When Car Companies Went Bonkers
For most of us the idea that the people in charge know what they’re doing is a safety net. When the world goes to pot, at least we’ve got Them. They’ll sort it. We’ll be ok.
The world did go to pot. And when the chips were down They didn’t entirely cover themselves in glory.
But, we argue, they were under a lot of pressure, mistakes were inevitable. Status quo restored. We can trust them. Sort of.
The same, albeit with slightly less scary dynamics, applies to the bods who run car companies. They must know what they’re doing so we must be safe buying their cars.
Except no. As these cars demonstrate, quite often clever car people make very odd decisions. And these cars are the result.
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Here are our favourite unusual motoring decisions. Some were prophetic. Others were pathetic.
Even on paper it’s quite hard to see how the Cascada made it all the way through General Motors’ labyrinthine bureaucracy to become an actual car.
It was a bulbous four seat convertible that looked quite a lot like an Insignia saloon without a roof, probably because that’s what it was. As a Buick, which is how the Cascada was originally conceived, perhaps it made some sense, a modern update on the big 60s drop tops in which guys and gals cruised something called The Strip. Except apparently it didn’t make sense because neither guys, gals or a combination of the two bought the Buick. Why someone somewhere - or, more likely a committee of someones somewhere - decided to slap on Vauxhall badges and sell the Cascada here is a question without an answer. Despite a climate best described as ‘not suitable for convertibles’, Brits love convertibles. But they love stylish convertibles, cars that make statements.
The bulbous, over-sized Vauxhall Cascada did make a statement, in fact several. That Vauxhall badge was a big one. Vauxhall may be undergoing a style renaissance but at the time of the Cascada - and for many decades before it - it had all the style, verve and pizzazz of a box of mouldy potatoes.
The Cascada was a car in search of a market. Who buys a non-premium branded four seater convertible? Particularly one as dismally mediocre as the Cascada?
It turns out nobody. Perhaps there were political reasons for the Cascada, perhaps Vauxhall managers all wanted one. We’ll never know. We also don’t care.
There were lots of clever business strategy type reasons why MG Rover burnt what little remained of its BMW dowry on buying the De Tomaso Mangusta project and turning it into the MG XPower.
It would be a ‘hero’ model for MG’s revival. It would generate column inches. It would be a test bed for clever new technology that would filter down into humdrum models. It would be exciting.
It was also stupid. Those ideas are perfectly sound when you’re wearing trousers with deep pockets, less so when you’re a Midlands car company on the very verge of extinction.
The XPower was underdeveloped and over-priced, a technically advanced car built in a shed. It also wasn’t very good -
it wasn’t actually terrible but a 911, against which it was priced, could run rings around it. And who wants a MG for the price of a Porsche?
From inception to launch to demise,
the oddly named XPower MG limped along, creating not so much an impact as a faintly malodorous smell.
In the late 1950s European car makers like VW and Renault began encroaching on their American rivals’ home turf, often by offering small, quirky cars like the Beetle and Renault Dauphine that were successful as second cars for families.
American auto makers - whose mantra until that point seems to have been ‘the bigger it is, the better it is’ - noticed this trend and decided to muscle in.
While Ford and Chrysler decided to simply shrink their existing offerings and launch smaller versions, Chevrolet opted for a clean sheet approach. The result was the Corvair, an innovative compact saloon that put the engine where many buyers of those European cars seemed to expect it - at the back.
The Corvair slotted neatly into Chevrolet’s late 50s drive for technological innovation and was named Car of the Year when it was launched in 1960.
That accolade probably came very early in the car’s life because at that point nobody had driven it very far. It turned out that when people did start driving it very far there were problems. For buyers used to wallowing front engined American land yachts, the Corvair was decidedly different. The rear weight bias could easily catch out unwary drivers and create Corvair shaped holes in the scenery.
The Corvair handled no differently to rear engined European cars. But those small cars with their puny engines couldn’t really be driven energetically. The Corvair, designed more specifically for big, smooth American roads, was bigger and had more power. So the problems were more acute.
At this point it’s worth pointing out that none of this made the original Corvair a sales dud. It actually sold well in every one of its six production years. The problems came along in 1965 when Chevrolet launched the second generation model and American safety campaigner Ralph Nader wrote a scathing book about the Corvair.
Nader loudly and vocally called out Chevrolet for launching a dangerous car with wayward handling. His book Unsafe at Any Speed was based on 100 lawsuits filed against Chevy by Corvair owners. The resulting media storm killed sales of the second generation car stone dead.
The irony was that the second generation Corvair was significantly more composed than the original. The first car was also subsequently independently assessed to be no less safe than other cars of its era.
But mud sticks. The Corvair saga convinced American auto makers that conventional equals safe equals sales. Nader‘s campaigning may have been well meaning - albeit with a healthy dose of self interest - but it also forced conformity on the industry.
Whether Chevrolet should have introduced a car to the market that required a different approach to driving is open to debate.
French car making minnow Matra was small but clever. There was the Bagheera, a three-abreast sports car seemingly designed for the French man about town and his wife. And his mistress.
Then there was the Rancho. Available first as the Matra Simca Rancho and then, when Peugeot bought out the Rootes Group, as the Talbot Rancho, this was a lifestyle vehicle before the European public realised they needed a lifestyle.
Now, of course, we all have lifestyles and we all have lifestyle vehicles. But in the mid 80s the Rancho launched into a world where appearing to do something was not an acceptable substitute for actually doing the thing you appeared to be doing. Like outdoor pursuits. Or farming.
So in the Rancho 1980s buyers saw a vehicle that looked like it went offroad but couldn’t. It had extra spot lights, presumably for ‘lamping’ animals at night, except only the sort of animals that ventured near or on actual roads. The roofline was raised at the back to accommodate big windows, making the Rancho look quite a lot like the sort of thing you’d travel in to hunt big game on the Serengeti. Or if the Pope happened to drop by and needed you to take him to the shops to buy some fags.
In reality the Rancho roofline was that way because it was just a Simca van with raised ride height and added windows. And it was a laughing stock. It didn‘t help that it was marketed as a Talbot, a brand that by the mid 80s was a byword for conservative anonymity. People bought Talbots because they found Fords too exciting. They definitely didn’t own a ranch, live near one or buy a Rancho.
The Rancho was a final throw of the dice for Talbot, a brand not even Peugeot wanted. The once illustrious name died out soon after.
The joke, of course, is on us. The Rancho was decades ahead of its time, a clever lifestyle signifier that presented an image without the cumbersome detail of actually having to live the image. I love it.
Peugeot has Matra and Renault has Alpine, each kerrayzee outposts of otherwise conventional car makers.
Alpine has done many good things, including devising the original Espace, a proper gamechanger. And the Avantime, also good, somewhat less of a gamechanger.
How the Avantime made it from concept to production is anyone’s guess. Because it makes no logical sense. It is a MPV - sort of a short wheelbase Espace - that thinks its a coupe. In other words, a very tall car adopting the style of a very low car. Renault called it a Coupespace, which tells us nothing except that its marketing team were perplexed.
Nowadays, 20 years on from the Avantime’s launch, we’re familiar with crossovers and cars that straddle and challenge conventional forms. When Renault launched the Avantime we weren’t. Our motoring world was one of sharp edges, of coupes, hatchbacks, saloon cars and estates.
Which explains why the Avantime was a sales flop. Less than 9,000 found customers over two years. It perhaps didn’t help that, despite nice two-tone colour schemes, the Avantime wasn’t that much of a looker. It shared the strange truncated rear bootline from the contemporary Megane, a feature so distinctive - or ‘odd’ if you don‘t work in marketing - that Renault based an entire advertising campaign around it, soundtracked by Shaking That Ass by Groove Armada.
The Avantime was intended to showcase Renault’s design-led future but ended up confusing buyers and convincing many that Renault had lost the plot.
Of course, they hadn’t. The Avantime has proved to be prophetic, indicating a future where rigid lines between car types have become blurred, where tall four door SUVs look like coupes and buyers lap them up.
For many years you couldn‘t give away your Avantime. It was a car so in search of customers that many were simply scrapped. But it was and is a design icon, proof that what clever creative people dream up in darkened rooms is, just sometimes, what we all discover we really want 20 years later.
At Great Driving Days we love odd and unusual. As well as classic icons like the Jaguar E Type we look for offbeat cars to add to our classic car hire fleet like the lovely Fiat X1/9, cars that are as fun to drive as they are surprising.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days, 01527 893733