Rover 2000 SC - Alfa Romeo
Giulia - Austin 1800 - NSU Ro 80
Blue Sky Thinking
Citroen in the line-up here, but itīs thanks to the French manufacturerīs DS
model that each of these latter-day rivals came into being. In the years before
the DSīs arrival, the executive on the way up was unlikely to get very excited
by the technical prowess of the virtually all of the cars available to him. Only
the Jowett Javelin had given a hint of what might have be, with a lightweight
flat-four engine and torsion-bar suspension, but it turned out to be too much
In 1955 the
DS broke the mould and gave the motoring world a taste of what new technology
could do, even if many potential buyers chose to peer warily but intrigued from
a safe distance. So, while no other manufacturers rushed to produce their own
DS, what Citroen had done was open the door for other free thinkers to try out
It was this
new freedom that resulted in the four executive saloons gathered here, all
launched during a five-years period in the Sixties by manufacturers with very
different and exciting visions of modernity, but all convinced of the need and
demand for radical change. Our man with the sharp suit and winning boardroom
manner was spoiled for choice. Each new carīs features created a different round
of bragging rights to be aired in the golf or country club bar. Some have become
the building blocks of of todayīs executive toys; otherīs havenīt. But the fun
back in the Sixties, when change in all areas of life was almost compulsory,
surely came from not knowing.
First up was
the Alfa Giulia in 1962. It looks quite conventional until you flick through the
Daily Express Review of the 1962 Motor Show and see what it was up
against. Most rivals still wore tail fins and headlamps set high in the wings.
Look at the Giuliaīs subtle curves and undulations and see how its
grille-mounted headlamps allow a more aerodynamic front end, which with a
steeply raked (for the time) windscreen and chopped-off Kamm tail combined to
produce a drag co-efficient figure of just 0.33. Advertisements boasted that it
was "the car designed by the wind". 20 years before Audi made a lot of fuss
about its super-bland 100īs 0.30 Cd figure.
excitement lurked beneath. There was still a live rear axle, but it was mounted
on coil, not leaf, springs. Up front was an aluminium twin-cam engine and
five-speed gearbox at a time when aluminium cylinder heads seemed exotic and
Ford had only just raised its game to four speeds for the range-topping Zodiac.
All but the first Giulias got all-wheel disc brakes, too, at a time when
installing them at the front was still novelty.
boasted so many technological advances that as a nod to the DS it was dubbed the
"Solihull Citroen". This was a real shock coming from a company that was as
Establishment as the BBC and bowler hats, and hadnīt done anything exciting
since launching the Land Rover 15 years earlier. Sleek styling slimmed down the
front-end and set pairs of tiny twin headlamps in a rectangular grille. The
stylists rather lost the courage of their convictions at the rear by retaining
sloped-down tail fins.
the P6 stole a big idea from the DS in having a strong monocoque structure on
which all the outer panels were bolted. But, and again mirroring Citroen, Rover
sparked disappointment by fitting a somewhat crude and thrashy four-cylinder
engine rather than the six the model deserved. Redemption would arrive in 1968
with an alloy 3.5-litre V8. Also given four-wheel disc brakes (inboard at the
rear), the P6 trumped the Giulia by having semi-independent rear suspension with
a sophisticated de Dion tube location to keep the wheels vertical in corners.
called the Austin 1800 (or its Morris twin) sleek. Designed by Alec Issigonis
with a smidgeon of input from Pininfarina, it was nicknamed "Landcrab" after a
chance remark by an Australian journalist whoīd viewed the rally versionīs
sideways antics from e helicopter. Pininfarina, BMCīs regular design
collaborator, was so disappointed that it built its Berlina Aerodinamica styling
exercise on an 1800 floorpan to show how the car could have looked. BMC fans
still weep at the sight of that lost opportunity.
Landcrab did have was acres of space. Thereīs more room in the cabin than in a
Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, yet the car is a foot shorter than the P6 and about
the same width, courtesy of the same front-wheel-drive packaging miracle that
Issigonis had worked on the Mini.
The 1800 had
fantastic ride quality thanks to the high-tech Hydrolastic suspension debuted
the previous year on the 1100. After that the Landcrab ran out of party tricks,
with drum brakes at the rear and power from a 1.8-litre version of BMCīs
venerable all-iron B-series engine. Eight years would pass before the arrival of
an overhead-cam six-cylinder 2.2-litre version. It was by far the cheapest of
these four cars and sold well.
And then we
come to the brave new world of the NSU Ro 80. Check out Claus Lutheīs
wedge-shaped styling, which still looks modern and comes close to the Alfaīs
slipperiness with a Cd of 0.34. Those clever lines, so far ahead of their time,
did much to disguise the Ro 80īs size about 300mm longer and 75mm wider than the
the twin-rotor Wankel engine, appearing for the first time in a volume saloon.
Compact and light, it could have changed the world if it hadnīt been for its
prodigious thirst and comparative fragility. Other novelties included a
three-speed semi-automatic gearbox - manual shift, no clutch pedal - front wheel
drive, which was still a way off for most larger cars, and inboard front discs
with calipers bolted directly to the transmission casing. Another nod to the
future comes from the space-saving front and rear independent MacPherson strut
the Ro 80 exactly the right dynamic qualities for an executive saloon: a
sporting but not firm ride with fluid handling, good steering feel and plenty of
grip, with a remarkable absence of either wind or road noise. All that gives its
age away are the thin-rimmed steering wheel and the amount of body roll
generated by enthusiastic cornering, though this always looks more dramatic than
it feels from the driverīs seat.
is sober and functional, but not unpleasant. Cloths and vinyl are good quality
and the seats are comfortable and supportive. All the better to enjoy the Ro
80īs performance: 115 bhp doesnīt sound much today, but itīs enough to make this
the fastest car here, and the manner of delivery makes it feel even faster. Once
you get past what feels like turbo lag under initial acceleration, thereīs a
wonderful linear smoothness to the power, with no drop-off all the way to the
rev limiter. What seemed like a shortage of gear ratios starts to make sense;
the Ro 80 doesnīt need any more, and once you stop trying to prod the
non-existent clutch pedal you can enjoy the shiftīs speed and smoothness.
looks small next to the others, but near-vertical sides give it more interior
space than you expect, and it will accomodate five people as long as they arenīt
too well-built. But how much does that really matter? This is a car for the
sharp end of the executive market - in effect the BMW 3-series of this quartet.
The Giulia is
all about the driving. It isnīt a car you get out of with a knotted brow,
pondering the wonkily stitched seam on the dash-top, the cheap vinyl door trims,
or what those four identical switches in the console are for. No, you get out
singing the praises of the smooth and communicative steering, the eager revving
and flexible engine, sweet shifting five-speed box and the racy-exhaust note
that eggs you on into making full use of all these qualities. Itīs hard to
believe Giulias were used as taxis in Italy, but you can bet no-one got to the
has its flaws, but it drives like the premium product it was priced as, and has
a spec that reads like the blueprint for many Nineties sporting saloons and put
most contemporary sports cars to shame.
something you can say of the Austin 1800. But however you feel about its looks,
donīt be fooled into thinking it the polar opposite of the Alfa. The driverīs
seat might feel more comfortable than an old Chesterfield armchair, but these
cars were rallied, and once you start driving you realise why. The engine note
and transmission whine is pure Austin 1100, but the Landcrab feels more grown up.
With the well-planted feel of a wheel at each corner and light, direct steering
you can chuck this car about all you want. All it lacks is the power to exploit
those abilities. Add another 20 bhp and a fifth gear, and this neglected classic
would need serious re-evaluation.
Itīs a shame
more wasnīt made of all the cabin. Thereīs more parcel shelf than dash, little
more than a strip speedometer and a couple of switches and lights. A Morris
Minor indicator stalk does nothing for the ambience. And sadly the 1800īs trump
card, its suspension, proved a blind alley. The Hydrolastic system is at its
best in a big car, but was never widely adopted. And transverse engines are
still far from the norm in executive cars, this sector likes its rear-wheel
Cue the Rover
2000 with conventional front-engine/rear-wheel-drive set-up. Back in the Sixties
it cut a real dash, with plenty of toys and technology but reassuringly
old-world leather seats. Like the Austin thereīs a strip speedometer, but this
one looks like an overgrown Motorola radio, wholly in keeping with the strips of
wood-effect Formica and the joys of a clear green plastic headlamp knob that
glows in the dark.
Tick the box
marked short, precise gearshift, then discover the Roverīs uncannily smooth ride
on rough roads, which comes with little compromise to handling. Remember to be
slow in and fast out of corners so keep its poise and youīll find yourself
piloting the 2000 with a featherlight touch on the wheel. Thereīs not quite
enough power in the heaviest car here, but Rover dealt with that by offering TC
(twin-carburettor) and 3500 models. Whichever you go for, only buy a really good
one. In the past Iīve been underwhelmed by these cars, but this well-sorted
example changed my opinion.
A great car
of its time then, but beyond its image as an executive saloon icon it probably
had less influence than the rest of this group on what came next. Other than the
V8 engine, Rover discarded the entire P6 when it replaced it with the SD1 in
1976. The others proved more influential. Take the NSUīs shape and suspension,
add the Austinīs space and transverse-engined front-wheel drive, then finish off
with the Alfaīs spirited engine and steering feel and you come up close to a
But the car
that clearly stands out as being for the future is the Ro 80. If only the rotary
engine hadnīt been the wrong answer. At least on this planet.
/ UK 2012