Strange as it may seem, I have now been chattering away on this little, cobwebbed corner of the internet on a (usually) weekly basis for an entire year.
I’m going to do the standard-issue self-congratulatory ‘Review of the Year’ type thing separately some other time. However this evening’s entry is going to be in the spirit of doing something a bit different on anniversaries.
For the past 12 months I’ve rambled on about ‘bad’ cars, why they’re more interesting than ‘good’ ones, and why they’re usually not as bad as people say they are. Therefore, at this special time, I would like to consider what makes not only a good car, but the best car.
It should be fairly easy to define what makes the best car- we all know what people want in a motor vehicle so you just go for the one that offers the most of that. But it isn’t that simple. If it was you’d just proclaim the Volkswagen Beetle the best ever car and because it sold the most.
Which is clearly nonsense. Stalin may have said “quantity has a certain quality of its own” but what did he know? The Beetle clearly sold over 20 million examples because it offered a lot of what a lot of people wanted. It was cheap to buy, economical to run, mechanically reliable and could slog along for years in its own slow, tail-happy fashion making a sound like an angry coffee grinder. If you distil a car down to its most basic function, which is to move people around in a quicker and less strenuous way than they could move themselves, then the Beetle makes a strong case for being ‘the best car’.
Except that it clearly isn’t. All it takes to be better than a Beetle is to be similarly reliable and cost-effective whilst having better performance, better handling, better refinement and an engine in the right place. This must be within the wit of mankind. Are we really saying that the automotive industry peaked in the ‘Thirties with an idea by Adolf Hitler? Is the Beetle really the ultimate expression of the engineering and design capabilities of the human race? The Beetle success came from it being wholly adequate to pretty much everyone and adequate does not equal best.
This naturally takes us on to the world of specialist cars which excel at being fast or pulling lateral G or carrying a lot of things, or carrying people in great comfort, or being able to traverse fearsome terrain. The Bugatti Veyron is probably the shoe-in for ‘Best Car Ever…In The World’ with the audience of 13-year olds who seem to be main target of Top Gear these days. It is an engineering marvel but that comes at a (huge) price. If the Beetle didn’t qualify because it offered the bare essentials and was therefore affordable to everyone, then the Veyron and its ilk are excluded because they offer the very best but at a huge price.
Then there comes more middle-ground stuff. A brand new supercharged Range Rover Sport could be considered the best ‘vehicle’ of all time because it’s excessively fast, can carry seven people in class-leading comfort, can tow several tons without breaking a sweat and few things this side of a Challenger tank can shame it when off the road. If this technical breadth is a factor, then we’d also have to consider things like the Citroën Xantia Activa, which is probably as close to perfection that a car has ever come from an engineering perspective, being technically free from almost any compromises in terms of ride versus handling, payload versus comfort and speed versus stability.
Now I’m getting too far away from the functional aspect of things and the spectre of reliability beings to rear its head. A car can only be any good when it works and neither the Range Rover or the Citroën can claim the best record here.
This also discounts most cars made since about 1995. There seems to have been a brief period in the ‘Eighties and early ‘Nineties when the Venn circles of ‘simplicity’ and ‘reliability’ intersected. Cars were no longer flaky, wheezy rust traps from the ‘Seventies built down to the minimum cost. Electronics were simple solid-state boxes of relays and resistors and only deigned to manage important things like fuel injection rather than overseeing all the slave electrons working your heater fan or auto-dipping mirror like on a modern car. Smartphone interconnectivity and mood lighting hadn’t been invented and if your car had emissions controls it consisted of a single lone lambda sensor (and a big boot badge telling everyone it was there). Think how many of the automotive cockroaches of today (the Peugeot 205, the Vauxhall Astra Mk3, the VW Polo Mk2, the Ford Ka, the Rover R8, the Mercedes W124 and so on) come from this period.
So we must be looking for a car that’s reliable, affordable, offers slightly more than the literal bare essentials but not too much in the way of excessive luxury, isn’t some impractical flight of engineering fancy and covers all the bases.
Volkswagen Golf it is, then! Like its Beetle ancestor the Golf (in all its iterations) has achieved its huge global success by virtue of being pretty much all the car anyone ever actually needs without being crushingly basic. There hardly any practical reason not to buy a Golf (if you can’t afford a new one, buy an old one. If you can’t bring yourself to be a VeeDub sheep, buy a Skoda or a Seat, if you don’t want to buy ‘a Golf’ buy a Golf with a boot, and so on).
It seems that the only thing better than a Golf would be something like a Golf where everything had been ever so slightly improved so it was, overall, much better without being extortionately expensive or specialised. If only there was such a car.
There is- it’s called the Mercedes-Benz W201, better known as the 190.
This isn’t a luxury car (or it certainly doesn’t need to be, as anyone who’s seen a basic 2-litre W201 with no radio, cloth seats and manual windows will know). Hard-core Cosworth variants aside it’s not especially fast, even in its biggest-engined forms. It’s certainly not sporty- being an old Merc it’s far too refined and cosseting for that. What the 190 is is a perfectly ordinary car with four doors and a boot which has been designed from the off-set to last for at least three decades. It doesn’t excel particularly at anything, with the exception of build quality, which sort of covers all the bases in and of itself. It is ‘a car’ that’s been done incredibly well. You could be issued with, I don’t know, a mid-spec 190E 2.3, at birth and it could serve you perfectly well in both the functional and structural sense until you drop dead. As a car it’s complex enough (electro-mechanical fuel injection, multi-link suspension etc.) to be reliable and safe while being simple enough to be repairable by someone with some basic mechanical nous. Simply put, it is, in my opinion, the best single model of car ever made.