Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Who cares if it's any good or not?

When a motoring magazine bestows a car with the honour of a good review, it serves only as a snapshot in time. It means that the car has been judged to be very good in each of the subjective areas that magazine deems important at the time. As I have commented before, though, it’s by no means any indication that you’ll actually like the car they’re discussing. And as time goes by, and a car gets older, that rating becomes basically irrelevant.

Take the Citroen Pluriel, for example. Even the most generous of car reviewers made no attempt to conceal the cars weaknesses, subjectively I rate it as one of the worst cars I’ve ever driven. Thing is, though, at least it was a memorable one.

The Pluriel is flimsy. The entire body shudders when driven over the mildest of road imperfections. The panel immediately aft of the door closure can actually be grabbed and twisted by the human hand, which doesn’t inspire confidence. As a piece of engineering the Pluriel doesn’t score highly at all.

More damning, though, is the fact that it’s flawed conceptually as well as physically. In theory it’s designed to be of variable configuration. Ordinarily it’s a closed car with a sliding canvas roof , a la Citroen 2CV. On top of that, though, is the option of removing the roof altogether, along with the header rails and pillars, making the car completely open. Terrific in principal but with the rather elementary failing that there’s literally nowhere to put all the bits of car that you’ve just removed except for your garage floor. And then, if you do bravely venture into the British Summer in your al fresco Citroen, scuttle rhythmically flexing as you go, you better remember to take some stout foul-weather gear as you have literally zero protection from the elements.

So, theoretically and in practice, the Citroen Pluriel is total bollocks. Why then, do I secretly want one?

We’re now heading into an area of the motoring enthusiasts psyche that cannot rationally be explained. I want a Citroen Pluriel, (and I must stress it’s a barely noticeable twinge of desire, not a full-blown frenzy of lust and longing) because it’s interesting. It’s a developmental dead end. Citroen would be nuts to attempt to ever do anything like it again and that appeal is very unlikely to wane over time.

Contemporary reviews of the Pluriel were universally lukewarm, What Car?, admittedly never the most emotional of periodicals, awarded it two stars out of a possible five. But that was then, this is now. The years haven’t made it any better a car, but it does stand out more as being interesting, and therefore desirable. Right now a Pluriel is worth very little money, but I can see it developing a semi-cult following among those of us who loathe boring, conformist cars.

It’s not alone. A great many cars over the last few decades were greeted with shrugged shoulders by reviewers, but look far more interesting when viewed in retrospect. The Ford Probe, for example.

The Mazda-based Probe was anticipated with some excitement on its UK launch in ’94, the obvious latter-day Capri comparisons were bandied about, inaccurately it seems. But the car wasn’t a huge commercial success. It was badly marketed, it drove well but not brilliantly, the US-style interior was dated and cramped and the Ford Oval didn’t have enough allure to draw the affluent from the German coupe competition. Again, though, that was then.

Today a Probe can be had for very little outlay, and in the right colour (Imperial Blue) and in the right spec (24v with leather), it looks absolutely sensational and completely individual against the identikit cars of today. It has a huge number of attributes in its favour, the exhaust note, with overtones of Alfa Romeo was one of the most evocative of its day and the Pop-Up-Headlamps ooze retro-futurist appeal.

The Probe went for a long while suffering a slightly naff image, mostly the work of Gareth Cheeseman, a character from comedy chameleon Steve Coogan. He unfortunately nailed the demographic that the Probe would end up being bought by, namely horribly assertive thirty-something salesmen with ideas several stops beyond their station in life. That joke wore off a long time ago, though. Remember that the Capri spent a long time in the doldrums but has emerged as a genuine classic car. The Probe might not have the charisma, but it’s certain to be appreciated as a memorable product of its time.

Of the current crop of cars it’s difficult to see which will make it to be seen as of interest in the future. We’re necessarily talking about blue-chip future classics, just cars that may be unloved today but will prove of interest in the coming decades. I envisage an early BMW 1-series to have a greater following in twenty years hence than a similarly aged 3-series. The Vauxhall Signum, a fairly laughable car today (see Driven) but may well have some curiosity value one day, certainly more so than the moribund Vectra it was based on.

One thing's for sure. A car doesn't necessarily have to be any good at all to become a classic, or at the very least have a strong following in old age. Take the Mondeo; a brilliant car since launch in '93, consistently at the top of its game. And yet the scrapyards are full of them. Nobody is saving them, nobody is particularly celebrating them. If they were extinct, few people would shed a tear. The Capri, though? By any objective criteria it was a pretty poor car all round. Basic, agricultural, uncouth; most of its rivals made considerable strides forward during its lifetime. Yet it is beloved as a cultural icon of our country. A good one in a nice spec is worth many thousands of quid. Subjectively, we adore them. Warts and all.

And Citroen? Well, their automotive CV is littered with automotive oddities, loads of which achieved immortality. Even in the modern era, they have not only the Pluriel, but I see the C6, possibly the C4, and now probably early DS3s gaining a following in the future. Why? Because while Citroens were becoming more anodyne and conventional through the '90s, these models have regained some of the eccentricity that made the company interesting in the past.

In fact, I'm off to eBay, to search for an XM before the prices skyrocket.