Blog : So, when did we reach the automotive pinnacle?

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Keith Adams

Vauxhall_cavalier_cdx_saloon_1

It’s a subject that I keep coming back to, time and time again. This time, it’s been sparked by the realisation that the Rover 800 – Engineering in a finer form – is now 30 years old. As you’re here, the chances are that, like me, you like old cars. And the question remains: are old cars better than new ones and, if so, what’s the time period in which the best cars come from?

For instance, I drive a 10-year old Citroën C6. It’s fabulous car, packed with technology that works, most of which means it functions perfectly well as a modern car. It has sat-nav, cruise control, active lighting and much, much more – and, in many ways, you could argue this is the pinnacle of car design. You can use it today and, in most ways, it still feels utterly contemporary.

Being from 2006, it’s also saddled with anti-emission systems (DPF, FAP, EGR – always with the three-letter acronyms), which make the car a tough sell for DIY mechanics. That also applies to the car’s myriad of electronic systems. Yes, you can get into them, and fix them, if you know your way around a Citroën diagnostic system, but you’re lost without that knowledge.

Going back another 10 years to 1996, and cars are a whole lot simpler. Yes, most have airbags, ABS, traction control and catalytic converters. But, if you open the bonnet, the chances are you’re not a million miles away from understanding what you need to do, if things go wrong. So, take a drive of a 1996 Rover 600 today, and you won’t feel too outclassed in modern traffic.

Back to 1986, and your Vauxhall Carlton or Rover 800 will steel feel good to drive today, and it’ll still have some creature comforts that mean your drive won’t be too arduous. In terms of engineering, the 1980s were an interesting time, because cars as functional items were pretty much all you needed – the better ones were aerodynamically designed, had efficient engines (sometimes were ECU management) and were still reasonably light, as they weren’t weighed down by safety and emissions kit that you find in more modern cars. You’ll also enjoy an airy, light interior, thanks to slim pillars and a less intrusive dashboard.

And onwards back to 1976, and your Princess or Cortina MkIV will feel very alien today. But, in a way, either is still a very usable car in modern traffic.

Does that mean it doesn’t function as a modern car on modern roads? Probably not, and that’s why we need to make such huge compromises to use them now – a real act of commitment that marks any owner out as a ‘proper’ old school classic car fan.

Let’s rewind for a second, though.

That’s not the point of this blog. I mean, if I were talking about the most suitable car for today’s roads, then clearly it’s a modern car. You’d have to be pretty exceptional for something like a Ford Focus not to do everything you ever wanted in a car. Even a 1.6-litre TDCi will crack 120mph, drive like a go-kart on a B-road, and still deliver 60mpg in gentle driving.

But is this the pinnacle of vehicle engineering?

Peugeot_405_uk-spec_1

Nissan_primera_sedan_uk-spec_1

I think not. For me, the late 1980s are probably where the convergence of intelligent design and efficient engineering combined to create a sweet generation of cars that really weren’t killed by legislation. The Peugeot 405, Nissan Primera or Vauxhall Cavalier MkIII have so much going for them that I can’t help but weep for what ended up following on in the area of family car design.

All three of these options weigh-in at around 1100kg, have aerodynamic drag co-efficients of less than 0.30, have efficient multi-valve engines, will easily beat 40mpg in 1.9/2.0-litre forms and can quite happily cruise all day long at 70mph+ without taxing their drivers. It goes further – think about cars across all sectors, from the Peugeot 205 to the Audi 200, and you’re looking at cars that combine lightness, intelligence and efficiency so successfully, that they’ll be impossible to top, without a serious set-change in terms of vehicle design.

Perhaps that will come when the petrol really starts looking like it’s going to run out – in which case, with today’s technology, and the burning desire to create a car that seriously makes the best use of fossil fuel, we could see them being topped. However, for the moment, we’re a way off that.

(And that’s coming from an enthusiast whose favourite cars tend to hark back to the late 1960s-early 1980s)

Anyway, I’d be interested to see what you think!

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

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116 Comments

  1. Good evening, Keith, a car from the nineties will be far more useable than one from the seventies and there were some good designs around like the Rover 600, Mk 3 Cavalier and original Rover 400. Most seventies cars will be lumbered with a four speed gearbox, carburated engines that won’t take kindly to long motorway journeys if they’re under 1.6 litres and many are completely basic and unpleasant to drive, and thirsty on fuel. Nineties cars OTOH almost all had five speed gearboxes, carburettors were mostly phased out by 1992, diesel options were available and some capable of 60 mpg, the cars are better equipped and tend to cope better on longer journeys. It would be true to say that a 1995 Rover 600 would be far more practical than a 1975 2200, even if this car still looks excellent.

  2. It is obvious, but still amazing that each year, cars get slightly better. A little bit here and a little bit there. You mentioned weight and it is fair to say manufactures took their eye of the ball on this about 10-15 years ago. However, it seems lightweight is back on the agenda and I think we have Mazda to thank for that.

    Today’s road tests seem to dam any car that is not class leading in every department. In truth every car today is an amazing tribute to human ingenuity and the power of the free market! Yes even the worst!

  3. This is a very good consciousness raising article Mr Adams and much appreciated! Permit me to suggest a smaller car size of about 10-12 years ago which seem to be standing the test of time in the reliability stakes and have most of the kit that is found on modern cars without the extreme electronic management that only can be tackled by specialists. I am refering to the VW Polo/ Skoda Fabia type of car and specifically within the VW Group, the Audi A2 which with its aluminium no rust body, 65-70 mpg on diesel highly developed crumple zones and high build quality seems to tick most of the modern car boxes. Of course it is an ugly duckling and the Mercedes A Class seemed to attract the buyers even though it failed the famous elk test.! Yet the effort that went into the design of the A2 and the thought for every detail is very through, much of this which appears in the advanced aluminium bodied Audi A8. Moreover it comes from the same factory in Germany that designed one of the most remarkable and beautiful cars of the sixties the NSU RO80 which if you knew how to maintain the engine went for many miles. The ugly duckling has become a rather beautiful swan..

  4. By about 1995 cars that became seriously unreliable and rust prone after 3 years had almost disappeared( only the Lada Samara was keeping up this tradition and it would go in 1997). There seemed to be a huge leap in quality in the 1985-95 period when galvanised bodies, six year anti rust warranties and a massive improvement in build quality and reliability meant most cars only needed to visit the garage for servicing. In Rover terms, the 1985 Austin Montego was seen as an unreliable and badly made car, the 1995 600 was among the best on the road and would drive for tens of thousands of miles with few problems and was light years ahead of eighties Austin Rover products.

  5. My 2002 Ford Focus takes a lot of beating

    Nicely styled, really well built and reliable, lovely to drive with great handling and steering for a “non sporty” hatchback, but with a reasonable ride as well. Decent interior room, not too large on the exterior, and plenty of glass for decent visibility

    The safety features won’t match current cars, but it’s clearly a major step up from the previous generation.

    • I would say some very similar things about my father’s 2002 Toyota Corolla. Surprisingly nice to drive, especially after the previous version was so boring, plenty of space in it but not too massive, air con, ABS and a 4-star Euro NCAP rating. Find one that’s been looked after by an old boy and it’ll be fabulous. And made in Britain too

    • Wouldn’t argue about the points made for an early Focus – a good car, (if rather ugly to my eyes) but certainly a step-up/watermark car for Ford.

      My main problem with it has always been that FIAT did the same thing 10 years beforehand with the 1988 Tipo – which the Focus just about matched rather than significantly bettered.

      That car was the big leap for cars in it’s class and had a similar effect as the 128 had done 19 years earlier.

  6. I’ve thought for quite a while that cars peaked around the year 2000. The bodies last far better these days due to the galvanizing, which I really like as I’ve always had older cars(tight arse).

    Electrics around that period had been improved to the point that they still work 15 years later. Imagine saying that about a 15 year old Montego or Marina, if one actually lasted without the tin worm killing it.

    I really don’t know what I’ll do when my ZS and ZR die, as the emissions and safety regulations are killing what you easily DIY these days. It will come to the point you won’t be able to change a set of sparks plugs or brake pads without plugging in the computer to reset the ECU. And at main dealer £200 per hour rates, that will kill older cars before rust will. Any car older than 10 years old will just not be worth fixing.

    • I seem to remember people saying that about DIY mechanics on ‘modern’ cars back in the 80s, that they were full of computers and no one will be able to fix them. It hasn’t happened yet.. What has happened is a small industry in providing cheap and easy to use diagnostic equipment that either pulls the codes or talks to your laptop, this will continue, only the luddites need worry

  7. I totally agree. I’ve been a Vauxhall mechanic for over 30 years and drive a 40 year old vw every day.The mk3 cavalier in my opinion would be the ultimate in practical comfortable and reliable transport. Very easy to fix when they rarely went wrong.

  8. The two main area in which cars have improved in the last 30 years or so is safety and refinement. In saying that, for me the pinnacle was the early 1990s where so many cars provided safety, refinement and reliability but without the emissions-driven complexity that most 21st century cars have continued to be saddled with. A good example of the Pinnacle of cheap cars….1992 Nissan Micra. Mainstream…..any XUDT engined Peugeot. Top end…..Mercedes W124.

  9. @ yme402, these are the main areas where cars really have improved. I’d say the introduction of five speed gearboxes to almost all cars by 1992 made for more economical and relaxed driving, although, of course, this was a standard fitting on the Maxi in the seventies, which made it a far more relaxed car to drive than most of its rivals. Then you had the replacement of carburettors by fuel injection, which made for better economy and performance. Also safety is vastly better now, and even a 1.2 litre Micra like mine has four airbags, rear seatbelts and a rigid passenger cell, which massively reduces the chances of being a casualty in a car crash.

  10. The only safety gizmo worth a damn on any vehicle is the quality of the nut holding the steering wheel.

    As cars became “safer” their drivers less so. My car’s gizmos will take care of me and has more stars than your’n.

    Still, why should I drive more caringly and attentively than you. My car’s far safer than your one. Been on TV and everything. It’s monster truck SUV dimensions will ensure my survival when I use the sheer safety of its bulk to intimidate you in your lesser vehicle. That’s why I never dip my main beam until I’ve blinded oncoming traffic because I’ll be alright.

    Worth repeating:~

    The only safety gizmo worth a damn is the quality of the nut holding the steering wheel.

    In response to the OP’s how long is a piece of string question. In my opinion, it peaked in 1961 when the Jaguar E-Type first appeared. I was still a teenager when I saw the first one in Gresham Street outside the office where I worked. Been downhill ever since.

    Similarly, the German car industry peaked a few years earlier when the Gull wing Mercedes-Benz 300sl. No Mercedes-Benz since then ever came near and I’ve driven a few … all company car issues.

    There is one 1970s car I could happily live with as a daily driver. The transverse six 2200 HL Princess. Given one of these as a courtesy car and was amazed how every aspect seemed to suit and fit my style of getting about. It was far better car than the ones described by just about every motoring journo hack of the time. There was a time when I took hack journos judgement on cars as gospel. After all, they’re professionals so obviously know what they’re on about …That was a long time ago though and now I prefer my own judgement. That way there’ less chance of missing out and a car I like. However, I’m well behind the times now as I am still interested in 0-60 times rather than miles to the gallon… When I travelled for my job my employer picked up the tab for all fuel my cars consumed…which clouds the mpg issue somewhat. Now retired, miles per gallon is of lesser importance. Press the button on my 1.8t MG ZT and it’s showing 23.9 mpg…. mind you, nothing wrong with the car. It’s just that boost is rather addictive. Love that whoosh-tish noise at high revs change ups… Some folks never grow up… Good eh … Guilty M’Lud… 😉

    • UK road death figures have been on a steady downward trajectory for the last decade or so, as our roads get busier and cars get faster and more powerful.

      1713 fatalities in 2013 vs 3409 fatalities in 2000. A 50% reduction in 13 years!

      I don’t think that is reduction attributable to “the nut holding the steering wheel”? Airbags, ABS and ESP are saving thousands of lives every year.

      http://charts.dft.gov.uk/dft-business-plan/indicators/#05

  11. Mk1 Ford Focus – I had two from new and they were excellent cars and had no prob with them. My Uncle bought one about three years ago with 80000 on the clock and its still going strong now with no probs. Brilliant to Drive (except for the Diesels which are a bit front heavy) comfy and roomy – the replacements since have been bigger and less fun to drive.

    • Mk1 Focus was/is brilliant.

      A well-looked after Mk1 is a great choice these days for anyone who wants a cheap family car with decent handling. Although as we’re on ARonline, people will argue the merits of the Rover R8 🙂

      Agree with you the later Focus models were blobby and less sharp-looking. The “New Edge” Fords from the late 90s were all good looking cars – Focus, Ka, Puma…

      • For a car that’s AT LEAST 12 years old, Mk1 Focuses are still incredibly common on the roads which is a tribute to how good the original design is

        The main rivals from that era are still fairly common as well, the Golf IV and Astra G. That generation of hatchbacks was a step up from the previous one, and also missed the scrappage campaigns that claimed many older cars

        • Astra wasn’t a bad car too – not so good round the corners but on a motorway it was extremely relaxing to drive. I had several as company rentals in the late 90s and they were a good car. Golf IV was a comfy motor and looked classy but the 2l was awfully slow.

  12. @ MG John, another fan of the six cylinder Princess, a car whose interior dimensions would put a people carrier to shame and even now I’d say, its near silent performance and ride would surprise people. At the time I’d have much rather have had one of these than a V6 Cortina or the troublesome Rover 2300.
    Yet you’re bang on the money about the attitude of some drivers, who think their oversized and extremely ugly SUVs make them invincible and think it’s fun to bully someone in a Micra as if anything goes wrong they’ll be OK. However, a lot of these tanks don’t handle well, can be problematic in cross winds and most aren’t particularly fast due to having the aerodynamics of a brick.

  13. For the enthusiast who likes to work on his own car and is enough of a “driving god” not to need airbags and ABS – the pinnacle was probably the early 90s.

    For the everyday consumer who doesn’t like getting their hands dirty, and cares more about the operating system of their smartphone than the type of car they drive, today’s reliable and uber-safe cars are the pinnacle.

    I have a 2000 XK8 for weekends, and my other half drives a 2013 CRV. Neither of us would want to swap cars! Horses for courses.

    Keith – given that you launched Modern Classics magazine, the pinnacle of automotive progress was ALWAYS going to be “late 80s or early 90s” for you!

    You have always been a massive fan of the Mk3 Cavalier and the 405 and have written loads of fanboy articles about both cars on ARonline. I do wonder how much you are rose-tinting the memories of those cars. Given that car sizes have increased, perhaps you should do a comparison test of (say) a current shape Focus Ecoboost against a 2.0 Cavalier or 1.9 Peugeot 405 from the early 90s.

    • Yes, it’s interesting, the 405 for it’s looks and handling you could understand, the last Carlton too was better than the GM usual
      – but the Mk.3 Cavalier?

      I don’t remember the way they drove or rode very fondly when they were new and they were never deemed ‘class leaders’ in any category.

      Although they’ve proven to be more durable than expected and compared to many rivals of the time, that’s not enough to be nominated for any sort of pinnacle.

      I will admit to being tempted by the last of the V6’s when new, always good value in context and being knocked-out extra cheap at the end saw me eagerly hot-footing it down to the nearest Vauxhall dealer for a test drive.
      Sadly, the engine was the only really good thing about it and rather overwhelmed the mediocre rest of the car.

      • I wish I had a penny every time I heard a vectra customer say they wished they had kept their cavalier. The vectra b came with stiffer body, multi link rear suspension, isolated engine mounts bla bla bla and don’t get me started on vectra c can bus. They were both hated cars by mechanics and customers alike.

    • ‘Perhaps you should do a comparison test of (say) a current shape Focus Ecoboost against a 2.0 Cavalier or 1.9 Peugeot 405 from the early 90s.’

      I might just do that – great idea!

      • Maybe the MK1 Citroen Xsara 1.9D (car not Picasso) about the years 1999/2000. Were very economical, performance not bad even for a ‘straight’ non-turbo, SRS airbags all over the place and many people liked driving them.
        The first DW8 PSA diesels and the did have a cat in the exhaust with EGR so a toe into the modern world of emission control so to speak.

        However the engine was still nice and robust, mechanical injector pump, standard clutch and galv’d body.
        They (the Xsara) were given a bad review when newly launched in 1996 or 7 for being to boring/conventional to be a Citroen. They were basically a P306 with a stronger body.

        How would the consumptions compare to the current 1.4 or 1.6 ‘crazy-amount-of-technology’ engines?
        I keep on and on hearing stories of 2-3 year old 1.6 diesels not giving anything like the mpg sated or indeed expected.

        Long story short, the late 1990’s early 2000’s were the pinnacle. Good amount of safety kit, cheaper road tax 2001-on and no floating flywheels etc to about gurantee you unexpected expense.

        • The ZX also got bad reviews when launched for being too conventional, though this paid off over time, especially the XUD engined diesels that are still popular on the bangernomics scene.

  14. Have to agree with a number of the above posters that the 1990s was, for me the pinnacle of car design. I daily drive a 1992 Rover 214si and it is almost completely modern in every way. With it’s fuel injected multivalve engine and 5 speed gearbox it’ll happily return 45mpg. (Name me a modern turbocharged ‘eco’ car that’ll manage that)

    Parked next to a modern family hatch like a focus or golf it looks absolutely tiny! Yet I’m willing to bet it has more interior space than either. The only throwback is the non-assisted steering, which allied to skinny 175 section tyres isn’t that heavy anyway and provides superb feedback through the bends.
    It’s not just my bias towards Rovers either, I previously ran a Peugeot 306 and it was arguably the best car I’ve ever owned. Lightweight, efficient and fun!

    And before anyone accuses me of being an old fossil with the rose tinted specs on I’m only 23, yet modern cars just leave me feeling cold

  15. The answer is very simple. 1955. Citroen. DS.

    No manufacturer since then has unveiled a car that pushed automotive engineering design and styling so far forward in one package.

    • Disagree. It was an anemic nightmare- with awful seals. Porsche 911- still unchanged. And reliable with go.

      • Take a look at the long, long list of features the DS introduced and compare to competitors still arguing over the possible benefits of moving away from separate chassis and cart springs.

        To say the 911 is ‘still unchanged’ after going though a range of different engines, platforms and suspension designs during it’s life is plain silly.

        • While I’ve got a lot of respect for the DS it never really got the engine in deserved.

          I’ve heard Citroen designed some nice engines but didn’t have the money to bring them into production, so had to rehead the existing Traction Avant units.

          The features were great when working well but could give trouble that needed a dealer to sort out. The ID was a stripped down version to appeal to those who couldn’t afford the running costs.

          The 911 has been given the “Triggers Broom” treatment over the years in terms of development.

  16. My Mrs currently drives a 99 1.2 corsa, dull as you like to drive, looks a bit tatty now and has just passed 100,000 miles, but you know what? It starts on the button every time AND it’ll still do 50mpg on a run. If mine was off the road and I had to go to the top of Scotland I just know it’d get me there. I reckon from the mid 90s even the most mundane of cars just work with very little effort from the driver, going back to when I was a kid and my street echoed to the sound of a failed allegro or lada complete with blue smoke etc

  17. I had a 1992 Proton 1.5 MPi for two years after my Montego died one last time and had to be scrapped. This was the pinnacle of simple engineering: an ultra reliable Mitisubishi triple valve engine from the eighties, three box saloon design, not many electrical toys to go wrong, but fitted with what was essential on cars by then, a five speed gearbox and PAS. In the two years I owned this Mitsubishi cast off, which was considerably cheaper than a Lancer from the same era, it was totally reliable and only needed two tyres and a new bulb in the interior courtesy light. Proton proved that you could build a cheap car in the nineties that could go well, look OK, was completely reliable and was good value for money.

    • The Proton Torpedo!
      Drove a gold-bronze one for a couple of months back in the mid-1990’s. True, a good basic design but I personally wouldn’t consider them a good car. No torque motorbike-ish engine, heavy consumption therefore on hilly roads and the bodies were none too strong. Had a very soft nose on them, bit like the Rover R8 in that respect, any abuse and they would twist like a rotten Allegro.
      A good enough suburban car but not a hilly car. The P405 of the time was the daddy.

  18. I agree cars from the 1970s are a world apart from those of the late 1980s-1990s but there has been a fair bit of progress since.

    Cars in production currently offer better acceleration and economy than their predecessors thanks for turbocharging and extra gear ratios. Advances in suspension design mean that even hatchbacks can be fitted with wider tyres offering greater stability at speed without that awful tram lining that you’d previously expect. Convenience features like air con and ABS are now virtually standard too.

    I agree that a 1999 Focus (albeit with air con and ABS specified) is capable of most things I’d ever need, but compare it to today’s equivalent eco boost and almost everything bar steering feel is considerably improved.

  19. I think the massive advantages in reliability and quality came in the eighties and nineties. Probably thanks to the Japanese and improvements in technology, people were no longer prepared to put up with cars that would overheat during a long journey in summer, wouldn’t start in winter, and where 35 mpg was considered the peak of economy, and that was probably in a basic Ford Fiesta with very few creature comforts. Now I have a Nissan Micra, and this is probably true of most small petrol cars, that averaged 60 mpg on a long journey, is fully equipped and would probably sit on a motorway, if this was still allowed, at 100 mph.

  20. I have always thought late eighties early nineties car are the most reliable and easiest to work on. Take the Cavalier in which I have owned 30 over the years. They were designed to have as little down time as possible. The earlier pre 92 cars were the best. A clutch change 45 minutes, Engine change 6 hours. Compare that with a Insignia or even a Vectra B and C. Is was the sweet spot with electrics to mechanics. Nice reliable injection and ABS with a few sensors. But now everything is computerised and always having problems. Back along the first place you looked when buying a car was the sills or arches for rust. Now its the dash for warning lights. If you Could buy a new Sierra, Cavalier, 3 series now and run it along side the equivalent, Mondeo, Insignia and 3 series now. I bet my bottom dollar you would have less hassle with the early cars.

    • ^^ very true Edward. My record for an early cavalier clutch was 20 min. About £60 for parts. Lasted 80 to 100k. Duel mass flywheels are now very unreliable and a vector c / insignia clutch takes 6 hours and up to £1000. The same can be said of clutch cable verses hydrolic slave cylinders that are inside the bell housing. The old systems were simple reliable cheap easy to diagnose / fix AND felt the same.

  21. I was never a ford man and am still not a ford man but the pinnacle of car design/tech/economy etc came in 1998-when the focus mark 1 came onto our streets. I’ve had a Ford Focus for 3 years and in my opinion nothing can beat it. You always know it’s gonna start and get to the other end. It’s roomy, reliable,well made, durable, cost effective etc etc. I could go on and on. Ps I also own a 1999 rover r8 cabriolet and a 1991 rover 216 tc gti-great cars-but still not as accomplished as the focus mark 1 in my opinion. Because I,m an mg rover enthusiast it would have been impossible for me to admit this 4 years ago. Just goes to show ford made a diamond back in 98 and haven’t beaten the recipe since in my opinion.

  22. I would concur with most comments here that the 90s seemed to be when most manufacturers peaked.

    For Rover, the span between the R8 – a Golf alternative that showed that a domestic manufacturer could produce a quality car, right up to the elegant 75.

    For French manufacturers, the era of the x05 and x06 Peugeots, the Xantia which combined the hydropneumatic suspension in a rustproof solid body and available with the brilliant XUD diesel engine. Renault with the likes of the Laguna, the mk2 of which seemed to go downhill reliability wise. By the end of the decade, the basic reliable diesel engines seemed to have been replaced by common rail units with complicated electricals, HDi and DCi.

    The Germans, the likes of the W123 had shown what a solid reliable car could be, yet the early to mid 90s saw the last of the reliable big Mercedes, before the beancounters took over. Plenty of scabby rusty late 90s-early 2000s examples with the 3 point star.

    BMW fans I’ve spoken to have suggested that the early 2000s were the Bavarian brand at their best.

    VW, and their subsidiaries like Skoda – many taxi drivers lament the loss of the basic but bulletproof SDi engine, with the modern TDi being hugely complex to service.

    Vauxhall, as many suggested, the mk3 Cavalier of the early 90s – many of which are still pounding the streets today. The related gorgeous Calibra coupe. Yet by the mid 90s the Vectra seemed to get a bit of a lukewarm response, and the Omega while a comfortable old school RWD saloon, in pre-facelift form seemed to be prone to rust.

    Ford, by the end of the 80s had turned their bread and butter mk4 Escort into the horrendous mk5. Having bought the Orion booted variant, in one of my regularly questionable car purchases, it lacked rustproofing, unreliable electrics, terrible drivability. They took it on the chin, put a lot of effort into the mk1 Mondeo, and by the late 90s had responded with the mk1 Focus, a hatchback which seemed to be the spiritual successor to the 306 in terms of the combination of handling, practicality, comfort and size.

    • You say that the modern VWG TDi is hugely complex to service – I’ve run quite a few of these over the years and apart from a cambelt kit every 80k, they are probably one of the easiest units to work on I’ve ever come across.

  23. I’d agree with the early 90’s being when cars “peaked.”

    Your modern car isn’t really all that far removed from those of 20-25 years or so ago. I think the only differences really are in terms of efficiency and safety. Plus most cars now are packed with standard kit that an early 90s mainstream motor can only dream of.

    Until very recently I’d been driving numerous Mk3 Cavalier’s, (the mighty Cav is my favourite car pretty much ever – I love bread n butter cars). They werfectly usable every day, been on holiday abroad in them etc etc. But I have a young family, and space for only one car in my life so I’ve finally conceded to a modern motor.

    So the new car is still a Vauxhall (brand loyalty?) Very nice it is too, but I don’t feel connected to it in any way, it’s like a domestic appliance I suppose. Funnily enough it’s white too. Maybe that’s something else cars have lost, a soul?

  24. Would be interesting to hear the view from the motor trade on whether they think the last 20 or so years represent actual progress. Are modern cars really as fragile and problematic as some people make out, or has the internet exaggerated certain issues? Where’s Mike Humble when you need him?

    I would imagine it is harder these days for small time traders to make a few quid on older cars than it was back in the 80s or 90s. Less problems with rust, but much more scope for electrical problems, and less easy these days to cheaply fix up (or bodge) a car and make it saleable.

    • My old man was a second hand dealer for a spell- bit of a Mike Brewer combined with Nigel Farage and Lord Brown. Most of his friends have retired especially since the Korean onslaught of cheap credit and cheap cars. The 2nd hand car market is flooded with few buyers- as they think- why buy old when I can pay instalments new- and under warranty. You and I may well argue: you get a better car and no debt- but many aren’t interested in such things these days. Such is life.

  25. I’d say if you’re a fan of diesels, for simple, unburstable diesels that could return 60 mpg, would reach 200,000 miles with routine servicing and would rarely break down, it would have to be cars powered by the Peugeot Citroen XUD, the Perkins Prima( Rover) and the Volkswagen SDi. I bought a 1996 SEAT Ibiza in 2000 with 40,000 miles on the clock and powered by a Volkswagen SDi, the rock bottom diesel with no turbo but still capable of cruising quietly on the motorway and lasting a very long time. I sold it with 105,000 miles on the clock, and apart from a new glow plug and fanbelt, the car caused me no trouble at all and never left me stranded. Also 50-60 mpg was another big selling point.

    • A lot of these older diesels are going to be effectively banned or priced out of major city centres – London and Paris, by increased charges or outright bans for non-Euro4 compliant vehicles.

  26. Best built car in the world in my opinion r129 mercedes.

    Just done a 2000 mile trip in a 19 year old car.

    Doesn’t use oil water. Everything works just so.

    As happy at 130mph as 60 mph

    Also returns 30 to the gallon

    It’s successor is toast at 10 years old.

    It’s sad a car is expected to only last 7 to 10 years now

    • Planned obsolescence has moved from appliances to automobiles in a cynnical move to artificially stimulate consumption (taxes) and jobs (votes).

  27. Mk3 Cavalier without a shadow of a doubt. 200,000 comfortable motorway miles on the same clutch and same engine; great load carrying ability, and easy to work on when it occasionally needed it.

    Compare that to the garbage cars today like the VWs we always read about in HJ. Somehow people just accept turbos blowing up after 24,000 gentle miles, or the engine blowing up because it consumed its own sump oil due to too many short runs from cold. And the dealers clueless to do anything about it because the cars are too complex for even them to work on!

  28. To be honest- I don’t think we have reached a mechanical pinnacle. There’s still so much to be done. We haven’t really explored mechano or electro-hydraulic (as used in diesel trains and industrial machinery) which is very smooth. Rover never looked into continuously variable transmissions, hybrid mechanical-electrical or even turbo/supercharging.
    Rover did not use much novel alloys- and neither do most cars save the extreme high end supercars. Rover never went down the path of the still going strong Daimler Puchs Halflinger with a backbone (much like a Matra truck) with enormous individual wheel swing and sun-gear hubs- which could have been done as a 2 wheel drive feature sans the excess off-roady travel.
    Even the Bugatti Veyron is hardly cutting edge in technology aside from the more widespread use of composites. It isn’t something seen outside aerospace for the last 30+ years.
    Personally I think the future is hybrid electric. We’ve been doing it with trains since the 1940s it’s about time it went small scale.
    Speaking of which- I dare say Rover had the jump on chavvy Jaguar with the use of turbines (APU) as an electrical generator. Shame to see Jaguar claiming the glory of a better brand.

  29. Did they peak in the 90’s indeed…

    I’ve just watched a video on YouTube featuring a walk-around of a 2013 Daewoo Nexia (a mk2 Astra by any other name) from Uzbekistan. I believe they’re still made there as of 2016. Well, if they’re still cranking old Astra’s out down there these days, then perhaps car design really did peak back in the 80’s?

    I jest – obviously different countries, different levels of wealth etc etc. It was fascinating (to me, at least) to see so much modern tech shoe-horned into such an old car. The obvious limitations of the platform were highlighted by the maker of the video in fact – the lack of steering wheel adjustment being an example. I enjoyed the clank of the doors (same as my old Cavalier’s!) and the seat design – again same as the Cav and I’ve yet to find one better for my frame.

    My final feeling on seeing it was, it’s a good thing that cars like that are not available here. I suppose our UK equivalent bargain car would be the Dacia, or (cough) MG… But they’re far far far more superior to a re-hashed 80’s Astra.

  30. Never mind that. Theresa May turns up to the Palace in a bmw. What an insult to everything UK. It must be a terrible sight to former MG Rover workers and other British car workers. I wrote to the PM asking her to make it a priority to buy UK made products. Like she’s going to pay attention to someone like me. I might be wrong, but Angela Merkal wouldn’t be seen in a Jaguar. All that flag waving at the Proms by people who probably own audis. Margaret Thatcher didn’t destroy UK industry we destroyed it with our love of imports. I voted to stay in the EU.

  31. I too felt it was a slap in the face to UK plc to drive up in a bmw. All this talk about increasing British sales abroad and supporting British goods and the hypocrites are buying and being transported by German cars-how crazy is that ?

  32. It seems that the PM’s car is the XJ Sentinel, but that the government also owns a few armoured 7 series as well.

    The perfect ministerial car for the other Cabinet members would actually be one of those LWB XFs they make for the Chinese market, plenty of room but clearly less prestigious than the PM’s XJ!

  33. In a lot of ways 1995-96 was a pinnacle in terms of robust quality and practical design before cost cutting and the perpetual bloating of every new model became the norm. I certainly know the quality of Mercedes and Peugeot dropped off the cliff from the mid nineties onwards!

  34. Really interesting discussion. Has any other article generated as many page views and comments this year?

    Most people seem to agree the 1990s were the pinnacle. Lots of factors all contributed to this around the same time.

    * Popularity of lean manufacturing techniques, stripping out costs (and quality) where it wouldn’t be noticed.
    * Introduction of PCP deal structures (Ford Options launched in 1992) focusing buyers and manufacturers on short term ownership. No-one cares about the fifth owner when the car is 12 years old, so why go to the extra expense of building a long-life car?
    * EuroNCAP launched in 1996, starting an arms race in safety features, making mainstream cars heavier and uglier.
    * Changing public attitudes to car maintenance – the term “New Man” was first coined in the late 1980s.
    * Emmissions regs – we’re onto Euro 6 now, but Euro 1 came into force in 1993, and regulations got steadily tougher from then on, necessitating catalytic converters, DPFs, and more sophisticated engine management systems.

    All of these big changes around the same time. No wonder most people on here agree on the “best” era for cars.

  35. Interesting discussion. I agree Audi A2 is the absolute pinnacle in overall engineering terms, but I think there are two clear ‘crossing points’ where there was a noticable change in culture and engineering focus.

    1993 and the Mondeo launch is important, but the historical landmark is the Mk4 Golf (and Audi A3/Octavia/TT/Leon…). Superficially brilliant, though underneath it was ruthlessly crafted as part of a radical strategic programme that despite all the emissions furore is essentially still in place.

    This is also (arguably) where platform sharing complacency set in too, and when rival manufacturers followed suit, this was probably the last major step-change in overall car geometry and ergonomics. Been pretty much variations on a theme, jazzy lights and software programming since then.

  36. Cars now have largely beaten the rust problem, which was such a big issue when buying a car in the seventies and early eighties, and if serviced properly, can last 15 years with few problems. No one seriously would want a return to the days when a car would start to fall apart after 3 years and where some had such terrible rust problems every MOT cost a fortune and would be dead at 8 years old. I know some have complicated electrics and can’t be fixed by a home mechanic, but surely what we have now is so much better than the days of Italian cars that used to fall to pieces after a few years and Rovers that were the joke of the hard shoulder.

  37. There’s an argument for a few cars from the mid to late 90s – Focus Mk1 is definitely near the top of the tree – for a ‘cooking’ family car is was a game-changer. I’ve driven loads, and they’ve all been a great steer. The styling (outside) still looks good, but the interior hasn’t aged well. Then there’s the Mk3 Mondeo – a good looking car, well proportioned (the Mk4 and 5 are too big IMHO) with nimble handling, gutsy engines and a sweet gearchange – if I was in the market for a cheap smoker a diesel estate would be near the top of my list. Then there’s the Golf Mk4 – a clever post-modern twist on the Golf shape, peerless quality, timeless and classless appeal – a car that still looks classy today, and which exudes quality and understatement (provided it hasn’t been ‘kevved’) The Rover R8 deserves a mention – it was a game-changer in 1988 and I think spearheaded the move towards more premium feel cars for the mass market. The thing that let it down was the K series engine (I know, I know……..before I get shot down!) But for the pinnacle car, in my very humble opinion, I think it has to be the…………..drum roll………Citroen Xantia 2.0 HDi – a mix of Bertone styling, Citroen suspension and one of the great PSA turbo Diesel engines

    • Definitely Citroen’s peak, the quality, solidity and reliability of the Xantia while at the same time not being too complex, the hydropneumatic suspension was nailed – despite horror stories from ropey GSs.

      Mk1 C5 was a bit bigger, but looked slab sided and googly eyed, and the interior plastics felt a bit like cheap kitchen utensils. Though the facelift improved matters, and the hatchback incredibly practical while the estate was huge!

      Mk2 C5 has it’s own article elsewhere on the site, Citroen sat back and watched the success of the Germans in the D segment, so tried to copy them. While this is a nice car in it’s own right, it wasn’t a huge seller, people buy German for the badge more than anything, and the hydropneumatic suspension was relegated to an option on top spec models. Recently axed in the UK.

  38. I’m like a moth to a flame on this topic. So many different things to consider. While I agree with everyone else on here that the 90s were great, I wonder if in the future people may look at the late 2000s Toyota Prius as an engineering feat. Super-reliable, incredibly clever hybrid technology at a time when no-one else had done anything like it, and affordable to the masses.

    It may be the butt of a lot of jokes at the moment, but in 15 years when we’re all driving electric or hybrid cars, it will be seen as the catalyst for major change.

    • Hybrid is seen as a dead end by most in the car industry – though the lack of a cheap and clean hydrogen production method as seen manufacturers start to move towards this technology.

      However the Prius is not a great car – a friend of ours hated his and recently replaced it with the Renault Zoe which he loves.

        • As daveh says, the hybrid is seen as a dead-end by the auto industry, Prius sales not withstanding. The technology is extremely limited, and is a stop-gap at best. The real future lies with full electric cars, not hybrids. The only issue is the power source.

          • So if we ignore the power source issue, and ignore the fact that Toyota has sold a ton of hybrids for the last 15 years, then we can all agree that hybrids are a dead-end. Excellent stuff!

            Those stupid Japanese with their “extremely limited” technologies, what do they know, eh?

        • Andy….their technology is American – from Ford. The hybrid has very little future – it’s very limited by it’s battery pack. Unless there is a major leap in battery technology, that will remain the case. If there is a leap in battery technology, the hybrid will die because the all electric car will become totally feasible and affordable. Either way, the hybrid is a dead end.

          • Agreed – hybrids are part of the journey, but are not the solution that most of the world craves.
            Thought this ever since Honda launched the interesting first Insight back in the mid 1990’s, (and you could argue, they did a better job than Toyota later did)
            Nothing that’s progressed since has prompted a change of opinion.

          • A key point of the hybrid ( just one aspect ) is the battery pack is an energy recovery system. The considerable kinetic energy of a non-hybrid car travelling at speed is wasted when the driver applies the brakes, the kinetic energy is dissipated into heat ( the pads/disks/drums ) the hybrid brakes regeneratively, the motor acts as a generator charging the traction battery, The battery pack is then available to propulsion/acceleration of the car using significantly less petrol

  39. How about the idea that the “peak” is always about 20 years before the present? I remember having conversations in the early 1990s that put it in the pre-oil crisis 70s – cars could have proper big engines then, and something like a Granada, P6 or XJ6 was (on paper at least) not so very different to the current 800s and XJ40s, with similar power, top speed etc. But much more affordable and accessible – yet still perfectly usable as an everyday car. Today’s cars are very complex of course, but don’t forget that in 20 years time we’ll have gained 20 years experience at fixing them – and technology will no doubt have moved on a-pace rendering th complex systems of these days relatively simplistic. If I’m honest, too, I don’t remember any pub conversations from (say) 1994 where people were saying “blimey, that new Ford Mondeo! Cars are never going to be any better than that!”, so if it was a peak, I’m not sure it was viewed as such at the time.

  40. My Hyundai i30 2009 is an excellent tool but I love the classics. They may be outdated in tec & safety but they have character. More significantly you have to drive them, to think well ahead etc. Had plenty of Cortina Mk1&2 and many Ado16 xx

    • I know what you mean about the 2009 i30 – a solid all-rounder that made number 3, (out of a start of 12) on my shortlist of modestly-priced new family-sized cars back then.

      Did make me wonder how you could justify spending around £3-5K more on an equivalent ‘big name’ rival that was mostly very similar in the way it looked, drove and was constructed, with only some elements making it maybe a 10% better car overall. Even the predicted, (but not always reliable) ‘better residuals’ that the motoring mags twitter-on about wouldn’t have compensated.

      However, despite being available slightly cheaper, (through brokers) it still lost-out to the car I bought and still drive, a Proton Persona, mostly due to it’s superior driving qualities/body control, backed-up with better performance – and the larger boot helped a lot from the practical viewpoint.
      It’s proving such a hard car to replace, (at sensible money) that I’m ever more inclined to keep it for another 7 years. A sign of a good car if ever there was
      – and much as I like many cars from the 80’s and 90’s, I wouldn’t swap for one as a main daily driver…

  41. I’d say in the last 25 years the chances of buying a car that’s totally unreliable are very small. Also the massive leap forward in technology means now you can buy a Jaguar that can return 50 mpg in everyday driving and some smaller cars are capable of 70 mpg, but even in 1 litre form these days are quiet enough and fast enough to cope with long motorway journeys.

    • My Dad has often said how car reliability has come on a lot since he started driving in the early 1970s.

      Buying from a dealer then was like buying a 2nd hand car now. Back then buying a 2nd hand car privately could be very risky.

  42. A quick read of the above and my overall feeling is one of ‘fear’ at what we’re now regarding as old. How can the likes of the 800, the R8 200 ever be old?!

    Where has my life gone?!

    I’m tempted to say the peak occurred in the nineties – Sufficiently efficient, technical, safe yet smaller, more agile, more involving.

  43. From a USA perspective, the mid-1990’s to the mid 2000’s may be a peak in cars here. Many of them can go 200,000 miles with some care, still rather cheap to fix and one could do some DIY on them. What brings down newer cars and limits their lives is the costs of part and labor to fix them when things go bad. Far too often, only a dealer can fix them due to the tech info, equipment, tools and access to parts. Even replacing a headlight bulb may mean taking off a bumper or fender then take off the fixture to get to the bulb. I just go rid of a USA made 2006 Mazda 6 (sport pkg. – 3.0 L V-6) as it was becoming unreliable. An exhaust leak cost me $300 to get fixed, a new pipe if available was over $600 + labor. Other small things were going like a plug coil ($70 – DYI fix after a local chain parts store did a free code check, a small rust spot, falling headliner and so on. Fuel mileage was poor too (17-19 daily use, higher on long highway runs). It was replaced by a 2014 Focus with all the many of newest whistles and bells.
    I would also add that advances in lubricants, other fluids, tire tech and so on also advanced cars over the years. While safety has improved cars of the same class or model are bigger, heavier to meet those needs as well as have their own issues. One of the biggest NA safety recalls is over a part in the airbag systems in many cars made over the last 12 years. If the airbags pop on a 6+ year old car, it is likely to make the car become a total write off.
    Perhaps the biggest influence on cars in the 1970’s was the growth of the Japanese brands – Toyota, Nissan and Honda. Quality engineering, good employee relationships without unions, stone cold reliability, establishing USA/Canadian plants (and in the UK, mainland Europe) before the ending of import caps all pushed the ‘big 3’ here to get better, use of European and Japanese engineering resources and of partner car makers all caused a change in most cars.

  44. Most 1960s cars rusted to death, as did the majority of 1970s cars, typically in 6-8 years and I can well recall early 1970s cars needing major welding at 5 years old. In some respects 70s cars were even worse than 60s cars in this reapect. Mechanically, few cars would manage more than 80,000 miles and getting to 100,000 was rare. That said, mechanically they were generally easy to fix with ohv engines and parts easy to diy fix.

    Late 70s / early 80s cars could also rust but tended to be mechamically more robust, and I can recall Cavalier Mk2s and Sierras frequently making 100,000 miles. Later 80s cars were more rust resistant and still generally easy for diy.

    From the 90s, the best from my experience were Cavalier Mk3s, mostly good for 200,000 miles if looked after and Mercedes W201 (190) and W124 (E class) good for interstellar mileages. But VW Golf Mk2 are also good for the long run. Generally less rust but with more electronics and more complicated OHC engines, ABS & airbags.

    For the 2000s cars, very few tend to rust, but they are often written off due to electronic faults e.g. ABS modules, ECUs etc. I’ve recently seen a perfectly good Corsa written off due to an intermitten misfire (fairly common with that age Corsa). Cost of repair £1300. Book price of car £1200.

    Similarly, a small bump that triggers airbags can write off any car more than about 6-7 years old with airbags costing ~£800 each and 4 or 6 to replace. Again recently seen a perfectly good Audi written off because of an airbag fault which would cost ~£2,000 to repair.

    On the plus side, one of my colleagues sold a Peugeot 406 to a taxi driver some years ago with 240,000 miles on the clock. According to the DVLA MOT database it was finally scrapped after covering 808,000 miles.

  45. @ Tony Evans, I can remember some cars from the late sixties to the early eighties being bigger rust raisers than others: step forward the infamous Lancia Beta and its engine falling out at 3 years old, most Fiats and Alfas started to dissolve at 2 years old, Citroens had the twin bugbears of poor rustproofing and being complicated to maintain, over here the Vauxhall Victor FD( less so the FE), Mark 3 Cortina, Chrysler Alpine, Rover SD1( a real embarassment), and Triumph TR7 had the worst bodywork. Also as you say reliability was nothing to shout about, typically many cars then hated cold weather, when they would refuse to start, hot weather, when they would overheat, and high mileages tended to lead to the engines wearing out and complete rebuild.
    I think the change came in the late seventies when the Japanese led the way with very dependable cars that could take high mileage and magazines like Which and TV shows like That’s Life began to crucify badly made cars and manufacturers had to buck their ideas up. By the mid eighties most manufacturers offered six year anti perforation warranties, galvanising and the use of more plastics massively reduced rust, and improvements in technology and build quality meant cars seemed to be able to pass 100,000 miles without dying. While a 1975 Cortina would be rare and on its last legs by 1985, a 1985 Sierra was still a common sight in 1995 and still working well.

    • Totally agree. Chrysler Alpine used to turn into rust with the first drop of rain. I was fortunate in not getting involved with Citroens, I had enough issues with BL Hydrolastic / Hydragas to keep me occupied, usually involving half a gallon of PlusGas and a Britool socket set.

      My favourite cars from the 80s were the Astra Mk1 nn-turbo diesel. The Isuzu lump would go on forever given regular oil changes. The Cavalier Mk3, because, although it wasn’t the best drive, it was only adequate on the road, it was comfortable, reliable and economical Of the quality cars, I was fortunate enough to sample a Mercedes 190, with the best ones being the later 2.0 with fuel injection and 120 bhp.

      The Golf Mk2 was also capable of a good mileage. My own GTD reached over 200,000 before rusty sills made it uneconomic to repair.

      These days I most cars I see scrapped are either “economic write offs” after a small bump or else crippled by electronic failures.

  46. While reliability went up during the 1980s a lot of cars from that era seemed to vanish from the roads a lot quicker than the decades each side.

    I did wonder if not being able to use unleaded & the failure of early electronic systems after 10-15 years led to many being scrapped earlier than they should be.

  47. Although very much a rover man I have owned more BMW’s that anything else through mostly accidental acquisitions! I would say that the quality/complexity and cost of ownership went through the roof from 2003 onwards roughly inline with the “Bangle” 7 series. I had a 2004 330D that was a patch on a £500 1994 530i and it was at a nuts and bolts level you would have thought that the cars were made by different manufacturers. To this end I currently use a 1998 728i as my “around town runabout” despite the missus claiming it costs as much to fuel as a chieftain!

  48. It is very difficult one to answer. I remember being a lad (were talking 30 odd years ago here!!) and my Dad remarking on new cars being characterless and boring compared to cars of his youth. His first car as a young lad was an old Austin 7. I remember his tales of having to reverse it up Lakeland passes, first gear not being low enough! As a VERY young boy, I remember him driving ADO16s, one of which ended up in a disused quarry following handbrake failure! So, there’s plenty of interest, character there!! Circa 1985, Dad would have regarded a Montego as positively dull. Sadly, he’s no longer of even remotely clear mind to cast any opinion, but to me, today, a Montego would be brimming with character – an MG 2.0EFi/2.0i, a nice Countryman….? Yes, please!

  49. @ Tony Evans, the eighties were the decade when European manufacturers beat the rust demon by galvanising and using more plastics, quality went up due to the Japanese invasion and cars became pleasanter to drive, with five speed gearboxes becoming common and fuel injection spreading from the top down. Also the eighties had some excellent designs, the Volkswagen Golf Mark 2, Cavalier Mark 2 and 3, Rover R8, Ford Sierra, Audi Coupe, Fiat Uno, SA, AB 9000, Toyota MR2, Mercedes 190 and 1982 Audi 100 are my favourites. Then, of course, cars were cars, two and four door saloons, estates and hatchbacks and SUVs and people carriers were far less prevalent.

  50. The original Astra marked a massive leap forward for Vauxhall. It replaced the ageing, rust prone and not very refined Viva with a totally modern hatchback( base model was a saloon, though) that had far better rust protection, performance, refinement and driving abilities( being fwd and lighter). It seemed when Vauxhall replaced a model in the eighties, the Mark 2 Cavalier was a massive leap forward from the Mark 1, they seemed to move the game forward and were keen to bury their image for making rust prone, dull cars that they had in the seventies.

  51. For me, Mk3 Cavalier. I’ve always been a Vauxhall fan until recently as I think they’ve lost their way, new Astra excepted.

    Anyway, Cavalier wise, I’ve had: a G-reg 1.6L hatch, J-reg 1.6L saloon, J-reg 1.6L saloon, K-reg pre-facelift 2.0i GL hatch, K-reg pre-facelift 2.0SRi 130 (non Ecotec) hatch and an N-reg 1.7TD LS hatch, all in the days where I bought for a few hundred quid at 10 or so years old and ran until I got bored.

    The only things I needed to change, other than normal brake and tyre consumables and scheduled servicing were:

    HT leads
    Wiper motor
    Wiper linkage
    Exhaust backbox

    That’s it. In over 6 years and 120k miles of banger motoring. Yes some were a starting to rust on the rear arches and the paintwork on the red one needed regular polishing to keep it from going pink but they just worked. I had three Vectra B’s some time later and they were less reliable by a mile. In fact the most reliable one was a 6yr old 184k mile example!

    There are many other cars that I’ve owned that I enjoy more, have been as reliable and haven’t let me down either but none have been as cheap or as hardy as those Cavaliers were.

    • What was it about Vauxhall’s solid red and solid blue paint? It faded appallingly unless you cared for it like that…

  52. @ Adam, I tended to like Vauxhall in the 1975-95 period, from the Chevette to the end of the Cavalier. They really moved on from the image they had in the early seventies of producing fairly stylish if rust prone and not very well made cars like the Victor FD and Firenza to reliable, good looking and good to drive Ford beaters. The Mark 2 Cavalier really was a revelation when it was launched, fwd, powerful engines, better refinement and reliability than Ford, and sold in enormous numbers, same as the Nova, Astra and Carlton really made Vauxhall take off. Even the often overlooked Chevette was a clever car, made with Viva components, but far more modern and better to drive and better rustproofed.
    That said, the Victor FD was a very stylish car when launched and the FE deserved to do better.

  53. I had the same conversation with myself when I wanted a big engined 2 door sports car that needed to be reliable, safe yet be simple enough to keep for a while as itsas not too complex. I loved my TR6 and wanted something similar. Step forward the Z3 3.0. The later model had been tweaked, its simple enough yet with the features you need and was designed in the 90s using a previous model platform. It was a cheap experiment but one with remarkably few compromises.

  54. Much of this argument is a bit like one of these pub debates about pop music peaking in the sixties. “Jumping Jack Flash,”, “Honky Tonk Women,” and “Satisfaction,” might well be the finest ever three minute rock and roll records, but it’s surprising how rarely I actually listen to them. Most of the time I have radio two on in the car.

    Similarly I’d love a P6 or a Wolseley 2200, or an MG Montego. . .

    But I currently drive a Mazda and most recently ran a Rover 45 Diesel. If I was replacing my car, I’d look at a C5, a Rover 75 or an Alfa 156. I’d even consider a MGF. But I’d probably end up with an Ensignia or Mondeo. We may not live by bread alone, but nothing wrong with bread and butter.

  55. I have recently received my police/Lancashire County Council pension so after dealing with the necessities re. the mortgage and a new (s/h) car for my wife, I finally fulfilled a 60th birthday promise to myself and returned one of the last Rover 600 ti’s to the road. I was after this car for nigh on 11 years and last Christmas time an e mail popped into my in box from the son in law of the last owner, an older man from Skem new town.

    Now deceased, he had had the car since 2004 and kept every bill including the original bill of sale from when it was sold by a Midlands garage in 1999. We had to literally drag the car off the drive but after hearing the car was going to be scrapped I successfully made an offer of £160 – all saved up in 10p and 20p in silver I habitually save (a habit from my old dad who filled a massive coke bottle annually with ‘shrapnel’)

    After a fettling at a former Ferrari mechanic in Hoylake, Cheshire it was back in rude health and to be honest, I have no qualms at all about using the 600 on a daily basis to and from work; I fuel it on Sainsbury’s super unleaded at 113ppl and have an old Rover mechanic who looks after it; he solved the usual ABS and SRS lights problem for its MOT in early May. It’s on classic insurance so travels to and from Preston everyday (if you see a black 600 V774 MOH give us a flash) and will be venturing down to Gloucester tomorrow to meet MGJohn (can’t wait….)

    Seriously, older car ownership is SO fulfilling. There are any number of German prestige cars on the roads nowadays in west Lancashire and they do little or nothing for me – neither do their owners. I’ve tackled a few simple DIY jobs on the Rover and after a proper wax she looks great. The a/c still has issues and the coin tray has fallen off but for £160 who cares?

    Sadly, I have now got the old Rover bug after the wife arranged for the front drive to be widened – my other car is a ‘55 Sirion SE and she has an ‘08 Panda dynamic which both fit on with ease BUT after chasing a one lady owner from new five door 200vi I am getting really close – and an old gent from the neighbourhood called me last week with first refusal on a R plate 600 diesel with 90,000 on the clock and a year’s ticket.

    I have already put a call into DPL Roverland for tuning advice on the L series diesel…

  56. The Audi A2 is a most underrated car. Mine; a 1.4TDI is thirteen years old and has covered 180,000 miles and still returns 55-60 mph driven normally.

    With an aluminum bodyshell and £30 a year RFL, it’s a no brainer!

    Also said by Spen King to be son of ECV3!

  57. It surely has to be the early 90s. A few years back we still had a Toyota Carina II at work – nicknamed The Terminator as it just wouldn’t die. Probably the best era for blending well-engineered technology before it got overly complex and (importantly) too expensive to fix at 8+ years.

    • … not that I’d say that the early 90s were the pinnacle of motoring overall, just the most reliable. I do hanker after some 70s disasters… my guilty pleasure!

    • Have to agree – never owned one, but those so-called ‘Carina II’s’ were/still are as near as immortal as is possible for an ordinary family car to be – and smarter looking than a Cavalier to boot, if probably not any nicer to drive.

      My personal early 1990’s chariot was my first ever brand-new car – a LE Panda 1000 ST. Used and abused it for 11 years and 135,000 miles before giving it, (with a new, nothing needed M.o.T.) to my then Sis-In-Law who needed something quickly to replace her dying Nova.

      Bottom of it’s doors were starting to go, but it was very tidy and solid everywhere else. Few properly small cars can match it overall even today and it’s, (manual) steering and, (unservoed) brakes feel/feedback was the best blend of almost anything that I’ve owned or indeed driven, (OK, so I’ve driven an Alfasud) that wasn’t meant to live on a racing track.
      With better tyres than the mostly awful Pirelli things FIAT put on them the 1986- Pandas were a joy to drive, the relative lack of power as standard not withstanding.
      Later I warmed mine over, (with flowed cylinder head, exhaust, camshaft, carb jets, airfilter feed, electronic ignition) and put a set of Konis on which settled the ride nicely but didn’t change the sweet handling to any noticeable degree. Still miss that car.

      • Most early-mid 1990s Toyotas seem to be immortal if given enough TLC. I see a few smartish examples around, often in that metallic blue paint that was popular with the Japanese manufacturers at the time.

        By comparison it would be like using a mid-late 1960s car as a daily driver when the above cars were new.

  58. I have to agree about the late 80s-mid 90s. Look at how many cars from the era which are still around, compared to say, late 70s-early 80s stuff still on the road in 2006.

    I run a 1989 Nova as a daily. Sure, it’s got rust in places, I’ve had to replace the servo, front seatbelt (I broke it somehow) and indicator stalk but touch wood, starts first time, has taken me on motorways all over the country with its carburettor-fed 1960s-origin 1.0 engine and 4-speed ‘box without any complaints. Would not get rid of it and I’ve even competed in speed events in it. It’s got some modifications (Koni SRT suspension, strut brace, stainless exhaust) but mostly original. Ventilation is decent for summer and adequate in winter – people knock these as chav wagons still but they are tough hardy wee things that still make sense as a super-cheap daily hack and they actually have character. Light (750kg) and excellent steering feedback with no PAS means they’re fun to toss about. No wonder kids loved them as first cars in the late 90s.

  59. I think the big leap forward was the eighties. European and American car makers had been badly rattled by the Japanese invasion in the seventies and buyers were no longer prepared to put up with basic cars that were unreliable and rust prone. A typical new British car in 1979 would come with basic instrumentation, a four speed gearbox, cheap cloth seats( some still had vinyl), a cigar lighter and a two band radio if the manufacturer was feeling generous. Ten years later a similar model would come with a five speed gearbox, rev counter, tinted glass, stereo radio/cassette, clock and better quality seats with headrests. Buyers demanded more as Japanese cars had been fully equipped since they arrived on the market and European manufacturers had to respond to survive.
    Also the eighties saw big advances in fuel economy and performance. Five speed gearboxes, lighter bodies, improved engine technology and fuel injection meant cars could go considerably faster and use less fuel. A 1979 1.6 litre Vauxhall Cavalier had a maximum top speed of 96 mph and would average 28 mpg, its 1989 equivalent could do 12 mph more and average 10 mpg more, and due to its five speed gearbox, be able to cruise at high speeds a lot more quietly.

  60. Have to agree the MK1 Focus was a great car but I think you need to look back to the 1993 Mondeo for the start of Ford perfecting the recipe for great cars. One of the first with airbags, abs and multivalve ego engines a cross the range. Interior quality was praised at the time as meeting the Germans plus, and probably most important, Ford nailed the ride and handling balance and made the Mondeo (and fiture fords) reputation for FWD handling quality.

  61. Have to agree the MK1 Focus was a great car but I think you need to look back to the 1993 Mondeo for the start of Ford perfecting the recipe for great cars. One of the first with airbags, abs and multivalve efi engines a cross the range. Interior quality was praised at the time as meeting the Germans plus, and probably most important, Ford nailed the ride and handling balance and made the Mondeo (and future fords) reputation for FWD handling quality.

  62. I don’t think things car-wise 20 years ago were as great compared to today as some people make out.

    Yes they might’ve been simpler to repair. However, new and used cars from main dealers were also quite a bit more expensive than in 2016.

    You also got a lot less for your money compared to what comes as standard on low trim level cars today.

    Security & safety are now very good on all modern cars too, while in the mid-90s there was definitely a lot of variation between manufacturers and models.

  63. Hope I’m not too late to contribute !

    For me, the 90s started the major improvement in reliability and the ability to cover huge mileages without major problems occuring.

    During the 90s I had a 1980 Jaguar XJ6 bought in 1988, and for much of my 14 year ownership I spent most of that time putting right what Jaguar had failed to do properly in the first place. This was a seriously awful car, but a beaut to drive and so elegant I stupidly forgave it its problems.

    Then, at work on British Rail, we were privatised and I was able to buy a 1994 Mazda Xedos 9 as my company car. Revelation !! The reliability of this car was awesome ! No longer did I spend evenings and weekends fiddling about with the car. I was able to go out and about without worries of breakdowns !! I still loved the Jaguar though, for its elegance and wonderful magic-carpet ride, so kept it as a summer toy. The Mazda was the workhorse and what a workhorse it was. In 2007, finally it got to 128k miles and some rust appeared in a wheel arch so I decided I was not going to do any more bodywork on a car, so it was goodbye time.

    For some time since 1998 when I had seen it at the Motorshow at the NEC, I had hankered after a Rover 75, a car I greatly admired. Finally, in 2007, I found the car, a Wedgwood Blue 2.5 litre Club SE Auto. This car cost so little money it was ridiculous. £4500 for a 2001 in absolutely immaculate condition, it must have been cherished by its first owner in Chester. This car also proved totally reliable, taking us to France, Germany, and Italy on holiday. Then, in 2010, and approaching retirement, I hankered after another Jaguar. So I bought one of the first aluminium saloons, a 2003 XJ6 on 30k miles. This also proved to be totally reliable in terms of not leaving you at the roadside, but then the downside of modern cars started to come into play.

    I found that the suspension bushes were very short-lived as were a number of other parts subject to wear. The problem was (and is, I still have the car), that repair-ability is a real issue. For instance on the old 1980 Jaguar, things like ball joints can be replaced, but on the modern Jaguar the ball joint is pressed, not bolted, onto the wishbone or hubcarrier, so one must but the whole part at huge cost.

    Fortunately, as the 90s went into the 00s, the internet started to become big business, and after market suppliers saw gaping holes in the spares market. It is now such that OEM and pattern parts are freely available and one no longer has to trek out to your local dealer to get parts at eye-watering prices.

    Rust has been mentioned on this thread, and I have to say, as my Jaguar is aluminium, so far it is unmarked and looks absolutely immaculate at its 110k miles. I can remember the cars of the 60s and 70s rotting away very, VERY, quickly, (I had one ot two !!). Nowadays it seems the depreciation is what decides whether a car goes for scrap or not. Repairs will always be necessary and more are needed as a car ages, and once the car’s value gets to a certain point, most people get-rid and buy another car even if the body is perfectly OK. Actually, I also think boredom influences people too.

  64. I’d say the mid nineties was when you could be almost sure of buying a car that rarely went wrong, didn’t rust and if it was diesel, had almost unbreakable engines that were capable of 200,000 miles and could return 50-60 mpg( no DPFs and complicated electronics then). A car I frequently see from this era is the second generation Nissan Micra, an extremely simple small car that had rock solid reliability and was built to last and can be picked up for peanuts as it’s not considered a classic.

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