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Robert Coucher on the joys of small, cheap cars

Robert Coucher on the joys of small, cheap cars Classic and Performance Car

Robert Coucher explains that you don't need an expensive or powerful car to have fun

We have Little and Large this month: the diminutive Fiat 500 and the weapons-grade McLaren P1. Fiat sold around 3,500,000 examples of its 18bhp Cinquecento, McLaren capped the production of its 900bhp P1 at just 375. The Mac will hit 60mph from standstill in 2.8 seconds, the Fiat won’t ever hit 60. In the modern world diversity is all the rage, and we have an extremely broad canvas at Octane. But how can we feature two entirely divergent automobiles? It’s all in the numbers.
The 1950s Fiat 500 is an excellent small car and it put Italy on the road. It looks good, goes with enthusiasm and was entirely fit for its purpose. Of course, it is extremely small and slow in today’s motoring environment but its successor, the new Fiat 500, is enormously popular and well up to the task. Affordable motoring for all began with Henry’s Model T and continued with Ferdinand’s VW Beetle, Alec’s Mini and Kiichiro Toyoda’s Model AA. Each sold in the millions so they must have got something right. 
Owners of ‘affordable’ classics use them and have fun. With a Fiat 500, Mini or Beetle, the cars are simple and reliable when well maintained, and spares are plentiful. When I was at university the cost of fuelling my thirsty Lancia Aurelia was too much, so I bought an affordable Renault 4 as a runabout. Again it was a modest but successful car, with eight million examples sold.
This purchase was a ‘need’ rather than a ‘want’, so I treated the little R4 with disdain thinking I’d run it until I blew it up. But it took everything I threw at it. And actually it was rather useful having a four-seater hatchback to cram with friends to take to the beach or off to a wine farm. I really came to enjoy the Renault’s flat-out-everywhere motoring, its tenacious roadholding at extreme angles while carrying speed through the corners, and learning the skill to change gear via that push-me-pull-you lever mounted in the dash without having to trouble the clutch pedal. 
Someone once said that anyone can create a good expensive motor car but the real genius is in creating a good inexpensive one. Last month, McLaren F1 stylist Peter Stevens upbraided me for suggesting Gordon Murray and his team had a large open chequebook to call upon when designing the F1, pointing out that they had only around £25m. That’s peanuts for a clean-sheet design, so it came down to the engineering genius of the F1 team and its single-minded obsession to build the ultimate road car. The creation of the best, most exciting cars has to be driven by a determined, single-minded visionary such as Walter Owen Bentley, Ettore Bugatti, Enzo Ferrari, Ferdinand Porsche, Sir William Lyons… or Gordon Murray.
It’s not surprising that Murray is as fanatical about weight reduction as Colin Chapman was. He rates the Lotus Elan for this reason, but is also a fan of the Fiat 500 because its engineering concept is so clever. McLaren’s P1 hypercar continues this lightweight ethos, with its relatively small size and the use of exotic composites to keep the pounds off. This is engineering thinking at the peak of automotive ingenuity, at the opposite end of the automotive spectrum from anything vaguely affordable. It’s an ultimate case of ‘want’ rather than ‘need’, a ‘want’ that drives the development of exotic concepts that eventually filter down into the real world.
This McLaren P1, for all its astonishing performance, is as easy to drive as an ordinary car, so long as you are judicious with the throttle pedal. In the days of the Aston Martin V8, Lamborghini Miura and Ferrari Daytona, you had to be a bit of a he-man to drive the things anywhere except on a fast open road, whereas the P1 is totally happy sitting in traffic on the way to the local deli.
But here’s the irony: you can’t drive them! Again it’s down to numbers. As you’d expect, these expensive cars cost a fortune to run and maintain, although even Jay Leno is a bit astounded by the cost of a replacement front splitter. The real kicker, though, is the loss of value with every mile that clicks onto the odometer.
When you come to sell your supercar or hypercar, mileage is critical. If you have actually used it, even only moderately, it will be worth a whole lot less than if it is nearer to delivery miles. It does seem crazy, but that’s what the market wants. So all this engineering and performance has to be left in a dehumidified garage on trickle charge. Here, then, is the solution: have a small, minimalist ‘affordable’ classic car for fun. Gordon chooses… a Fiat 500.

Robert Coucher
Robert grew up with classic cars, and has owned a Lancia Aurelia B20GT, Alfa Romeo Giulietta and Porsche 356C. He currently uses his properly sorted 1955 Jaguar XK140 as his daily driver, and is a founding editor of Octane. 

This column was originally printed in the December 2017 issue of Octane.

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