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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: January 31, 2012 @ 3:10 pm

    At the last gasp…

    Neil Briscoe

    It’s funny when you find a circularity in history. A sense of events being, if not pre-ordained, then certainly repetitive. Henry Ford said (actually he didn’t really) that history was bunk, but we all know that those who fail to learn its lessons are destined to repeat its mistakes.

    I often think that the car world is in many ways the larger world in microcosm and there is one odd little repetitive historical oddity that always catches my eye. That car makers often make one of their best-ever models just moments before the receivers start measuring up for the estate agents.

    It has happened so many times. Most famously, with Rover, it happened twice. In 1976, Rover produced the SD1 which was, until BMW launched the E60 5 Series almost three decades later, the most avant-garde executive car of all time. A hatchback in a world of saloons with a nose that paid obvious and gorgeous homage to the Ferrari Daytona is was striking and, in V8 Vitesse form, extremely good to drive. This was just months after its parent company, British Leyland, had gone embarrassingly bust and had to be bailed out by the British government.

    In 2000 it all happened again. Under then-owner BMW, Rover gave us, in 1998, the 75. And whatever you felt about its occasionally folksy wood-and-leather cabin, there was no doubting that it was a fine car and, in MG ZT form, a sharp handling one too. But then, two years after it debut, BMW bailed, the management took over and it all went very, very pear shaped.

    You could write that off as typical of a company that, since the sixties, had been poorly managed and often desperately under-funded. That sort of pattern was bound to repeat itself.

    But others have done it too. Lancia gave us, in 1993 the Delta Integrale Evoluzione II and rarely have the world’s car enthusiasts taken quite such a collective intake of breath. It may have been a touch boxy and inelegant, but the Delta was such a powerhouse of turbocharged grunt and 4WD grip that, on all but the smoothest, straightest road, contemporary Ferraris just wouldn’t see which way it went. Two years after its debut, Lancia stopped making right hand drive models, and retreated to an oddly-styled life in mainland Europe, only returning in 2011 wearing a Chrysler false moustache and glasses.

    Opel came perilously close to doing the same thing recently. After decades of underwhelming family saloons under various nameplates, many of them Vectra, we got the Insignia; a car of beauty, quality and not a little dynamic flair. And just as it was launched, General Motors began to implode into bankruptcy and Opel spent many anxious months being dangled as a potential sell-off, before being saved and folded back into ‘New’ GM at almost literally the last possible moment.

    And of course, there’s Saab. Now, I wouldn’t suggest for a minute that the 2010 9-5 was the best Saab ever, but it was certainly the best Saab made since the total General Motors takeover of the nineties. It looks good (especially from the rear, at night with those eerie full-width neon lights), has an unspeakably massive cabin and boot at was actually pretty good value for money. It may not have been the last word in ride and handling deportment, nor interior design and flair but I, for one, liked it. It was fabulously comfy, had an exceptionally cool altimeter-style digital speedo and was one of those cars that just made you feel safe and cocooned on a wet night, on an unfamiliar road.

    Of course, there is a simple explanation; the dead cat bounce. Just as a bottom-rung Premiership football club will often put on a Liverpool-under-Bob-Paisley like display for their first game under a new (but equally doomed) manager, so car makers often put that extra bit of effort into a car that they know could well be their last. The Insignia is proof that, just occasionally, those efforts can pay off. Mostly though, it’s the relegation zone for you, son.

    Meanwhile, there’s another affect in effect. That so often, the last car ever made by a once-beloved car manufacturer is the last memory most of us will have of it. It’s why I get an odd watery-eyed feeling when I see a Rover 75 glide past, and I suspect it’ll be the same with the rare Saab 9-5 that I’ll spy on the roads from now on. A combination of all-this-were-fields-once-lad and what might have been.

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