Retro Rides

Articles on all the non-conformist, weird and forgotten cars of the past several decades, the burgeoning modern classics to the still unloved. While they might not have reached the stratospheric valuations of their vintage forebears, they still certainly strike a nostalgic note into the heart of many a automotive aficionado. From the under-appreciated Ferrari 348 and DaimlerChrysler era Mercedes-Benz models to the most obscure vehicles to rise out of Japan’s bubble era automotive landscape, this is Retro Rides.

It’s the weekend, so what better way to cruise down some open country lanes with the roof down pondering your life decisions than in an early model variant Mercedes-Benz SL of the venerable R107 generation. Of course, for those that desire a somewhat more practical automotive alternative the SLC variant, in essence an SL on a lengthened wheelbase and fixed coupe roof, has you covered.

In recent years the R/C107 chassis has appreciated considerably in value by virtue of its elegant style, relative reliability and mechanical simplicity and ease of operation in comparison to other roadster of its time. The later model 560SLs seem to garner most of the attention from enthusiasts, but to my own aesthetic perspective, the earlier, more simplistic design is even more perfect.

It may not be the fastest Mercedes-Benz SL Produced nor the most inherently valuable, but it can certainly be considered to be the most significant ever produced, being the most successful in the historic line.

First and foremost, I apologise to anyone expecting an article on the venerable, and very lovely yellow, Honda NSX seen above. In this article I’m instead delving not into the minute details of the everyman’s Japanese super car, but rather discussing the very fabric of how such a car, and many others like, it came to exist in such a tumultuous economic climate as that in 1990s Japan. Thus, you’ve been warned....a comprehensive undergraduate thesis on the modern Japanese economy is in store, but its so much more than that.

After coming to the sudden realisation that I’m rather intrigued by contemporary Japanese culture in general yet hold virtually no deeper knowledge on their unique and widely-regarded automotive produces, I’ve decided to submerge myself into uncharted waters, by going down a boredom-induced rabbit hole over the last several days in order to try and gain some deeper insight into the mysterious characteristics of the Japanese automotive industry and culture encapsulating it.

In essence, Japan’s unprecedented economic growth in the 1980s, spurred by a surge in demand for technologically-revolutionary consumer goods in the Western world and a relentless striving for growth at home as the world become increasingly more homogenised and globalised facilitated the Japanese economy to grow to new heights. In the unpredictable and dilapidated post-war economy, the Japanese populous were incentivised by the government to save what little money that had accumulated or retained and spend little on trivial goods.

However, by the dawn of the 1980s, the consumer base and especially the country’s largest conglomerates were flush with capital that they were eager to utilise leading to the considerably more indulgent spending and a desire for the most technologically-radical products from consumers and a mission, so to speak, to produce the most over-engineered and avant-garde product lines by the manufacturers.

After all, if they had the money to spend, and people had the money to buy, no one loses. Billions upon billions of dollars (and many more yen) was pushed into the development of a sprawling range of models to an overly-obsessive degree. It seemed that the engineers, abundant in investment capital, were simply making the most astonishing and niche products they could devise and then worrying about selling it to the increasingly wealthier Japanese consumers later. Did the world fundamentally require a mid-engined kei-sized micro car with gullwing doors from Mazda and Suzuki, no. Did the world need tremendous performance coupes with 4WD, ceramic turbochargers, four wheel computer controlled and electronically actuated steering systems, advanced satellite navigation and twin-rotor experimental powertrains, no, of course not.

However, this striving to push the envelope of engineering boundaries and to introduce radical new technologies to the consuming public for the first time is one of the most significant eras in the automotive world. Conversely, if it seems too good to be true that a country that experienced nuclear warfare and a complete reconstruction of society and one as small as Japan, could sustain this unprecedented growth and technological implementation, you’d be right.

By the early 1990s, the overvaluation, over-leverage and over-dependency on unsustainable economic market growth and the exploding property market soon caught up on Japan, and decimated not only the economy as a whole, but quickly coerced a reality check onto the manufacturers. The seemingly endless streams of investment capital for automotive development quickly vanished along with the financial status of most of the Japanese populous, most of which had been held only by the increasingly expanding yet now stagnant property market, leading to what many now refer to as, “Japan’s lost decade”.

While today, Japanese cares have become a staple of quality and conformity in the industry, it is always intriguing to indulge in their almost unbelievable past. A time when they built cars for anyone and everyone, virtually irregardless of the financial motivations of implications. Today, such beloved vehicles to Japanese aficionados have returned, consisting of the new Honda/Acura NSX, BMW Supra and Nissan GTR, but it is perhaps the original efforts, devised under seemingly limitless budgets and potential that catch the heart of many still. 

Mercedes-Benz has an illustrious history of producing some of the most elegant and luxurious cars ever produced, and it is perhaps its longstanding line of full-size grand touring coupes which represent the pinnacle of those characteristics. It can be disputed to the end of time as to which S-Class generation is the best, using all manner of objective and subjective criticisms and acclaim, but the 126 generation can surely be said to have a worthy place near the top of the list to many Benz aficionados.

The 126 S-Class was to many the definitive S-Class, a vehicle that pushed the envelope of technological innovation and boundaries, whilst retaining the traditional Mercedes-Benz internal values of quality and mechanical dependably (*cries in DaimlerChrysler era). Following the implications of the global fuel crisis and oil embargo in 1973, Mercedes-Benz was presented with the challenge of making their flagship model more fuel efficient than its W116 predecessor which they achieved throughout the intelligent optimisation of aerodynamic proportions and elegantly integrated deformable bumpers, which replaced the ungainly and obtuse units found before.

Simultaneously, while fuel efficiency was of a higher priority than before, it must also be said that safety was perhaps the most significant innovation of the venerable 126 series, with the first commercial implementation of a frontal airbag in a passenger car being realised near to the onset of the vehicle’s production which was supplemented by the inclusion off automatic seatbelt pre-tensioning devices in conjunction with a significantly reinforced and more intelligently designed passenger safety cell. In all, the array of technological safety innovations found throughout the 126 made it certainly one of the safest vehicles on the road in its historical heyday.

This generation is further heralded by enthusiasts as it represented The perfect compromise between the relative mechanical simplicity of earlier Mercedes-Benz models which had been lost by the time the impressively over-engineered but complicated W140 debuted in 1991 but also had many of the most advanced safety and driving technologies that make it one of the most viable means of classic car transportation, even to this day.

The turn of the Millenium was an intriguing era for sports and supercars as it marked the beginning of a convoluted transformation towards making high performance vehicles easier to drive, more accessible to a wider audience and more technologically advanced. The traditional configuration of abundant horsepower, naturally-aspirated engined mated to manual gearboxes and other more analogue attributes had begun to shift in some cases towards the implementation of more electronic driver aids, increased refinement and of course, the first widespread utilisations of “F1-style” sequential manual gearboxes, which are perhaps more colloquially referred to as “paddle-shift” or “flappy-paddle” gearboxes.

These gearboxes which were theoretically easier to use to a less-skilled driver or perhaps merely one that isn’t accustomed to the somewhat tricky nature of certain manual transmissions in performance cars were condemned by many automotive enthusiasts but warmly embraced by a plethora of affluent customers. Hence, within this recent automotive period, there was a peculiar amalgamation of both the last inherently analogue supercars and more modern, easier to use, variants that coexisted in the marketplace.

Many of these offerings came with both the option of the traditional gated manual shifters and the optional and expensive paddle-shift configurations. Despite the high price customers of theses aforementioned cars, such as the much revered Lamborghini Mucielago and Ferrari 599 were available with both, but with the blatant majority of customers opting for the more modern transmission its certainly a rare treat to find such a modern performance car equipped with a traditional gear lever, and thus many of these so called “final analogue supercars”, have become increasingly treasured by automotive collectors around the world as the final iterations of an automotive concept, whereby man and machine are fully connected to one another.

Expediting upon that, many of the paddle-shift transmissions were not only incredibly expensive to optionally configure but even more immensely costly when they broke, which unfortunately was rather often due to the rather rudimentary state of the technology that had yet to mature, with customers essentially being early adopters and having to experience both the benefits and repercussions of that fact.

Nonetheless, while many of the supercars and sports cars from this automotive era are considered technologically outdated and involving to drive compared to their manual counterparts, it must also be taken into consideration that virtually every performance car on the market today has forgone both the naturally-aspirated engine and the manual gearbox in favour of more powerful and emissions-friendly turbocharged engines and more versatile automotive dual-clutch transmissions, which are both significantly improved over their predecessors.

Today, only one argument remains standing against the modern supercars and that is that it has become to easy, to accessible to drive, losing that visceral edge and semblance that make them so exclusive in the days gone by. 


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