LJK Setright's favourite cars revealed: CAR+ archive, October 1992

Published: 09 October 1992

► LJK Setright on his favourite cars
► Written for our 30th anniversary in 1992 
► One of the hits from our CAR+ archive

LJK Setright, lawyer, self-taught engineer and concert-standard clarinettist and singer, joined CAR in 1965, and has become its most erudite and famous contributor. Here he looks at the best and worst cars of the past 30 years

Christopher Fry was as right as his own thoughtful caveat allows to be. Everybody on the staff of CAR, and on every other motoring magazine, knows that every reader also knows but wants to read reiterated for his own validation: the best cars of the past 30 years, the noble cars which have illuminated this magazine throughout its 30 years of fulsome enthusiasm and carping criticism, were the V12 Lamborghinis, the flat-six Porsches, the GTi hatchbacks, and any two-seaters bearing the name Ferrari. The worst cars of the same period could with equal ease be identified. When I was singled out to discuss the best and worst cars of CAR’s time, it was doubtless assumed that I should find as much cause as all my colleagues to rhapsodise over the known great and noble, and to stigmatise the known mean and nasty.

Not I.

The only important thing achieved by any Lamborghini during the whole of this period was, in the case of the original Miura, to be painted orange. Like so many phenomena of the 1960s, this opened the eyes of the people to possibilities of which they had never dreamed. Few people could aspire to owning or even to driving such a car, but soon anyone could have a car that colour. First it was the sporting Fiats, then Alfas, Minis and the rest followed suit until eventually even the Skoda appeared in that hot and dusty shade redolent of burnt sienna.

So much for the Miura. I still think the best Lamborghini was the first, but all too soon it became bloated and softened for America; and then along came the Miura intent on icon-bashing, and that was that. The little Urraco as originally conceived (with a clever engine and a six-speed gearbox_ eventually came out as a severely compromised affair, and although its handling and cornering prowess was outstanding I still had to struggle hard to enjoy it. With Ferrari, too, it was downhill all the way, impossible though that may seem hen so many early Ferraris were so abysmal; and if it has been uphill all the way with the Porsche 911, that is only because it was so dreadfully wrong at the start.

If only the marketing men (especially in England) had not been so snooty about the so-called VW-Porsche, the 914/916, it might have survived to enjoy the development that the 911 received instead, and could have become the most admirable sporting car of the century. We cannot be sure, however, for Porsche development can go in erroneous ways; when the original 928 became the 928S it also became (despite that error of judgement which denied the 928 ever being a proper four-seater) what was probably the best car in the world. The early 928 had come as a blessed relief: it scorned the Americans’ guilty rejection of the V8, it made a mockery of the politicians’ sycophantic repression of high performance, and it brought curves back into a world of styling that had been too full of straight lines and sharp angles. Yet one cannot make the best car in the world if one is greedy for volume, since that involves cultivating a different class of customers. As a result of listening to the wrong clientele, the 928 was, from the s2 onwards, progressively spoiled; it is hard to keep faith with a firm that has made such mistakes as Porsche has.

He outlines the best and worst cars since CAR magazine's began

It is harder to challenge the enthusiasm of this magazine and its readers for the GTi category. An abundance of such cars trailing, if only chronologically, in the wake of the original VW Golf GTi, has made practicality and affordability with performance available to multitudes who might never otherwise have discovered half the joys of driving. For all that, I still dislike the ugly little original Golf and lament that the first GTi was not its elegant, delicate sibling, the Scirocco. Even that little car was not a patch on the Fiat 128 Coupé; but the Fiat was denied the development it deserved, while the Scirocco and Golf were encouraged and prospered.

Never mind the 128 Coupé; it was the basic 128 saloon that mattered. Indeed it mattered more than any other car of the past 30 years, by establishing a format and a set of behavioural standards to which most of the world’s cars now adhere. It was definitive in its engine design, in its transmission layout, and in a host of mechanical refinements of detail – such as the spigot mounting of wheels to ensure the concentricity demanded by the radial-ply tyres which were then just beginning their takeover of the world – but it was in its refinement of suspension and handling that the 128 brought front-wheel drive to maturity.

What a force for good was Fiat in those days! The 124, pioneer of load-dependent anti-lock braking, was imperturbable. The elegant 124 Coupé had unbelievably good roadholding. The Bertone-bodied Dino 2.4 had superb responses. The surpassingly elegant Pininfarina-bodied 130 Coupé was a sensual delight, so serene in its swift sure-footed quartering of the country that mere performance figures could be dismissed as trivia. I admired them all – just as I was later to revel in the X1/9 and appreciate the Uno – and would have happily preferred any of them to any of its rivals. For a decade, Fiat was the technological leader of the industry, instigator or embodier of all that was happening of immediate important; but the really important things had happened just before CAR was born, and may indeed explain why CAR was born.

There was the E-type Jaguar, for example, making its debut just months before the magazine. That was another car which, like the Porsche 928, was never so marvellous as when it was new – but what new notions, of what was possible, of what was available and affordable, the E-type bred! And what old prejudices it shattered.

The Lotus Type 14 Elite, most beautiful of cars and most expressive of Colin Chapman’s fatal combination of philosophy and misanthropy, must have shattered as many illusions as icons, but all Chapman’s early work was a brilliant approach to an intelligent future that has been a long time coming. Had he not been as ruthless at the desk as he was at the drawing board, he and Lotus might have shared the most heartening of success stories in the history of the industry. If we can forget his business methods, we may remember him for the wholesale revision of chassis design which, in conjunction with a few other newly established embodiments of good old ideas – disc brakes, auto-transmissions, high-octane gasolines, radial-ply tyres, synthetic rubbers, the era had a thrill in every idea from atomic power to zirconium alloys – freed us from the shackles of conventional design and directed what was at last the modern car onto new and desirable paths.

The Americans then could have accomplished it as well as anybody. The Chevrolet Corvair of 1959 had shown GM engineers to be oozing with reformatory zeal, and proper management of that unfortunate car’s development might have brought the New World once again to redressing the balance of the Old. Instead, when the opportunist Ralph Nader made the Corvair that was to make him a folk here, GM’s blundering businessmen chose not to fight the good fight but to combat the enemy with the calumny and chicanery that were his own weapons, and the whole business ended in an inglorious rout which has echoed down all the years this magazine has been in business.

There were, to be fair, a few cars of exceptional importance which brought new possibilities under our scrutiny in the years after CAR dropped its Small. Most seductive was the NSU Ro80, which its compact Wankel engine, allowed to be all sorts of things to which it could otherwise not have aspired for another 10 years. That was in 1967; three years later there were two new mental stimulants from Citroen, the SM and the GS. The former was, in retrospect, no more than a fascinating demonstration of all the things that needed to be done and could in due course be properly done when electronic micropressors became cheap enough. The latter became important because its shape was to be copied for the bodywork of all those multitudes of cars which were mechanically aggrandised Fiat 128s under the skin; but the GS was in fact a very good and very clever car, paving the way for the bigger CX which made its untimely debut just as the fuel crisis took hold. Each was in its own category the most modern car of its time, and for a long time would remain so; each might fairly be described as the thinking man’s car – and together they demonstrated that there were not many customers who qualified.

October 1992 marks CAR's 30th birthday

The car which gave us most furiously cause to think was Jensen’s 1966 prodigy, the FF. Was ever a car more eloquent in its demonstration of more things than it set out to show?  The staggering improvements offered by its sensitively modulated four-wheel-drive system in handling, in roadholding, in traction, in anti-lock braking and in overall safety, were comprehensively proved. The conventional two-wheel-drive Interceptor was by contrast a rotten car, but it looked almost identical to the FF and no less handsome, and was a lot cheaper – so people brought the Interceptor, which should never have been put on the market at all, and we had to wait 13 agonising years before the proper virtues of 4wd were once again presented by the magnificent Audi Quattro.

What the Quattro could do was beyond any but academic argument. What it led to remains beyond any but prophetic vision, for its influence is still spreading. There have been very few truly great cars in the past 30 years, but the Quattro is one of them.

There have certainly been several cars that were notably good if not truly great. The original Jaguar XJ6 was one such: distinctly better the current XJ6 (better identified as the XJ40) undoubtedly is, but it is scarcely as remarkable today as the 1968 car was for a similar number of years after its launch. Boasting the world’s best and quietest ride, together with enough performance and style to justify its place in what Jaguar owners like to think of as society, this beautifully low and gracefully proportioned saloon made superfluous any four-seater that was more expensive.

Two-seaters and others with sporting pretensions had to be assessed differently. The one I admired was the Maserati Khamsin which, during that period in which the manufacturer was linked with Citroen, employed all the French firm’s devices to make the steering, the brakes, and particularly the clutch manageable and tolerable and supremely controllable. Providing such subtle and substantial servo assistance to the clutch pedal was more than Citroen ever did in its own cars, and since the Maserati had a surprisingly easy gearshift considering its engine’s output, I was able to comment that the handsome Khamsin deserved praise not only as a fast and competent road-burner but also as the only muscle-car that a frail old lady could drive effectively.

There is a deplorable folly in the idea of a ‘man’s car’, one which demands strength and stamina of the driver. In the very early days of motor racing, when races lasted 10 hours if not two or more days, several drivers (and their riding mechanics) were killed because they grew too exhausted to haul the wheel of a noise-heavy car around enough to negotiate an impending corner. What, pray, should have been the correct response to the problem: shorten the races, improve the cars, or breed stronger drivers?

Some people, sporty young road-testers among them, have still not recognised the fallacy of creating or buying a machine to work for you and then doing much of the work yourself. There is nothing wrong in making a specialised car that calls for driving skill and judgement: that is implicit in the idea of a supercar, and is one aspect of the type to which I do not object. Skill and judgement can too readily be eroded by fatigue, however, making it all the more important that such cars (like all others) should not be hard work to drive. Apart from the Honda NSX, I cannot think of another supercar that is not objectionable on this score, quite apart from displaying the inanity and obscenity commonly infesting the breed. All of them, from the 1962 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray to the 1992 Jaguar XJ220, may be dismissed as mere toys, the hushed but awesomely purposeful dignity of a Bristol 411 20 years ago, or a Bentley Turbo R today, reveals supercars to be downright juvenile.

If there is an exception to be made, it is the Renault Alpine; but it does not really constitute an exception, because it is not really a supercar. The modesty of its price, its specification, and – by supercar standards only – its performance, redeem it from the accusations to be made against the others. Where they offend by their effrontery, the Renault ingratiates by its modesty.

Many another modest car has done the same in our times. A car does not have to be a Bristol or a Bentley to be business-like; it need not be great to be good. Perhaps the Ford Cortina (roughly coeval with the Fiat 124) was neither though it did set new standards for heating and ventilation; but when Ford made an E variant of the Mark 2 Cortina we had a crisp, well behaved and lively car that was smart enough to take anywhere.

Vauxhalls in those days were never crisp, but the Viva was sweet, and the Magnum version of it (powered by the immensely strong and durable 2.3-litre engine which was one of the joint pioneers, with Fiat, of the toothed belt for driving an overhead camshaft) earned my respect. I was one of a three-man crew which drove a magnum estate across Europe from side to side (Lisbon to Istanbul) and top to bottom (12,000ft to sea level) in five roasting August days of 1973, and then drove the 2000 miles from Istanbul to London, in 36 hours – altogether an arduous exercise in which the car never faltered or put a foot wrong.

The tyres on that Vauxhall were Pirelli CN36SM, the first of the new generation of nylon-bandaged radials which led at about that time to the P7 and P6. It is impossible to overstate the importance of the Pirelli development, which at last allowed the radial-ply carcass to work as it should: every other manufacturer has adopted the same construction, liberating road users from all manner of doubts and compromises and prevarications which had hitherto made motoring an often perplexing and too often dangerous enterprise.

‘Often perplexing and too often dangerous,’ was how I judged most French cars other than Citroen’s in the 1960s and early ‘70s but I was so pleasantly surprised as to be almost enchanted by the Peugeot 305 I also developed a soft spot for the Peugeot 505, which was never known at its best in Britain because its best variant, powered by the lightweight V6 Douvrin engine, was never imported.

Lightweight engines of generous displacement are always a good idea, and it was a shame that America did not persevere with the numerous good examples it confected around 1960. One of them, only mildly corrupted for English manufacture, is still in production; and how impressive the original Rover SD1 seemed when the V8 was unleashed! How impressive, too, the Range Rover when it was new tearing around and across and up and down the roads and fields and acclivities of mine-pocked Cornwall. Alas, both were spoiled later, but in their youth they were glorious.

Other cars began badly but grew better with the years. The first Seat Toledo felt horrid, and I faded its brakes in very few miles; the launch party was lavish, and it was just a shame that I could find little good to say of the car, yet today it is quite a decent little thing. For all I know, today’s Lada may be good, too, but the early 1600 – a despicably clumsy and bodger-built Russian corruption of what had been a thoroughly sound Fiat – was, in 1979, the last in my experience of really nasty cars.

There have been numerous others that I heartily disliked – the Pontiac Fiero, the BMW 2002 and early 5-series, the De Lorean, the Alfa Romeo 33, the current VW Passat, and all diesels –but there are people who, for reasons that I would not dream of exploring, would not agree that they were bad. Almost every road car from Lotus could be bracketed somewhere in the range from disappointing to disgraceful; the exceptions were the original Europa, which I could not drive at all because there was not enough room in it, and the S2 Elan which felt like a fantasy, went like a dream, and was the only Lotus to give me no trouble. None of them made me as angry as the Hillman Avenger, which grew suddenly rough and unpleasant beyond 70mph and seemed the deliberate embodiment of all the bigotry and cynicism accompanying the speed limit which, when it blanketed the Land of UK in 1966, was supposed to be a temporary experiment. Oddly enough, the Avenger had quite good suspension and could be made into an effective circuit-racer, one in which Mr Contributor Bell enjoyed a good deal of sporting success.

Whenever its value in people, sporting success does no good to cars. All the chassis developments of 30 years of racing and rallying have failed to produce anything to match or even to compare with the delicacy and precision, the agility and stability, the fantastic competence and the daily renewable delight, of the car that twerps by the hundred in showrooms by the score have dismissively sold to well heeled old ladies for their shopping trips. The four-wheel-steered Honda Prelude is quite emphatically the nicest of all cars to drive; the grudging acceptance and pursuit of four-wheel steering by numerous other car manufacturers (though most of them have yet to understand it properly, and the 1992 Prelude hints that even Honda has lost sight of some of its original ideas) confirms my opinion that this car is fit to rank with the Audi Quattro, the Fiat 128, and the hydropneumatic Citroens, as an important precursor of a new and improved future, a car at once great and good.

The Setright years: October 1992

By LJK Setright

Thinker, aesthete, engineering evangelist, our most celebrated contributor over three decades