Bloat

As one who succumbed to the so-called “middle-age spread” long before I actually reached middle age, one would think that I have little room [sic] to talk about bloating. But I can, because I’m not talking about people here, but cars.

Let me get this right out of the way first: I don’t like big cars. I’m not just talking about Cadillacs or SUVs here, which is a whole ‘nother rant; I’m talking about how ordinary, nay even small cars, seem to have ballooned out of all proportion — turning what was once a small car into something close to a medium-sized one. And cars were small back then; here’s a late-1950s Alfa Romeo Giulietta next to its owner (who looks like a giant, but only by comparison):

…and a 1955 Lancia Aurelia B24 ditto:

Alas, those lovely little cars are long gone and out of production; but others are still with us, albeit bloated versions of their former selves. Allow me to post a couple of pics to illustrate the point.

When Britain introduced the Mini to the world, it was a brilliant small car not only for its design but for its utility. Tiny, nimble and quick (even with its teeny 850cc engine), the Mini was the perfect city car for the time (1960s and 70s), and the ads and pics reflected the car’s ethos to a nicety. Note this one, featuring a very Swinging Sixties sex symbol, Charlotte Rampling:

Note its setting: some backstreet mews in (I suppose) London, maybe even one near the iconic Carnaby Street.

But look at what the German BMW-spawned Mini has become, by comparison to its predecessor:

Now I know that a lot of the bloat has come about because of the Nanny State’s insistence on airbags and similar safety features [25,000-word rant deleted] and the fact that in today’s obese world of fatties and such, only anorexic supermodels could get in and out of the old Mini without needing the Jaws Of Life. I know all that, and I don’t accept the excuse, because back in the 1970s I knew a 6’11” tall man who used a Mini as his daily driver, and I , at ~230lbs, used to hell around with him when clubbing and so on. Was it a tight fit (as the actress asked the bishop)? Sure it was: but we weren’t driving thousands of miles either, so temporary discomfort was quite acceptable.

Here’s another example of bloat. After WWII, FIat came up with a cheap, tiny car with an even smaller engine (479cc, later 499cc) than the Mini’s: the fabled Quinquecento (500) — the later version of which, the 600, was actually marketed as a family car despite being if anything, slightly smaller than the Mini was. Like the Mini, however, the 500/600 was mostly marketed as a single person’s car (and especially for young women):

Unlike many, I have actually driven one of these pint-sized creations — no small feat in that I was a 50-gallon-sized guy, even back then — and my gripe was not about the dimensions but about the crappy little engine.

I have since driven one of the new Fiat 500s, by the way (Daughter has one) and I love it despite its crappy little engine — some things never change* — but again as with the Mini, the new one is a bloated fat cow by comparison:

And note the not-so-subtle change in Fiat’s marketing:

Are the New Fatties better cars than their tiny predecessors? Of course they are. Times have changed, and engineering has improved. But with all that improvement, some character — okay, a lot of character — has been lost along the way, and I, for one, lament its passing.

I seem to do that a lot these days. Gah.


*I’ve been in the Fiat 500 Abarth, by the way — Longtime Friend Knob drove me around Monaco in his a month ago — and it is a monster: it’s like a pocket-sized Ferrari. And don’t get me started on how Ferraris have got wider and fatter either, or we’ll be here for a week.

Crossover

As Longtime Readers know, I’m a huge fan of VW cars. I’ve owned many:

  • Beetle (actually a former girlfriend’s but I drove it as much as she did)
  • Kombi panel van (carrying band equipment for many years)
  • Passat and Golf (both company cars, as a junior executive)
  • Jetta (actually three, two sedans and a wagon)
  • and right now I’m on my second Tiguan.

I would also have owned the magnificent W12-powered Phaeton, but in the early 2000s we were too poor to afford one and by the time we got the funds, VW had pulled it from the U.S. market, the idiots (see below).

VW seems to have (or have had) a reputation for unreliability, but that hasn’t been my experience, ever, throughout all those that I’ve owned and driven.

Let me now sing the praises of the car I’m driving now: the Tiguan — crap name, by the way, but at least it’s better than the “Toe-rag” (Touareg).

As I’ve got older, getting in an out of cars has become a pain in the ass. If it’s too low (e.g. sports cars and most saloons), getting out of the thing requires a crane lift; and if it’s too high (most full-size trucks and SUVs), the same crane lift is needed to get me into the damn thing.

Hence my love for the smaller “crossover” SUV type like the Tiguan. Getting in is but a step with hardly any climb involved, and getting out is likewise a simple step. (If I were taller or shorter, of course, this might not be the case, but that’s a moot point.)

I also like the Tiguan because there’s lots of room — two fat- or three skinny passengers can fit in the rear seat, and if I need more storage space, the back seat folds down easily. The venerable station wagon, of course, would pretty much do the same except that, as I discovered with my Jetta wagon, it’s a little too low to the ground and getting out with ease is problematic.

I also hate the current trend towards low rooflines and high door-sills because of head-bumping and poor visibility respectively, and the Tiguan has neither of those problems.

Lastly, the Tiguan has a lovely engine: the 2-liter turbocharged little four-banger — VW’s mainstay engine through out its fleet — has plenty of pep for this old guy, but at low speeds (sans turbo) it’s also economical, and I’ve got very nearly 400 miles out of a tank when cruising on the interstates.

It is, in fact, my perfect car. And as I’ve seldom cared about nonsense like being judged by what car you drive, the fact that my perfect car is a smaller SUV is of no concern. Couple that with VW’s reliability (in my experience), and it’s a no-brainer. In truth, it would take a massive change to get me not to buy yet a third Tiguan when the time comes.

And we all know how much I hate change.


The knock against the Phaeton was of the “why would anyone spend $80,000 on a VW?”, but that missed the point. With the Phaeton’s engine and build quality, you weren’t getting an expensive VW; you were getting an inexpensive Bentley (as proved when the W12 went on, almost unchanged, to provide the platform for the German-owned Bentley’s larger-engined models.

All that said, VW should instead have marketed the Phaeton under the Audi name (A12?), but then-head of VW Ferdinand Piëch wanted to improve the VW brand (forgetting the “People’s Car” heritage), which turned out to be a mistake.

I still think the Phaeton is one of the best large saloon cars ever made.

Roadsters (2)

In my first post on this topic, I looked at roadsters in their original concept: simple, economical fun. Today I’m going to look at a development of the concept, which added performance — mostly, it should be said, in terms of speed, but also comfort: bigger, better suspension and so on, all at (of course) a steeper price.

It began almost at the same time as MG were bringing out their early TA model, when the SS Motor Company (later Jaguar) produced their SS Jaguar 100 model, which unlike the earlier Mercedes SSK was designed not for the track but for touring.

It had a brute of an engine (3.0-liter inline six-cylinder, compared to the TA’s 1.3-liter four-banger) and a top speed of just over 100mph. The popularity of these cars, by the way, can be seen by the fact that almost every one you see nowadays is a replica, not a rebuilt original.

Of course, these cars could be raced, and they were. Sports car racing was big at the time, so there were all sorts of cars like this: Bentley, Mercedes, Alfa Romeo (to name but some) all had a hand in the game, and in the U.S., there were Duesenbergs, Cords and Auburn (to name but some of them).

I’m not a fan of big, brute cars; I prefer the smaller touring models to the racers: modestly sized but still with decent performance. Hence I tend to prefer the SS 100’s successor, the exquisite Jaguar XK 120:

I also prefer the smaller German models like the later 190 SL:

…which is really the budget version of racing monsters like the 300 SL Gullwing.

In the U.K. again, the little MGA sports car begat the Austin-Healey with its powerful 3-liter engine (but with the same legendary unreliability of its smaller cousin):

Now on to the present, or rather, the recent present. One of the problems of car manufacturing is that it’s so damn expensive. Only large corporations can build cars profitably, because of both economies of scale and the fact that they can subsidize their more interesting (and less popular) models with mass-market versions. And sadly, performance touring cars are a niche market. Even BMW can keep their excellent 650 touring models in production only because they sell boatloads of 330s, 530s and 750s.

And with a lovely segue, we come upon Wiesmann touring sports cars. Started by the two eponymous brothers in the late 1980s, Wiesmann produced what I think are some of the most beautiful cars made in the modern era. Here’s their MF-3, which uses a BMW M3 3-liter 6-cyinder engine:

…and if you’re thinking that it looks rather like the Jaguar XK 120 above, you’d be correct. Unlike the older XK, though, which had a spartan interior, Wiesmann gave the lucky driver this cockpit to play in:

Note the manual transmission, which is the default offering (you could get an automatic gearbox, but that would be a gross betrayal).

Later versions had the monster 4.4-liter BMW engines, which didn’t add that much power, but did turn an already-expensive proposition into an exorbitant one — which limited their market.

Sadly, Wiesmann went out of business in 2014, because their cars required too much money to convert them into US roadworthiness and the high (hand-built) cost limited their European market — these are people who want to tour, not race, so you’re not going to get the Ferrari-Porsche Set to buy one.

The same can be said for Aston Martin cars, by the way:

They’re ridiculously expensive and yet (still) a little too unreliable for people who want to (say) drive from San Diego to Maine, or Free Market Towers to Naples.

But because Aston Martin is a British company, they will always have wealthy customers in the UK who don’t want to drive a European (read: German) car, and who also don’t mind a little bit of unreliability because remember: one shouldn’t have too much fun while enjoying oneself.

Roadsters (1)

The concept of “roadsters” began, bizarrely I think, in 1930s Britain. In a country not known for its copious sunshine (or perhaps because it has so little thereof), car companies began to make small two-seater open-topped cars, modestly powered with a front-mounted engine and rear wheel drive, that could take a young man and his girlfriend on exhilarating trips through the country side, on the tight, twisty and narrow roads so common on this Scepter’d Isle. Thus you had cars like the MG TA:

…which after the slight disturbances of the early 1940s, became the MG TF:

…which turned into the MGA of the late 1950s:

Now you have to understand the concept behind these cars. They were never intended to be racers, nor were they tourers (in the Grand Touring style). They were sports cars — in the literal sense, in that one drove an MG for fun, on short road trips (all road trips in the UK are short: it’s a tiny island, remember) — which meant that the drivers were not going to be stranded hundreds of miles from home by the inevitable mechanical breakdowns and electrical failures, not to mention the fact that these cars leaked like a bucket hit with buckshot; and as we all know, it can rain a bit here in Britishland.

Excuse me while I explore a branch line in my train of thought. Why is it that the Brits can come up with all these excellent concepts, and yet their engineering can suck so badly? Mr. Free Market (who has owned many British cars) once commented that a long trip in his Triumph Stag could move the share price of BP, so much oil did his car consume. For any owner of this type of car, essential items to be carried in the tiny trunk/boot were: a set of wrenches/spanners and other tools, spare hoses, a can of water to refill the radiator every few miles, a can of oil to refill the leaking sump, and a pan to catch the leaking oil while the car was at rest.  (It’s easy to see why these were known as “bird and a sponge bag” cars — there was no room for anything else.) My absolute favorite example of this silliness was in an episode of Top Gear, when Jeremy Clarkson had a meeting of a local MG club at some remote town in the country. Every single driver had oil-stained fingers and hands as a result of having had to stop and tinker with their cars on the way down. And speaking of silliness: if you look back at the pic of the 1949 TF above, you will note the huge gap between the windshield and door window — a veritable funnel for driving rain to soak the inhabitants. My only conclusion is that the British nation is a bunch of masochists who have an abiding distrust of things like comfort and reliability when it comes to roadsters. One should not have too much fun when enjoying oneself, after all.  [end of branch line]

Of course, the Italians went for the small sports car concept in a big way, incorporating even the unreliability factor (and anyone who’s ever owned an Alfa Romeo Giulietta of that era knows what I’m talking about).

Let’s be honest, here. The concept of a sports car (roadster) is a brilliant one. Of course, it took the Japanese to make the roadster concept truly enjoyable, as Mazda proved when they made a modern copy of the MGA, called it the Miata and sold tens of thousands of them all over the world:

There it is: small underpowered front-mounted engine, stick shift, rear wheel drive, two seats — only with astounding reliability and functionality. From Clarkson again:

The fact is that if you want a sports car, the MX-5 [Miata] is perfect. Nothing on the road will give you better value. Nothing will give you so much fun. The only reason I’m giving it five stars is because I can’t give it fourteen.

That’s the reason that I’m going to buy one of these sports cars, when I finally have a few pennies to spare. Unfortunately, my British heritage (from my mother’s side of the family) means that I’m going to buy not the Miata, but the Fiat 124 Spider derivation:

Because one should not have too much fun when enjoying oneself, after all — and I’m pretty sure that Fiat will provide the appropriate levels of failure.

Cara Mia

Back in the old days, I used to post pictures of beautiful women on Sundays, mostly of screen sirens of the black-and-white movie era. I’m not going to do that anymore, because I think I mined that particular vein pretty thoroughly, and anyway it’s too constricting a topic. Instead, on Sundays, I’m going to talk about anything that takes my fancy — stuff that’s not part of the normal rants and gun worship during the week. Today, and for many Sundays to come, I’m going to talk about Beautiful Things (of any definition)… and if I run out of those things to talk about, well, we’re all in trouble.

I have often been teased about my love for Italian cars — not just Ferraris, Maseratis and Lambos, but for the… lesser brands like Fiat and Alfa Romeo, if we can call them that. Here’s what I wrote about Alfa Romeos many, many years ago.

You get into your Alfa, and wonder of wonders, it starts first time. You set out on your journey, a journey that will take you over fifty miles on curving, twisting mountain roads. You accelerate, and your Alfa whispers in your ear: “Come, cara mia, I can give you more than that; you may use me, use me hard, and I will reward you beyond your wildest dreams.” So you accelerate, and still that soft Italian voice urges you on: “Is that all you ask from me, cara? I have more to give, if you will just ask me for it.” You drive at what you think is an impossible speed; surely, you think, you will crash soon. But the miles fly past, the curves disappear in your rearview mirror (assuming you have the courage to look into it), and still your Alfa purrs encouragement into your ear. Finally, you reach your destination, shaking as though you have just made love to the world’s most beautiful Italian woman. You sit there for a moment, savoring the experience. Then you get out of the Alfa, and the door handle comes off in your hand.

Alfa Romeos aren’t like that anymore. Oh sure, they can be maddening to drive, their cars are more suited for the track than for everyday use, and they’re still built for runty Italians than fat Americans.

Until now.

Allow me to introduce to you the greatest performance sedan on Earth, the car that costs less than half any other performance saloon car, yet still delivers 512hp (!) and a top speed of nevermind: the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio.

It derives its immense power from a smallish 2.9-liter V6 engine, rides like a dream, and is an order of magnitude better than any other Alfa sedan ever made. More impressive still is the build quality, which is apparently on a par with any luxury performance sedans extant, in that its door handles aren’t going to fall off, the electrical system works just fine, and the automatic transmission, astonishingly, is better than the manual gearbox. I haven’t yet driven the Giulia, of course, but from all accounts, this is not your father’s Alfa Romeo. And most important of all, it costs around $85,000 versus, say, a Maserati Quattroporte GTS Lusso ($165,000 for a 3.9-liter V8 yielding 455hp) or a Porsche Panamera 4S ($125,000 for a 2.9-liter V6 yielding 440hp), and is only a few grand more expensive than its nearest real rival, a loaded BMW M3 — and the M3 isn’t nearly as exciting to look at and, from all accounts, to drive, with its 425hp I6 engine. Only the Mercedes CL AMG 63 ($88,000 for a 4.0-liter V8 yielding 503hp) comes anywhere close to the Alfa in cost and power — and like the Beemer, the Merc is dead boring to look at.

But for me, comparisons are boring. What’s exciting is that Alfa Romeo USA will at last be selling not a go-kart like the 4C, but a real car for grownups.

(I can’t afford a Giulia, of course; a Fiat 124 Spider Lusso  ($28,000 for a 1.4-liter turbo yielding 160hp) is much more to my wallet’s capacity, and I’ll be writing about that one later.)

But Alfa is back… and it’s just as exciting a prospect as its last beautiful sport saloon car worthy of the Alfa name, the Alfetta GTV6 (2.5-liter V6 yielding 160hp):

I have driven this beauty, from memory, back in about 1983 — and my earlier description of driving an Alfa Romeo is based on this model, driven through South Africa’s mountainous Van Reenen’s Pass at frightening speed. (I should point out that the GTV6 also won the European Touring Car Championship for an unprecedented four years in succession, from 1982 to 1985.)

Today, the 2017 Giulia Quadrifoglio would eat its lunch.