Car fashion tends not to mirror social trends, whatever sociologists may say. The Eighties, for instance, were supposedly all about flaunting wealth and being brazenly ambitious. Yet it was also the decade of the hot hatch - discreet 'sports' cars in the main, which looked much like your everyday 1.3L hatchback but had Porsche-matching pace. They replaced the pukka sports cars of the Seventies, which were far more ostentatious.

Early Nineties' trends have included environmental responsibility and political correctness - yet there has been an explosion of daft 4x4 leisure 'trucks'. These drink petrol or diesel as though Mother Earth had it to spare (upshot: lots more pollutants coming out the tailpipe), and usually have antisocial 'bull' bars welded to their noses, threatening grievous injury to any pedestrian, cyclist or motorcyclist they might run into.

And now, while ostentation is out, and clothes are getting less showy and more sensible, along comes a new breed of car designed to make you stand out from the crowd. Manufacturers are convinced it will be the biggest growth sector of the mid-Nineties. I'm talking about pukka sports cars - latter-day E-types and MGBs. Most of the world's major car makers are planning a feast of them.

First up is Fiat, master of the art back in the Sixties. Its new Coupe model is the brainchild of Paolo Cantarella, the youthful managing director who is determined to teach young men and women, weaned on hot hatches, what proper sports cars are about. The new Coupe is an imaginatively styled (some call it ugly) two-seater that uses Tipo mechanicals. It is being unveiled next week; a Spider (roadster) version is planned for early 1995. It will be smaller than the Coupe and use mechanicals from the Punto model, which replaces the Uno.

Before that, the Italian giant, which owns all the major Italian car nameplates apart from Lamborghini, is to relaunch the most famous Sixties roadster of the lot, the Alfa Spider. I've seen a prototype, and it is a stunning-looking car. Both V6 and four-cylinder engines will be offered when European sales start next autumn. A coupe version follows in 1995.

Of even more interest to British buyers is the first new MG to be launched by Rover in more than 20 years. The mid-engined open-top sports car, codenamed PR3, is unveiled in 1995. It uses mechanicals borrowed from a new small Rover saloon, codenamed Theta, which is to replace the 200 hatchback.

The new MG is likely to cost from pounds 14,000 - making it cheaper than the current darling of the roadster ravers, the Mazda MX-5. It is also the first non-Honda Rover launched for more than 10 years and may indicate that Rover is about to re-enter the US market, from which it has ignominiously retreated on more than one occasion. The US was easily the biggest market for old-style MGs.

Britain's Big Two - Ford and Vauxhall - are also in on the action. The US-made, Mazda-based Ford Probe, spiritual successor to that old non-sophisticate the Capri, goes on sale next spring. It made its British debut at last month's London Motor Show. It is far more svelte and refined than the Capri, which is why Ford is not using the old name.

Vauxhall also showed sports car prototypes at Earls Court. The Tigra, based on the Corsa, is a precursor to production coupe and convertible models. Both look pretty and ought not to cost much more than pounds 10,000 apiece when, as expected, sales start in late 1995 or 1996.

Volkswagen and Citroen are among other major manufacturers planning relatively inexpensive roadsters or coupes.

So why the sports car frenzy more than 10 years after manufacturers abandoned the market and served up hot hatches in their stead? First, Mazda proved with its MX-5 that money could be made out of pukka sports cars, never mind what the Europeans, and particularly the British - who previously 'owned' the market - had been saying. Second, new production technology means that it is now practicable to do much smaller runs of cars. In every case, the mechanicals will be borrowed from everyday saloons - just as they were in the Sixties.

Finally, as all cars increasingly serve up the essentials of reliability, safety, comfort and decent performance, the intangibles, such as image, will be of growing importance to the marketeers. Sports cars tend to give a fashionable street cred to a maker's entire range.

ODD AS IT may sound, the 'father' of the world's fastest car has always been one of the 'greenest' car engineers I've known. Jim Randle, who created the 217mph XJ220 as one of his final acts as Jaguar's chief engineer, has long railed against the wastefulness and technical outdatedness of modern cars.

He is now a professor of engineering at the University of Birmingham and, liberated from the constraints of big-company bureaucracy, is hard at work creating his own car of the future. There is some hope that a version of it - possibly a taxi - may be sold as early as 1995.

The project car, Hermes, designed in conjunction with engineering students at Birmingham, has a gas turbine engine using natural gas (methane). 'It's a marvellously clean-burning fuel, and one in which the Earth is abundant,' Professor Randle says. 'Measure for measure, methane is a worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So by burning it to form CO2 you are almost doing the Earth a favour.'

In his prototype, the gas turbine acts as an on-board generator, turning at constant revs (although, if necessary, it could be turned off in town, further cutting back on pollutants). It powers a bank of batteries, which in turn provide energy for electric motors.

Professor Randle says it is much more compact and energy-efficient than conventional petrol power. And the on-board generator means it overcomes the inherent problem of 'conventional' electric cars - namely, that the batteries can only store a limited amount of mains-generated energy.

Unlike most professors setting out to invent 'cars of the future', Professor Randle has the hard-nosed experience necessary to get Hermes into production. He is also politically astute enough to know that there are plenty of wealthy vested interests keen to push natural gas.

(Photograph omitted)

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