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Open Diff: What Gives a Vehicle Character?

Posted October 06, 2022 5:00 AM by dstrohl
Pathfinder Tags: classic cars

As I took in the view out of the expansive gun-slit windshield, sitting chair-high in the driver's seat and manipulating the tall wand of a gearshift to the warbling sounds of a backwards-mounted inline-four, I was struck with how different my ride was, not only from its early-Nineties contemporaries, but from virtually everything else on the road in 2022. It had me thinking, "This has to be one of the most characterful cars ever made."

I recently had the pleasure of delivering my friend Gretchen's 1993 Saab 900 Turbo to her, driving it from the local barn where it was temporarily stored over Hogback Mountain to her home in eastern Vermont. Longtime readers know I daily-drove a similar (albeit non-Turbo) hatch for many years and, in the time since it was replaced, I'd forgotten what a peculiar experience those old Saabs offer. The "classic" (1979-'93) 900 was very long-lived (derived from the on-sale-in-1968 99) so its basic body design and packaging were from a bygone era, but the car was so carefully and cleverly engineered that its functionality was lauded even as it performed those functions in ways sometimes 180 degrees from convention. It was hugely polarizing, but in its time few other cars did as many different things so competently.

It's not uncommon for automotive enthusiasts to anthropomorphize their cars and trucks, equating the positive and negative traits of those vehicles to human experiences. As I dipped into the throttle and watched the boost gauge dance, or as I turned the steering wheel and felt the texture of the asphalt as the 900's narrow body leaned and then took a set, I couldn't help note how unique this car felt in comparison to anything else built in the past 50 years. The sounds, the smells, the unusually efficient ergonomics, the momentary hissing of the vacuum-actuated HVAC system as a knob was turned or a button pushed... it was more than the sum of its parts.

Do you feel a vehicle can have character? If so, does it have to be a love-it-or-hate-it experience? Or is a car, truck, or motorcycle simply an inanimate mechanical assembly?

Have you owned anything that endeared itself or enraged you through its design, function, and, dare I say, "personality?" Let us know in the comments below.

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#1

Re: Open Diff: What Gives a Vehicle Character?

10/06/2022 7:31 PM

I remember driving my dad's 1978 99 Turbo. The wind screen that felt so far out in front of you took a little getting used to but it was a fun car to drive. Always felt solidly planted to the road and the engine had nice scoot to it.

As far as character goes, to have it, the car needs nice lines but has to look different from the rest of the pack, but not be ugly. That's a fine line to tread.

Too many newer cars today are indistinguishable from each other except by the badge on the rear lid/hatch. Sometimes I wonder if they are all sharing the dies for their body panels.

A woodside Pacer wagon certainly looks different . . . . But I am sure there are those who loves those too.

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Re: Open Diff: What Gives a Vehicle Character?

10/22/2022 4:22 AM

Saab kept that oddball key position - I don't know why they did it, but it definitely is quirky. Maybe it kept the lock cylinder from wearing? If you have all sorts of keychain fobs and keys, there's a lot of weight. If you have a "normal" key position, the dangling keys will damage the tumbler of the lock.

Quirky doesn't give a car character. Great example with the Pacer! Different, but I wouldn't say it has character.

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Re: Open Diff: What Gives a Vehicle Character?

10/07/2022 2:39 PM

Older cars had more individual characters, as each manufacturer built their chassis and frame - or monocoque body - to a unique design.

Now, every Citroen, Peugeot and Fiat are based on the exact same set of three sizes of floor pan, as that is the single most expensive part to produce.

Go back to the 70s designs and the Citroen GS was unique in having a front mounted flat four air cooled engine with a built in pump for the hydraulic suspension and brakes.

A 1222cc engine in a 840kg car had a decent performance and could happily cruise at a ton all day (confirmed on many trips to Germany) and would stop on a sixpence with 62bar of hydraulic pressure a slide valve away from the front brakes. Rear brake pressure came from the rear suspension, all elf levelling.

Not a car to throw into a corner, but fantastically smooth when fed in gently, and a magic carpet ride over cobbles while remaining far more sure footed that anything with springs.

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Re: Open Diff: What Gives a Vehicle Character?

10/22/2022 4:26 AM

Citroen had some very unusual cars indeed. I like the DS - I've never ridden in one, but I heard that the suspension is super smooth. The 2CV is ... well ... it's certainly unique. I've never ridden, nor driven one either. The stark difference between the 2CV and DS or GS is amazing. It's hard to believe they came from the same company!

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Re: Open Diff: What Gives a Vehicle Character?

10/22/2022 4:50 AM

The hydraulic system was first introduced in the rear of the Traction Avant a couple of years before the DS/ID made their debut.

Considering that the 2CV was a pre-war design, but successfully hidden from the invading forces, it was incredibly well designed and lasted in production until the early 1990s. There are still a few on the roads around Edinburgh.

The hydraulic system was also used in the GS, CX, BX, Xantia, XM and C5, all of which I have owned at least one example of.

As sprung vehicle suspension improved and the hydraulic system was firmed up, the difference became far less noticeable.

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Re: Open Diff: What Gives a Vehicle Character?

10/29/2022 4:22 AM

Seeing that you've owned a lot of Citroens, my guess is that you like the cars a lot.

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Re: Open Diff: What Gives a Vehicle Character?

10/29/2022 4:33 AM

The suspension has been very good for my back, levelling out the bumps.

I still would prefer to drive the older ones with the softer suspension, but don’t want to spend my time lying under them.

The early systems were purely mechanical and very reliable, but the corrosion resistance was poor.

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Re: Open Diff: What Gives a Vehicle Character?

10/29/2022 10:34 PM

Technology has improved so much, however companies are cutting corners. Case in point; Hyundai/Kia advertises that their cars have more features or a longer warranty vs Toyota or Honda. Why do they do it? Because that's what people want to hear, until they need a motor right after the warranty expires. I've been trying to educate my clients, however the ads must be doing something, because many don't want to listen. So I get them a Hyundai or Kia. I have a client who had a motor go out at 101K miles - threw a CEL and took the car to the dealer. She found out that cylinder 3 was low on compression. She had complained about the CEL turning on for the past year or so. The dealer reset just it and sent her on her way. Lucky for her, she kept the receipts and with my help, she was able to convince the regional rep to accept her warranty claim.

In the last year, I've had more Hyundai/Kia motors go out - more than any other manufacturer. In fact, the number of Hyundai/Kia blown motors exceeds the total number of blown motors by all car companies combined - less Hyundai/Kia.

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#3

Re: Open Diff: What Gives a Vehicle Character?

10/22/2022 4:18 AM

I love this article! For him, it's a Saab. For others it's something else. For me, it's an Alfa.

People ask me why I like Alfa's so much. My answer is that they have a soul.

When a designer creates art, that's something special - it can be said that he gives the car character.

My favorites are Battista Farina (designed the Alfa Spider), Gandini (designed the Fiat 850 and Alfa GTV), Guigiaro, Scaglietti, Zagato, Bertone, Scagione (Alfa Guilietta Sprint - I almost bought one), and Fioravanti (Ferrari Daytona). There are so many other great designers, but these are the ones that I like - Battista Farina is my favorite.

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