But all is not quite as grinding and grim as this article. Few of us get to drive cars at much more than fifty percent of their potential, unless we get ourselves and our machines to a racetrack for a non-race track day (which a considerable number of car enthusiasts do). If, however, you have a car that handles well and are willing to scout out the nearest challenging back roads, the automobile that mostly serves as a pack animal can become a spirited quarter horse again.
Finding those twisties may be easy if, like me, you live in Northern California, or nearly impossible, if you live in grid-intensive Florida. But real fun on the road is not an unattainable dream. The revelation that there’s still sport driving available on public roads came to me with the recent purchase of a Mini Cooper S
, the most enjoyable car I’ve owned since a race-prepped MGA
in the early sixties — and the first car that has been able to compete for seat time with my stable of sport motorcycles. Supercharged and fast, with a tight suspension for amazingly flat cornering, this British revival via BMW has me remembering my early years in sports cars, when all you had to do was drive to a race, tape the headlights, slap a number on the doors, and dream Stirling Moss
That the long ago dreams of a teenage club racer (with an enthusiastic and indulgent father) could be revived by a modern car with ABS, airbags front and side, computers and sensors all over the place, may be in part due to the fact that the Mini itself revives a legendary car of this boy’s youth. The original Mini was designed in the fifties by Sir Alec Issigonis
, a Greek born in Smyrna whose family had British citizenship. Like the Volkswagen, which had re-emerged after World War II, and the Fiat Cinquecento
, the car was a petrol-stingy answer to post war shortages. With its front-wheel drive and four-corner wheel placement, the car was almost weirdly roomy. Once, when I was living in London in the early seventies, I was given a ride in a Mini Cooper by a friend of a friend, a woman I hadn’t met before. When we arrived at our destination I was stunned to see the driver get out and unfold a pair of the longest legs I’d ever see. By comparison, Twiggy was a mere sapling. The Mini that BMW has revived, though almost two feet longer than the original, is a design that does just what retro ought to do: Improve on the past while still evoking it. In other words, make the machine modern and the mood nostalgic.
Despite the tendency of the fashion business to succeed by recycling earlier styles with slight changes, the retro road can be tricky for car makers. On the list of successes, besides the Mini, are the new Fiat Cinquecento, the Ford Mustang “Bullit”
model, and, of course, the classic Morgan — which, though produced in miniscule numbers, never went away. Jaguar had a good run with its encore version of the famous E Type, the XK series, but Tata motors
, the Indian company that bought Jag from Ford, is going with the decidedly not-retro variation. A rarer bird, but nicely done, is the Caterham 7
, a re-born Lotus 7
built in England with more power than the original, but still true to its open-wheel, birdcage frame ancestry. (Another success, of the two-wheel variety, is the new Triumph Bonneville
, a near carbon-copy replica of the sixties classic, with the notable exception that the new bike always starts.) The jury is still out on the new Chevy Camaro
(at least I, the jury, who hasn’t driven one yet). It’s been a surprise to me that Chevrolet never tried to recall to duty one of the most popular collector cars GM ever produced, the mid- to late fifties Bel Air two tones created by the legendary Harley Earl
and his design team. This would surely have been as welcome as the Thunderbird redux from Ford.
Though successful in terms of sales, a retro car designed in California by J Mays
and Freeman Thomas
illustrates certain problems with looking forward and back simultaneously. The car that brought Mays to fame, and eventually to the top design job at Ford, was Volkswagen’s New Beetle. It’s been a success for VW, and at first sight back in the late nineties the car was hard not to like. I tested one of the first of these neo bugs to arrive in Northern California, and if I’d walked down the street with a baby panda I couldn’t have attracted more adoring attention. The car, essentially a Golf in vintage drag, drove just fine. But the shape, with its arched roof reminiscent of the Deco-influenced pre-and-post-war Volkswagens, no longer made sense on a front engine modern car. Like post-modern architecture, or most of GM’s cars in the fifties, the shape was an add-on, for stylistic purposes only. In San Francisco, where I live, I now see far more Minis than Bugs these days, and it doesn’t surprise me.
Then there are the faux retro cars (retraux?), those designs that evoke the past without referring directly to an actual car. The most popular of these is the PT Cruiser
from Chrysler, designed by Bryan Nesbitt
(the “PT” recalling, I’m told, a line of Plymouth trucks from the thirties). Meant, I suppose, to make us think about burly men in fedoras wielding tommy guns, this stodgy automotive pet rock has sold surprisingly well since its introduction in 2000, proving that funky design doesn’t turn everyone off. One particularly egregious version even re-introduced wood grained vinyl. (As we now know, however, the PT, like the faux hotrod Prowler
, was not able to save Chrysler from itself; it may take Fiat to do that.)
In a way, one of the niftiest retro cars on the road these days isn’t a retro model at all. The mid-engine Porsche Cayman
, smaller than the current 911 and truer to the marque’s traditional styling than the Boxster, is as modern as a sports car can get, yet is somehow reminiscent of the smaller Carreras from a sweeter, simpler, air-cooled age. To which one can only say: Sehr gut!