Thursday
Jul152010

A Salute To Some Old Soldiers

What do the Peugeot 505, the original Toyota Supra and the Mercedes-Benz G-Class have in common? The answer is, they all entered production in 1979, but, amazingly, one of them can still be bought brand new. It’s the G-Class, or Gel‰ndewagen, of course, and it has just been re-introduced to Mercedes-Benz’s UK model lineup for the first time in 10 years. The G is a proper toff’s off-roader of the old school, the German equivalent of the original Range Rover, and it has a proper military heritage to boot. Upstarts like the BMW X5; Audi Q7; Volvo XC90; and the G-Wagen’s own Stuttgart stablemates, the ML and GL classes, were not even a twinkle in their manufacturers’ eyes when the G rumbled into life in 1979, and, despite the fact that it’s now over 30 years old, its classic, utilitarian and ever-so-slightly menacing shape has far greater appeal than that of the bulbous cars-on-stilts that these days can constantly be found clogging up our school and shopping-centre car parks.

The news of the G-Class’ right-hand-drive return got me thinking about other models out there that have defied the trend of the mandatory facelift-after-three-years, replacement-after-five-years cycle that has swept the car industry over the last 20 years or so. Such models are important ñ they serve as a reminder to those who should know better that no, just because the manufacturer has come out with a replacement, it doesn’t mean that what you have has suddenly become useless and obsolete. Truly great engineering stands the test of time, and the list of cars that have escaped the marketing department’s axe for unfeasibly long periods is an impressive one.

There are the obvious candidates, of course - the well-known and much-loved ‘people’s cars’ like the VW Beetle (built in Mexico until 2003); the CitroÎn 2CV (produced from 1948 until 1990); the Mini (1959-2000); and the car that got India motoring, the Hindustan Ambassador (a rebadged Morris that has been on the go since 1958). Indeed, licensed production of discontinued European models in developing countries has been the saving grace of many iconic cars. VW enthusiasts here in Ireland have recently cottoned on to the fact that the Mk I Golf is still being produced in South Africa (albeit not in GTI form), and elsewhere, Fiat’s venerable 128 (introduced in 1969) is still rolling off production lines in licensed form in both Egypt and Serbia. Most impressively, Peugeot’s 504, which was built in Nigeria and Kenya until 2006 and in China until 2009, ended up outliving its 505 replacement (which itself was no flash in the pan, with a production run of 18 years in France, Argentina and Africa).

But it could be argued that such developing-world ‘specials’ don’t count when it comes to collating the list of truly timeless designs. Economic, social and technological factors have meant that these stalwarts were ideally suited to the needs of the countries that assembled them for long after their European creators had forgotten about them. And the era of badge-engineered Western hand-me-downs may be coming to a close, as home-grown models like the Tata Nano help to further expand the reach of the automobile around the globe.

The true automotive living legends, in my book, are those that are still doing what they were designed to do, in the market that they were designed to do it in, simply because no-one has been able to come up with a superior replacement. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the vehicles that fall into this category are uncompromising, no-nonsense creations, designed to do one thing properly and one thing only. You have the original Land Rover Defender and the aforementioned Mercedes G-Class, vying for the title of the ultimate rugged off-roader. And then you have the classic two-seater sports cars like the Caterham 7 (previously Lotus 7) and the daddy of them all ñ the Morgan 4/4, with an astonishing production history stretching all the way back to 1936. Of the latter two, the Caterham is perhaps more worthy of appreciation from an engineering point of view, as its makers continue to hone, refine and perfect the basic concept year on year, whereas the Morgan is a more staunchly traditional product, but both approaches have their merits. There is no sign of either the Morgan or the Caterham disappearing from showrooms anytime soon, and the G-Class is currently scheduled to remain in production until at least 2015. A stripped-out sportscar and a go-anywhere off-roader make for a pretty potent two-car garage, and all of these models rank pretty high on my list of cars to own before I die, so long may they continue to defy the relentless drive for (sometimes unecessary) improvement.

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