1980s / 1990s / 2010s / BMW / French / German / Peugeot / Renault / Saab / smart / Swedish

The Frankfurt historics, part two

The 64th annual Frankfurt Motor Show opened its doors to the press today.  Ford revealed the production version of the 247 horsepower Focus ST and BMW took the wraps off of the new F10 M5, which they hail as the best-handling M5 yet.

In the midst of the new car premieres, here is the second part of the Frankfurt historics which focuses on cars from 1980 to 2009.

1981: Renault 9

Part one of the Frankfurt historics ended with the 1979 Jetta. The success encountered by the Jetta showed the European auto industry that it was still possible to make a business case for traditional four-door sedans. Renault took that into consideration and concluded that the 14’s replacement should be both a four-door sedan and a five-door hatchback.

The four-door sedan was the Renault 9, launched at the 1981 Frankfurt Motor Show. It had the particularity of being the first Renault to be powered by an in-house engine mounted transversally. The 14 came before it, but the engine was developed jointly with PSA and was also used in the Citroën Visa and the Peugeot 104, among others.

The hatchback version of the 9 was called the Renault 11 and was introduced in February of 1983. The two looked different but shared the same basic architecture.

The 9 was fairly modern in conception and Renault reportedly made extensive use of a primitive version of CAD to design it. The styling was austere, to say the least, but it was well-appreciated by its target audience, the early 1980s middle class. It was the kind of car that didn’t excel in any one particular area but that did just about everything well enough. The whole package was convincing enough that a panel of 52 European journalists voted it Car of the Year in 1982, ahead of the Opel Ascona/Vauxhall Cavalier and the Volkswagen Polo.

On the other side of the Atlantic the 9 became the Renault Alliance. It was built by AMC in Wisconsin and won Motor Trend’s Car of the Year award in 1983. In its first few months on the market the Alliance sold well but the tide soon turned and it earned an awful reputation for poor built quality and poor reliability. Renault tried, they even developed an Alliance two-door sedan, an Alliance GTA and an Alliance convertible specifically for the U.S. market, but the Alliance and its Renault 11-based sibling the Encore never recovered from the poor reputation they earned in the middle of the 1980s.

Both the 9 and the 11 were redesigned in 1986 and now shared the same front end. They were phased out from the French market in 1989 after a successful career in Europe and a dreadful one in the U.S.

1985: BMW M3

BMW’s iconic M3 came to life as a way for the German automaker to homologate a car for the German Touring Car Championship. After all, Mercedes was racing the w201 190E 2.3-16 and BMW couldn’t let their rival go unchallenged.

The M3 was based on the two-door E30 but the similarities stop there. On the outside it was instantly recognizable thanks to its fender flares and its specific C-pillar. Under the hood the M3 was powered by a 2.3 four-cylinder that featured four valves per cylinder. It put out 195 horsepower and had a top speed of 143 miles per hour, both impressive numbers for the mid-1980s. Thanks in part to weight saving measures inside and out, the M3 boasted a power to weight ratio of just 13.5 pounds per horsepower.

The homologation requirements called for a series of 5,000 cars sold over a period of at least twelve successive months. BMW went to work and the first M3s were delivered in 1987, after all 5,000 of them had been built. The order books filled so quickly that BMW produced more of them after that.

The first upgraded E30 M3 designed for the general public was called the Evolution. It came out in 1988 and was powered by a 215 horsepower engine. A year later BMW chopped the top off of the M3 and launched a convertible version of it, also powered by the 215 horsepower engine. The ultimate M3 was the Sport Evolution, featuring an engine enlarged to 2.5 liters and putting out a potent 238 horsepower. Both its front air dam and rear spoiler were adjustable. Only 600 Sport Evolutions were built.

The last E30 M3 rolled off the assembly line in 1991. When all was said and done, the limited run of 5,000 cars turned into a production of 17,970 cars.

1993: Saab 900

The original Saab 900’s replacement was controversial because it was the first Saab that extensively used GM parts. It shared its platform with the Opel/Vauxhall Astra and to make matters worse, the top-of-the-line engine was a 2.5 V6 sourced from GM. Its hood was hinged at the base of the windshield and the engines were transversally mounted. The only thing that the designers had retained from the outgoing model was the ignition between the front seats. In short, it was the antithesis of the classic 900 that so many drivers had come to love for its quirky design. “Heresy!”, cried Saab purists.

At its launch at the 1993 Frankfurt Motor Show the NG 900 (for new generation, though certain Saab loyalists have christened it the GM 900) was available in S or SE trim, and with three or five doors. The convertible version of the classic 900 carried on until 1994, when the convertible version of the new 900 arrived.

Aside from the aforementioned 2.5 V6, the 900 was available with a 2.0 four-cylinder (normally aspirated or turbocharged) and a 2.3 turbocharged four-cylinders, both designed by Saab. The 900 also inaugurated the Saab Information Display, an in-car computer that flashed messages about a failure on the car’s part, how many miles until the gas tank went empty, the outside temperature or which track the CD was playing.

The second-generation 900 wasn’t anywhere near as popular among brand enthusiasts as its predecessor was. It was phased out in 1998 and replaced by the 9-3, which was essentially a reworked 900.

Be it an NG or a GM, it generated a very mixed response from the Frankfurt show-goers and entire legions of folks downright hated the car. Looking back almost twenty years later, it had the merit of being around to generate any response at all. This year the troubled automaker has opted to skip the Frankfurt Motor Show.

1997: smart city-coupé

The smart traces its roots to Nicolas Hayek, the CEO of Swatch.  In the early 1990s he started toying around with the idea of creating a city car with an electric motor in each wheel called the Swatchmobile.  His idea was turned down by PSA and Renault, among others, but Volkswagen accepted and the two founded SwatchVolkswagen in 1991.  Little came of the association and Volkswagen put an end to it in 1993.

More companies turned down Hayek’s project, including General Motors, until Mercedes-Benz got wind of it and accepted.  They were interested in building a small city car and the Swatchmobile seemed promising.  The two founded Micro Compact Cars (MCC) in 1994 and went ahead with the development of what would become the smart.  Hayek unwillingly took a back seat in this process and was pushed out of the company entirely by 1998.

The smart city-coupé presented at the 1997 Frankfurt Motor Show was a far cry from Hayek’s original idea, but it was a novel concept in the city car segment.  The rear-engined two-seater was a mere 98 inches long and was powered by a 599cc turbocharged three-cylinder engine. The 599cc gave way to a 698cc and a 799cc turbo diesel was added later. As puny as those may sound, they provided better-than-decent performance for city driving. Contrary to a popular belief at the time, the city-coupé was indeed capable of freeway speeds, though the general consensus is that it is rather scary in crosswinds.

The first examples rolled off of the brand new Hambach, France, assembly plant in 1998. Around the time of its launch the smart made headlines in the press for failing the infamous moose test, which consists of making a sudden S-like maneuver to avoid an object (presumably a moose) in the middle of road. The Mercedes A-Class failed the same test and both consequently gained a notoriously bad reputation. Mercedes fixed the problem in both cars by including an ESP system as standard equipment.

With the moose test issue dealt with smart sales began to take off across Europe. A convertible version based on the coupe joined the lineup in 2000 and became popular among well-off city dwellers.

The city-coupé was redesigned for 2003 and was renamed the smart fortwo a little after. It was replaced by the current-generation fortwo in 2007.

2009: Peugeot RCZ

The Peugeot RCZ started life as the 308 RCZ concept, shown at the 2007 Frankfurt Motor Show. At the time it seemed like nothing more than a design study by Peugeot but in April of 2008, the French automaker surprised the industry and announced that the 308 RCZ had been given the green light for production.

The production version of the 308 RCZ (called simply the RCZ) was revealed at the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show. Precious little differentiated it from the concept shown two years earlier. As the concept’s name implies, the RCZ is based on the 308 but the two do not share any body panels. It uses a wide variety of gas and turbo diesel four-cylinder engines, including the 200 horsepower 1.6 THP that PSA developed jointly with BMW and that is also found under the hood of the second-generation MINI hatchback.

The two-seater RCZ wasn’t simply designed for street use: Peugeot and privateers alike have taken it to the track and it has been a fairly capable machine. An RCZ powered by a 2.0 HDi turbo diesel took first place in the D1T class at the 24 Hours of the Nürburgring, placing 54th overall.

Peugeot chose to outsource RCZ production and it is built by Magna Steyr in Graz, Austria, alongside the MINI Countryman and the Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen. The RCZ was a daring car to launch for Peugeot but their bets have paid off and over 30,000 of them have found a home since deliveries started in February of 2010. A little over 20,000 of those were sold in Europe, making the RCZ more successful than the Audi TT it is competing against.

As a side note, we’ve added a classifieds section to RWP.  There is a link to it at the top of this page, under the header image, or you can access it directly by clicking here.  Check it out and don’t hesitate to email us if you want to post an ad, it’s all in good spirit and it’s free.

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