Part two: Asking The Questions
Steven Ward takes his hot-blooded Fiat Coupé to Geneva to find the secret of what makes a British car British…
Photography: Andrew Elphick
Sadly the hotel’s deceptively strong coffee that morning gave me a violent peristaltic reaction and we were delayed just long enough to get caught-up in Swiss crush hour. We should have took Sting’s advice and ‘took tea’ as An Englishman in New York sagely advised. Frustratingly we had to cross right through Geneva city centre to get to the airport side and there was no quick way. This was city’s congestion as bad as anything you’d find back home.
Eventually, we followed a hard charging ‘12’-plate Royce and figured they’d be going our way. This proved to be true and fortunately in my itinerary I had a VIP parking pass enabling me to continue my pursuit to the very end. In the Perplexo I exchanged my show ticket for a magic lanyard, hung my coat up and entered the first of seven halls full of the latest in automotive hardware.
As planned, we headed straight to the Morgan stand which was reassuringly staffed by familiar faces and featured homemade wooden desks. Charles Morgan requested the attention of those assembled, and started the first of his three announcements. The first concerned the new +8 in which BMW’s assistance in the development was generously praised. The second announcement concerned a new electric Morgan and the third announcement concerned Morgan’s intention to take on the big boys at Le Mans.
Interestingly, Charles gave the third speech in French which meant I was now out of the equation. As my eyes glazed over I spotted Richard Bremner, the man who gave up a glittering career at Austin-Morris to become a legendary motoring journalist, who happens to love British Leyland. By now became somewhat giddy, and felt I had to make contact with the man whose prose I’d enjoyed for what seemed to be my full lifetime. I felt confident a SFQ would pop into my head.
As the Press Announcements ended, Andrew started asking Morgan officials all kinds of serious and worthy questions and furiously scribbled down notes. I went up to two charming French ladies who were to be involved in the Le Mans campaign, although in what capacity I know not. In my best English, I asked them how Charles’ French was. ‘Perfect’ was the reply. ‘He is very good,’ they were hugely pleased at the effort CM had gone to.
Relieved for Morgan’s owner, I asked a more pertinent question, ‘Well what you think of his suit?’
‘What do you mean,’ they chorused?
‘Well, the colour, it’s a bit dubious, isn’t it?’
‘Oh it is a very nice colour,’ they replied.
‘Come off it and besides, it looks like it has been cut with a knife and fork.’
They tactfully chose to ignore this and ask me if I would be going to Le Mans to support Morgan. By now however, the legend that is Bremner was in my sights, so I bid au revoir to the girls and made for Bremner.
‘Excuse me, its Richard Bremner, isn’t it?’ I asked
‘Yes, how do you do?’ was his response. This was going well.
‘I’m a long life fan of your writing and I wonder if I can ask you a question?’ I enquired.
‘Yes, of course,’ came the hoped for answer.
‘Well, it’s a bit bizarre, but could you stand over there [Bremner turns and looks to where I’m glancing at] and point to the ex-Rover 800 column stalk on that Morgan for me please’. Bremner by now, bless him, has already made the move towards the Morgan before my request sinks in
‘That is bizarre,’ he says.
‘Yes, well its for Queen and Country, so if you could, that’d be great,’ I say trying to hurry him on before he yelled for security. Fear is apparent in Bremner’s eyes and he quickly does as he is told. I take my picture and thank him for his time. I try to make some small talk with him, but I feel he has suffered me enough.
I wonder across to Andrew who has now engaged a Zytek engineer from Morgan’s electric car programme. I ask the question: ‘Why has it got a manual gearbox?’
The reply which leaves me none the wiser is, ‘because it runs a brushless DC motor’. Ah, I nod as if it makes sense. ‘So who is this car aimed at?’ I continue. ‘People who drive in cities everyday’. I’m now utterly puzzled by this oxymoron concept car and tell Andrew its time to leave and head to stands anew.
Last year at Geneva, those humourless swines on the Maybach stand chased us off their pitch, so this year we decided to bait them again. Sorry, nothing to do with this story, just a personal score to settle. Maybach is winding down its operations and we firmly believe this is down to their bad karma towards us. Andrew is initially rebuffed, but I wave my magic Press lanyard and the gate is opened.
The Maybach upon inspection strikes me as a bloated, latter-day Austin 3Litre and I’m fairly repulsed by it. What is bespoke is tacky and what it standard M-B is cheap. A-klasse column stalks for example. I asked my opening question to the pretty girl, ‘Why is there a crystal ball in the centre console between the front seats?’
She doesn’t know and the engineer who can explain is on the ‘phone. Another pretty girl is waved over and we are told it is, ‘for perfume’.
‘Coke stash more like,’ Andrew and I cynically mutter to each other.
We continue to prod and play with every button and gadget and lament that the rear picnic tables aren’t a patch on the Allegro VDP, let alone the 3-litre’s magnificent items. ‘Can I look under the bonnet please,’ I ask.
‘No,’ came the firm and swift reply. The resident engineer, still on his mobile looks angry as he stares towards us. We decide to leave as there is no fun to be had here.
Intrigued by the MINI van concept and head over there and burst into giggles at the way their rep is dressed like some mythical dandy cockney barrow boy from the 60s. While I like the concept, I very much doubt whether it has as much space and practicality as the 1960 original, let alone the vastly more spacious Maestro Van, which is roughly the same size.
Over to Rolls-Royce next which is staffed by two types of very pretty women. There are the young girls who are there to pose in every photo taken of the cars, and the older girls there to explain the features of the vehicles. We wander over to the facelifted Ghost Series 2 and I indulge my fetish of opening the boot. You see, I have a fascination with boot hinges and the finish in and around a boot’s shut lines. The Ghost fares very badly on this score; overlapped sheet metal, exposed spot welds and cheap, space consuming swan neck hinges (very ADO16esque). An Audi 80 did this so much better over 20 years ago.
I take a seat in the rear, as a beautiful woman sets out to explain the features and benefits of the car. An older Chinese businessman who speaks no English takes the seat next to me, more to get a better eyeful of the girl than to wonder at the mood-lighting in the roof-lining I feel.
Still, we watch and inspect every feature pointed out to us by the woman who also boasts a cut-glass English accent. Did you know you can with sit facing forwards in the Royce, or sit at angle of around 30 degrees facing your passenger in order to conduct a ‘meeting’? Neither did I, but my new Chinese mate and I acted out the role when told to do so to ensure that, yes, it was possible. We both burst out laughing at the faint absurdity of it all.
Andrew meanwhile had found an engineer and was pointing out the disappointing design detail of the boot shut. I felt I had to save the engineer’s embarrassment and defused the situation by asking a harmless question. ‘Would you supply and fit a vinyl roof to the Ghost if I was interested in buying one?’.
The engineer squirmed and contorted his face before saying, ‘yes, yes we could accommodate that for you’.
‘How much?’ I asked.
‘We’d have to look into that…’
Andrew however, took the joke too far: ‘What about making a Landaulette for us then, with Opera Windows?’
‘Definitely not, that would impair the vehicles structural integrity’.
The Royce man eventually got the joke and he indulged us a good 20 minutes of his time talking about the Ghost, working for Rolls-Royce and how the Maybach brand was doomed to fail regardless of them throwing us off their stand last year. However, his Product Knowledge let him down badly when he proclaimed the revised Ghost was the world’s first production car to boast LED headlamps…. oh, what will Nissan say?
From there we planned to visit Land Rover. Except Ratan Tata is there when we arrive so we leave in order to come back when the place has calmed down. We fall back to Citroen to luxuriate in its Big White Elephant C6 while we got our breath back. ‘This could be a latter-day Landcrab,’ I muse to Elphick.
We go back to Land Rover to inspect how many Leyland and Austin Rover components still featured on the Defender. More than we could count was the answer. The solitary Defender still gets more than its fair share of attention, while at the other side of the stand was its prototype replacement.
We jokingly asked the Land Rover engineer if the running gear under the New Defender concept was from a Maestro Van, historically favoured as a mule by Solihull. ‘Its actually a cut down Range Rover,’ he revealed while adding: ‘it was bloody good driving through the snow in the Alps too,’ came the reply. A working prototype must mean this show car is close to the finished product. I wonder out loud if the side window treatment was inspired by the Mk3 Ford Escort Van
Next stop Aston Martin. There’s quite a variety on display and they had just launched their new ‘Q’ specification in addition to a new car that looks the same as all the others. I asked what the ‘Q’ stood for and they said it was derived from the word ‘unique’ meaning that Aston would now accommodate pretty much any request for a bespoke build. ‘What about a vinyl roof on a Rapide?’ It was still early days for the full list of Q options,’ came the reply.
Andrew pertinently remarked that the letter Q derived from the James Bond association and that wasn’t denied. I asked if I could buy a Cygnet without buying another Aston-Martin as I lied and said that was the only model that interested me. ‘Yes,’ came the answer and I was directed towards a dealer in County Durham. Which was surprising as County Durham doesn’t have a Sales outlet for Aston Martin. Investigations into the quality of the boot opening on the Aston Rapide proved that design detail was only average and that the rocker covers on the V8 and V12 engines looked very cheap. Think MG ZT 260.
Next stop was Maserati as there is free booze on offer, so excuse me while I go off-topic. Almost immediately I was handed a glass of champagne while Andrew was given orange juice – that magic lanyard in action again. Surprisingly Maserati’s cars had the best attention to detail in the boot shut area of the whole show. Plastic trim to hide the welds, beautifully cantilevered hinges, tiny yet powerful gas struts. I was deeply impressed with the Maserati range and came away thinking that I could see myself in one. Hic!
Moving on to Jaguar, they had the XF estate on display, but they wouldn’t allow me to open the tailgate to see if it was spacious enough for my Airedale, so we left their rather dull, empty stand. Maybe they were embarrassed about the engineering quality of the boot opening? The Jaguar Club does stands so much better at the NEC.
As it was approaching lunchtime we headed towards Fiat as we figured they owed us a bite to eat as we’d made such a commitment towards them by driving the Coupe there. Their little bar/diner behind the stand was really neat, with large pictures of the stylish old Lingotto Turin factory as made famous in The Italian job hanging from the walls.
The buffet was very nice and the drinks were easily forthcoming. Andrew recognised motoring rotter Harry Metcalfe propping up the bar. I suggested he should go up to him and ask, ‘If he comes here often,’ to spook him out. Andrew meekly replied that he respected him too much to pull such a stunt. I then tell him about Bremner and he nearly chokes on his bruschetta.
We then check out the bloated new Panda and its blatant homage to the Austin Allegro. Who said that Quartic wheels would never catch-on? Did Loughborough University supply the ergonomics as is the case with most Fiats? It would make sense as they are always a good fit for me. Or, cheekily, did they copy the Allegro’s ergonomics and charge for it? We come away impressed with the interior plastics. While they are cheap (it is a cheap car in fairness) they are neatly ingrained with the letters making up the word ‘PANDA’ throughout.
Next stop Honda which was giving away crates of beer. Nobody is interested in their brand new Civic or CR-V range. The new Jazz looks and feels very cheap in detail and the Accord looks like its subframes shrunk in the wash. We check out their proposed NS-X replacement which looks like a Poor Man’s Audi R8. It owes nothing to the original NS-X and I think my old sweetheart Honda has utterly lost the plot. Like Mitsubishi. In fact, the French Honda dealer we passed last night seemed to have made a better show. At least the Insight represents some sort of evolution, even if it is rubbish as a car.
I have a burning question for a Lotus engineer so I hunt one down. My magic lanyard opens and the gate for us and an engineer is summoned. ‘How long do you think you can get away with fitting Austin Metro door mirrors to your cars,’ I ask. The engineer is floored by my valid question. Eventually, he mutters something about the cars not making any money for the company and that they are just a shop window for Lotus Engineering.
Moving on I ask if Lotus designed and engineered the new type of ‘performance’ strut suspension GM is showcasing for their powerful British-built Astra models. ‘Not for that application,’ came his tactical reply.
Like the engineer from Rolls-Royce, the Lotus engineer saw through our cunning ploy of asking SFQs and played along with us. ‘Do you consider the 1985 Sinclair C5 to be the best electric car Lotus has ever engineered,’ asked Andrew, purposely ignoring its (admittedly very clever) prototype alternative fuel car we were leaning against.
‘Er…we’d rather not put our name to that’.
Another 20 minutes of hot engineering conversation passes and we thank the engineer for his time and his honesty in talking about projects for other manufacturers which I’m not allowed to repeat here. *Cough* Honda Civic Twist-Beam *Cough*
Toyota was showcasing its new sports car which is designed jointly with Subaru, but is let down by using (British) Auris door handles. At least they left the Subaru badges on the engine.
SEAT is allowing people to get near their new Toledo, although you couldn’t wear a Porkpie hat inside unlike its Canley namesake. I spot motoring hack Hilton Holloway checking out the car and I go to ask if he thinks they should launch a RWD version of the car and call it the Dolomite. He takes flight upon my presence and I wonder if Bremner has tipped him off about the deranged curly haired Geordie and his agenda of SFQs.
Nissan had made a big and very welcome announcement about a new model to replace the aging Note at their Washington plant. I ask how many of the proposed new 2900 employees will actually be tasked with rectifying the Indian-manufactured Micra’s truly awful build quality. The two communications men don’t even try and deny that they have major issue with that vehicle’s quality, although they won’t confirm or deny that more time is spent fixing the new car than was spent building the old one in Washington.
I tell them that the man from Rolls Royce is making a noise about their world first LED headlamps and the Nissan Communications men are duly miffed. ‘I’ll point him out to you if you want to go to their stand and thrash this out now,’ I offer. But they decline to act in such a childish manner. I tell them the Leaf is minicab in my neck of the woods and they trump that with a whole town of them in Denmark. Damn, these guys are beating me at my own game here. Still, a nice time was had by all and we move on.
Tesla are next on my radar. Last year I was convinced that their new car was just an electric Aston Rapide. Everyone denied this and thought I was crackers. However, I got the truth out of the American engineer on the stand. Lotus had designed the Aston’s VH platform and the man in charge of that project had been poached by Tesla following their contract to buy Elise platforms. So there we are, different designs, common (British) parentage
We’ve saved Bentley for last because so many people had warned us about the sheer ugliness of its take on super Range Rover concept. It is absolutely awful and we find an engineer willing to talk to us about why the thing is so crass. He is upfront about its lack of style (to our eyes), but claims that China, Russia and the Middle East are desperate for such a vehicle.
At that point, a Chinese woman dressed in gold and a sun-dried old geezer looking like a bad Rod Stewart doppelganger double go up the car and start taking pictures of each other in the vehicle. They love the concept and the Bentley Boy’s sales spiel is proved correct. ‘Ah, but would you fit a vinyl hood to one,’ I ask.
The rep, out loud, blurts out ‘Fuck me’. I mock disgust at his attitude and say, ‘well Rolls Royce will,’ and he retorts, ‘Well they would. Listen, I told Katie Price we wouldn’t supply her with a pink Continental GT. I’m here to try and keep the marques brand values on track’.
As has been the case throughout the day, another good guy gets the jokes and provides us with all the time we like to talk cars and give us bits of ‘insider’ knowledge. At the end we conclude that Bentley has a better level of finish than Rolls Royce and this greatly pleases the man, although he claims to have known that all along. Bentley also showcases a dissected new V8 engine and eight-speed slushbox which is interesting if you’re that way inclined and we are.
Tomorrow: the long voyage home