “Controversial” because it has a lack of mid-range punch that is puzzling in a car obviously aimed at customers more used to mid-range response and automatic transmissions. Even with the slight augmentation of torque in favour of peak horsepower that is found on automatic Legends and Rovers, in itself an admission of mid-range inadequacy, this Honda V6 would seem better suited to delighting enthusiasts in a suitably sporting machine.

Also amongst the six cylinder/24 valve crowd is Toyota with the second most expensive Japanese car we could find listed in Britain, the £15,299 Supra, which has a straight six beneath its overhead camshafts and four valves in each combustion chamber — a cylinder and head layout found since the seventies in various competition (CSL) and exotic (M1) BMWs that is now more widely accepted in the £30,000 plus M635 and M5.

An inline six cylinder, but with an aluminium block beneath 24 valves, can also be found on 3.6 litre Jaguars of course. It is a genuine pleasure to be able to report that Coventry’s engineers really improved their six beyond recognition between its XJ Cabriolet installation and the latest XJ6.  I still prefer the BMW motor for smoothness and power, but Jaguar has really only just begun on what could be an equally enduring engine line in the XK mould.

BMW is capable of producing rougher quad valve layouts however. You only have to experience Munich’s 200 bhp M3, to realise that God granted no dispensation from vibration and resonance to Bavarians intent on releasing power from a 2.3 litre four cylinder. Which is presumably why Porsche’s 2.5 litre/16 valve four within 944S continues to be counterbalanced on rotating shaft principles that trace back to Lanchester. Certainly, Porsche’s large bore four cylinder was enjoyably smooth throughout the enhanced rpm-range offered over the usual 150 and 163 bhp 924/944 powerplants

Although the use of turbocharging may wane in the face of manufacturing delight at the emissions/performance/economy balance of four valve per cylinder layouts, we should also recall some notable 1986 debutants that employ turbocharging and 16 valve four cylinders, following the 1985 route of SAAB’s 9000 and the rare (220 made) 1984 Audi Sport. Ford and Mazda have many commercial links all over the World, the result of Ford’s 25% shareholding in the Japanese company’s stock, but their 16 valve turbos could not have been more different.

The 149 mph Ford Sierra RS Cosworth is a rear drive, trailing arm, 2-litre that was born out of a need to achieve racing success in Group A  (5,000 production cars a year), that looks likely to achieve both racing and rally success, the latter so long as no last minute ban is deployed by FISA and its Group A “Black list” of cars over 300 bhp.

The 1.6 litre Mazda is a conversion of the front drive 323 equivalent to Escort.  Complete with four driven wheels, the Mazda 323 Turbo 4×4 is aimed squarely at achieving success in Group A, but this time in rallying. In fact a Belgium-based team has been trying to achieve the reliability and consequent Group A success that the Mazda specification implied during 1986, but when they easily achieve outputs beyond 220 bhp the car seems to wilt (production 323s offer 148 bhp).

The Mazda’s natural competition and commercial opposition comes from another 1986 debutant: Lancia’s Delta HF 4WD. Since we drove the Lancia last Spring the Lancia-Fiat Abarth factory in Turin has been progressing its competition Group A specification in readiness for the 1987 World Championship. On October’s Sanremo rally they announced a competition derivative with 230 bhp at 6250 rpm instead of the production 165 horsepower at 1000 rpm less. Peak torque goes from 203 lb-ft at 2750 rpm to 231 lb-ft at 4000 rpm whilst the competition car’s weight is an anticipated 1120 kg compared to a production 1190kg.

In both cases the power is derived from Lancia’s 2-litres and eight valves engine, its lack of four valves per cylinder compensated for by the sophistications of counter balancer shafts and (in production with possible competition ramifications) limited period turbocharger overboost to increase torque.

Lancia and Mazda both see a commercial future for such expensive and highly specified 4WD hatchbacks at the top of an almighty mass manufacturer war based on producing ever faster front driven small cars. Of the pair I have fond driving memories in sunny climes, Mazda being particularly generous in allowing extensive loose surface “playtime”.

However, if I were buying at this level I must say I would want less resonance and a more responsive gearchange before passing over the thoroughly developed Lancia recipe, which encompasses both Torsen Gleason and Ferguson principle limited slip differential devices. For what it is worth, Lancia also look like scoring a sixth World Championship rally title with its 1987 Group A Delta, possibly enhancing the prestige of this hatchback, beyond the pack.

So far as the British market was concerned both VW’s 16v and Ford’s Escort RS were newcomers in 1986. Both actually have some history, VW with a troubled and lengthy development LHD pedigree behind them since the aluminium DOHC 16 valve was prematurely announced at Frankfurt, September 1983. Ford had a previous generation turbo to draw on, but wanted a car suitable for larger scale production and higher profit, for there was no need to include some of the Motorsport-Group A-inspired tweaks of the original RST

Having driven both cars it is only fair to report that Ford has achieved better fuel consumption results with its Turbo than VW did with its 16 valves, in independent tests, which goes against the normal grain of thirstier turbos. It is also worth noting that Ford’s turbo installation is one free of obvious and traditional handicaps such as lag, but there is little pleasure in high rpm motoring with a CVH, whereas the VW loves to live at 7000 rpm. So does my 16-valve cramped coupé Honda’s CRX, and that cost £7,950…

Other alternatives to arrive in this crowded performance arena during 1986 were Renault’s 5GT Turbo, which I raced as well as tested against the strongest opposition, coming away with respect for a concept Renault obviously already regard as outmoded. The 115 bhp version of Peugeot’s 1.6 litre 205 GTI and the 1.9 litre top model, which was priced at a provisional £8,800 at press time also came to Britain in 1986. Given that the Peugeot has now achieved some riding ability to go along with its breathtaking cornering poise and grip, I’d think very carefully before buying from anywhere else other than France in this market sector. That I chose the Honda was simply that I did not have time to wait for the justly acclaimed Targa Top Toyota MR2, plus the fact that I like to wear my Nigel Mansell outfit on the M4 .

To more serious matters. What of other genuine sports cars in 1986: did they match the progress of more spacious saloons? Porsche has occupied enough of our columns but it is fair to say that many of the features found in the 959 will percolate to more affordable strata, both inside Porsche’s range and out.  I feel that adjustable dampers, not the hard or soft Japanese gimmicks but a graduated and discernible action controlled by micro-chip will fill in the gap before somebody finds a way of making the Lotus Active Ride suspension lighter, cheaper and just as effective. Then Lotus could be set for royalties on a scale not seen since Porsche synchromesh.

The NEC halls at Birmingham recorded the arrival of a bumper crop of specialist British sports cars, but experience since attendance at the sixties racing car shows tells me that many will not make production, and those that do will be made in the kind of numbers Porsche knew in the forties. Caterham continues to progress the Seven with its De Dion rear end and 16 valve power unit now available in a more comfortable cockpit and Reliant have sharply improved the now Scimitar badged car that was introduced as SS1. But should we cheer? The power unit is a Nissan 1.8 turbo, and there are already dire warnings from UK based manufacturers of unfair competition. Sour grapes?

TVR at Blackpool had a busy 1986, showing a Rover V8 engined 420 saloon, reviving the 3000S as the 2.8 S with a softer face and making eight powerful sports devices in the 420 SEAC (Special Equipment Aramid Composite, referring to the use of Kevlar and composites in the body) that has become its most expensive example of the traditional TVR formula: front engine, independent suspension for rear drive, four wheel disc brakes and a massive tubular backbone chassis, clothed in corrosion-free materials. TVR had been doing well in the USA and proved capable of edging toward 500 cars a year, many of them sold to America with Federal emission-certificated 2.8 litre Ford V6 motivation. All that was finished at press time, Ford busy working on the European 2.4 and 2.9 litre V6s in place of the previously freely available (and widely employed) 2.8 V6. Incidentally 2.9 litres is not a new V6 capacity to Ford, it has been supplying such engines to the USA arm of the company for several years, but now it is engineered to power European cars rather than American 4×4 pickups.

Thus TVR’s future will depend how well the market accepts the revived S at  £12.500 or the existing 350/390 Rover V8 engined two seaters at prices from £17,865 to £21,995. I drove a 350 for the first time recently and could not believe the brutal performance and lack of detail development in car priced in the Lotus/junior Porsche league. However, it turned heads wherever it went and I can honestly say I have never driven anything like it, save a 1969 3-litre TVR that similarly scared, exhilarated and sped me to the Nürburgring of that era with a plethora of minor engineering mayhem.

For Lotus, 1986 was the year it obtained rnore financial backing and less independence than anyone could have predicted when Lotus Engineering Company was registered on January 1 1952. General Motors ownership of the car group and separate engineering consultancy division (not the Grand Prix équipe at Ketteringham Hall) altered all the forward planning concerning new models, particularly the predicted 1986 appearance of the “cheap” X100 Elan successor, and now Lotus chairman Alan Curtis is talking of moving overseas!

All we are certain of at Lotus is that the X100 is at least a couple of years away and that 1986 simply saw customers offered a higher compression Esprit Turbo (215 bhp instead of 210) and an automatic Excel. Plus general availability of the 180 (instead of 160 bhp) Excel SE, a fine but aging product of 1974 Elite and subsequent Eclat parentage.

Lotus quality on the Excel could be complemented by a programme of Porsche 911-style improvements over the years, but there has been little sign of the pace Porsche maintained. For example carburettors were replaced by Bosch injection on some 911s by 1968, yet we have still to be offered fuel injection in a production Lotus. Porsche graduated equally swiftly from initial four of six cylinder power to six cylinder only, a multi-cylinder move that could make the Excel engineer’s job a lot easier in the constant search for civilisation in a car that has now succeded in attracting the discerning 2 + 2 coupé customer. Add a fuel injected aluminium V6 to Lotus handling in this forgiving front engine format, and perhaps there are some development years to be stretched from Excel, until the V8s can be deployed.

Finally some thoughts on cars that take themselves seriously and their 1986 progress. I refer to the phalanx of West German executive models with their emphasis on quality construction, prestige badgework and high initial costs balanced by that accountant’s friend, “high residual values.” In other words they cost a lot, new or secondhand!

BMW continued to sell cars to Britain at a feverish rate— over 30,200 in nine months — and Mercedes shifted over 16,000 in the same period. For my money the 325i BMW is a most alluring combination of suave speed and modest (cramped, a family might say) accommodation, but Mercedes have been making the 190 range more freely available as a matter of UK policy; customers in this aspirant class do not wait.

Mercedes has now installed a six cylinder along with RHD in its smallest line, revealing the 190E 2.6 for Britons at the Motor Show to preview Spring 1987 sales at prices “around £17,600.”

Since there is 166 bhp from that DB inline six and a maximum in the same 130 mph bracket as a 325i, we can see that the days of Mercedes staying aloof to British requests for more cars, and more manual performance derivatives, are long departed.

Both BMW and Jaguar launches are fresh in mind as this is written, and I’m sure you will have to read enough exhaustive comparisons to be sick of the subject by now. All I can add from experience is that Jaguar and Mercedes were in a class above BMW with the old models. Now BMW has genuinely improved its product to the point where there is a valid comparison in terms of handling pleasure: the big BMW is a bit lighter than the Jaguar and is the kind of eager cohort in cross country mileage that an enthusiast with a penchant for spacious luxury might appreciate most, yet there is nothing floppy about the big Mercs. The new Jaguar astounded me with its precise poise over Scottish roads more normally encountered in rally coverage. As a balance between quiet comfort, and exploitable cornering grip, the Jaguar is unmatched anywhere.

In outright performance and refinement terms it is ironic that Jaguar’s admired V12 will not be a feature significantly before BMW is similarly equipped. Neither BMW or Jaguar can yet expect to see their new models up on the astonishing S-class plinth of more than 108,000 annual production whilst Mercedes have an alloy V8 in full production against the Jaguar and BMW V12s of tomorrow.

Summarised, 1986 was the most exciting year for new car introductions and engineering content that I have encountered since attending my first new model debut in 1969.— J.W