S mar­ket val­ues for clas­sic cars rise, so does the pop­u­lar­ity of unloved clas­sics. But there is more to it than that, since some less-pop­u­lar old cars are ac­tu­ally unique and wor­thy of both preser­va­tion and cos­seted own­er­ship.

New Zealand Classic Car - - Motorman - Above: A rare Fuego Turbo set against a New Zealand back­drop in 1983 Be­low: Fuego Turbo brochure from 1984

A re­cent anal­y­sis of 30 mil­lion cars in Bri­tain high­lighted the plight of many older cars that are verg­ing on ex­tinc­tion. The sur­vey re­vealed that only one ex­am­ple of a stag­ger­ing 222 mod­els from the past 50 years is still in use. Bri­tish Ley­land built two mil­lion Met­ros, but there are now fewer than 3000 of them reg­is­tered for use on the roads to­day, and a mere 183 Austin Mae­stros from a to­tal production of 325,000. Con­trast this with MGB production of just over half a mil­lion, of which 19,000 are still in reg­u­lar use. The high­est sur­viv­ing per­cent­age rate was the Lo­tus Elan, with more than 1700 early ex­am­ples, while the Tri­umph Stag was run­ner-up, with 3542 in use from a production to­tal of 26,000. Just 161 Austin Al­le­gros from 640,000 are still li­cenced, with more off road in col­lec­tions! More than 800,000 Mor­ris Mari­nas were made be­tween 1971 and 1980, and now only 22 are li­cenced. Clearly, the Bri­tish have a bet­ter love af­fair with the Mor­ris Mi­nor, which boasts a cur­rent run­ning to­tal of 14,294. Just 68 Al­fa­suds are still in use, while a mere 22 Dat­sun 120Ys are run­ning, hon­our­ing the rest that have rusted away. Fi­nally, un­sur­pris­ingly, 748 Fer­rari GTBS from 1975 to 1985 are reg­is­tered — al­most all of those sold new in the UK.

You need to look far and wide th­ese days to find a Re­nault Fuego, with only 19 cur­rently reg­is­tered in Bri­tain and prob­a­bly many fewer than that in New Zealand, where the model was im­ported from 1981 un­til 1986. How­ever, just how ac­cu­rate th­ese sur­vival fig­ures are is ques­tion­able, be­cause of those tucked away off road and de-reg­is­tered. Jeremy Clark­son in­di­cated in 2011 how few Fuego Tur­bos were still in use in Bri­tain (just five now), while, two years ago, the Hon­est John web­site quoted 75 as the num­ber of all Fuego mod­els reg­is­tered in the UK.

Sub­jected to ver­bal abuse per­haps more fre­quently than most, the stylish French coupé was of­ten de­scribed as the car of choice for Parisian pros­ti­tutes, while oth­ers opined that it was shaped like a wal­rus with gas. Yet the car had sev­eral other more sub­stan­tial claims to fame. The late John Wood, gen­eral man­ager of Euro­trans Mo­tors, the New Zealand con­ces­sion­aire for the French mar­que at the time, be­lieved that the ar­rival of the Fuego (pro­nounced ‘foo-ay-go’) on our mar­ket would be an im­age-booster and bring new clients to Re­nault.

He was right. As the first ex­am­ples ar­rived, there were wait­ing lists for the Fuego, with some deal­ers reck­on­ing that the newcomer would kill the sky-high Mazda RX-7 mar­ket. That didn’t quite hap­pen; although, from a sit­u­a­tion in 1980, when Euro­trans held big stocks of un­sold new Re­naults, the brand moved to late 1981 with no in­ven­tory of prod­uct and for­ward ship­ments al­ready sold. Re­nault was the best-sell­ing built-up car brand in New Zealand in

1983, out­gun­ning BMW, buoyed by the 1.6 GTS and 2.0 GTX Fuego that was the most pop­u­lar fully im­ported coupé. It was also the best-sell­ing coupé in Europe from 1980 to 1982, in a mo­ment of glory scarcely re­mem­bered to­day.

Styling and aero­dy­nam­ics

How­ever, there are other more com­pelling rea­sons why we should re­mem­ber the Fuego. From 1983, it was the first car to have the now-near-univer­sal re­mote key­less lock­ing — re­ferred to as ‘PLIP’ and named after French­man Paul Lip­schutz — and broke new ground with steer­ing-wheel­mounted con­trols for the au­dio. The Fuego was claimed to be the first mass-pro­duced car de­signed in a wind tun­nel, which lead to the ex­cel­lent c (drag co­ef­fi­cient)

d of 0.34. It was de­scribed as an ar­rest­ing com­bi­na­tion of styling and aero­dy­nam­ics. Look in vain, for ex­am­ple, to see ex­ter­nal door re­leases, be­cause they are hid­den within body in­den­ta­tions by the B-pil­lar.

This car is noth­ing if not dis­tinc­tive, en­cir­cled by a thick black plas­tic belt line and re­ally look­ing like noth­ing else. The late mo­tor­ing writer LJK Setright de­clared, “It is blessed with a body which is not only roomy and aero­dy­nam­i­cally ef­fi­cient, but is also beau­ti­ful.” Re­nault pre­ferred to call the car a “two door, four seater” rather than a coupé.

With a top speed of 180kph, the rare turbo-diesel ver­sion, which was not im­ported here, was, in its day, the fastest diesel car in the world. When the tur­bopetrol en­gine be­came avail­able late in 1983, the brand aligned the Fuego with Re­nault’s spec­tac­u­lar in­volve­ment in For­mula 1. Out­wardly, this most pow­er­ful of Fue­gos was distin­guished by huge ‘Turbo’ lo­gos along the smooth body flanks and on the rear glass hatch, Ger­man BBS spoked al­loy wheels, and mi­nor changes to the grille. The top two hor­i­zon­tal grille slats matched the body colour, and the door mir­rors had elec­tri­cal ad­just­ment. Rare for the era was fit­ment of an on-board com­puter in the Turbo.

Robert Opron — the man who styled the Citroën CX and leg­endary SM — and Michael Jar­den were the two de­sign­ers be­hind the Fuego, thus ex­plain­ing why the Re­nault’s glass clamshell rear hatch mim­ics the SM. Cyn­ics reck­oned that the car should be pro­nounced ‘few-go’ be­cause few did, but that’s bit un­fair.

Land of fire

Named after the Terra del Fuego, or ‘land of fire’, in South Amer­ica, the French coupé was, ap­pro­pri­ately, built in Ar­gentina, Chile, and Venezuela, in ad­di­tion to France, and be­came a best­seller in South Amer­ica, un­like in the US, where sales were medi­ocre. The to­tal production of 265,367 was less than Re­nault planned, and the com­pany de­scribed the car as a “com­mer­cial flop that peo­ple liked”.

The North Amer­i­can ver­sions came with over­size bumpers and dif­fer­ent head­lights that looked less el­e­gant and raised the c

d to 0.35. Around 20,000 were sold in the US through Amer­i­can Mo­tors (AMC) deal­er­ships by peo­ple ac­cus­tomed to sell­ing AMC Con­cords and CJ-7 Jeeps, and they were ser­viced by ill-equipped, ill-pre­pared me­chan­ics.

Nam­ing the Fuego after a Span­ish word for fire could be con­sid­ered ironic, as the car had some­thing of a rep­u­ta­tion for catch­ing alight. There was a re­call for steer­ing-wheel fail­ures, leaky head gas­kets, and elec­tronic grem­lins, and the some­times-poor build qual­ity is per­haps why the Fuego is rare to­day. As they aged, there were leak­ing dampers and per­ished sus­pen­sion bushes, yet Re­nault had learned many les­sons about cor­ro­sion, so rust was rarely a ma­jor set­back.

How­ever, there were oc­ca­sional creaks and groans, which we ex­pe­ri­enced in two near-new ex­am­ples tested on New Zealand roads, an an­noy­ance also re­ported by some over­seas own­ers. One chap, frus­trated by prob­lems with his Fuego, rather un­kindly re­torted, “Once you own a French car noth­ing worse can hap­pen to you!”

Lo­cal at­trac­tion

Still, here was a strik­ing-look­ing two-door hatched coupé that achieved fame in the 1985 James Bond movie A View to a Kill. It was also the car that at­tracted the at­ten­tion of Auck­land motorsport enthusiast Peter Gunther, a South African who has lived in New Zealand since 1998. He kept an eye on a mod­i­fied Fuego on Trade Me and, even­tu­ally, the price be­came too good to re­sist. Th­ese days, the odd rare Fuego on of­fer is usu­ally ad­ver­tised with the mes­sage “bring a trailer” and this was, in­deed, what Peter had to do to re­trieve his ex­am­ple from its for­mer home in the Manawatu. Now he has the Re­nault up and run­ning to com­pete in the lo­cal Euro­pean Rac­ing Cham­pi­onship se­ries.

His 2.0-litre GTX had been used as a Targa car and up­graded with a pair of side-draught We­ber car­bu­ret­tors; a warmer camshaft, ad­justable com­pe­ti­tion springs; a full roll cage; and cross-drilled, ven­ti­lated front discs. Peter is con­scious of the car’s weight and in­tends re­plac­ing the ex­ten­sive glass area with Per­spex win­dows, while also dis­pos­ing of the heavy elec­tric-win­dow mech­a­nism. The Fuego suf­fered fly­wheel

fail­ure at Pukekohe last sea­son, so the idea of ac­quir­ing a sec­ond Fuego as a spares­backup seemed log­i­cal. Peter found a sec­ond Fuego in Christchurch, but now in­tends to get this car back on the road as a dai­ly­driver. He may well be the only per­son in New Zealand with two Fue­gos, and he is cer­tainly alone in cir­cuit rac­ing one.

Com­bine ve­hi­cle weight with rel­a­tively mod­est power, and the Fuego’s com­pe­ti­tion po­ten­tial would al­ways be limited. In ad­di­tion, the car is some­what nose-heavy, with a 62:38 weight dis­tri­bu­tion. This ex­plains why it is all too easy to in­duce wheel­spin dur­ing rapid stand­ing starts. How­ever, it is a brisk and sat­is­fy­ing road car, es­pe­cially with the more pow­er­ful en­gines. The 1.6 GTS de­vel­ops a mod­est 72kw (97hp), while the 82kw (110hp) 2.0-litre GTX with al­loy block-and-head en­gine and We­ber twin-choke car­bu­ret­tor would be a bet­ter bet. The 1565cc Turbo pro­duces 98kw (131hp) and, with 200Nm, boasts 23-per-cent more torque than the GTX.

The Turbo uses a devel­op­ment of the R18 Turbo sa­loon mo­tor, and, by fur­ther low­er­ing the com­pres­sion ra­tio from 8.6:1 to 8.0:1, Re­nault was able to in­crease tur­bocharg­ing boost pres­sure from 9psi on the R18 to 11psi. The pushrod over­head­valve mo­tor is fed by a sin­gle Solex car­bu­ret­tor with a Garrett T03 turbo, and, like all Fue­gos, the power plant is mounted lon­gi­tu­di­nally. Power de­liv­ery is peaky and there is some ini­tial lag. Ac­cel­er­a­tion is not ap­pre­cia­bly bet­ter than the 2.0-litre GTX, although top speed in­creases from 183kph to 200kph, and the run to 100kph takes 8.4 sec­onds compared with 10 sec­onds. All have front disc brakes, while the Turbo has larger ven­ti­lated front discs and solid discs were added at the rear.

Ex­pect a slightly notchy gear change and avoid the op­tional au­to­mat­ics, which were also im­ported lo­cally. The GTX en­gine is ex­tremely flex­i­ble and happy enough pulling away from as low as 20kph in fifth gear. Yet this lack of re­fine­ment con­trasts with the low wind noise, a con­se­quence of the fine aero­dy­nam­ics and good door and win­dow seal­ing.

Slip­pery shape

Dur­ing the en­tire life of the model, there were no sig­nif­i­cant changes made to the body shape. Small re­vi­sions in early 1983 con­sisted of a seal­ing lip un­der the bon­net, above the grille; a de­flec­tor in front of the ra­di­a­tor to im­prove air­flow; re­vised sill guards ahead of the rear wheels; and a cen­tral de­flec­tor un­der the floor — Re­nault was se­ri­ous about the car’s slip­pery shape.

Thirty-five years ago, I was im­me­di­ately struck by the French charm dur­ing my first Fuego test. This was Re­nault’s an­swer to the Ford Capri, Toy­ota Cel­ica, Volk­swa­gen Scirocco, Opel Manta, and Audi coupé (with which it shared the same

4358mm length). The car was based on the Re­nault 18, with the same floor­pan and front-wheel driv­e­train, and, while the sus­pen­sion is iden­ti­cal to the 18’s, few parts are in­ter­change­able. The front sus­pen­sion is by dou­ble wish­bone, and the rear axle is lo­cated by trail­ing links and an A-bracket. I noted a firm­ness to both ride and response, and the rack-and-pin­ion steer­ing was nicely weighted, with the power as­sis­tance elim­i­nat­ing much of the front-drive feel­ing. The Fuego im­pressed for its sta­bil­ity and high-speed ride and was not at all per­turbed when cross­ing rail­way lines or strik­ing pot­holes. Pirelli P6 tyres fit­ted to the 14-inch rims were stan­dard, help­ing to make the car feel nim­ble.

In true French tra­di­tion, the coil-spring sus­pen­sion had long travel, and it coped well with all road sur­faces, though ride did tend to be firm at slower speeds. At the same time, body roll was a lot less than it was in many older French cars. En­gine noise was a lit­tle in­tru­sive un­der ac­cel­er­a­tion, but the car was quiet and re­laxed when cruis­ing, and the comfy front seats, with their pin­striped velour up­hol­stery, heav­ily sculpted backs, and ex­tended sides, pro­vided ex­cel­lent sup­port.

Pan­to­graph-type wipers swept right to the driver’s edge of the sharply raked wind­screen, and I found the con­trols clear and clean. The steer­ing wheel ad­justed for rake but not reach, and ven­ti­la­tion was good. The huge rear win­dow, which had mi­nor op­ti­cal dis­tor­tion be­cause of its shape, was swept clear by a wiper that did not need much use, since the glass would stay re­mark­ably clean on a long jour­ney.

Deep side win­dows pro­vided a gen­er­ous view, although the heavy rear quar­ter panel pro­vided a blind spot, and frontal vis­i­bil­ity was slightly im­paired by the pro­nounced wind­screen rake. Head­room was not over­gen­er­ous and rear-seat legroom was limited, but, over­all, the Fuego was prac­ti­cal with its split fold­ing back seat that could be re­moved en­tirely, squab and all. There was no ex­ter­nal tail­gate re­lease; this could only be op­er­ated from the driver’s door jamb.

Ini­tially, the New Zealand mar­ket took the $22,241 over­head-valve 1647cc GTS model in 1981, fol­lowed two years later by the $24K sin­gle-over­head-cam 1995cc GTX. By mid-1984, the price of a 2.0-litre GTX had risen to $26,720, and au­to­matic op­tions were avail­able for both. The first of the man­ual-only Tur­bos in March 1984 re­tailed for $37,600, and, when it was last im­ported in Oc­to­ber 1986, the new list price had raced to $44,200, compared with $40,100 for the GTX man­ual. An elec­tric sun­roof and leather up­hol­stery were use­ful ex­tras for the last of the Tur­bos.

To­day, the price of a Fuego is only as much as the pur­chaser sees fit — which may not be much — but pon­der the Turbo, which is the one to have. In Bri­tain, two years ago, Fuego Tur­bos were worth loose change, yet now, good ones com­mand more than the equiv­a­lent of $25K.

Re­nault built an up­mar­ket con­vert­ible pro­to­type with leather up­hol­stery but de­cided against production. Plans for a sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Fuego were scrapped after Euro­pean sales of all coupé mod­els slipped, and Re­nault faced an eco­nomic axe. How­ever, the orig­i­nal sol­diered on in South Amer­ica un­til 1992, six years after production ended in France.

To some, the Fuego is a for­get­table ex­per­i­ment and a lost car of the ’80s, yet, de­spite the foibles, it re­mains a cool and quirky clas­sic with po­ten­tial for ap­pre­ci­a­tion.

You couldn’t plan the way some things link to­gether even if you tried — I was look­ing through some old emails and dis­cov­ered that, in Novem­ber 2006, my spare time seemed to be con­sumed with fin­ish­ing off my part of Eoin Young’s Memories of the Bear book on Denny Hulme, as well as putting to­gether the much-more-mod­estly sized pub­li­ca­tion A Trib­ute to Ge­orge Begg. Within a few days of dis­cov­er­ing this oth­er­wise in­con­se­quen­tial re­minder of what I had been do­ing a decade ago, I’d had phone calls on non-mo­tor­rac­ing–related top­ics from Cal­ven Bon­ney, the owner of the 018 (the last Begg), and from Noel At­ley, from who Cal­ven ac­quired it. Noel told me that he was putting the fin­ish­ing touches on his FM3 (the 13th Begg), and that he plans to com­pete this sum­mer in the sec­ond Begg, which he owns in part­ner­ship with Ian Bis­man — a name that was heav­ily in­ter­twined in the Begg story ‘back in the day’. Although the trio of FM3S were all built as For­mula Fords in the early ’70s, the car Noel will re­turn to rac­ing in — de­spite be­ing a For­mula Ford for most of its 51 years — started out with a 1.6-litre Hill­man Minx power plant.

Why not two?

First, a quick his­tory les­son — Ge­orge Begg was an en­gi­neer and for­mer Isle of Man bike racer who built his first car dur­ing 1963/’64. Then, as he wrote in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy When the En­gine Roars, “If I can build one, why not two?” In Jan­uary 1966, the sec­ond Rootes-pow­ered South­land-built car lined up in the New Zealand Spe­cials sup­port race at the Tere­tonga In­ter­na­tional meet­ing (driven by Dr David Bru­ton) along­side the 650cc Bsa-pow­ered ‘first Begg’. As Ge­orge wrote after see­ing them both win their class — “I shook my head in dis­be­lief. It was too good to be true. There wasn’t a prouder man on the cir­cuit.”

And while th­ese phone calls from Begg own­ers were go­ing on, I couldn’t help but

Th­ese days based in Kerik­eri, Grant has an en­vi­able col­lec­tion of cars that in­cludes an F5000 Mclaren and an A-type Con­naught of early 1950s vin­tage.

So, 18 Beggs were built, and, of those, some def­i­nitely no longer ex­ist, while one or two oth­ers haven’t been seen in many years. Those which re­main, es­pe­cially those re­built and pre­sented to the stan­dard of the two avail­able to buy right now, are not only a trib­ute to dear old GN Begg but also gen­uine items of New Zealand art.

Begg con­nec­tions

I was no sooner mak­ing sense of this avalanche of Begg con­nec­tions when an­other one turned up in my inbox. It was from Rob Allen, who had started in Drum­mond as a Begg ap­pren­tice in the late 1960s and ended up as a part­ner in the busi­ness — yes, the other part of ‘Begg and Allen’ on the yel­low wing end­plates on the 018. Rob had been run­ning For­mula Vees in the late 1960s, and so, when For­mula Ford was in­tro­duced, he was ready to make the jump. Fred Mclean de­signed a car (the FM3), and Rob was one of the eight young hope­fuls who sat on the grid in Oc­to­ber 1970 for New Zealand’s in­au­gu­ral For­mula Ford race at Pukekohe. His Begg FM3 is still be­ing raced — th­ese days by Gra­ham Dickie — and, in late Oc­to­ber, it and its two brothers (there were three FM3S) will be at Mike Pero Motorsport Park — com­pet­ing to­gether for the first time in some 40 years. Noel At­ley will be there, too, in the car that started life with a Hill­man Minx mo­tor.

Any­way, back to Ge­orge’s for­mer busi­ness

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