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1997 and all that 20 years on - is the wheel turning full circle ?
publication date: Nov 22, 2017
author/source: Dave Moss
by Dave Moss
One way or another, 1997 proved to be quite an automotive watershed.
Two very familiar, long running models came to the end of the road, the first being the Rover 100, born as the dumpily styled Austin Metro in 1980, and once intended to replace the Mini, which eventually outlived it - by around 13 years. Though the Metro matured into a successful car, especially in its updated mid- 1980's form and in MG guise, the later Rover Metro and 100 both had uneasy lives.
They were increasingly outclassed alongside younger, more attractive and more sophisticated cars. Yet as it reached the end, hastened by a safety performance belonging in an earlier era, the plushly-appointed Rover 100 proved popular, delivering faithful, comfortable and quite reliable transport.
The Metro was easily the highest volume car in the company's final years, and if what eventually appeared as the Rover 200 series had replaced it - as originally intended - the Rover tragedy might have had a very different ending. But the message remained unheeded, and when BMW lowered the curtain on the last in the line, it left a yawning gap in Rover's range which was never filled.
Then 1997 was also the year Ford's Escort reached the end of an even longer road, having made its original appearance in 1968. The Escort quickly became outstandingly and continuously successful, and for close to 30 years, across three distinct generations, the range was at or near the top of the British sales charts.
Many millions were sold - not just in Britain - aided by a vast array of engines, trim levels and bodystyles, helped by a well-engineered if somewhat belated move to front wheel drive for the 1980's.
There was an Escort for everyone, from supermarket shopper to rally stage and racing circuit driver, and its available blends of practicality, economy, performance, reliability, easy servicing and low running costs combined to make it an enduring winner.
But nothing lasts for ever, and by 1997, having utilised every marketing approach in the book, and written some appendices of its own, a replacement was overdue. When it came in 1998, the vast difference between old chalk and stylish, all-new cheese was underlined by a different badge: the Focus left certain competitors shaken if not exactly stirred - and buyers never looked back.
But quite a lot of Escorts remained in stock, and, as if to emphasise just how far the Focus had moved the whole game in its sector forward overnight, some of them weren't registered until late 2000.
During 1997 another brand was added to British buyers' list of fading memories. Russian built Lada cars, at the time mostly founded on ageing Fiat technology, departed the UK market, for reasons which - though blamed officially on emissions performance - never seemed entirely clear.
They were unquestionably sturdily built, and seemingly capable of shrugging off conditions far beyond anything British roads - then at least - could throw at them.
However they rather lacked certain desirable dynamic qualities, any concession to 90's - or even 80's - styling trends, and meaningful quality control standards, despite the best efforts of the Carnaby-based import centre.
Modest list prices weren't enough to offset precipitous depreciation, and whatever the ultimate reason for its UK downfall, like 1980's compatriots Yugo and FSO - then also reliant on old Fiat designs - Lada was increasingly outgunned by the fast-rising expectations of British customers.
The seeds of its demise were effectively sown years earlier with the arrival of Proton in 1989 and Daewoo in 1995, offering cars based on modern-age design, build quality, and high reliability standards, incorporating amounts of recent-generation technology - sold at keen prices. By late 1997 the last Ladas were taking to British roads, and, this time for very different reasons, again the British public never looked back.
In 2016, it held around 20% of the Russian market, supplying ever-improving vehicles built to suit its target market. Its cars still appeal on value rather than luxury or sophistication, making inroads where incomes are comparatively modest, roads are poor, and demand for personal transport is growing.
Renault have already resuscitated the Dacia brand, which first appeared in 1966 on versions of Renault 8, and later 12 models, built under licence for regional consumption by a Romanian state-owned company based in Pitesti.
Following privatisation in 1998, Renault has gradually increased its stake to over 99% of the company, and taken Dacia from a near moribund marque - with a fleeting, ill-fated 1980's UK dalliance - into a modern, value-oriented European brand. According to JATO, 315,897 Dacia cars have been sold across the EU27 countries so far in 2017.
Over 16,600 of them have come to the UK, 6% up on 2016, making it unlikely we'll see Lada returning with the just-released 'Vesta' or recent 'X-Ray' models (on show stand) to tread on Dacia's toes any time soon. But these are early days: Dacia's resurgence is much more advanced, and with the new car market increasingly complex, multi-faceted and ever-changing, the old phrase 'never say never' keeps coming to mind.
Plenty of other low-cost marques exist around the world, and could one day come to find fortune in Europe.
So, twenty years on from Lada's unlamented UK demise, could history be repeating itself - as the budget-brand wheel turns full circle?
© Davd Moss