It’s always good to encounter an old friend unexpectedly. Last week, on some good driving roads in the North Downs, I saw an immaculate late ’70s Porsche 928. The 928 was new when I arrived in England (in 1980). At the time, it was one of the world’s fastest cars and, of far greater importance, one of the world’s most meritorious.
It looked spaceship-modern, deeply curvaceous at a time when most cars were rectilinear boxes. It had a big powerful V8, when most engines were weenie, strangled as much by their conservative design as the inhibitions of timorous engineers. Car bosses were cowered by the 1973 oil ‘crisis’ into a widespread belief that performance cars were dead. They were grim times, the late ’70s. The talk was of electric cars, LPG, reduced speed limits and the demise of the supercar. The 928 was very possibly the bravest riposte of all, a noble contrarian.
It had a magnificent big capacity V8, handled brilliantly and rode well (the latter qualities helped by its new Pirelli P7 tyres). Yet it didn’t sell. The 928 became one of those overlooked orphans. It soon slipped from the public conscious just it soon slipped from Porsche’s model range.
Underdogs: why they get under your skin
That lovely 928 got me thinking about the other great ‘unsung hero’ cars. I came up with a list in my head: of meritorious cars that never achieved the respect they deserved when new, and are now rarely considered in the rollcall of automotive greats.
The other heroes – from NSX to Focus
Perchance, soon after sighting the 928, I saw a Rover 75. This benighted car had no chance: at its launch at the 1998 Birmingham Motor Show even the company’s big boss was casting doubts on Rover’s capability. Yet the 75 looked good, was a car of uncommonly good manners, and summed the historic and worthy qualities of Rover more succinctly than any Rover-badged product since the P6 of the ’60s and ’70s. It was a far better car than its contemporary, the Jaguar S-type (poorly received when new and even worse in retrospect).
To my list I would add the Jaguar XJ6 X350 – the first Jaguar to feature a lightweight aluminium monocoque body. This was truly trendsetting, as much a marker for future technologies as the Toyota Prius (all makers now use aluminium to cut body weight, although none do so as elegantly as Jaguar). Yet the X350 – with its carryover style – is now mostly remembered as ‘an old man’s car’, further evidence that today too much emphasis is placed on the shape of the bottle rather than the contents.
How time changes our views
There are many more unsung heroes: the Honda NSX (one of the biggest step-ahead supercars and one of the most trend setting – it begat the breed of fast cars that were also easy to drive). It was cruelly under-estimated when new (including, I’m not proud to admit, by me).
There’s the Ford Focus Mk1 – commercially successful but not celebrated with the verve that is deserves (find me a better everyday hatch that is more fun to drive!). Many Mondeos, equally, could be added to the list (better to drive than many contemporary BMWs, and better to steer than almost all Audis). So could the first Lexus, the gloriously refined LS400 saloon, cruelly ignored by badge-conscious Europeans.
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