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Welcome arrow Articles arrow Miscellaneous arrow On the Move Again
On the Move Again PDF Print E-mail

Retro cars is probably a misnomer: they may have links to the original in terms of either its manufacturer, or because it vaguely resembles its long-lost cousin. Generally though, they are based on a more mundane model within the car maker's line-up.

The first retro model was probably the Volkswagen Beetle, introduced at the Detroit motor show in 1998.  Based on a VW Golf platform, the new Beetle had little in common with its pre-war ancestor, of which more than 22 million were produced over the years.

The original was designed by Ferdinand Porsche on the instructions of German führer Adolf Hitler.  Its name was initially Kraft-durch-Freude-wagen, or ‘Strength through Joy' car.  This cumbersome title was eventually changed to Volkswagen, or simply ‘people's car'.

The New Beetle, which was initially built in Mexico at VW's Puebla facility, lacked power and charisma, and it was also relatively expensive in this segment, initially being launched in the U.S. at around $16,000.

However, Volkswagen persevered and the car was a reasonable sales success, particularly on the West Coast in California, where clubs were organised, rallies created and a loyal following in owners; clubs.

While still in the States, probably the worst thought out so-called retro car was the Dodge PT Cruiser, of which there are one-or-two personal imports in Hong Kong.  Not particularly modelled on anything particular, it was supposed to be a ‘car of the Sixties' - the ‘flower-power' era.  Plastic steering wheel  plastic gear knob, underneath was a Chrysler Neon which was one of the least effective small sedans of its day.




When BMW decided - after increasingly mounting losses over the years - to dispose of Rover, the British car company it had unwisely purchased in March 1994, the Munich concern decided to keep the Mini brand.  Originally scheduled to be produced at Longbridge, outside Birmingham, BMW moved production to Cowley, Oxford and engaged talented American stylist Frank Stephenson to design it.  Stephenson has variously worked for Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari and McLaren.  His Mini though took a number of styling awards.

As with the original Alec Issigonis-conceived Mini, which was launched in August 1959, the new model was front-wheel drive, with a transverse four-cylinder engine.  Unlike Issigonis' Mini, the new one boasted such luxuries as wind-up windows - even electric on some versions - a decent pair of seats in the front and four doors.  It even had a radio as standard; Issigonis abhorred radios, saying they were a safety distraction ...

The first Minis had a 1.4 litre engine built in Brazil in a joint venture between BMW and Chrysler called the Tritec Corporation, but when arch-rival Daimler merged with Chrysler this was quickly disposed of and later Minis and Mini Coopers received a 1.6 litre motor built at BMW's Hams Hall plant in central England.

Various Mini models have followed, including a Cabriolet launched in 2005, the Mini Countryman (built in Austria by Magna Steyr) in 2011 and this year, a Mini Coupé.

BMW's British Mini manufacturing facility is working flat out to produce sufficient vehicles, such is the demand for the little retro machine.  How many other variants are in the pipeline is anybody's guess, but it does appear that the Mini is here to stay.

The original Mini Cooper won the Monte Carlo rally, among others, on several occasions and Britain's Prodrive team are competing this year in the World Rally Championship, showing promise but driver Dani Sordo has yet to stand on the top step of the podium.  Strangely, BMW is not financially backing the team, preferring to concentrate its efforts elsewhere in the German touring car series.


FIAT 500


The original topolino or Fiat 500 began life in 1957: a car for everyone that was both affordable and economical.  Originally designed by Dante Giacosa, who had also designed Grand Prix cars for Fiat, it endured until 1975 remarkably when safety considerations forced the Italian manufacturer to remove the model from the market. 

The success of the Mini - although Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne would probably deny this - suggested that Fiat should produce another 500 model, this one based on the far less charismatic Fiat Panda and introduced in 2007.  That's not to suggest that the retro 500 is bad; it is far from that and delightful to look at.  Its lines and features; its proportions and overall retro styling are perfect for this segment and, by virtue of the number you see on the road, Hong Kong drivers definitely agree.

Generally, small cars are looked upon as less safe than their larger counterparts, but the little Fiat has achieved a 5-star rating in the tough EuroNCAP tests and 40 other awards at an international level to date.  Now sold in an amazing 110 countries around the world, the 500 is more than just a retro model; it's a star in its own right.

There is now an Abarth version of the 500, with disc brakes all round, a startling paint finish and an uprated engine.  This one is definitely worth having.


Nissan Figaro

The strangely-styled - by Shoji Takahashi - Nissan Figaro (called March in some countries) was originally a Japan-only model.  Launched at the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show, it was based on the Nissan Micra, which as its name implies, was not a very impressive, nor large motor car.  It was available in just four colours, one of which was Pale Aqua, and it is believed such an animal lives in Hong Kong.  Although the Figaro was marketed independently of the Nissan name, the March retained its manufacturer's title.

For reasons that remain unexplained, the Figaro became something of a cult car, with owners including legendary guitarist Eric Clapton, Arsenal's Thomas Vermaelen, Princess Eugenie and broadcaster and journalist Andrew Marr.


Almost Retro

Two Ford-built models could feasibly called retro except one is based faithfully on the 1965 original and the other on a racing car that competed at Le Mans in the ‘60s.  The Ford Mustang looks uncannily like the one in all the movies, while the Ford GT only resembles the one that won the 24-Hours race in 1968 and for the final time in 1969. This one has a much less refined five-litre V8 engine and many more creature comforts than any race car.

The Ford GT began as a concept car at the 1995 Detroit show.  Designed by Camilo Pardo, it was loosely based - in looks anyway - on the Le Mans-winning GT40.  The late Carroll Shelby also contributed, as he had on many Ford performance projects.  Longer, wider and taller (the GT40 was so-named because it was exactly 40 inches high), the car was very much a road project, to be produced in limited numbers.  Very few, relatively, were built in right-hand drive configuration.  If you spot one for sale, snap it up immediately; it will undoubtedly appreciate considerably.

The second almost-retro machine is the Ford Mustang.  These are not made in RHD form, but it should be possible to have one converted in order to comply with Hong Kong law.

The Mustang is listed in Ford's 2013 line-up and features a number of performance updates.  The top-of-the-range GT now boasts 420 bhp, a ‘track' selector switch which changes the damper settings as well as adjusting the transmission shifts.  Various other performance features are available, but it should be relatively easy to buy an older model and have it converted to RHD.



The Jaguar E-Type is more than 50 years old: it was launched at the Geneva motor show in March 1961 and was described by none other than Enzo Ferrari as "the most beautiful car ever made ..." and without doubt its styling, by British designer Malcolm Sayer, was absolutely stunning.  Initially powered by a 3.8 litre engine, it was later upgraded to 4.2 litres in October, 1964.  It was relatively inexpensive at a shade over £2,000 and it was good for 150 mph, or 240 km/h.  Production of the E-Type, or XKE in the U.S., lasted until 1974 and more than 70,000 were built in that period.

Still beautiful, and still desirable, Jaguar introduced the next-generation F-Type at the recent New York Auto Show.  This one would be the work of Jaguar's Ian Callum, who also counts the Aston Martin DB7 and Vanquish amongst his claims to fame. No real information has been presented about the F-Type, but expect it to be pretty spectacular.  Jaguar has only confirmed that the F-Type will be available with a new supercharged, three litre V6 but they will not say whether the magnificent 5-litre supercharged V8, currently available in the top-of-the-range XJ Supersport, will also be available.  Surely the ultimate retro machine?

So where do we go from here?  What retro models can we reasonably expect in the future:  a Citroën 2CV?  A "bubble car" in the shape of a Messerschmitt or an Isetta?  Almost anything is feasible.  The possibilities are undoubtedly limitless, as both the Mini and the Fiat demonstrate, but will they ever achieve the sales success of these two remarkable little retros? 


Morgan 3-Wheeler

Morgan remains the oldest car manufacturer in the world that is still owned and run by a founding family member.  Created in 1909 by H.F.S. (Harry) Morgan, today the Malvern, England company is run by Charles Morgan, a true enthusiast who has been known to take the wheel of one of his creations at the legendary Le Mans 24-Hours endurance race.

The success of the Morgan marque was founded on its iconic three-wheeler.  The simple but effective design by Harry Morgan set the theme for generations of Morgans to come.  He came up with the idea of fitting a straightforward two-cylinder motorcycle engine into a simple, lightweight frame.  Wooden frames, made of ash, were the backbone to this machine, a technique still used today by craftsmen at Morgan's Malvern Link facility.

It could reasonably be said that Harry Morgan introduced motoring to the masses: an affordable, easy-to-maintain runabout that suited everybody.

The original featured a two-speed transmission, but no reverse gear.  Engines were usually J.A.P. V-twins although other makes could easily be accommodated.

Motor racing is clearly in the Morgan clan's blood, for Harry won the Cyclecar Cup for the 1100 cc one-hour record at an astonishing 96 km/h for one hour at the Brooklands track in southern England. In a little over three years, prior to the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914, Morgan had taken 10 British and world records for various classes of cycle car, and had won 24 gold medals in major reliability trials.


New Morgan Three-Wheeler

The very latest three-wheeler from Morgan looks remarkably like the original Super Aero of 1927, and although it is again powered by a motorcycle engine, this time it is an American-built 1990 cc V-twin, based on a Harley-Davidson design.   Built by S&S in the U.S., the company began by tuning big Harleys, but now builds its own engines.  An S&S motor will have the same pushrod V-twin layout as a Harley but will not necessarily use Harley-Davidson internals. 

The motor in the Morgan is pure S&S, built to exacting Morgan specifications.  Maximum power is an impressive 80 bhp, but what matters more is the torque output from the lazy V-twin which peaks at 140 Nm at the extremely low engine speed of 3250 rpm.  Mated to a modified Mazda MX-5 5-speed (plus reverse!) gearbox, the latest three-wheeler is good for 185 km/h and a benchmark 0-100 km/h time of around 4.7 seconds.

It uses a steel tubular chassis, an again an ash frame, over which an aluminium body is crafted. Driver and passenger get separate, non-adjustable and surprisingly effective wind deflectors.  Although pretty Spartan the three-wheeler offers the latest creature comforts in the form of leather seats, a leather steering wheel, aluminium ‘aircraft' toggle switches, a so-called ‘bomb release' push button start and colour-coordinated trim panels according to any one of the eight available body colours.

Prices in the UK start at £25,000 before options.  It is currently believed that Hong Kong's Harley-Davidson dealer may well soon become importer of the new Morgan Three-Wheeler.

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© 2019 Jeff Heselwood. All rights reserved.
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