In spite of the global recession, the last couple of years has seen some truly wonderful cars hit the streets, both from the Far East — Nissan GT-R, Lexus LFA — and Europe — Ferrari 458 Italia, Aston Martin Rapide, and Porsche Panamera. We also have a few cars — Lambo Estoque, Aston One-77 and the hybrid Porsche 918 Spyder — still waiting hesitantly in the wings.
However, straitened times subdued the car industry to a some extent, with many designs and concepts scrapped in favour of more sensible mass-appeal models. But with the recession finally over (OK, we’ll ignore the USA) and global markets expanding, the car is back as more than just transport. The annual Paris Motor Show lines up a whole new series of automotive wet dreams; some, like the new versions of the 599 and Maserati GT, are sure to be on the roads soon, but others — particularly those French fantasies — are destined to be, at best, one-off testbeds. Here’s my pick (in no particular order):
Billed as the forerunner for a Survolt racing series, this all-electric track car will go from 0-100kmph in under five seconds, with a racing range of over 200km. More a prototype than a concept, it was unveiled at the Le Mans 24-hour race and was recently thrashed silently (electric, remember?) around the Thruxton track by a TopGear team.
Another electric car, and this one truly a concept, created to celebrate Jaguar’s seventy-fifth anniversary. Clearly Jag’s design team is as frustrated a bunch as the rest of us — this cat looks as un-Jaguar-like as it’s possible to be at first glance — you almost expect to see McLaren badges on it — but a closer look and those ancestral genes begin to appear; the family mouth, the XJ220-like flanks, and a rear screen descended from the E-type.
Each wheel beneath those dominating arches has its own electric motor, giving the C-X75 780bhp, a claimed 0-100kmph of 3.4 seconds, and a top speed of 330kmph. Unfortunately, this will allow the C-X75 a range of only 110km. Fortunately, Jag has given it a pair of gas turbines up its rear (yes, folks, jet engines), each putting out 94bhp and running on any flammable liquid, from LP gas to bio diesel. Switching on the jets allows the electric motors’ lithium-ion batteries (housed in the nose) to recharge, extending the cat’s range to over 900km. Yay. Continue reading
Ask Sri Lankans born in the ’70s to tell you which cars they remember growing up with, and you’ll hear about Austin Cambridges, Morris Minors, “Upali” Fiats, and Beetles. All of which are rubbish. Yes, I know people will put out a fatwah on me for calling a Beetle rubbish, but it is. And yes, I know Upali Wijewardena’s Fiat 128 was the Micro of ’70s Sri Lanka, but you’ll be better off if you put wheels on a Ceylon Tea crate. Plus you’ll be faster. Doesn’t anyone remember a Karmann Ghia, or a Datsun 240Z, or a Mercedes 300? Or at least a Mk1 Golf, for God’s sake? Why do people seem to remember the bland? Somehow, though, I doubt that Sri Lankans in the year 2040 will look back fondly on the Nissan Sunny.
While you’re about it, ask a Sri Lankan to name a great ad from the early days of local television, and it’ll be a pretty predictable choice. The original Airlanka jingle (above) will certainly feature among them, with people still able to sing bits of it or at least hum the tune. There’s one of those dodgy old massage guys on Hikkaduwa beach who sings one part of it (“Blue voters, smiling ice — Sri Lanka, pair of dice”) over and over, as he walks along the sand looking for customers. Then there’ll be the Dot toffee commercials (“Oyagey kate Dot, mage kateth Dot!”), the Thultex spot — the only reason I remember that one is because at 14 years old, I’d never seen that far up a woman’s leg. So we remember this stuff, but were they good ads — did they entertain us (OK, there’s that leg again), engage us? Fuck, no, but we remember them anyway. Mostly because there were far fewer ads around back then.
Now it’s pretty easy to see why people remember great cars and great ads — or great anything for that matter. Cars, movies, books, we remember the ones that were interesting, fun, touching — things that played to our emotions, that entertained us. But what makes us remember things that we have no reason to — why would we remember a packet of washing powder? We wouldn’t, because there’s nothing to remember about it. But somehow Sri Lankans manage it. We even remember the Austin Cambridge. Why?
Perhaps it’s because Sri Lankans, on the whole, prefer the bland and anonymous. We save our spice for our rice, and that’s only because everyone else does it too. Every other day of the week I’m up in front of clients, trying to sell them an ad that I think will do all kinds of wonderful things for their brand. Market share, brand building, top-of-mind, etc etc. And as I pitch that top-of-the-range ad out onto their boardroom tables, I can see them squirm and wait, hesitating over this Scirocco that’s going to have everyone talking and pointing — and believe me these aren’t Porsches; they really are Sciroccos, maybe even RS5s. But no, the client’s waiting for me to run out of revs so that he or she can buy that Toyota Allion that no one will notice. It’ll take them from 15% market share to 17%, smoothly and comfortably, and very very softly. And in an unfeeling, numb coma.
For those of you who enjoyed reading about the AC Cobra replica I spotted at the Colombo Motor Show earlier this year, I’ve updated that post with some clips of the RVD-283 Python being road-tested in the hills. That V8 sounds fantastic. Thanks go to Vince for sending me the clips. Scroll all the way to the bottom of the page and turn up the volume!
Spotted this sexbomb at the Colombo Car Show last weekend — and no, I don’t mean one of the show girls, though they weren’t too bad either. The Cobra caught my eye almost immediately, hidden away behind the usual junk of pimped up Subarus and Mazdas, its cockpit shrouded against the light drizzle outside the BMICH. It was obviously a Cobra, but a peek under the rain covers revealed a BMW logo embossed in the centre of the steering wheel. Clearly, this had been restored with some variations, or actually built from scratch.
The rain eventually eased and the covers came off, unveiling a tan interior. Out of the bonnet popped a Chevrolet V8 small-block engine. A Brit turned up a few minutes later and and told me it was in fact a RVD-283 Python, a replica of the legendary AC Cobra Mk II, the only one in Sri Lanka. His name was Vince Wright, and the Cobra had been built by his company, RV Dynamics, right here in Sri Lanka.
Wright switched on the V8, apologising for a noisy fan belt, and the deep bass growl rumbled through the twin side pipes. The Python rocked on its brakes like a leashed animal, straining to escape.
Vince Wright’s Python had begun life, once upon a time, as a ’57 Chevrolet Bel Air. Having once belonged to the US ambassador to Sri Lanka, it had eventually been abandoned, rusting and rotting away in the Mt Lavinia sea breeze for about five years. Wright salvaged and entirely rebuilt the Bel Air’s V8 and 2-speed auto box, and restored the chassis, which is all that remains of the original Chevy. Everything else was either scratch built or borrowed. Continue reading
Anyone who knows me well will think it strange that I’m even interested in discussing four-door saloons, but for now I am. Looking at the European luxury car designs set to either hit the market or begin development in 2009, you’d think that they hadn’t noticed that their biggest market — the US — was in deep economic crisis. The US auto industry’s on its knees, and European imports are gathering dust in dealerships across North America. October 2008 was the worst month for car sales in the US since World War II.
European manufacturers of premium cars are already feeling the pinch, and not just in the US market. Overall new-car registration in the UK has sharply declined since June, and annual sales which were down a mere 1.56% in the first half of 2008, had plummeted to a wheel-buckling 23% by October. Both BMW and Daimler have issued profit warnings this year, BMW profits slumping by 63% in the third quarter, sparking plans by the Bavarian giant to take 65,000 units out of its 2008 production. Mini, arguably the world’s most successful small(ish) premium car has cut shifts at its UK plant, as has Aston Martin. Bently and Land Rover have also throttled back production. The squeeze is being felt all the way across to Japan where Toyota’s European sales are down by 92,000 units, spurring it to reduce output on its luxury marque, Lexus.
However, none of this carmageddon seems to be crumpling future plans within the super-luxury niche of European car manufacturers. Porsche’s new five-door, the Panamera, is already in the steel and being drooled over from Top Gear to Car magazine. It’s set to hit the market in early 2009. Aston Martin has no less than five projects earmarked for the coming year, and three of them involve brand new models — the four-door Rapide, the 700bhp One-77, and the resurrection of Lagonda. Lamborghini’s own four-door, the Estoque, is still a show car, and while production is estimated to be years away, development will begin in 2009.
The US economic slump has triggered a global financial crisis that will certainly dial back spending habits in the luxury sector, affecting more than just cars. Or will it? Aston Martin’s boss, Dr Ulrich Bez, doesn’t seem to think so. Bez believes that the more exclusive a product is, the less it will be influenced by its environment. “The product has to deliver something really special and unique to a customer.” Sure. Like a learjet. And we all know how many of those are being snapped up today. So how special and unique are these new offerings by Europe’s luxury car brands? Continue reading
Well, obviously you have to have yourself a Mini. Next on the list would be willing partner and a dark lane. Yes, in that order.
All of my driving life, I’ve had practical cars; from the Datsun B210 Sunny I got my driving license with in 1989 to the Ford Laser I gave up last year. In between there’s been a Nissan FB14 Sunny, a Nissan Presea, a Toyota Corolla and a Toyota Corona. They were all nice, decent, reliable vehicles (OK, maybe not that Datsun). And dull as mud. None of them ever really appealed to me, or made me feel affectionate about them, except for the Presea which I drove for three years. At least the latter wasn’t as common as the others, and had a bit of a stance about it. I drove that car from Unawatuna to Trinco and from Colombo to Batti with very few complaints. But also with very few thrills. None of them were over 1.6-litre, and they were all four-door saloons with lots of boot space. The only car that stood out over that period was a bright yellow (and I mean bright) first generation Kia Rio hatch that I drove for a few months, and the less said about that the better, except that it took off from a standing start like a cat with chillie powder up its arse.
I didn’t own any of these cars, because I was determined not to own anything so mind-numbingly boring. So I rented them. The closest I came to owning one was being married to someone who owned a car. It was a Mazda 323 hatch, and I guess I owned it, technically, since it was my wife’s (and when you’re married you share everything right, especially headaches), but I liked to think of it as my car-in-law. When I got married and moved to the land of the autobahn, I was thrilled at the prospect of buying a good, solid, and fast-as-scheisse German machine. Fantasies of Audi TTs and BMW Z4s were always just wet dreams, but a surely a Golf GT wasn’t out of range? These ideas were quickly banished by my German wife’s determination to stick with a Japanese car (the sacrilege) which had better after-sales service. So as I watched little old ladies whizz past me, doing 160kmph in their Miatas, I determined never to buy a car until I could afford one I really really liked. Continue reading