Recently I revisited the BMW Z8 for the first time since I drove it new. Such a wonderful-looking car; such a disappointment to drive. The only thing that warmed me to it was the pleasure of the naturally aspirated engine, a manual gearbox and no infotainment.
You couldn’t give a Z8 away when it was nearly new, but now they’re worth a fortune. It just shows that desirability isn’t only about the driving experience; great looks can make up for wonky dynamics. Throughout history, there have been cars that look fantastic but drive like a shed. And the reverse is also true: cars that look dreadful but which are absolutely brilliant to drive. One that stands out from memory is the Nissan Primera eGT from the early 1990s. You wouldn’t call the Primera ugly, but bland it certainly was.
I remember going to the late Peter Gethin’s driving school at Goodwood and was surprised to discover that it had a fleet of Primeras. I understood after a lap, because the eGT, as well as having a 150bhp engine, had an excellent chassis, thanks in part to multi-link front and rear suspension.
But I can easily trump the Primera with the supreme example of the good-to-drive but appalling-on-the-eyes machine. I’m talking about the hideous Reliant Scimitar SS1. It’s hard to believe that the genius behind the Triumph Spitfire and Stag, my hero Giovanni Michelotti, designed this Reliant. The SS1 had a feeble Ford CVH powerplant, but the later SST used a 1.8-litre turbo engine from the Nissan Silvia. With 135bhp under the bonnet and well-sorted independent suspension, the SST was great to drive if you were prepared to risk your friends seeing you in it.
Let’s go back to the Z8 and some other incompetent beauties. How about the Ford Capri? Fifty last year and an object of much nostalgia if you grew up in the UK in the 1970s and watched a lot of TV. Wonderful styling, especially in pre-facelift Mk1 form, that led you to believe you were about to drive a pure sports machine. It drove like a Cortina. The Capri eventually became reasonably sophisticated and was always lovable with a 3.0-litre V6 but, with a feeble Crossflow under the bonnet, it was best left parked.
The Fiat Group, and especially the Alfa Romeo division, has contributed many fine-looking machines that turn out to be as dynamically able as a shopping trolley. The two Alfas that really stand out are the Brera and the 4C. The Brera is a stunning-looking coupé that’s instantly recognisable. Add to this shape one of Alfa’s fabulous V6 engines and you should have an instant classic. Unfortunately, Alfa also added a lot of weight – indeed, so much that rival engineers couldn’t understand how the Brera could weigh 1800kg.
It’s also rather hard to understand how Alfa managed to make such a mess of the 4C. The ingredients were premium quality with carbonfibre prepared by Dallara. The final result, however, particularly in Spider form, is one of the most incompetent sports cars that I’ve driven.
To many, the criticism of those Alfas will be sacrilege, but just to prove that there’s no xenophobia here, I will nominate a couple of home-grown beauties whose appeal fades when you start their engines. Ever since childhood, and specifically watching Daktari on the telly, I’ve loved the look of a Land Rover. Then, as an adult, I drove one. It was an ex-army Series 2 and, since then, I’ve driven all subsequent generations. All are terrible to drive unless you’re in the jungle.