Automotive Design: West Meets East

There hasn’t been a post here for the past few weeks because I spent it traveling around Europe for a client.  And given the choice between making a blog post or exploring Prague, well you can figure out for yourselves what won.  Actually I did more than 5000km over the 16 days I was gone which would have been murder in some of the rental cars I have had over the years.  But this time I had an Opel Astra and it brings up a point that was discussed at length the other night with some local designers at dinner; What a shame GM got rid of Saturn just as they were finally giving it some quality cars.  Aside from the awesome (but somehow secret) Astra, you also have to consider that the Opel Insignia would have been a Saturn instead of a Buick Regal.  Same thing kind of happened with the Fiero too, but I digress.  Lets get back to the fun subject of cars as we discuss some cars (and trucks) not commonly seen in the US…..

Opel Astra Kombi (thats a station wagon in the US)

Every time I leave for Europe I get excited about seeing family, old friends, great architecture and cars.  Yep, I admit it, it’s a bit of a sickness.  It’s amazing how quickly your impression of a Volkswagen Jetta goes from being a smallish car to being mid-sized.  But it’s not because I love small cars, but because foreign markets tend to take a lot more risks styling-wise (although you wouldn’t know it based on the conservative vehicles they tend to send here).  A great example is the Smart Roadster, not to be confused with the ForTwo which is currently sold here.  The Roadster was introduced in 2003 but pulled after 2 years of disappointing sales.  Too bad because it kind of reminds me of the old Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite, small and slow.  It’s not about arriving at dinner quickly, but about arriving with a sh*!-eating grin on your face.

Smart Roadster

And here’s another awesomely fun car that was sold in the old days in Europe that we never got here, the Audi A2.  Even though it was outsold by its Mercedes competitor, the A-Class, the A2 is an infinitely more interesting vehicle.  Constructed in aluminum, it was built from 2000-2005 and sales eventually reached about 175,000 units.  But even though it was not a sales success, how can you argue with more than 75mpg?

Audi A2

Old cars and trucks are interesting no matter where you are.  But seeing them on the autobahn really helps you appreciate how far technology has come.  Along with numerous old Mercedes, I passed this awesome Alfa Romeo 1750 Berlina outside Stuttgart.  If you want one, here’s one for sale at one of my favorite websites, Bring-a-Trailer.

Alfa Romeo 1750 Berlina

For those who think I perhaps ran into a lot of old Volkswagen Beetles, you have never been to Europe.  The car doesn’t have the same pop-culture hipness there that it manages here.  The equivalent vehicle, however, would be Citroen 2CV or deux chevaux.  In my travels I saw almost twice as many of the Ugly Ducks as old Beetles (and I saw a grand total of 0 New Beetles).  A great parlor game would be trying to guess the model year of this particular example, as the car was built from 1948 all the way to 1990.  And almost 4 million examples were built over those 42 years.  And unlike the A2 and Smart Roadster, you can actually buy them here.

Citroen 2CV

Just so we don’t skip the Beetle completely, here’s a picture of one of the only two Beetles I saw during my trip.  Kind of gives you an idea of how much respect they have for them there.

Volkswagen Beetle

Any report of vehicles in Europe wouldn’t be complete without some great cars and trucks from behind the former Iron Curtain.  And under the title of East meets West would have to be this awesome Skoda 110R. It was produced for ten years between 1970 and 1980 and features a rear engine and rear wheel drive.  Based on the mechanicals of the 110 sedan, it was Czechoslovakia’s version of Porsche (as this video clearly demonstrates) with one version featuring a full 250 horsepower – I hope it had wider wheels than this example.

Skoda 110R

Keeping with the east european theme here’s a truck that was common throughout the region, the Skoda S1203.  This versatile commercial van was produced in Vrchlabí until 1968 and then again until 1981 in the Slovak city of Trnava.  If former communist vehicles interest you, check out this guys Flikr account.

Skoda S1203

When I was a kid, seeing an American vehicle in Europe was a rarity.  It says a lot about the current state of international trade that I saw several every day during my trip.  The most common was Chrysler’s minivans, but there was even a late model Dodge Ram Pickup that I passed on my way from Vienna to Bratislava.  And yes, it looked out-of-place.  Speaking of “out-of-place” there was the Gulf Blue and Orange paint job on this Chevy Malibu Station Wagon for sale in the Black Forest.  Really?

A Gulf Chevy?

And just so we keep the bike guys interested, here’s a shot I snapped in Leipzig.  Sorry for the quality of the image, but I was a bit surprised to see it and had to hurry and get my camera out.

Our next post will most likely be a report from Designer Night at the Races #19 in Detroit sponsored by Lacks Trim Systems.  It looks like Ford will win the Spinelle Cup this time, at least if you consider how many designers have signed up.  If you haven’t signed up make sure to do so soon as race space is severely limited.  Don’t worry, soon we’ll get back to talking about design and products, hopefully we’ll even get around to our trends in automotive lighting article.

About Frank Schwartz

Frank Schwartz is the founder of CarFriend.me and Advanced Automotive Consulting Services, partner in The Middlecott Sketchbattle Experiment and serial entrepeneur. A long time automotive enthusiast, Frank started reading car magazines at the age of 8 and has spent 30+ years working inside the automotive industry. In his spare time Frank races with the Sports Car Club of America, spends time working on his numerous project cars and supports many local charities.
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