Speaking of Car of the Year awards, or COTY for short, Simon Hacker takes a cynical look at Europe’s auto gong, and asks how far COTY is a male coterie.
1. This Rover P6 signifies two personal firsts. In the year I was born, it was the first car to bag Europe’s Car of the Year’s inaugural award, and in a year when I wasn’t lying on my bed listening to OMD’s Architecture and Morality, it was the first car I took out onto a public highway. The model is indelibly scorched into my memory because, although I’d been driving around a field in a Morris 1300 for a year, the Rover was my first solo drive. Out in the real world. The ‘solo’ bit is the stuff of confessions. Although I was fairly familiar with the controls and keen to pilot this hulk for a few miles with no repercussions, I was a completely illegal, licence-free driver. Being typically 17, I decided that the car deposited in our driveway by my older sister’s obligingly ignorant boyfriend was too good an opportunity. Together, we travelled about four miles up and down some narrow country lanes. And though I was pretty raw in my road-testing skills, I did conclude the Morris in a field was probably a more incisive drive. This felt like being pushed around the garden on an ottoman, so God knows how the COTY judges decided it was the best thing out there in 1964.
2. Yet if you think that award was questionable, wait till you see what else has seduced Car of the Year’s gurus. Think of COTY as automobilia’s Eurovision Song Contest and you might better accept the results. Try, for instance, 1965’s winner. Issigonis’s Austin 1800, was dubbed the landcrab and despite its award, answered a question few had asked. A Mini on steroids, sales crawled, not least because the initial model was hastily prepared and showrooms were constantly featuring a stream of corrected models which implicitly made mugs of early adopters. Glitches included valve crash – press-on enthusiasts who steered out onto our limit-free new motorways spent most of their time on the hard shoulder.
3. West German maker NSU stole 1968’s top spot – and maybe it was deserved as the Ro 80 executive sedan was as slippery as a well-sucked Werther’s Original, blessed with a rack that would inspire the next generation of auto-architects. However, it harboured a wonky Wankel engine that often needed an entire rebuild at just 30,000 miles, while it consumed juice like a rabid elephant. Secondhand, they were ten a pfennig. Many endured the ignominy of having their clever engines swapped for the only unit that would fit the space – Ford’s agrarian V4, as used in the original Transit.
4. By now an emerging theme that suggested a Car of the Year award signified a coded warning to wary buyers, but the riposte to such allegations is clear. A plethora of awards have gone to models that steered automotive design and consumer trends down new and exciting sliproads. Fiat has enjoyed a domination of the decades with nine trophies for its cabinet in Milan. And justifiably so: 1967’s 124 was the template for a global car; 1970’s Fiat 128 crammed a front engine, front-wheel drive set-up into just 20 per cent of the equation and established the blueprint for small family motoring; 1984’s Uno wrote the rules for supermini-ing by reversing the trend for limbo-low motoring and getting us all to sit up and stop slouching. And 1989’s award for the Tipo commended the notion that, by virtue of galvanisation, a car didn’t have to rust quicker than it left the showroom.
5. So how does Car of the Year stand today as a respected authority for unquestionably sound judgment? It certainly has a yawning goal for fundamental criticism, namely a huge imbalance on its jury. Blind to the fact that around half of Europe’s drivers aren’t male, COTY’s 58 members represent a coterie for auto-blokeism. In 2013, Volkswagen’s Golf is Europe’s best car – but how many women made that decision? As it’s made up today, the lasting implication is that such highly challenging issues as deciding which cars merit praise is more safely left to the men. Ulla Elmer from Germany can certainly count herself as a rarity. Representing less than two per cent of the jury among 57 varieties of men, she is the only female judge.