Rover 2000 SC - Alfa Romeo Giulia - Austin 1800 - NSU Ro 80

Blue Sky Thinking

Thereīs no 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 too soon.

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 new ideas.

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.

Greater 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.

Roverīs P6 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.

Structurally, 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.

No-one ever 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.

What the 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 P6.

Then thereīs 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 suspension.

This gives 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.

The interior 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.

The Giulia 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 airport late.

The Giulia 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.

Thatīs not 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 drive.

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 Saab 9-5.

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.

Classic Cars / UK 2012