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So: what have the Honda TN Acty and the Ford Cortina got in common? The answer, provided you were born before 1980, is simple: MFI. Back in the late 70s and early 80s it was the ‘done’ thing for the father to drive a saloon car, and the mother to pilot either a ‘Cinzia’ Shopper bike (you know the ones, where the recalcitrant Sturmey Archer 3 speeder is stuck in third) or a small car.
In my case it was a Vauxhall Cavalier and a Cinzia, with a borrowed Cortina estate for the odd MFI jaunt. For Thatcher’s consumers without the access to a van or an estate car, MFI would lend lucky consumers the 2-pot 28bhp Honda pick-up on which to transport their new laminated chipboard goodies.
The car manufacturers, obviously aghast at these phutting Hondas littering the Queen’s highways, made it their priority to design a solution for mainstream family car buyers; a hatchback with fold down seats. Something consumers could trust, unlike some of the earlier Gallic offerings, and a car better looking than Austin’s earnest Maxi and ill-conceived Ambassador.
With a design brief in mind the furniture store car parks were soon overflowing with streamlined Ford Sierras, Gandini origami Citroen BXs and Vauxhall J-Car Cavalier hatches. These were the cars designed to appeal to the conservative family man. A man who neither wished to be seen in a tradesman’s Estate car, nor a Florist’s Honda Acty.
And with that saw the end to MFI’s love affair with the Acty, and to some extent the average family’s love affair with the saloon/sedan. Or had it? From my own view point once my mother became a proud owner of larger hatchbacks, my father retreated back to his Cavalier/A4 saloon cars. In typical 1980s fashion she no longer needed the shopping bike because the shops were out of town, and she had to get to work after all. As it stood it was her car that was used for the weekend load lugging.
Nowadays the market has proliferated into multiples of seats and driven wheels. All the niches have been filled yet the latest damned statistics* list the BMW 3 Series down as the UK and Europe’s 9th best seller. The Mercedes C-Class isn’t far behind, while the Stuttgart-Taxi Mercedes E-Class sits within the top 20. Amidst the mid-sized crossovers and lower-medium hatchbacks, the traditional three-box saloon could be making a comeback, providing the bread and butter for the car manufacturers. Some of these saloons are even rear wheel drive, sporting the long-bonnet proportions so loved by car designers. The proportions the current crop of front-wheel drive saloons can only dream of.
Now these traditional saloons do come with their drawbacks. In the compact executive cars the rear legroom is minimal, and folding rear seats appear on the options list all too often. The Koreans could well be on to this: Sisters Hyundai and Kia have had the barefaced cheek to produce well-received rear wheel drive sedans for the state-side consumer. Who said they couldn’t? Why should they follow the cash strapped domestic car makers and not take the opportunity to emulate BMW, Mercedes, Lexis and Infinithingi? Elegant rear wheel driven sedans are few and far between at Ford, Chrysler and GM. I hope they’ll bring the sedans over here.
But will they? Is there the demand? Will we witness the resurrection of the rear-wheel driven mass- market saloon? And if such a traditional product is on the cards will the Honda Acty make a welcome return too?
*Statistics from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) and the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA)