1930s / 1960s / 1980s / 1990s / 2000s / 2010s / Alfa Romeo / Autobianchi / Fiat / French / German / Italian / Lancia / Mercedes-Benz / Opel / Peugeot / Renault / Touring Superleggera

The 2012 Geneva historics

The 82nd annual Geneva Motor Show has just closed its doors after two weeks of new car debuts such as the third generation of the Mercedes-Benz A-Class, the Ford B-Max, and the all-electric Renault Zoe.

While most of the automotive press was busy covering the cars that bowed at the Swiss gathering, Ran When Parked was doing the opposite and taking a look at the cars that took the stage at previous Geneva shows.

1937: Fiat 500 A (Topolino)

In the early 1930s Italy was still very rural, and despite having more automakers than a lot of neighboring countries, there were very few cars on the road.  To remedy the situation, Benito Mussolini (the leader of Italy’s fascist regime) called for the development of a worker’s car that would cost less than 5,000 lire.

Numerous prototypes were built, including several that featured front-wheel drive, but the tests got nowhere.  Eventually, Fiat put Dante Giacosa in charge of developing the car, and he set out to build what essentially looked like a miniature version of the Fiat Balilla. 

The production version of the car was powered by a water-cooled 596cc four-cylinder engine.  It was mounted under the front hood, and sent power to the rear wheels via a four-speed manual transmission.

At its launch, the 500 A cost significantly more than 5,000 lire, but it was an instant hit across Italy.  The public nicknamed it “Topolino”, which is the name of Mickey Mouse in Italian.  It was successful enough that production kept going even when World War II broke out.

The 500 A was produced under license in several countries, including Poland (where it was badged as a Polski-Fiat), France (where it was sold as a Simca), and Austria (where it wore a Steyr-Puch badge).

Fiat gave the 500 A two major redesigns in its long production run.  It was phased out in 1955 when the Fiat 600 was launched, and it was replaced in 1957 when the rear-engined Nuova 500 made its debut.

1965: Renault 16

Up until the early 1960s, Renault had the reputation of making small economy cars designed for the masses.  The exception to that was the Frégate, a slow-selling sedan that most critics (and even some of Renault’s top brass) claimed drove like a truck.

With that in mind, when Renault set off to design the 16 in the early 1960s, the company went to great lengths to make sure that nothing was left to chance.  The car’s launch was even pushed back by two months in order to give the design team time to make over 250 modifications to the final design.

The brand’s attention to detail even extended to the car’s final assembly point: Renault built a new factory in Sandouville, France, especially for the 16.

The first 16s built were put in the hands of a specially-selected group of customers to test the car in real-world situations.  Once Renault was sure that everything worked as it should, it started shipping 16s to dealers.

The 16 surprised the automotive press with its handling, its styling, and its roomy interior.  Trunk space could be extended by folding down the rear seats, and the cargo area was accessed via a large hatchback.  In a time when gas was relatively inexpensive and speed limits were not yet firmly in place, the 16 cruised effortlessly in the passing lane thanks to its 1,470cc four-cylinder engine.

The Regie’s efforts with the 16 paid off and the car was elected Car of the Year in 1965, ahead of the Rolls Royce Silver Shadow and the Oldsmobile Tornado.  The public quickly adopted the car: a little over a year after its launch, over 65,000 16s had been sold in France, 11,000 in Germany, 3,500 in Belgium, and 3,000 in Holland. 

Renault kept the 16 in its lineup until 1979.  It is estimated that over 1.8 million examples were built around the world.

1985: Autobianchi/Lancia Y10

The compact Y10 was Fiat’s answer to the tough question of how to replace the Autobianchi A112.  The A112 had been an integral part of Fiat’s lineup for over a decade, but its popularity was starting to decline as customers were increasingly turning to more modern competitors.

Fiat commissioned Pininfarina and Giugiaro to design the car, but both of their submissions were rejected; instead, Fiat drafted up the car’s final design in-house.  Despite its boxy shape, it had a very aerodynamic body and it was relatively spacious inside.  It is worth noting that regardless of the car’s exterior color, the hatch was always painted black.

To save money on development, the Y10 was based on the first Fiat Panda’s front-wheel drive platform, but it was not fitted with the Panda’s much-criticized leaf spring rear suspension. Some early Y10s did use the Panda’s 999cc four-cylinder FIRE engine, a remarkably reliable non-interference unit.

Fiat wanted the Y10 to be a volume seller throughout all of Europe.  The problem was that Autobianchi had almost no brand image in certain northern countries, so Fiat decided to slap a Lancia badge on the car’s grille in certain markets.  In Italy and in France, the Y10 made its debut as an Autobianchi.

Autobianchi built the Y10 at its Desio, Italy, factory until Fiat closed down the brand in 1992 in an effort to merge it with Lancia. From that point on, the Y10 was exclusively badged as a Lancia, and it was built in Alfa Romeo’s Arese factory.

Several interesting models were built over the car’s production run, including a turbocharged version and four-wheel drive version.

The Y10 wasn’t a terribly successful car, but it was the first of several generations of Lancia-badged premium city cars.  That torch is carried today by the Lancia Ypsilon, also sold as a Chrysler in the United Kindgom.

1997: Mercedes A-Class (w168)

The Mercedes-Benz A-Class created a lot of noise in the auto industry in the months prior to its debut.  That’s understandable: it was the first mass-produced front-wheel drive Mercedes-Benz, as well as the company’s first attempt to build a compact people-mover, a segment that was booming in the late 1990s.

Unfortunately for the German automaker, the A-Class wasn’t quite ready to hit the market.  Swedish magazine Teknikens Värld ran the car through its routine moose test, which consisted of making a sudden maneuver at high speed to avoid an object in the road; the A-Class rolled, failing the test miserably.

Teknikens Värld quickly published their findings and even in an era when internet usage was relatively uncommon, word of the A-Class’ handling issues spread throughout Europe like a wildfire.  Soon enough, other European media outlets ran the car through improvised moose tests of their own and ended up with the same result.  For a short while, the cover of almost every car magazine in Europe featured a picture of an A-Class going around cones on two wheels, and the car became the Corvair of our generation.

Mercedes corrected the issue by including ESP as a standard feature on the A-Class.  It recalled every example it had sold since to retrofit ESP, and the car was deemed safe, which enabled it to have a successful career.

2000: Opel Speedster/Vauxhall VX220

The Opel Speedster made its debut at the 1999 Geneva Motor Show as a concept car, but the public’s reaction was so positive that General Motors quickly decided to add the car to the Opel and Vauxhall lineup.  The production version bowed in 2000, and the first examples were delivered in 2001.

The Speedster was based on the Lotus Elise, and General Motors contracted Lotus in England to produce the car.  Thanks in part to its tubular aluminum chassis, the Opel-badged convertible weighed just 1,920 pounds.  In order to further save weight, Opel stripped the interior almost entirely, which created a race car-like atmosphere.  A lot of clients in the market for a convertible were after something more posh and looked past the ill-equipped Speedster altogether.

That’s unfortunate, because most agree that the Speedster was a brilliant machine to drive.  It was powered by a mid-mounted ECOTEC 2.2-liter 16-valve four-cylinder engine rated at 147 horsepower and 149 lb-ft of torque.  It rocketed from zero to 62 miles per hour in just 6.5 seconds.

In 2003, Opel added a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder to the Speedster lineup.  It was good for 200 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque, and propelled the car to 62 miles per hour from a stop in respectable 5.2 seconds.

Production of the Speedster ended in 2005 after less than 10,000 units were built.  The car was replaced by the Opel GT, which shared its Kappa platform with the Pontiac Solstice and the Saturn Sky.

2012: Touring Superleggera Disco Volante 2012

Milan-based Carrozzeria Touring Superleggera designed the Disco Volante 2012 concept to celebrate the Alfa Romeo C52’s 60th birthday.  The C52 is better known in Alfa circles as the Disco volante, a name which means “flying saucer” in Italian, and alludes to the car’s extremely aerodynamic body.

The 2012 edition of the Disco Volante is based on the Alfa Romeo 8C.  It is powered by a Maserati-sourced 4.7-liter V8 engine that is rated at 444 horsepower and 346 lb-ft of torque.  Power is sent to the rear wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission.

At the time of writing the car is merely a concept, but there are rumors that the coachbuilder will build a limited run of them.

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