Over-use of the word sporty – especially by Japanese car makers – has irritated many consumers, and yet the link between motorsport and a production car still has endearing connotations.
Many of us like driving something special, a vehicle with character and distinction. Not only is the car more likely to be fun to drive but it’s also liable to have unique qualities.
There’s a plausible connection between the testing world of motorsport and a level of credibility and image. Witness the heavy involvement of car makers in the costly world of Formula 1. BMW, Mercedes, Honda, Ford, Toyota and, of course, Ferrari all gain endorsement from their involvement in racing.
Rallying has had a huge influence on establishing Subaru as a highly-respected make, and Suzuki is now raising its profile by entering the World Rally Championship.
It may take several years for Suzuki to achieve its goal, but in the meantime the association is doing the brand and its image no harm at all.
Audi showcased its four-wheel drive technology in rallying in the early 1980s, and Peugeot gained huge exposure from the rally exploits of the legendary 205 and was later followed into the WRC by Citroen.
Just how many younger drivers of the new generation Mini associate the Cooper name with the World Championship Formula 1 successes of 1959 and 1960 is a moot point, but older people are aware of this precious heritage? The Cooper name arguably kept the classic original Mini in production when it would have quietly died.
Ford enjoyed huge kudos from the motorsport successes of the Cortina in uprated Lotus form and then from the Escort, a long-time winner in both racing and rallying.
Toyota New Zealand linked the Chris Amon name to some of its locally assembled models. Though that had limited success, the connection with a highly respected racing driver prompted more motorists to change their thinking about the Japanese car company.
In Britain, Honda has shaken off an image of being a brand for old people by a vigorous motor racing programme.
In Australasia, an on-going battle on the track between the Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon has been a real asset to both makes, generating interest and elevating pride of ownership.
Toyota supports its open-wheeler TRS series, BMW backs a one-make Mini championship and last season Suzuki instigated a class for the Swift. It’s all about lifting image and awareness.
Owners who know they’ll never likely turn a wheel in anger on the track or in a rally enjoy a perceived connection with the sport. The association with motorsport transcends all boundaries and becomes something of national pride.
Hitler’s government in the 1930s poured huge money into motor racing to ensure Germany was on top. It was more than a mere flag-waving exercise.
With the currently rocketing fuel prices and environmental concerns, there’s no guarantee the love affair with the sport will continue with the same vigour. In future, car companies may prefer to promote their products via fuel-saving events majoring on economy and low emissions rather than speed.
It’s naive to think the world of motoring is to continue unmolested by world events. Yet there’s no denying sporting success provides a good feeling that rubs off. The old adage “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” still holds true.
Meanwhile, ponder on the past half-century of motorsport and the significance of this year.
Fifty years ago, a young Bruce McLaren made his European debut in a Cooper Formula 2 single seater to begin a remarkable international career. The 20-year-old finished fifth overall and first Formula 2 car in the 1958 German Grand Prix on the original Nurburgring circuit, setting the fastest F2 lap time after mastering the difficult 22.8 kilometre track which has more than 140 corners. Not only did the Aucklander play a crucial role in the success of Cooper but he went on to establish his own team. Five decades later, and the McLaren name is synonymous with Formula 1 success.
The year 1958 was special in other ways. Neil Finn and Jeff Crowe were born, Walter Nash was the Labour Prime Minister of New Zealand, Sputnik 1 fell to earth and the European Union was established. Mike Hawthorn, driving a Ferrari, became the first Briton to win the World Championship, beating Stirling Moss by one point. Though Hawthorn’s Ferrari Dino 246 was a traditional front-engined car, the Coopers emerged as mould-breakers.
Moss changed the course of Formula 1 when he achieved a tactical win in a 1.9-litre rear-engined Cooper in the 1958 Argentine Grand Prix. The Frogeye Austin-Healey Sprite was launched the same year, along with the Pininfarina-styled Austin A40, a unique two-box design soon to be copied by countless other models.
Today’s cars benefit from lessons learnt in motor racing, even if the threads are tenuous and some of the additions are more cosmetic than useful. The spoilers and aerodynamic bodykits that are so common on modern road cars have their origins in a European world championship Grand Prix race back in the late 1960s.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the first aerofoil appearing on a Formula 1 car. These aerodynamic aids had previously been seen on the odd sports car in racing, but when they arrived on the Grand Prix scene the world really took notice.
Aerodynamics made their debut for the 1968 Belgian GP, an appropriate venue given the nature of the high-speed Spa road circuit. When the new works Ferraris for Chris Amon and Jacky Ickx rolled off the transporter at Spa, the pit patter was more audible than usual. Both cars were fitted with prominent spoilers mounted on supports above the engine, and smaller spoilers were fitted either side of the nose section. Nothing like this had been seen before on a Formula 1 machine.
I was fortunate enough to be at that meeting and heard Amon’s reaction to the new “wind spoiler.” He found the wing improved his lap times by four seconds, and on fast corners the car felt more precise and measurably safer.
On the high-speed Stavelot corner Amon was six-tenths of a second faster than any other driver, a fact he put down to the effects of the aerofoil rather than driver ability. The performance was good enough to put Chris on pole position, with a lap time more than three seconds quicker than the record.
In the race itself, the Amon gremlins struck again, and Chris retired with a holed radiator, while Bruce McLaren went on to score the first Grand Prix victory in a car bearing his own name.
Such events, so long ago, may have little bearing on the modern production car and the problems faced by the motor industry. Yet in an indirect way, what happens in racing and rallying determines some of the design aspects of a car and influences our very buying decisions.