Diesel car sales set new records every year in the 1980s – not so hard when just 5,828 found buyers in the first year of the decade. The range of diesels available increased steadily but they remained a small niche. In 1988 sales exceeded 100,000 for the first time, but that amounted to just a 4.6 per cent market share. Best diesel seller in ‘88 was the Citroën BX, followed by the Peugeot 405. There were no diesel offerings from BMW, Honda, Jaguar or Mazda (amongst others) and the only diesel Toyota you could get was the lumbering Land Cruiser. The total car market was healthy, though, with sales of 2.2 million comfortably ahead of the 2013 forecast.
Acid House was the talking point but more sugary fare dominated the charts, much of it from the Stock Aitken Waterhouse stable, including Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, Rick Astley and Bananarama. Kylie’s ‘I should be so lucky’ topped the charts for five weeks and Wet Wet Wet had their first number one. But almost unbelievably the year’s best seller was Cliff Richard’s Christmas special, Mistletoe and Wine.
It was a different world, with choice limited to just four terrestrial channels. The Australian invasion continued with surprise hit Neighbours getting a 5.30pm repeat to cater for school kids, while home-grown Crossroads hit the buffers. Richard and Judy launched This Morning – their run on the sofa was to last 13 years – and cult hit Red Dwarf started on BBC2. But everything was about to change: the Astra satellite launched in December and the following year Sky TV became its first customer.
An unwired world
The first brick-sized mobile phones were appearing and the Amstrad 8256 computer was flying out of shops. But no personal mobile phones, no internet, no satellite navigation and to all intents and purposes no e-mail made 1988 a very disconnected world. A cassette player was where you got your in-car entertainment from, and if you wanted to catch up with friends, you paid them a visit, called them on a landline or even… wrote a letter.
State of the diesel art
When Diesel Car first hit the newsagents, every diesel car had an indirect-injection engine, which meant waiting up to ten seconds for the glow plug warning light to go out before starting. Only a handful of diesels were turbocharged – mostly off-roaders – and performance was usually pedestrian. Oil change intervals could be as little as 3,000 miles. Things were changing fast, though. The arrival of turbo diesel versions of the Citroën BX and Peugeot 405 transformed diesel performance, while at the end of the year the world’s first mass-market direct injection diesel car went on sale. What was it? Take a bow, the Montego 2.0D Turbo.
Our first issue included an attempt to pin down the diesel advantage. We ran petrol and diesel versions of five models over a demanding test route. In four cases the diesels used from 27 to 36 per cent less fuel, with only the little three-cylinder Daihatsu Charade TD slightly spoiling the story with an improvement of just 8.2 per cent. But what really stands out from the test is the fuel price we included in our calculations: £1.54 a gallon for diesel and £1.69 for petrol. That’s 33.9p and 37.2p a litre!
As the first editor of Diesel Car, did I really believe that one day diesels would out-sell petrol in the UK? I knew sales were going to boom. It was clear we were on the verge of huge improvements in diesel efficiency, performance, noise and pollution. Hardly anyone in the mainstream motoring media had spotted that (which is why we launched the magazine). But outselling petrol? Only in my wildest dreams. But last year 50.8 per cent of the new cars sold were diesel powered, against 47.8 per cent petrol (the rest were electric and hybrid).
With most music now sold as downloads and record stores fast becoming an endangered species, the music charts look very different from 25 years ago. Not that you’d necessarily notice, because the Top 10 (or 40) doesn’t occupy anything like the prominent position it used to. There are still artists who regularly clock up hits – Rihanna, Justin Timberlake, will.i.am and of course One Direction are current favourites – but remixes and even unsigned bands increasingly crowd the charts. Or maybe it’s just that most Diesel Car readers and writers haven’t got a clue what’s going on…
Funnily enough, in 1988 Top Gear had already been around for 11 years. It was getting livelier and pulling in audiences of around five million. One Jeremy Clarkson joined the programme late that year. But it was still a very different animal from today’s beast. With hundreds of channels competing for attention it’s hard for individual programmes to have the impact they used to back then, but a viewer fast-forwarded from ‘88 would still find familiar features, from old-style blockbusters like Downton Abbey to old warhorses like Antiques Roadshow, not to mention endless repeats of Porridge or Dad’s Army. The soaps still pull in millions and reality TV is fading fast. Viewing hours are actually going down as audiences defect to web, smartphone and games. Looking back, 1988 looks like a golden age for TV.
A wired world
Even stand-alone satellite navigation is wilting under the smartphone onslaught. Carmakers are struggling to retain control of the revolution in connectivity, but pretty much anything they can do, a savvy driver with a smartphone and a selection of free apps can do almost as well.
Once it was all about potential, now it’s about perfection. The big breakthroughs – turbocharging, intercooling, direct injection, common rail, sequential injection – have all been done so it’s all about maintaining efficiency while meeting ever-tighter emissions standards. No doubt engines will get smaller, lighter and more refined. We don’t see the new breed of smaller petrol engines posing too much of a threat to diesel, unless their real world economy gets closer to what’s claimed. Hybrids fall even further short of target, and there’s no sign of the needed breakthrough in electric car costs and range. Will diesels still have half the market in another quarter of a century? We’ll let you know when we celebrate Diesel Car’s 50th anniversary!