Some of the best driver’s cars in recent history have come with an important warning: handle with care. We revisit three all-time great untameables
13 March 2016

When was the last time you reached the end of a decent drive in a car and just sat there, listening to the metal cool down, replaying the run in your head? I’d wager that, unless you own a very special car indeed, it was some time ago.

What has happened? First, there are external factors, be they social, geographic or environmental. Truth is, in the mistaken belief that it is speed rather than its inappropriate use that kills, it is increasingly frowned upon to enjoy driving quickly on suitable roads.

Second, as populations expand and cities sprawl ever outwards, we need to go ever farther away to find these roads and, third, when we do, they’re likely to be a whole lot more crowded so we’re less likely to make the effort. But there’s a fourth factor, too. And that is when we do bother to find the right road, although the cars we now drive are undoubtedly quicker and more capable than ever, something has gone missing.

It would be easy to give it a trite and catchy name like ‘the fun factor’; but that’s not it. Cars are fun today – great fun, in fact – but now they are also so damn good that it’s that sense of achievement which has been left behind, the pride felt in knowing that you did more than merely guide the car along the road. You controlled it. You tried to bend it to your will and your presence behind the wheel made a difference. It was not the car providing 100% of the talent because it was insufficiently talented so to do: it needed you as much as you needed it, meaning that you were in it together, a collaborative process leading to safe and memorable passage.

Ford Sierra RS Cosworth and other appreciating classics

And there was that other thing, lurking out there in the darkness: the knowledge that none of this was a foregone conclusion. Ultimately, these cars were on your side only for as long as it suited them to be so; and were you to push But there’s a fourth factor, too. And that is when we do bother to find the right road, although the cars we now drive are undoubtedly quicker and more capable than ever, something has gone missing. It would be easy to give it a trite and catchy name like ‘the fun factor’; but that’s not it. Cars are fun today – great fun, in fact – but now they are also so damn good that it’s that sense of achievement which has been left behind, the pride felt in knowing that you did more than merely guide the car along the road. You controlled it. You tried to bend it to your will and your presence behind the wheel made a difference. It was not the car providing 100% of the talent because it was insufficiently talented so harder, further or faster than they cared to go, they would throw you into the scenery without a blink. And that was part of the appeal, too. Ultimately, these were cars that could be controlled, but they could not be tamed. It made us want to go and drive some more of them. So we did.

The oldest of our untameables is the Ford Sierra RS Cosworth – not the Sapphire or the 4x4 but the original unreconstructed Group A homologation special. Off-hand and 30 years after its introduction, I’m not sure I’ve driven another four-seat family hatchback with two more distinctive sides to its character.

With an engine running an 8.0:1 compression ratio just so enough boost from the Garrett turbocharger could be blow a very different animal indeed. The traits are always there, as they are in all with split personalities, but water is the catalyst that makes them emerge. Indeed, the combination of uncompromising suspension, super-swift steering and turbo lag would be bad enough even without the true villain of the piece, its Dunlop D40 tyres.

Try to drive one fast in the wet and you’ll find grip levels decimated, armfuls of opposite lock and the distinct impression that the car wants to mug you. It’s far better today thanks to modern Dunlops, but when our bright sunny day turned to sleet and snow, the opportunity to drive it fast one last time across the mountain road went unanswered.

The Peugeot 205 GTi poses a different kind of risk, insofar as it’s not in the least fussy whether the road is wet or dry: treat it badly and it will put you in the hedge whatever the weather.

The key to the appeal of Peugeot’s finest hatchback is that it turns every journey into an event. You can drive it slowly, but there really is no point. It’s like a lion cub, one of the cutest things you’ll ever lay eyes upon, that wants nothing more than to play and play until it can manoeuvre itself into a position where it can sink its fangs into your backside. The trick is not to let it.

We get behind the wheel of the 2016 Honda NSX to see what it can do on the road and the track

Today, people like me bang on about how throttle sensitive cars are and, pleasingly, there seems to be a will out there to return to the days where a car’s attitude to a corner can be controlled not just by your hands on the wheel, but your foot on the accelerator, too. But it will be a while before anyone thinks it a good idea to make a car as sensitive to the throttle opening in a curve as the Peugeot.

The very earliest 205 GTis, those built in 1984 and 1985, were the most reactive and I know this because back then I owned one. I learned a lot from that car, particularly once I’d spun it up the road a couple of times. It taught me how to drive on the limit because if you could just find a constant radius corner (I used quiet roundabouts), then you could go round and round, easing on and off the gas and making the most spectacular changes to your angle of attack without moving the steering wheel an inch. They are less adjustable, some would say vicious, today. This is partly because Peugeot retreated just a touch on the suspension settings during production, but also because modern tyres have far more benign breakaway characteristics. Even so, a well-set-up 205 GTi is still a car to steer as much by foot as hand.

And they can still bite. The problem, if you choose to characterise it as such, is that they weigh the same as a cup of tea and have the best gearbox ever fitted to a front-drive car and an engine with quite a lot of power and even more torque. In short, they egg you on. Even on the track, I’ve not found a slip angle from which one will not recover with a sharp boot of power, but you don’t need to guess the consequences if you’re slow or sloppy with its application. It may look like a toy but, in fact, it’s a tool, and a serious driving one at that.

History of the Peugeot 205 GTi – picture special

Not as serious, however, as a Honda NSX. Depending on whose views you have read over the years, you might wonder what it’s doing keeping company with such reprobates as the Ford and Peugeot. Many hold that NSXs are exquisite, viceless cars, a statement that is precisely half true.

I can remember doing a shoot with an NSX just like this gorgeous, late, manual 3.2-litre coupé and watching a talented but junior road tester who was trying to make it perform for the camera fling it so far into a field that we had to call the farmer to get it out again. This is a different kind of untameable. The point is that from the moment you get into the Ford or Peugeot, you know they could be a handful. By contrast, the NSX feels like the most faithful supercar you could ever drive. And, to a point, it is. You can drive one fast – as fast as you can make it go, in fact – and it will reward your every effort with scalpel-sharp steering, world-class poise and impeccable manners. What you must not do, however, is mess with one. Do as my colleague did and turn in a bit too fast with a big lift of the throttle in the hope it will break the back loose, and you’ll find your wish granted with enough interest added to keep your hands full all the way to the scene of the accident.

I have no problem with this. To me, even in this modern world, a proper driver’s car should always offer a challenge, one that can be taken up the moment the driver elects to turn off the stability systems. Ultimately, if the car does it all for you, you are merely a spectator or, at best, its director. If you want to be part of the action, on the stage rather than in the stalls, you need a role to play and that’s what these cars provide. No coincidence, then, that these cars are remembered already as among the finest driving machines of all time.

Join the debate

Comments
15

13 March 2016

"With an engine running an 8.0:1 compression ratio just so enough boost from the Garrett turbocharger could be blow a very different animal indeed." What?!

13 March 2016

Something is missing from the modern car indeed. It may have been built with a hundred extra functions to make it safer in a crash and arguably quicker yet new cars are a lot less involving to drive. They are heavier and the tech is far too intrusive. All the cars deliver fun through total driver involvement.

13 March 2016
autocar wrote:

Truth is, in the mistaken belief that it is speed rather than its inappropriate use that kills,

Coming from a spotty youth with go-faster stripes on his uninsured car that would amount to absolute nonsense, but coming from Autocar? I'm gob-smacked. If your tyre blows put at 30mph or a deer jumps out in front of you, chances are you'll be safe. If a tyre blows out at 70mph, or you hit a deer at 70mph, there's a greater chance you may be seriously injured or die. The ONLY variable in those circumstances is SPEED, so please don't try to tell us speed doesn't kill.

autocar wrote:

it is increasingly frowned upon to enjoy driving quickly on suitable roads.

Enjoying driving on suitable roads, what on earth is that supposed to mean? Can Autocar please comment. As far as I'm aware roads have speed limits. Are you suggesting it's frowned upon if you drive at 30mph in a 30mph zone? Are you saying you can't drive at 60mph on a 60mph road? I don't know a single person who frowns upon anyone driving at the speed limit. However if you're suggesting it's frowned upon if someone breaks the law... too bloody right. How many friends or family do you have who've been killed by drivers that have 'enjoyed driving quickly'? I'd suggest the editor of Autocar pulls this article pronto, because it's ludicrous in the extreme and damned right offensive to people who've lost loved ones to drivers having fun on 'suitable roads'.

13 March 2016

Sorry, but which part of the word, "inappropriate", don't you understand? Driving at a speed that endangers other road users, be they human or animal, is "inappropriate". End of. Driving at a speed that is fit for the conditions, your skill, your machine and those around you is the name of the game and is the root of true road safety. It may or may not have anything to do with a posted speed limit. It's unfortunate that the sort of baseless dogma that you spout drives the lowest common denominator of road behaviour and the abrogation of responsibility by drivers and riders for their own actions, "I was driving at the speed limit" regardless of whether that was safe or appropriate at the time. Your attitude represents a major obstacle to road safety, which is sad.

14 March 2016
Technomad wrote:

Sorry, but which part of the word, "inappropriate", don't you understand? Driving at a speed that endangers other road users, be they human or animal, is "inappropriate". End of. Driving at a speed that is fit for the conditions, your skill, your machine and those around you is the name of the game and is the root of true road safety. It may or may not have anything to do with a posted speed limit. It's unfortunate that the sort of baseless dogma that you spout drives the lowest common denominator of road behaviour and the abrogation of responsibility by drivers and riders for their own actions, "I was driving at the speed limit" regardless of whether that was safe or appropriate at the time. Your attitude represents a major obstacle to road safety, which is sad.

I'm afraid that once you decide whether or not to obey a law, or not, based on your own personal set of criteria, you cannot then judge the attitude of others.

I suspect you will categorise me as you have done scotty5 but there are other possibilities. I enjoy driving quickly and I do speed in certain circumstances. I consider myself a decent driver having taken further tuition at various times since obtaining my licence but I don't pretend that this excuses law breaking. If I drive faster than the posted speed limit I'm taking a calculated risk with my licence and the lives of others, as are you, and I'd be bang to rights if I was caught speeding. Or worse.

We've all seen the folk switched off at the wheel oblivious to what's going on around them travelling at a 'safe' speed but we've seen just as many travelling too fast for their talent or the conditions. You may have that scenario nailed but for every one of you who can read the road there a hundred others who can't. But they would sound exactly like you trying to justify their actions.


14 March 2016

No, I'm pretty much in full agreement with you: if I choose to drive beyond an arbitrary speed limit (invariably a national), then it's between me, my conscience and my license. The point I was making was simply that there isn't an inevitable correlation between speed and bad/dangerous driving and that it's possible to drive lethally badly without breaking any speed limit. "Inappropriate" speed is, as you point out, when you are travelling at a speed that isn't matched to the road, conditions, traffic or your ability. Where I live, that's as often too slow as it is too fast.

15 March 2016
Technomad wrote:

No, I'm pretty much in full agreement with you: if I choose to drive beyond an arbitrary speed limit (invariably a national), then it's between me, my conscience and my license. The point I was making was simply that there isn't an inevitable correlation between speed and bad/dangerous driving and that it's possible to drive lethally badly without breaking any speed limit. "Inappropriate" speed is, as you point out, when you are travelling at a speed that isn't matched to the road, conditions, traffic or your ability. Where I live, that's as often too slow as it is too fast.

I agree totally with your view about danger and speed limits. Many of the anti-car brigade frequently call for limiters to prevent care from exceeding the 70mph national limit, or even smart limiters that would prevent exceeding any speed limit. But the truth is that would cause untold carnage on the roads, with people fighting for every inch, knowing that once another car was in front there would be no way to get past if it were holding them up. Mile after mile looking at the back of a wagon. The inability to exceed the limit for a few seconds to get by would lead to massive frustration and reckless actions to avoid getting stuck behind in the first place. Letting others out of junctions would become a no-no just in case they were a slow driver who would create a blockage. A road network where nobody was able to go over the limit wouldn't work.

I don't need to put my name here, it's on the left

 

13 March 2016

I think you're looking for www.caravanclub.co.uk

 

Hydrogen cars just went POP

13 March 2016

No, most of the caravan club drivers would disagree with scotty5.
What does scotty5 want? The return of the man with a red flag? Speed limits are set by jobsworths who mostly have the same mindset of scotty5. We would all be safer if the limit was 5mph maximum everywhere or even better stayed wrapped up in the nice government supplied cotton wool blanket from birth till death.

13 March 2016

Oh, I saw an original saphire cosworth, the other day, on the back of a tow truck.

www.KOOOLcr.com

 

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