The Ducati Pantah was available in both 500 and 600cc forms. It was a technical stepping-stone for the Bologna marque. The 500 was launched in ’79. The 600 appeared in ’81. They would be an important blueprint for future development. As such, they ushered in more prosperous times for Ducati. When they were released, the firm was a little down at heel, financially.
Not that you had have known it by looking at the bikes. Fabio Taglioni made certain of that. One of the most esteemed engineers in motorcycle history, he had worked on the Ducati 500 V-twin GP bike. That was at the start of the Seventies. The machine’s claim to fame was its toothed overhead cam belts. Taglioni now re-visited them – inserting appropriately detuned versions into the cylinder heads of the new Pantahs. They were smooth, reliable – and easy on the ear. Rightly, they allowed the V-twin exhaust set-up to assume aural centre stage. The rubber belts were cheap to manufacture, too. That was a boon to Ducati – who were keen to keep the price of the new bikes as competitive as possible.
Taglioni’s delicate touch reached other areas, too. The Pantah’s tubular steel trellis frame – and sensitive suspension – synced up to deliver steady as a rock handling. Its brakes came out of the top drawer, too. Brembo and Marzocchi had been sourced for the second to none cycle parts. Power output was impressive – without being awe-inspiring. The 600 made 58bhp – up from the 500’s 52. However, those modest stats were aided by light weight. 415lb was all the 600 was shifting. As a result, 120mph was only just out of reach. And the shortfall was more than made up by the way it got to that speed. Surging acceleration had long been a Ducati hallmark. When the engineering excellence was aligned with typically Italianate styling, the Pantahs were on a sure road to success. A curvaceous half-fairing – and racy removable seat – lent poise and purpose to both front and rear ends. Ducati’s dynamic duo had done their work well. In the wake of the Pantahs – both 500 and 600 – the firm was set fair to weather future economic squalls.
The Pontiac Club de Mer prototype was inspired by land speed record cars. Head of design Harley Earl – and studio leader Paul Gillian – were given the styling brief. It went without saying that ‘space-age’ imagery – pretty much ubiquitous in the ’50s – would get its foot in the design door, too!
The most obvious lift from LSR cars was the shark-like stabilising fin at the rear. The front-end featured retractable headlights. The low nose tapered into a blunt arrowhead. Two chrome bands flowed up to air scoops at the back of the hood. The Club de Mer was a shoo-in for the ’56 ‘Motorama’. It acquitted itself well – alongside GM’s other ‘dream car’ exotica.
Not that the Club de Mer was all style, and no substance! Beneath the aerodynamic hood was a 4,392cc 300bhp V8. First and foremost, though, the car was a trend-setter. ‘Club de Mer’ evoked Meditteranean panache. That was blended with all-American élan. A tad outlandish for some, perhaps … but then, the Pontiac Club de Mer was was in ‘show’ business!
Harley-Davidson can lay claim to manufacturing the world’s best-known motorcycles. Well, American ones, at any rate. But, Harley has always had a rival. The mere mention of ‘Indians’ has long instilled panic in the suited and booted, in Harley’s Milwaukee marketing department!
In the ’20s, Indian’s Springfield factory was high up the motorcycle heap. The Chief was its biggest asset. The 1200cc engine, in the 1947 model, was good for 85mph. Tuning took it to the ‘ton’. An Indian, though, was not about death-defying numbers. Rather, it evoked the spirit of adventure. A bit like that firm from Milwaukee, in fact!
Indian motorcycles were extravagantly styled. Nowhere more so than the finely-fettled fenders. Their trademark curvature was unmistakable. Harley front mudguards are sometimes skimpy affairs. Those which adorn an Indian are heraldic. Almost as if the front wheel were wearing a headdress! Indian, then, was a company which liked to cut a dash. Sadly, the ‘Roaring Twenties’ glory days faded for Indian – while Harley went on to world domination! But, as in the childhood game … while most kids grow up wanting to be a cowboy – there is always that one who would really far rather be an Indian!
To an engineering student, the Citroën DS must be one of the most exciting roadsters ever built. Its 4-cylinder engine powered a hydraulic system – which found its way into just about every part of the car. The motor itself was straightforward – dating back to the ’34 ‘Traction-avant’. But, the hydraulic set-up it sparked was revolutionary. Most notable was the suspension. Instead of springs, the ‘DS’ was fitted with ‘self-levelling hydropneumatic struts’. As a result, the car was able to raise and lower itself in a way that had never been seen – or felt – before. Potholes and bumps were easy pickings for the DS. When stationary – with the engine switched off – the Citroën sank serenely down. The power steering, disc brakes, and ‘clutchless’ gearbox were all hydraulically-operated. In each case, performance was substantially improved.
At its Paris début – in ’55 – the DS’ avant-garde styling went down a storm! The fluid lines of the bodywork were – and are – unique. They were functional, too – cleaving cleanly through French air. Front-wheel-drive, the DS handled well. But, to custom coach-builders – like Henri Chapron – the standard car was just a jumping-off point. They created coupés and stretched limos – taking DS aesthetics to the next level.
The DS set a trend for Citroëns. The ID19, and D Super became stalwarts of the Paris taxi scene. Sprawling Safari Estates ferried many from ‘A to B’. The convertible version looked stunning – and had a price tag to match. The last of the high-end derivatives was the DS23. With a 5-speed ‘box – and fuel injection – it delivered 117mph. In the end, almost 1.5m DSs were sold … a fittingly high figure for a fine French product.
In ’57 – when the Fiat 500 was released – motorcycles ruled Italian roads. Whether solo – or attached to a side-car – they were the way most people got from A to B. The Fiat 500 was set to change that. It was convenient and economical. Okay, so were motorbikes. But, the ‘500’ came with a roof … and a sun-roof, at that! By ’77 – twenty years later – Fiat had sold over 4,000,000 of them.
The 500’s performance stats were not shattering! It had a twin-cylinder, 499cc motor – producing 18bhp, in standard trim. Top speed was 60mph. Enter Carlo Abarth! His 695cc SS model pushed 90mph. The ‘Abarth’ featured flared wheel arches, oil cooler, and raised rear engine cover. They were there to prevent over-heating, and increase stability. A pleasant side-effect was that the Abarth acquitted itself well at the racetracks. The roadster, too, handled well. Complete with rear-mounted motor, it delivered a desirable 52mpg. It cruised at 55mph. It was best not to ask too much of it, though – due to the drum brakes, and non-synchromesh gearbox. A modification made to later models was the move from rear to front hinges for the doors. That was especially good news for those still on two wheels!
So far as comfort was concerned, the little Fiat was ‘utilitarian’. That said, ’68’s ‘500L’ came with reclining seats – and carpets. Not quite to Rolls-Royce standards … but then a Roller did not do 52mpg! The Fiat 500’s mission was to provide stress-free motoring, to as many people as possible. Mission accomplished, then … with petite and impressive aplomb!
When it came to his best-known brand of motorcycle, George Brough did not beat about the bush. ‘Superior’ pretty much said it all! And, to be fair to him, it was – as compared with most of its two-wheeled rivals, at any rate. Saying that, Brough – and his small team of Nottingham-based engineers – were responsible only for the frame. The engine and cycle parts were outsourced. Initially, JAP – and later Matchless – provided the power. All the parts, though, still had to be coaxed to work as one. Brough and the boys clearly made a good job of it – since the SS100 was widely considered to be the best bike in the world at the time. The Superior range as a whole was produced from 1919 to 1940.
George Brough was among a group of riders, who, time and again, proved the Superior’s worth. Both at circuits – and in land speed record attempts – the bike was a regular sight, in the ’20s and ’30s. As usual, racing ‘improved the breed’. In time, track-side tweaks trickled down into mainstream SS100 production.
TE Lawrence – better known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ – was in love with Brough Superiors. He owned a succession of them … all topped off with his trademark stainless steel tank. Sadly, he was to be fatally injured, whilst riding one of them. Of course, his best-known mode of transport was the cantankerous camel. But, for many, no ‘ship of the desert’ could ever match a Brough Superior SS100 steaming along at full chat!
The Lotus 25 was all about innovation. It was designed by Colin Chapman – charismatic top man at Lotus. In a quest to lower the nose of the car – in the interests of aerodynamics – Chapman envisioned a one-piece chassis. The previous car – the Lotus 24 – had been built around space-frame steel tubing. That was the standard, in ’61. The ’25’, though, allowed its aluminium shell to act as the frame. Not only was the ‘monocoque’ lower and narrower – it was stronger and lighter, too. Frame flex was substantially reduced. That also let the suspension function to better effect.
Chapman boxed clever! The ’62 season started with the old Lotus 24 on the grid – complete with its space-frame chassis. Early, non-championship races were a perfect opportunity to pull the wool over rival teams’ eyes. Come the Dutch GP, though – and the Lotus 25 was revealed! With master craftsman Jim Clark at the wheel, the new Lotus quickly established itself as the class of the field. It would have won the World Championship at the first time of asking – were it not for last-round reliability issues. The following season, though, saw no such slip-up. A record-breaking seven-win haul saw Lotus take its first world crown. They would repeat the feat, in ’65 – with the wider-wheeled ’33’. That was a great year for the Norfolk-based team … Lotus also won the Indy 500!
The synergy, then, between the 25 and Clark was an automotive marriage from heaven. They lit up the GP 1.5-litre era. Colin Chapman – the arch-innovator – had done it again. Chassis and frame technology had morphed into the modern era. F1 cornering would never be the same again!
The Matchless G50 had a lot to live up to. To name your new company ‘Matchless’ means confidence in its products – to put it mildly! That was something Charlie and Harry Collier clearly had, when they opened for business in 1899. They were located in Plumstead, south-east London. Both brothers were racers – of some repute. In 1907, Charlie rode a Matchless to victory at the first TT – in the single-cylinder category. Harry performed the same feat two years later. At the time, then, the Matchless moniker was pretty much justified.
Fast-forward to the Sixties – and Matchless were dominant again. Now, it was the turn of the G50 to hold all-comers at bay. First unveiled in the late ’50s, the Matchless G50 was – to all intents and purposes – an AJS 7R, re-badged. Matchless had acquired AJS, in 1931.
More proof of confidence within Matchless can be found in its logo. It takes some hutzpah to rely on a single letter to get your marketing message across. Charlie and Harry, though, clearly felt that a winged ‘M’ was more than enough to identify a motorcycle as a Matchless. There is a fine line, of course, between self-belief and hubris. The former is a prerequisite for success – the latter, an almost cast-iron guarantee of failure. However, it would seem that the two young Londoners got the balance spot-on. After all, Matchless motorcycles began winning races at the turn of the 20th century. And – at classic bike events, at least – they are still there or thereabouts in a new millennium!
In a way, the Ariel Atom was as close as a roadster gets to an F1 car. The lack of headlamps was a dead giveaway! There was not enough frontal area for such fripperies. Anyway, the Atom would be wasted at night. Far better to spend the running costs blitzing daylit open roads. Not that those costs would be too exorbitant. For sure, the Atom could have been filed under ‘pared-down’. It was first glimpsed at Birmingham’s British International Motor Show – in October, ’96. Production began in 2000. Eight more iterations of the Atom would follow. Enthusiasts are hoping for more!
Simplicity was key to the Atom. Read atomic particle simple. Ariel went back to basics – and bare-bone ones, at that. Its weight said it all. Even by stripped-down supercar standards, 1,005lb was light. And it was not just the dearth of standard headlights. The Atom’s ‘cabin’ was minimal, to say the least. Composite bucket seats were about it! Strapped into 4-point race harnesses, though, the two occupants were not going anywhere – except through high-speed bends. With single-seater-style suspension – tuned by Lotus – corners were a gimme.
There are, of course, limits to the Atom/F1 car comparison. It is true to say that a top speed of 150mph might be less than competitive down today’s straights. That was, though, from a 4-cylinder 2-litre engine – the i-VTEC – borrowed from the Japanese market Honda Civic Type R. Likewise, the original 220bhp may be considered down on power for a contemporary Formula One grid. That would, however, be increased to 245bhp with the Atom 2. And 350bhp was available from the supercharged Atom 3.5R. So, with adroit use of the 6-speed ‘box – also sourced from the Civic Type R – scaled-down GP driving was clearly on the cards. To be fair, Ariel Motor Company – based in Crewkerne, Somerset – comprised just seven staffers. The proverbial whip was cracked by boss Simon Saunders. In the past, he had worked at Aston-Martin and GM. Styling was by Niki Smart. At the time, he was studying transport design at Coventry University. British Steel and TWR were among the sponsors of the student-led project. Asking price for the Ariel Atom was £26,000. Not half bad – especially for owners with vivid imaginations. For, it would not be too far-fetched – on a sunny day, at a twisty track – to feel yourself capable of similar feats to drivers of, say, your average F1 car. Up and Atom, as it were!
The Buick Gran Sport had Pontiac to thank. The latter’s GTO was the first muscle car. As such, it saw a big-block V8 fitted in a medium-sized chassis. The result was hard-punching power – at a competitive price. Not surprisingly, then, the GTO sold well. Again, not surprisingly, Pontiac’s rivals picked up on the fact. The muscle car era was about to be born.
One of those Pontiac rivals was Buick. In ’65, they took their ‘Skylark’ car – and mated it with their 401ci ‘nailhead’ V8. As a consequence, the Skylark’s output soared to 325bhp. While the Skylark ‘Gran Sport’ never played in the same sales league as the GTO, it nonetheless did good business for Buick. In ’66, they followed it up with a more powerful Gran Sport. It now kicked out a cool 340bhp. Sales, though, were down on its first year. Attractive as it was, a brand-new Buick did not come cheap! So – in ’67 – the ‘GS’ 400 was launched. A 3-speed auto transmission appeared. As an alternative, Buick offered the budget GS 340. Sales started to climb again.
The Gran Sport’s finest hour came in the form of the GS 455. Released in 1970 – complete with a 355ci engine – oomph was nominally upped to 360bhp. However, Buick were almost certainly underestimating it. Road testers swore it felt more like 400bhp. At any rate, it was in ‘Stage One Special Package’ tune. That comprised a hotter cam, larger valves, and a modified carb. With all that hooked up, the Gran Sport was good for 130mph. Exotic ‘GSX’ styling options were in sync with the performance stats. Spoilers, stripes and supersize tyres made the GS 455 look as good as it went. Sadly, all good things come to an end. As soon as ’71, the Gran Sport’s best days were behind it. Low-lead gas led to less power. Insurance hikes kicked in, too. One way or another, the muscle car game was up. Like its power-mad siblings from other marques, the GS simply faded away. Times change – and the world moves on. But – like everything else – progress comes at a price. In automotive terms, that meant cars like the Buick Gran Sport. For – despite all their foibles – driving has never been quite the same since!