Sturmey would be dumbfounded by the progress of the car since he bravely launched The Autocar. He would also be dumbfounded by how his arid little 12-pager has become the colourful weekly cornucopia of news, reviews, gossip, features, opinion and characters that none of us wants to do without. And he would know that he was right to persuade Iliffe to let the presses roll.
A century after he did so, Autocar produced a very special, 400-page centenary issue. Since then, the car industry has continued to change, but ever more rapidly. And the promised progress of the next 25 years is predicted massively to exceed what we’ve so far seen.
So for this 125th anniversary, Autocar has decided to focus on looking 25 years back, before thinking about the next 25 years to come.
The renewal years, 1995-2005
Our 400-page centenary issue featured scoop shots of the new Smart, labelling it “the first car of the 21st century”. Later our first road test would point out the Smart’s flaws as a driver’s car and problems with its stability, but you could get our early point. Soon after, we pronounced Alex Issigonis’s Mini our Car of the Century and said no one should be surprised – assuming they could live that long – if the little two-door were able to “do the double”.
BMW had just bought the Rover Group for £800 million, ending a co-operative deal with Honda, but the prospects seemed bright, especially since the MG F sports car was on the horizon, along with prospects for good cars such as the Rover 75 that emerged in 1997. We drove various 75 prototypes before launch and were highly impressed, but BMW quit that deal after five years, selling Land Rover to Ford and the rest to four shonky shareholders, the Phoenix Four, who formed MG Rover. We knew it couldn’t last, but it kept Longbridge open and some of the products, notably the small Rover saloons and the Peter Stevens-designed MG SVR, made great copy.
Two significant sports cars bobbed up by the end of the 1995: the Porsche Boxster and the Lotus Elise. We didn’t realise then how much of a role the former would play in the demise of marques such as TVR: why own a fragile and impractical car when you could have something that went as fast, drove better, started every time and safeguarded your investment? The Elise would hold Lotus together, selling better than planned and preserving the company through an unproductive Proton ownership until it was eventually acquired, along with Proton, by a new Chinese owner, Geely, with money to invest and a true global vision.