Sunday, June 21, 2009

MegaGamma: Rallying call to reality

Fighting their way clear of the modern-car quagmire, ItalDesign have shown that the alternative need not be a bitter pill. Ian Fraser reports after sampling this sweet new medicine

From CAR Magazine, August 1978

Megagamma (by retromotoring)

THE CAR, AS IT STANDS RIGHT NOW, is rather like a sci-fi film in which a large family of space travellers is trapped inside a capsule that has landed on an unknown planet. Although the travellers are in-breeding and amplifying their own genetic shortcomings as well as feeding on each other's flesh, no one is game to open the hatch to find out if there is an inhabitable environment outside - just in case there isn't. They all know that they should - and eventually must - open up because their position is untenable. At this point the plot should throw up the hero who, against all opposition and indecision, releases the locks and steps outside. The other voyagers, unconvinced and unprepared, simply slam shut the hatch and get on with their own private downfall, unable to cope with the newness that they keep telling themselves they always wanted.

The real-life automotive script is no different. Everyone knows that, despite the oddities and novelties that each generation produces, nothing fundamental is really changing. Sometimes it's drummed up as the brave new world but is generally just a regurgitation of the same old theme of painful mistakes being doomed to perpetuity. That's why the plot needs - and, indeed, has - heroes. The heroes keep emerging, some more ignored than others because their 'come on out and join me' prattle is not impressive.

Now, though, there is a new hero with a thoroughly impressive and convincing argument. We still don’t know whether it's strong enough to shake the others fully but it is the best case so far presented. Typically, the way out comes from a design organisation that has seen through the car and is not totally committed to it in the abstract sense. ItalDesign, though better known for cars than anything else, also design furniture, flying machine interiors and work in various other areas. From this perch they are apparently able to see the car in its truer purpose, and free from the awkward symbolism in which it is emeshed. Thus, the MegaGamma, which made its debut at Turin this spring, is a plea for rationality based on the civilised transportation requirements of convenience and comfort. It is part of the argument that there is room for only two types of vehicle: the low, fast sports car and the convenient, comfortable saloon, epitomised by the MegaGamma concept. Anything in between would essentially be a compromise serving neither master satisfactorily.

Ideal worlds don’t come as easily as that, though. The marketing men, who are the real prisoners in the capsule, the ones who argue against the change which would diminish their authority, are unlikely to relinquish their hold or be flexible enough to visualise the potential of uncompromised concepts. In a commercially orientated and inspired environment, the MegaGamma is an unsuppressed statement that had to be made. It is a strong statement, too strong to be ignored by anyone with a modicum of commonsense, an impassioned cry in the metallic wilderness.

At the Turin Show, the MegaGamma was politely received but obviously not clearly understood. ItalDesign report 'some interest' but no indication of any manufacturer proposing to take up the design for a production vehicle. Which is an enormous shame, for the MegaGamma is not only a profound statement but also a mobile reality, as we have since discovered. Based entirely on Lancia Gamma saloon mechanical components, the MegaGamma is a going concern, albeit a costly, hand—built one, heavier and more elaborate than it would be as a productionised vehicle. As with all ItalDesign vehicles, the MegaGamma would be relatively easy to put into production utilising the firm's expertise in manufacturing techniques (quite an amount of their energies are now devoted to designing production facilities for a variety of industries).

Although it looks relatively large, the MegaGamma is really quite small. Sitting on the production Gamma’s standard 8ft 9in wheelbase, the ItalDesign car is a foot shorter overall, the reduction occuring at the rear end, where there is almost no overhang. The height, however, is increased by a shade under 10in. A two-box structure, rather like the VW Golf, to which it bears a striking resemblance from some angles, particularly three—quarter rear, the MegaGamma is far from being a square—rigger. The bonnet slopes steeply and, in fact, just clears the tops of the engine ancillaries, while the deep windscreen is steeply raked. There are oblong headlamps and a vaguely Lancia grille, while the almost circumferential bumper-bar houses fog lamps just above the chin spoiler. It’s a hatchback, of course, although the high strengthening lip means that luggage must be heaved high before it finds a resting place.

The rear window has a wash/wipe system, while the deep windscreen is swept by a single wiper. Electrically adjustable external mirrors supplement the quite normal interior rear-view arrangements. ItalDesign alloy wheels help relieve the weight of matt—black below bumper bar height, itself a necessary adjunct to break up what would otherwise be an excessively deep—sided appearance. The side windows are themselves deep, their sills being about a third the way down a normal occupant's torso, thus giving the interior an essential light, airy appearance.

The irony of the MegaGamma is that the interior is exactly what the vehicle is all about, but the exterior appearance disproportionately influences the acceptability of the whole. So, while the exterior of the MegaGamma could almost be described as definitive, the cabin tends to be an exaggeration, at least as far as equipment is concerned. It's deliberate, of course, intended to separate the MegaGamma from the comparative austerity of the not dissimilar Alfa Romeo—based taxi programme (Volvo did one, too) executed in conjunction with the New York Museum of Modern Art some two
years ago. In retrospect, the taxi project was probably a mistake, putting the shadow of a commercial vehicle application ahead of the more challenging goal of advanced private transportation.

Compensation comes in the form of a thoroughly exotic interior harmoniously combining traditionalism with the electronics of the age. All four doors open wide and present the occupants with both illusion and realism. The illusion is that the cabin floor is incredibly high, which it is not; it simply rests on the tops of the side members — over which you must step in a normal Gamma, anyway — and the central tunnel. You step onto a floor rather than down into one. Conversely, you step directly down onto the road and not up, over the sill, then down to terra firma. The high roof line gives ample head clearance, the top of the vehicle being just about at eye-level for a 5ft 10in person, minimising the postural change from sitting to fully erect. The advantages of the configuration becomes fully apparent when you are actually installed in the MegaGamma and ready to roll. There is little restriction of the seat dimensions because there is less need to compromise them, so everyone gets the chance to sit comfortably with good vision. Rear compartment legroom is to limousine standards and there is electrical adjustment for reach as well as inclination, the controls being incorporated in the full cabin length elbow-height, gutter cum—armrest.

Electrical adjustment is also used for the multiplicity of positions available for the front seats, and the driver, additionally, has powered control over the two exterior mirrors. A la Citroen CX, all the minor-function driving controls are available within finger tip reach from the single—spoke steering wheel. The various adjustment buttons, incidently, are direct from the Fiat Ritmo. The instrument panel is a little like Times Square at night, with its digital read-outs and banks of warning lights, while the Japanese Emix Corporation have built in an electronic memorizer that reveals, on request, various items of information relating to service intervals, etc. It's just a reminder system, but could be programmed easily enough to provide other time/distance data. It also works as an ordinary standard—keyboard calculator, useful for working out average speeds and fuel consumption. The centre console incorporates the air—conditioning as well as the American radio/cassette. Trimmed in cloth with leather stripes that match the beige fascia and door coverings, the interior of the MegaGamma is nothing if not luxurious, the burr walnut cappings adding a touch of the old world.

In view of the wide range of rear—seat adjustment, it comes as a surprise to realise that the MegaGamma is able to take full advantage of its hatchback configuration. The Seat upholstery is attached to the tubular frame and suspension with Velcro strips and can be quickly removed (what you do with the cushion and backrest is another story), the frame folded and the interior converted to a load-carrying role. With the back seat in the passenger position, there is still ample luggage space, the rear shelf hinging up with the fifth door to improve access.

Although the driving position is high, in the same way a Range Rover's is high, the MegaGamma doesn’t actually feel tall. Because it is based on an inherently good chassis anyway, the vehicle handles in a perfectly acceptable way and, judging from the drive we had, lacks the vices that would enable even the severest critics to point the finger of scorn. However, it cannot be overlooked that the Gamma is one of the most roll-resistant vehicles on the market, making it the perfect base for this application. It would be something less than successful on, for example, one of the very compliant suspension French cars, however well suited the mechanical layout may be. Visibility from the MegaGamma is excellent with a good all round view of the road, and the short bonnet offers real advantages when working in close company with either mobile or stationary objects, as do the flat, protected sides. Of course, the pedals and steering wheel have been re—angled to suit the higher, more forward driving position but the ergonomics have not suffered. Although there is a risk of a bus-like feel about the pedals and wheel, the atmosphere of the MegaGamma overcomes any doubts in this area. However, the use of the five—speed manual gearbox seems to be something of an anachronism in this context; an automatic such as the AP four—speed unit would be ideal, since it is destined for the Gamma next year anyway.

Ease of access and the very comfortable rear seats once you are aboard are very convincing factors in the design of the MegaGamma. It is an incredibly good way to travel with no obvious disadvantages: the seats themselves are extremely well proportioned while the legroom is exceptional. If anything, there is a surplus of headroom, which ItalDesign themselves admit. When and if they take the MegaGamma a stage further, it will probably also be a shade lower.

In the long term, the designers see the MegaGamma concept as being a base on which manufacturers could build alternative vehicles. One is a taxi, with a sliding passenger door and fold-down occasional seats like a London taxi; another adaption could be a minibus; or, with a higher roofline, a commercial vehicle. Meanwhile, though, the tangled problem of convincing the Mark One Motorist that he really would be better off with something like this remains. The ocean nibbles at the bottom of the established cliffs, but the landslide can be an awfully long time coming.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


Extract from "Oracle - Germany", CAR Magazine, August 1978.

IN THE SEARCH FOR A NEW NAME and image for their dealer network, Volkswagen/Audi have just passed a £40m two year plan. The aim is not only to find a better slogan for dealers than the clumsy Your Volkswagen and Audi Partner, but also to update and standardise showrooms and service facilities. Or, in the words of a 40 page colour brochure issued to convince 8000 European appointed dealers: ‘The two makes have to be offered under a single, easily perceptible trademark'. All good stuff so far.

The name intended to cover all these changes and integrate the upmarket Audi and downmarket Audi is: VAG. Looks pretty hopeless at a glance, but the official translation for this Very Awkward Gag is VolkswagenwerkAG. And that has nothing to do with Audi that l can see. I don’t know how the VW dealer in Sicily will like the big blue VAG signs he will soon receive, but the reception in the Vaterland was less than enthusiastic. Dealers and big distributors as well as privately-owned import firms will dislike VAG even more once they learn that they are supposed to pay two-thirds of the £40m the campaign is to cost. On the other hand, all VW/Audi dealers will reflect uniformity and thoroughness by 1980: VAG mechanics in stylish medium-blue overalls will flock to VAG outlets painted in the same colour and even the bills will soon feature blue VAG initials. Into the bargain come restyled VW and Audi emblems. Volkswagen went back to grassroots for their blue and white VW circle, but Audi get an all-new sign in a brownish oval, not unlike the Fordplum. To me so far it looks like too much money for too little effect. Remember how many times BLMC tried before they arrived at plain old BL Cars?

Monday, June 08, 2009

Vauxhall Viva GT road test

From CAR Magazine, April 1968

Vauxhall Viva GT test (by retromotoring)

IN ESSENCE THE VIVA GT IS A big engine in a little body. This is a formula which Vauxhall are coming increasingly to accept, having kicked off with the introduction of the very good Ventora. The big engine they have put in the Viva body is that of the Victor 2000, which has not been left entirely in standard form but has been endowed with a new twin-Stromberg CD induction system and a better exhaust manifold. This gives a useful extra 10bhp at only slightly higher rpm and after what we said about the Victor in February could obviously do with going into the basic car too. Compression ratio is still a modest 8.5 to one which means that the car is not too fussy about the sort of petrol it drinks.

There are plenty of other specification changes to match. The brakes are bigger all round, with a substantial servo unit to make them light as ever to operate. The coil springs have been stiffened, the dampers rerated, the wheels are up from 12 to 13in, and radial tyres are standard with, as an option, new ultra-low profile radials (70percent height/width ratio) such as were fitted to our preview car.

External touches consist of a somewhat boy-racer paint job - shiny acrylic body, matt black bonnet and tail panel, coachwork lines down the sides, GT badges - together with a new grille, two real exhaust pipes and two dummy ones. All a bit overdone, especially after the restraint of the Ventora, even though we were spared the racing-type wheels which are to become an optional extra.

More to the point is what they have done to the transmission. You can do lots of sums if you have a sliderule and the inclination, based on the use of the Victor 2000's 3.9 to one final drive and the presence of a Victor gearbox with first and second gears closed up but third left as it is. All this means that with the red line at 6250rpm the maximum speeds in the gears are 42, 60, 78, 106mph. The last speed is fairly easily obtained downhill and maintained on the level despite being well past the power peak, which leads one to the instant conclusion that the car is undergeared. At the same time we can take the speeds at peak power (5000rpm) as representing sensible change-up points for fairly sporting driving and arrive at 36, 52, 67, 92mph. Observe the jump of 16mph from first to second, only 15mph from second to third, but 25mph from third to top, giving us the further instant conclusion that as in the Ventora, third gear is too low and the car is a Barbara Castle special, God help us all.

Given a free choice of ratios we would first up the final drive to 3.6 (giving 45/65/85/115 at the red line) and secondly up third gear from 1.35 to 1.25 which would make that 85 into 92. We would have thought the least Luton could do in the meantime is offer an overdrive. Apart from all else this might help to keep down the oil and water temperatures which seemed to run high on most of the preview cars when driven hard on a fairly cold day. Inside, the car is very pretty with all necessary dials -including the rarely seen oil temperature gauge - and a leather covered steering wheel. The finish is matt black throughout, and it is all very nice except that the seats are apparently standard Viva SL (small, bouncy, with non-adjustable squab) and the front ones don't go far enough back for a tall driver. For this reason it is possibly a good thing that the little steering wheel is too high, for such a driver would otherwise have to splay his legs on either side of it to get at the pedals. Headroom is minimal as always, but the seat belts are now better placed and there are new, easily-reached safety catches for the front seats, showing that at least the Vauxhall people are capable of appreciating the need for change.

From Luton we ran down the M1 for a bit, and one or two faults began to manifest themselves. The tachometer and speedometer were clearly not to be trusted to any extent in our car. and there was occasional fluffing at high speed in top gear which felt for all the world like fuel starvation caused by insufficient pump capacity. The noise level was very high. Pat Kenning, our compatriot from Motor Trader, had a portable noise meter which clocked 82dbA at an indicated 60mph, and no less than 94dbA at an indicated 90, which is really way beyond a joke. With people acting all gormless on the bit of the motorway reduced to two lanes by road works, we soon found that the horn was the feeble, polite little one out of the ordinary Viva.

Things got better once we were flicking our way down our favourite twisty B road, grateful for the crushing overtaking performance when overtaking the odd mimser but still wishing for a higher third gear to eliminate the need for a certain amount of rowing between third and top. The car was very stable- it was arrow-straight when hands-off on the motorway - and felt like a classic understeer, very nice on fast, open bends but a bit unhappy at the back end when cornering over broken surfaces. A few attempted standing starts were un-impressive, because the massive grip of the squat radial tyres on the dry road killed the engine rather than permit wheelspin. The brakes felt a bit rough when used hard (most likely due to a disc imperfection peculiar to our car, we thought) and ended up by smelling quite a lot but never showed any other sign of fade or physical distress.

Then we came to one of our most favourite tight corners, taken left-handed. Feeling confident by now, we threw the car at a point inside the apex of the bend, let the understeer take charge, and then crammed on the power at the apex and waited for the tail to tuck downwards and the handling change to neutral to let us pick the best line out, just as it does in the Ventora with its impeccable balance. But no; the tail stayed right where it was, and the front wheels ran wider and wider. Most of the way round and about to hit the right-hand verge we eased off the accelerator. As if it suddenly realised why we had all that lock on, the car whipped back across the full width of the road and we only just held it before hitting the left-hand verge.

Recover. Deep breath. Go back and look. There on the road are three black lines, one of them a wide smear starting at the apex. Oh dear. One of us tries again, a little more trepidly; the other watches. As the power goes on the inside front wheel rises into the air, the outside front tyre runs more on its sidewall than its tread, and there we have clear, dramatic understeer. The real trouble is obviously that the back end is just too damned well located, an excellent thing with 50bhp 4 under the bonnet but less so with 100. The sort of thing which should not be beyond a cure: what it is like in the wet we shall have to wait and see.

Meanwhile we go to a garage and push up the tyre pressures. Trying again, and with the benefit of experience, we can follow the understeer turning to oversteer and pin it down with reapplication of power at the neutral steer stage. But the beast still runs wide and it is not a trick we would recommend most people to try... and we are sorry about all that rubber on the road citizens.

So there is the Viva GT. Nothing like a true GT car, unlike the Ventora which with a bit of work could become one, it is nevertheless a pretty little fun car which could become even better with assiduous development. At the moment £1022 is a bit much to be asking for a car which is excessively noisy, wrongly geared, has a poor driving position if you are at all big and displays some tricky handling in tight situations. But then Vauxhall seem to have this ability to learn and put right...

Inevitably comparisons will be drawn with the Escort Twin Cam, and the main features of both have been outlined at the bottom of this page as a sort of aide-memoire. The Viva GT is clearly slightly different in concept in that it relies on an engine which, while much bigger than standard, is still not far from being a stock unit, while the big-bore Escort uses the specialised and inevitably more expensive engine from the Lotus Elan/Cortina Twin Cam. Thus it will probably be easier to get the Vauxhall engine properly looked after, although in terms of outright reliability the Ford engine is unlikely to be any the worse off, having largely recovered from its early maladies, real and imaginary.

The comparison suggests that the two cars will be different enough to sell to slightly different market sectors, but there is bound to be a considerable degree of overlap. lt would probably not be unfair to say that the Escort is more likely to be bought by those who are serious about their motoring, if only because they cannot but help being impressed by the whole-hearted way that Ford are putting their car through its competitions programme. lt may well be that GM can sell performance-image cars in the US without having to actually go racing or rallying, but it is difficult to see the same thing happening here to the extent that Vauxhall would like. Apart from all else Fords competition work will mean that any snags are liable to be more quickly found and the solutions more thoroughly developed. This competition thing, you know; it jolly well works...