In the 1990s car manufacturers went to war. Well, a few of them did. When Mazda discovered that people still wanted to buy cheap, fun sports cars its rivals suddenly discovered this too. Alfa Romeo, MG, Toyota and even Lotus, father of the original cheap, fun sports car, got in on the act.
All of which us at best a bit odd. Because despite the remarkable popularity of convertible cars in Britain, elsewhere they're not such big news. Only Britain has the perfect summer storm of Not Very Warm Weather and a bit of occasional sun to make dropping the roof tolerable. In countries like Italy, arguably home of the convertible, it's just too hot to go top down.
Still, young relatively affluent Brits downed tools from taking Ecstasy and wigging out to The Stone Roses to enter MG, Alfa and Mazda showrooms in their droves to buy Fs, Spiders and MX5s. They were fewer queues at Toyota showrooms because the MR2 mk3 looked rubbish and at a Lotus showrooms because nobody knew where they were.
Each of the three main offerings differed markedly. The F marked a departure from MG tradition being mid-engined and driver focused. However much we may love the B at Great Escape there is no getting away from the fact that it isn't the last word in sporting sophistication. The F was different and surprised the market in being Pretty Good. The MGFs biggest bugbear was the MX5, a sports car that, in mk1 form, was about as near to perfect as it could be. Light, nimble and cheap, the MX5 was the Golf GTi mk1 of the 1990s, a sure fire winner. Bringing up the rear in terms of sales was the Alfa Romeo Spider, the brand new 1995 successor to the original Graduate-era Spider. Stylish and luxurious, the Alfa was something different from the MX5 for the style set.
Each of these cars faired quite well in the UK market. The MX5's virtues are well known - it's spot-on looks and drivability were matched to Japanese reliability but it lost out in ultimate sales to the MGF. The F is flawed in a way that the Mazda is perfect but this seemed to appeal to UK buyers more. The F doesn't quite make the grade in terms of on-limit handling but it is more luxurious than its Japanese rival and it has the character and heritage bestowed by its octagon badge, something the slightly anodyne MX5 lacks.
In the style stakes even the MGF has to bow down to the Alfa. Styled dramatically by Pininfarina with a rising waist line, chopped rear and clever scalloped bonnet, the Alfa looked brilliant. With a choice of proper Alfa Romeo 2 litre or 3 litre engines, the Alfa eschewed the 90s fashion for backward-looking ret,to design to offer convertible enthusiasts a proper new design. It's Achilles Heel, in common with other Alfas of the period, was that it was based on the rather less exotic Fiat Tipo platform, not known for its dynamic strengths. The Alfa was a bit disappointing to drive, particularly as it was an Alfa. But as Alfisti know, the idea of brilliant handling Alfa Romeos is a bit of a myth - you have to stretch back to the early 70s and the GTV, early Alfasud and Guilia to find Alfa cars that handled well.
That was all 20 years ago. Today these three cars are on the cusp of classic status. As aspiring classics their relative merits are viewed rather differently. Assessing their potential as classics is quite important to us here at Great Escape Classic Car Hire because they are the future of our business. Often cars that were hugely popular when new don't work we'll as classics, and sometimes the reverse is true. Taking the Alfa, MG and Mazda side by side you'd probably assume that the Mazda is the sure-fire classic. But we're not sure. Classic fans seem to revel in the character of their cars and character is just another word for flaws and failings. The Mazda doesn't have any flaws, unless you count rust. Ergo, it doesn't have a huge amount of character. It is a great driver's car but it doesn't require a great driver to drive it well. It flatters. Few Japanese cars have cut through to classic status perhaps because of this perception of characterless ruthless efficiency and we suspect that the MX5 may be the same.
The MGF is rather different. It has character in spades and the benefit of perhaps the most classic of classic car badges. It is the last true British mass-produced sports car and once the poorly maintained cars drop out of the market we think good examples will become more sought after. The F has all the ingredients of a successful classic car - heritage, usability and capability and excellent parts supply.
Which leaves the Alfa. The Spider may not be the last word in sporting prowess but Alfa enthusiasts are used to loving rough diamonds. The Alfa's looks and heritage are a winning combination on the classic scene and we expect it to grace damp fields beside country mansions in increasing numbers each summer. Of course, the Holy Grail is a 3 litre v6 Spider as this engine was the last true Alfa v6 engine, but the 2 litre T-Spark is probably the better real world option being lighter and more fuel efficient.
Never ones to hide behind the sweeping curve of progress, we've already added MGFs and a later Alfa Spider to our classic car hire fleet. You can hire a F in Yorkshire, Cotswolds or Peak District and we have new and old Alfa Spiders in the Cotswolds. These modern classics are available to hire for just £160 for the weekend or £95 for 24 hrs. These prices include unlimited mileage, full UK breakdown service and comprehensive insurance. You can find out more by visiting http://www.greatescapecars.co.uk or call 01527 893733.