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Letter From Europe

11 September 1997

Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief

In my opinion and I do hope to wrong by the way, the new Mini is a retrograde step. The last one, 38 years ago was created by Sir Alec Issigonis and it was a success of sorts. First of all it never made any money, in that respect it has a lot in common with Concorde, the supersonic aircraft. I was working at Ford Motor Co at the time when they too considered making a Mini. The cost analysts took the real thing into tiny little pieces and came to the conclusion that at best Austin might be making 7 dollars per car. The project was dropped there and then. Yes, it was a cult car, there were all sorts of stunts-how many students could fit into one-I can't remember but it is in the Guiness book of records-, various rally victories such as the Monte Carlo rally, souped up versions such as Mini-Cooper but at the end of the day whilst everyone remembers it with affection it was actually not a particularly good car.

Revolutionary-yes, good to drive-not really. It had a very strange driving position, a pretty ordinary gearbox , a basic 848 cc engine, was not particularly well made by a forever striking work force, no, I can honestly say that time added a great deal of gloss to a pretty ordinary automobile. To make one in year 2000 without major changes seems crazy to me. Yes, of course it will have a new engine-made curiously enough by Chrysler in Brazil(!) and I am sure that BMW will do its best to make into a huge success but has not the world moved on?

Many people are eating more, tend to be taller. Do they really want to crawl into the back of a small car instead of stepping up into the new Mercedes "A" class? Or by then would the yet to be seen Swatch car make the Mini obsolete even before it arrives? Apparently MW are thinking of making a cult car in terms of Mini shops, boutiques, accessories, fashion items, clothing, watches, sunglasses, even a series of Mini cafes. Fine, but the youngsters of the 60s are now fathers or grandfathers and their sons or grandsons won't necessarily be interested in someone else's nostalgia. I could be wrong and let's face it, Rover's masters are BMW who know a thing or two about making good and successful cars. Moving on from the Mini for a second BMW really seem to be on a roll.

The Z3-now with more powerful engines-is a huge success, the 3,5 and 7 series are all selling well, they are about to sell some V12 engine to Rolls-Royce for their new cars and only this week they announced that they will be back in Formula One for year 2000 with Williams. The latter is of course in direct response to Mercedes who have finally-this year-started winning with McLaren. How much racing helps to sell cars we will never know, it certainly is not helping Yamaha's image too much when their engines explode like Damon Hill's in front of the grand stand in Monza during the Italian Grand Prix.

BMW are certainly backing one of Formula One's best teams although it is suggested by some that with Williams and Head getting on and with Chief Designer Adrian Newey moving on the team is not what it used to be. We shall see.

The Frankfurt Autoshow is on as I am writing this letter and it is dominated by the local manufacturers. Because of the weakness of the D mark against the dollar and the pound sterling they are making tons of money right now and are pouring it back into some excellent product. I have already reported on the A class Mercedes which is sold out for two years without people having driven it or in some cases seen it!

The big question mark is over the Swatch designed Smart car. The Swiss watch maker is highly innovative and with Mercedes's backing the car will go on sale next year. A two seater town car it will either be a huge success or a monumental flop a la Edsel. There are some innovative discussions going on about having fleets of them at airports and railway stations for instant and maybe hourly or daily rental. Would make a lot of sense in crowded streets and would also cut down on pollution by having small, clean engines. Whether the world is ready for them or not remains to be seen. 10 out of 10 for bravery, it deserves to succeed. It is the niche market which is booming at present-Mercedes SLK, BMW 3 series, Porsche Boxster. Whilst you have to wait years for these, there are thousands of Fiats and Renaults waiting for customers.

Not all of them mind you. The recent Car of the Year-European version- was Renault's exciting new Scenic. Demand is huge and has vastly exceeded expectations. Volkswagen had to stop advertising the new Passat because people were given such ridiculously long delivery dates that the ads did more harm then good.Audi's baby, the A3 is also a huge success whilst VW are waiting to find out if the much improved but visually unchanged Mk4 Golf will capture people's imagination or not.

These days there seem to be three essential elements required for success: quality, image and innovation. These are qualities Korean car maker Daewoo seem to be lacking at present. Yes, they offer tremendous value for money but these days, in the sophisticated markets of Western Europe that is not enough. The same goes for the other Korean cars at present. Of the big players Toyota are in a little bit of a mess. Nobody can possibly question the quality of the cars, the huge funds at their disposal and their place in the world of automotives as a very major player. The bit they seem to be having problems with is called styling. Admittedly the Corolla has been re-styled to boost its brand's appeal. Whether it will do the trick or not remains to be seen.

Finally let me come back to imagine for a moment. Maybe I m just an old fashioned snob but how many people would you impress at a party if you turned up in a Daewoo Leganza or even a Nubira!? I don't know where our Korean friends find these name from or who is responsible but I cannot help feeling that if they sacked him today it would already be years too late