Subtle shifts in paradigms can result in long-term sea changes…

Posted on November 21st, 2004 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

It’s not very many years ago that we all used to laugh at Sixties ‘Yank Tanks’. Enormous vehicles, vastly overweight, with simple suspensions and huge V8 engines to locomote their bloated forms. 

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In fact, to take one at near random, let’s briefly look at the 1963-65 Buick Riviera. Despite having only two doors, the Riviera was no less than 5.3 metres long and weighed 1800kg. Its engine – a huge pushrod V8 – could be optioned up to just under 7 litres and in this form, peak power (measured in SAE units) was 253kW. Standard trans was a Dual-Path Turbine Drive automatic.

Yep, a huge, heavy, overpowered barge which drank fuel at probably the rate of 25 litres/100 km.

Cars like the Buick were anachronisms in an automotive world – profligate wasters of resources and too big, clumsy and dumb to ever be regarded as anything leading edge. In fact, a book that I have – Great Cars of the 20th Century – shows the ’63-’65 Buick in close proximity to the 1962-64 Ferrari 250 GTO and the ’64-’91 Porsche 911. And around the same time were the launches of the Mini, the Lotus Elite and the E-Type Jaguar.

Surely no one would now argue that the Buick was a more important car than the 911 Porsche or Mini?

In fact, apart from those who cherish huge V8-powered American cars of yesteryear, it’s unlikely that any group of car nuts would bemoan the lost excesses of the past. Instead, they’re more likely to laugh at them.

Well, Australian readers, start laughing again. And this time, look a bloody sight closer to home.

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As I write this, the latest HSV models have just been released. Take the Clubsport R8. It’s 4.9 metres long – just 40cm shorter than the ‘laughable’ Riviera. The R8 weighs just under 1700kg – only 5 per cent less than the Sixties Buick. And the Clubsport’s motor is now 6 litres and just under 300kW. (And the rumour is that the next HSV GTS will get a 7-litre engine.)

The huge, heavy cars with enormous V8 engines aren’t something from an American car museum – they’re here now and available at your local dealer…

Sure, the Commodore handles and rides and has interior packaging vastly better than the Buick of 40 years ago – but that’s not the point that is being made here. We laughed at cars like the Buick because they were much larger than was necessary, therefore had far greater weight than was needed, and as a result used huge thirsty engines to push along that weight.

So what makes those reasons wrong if now applied to the Commodore?

Put me behind the wheel of a 6-litre HSV and I am sure that a smile would split my face from side to side for a week. But own one? I don’t think so… Our experience with even the smaller 5.7-litre V8s is that they suck fuel at a rate that can only be described as astonishing. The thought of paying each week at the pump for the thirst of the 6-litre is like a douche of cold water.

As usual, most of the enthusiast car media is pandering to the prejudices and ignorance of their audience. Bigger is always better, more powerful is better, larger is better – and if the inevitable result is more fuel, brakes, tyres and road space are consumed, so what?

But I can hear reader keyboards clicking right now:

I need to tow a boat.

I want to carry my family in comfort.

I want lots of sheet metal around me.

…so I’ll put the argument a different way. Right now, in 2004, what would you consider to be too big an engine? Too big a car? Too thirsty a combination?

After all, there’s no technical reason why we can’t have 8-litre V8 powered sedans that are 5.5 metres long and weigh 2 tonnes and average 22 litres/100 km fuel consumption. Would you like that? Yes?

OK, what about a 9-litre V8 that’s 6 metres long and weighs 2.5 tonnes?

Too big yet? Oh, surely not….

The absurdity of the ‘bigger-is-better’ proposition starts to become readily apparent when you hypothetically upscale in this way. Instead, it makes vastly more sense to start at the opposite end: what is the smallest, lightest car body that can serve your needs – whether that’s for carrying people and goods, having fun on the road, or whatever applies most to you.

Draw such a clean sheet design and for 99 per cent of people there’s simply no need for a huge, thirsty, lumbering, heavy vehicle. (OK – you tow a big boat. That’s fine: buy a small truck and use it for that purpose alone.)  Instead, it’s amazing how far you can go the other way. The small, tall-body design of cars (like the Honda Jazz and Pug 307) have plenty of interior space for four. Thinking outside of the square, the import Toyota Hiace Super Saloons we have tested have huge rear leg space and absolute comfort for six people. You want a performance car? Well, take your pic from four cylinder and six cylinder turbo and naturally aspirated engines.

Get even trickier and consider the average power that you use and you can drop even more in engine capacity – and then add assistance just for when power bursts are needed. (That assistance can be variable valve timing, a turbo, or an electric motor.)

In the US it was the early Seventies fuel crisis that ended the reign of the Sixties-style bloated Yank Tanks. Customers and manufacturers suddenly saw them for the oddities that they were and the market abruptly changed mid-stream.

Here in Australia, an uncritical media, incredibly cheap fuel and an inexorable – but largely unnoticed – upsizing has led to a situation similar in many ways to the pre-1974 days in the US.

Stand back and look around you. What you see doesn’t make a lot of sense.

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