Matters of moment, November 1985

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The design matters

Looking at design trends towards the close of another year, one sees that racing and rallying still appear to have useful lessons to contribute, because many aspects in the specifications of today’s production models competing in a cut-throat buyers’ market, line up with those of competition cars. For instance, there is a growing use of multi-valve twin-cam engines, the fact that turbocharging is taken for granted, along with fuel injection, electronic ignition, spoilers, disc brakes and multi-ratio gearboxes, and now there is a return to multi-cylinder power units, small cylinders having long been a feature of racing engines. Mercedes-Benz is developing a V12 engine in pursuit of Jaguar’s lead and one wonders whether we shall see again that one-time top ploy of I6-cylinder cars which Cadillac and Marmon exploited in the 1930s, the epitome of smooth running snob-appeal. Even supercharging has made a tentative return and there are rallying overtones to the increasing adoption for everyday cars of 4-wheel drive and anti-lock braking.

These design trends are admirable but the growing move towards design-mergers, if taken to extremes, could kill off the desirable individuality that distinguishes one make of car from another and which, in the specialised-car field, has played a vital part in securing sales. At the dawn of motoring it was not unusual for imported cars to be given make names other than those of their manufacturers and later we became used to such things as Russian Zis limousines that looked like Packards and to Datsuns that were really disguised Austin 7s etc, before the Japanese motor industry got into top gear and swamped Europe with cars of its own national concept. Recent design-mergers are more insidious, eating away, as they do, at true marque individuality.

This began with Peugeot, Renault and Volvo sharing a common-design V6 engine, and there was a time when a Bentley was merely a different-look Rolls-Royce (the advent of the Bentley Mulsanne and now of the Bentley Turbo R changed all that; incidentally, Avon CR27 Turbospeed tyres have just been standardised on the Turbo R, R-R having favoured these very British tyres since before the war). Design-mergers are evident today in the Honda influenced British Leyland “Rovondas” and in the new small Nissan-Alfas which have replaced the Suds, in today’s Fiat-like Lancias, in the close tie-up between Ford and Mazda and in the recent Lancia / Saab marriage which has coupled Thema to 9000.

Any trend that puts production considerations first and individuality second is to be deplored and these technical mergers of the 1980s are likely, unless curbed, to destroy once well-defined marque characteristics which undoubtedly sell cars to customers, staunch in their one make loyalty. Those makers who fail to stand out against these trends are likely to lose hard-won benefits. Efficiency alone does not necessarily increase sales and “badge-engineering” has long been scorned. It cannot be denied that although clever engineering was responsible for selling more than 20 million Volkswagen Beetles and making “2CV” a household name, the shared character of these cars also gave rise to repeat-sales and world-wide customer enthusiasm. The increasing tendency to use common components and to blend technology may appeal to economists within the global motor industry but, taken too far, it could render the end product uncommonly dull and uninspiring.

Another British World Champion

While the crowds at Brands Hatch were cheering Nigel Mansell’s win in the European Grand Prix, Derek Bell finally secured the World Endurance Championship for Drivers together with his partner Hans-Joachim Stuck. It is a title which he richly deserves, having been a leading sports car driver for fifteen years. Bell is also one of the finest ambassadors for neater racing, or any sport, which this country has and we can be assured that he will use his title for the enhancement of the sport world-wide.

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