Aston Martin Lagonda

Aston Martin Lagonda

Onlookers were in no doubt about which car was the star of the '76 Earls Court show. The Aston Martin Lagonda fired up a furore of excitement around its stand. 170 orders were placed, there and then. Aston - reeling from recent travails - were cock-a-hoop. Which is when the problems began! The Lagonda sported 'futuristic' styling - by William Towns. His cutting edge design work went beyond the car's exterior lines. It reached into the cabin area, too. A digital dash - and touch-sensitive controls - were straight out of Star Trek! But, this was '70s Britain - not Silicon Valley. Technical issues immediately surfaced. As a result, the Lagonda's launch was delayed three years. By the time it was finally released, its price tag had risen to £32,000. Thankfully for Aston, it was still in demand.

Engineering-wise, the Lagonda was fine. Its chassis was an extended version of a tried and tested set-up. Suspension, too, had been used before. After a few tweaks to cope with the increase in weight, ride and handling were spot-on. Press reviews were upbeat. The Lagonda's engine was especially praised. Its 5.3-litre V8 - with quad-cam layout - made 340bhp. Top speed was 140mph. That was impressive, for a saloon car weighing nearly two tons. Transmission was via a 3-speed auto.

Ultimately, the Lagonda was all about leisure. Avant-garde though it was, in some ways it harked back to a more luxurious past. On its launch - in '79 - Lord and Lady Tavistock were first in line. Air conditioning - and electric seats - came as standard. Coachbuilders Tickford turned out three stretched Lagondas - complete with colour TVs! Sadly, for all of its state-of-the-art buzz - and genteel pretensions - the Lagonda did not sell well. By the end of its run - in 1990 - a scant 645 cars had been built. It had signally failed to back up the hype - commercially, at least. Those high-tech teething troubles had not helped. In that regard, though, it paved the way for cars to come. The Aston Martin Lagonda, then, may be said to have found fulfilment in the future, rather than the present.

Citroën Light 15

Citroen Light 15

Not many cars can claim to have changed the face of motoring. One that can is the Citroën Light 15. Its unique selling point was the FWD - traction-avant - system. And, the Light 15's innovative engineering did not stop there. Its 3-speed gearbox sat in front of the engine - in the nose of the car. Drive passed through CV-jointed shafts - to the torsion-bar-suspended front wheels. Such a transmission set-up was ahead of the game in '34 - when the Light 15 was released. In terms of road-holding, it was a revelation. The only downside was that the FWD made the steering a tad heavy. A few visits to the gym, though, would soon have cancelled that out!

But, there was to be a tragic twist to this tale of technological advancement. The stress caused by spiralling development costs contributed to the premature death of André Citroën - founder of the firm. Sadly, he died without a sou to his name. His company, at least, was bailed out - by tyre maestros Michelin. As a consequence, the Light 15 would remain in production for years. Ironically, it ended up a great success, sales-wise. It was also highly influential. The Light 15's FWD - and up-rated handling - made it a big hit with the French police, for example. Equally, with some less law-abiding citizens. For both cops and robbers, then, driving had never been so much fun! Thanks to its 1.9-litre overhead-valve motor, the Light 15 had a top speed of 75mph. Hair-raising chases ensued. Even so, participants did not bounce about too much. The Light 15 had fully independent torsion-bar springing!

So, the Light 15 set many a benchmark. It was not until '55 - and the coming of the DS - that Citroën let it slip into well-earned retirement. It had done much to pave the way for its successor. In particular, it had pioneered the hydro-pneumatic self-levelling suspension for which the DS would be renowned. Styling-wise, the Light 15 stayed pretty consistent during its life-span. Many a fine example can still be seen on French roads ... a clear indicator of its high build quality. The French have a saying ... in English, 'The more things change, the more they stay the same'. The Light 15 was a case in point. Technology has become so sophisticated of late, it is easy to forget that cars like the Citroën Light 15 have always been pushing the envelope!

Riley RM

Riley RM

By the time the RM Series was launched - in '45 - Riley's glory days seemed gone. Dating back to 1898, the firm had produced a steady stream of successful saloon/sports cars through the '20s and '30s. At race circuits, too, Riley met with much success. Sales at the time were uniformly upbeat. By the late '30s, though, financial fissures were showing. As a result, '38 saw Nuffield take the reins. It worked ... there would be a Riley renaissance. The post-war release of the 'RM' Series saw Riley right back on track.

The RMA and RMB were stylish saloons. Timber frames were wrapped in swooping steel bodywork. Topping it off was a fine-fabric removable roof. Both A and B were fitted with Riley's high-cam inline-four engines. The A was good for 75mph. The B upped that to 95mph. It had the longest stroke of any post-war British production car motor. Torque, then, came as standard. Both RMA and RMB had torsion-bar independent front suspension. So, good handling was also just part of the deal.

The most glamorous member of the RM club was the 'C'. Since it was a tilt at the American market, it came with column gear-change. Other notable RMC features were a fold-flat screen, and lowered bonnet line. The C was pure roadster ... an open 3-seater, with cutaway doors. In due course, the 'D' was a 4-seater drop-head. It reverted to a more traditional body than the C. Completing the Series were the RME and the RMF. Updates included hydraulic brakes, a hypoid back-axle, and larger rear windows. In '54, the E was given the final RM makeover. Its running boards were removed - and headlight pods streamlined. A set of rear wheel spats was grafted on. By this point, however, Riley were clutching at straws. Revered as it once had been, the brand-name was now in decline. There was to be one last throw of the Riley dice - in the form of the 'Pathfinder'. Its four-cylinder motor, though, was about all it had going for it. But, back in the day, Riley combined style and panache with sporting prowess. The RM Series had made that abundantly clear.

DeLorean DMC-12

DeLorean DMC-12

On paper, the DeLorean DMC-12 had a heck of a lot going for it. V6 motor by Peugeot/Renault, chassis by Lotus, bodywork by Giugiaro. It does not get too much better than that, in terms of styling and functionality. But, of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And, sadly, the DeLorean automotive ingredients just did not mix. It did not help that the DMC was rear-engined. For all of its expertise, Lotus struggled to make the car handle. Saying that, in a straight line, things were A-okay. A top speed of 130mph testified to that. Another suspect part of the DMC package was the gull-wing doors. Sure, they looked cool. But, when a car sets you back $25,000 - and this was in the early Eighties - you expect it to be watertight! Deficiencies in the DMC door department meant that was not always so. And, from an emergency services point of view, getting gull-wing doors open - in the event of an accident - could be a problem! All in all, it was not long before the first signs were seen that the DeLorean dream might be about to unravel.

It all started so swimmingly. John Z. DeLorean was a bit of a whizz-kid, during his time at GM. Having conceived the DMC - as a high-impact, big-production supercar - DeLorean sought funding. The UK looked like his best bet. He was strongly encouraged to start up in Northern Ireland. The British government badly needed to boost the region. DeLorean seemed the ideal man to help them do it. They did not stint on the incentives. Grants and loans totalled £80m!

DeLorean's legacy lasted just two years. In 1980, the sky was the limit. By '82, the whole shebang had crashed back down to earth. Financial wrongdoings were alleged. DeLorean was arrested - on drug trafficking charges! He was subsequently cleared. The episode has become the stuff of history ... political, as well as automotive. International sagas do not get much more gripping! If nothing else, John Z. DeLorean had certainly made his mark on the world. As for his car, it had fallen dismally short of expectations. Had things been different, though, the DeLorean DMC-12 might now be considered the classic supercar its creator craved.

Yamaha YR5

Yamaha YR5

Torakusu Yamaha founded Nippon Gakki in 1897. The firm went on to become one of the world's biggest makers of musical instruments. It branched into motorbikes in 1955. The Yamaha logo - a tuning fork - has appeared on the tanks of many millions of bikes since. Sweet music to salesmen's ears! One such model was the Yamaha YR5.

Japanese motorcycle manufacturers would introduce a degree of engineering precision hitherto unseen. Indeed, Torakusu Yamaha had himself trained as a clock-maker - prior to starting up Nippon Gakki. The first Yamaha bikes were built with machinery which had previously been used to forge aircraft propellers. That is the kind of product you want to get right!

There is no better early exemplar of Japanese bike engineering than the Yamaha YR5. It reached a top speed of 95mph - from a mere 350cc. A reed-valve 2-stroke engine set-up was key. Plus, the YR5 weighed just 330lb, wet. Forward thrust, then, was fierce - right up to 7,000rpm. There was traditionally a trade-off between 'stroker' speed and reliability. Yamaha bikes, though, soon gained a reputation for staying intact. Certainly, the YR5's handling and braking were as sorted as its acceleration. Styling-wise, the bike was pleasingly neat and tidy. When a competitive price-tag was placed on all that, sound sales figures for the Yamaha YR5 were pretty much assured.

Ford Sierra Cosworth

Ford Sierra Cosworth

The Ford Sierra Cosworth was a people's car! For a start, it was a snip at £16,000. And for that, you got near-supercar performance - and practicality, too. Ford gave their Sierra shell to tuners Cosworth - in Northampton, England. The 'Cossie' was in business! Cosworth installed a two-litre twin overhead-camshaft turbo engine. The production car was an 'homologation special' - a minimum number needing to be built to allow it to compete in races/rallies. Such a car is, de facto, limited-edition. Ford's Special Vehicle Engineering department's brief was to come up with a competitive 'Group A' car. That, they duly did. There were several key components on their spec-list. Toward the top were a close-ratio 5-speed 'box, a limited-slip diff, and power steering. In addition, there were anti-lock brakes, robust anti-roll bars, and firmed-up suspension. Wide alloy wheels were fitted - attached to massive disc brakes, with 4-piston calipers.

The Cosworth's body was modded Ford Sierra. Improvements included widened wheel arches - and a 'whale-tail' rear spoiler. The latter increased down-force - but compromised aerodynamics. And it did not exactly add stability in cross-winds. Nor was it to every taste, design-wise. Still, if you bought a Cossie to make a statement - and you probably did - the rear aerofoil was spot-on! 'Spirited' drivers praised planted handling - as well as fearsome acceleration. Top speed was 149mph.

The Cossie was a nailed-down magnet for thieves and joy-riders. Insurance costs sky-rocketed, as a result. In time, of course, the tearaways moved to pastures new. Once rid of its hooligan 'rep', the Cosworth transitioned into performance car respectability. That was only enhanced by the arrival of the Sierra Sapphire, and 1990's '4x4' set-up. A further 16bhp would be coaxed out of the 16-valve cylinder-head. So, in racing, rallying - and road-going mode, too - the Ford Sierra Cosworth delivered in spades!

Plymouth Prowler

Plymouth Prowler

The Plymouth Prowler was a 'hot rod' for the new millennium. Tom Gale was head of design at parent company Chrysler. He had long been an aficionado of Thirties 'rods'. Gale picked up his pen - and drafted a modern variant on the classic Hot Rod theme. Fast forward to Chrysler's stand at the '93 Detroit Auto Show. Gale's sketch had been turned into 'dream car' reality ... so to speak! Public reaction to it was favourable - to say the least. Chrysler's top brass saw an opportunity to reinvigorate the Plymouth brand. They figured the hot rod was deeply embedded in the American psyche. Lots of folk would like one ... but did not have the time - or know-how - to build it. Why not build it for them? The feasibility study having given it a thumbs-up, the Prowler project was given the green light.

To proud owners of this new 'retro' package, they were getting the best of both worlds. The Prowler provided the practical benefits of cutting edge technology - alongside 'custom' good looks. Whopping 20″ rear wheels were wrapped in 295-section rubber. The front pair were 17″. The nose of the car was iconic hot rod - high cheek-bones, jutting jawline, and a slimline grille. Only the 'prominent' bumpers on some Prowlers gave the chronological game away. They were a plastic concession to modern-day safety legislation. Consummately-crafted suspension components were on open view. Bodywork was steel and aluminium.

The Prowler was powered by the Chrysler Vision V6. The 3.5-litre engine produced 218bhp. Purists would have preferred it to be a V8 - but you cannot please everyone! Top speed was 125mph. 0-60 was reached in 7.7s. The car's light weight helped - just 2,900lb of it. 11,702 Plymouth Prowlers were sold - in a five-year production run. Chrysler had been right that the 'hot rod' was still a part of the American Dream!

TVR Griffith

TVR Griffith

The seaside town of Blackpool, England, is famous for its Illuminations. In like manner, TVR, the sports car manufacturer based in the resort, dazzled the automotive world - with the gorgeous Griffith. Technically, the new TVR was all about a return to raw V8 power. The TVR brand per se did not need reinvigorating - but the '90s sports car market did. The Griffith would play a pivotal part in that. In five-litre form, the Griffith 500 gave 345bhp. That translated to a top speed of 163mph. 0-60 arrived in a tad over 4s. Such fierce acceleration was down to plenty of mid-range poke - plus, low-down grunt. The Griffith was inspired by the TVR Tuscan - a pure-bred, blood-and-guts racer - which first appeared in the late '80s. The Tuscans tore strips out of each other, in a one-make race series. Even the company chairman - Peter Wheeler - dived into the high-speed fray. He battled it out with the best of them, in his own Tuscan!

Styling-wise, the Griffith came with a full complement of curves, and deft styling touches. Most notably, the air ducts - on the bonnet and doors - were cutting edge cute. The interior, too, was impeccably designed. Copious amounts of leather and wood were inlaid with aluminium. Unsurprisingly - with technological and aesthetic assets in abundance - the Griffith fared well commercially.

With its RWD maxed-out, the Griffith's exhaust note was ear-splitting. With hood down - and revs up - British sports car drivers had never had it so good! The Griffith prototype had débuted at the Birmingham Motor Show - in 1990. The first production cars swanned into showrooms in '91. The Griffith had been designed and developed almost entirely by TVR. Given the small scale of their operation, that was an astonishing feat. Heck, they even managed to keep it competitively-priced!

Caterham 21

Caterham 21

The Caterham 21 debuted at the Birmingham Motor Show, in '94. It marked 21 years of Caterham Seven production. Design niggles delayed the launch of the new car for two years. The 21's enhanced equipment levels posed a challenge to Caterham. Respected manufacturers though they were, the small British firm were on a learning curve with a car of this complexity. The 21 prototype had, literally, dazzled show-goers. It was fetchingly finished in silver-polished aluminium. The production car's finish was more prosaic - standard paint on glass-fibre. Aluminium, though, could still be had as an extra. The prototype 21 was displayed with a Vauxhall JPE engine installed. Production cars were fitted with Rover 'K-series' 1.6-litre motors. There was also a VHP - Very High Performance - version of the 1.8-litre MGF engine available.

When the 21 did finally hit the road, it was to great acclaim. Aerodynamics were well-sorted - helping give a top speed of 131mph. Chassis-wise, the 21 was similar to the 7. The new car thereby inherited the superb handling characteristics of its predecessor. An important way, though, in which the two differed, was in practicality. The 7 - among the most exhilarating cars ever to drive - was far from user-friendly, as such. It was geared entirely toward the 'pure driving experience'. The 21 came with much more in the 'mod cons' column. As an all-round package, it was streets ahead of the Seven.

Caterham handed the task of styling the 21 to designer/journalist Iain Robertson. He sought inspiration in the race-bred lines of the Lotus Eleven. The 21's interior, too, was well-crafted. Though the cockpit was narrow, wide sills kept it this side of cramped. A vertical strip of switches was a deft design touch. No more than two hundred 21s per year were built. That kept Caterham from biting off more than a company of its size could chew. And, of course, there was always the Lotus legacy to consider. The Caterham 7 had done its parent marque proud. The 21, too, was a worthy successor.

Citroën SM

Citroën SM

The SM was almost as much Maserati as it was Citroën. The late Sixties saw the French manufacturer also at the helm of the iconic Italian carmaker. Indeed, the SM was the first showpiece from the new automotive 'double act'. It was a classic 'best of both worlds' scenario. Citroën's slick and slippery shape was mated with Maserati's expert engine know-how. The nose - with its panoply of lights - was deftly faired in behind a slender strip of glass. At the back, a sweetly-styled hatchback sloped gently down to the rear light cluster. Between the two were some of the most eye-catching lines ever to grace a GT car. Window geometry alone warranted careful study!

Power was provided by a scaled-down version of Maserati's four-cam V8. The resulting V6 had a capacity of 2.7 litres. There was a good reason for that ... French tax regulations hammered engines over 2.8 litres. The 'micro' Maser motor still delivered 170bhp. That made it good for 140mph. In keeping with Citroën tradition, the SM was FWD. To enable that, the gearbox/transaxle sat fore of the front-mounted motor. Citroën's self-levelling hydro-pneumatic suspension system saw power to road, in safe and seamless style. That was the SM's trump card. The union of French/Italian technical excellence meant that the ride stayed serene and smooth, whatever the speed. And Maserati had made sure there was plenty of the latter!

For a classic car, the SM felt futuristic. If the switches/dials on its expansive dash were not space-age, as such - they were definitely avant-garde. The single-spoke steering-wheel would have looked at home on a lunar landing craft! Exterior lines, too, were ahead of their time. Sadly, though, for the SM, timing was not on its side. It was launched in 1970 - just in time for the '73 oil crisis! With its 18mpg fuel economy, it was a dead duck from then on. Up to that point, business had been brisk. French drivers had gorged on the first luxury GT since the Facel Vega Facel II. Citroën did what they could to stem the tide. A version of the SM was offered with a 3-litre injected engine - and optional auto transmission. But, if Citroën hoped those with deep pockets would save the day, it was not to be. A tad shy of 13,000 units had been sold when the SM plug was pulled, in '75. That was a shame - because for the few years of its life, the Citroën SM showcased European collaboration of the highest calibre.