With more than half a century of dishing out gongs, the European Car of the Year has been no stranger to controversy. Simon Hacker selects the keys to five cars of contention.
Just what was that Fred van der Vlugt thinking? When he conceived the idea of a European award for the best motors, supposedly it was to add some international harmony to the disparate decisions car hacks make. The idea caught on: inaugurated as a club of just 26 road testers from nine European countries when it started out in 1963, there are now 22 on board, with 58 judges. Some of them are even women… well two are. Beyond the casual chauvinism of an awards system that’s almost exclusively determined by men, European Car of the Year (ECOTY) has been no stranger to controversy. Behold five motors from the archives and the tribulations that came in their wake…
1 1964 Rover P6
It was the first of what would be only two winning contestants from Britain in ECOTY’s history. Rover ripped up its rule book to produce this forward-thrusting model (well, forward thrusting once it got a V8). The car was penned by David Bache as a tribute to that icon of gallic suavity, Citroën’s DS. And the idea worked: despite offering a puny 2.0-litre engine and just two rear seats, it gave Mercedes-Benz a bloody nose, pushing the 600 model into second place, and largely won on sheer affordability. But the P6 was destined for a grim end: inherited by British Leyland and corrupted eventually into the 3500, the AA handed it an award in 1976 as England’s worst new car, an accolade thus denied from the deserving clutches of the Austin Allegro.
2 1968 NSU Ro 80
Essential DNA to the process that spawned European icon Audi, NSU was originally a knitting machine maker and the brains behind the Kettenkrad HK 101, a half-track motorbike Hitler found useful for invading Russia. NSU’s moment of automotive excellence was this: the Ro 80, a car that seduced the 1968 jury with its smart rotary engine, slippery looks that became a twinkle in Audi’s eye, and accessories that included a young woman in a négligée. The only problem with the Ro was it didn’t go, thanks to seals that failed and engines that needed rebuilding often at just past 30,000 miles. It also had an 18mpg habit. As such it was probably the least consumer-friendly ECOTY winner ever.
3 1976 Simca 1307-1308
Styled by Scunthorpe designer Roy Axe, who also created the Rover 800, the 1307 was the fruit of French outfit Simca, though it arrived here when the firm was under increasing control from Chrysler (and hence this model’s Chrysler Alpine badge in Britain). Again, looks swayed the jury, though the Simca wasn’t too cramped inside. Beneath that bonnet though, it was trading on borrowed time: its pushrod engine was hardly cutting-edge and the design showed its age for efficiency and performance.
4 1978 Porsche 928
Amid a flurry of raised eyebrows, ECOTY hailed Porsche’s exotic 928 “an outstanding car likely to replace the technically decaying 911”, citing the “obsolete points of the veteran… overcome with a front engine, water cooling, noise suppression, good weight balance and a road attitude that made fast driving much easier and more predictable”. Sadly, the 928 found no avenue of new sales for Porsche as much as it stuttered up a cul de sac. Thirty eight years on, the rear-engined dinosaur it was heralded to replace has still proved somewhat resilient. Final score: 928 – 61,056, 911 – 820,000 and rising fast.
5 1990 Citroën XM
You have to love it for its shoulder-shrug against prevailing taste, and so did the jury. Citroën’s success was a landslide. But the Bertone box was no convincing riposte to the march of German execmobiles: against Audi’s 100 and BMW’s 5 Series, it was a quaint choice. Indeed, a faltering 3,500 sales a year in the UK made it an under achiever and Citroën’s weakest seller. The XM story underlines the dangers of professional verdicts anywhere: car testers love the shock of the new, but customers are slow to change and like to play it safe. After all, they’re not getting a free ride. And when they come from a country that gave us hallway lights that switch off after twenty seconds, complex electronics don’t put bums on seats.