David Milloy and his magic lantern

Picture the scene: it’s a cold, wet January night and the house is still. You’re warm and comfortable, sitting snugly in your favourite armchair. You reach for the glass of malt whisky that waits expectantly on the table, but your hand is stayed by the sudden emission of a cloud of green mist from the old, silt-encrusted lantern that you found on the beach this afternoon and which now sits on the hearth.

The mist quickly dissipates to reveal a large, bald, pantaloon-clad man levitating an inch above the floor. Not quite able to believe your eyes, you blink. And blink again. He’s still there, standing in front of the roaring fire, seemingly oblivious to the heat. You look at the whisky glass and remind yourself that it’s your first of the night.

“You are the one,” says the intruder in a booming voice. You make to say something, but he holds up a large hand, brooking no interruption. “You have freed me from a thousand years of torment. And for that I will grant your deepest desire.” The intruder reaches into a pocket and pulls out a small box that’s about the size and shape of a TV remote. He carefully places the box on the coffee table and vanishes in a puff of white smoke.

Suddenly, or so it seems, it’s morning. Hard early morning light plays into your eyes as you realise that you’ve spent the night in your armchair. The glass of whisky you poured last night sits untouched on the chairside table. Your mind brushes away sleep-induced cobwebs and a mental picture starts to form – a picture of a large, half-naked man wearing over-sized purple pantaloons. You mutter something about eating less cheese in future and struggle to your feet.

As you strike out, a little unsteadily, for the kitchen and the lure of hot coffee, something catches your eye. A small wooden box sits on the coffee table. “That’s funny,” you think, “I don’t recall that being there last night.” Curiosity being nine-tenths of the better part of discretion (or however the saying goes), you shuffle over to the table and gently pick up the box. It’s small and light with exquisitely crafted markings on its lid.

You open the box carefully. The lid lifts off to reveal an ornate metal handset with an inset alphanumeric keypad and small LCD screen and a leaflet with a single word written on its cover in delicate copperplate: “Instructions”. You open the leaflet and are presented with a single page of text in the same beautiful writing:

“Wish Fulfilment Device.
For personal use by the recipient ONLY.

Instructions for use.

Switch the handset on and off by whispering “abracadabra” whilst holding it.

Follow the prompts on the keypad to:

1. Choose a decade (e.g. 1970-1979)
2. Choose a car manufacturer from that decade
3. Choose a model of car made in that decade
4. Choose the colour, engine type and trim specification of that car
5. Confirm your selection.

You may repeat steps 2 to 5 up to a maximum of four times.

Each car selected by you will come in brand new condition, already registered, taxed and insured in your name.

Choose wisely.”

Now, I have to be honest and say that this hasn’t happened to me. Yet. But if (or, rather, when) it does happen then here’s what I’ll select:

Decade: 1980-1989

Manufacturer: Renault
Car: 25 V6 Turbo, phase 1
Colour: Black

Phase 1 Renault 25 V6 Turbo

There’s something about 80s Renaults that continues to captivate me all these years later, perhaps because they genuinely had “Va Va Voom” long before the phrase was a notion in some advertising copywriter’s head. Truth told, I’d be torn between the 25 V6 Turbo and the Renault 11 Turbo. I owned the latter in the late 80s and it was a hoot – a fast, practical, comfortable and sure-footed buzz-bomb that indulged my youthful overexuberance at the wheel and treated my erratic steering and throttle inputs with quasi-parental care.

However, much as I’d jump at the chance of a new 11 Turbo, the more mature appeal of the 25 V6 Turbo is just too alluring to resist. Like many Renaults, the styling of the earlier 25s works better than the facelift models. On the other hand, the 25 Turbo gained an extra 23 horsepower in its later incarnation. Looks versus power – decisions, decisions. Actually, it’s an easy decision (one of my better ones, some might say, and, no, I’m not being a bit hasty about it) – I’ll take a phase 1 in black, thanks. As for the engine, well it shouldn’t be too hard to coax an extra 23bhp from, should it?

Manufacturer: BMW
Model: Z1
Colour: Red/Black

BMW Z1

Although 80s convertibles are generally a bit ‘meh’, there are a few honourable exceptions. The Lotus Elan M100 is one and this, one of BMW’s most left-field production cars, is another. Frankly, the Z1 is far from being a typical BMW, and that’s a good thing. Consider, if you will, the construction of the Z1: a plastic and fibreglass body over a galvanised steel chassis. According to BMW, the panels could be completely removed in around 40 minutes and the car could be driven without them. Heck, they even suggested that owners might want to buy a spare set of panels in another colour so that they could change the look of their car from time to time. But that’s nothing compared to the doors.

We’re all used to doors that open out, mostly forwards but occasionally backwards or upwards, but doors that drop down into the sills? What manner of mad car constructor would come up with such a thing – surely not those ice-cool Bavarian chaps? Actually, they did*, for the only way of opening the doors on a Z1 is to retract them (electrically, of course) into the sills. The car can safely and legally (in the UK, at any rate) be driven with the doors fully retracted. If that was all the Z1 had to offer then I’d still be tempted, but it also comes with a creamy 2.5 litre straight six engine and the first incarnation of BMW’s Z axle multi-link suspension. It’s an easy choice for me. I’ll take one in red with a spare set of panels in black.

*It’s rumoured that the design and engineering wing of Matra Automobile was contracted by BMW to work on the Z1 project. There’s no definitive word on this, but the design of the Z1 does seem to bear Matra’s stamp. It was Matra, not BMW, who pioneered the mass use of hot-dip galvanisation in the automotive field and who were leaders in the production of GRP panels. Moreover, Matra was renowned for quirky design features – the mid-engined 2+2 layout of the M530, the three-abreast seating of the Bagheera and Murena, the transformation of the Simca 1100 van into the Rancho (Europe’s first ‘soft-roader’) and the creation of what became the Renault Espace. Even more curiously, Matra’s P43 prototype could be mistaken for an early styling proposal for the BMW Z3. Maybe it is; maybe it isn’t, but it leads me nicely to my next pick:

Manufacturer: Matra (in the guise of Talbot-Matra)
Car: Murena 4S
Colour: Blue

Matra Murena 4S

The 1980s saw the introduction of some cracking sports cars and coupés, so it would be downright rude of me not to select at least one of them. But which one? I could plump for a Ferrari F40 and sell it for a princely sum; that would be the 80s way, but we’re not in the 80s and my name isn’t Gordon Gecko. Still, it’s best to put temptation out of the way and, with a heavy heart, pass on the F40.

A Lotus Esprit would be nice, especially an X180 (the Peter Stevens restyled model) from 1988 onwards. But, and ’tis a very big but, I’m too tall to fit in one with any measure of comfort. I can, however, fit in a Matra Murena. Okay, it doesn’t have the speed or ultimate grip of an Esprit and the mechanicals (derived from the Talbot Alpine/Solara and Chrysler 2-litre, depending on engine choice) are a little on the agricultural side.

That said, the styling (by Antonis Volanis) is eye-catching, the interior is a comfortable place in which to pass the time, the chassis dynamics are good and it’ll last for a long, long time thanks to its hot-dip galvanised chassis. Ideally, I’d plump for the 4S version of the car, with its Matra-reworked DOHC, 16v, fuel-injected powerplant (178 bhp from a normally aspirated 2.2 litre road engine was pretty darn good in 1981, especially when compared to the standard lump’s 118 bhp) and its redesigned, more masculine shape. But there’s a problem here: the 4S powerplant was never homologated for the road (thanks to Peugeot-Talbot’s straitened finances in the early 80s) and, more importantly, there were two 4S prototypes – one for the engine and running gear and the other for the body. I can’t have both 4S prototypes, so I once again find myself having to choose between power and looks.

Once more I opt for looks, but I don’t feel too bad about it. History records that the 4S body prototype was eventually fitted with the uprated, 142 bhp version of the original 2.2 engine, and that will do me very nicely. Image source: Matrarama.

Manufacturer: Ford
Car: Sierra XR4i
Colour: White

Ford Sierra XR4i

The blue oval turned out several cars that whetted the appetite of the 80s petrolhead: the Escort RS Turbo Custom, RS200 and Sierra Cosworth all immediately spring to mind. I’m tempted to pick a Cossie, but it’s a different, much less revered, Sierra that makes my list: the XR4i. Yes, you read that right: I’m choosing an XR4i over a Cossie. Am I mad? Probably, but hear me out before reaching your final judgement on that. The XR4i handles well with little of the tail-out, backwards through a hedge drama that the 1980s Cossie is apt to serve up if its driver’s ambition outweighs his ability.

The styling, crackers to some, works for those of us reared on a diet of Gerry Anderson re-runs in our formative years; it looks like the sort of car that Ed Straker might have driven, and that’s good enough for me. Yes, the Cossie is much quicker and doesn’t share the XR4i’s washboard ride, but that’s missing the point – the XR4i has something that the Cossie, fine car though it was and still is, lacked: character: It’s a funny thing, but character often seems to exist in direct proportion to any given car’s flaws: the more flawed a car is, the more character it has. The XR4i was certainly a flawed car, something that goes a long way to explaining its short shelf life. Yet it’s those flaws as much as anything else that cause it to make my list.

Manufacturer: Peugeot
Car: 205 GTI
Colour: Miami Blue

Peugeot 205 GTi

And so we come to my last pick. The 1980s was a boom time for nippy hot hatches that cut the mustard with equal aplomb on mean city streets and quiet B-roads alike, and no true list of cars from that era would be complete without including at least one of them. But which one? It would be easy to make a case for the Fiat Uno Turbo or the Renault 5 GT Turbo or even the Ford Fiesta XR2 (especially the phase one XR2 in black with pepperpot alloys). For once, though, I’m going to follow conventional logic and pick a Peugeot 205 GTI. Not for the first time will I eschew power in favour of something else, but it’s handling rather than looks this time.

Don’t get me wrong, the 205 GTI 1.9 is rightly hailed as a great car; it’s just that, for me, its smaller brother is the better choice. Why? Because the marginally higher power of the 1.9 – 126bhp v 115 bhp (in the post 1987 model I’ve chosen) – doesn’t outweigh the 1.6’s handling advantage. Besides, the rev-hungry character of the 1.6 seems to me to be better suited to the pocket rocket nature of the 205 GTI than the lazier, torquier 1.9 lump. It’s horses for courses, though, and I wouldn’t criticise you if you plumped for the 1.9 instead. I might criticise your colour choice if you were to opt for anything but Miami Blue, but I’m sure you wouldn’t.

So there we have it – my choice of cars from the 1980s. It’s a pity that the device won’t allow me to pick ten cars, but maybe if find two lanterns…

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ABOUT AUTHOR
David Milloy
Freelance writer and all-round good guy (it says here). Loves cars with character, movies, history and the offbeat.

2 comments

  1. February 17, 2015
    David Milloy

    Who is this idiot? Sack him now. Oh, hang on…

    Reply
  2. March 1, 2015
    Anthony

    A good selection of cars. My favorite http://details-of-cars.com/.

    Reply

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