When Quirky Went Mainstream
As our roads are clogged up with ever-bigger versions of exactly the same car, albeit with different badges, it's hard to imagine there was once a time when some of the cars made by some of the car makers were genuinely different. And, frighteningly for staid British car buyers, A Bit Quirky.
These were cars that were noticeably different because they were made by people who thought differently. Rather than different - like the Nissan Juke - because the marketing department thought they'd spotted a niche.
And while we like to imagine the 1970s and 1980s were full of people who bought brown Cortinas or beige Marinas, the truth was, as always, a little more complex. Then, as now, a certain section of the car buying public saw their motors as self expression, a subtle statement that they were a little different from the crowd.
So they bought Citroens, Lancias, Alfa Romeos and Saabs. And while modern car buyers may still buy Citroens and Alfas for exactly the same reason, back then the cars they drove were genuinely quirky. And different. This was about more than just marketing and showroom drizzle.
Lancia, Citroen, Saab et al knew all this. But they didn't just want a slice of the quirky pie. They wanted some of the Cortina action too. So they started to go mainstream.
Here are our five favourite 70s and 80s quirky motors, the cars that walked the tightrope betwixt wierdness and the mainstream.
1. Saab 900
Suburban motoring didn't get more quirky than the 900. By giving the venerable 99 a longer boot and nose, Saab created a car that wanted to lay claim to the middle management executive heartland of Britain. And it did so by dialling up the weirdness.
Of course, what 1980s car buyers perceived as weird was nothing of the sort - it was just different. And better. Such as the wrap-around screen that gave much better visibility than a standard Cortina windscreen. The huge bumpers that reformed after low speed shunts. The central ignition switch that was safer in an accident. The fact you had to put the car in reverse to get the key out - a clever idea designed to stop Saabs rolling backwards. And then there was the doing away withness of door sills - all in the name of safety.
All of which is before you mention the word Turbo, which Saab did, several times in fact on every side of the car. Granadas and Senators were just beginning to fiddle with fuel injection, but that was nothing compared to a turbocharged car. And they didn't have the Saab's 'APC' gauge which told you how much turbo you were actually getting at any given moment.
There were humbler, non-turbo 900s too, which Britain gobbled up. The 900 was a Renaissance for Saab and the UK became one of its biggest export markets.
2. Citroen CX
In the 1970s Citroen wowed the world with the CX, a car that looked as if it had been dropped on Europe from outer space. With its super-soft suspension and kerayzee single-spoke steering wheel it couldn't have been more French if it had arrived on our shores stuffed full of baguettes and singing La Marseillaise.
All of which fascinated a few journalists on Autocar and Car, but it had virtually zero appeal to Cortina-shod Brits. The Citroen, with its weird suspension, space-age looks and concave rear window were just too odd for us. This was a time, after all, when anything not made in Britain deserved a sniff of suspicion. Particularly if it happened to be from what we still considered to be the land of the cheese-eating surrender monkeys.
And then Citroen compromised a little. They tidied up the range, put on some plastic bumpers and offered a choice of trim levels that culminated in that most desirable of 80s motoring options, a Turbo. You could also have a turbo diesel, but for many people also changing fuel choice was really a step too far. It also helped that Rover, that most traditional of traditional British car makers, had launched the SD1, a car that owed more than a passing nod to the CX.
The Citroen CX never sold in big numbers here, but in the 80s it became the go-to choice for anyone who had the cash and wanted to make a real statement. Particularly that Turbo version.
3. Lancia Trevi
In the 1970s Lancia was the default choice for anyone in Britain who wanted a car that would immediately say Hello, Has Anyone Noticed That I'm Different? The Beta saloon and the Gamma were well-engineered and distinctive, which almost dialled out the risk associated with stepping off the path well trodden.
Except they rusted, which immediately dialled that risk back in. They were also, like the 1970s CX, just a little bit too odd to really catch on.
Sensing an opportunity missed, Lancia had a bit of a rethink. In this they were helped along by their new owners, Fiat, who presumably told Lancia that it was all well and good building great, quirky cars but not well and good if nobody actually bought them.
So the chaps in Turin scratched their heads and looked long and hard at the one car that Brits clearly wanted - the Cortina. After, presumably, a couple of stiff espressos they had an idea - why not give the people what the people wanted and build Lancia's answer to the Cortina?
And so they did. Of course, 1980s Lancia being what it was and namely beset by a serious lack of cash owning to nobody buying its super-rusty cars, there was no money to do this properly. So they chopped the back end off the Beta saloon and fashioned a distinctly Cortina-esque boot on to create the very Cortina-like three-box Trevi. They even paid homage to its conventional three-box nature in the name - Trevi.
The Trevi was designed to be a posher, more luxurious mid-market choice for would-be buyers of the Cortina Ghia. And certainly anyone looking at the two cars would be hard pushed to argue they didn't just look the same but that the plusher, faster, more sophisticated Lancia wasn't the better buy.
Until they opened the Trevi's driver's door that is. Because inside those same Lancia designers had gone, quite simply, berserk. For reasons that are unclear but may involve the words 'not liking being constrained' they had commissioned one of Italy's leading industrial designers to create the interior and dashboard and he had taken the words 'clean sheet design' and run with it. And it took him a very, very long way from conventional.
Resembling something from the Swiss section of the local cheese counter, the dashboard was certainly unusual. Elsewhere there were hidden door handles, centrally grouped window switches - even for the rear seats - and the sort of driving position that only a car-obsessed ape would find comfortable.
It was all odd, but not in the way that a Saab was odd but clever. It was just odd. Lancia's foray into conventional failed. Nobody in Britain bought the Trevi.
4. Audi 100
No car of the 1980s played with the fine line between quirky and mainstream quite as well as the Audi 100.
There had been Audi 100s before. But they were staid and conventional. In many ways they were little more than posh Volkswagens. Consequently, nobody in Britain bought them - if they wanted a posh, conventional car they bought a Mercedes. Or a BMW.
If Audi wanted to take on its German rivals the firm realised it needed to think differently. The new 100 needed to stand out.
It is difficult, nearly 40 years on, to express how much of an impact the Audi 100 made when it landed here. Now it looks conventional and safe, but in the early 80s it was as radical as the CX before it. Its super-slippery shape gave it an extremely low drag co-efficient, helped by clever flush windows. Nobody, hitherto, had bothered for one minute about drag coefficient and flush windows. Then along came the 100 and its clever 'Vorsprung Dur Technik' slogan and suddenly those tempted by Saabs and Lancias and Citroens had a brand new choice from a quality car maker. There was also an Avant version, a sort of coupe-like estate that could carry dogs and children without looking as if you'd totally given in to middle age.
The 100 had to be quirky because it was the only way for Audi to get a foothold in the market. And it worked. At first the new car appealed to buyers who wanted to make a style statement. Then it entered the mainstream.
5. Alfa 90
During the 1970s and 1980s Alfa, perhaps more than any other car maker, toyed persistently with the idea of a quirky car for the masses. The Alfetta, Giulietta and 75 were all fairly conventionally styled saloons with a hint of madness within. But none epitomises these efforts to be mainstream but different quite like the Alfa 90.
The 90 was Alfa's attempt to take on the Ford Granada and Vauxhall Senator. It was about as staid and conventional looking as it was possible for a big, three-box saloon to be. But it was an Alfa, so it had the firm's excellent V6 Busso engine and decent rear wheel drive set up.
In many ways the 90 was a big version of the Lancia Trevi. Because beneath that oh-so-conventional exterior lay an interior that, if not quite as bonkers as the Lancia, was certainly odd. On first glance it looked conventional. But it wasn't, it definitely wasn't at all. Alfa, renowned as it naturally was for its first-class, ultra- reliable electrics, decided to catapult the creaking 90s design into the 80s and give it an electronic dashboard. For a short period in the early 80s digital dashboards were a clever way to distract car buyers from the fact that what they were actually buying wasn't much cop. As was the case here. The really clever digital dashboards also had a voice. Which wasn't the case here, because if it was it would have said, stridently and loudly and in an Italian accent - 'don't buy this car.'
Since the passenger didn't have a digital dashboard to distract them from the 90's creaking underpinnings, they got, of course they did, a built-in briefcase. Luckily nobody had to spend too long pondering this absurdity because nobody bought the 90.
So there you have it, five odd cars that gambled with mainstream success. Only one of them won.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days. 01527 893733
Graham owns a Lancia Trevi and a Saab 900.