A Brief History of Sh*!e, Cool and Weird Small Luxury Cars – My Top 11:

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For some strange reason I have been thinking a lot lately about Ford giving the Vignale treatment to the humble Fiesta. It will be no  small feat if it manages to make a Prestige car in a pint sized package.

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Small luxury cars are nothing new to the industry, and I’m not talking posh polo Audi A1’s on finance or well ‘specced’ new Minis; I am meaning actual attempts to bring some of the amenities and sense of occasion usually found in a Rolls Royce or Bentley to something a lot more cut-price.
History is littered with several attempts at the formula, although as a challenge most cars and designs fall way short of expectation. This post is a look at some of the less successful,  and two of the best examples of the weird breed so far:

11,10,9,8. Vanden Plas (The Good, The Kitsch and the Ugly plus a Mediocre Metro):
It is impossible to talk about bottom of the food chain luxo trolleys without at least dipping a toe into the second half of the 20th century history of good ol’ Vanden Plas. Vanden Plas shares a lot of similarities with Vignale, they both began as respected coach-builders to the upper end of the automotive industry and they both ended up becoming upper trim levels for mass market badges. Vanden plas did start out as a very respected operation that coach built for many great marques such as Alvis, Bentley, Daimler, Lagonda, Rolls Royce and many more.  Later on though they became even more famous (or perhaps infamous) when they were approached by Leonard Lord of BMC who wanted them to create a more upmarket feel to the humongous and slow selling Austin 3 litre. This cemented a partnership that would live well into the dark era of BL and Austin/Rover.


Vanden Plas’ first go at building a small upmarket car was the 1100/1300 based Princess which was actually very nicely put together. It was a car that you really could be proud to own; it had the extra chrome and the bigger grille of something more prestige without being too vulgar, everything was appointed tastefully, complimenting the already clean lines of the Ado 16 design.  However, the exterior is not even half of the story, as we all know the most important ingredient to a luxury car is the interior. Thankfully, the Princess is no exception. When sat inside of the Vanden Plas, you forget all the cares of the world and most importantly the humble origin of your car, it’s just a nice place to be.

The dash is unique to the VP, made from the most delicious burr walnut, the seats are made from a reasonable quality leather (of course) and the kids in the back get to feel like chauffeured royalty at a push with some lovely picnic tables, mhmmmm. The Vanden Plas was a good addition to the range of what was Britain’s best selling car, this is was what aspirational motoring should be about.

Envy of the Cul-de-sac

The Princess 1100/1300 ‘s replacement however gave Vanden Plas a challenge too far. This model was based on a car that brings a shudder to the spine of many an English motorist, the “all-agro” was always going to suffer because of that frumpy styling. Somehow Vanden Plas managed the impossible when they redesigned the car, they actually succeeded in making one of the ugliest cars in the world much much uglier. BL pushed the stakes much higher with the new model and for some unfathomable reason decided a faux Bentley grille was just what the old girl needed. Only one word can be used for the front of a Vanden Plas 1500/1750 and that is gopping.

At least the interior kept with the tradition of the 1100/1300, and to my eyes it actually seems a little bit of an improvement. Maybe the ultimate luxury of the allegro VP is that from the drivers seat, you’re the only one who cannot see that horrible grille.
Much like the standard allegro, the VP enjoys a kitsch following and prices slowly but surely appear to be on the rise, and I’d say if you want an ironic classic you need not look further than this VP.

Curiously the Allegro did nothing to quell British Leyland’s interest in using the Vanden Plas badge to try and flog a few more cars, and with a new shopping trolley in the stable it was soon the turn of the diminutive Mini Metro. BL did thankfully learn one lesson from the Allegro however, and that was to not fit a tacky grille to the front this time. However, being BL, what they gave with one hand they took a lot more with the other. The Allegro’s saving grace was its interior but with the Metro in standard form the Leather we expect is replaced with poo coloured velour (leather was an optional extra) and the dash is just basic bog standard boring Metro, albeit with a few touches of wood on the doors which the Metro owner was to be accustomed to in its later Rover 100 years. Sadly, it was little more than a badge this time.

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Move along, nothing to see here!

There is nothing really that can be said about the Metro Vanden Plas, so lets skip ahead to the Allegro’s replacement, the mighty Maestro. With the new Austin fighting against  much tougher competition from Europe and Japan, Austin/Rover needed to get away from the ‘olde worlde’ rut and make something a bit more futuristic and capable to survive in the segment. Austin, luckily, was looking to the future with its new range topper but, unluckily it was in a dated 1980’s kind of way. When the VP model was unveiled, we saw perhaps the tackiest gimmick a Car would ever have to showcase, a digital talking dashboard. That’s right; Kiwi actress Nicolette McKenzie will be forever immortalised (or as long as the last Vanden Plas holds a charge) inside a dashboard, nagging till the end of time about the low level of coolant. GOOD GRIEF. Despite this “advanced” technology, the Maestro (like the Metro overall) was a bit more mass market than the earlier cars and therefore less interesting, much like the Maestro itself.

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the Vanden Plas badge was soon sullied beyond repair in the UK to the point where it was only used beyond the late 90’s to sell upmarket Jaguars in America, where the name still held some amount of caché. Shame.

7.Aston Martin Cygnet (Loadsamoney):

You knew this was coming. Yup, the company who makes 007’s choice of wheels had a crack at making a luxury city car. This was not just cynical marketing but a response to the EU checking into the average CO2 production of car manufacturers at the start of the decade. This car was a bit of lucky escape for Ford. If they had held onto Aston for an extra four years, Aston’s baby car could have been based on the 2nd generation Ka which itself was based on the Fiat 500, which also happens to be based on the Fiat Panda (yikes).

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No, the honor of facing the Aston chop shop at Gaydon was granted to Toyota. With Aston being British, they bizarrely built an homage to the Allegro based VP by fitting an equally Gaudy grille to a car that (again to even the kindest of eyes) was already proportionally challenged. Better yet, the best part of the deal was that they charged three times as much for the pleasure of ownership; leaving the public shaken rather than stirred when they first laid eyes on the car.


Following the Vanden Plas formula, at least the Cygnet’s interior was a better effort than the outside but, unfortunately, this time it was much harder to hide that humble Toyota switchgear. The car was a sales disaster even by pre 90’s Aston standards, selling a mere 150 cars in 3 years which was less than 2% of the target. They hoped they could entice existing DB9 owners who wanted a smaller second car with a little razzmatazz, but with the cars being mercilessly mocked by the automotive press, nobody wanted to look a fool, so Aston took that job. The Cygnet was so bad that they even had to pay a charge to Toyota in 2013 of 8.5 million pounds just to be allowed to stop making it. Still one to invest in I suppose, as I doubt we will see anything like it again. Or at least I hope so.

6.Audi A2 (The dullard):

Now, sh*te might be an unfair way to describe the Audi A2, which unlike most of the other cars on this list was designed and built from the ground up. This in itself is particularly bizarre for a VAG group car.

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With the A2, Audi wanted to make a small car, not a cheap one so they engineered it without compromise, using the same expensive Aluminium production technique as seen in the Ingolstadt Limo A8. This made the car economical, nippy and  thanks to clever packaging the car was also very airy which mixed well with the state of the art construction. The A2 was exciting in concept, it looked like it was set to do brilliant things to the city car segment, but sadly not everything was going Audi’s way.

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The styling was seen by the press as awkward at best and, being German, everything was a costly extra in the Audi, meaning most left the factory with interiors that may as well have come from the Polo. Which asks the question, why did they bother designing a new platform?
The car also lost one huge super-mini advantage, running costs were comparatively high. Insurance on the A2 cost a bomb due to high potential repair costs. The aluminium body made it a pain to fix even the smallest of dings and the bonnet on the A2 could only be fully opened by  an Audi technician (a way around has been found now). The high cost of ownership and the dull lower level interiors meant the Audi couldn’t even get close in sales to its atrocious nearest rival…

5.The Mercedes A-class: (The turd)

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Now, where do we start with this piece of cow pat? A car that seemed so determined to ruin whatever credibility Mercedes-Benz had left by 1997… The first A-class was the car Mercedes would rather you just forget. It’s true that in the 90’s Mercedes had lost their ‘built like a tank’ reputation as they spent less and less money on the development of their cars, but all of this was surpassed with their attempt at an A segment car.


The car suffered from many sins: it looked like an MPV that was shrunk in the wash, the interior was made exclusively from left over pot noodle packaging and it “drove” like a drunk donkey. In fact, the handling was so catastrophically bad that when a Swedish car magazine subjected the baby Merc to the dreaded elk test, the Benz promptly decided to fall over onto its back like a turtle. This made the A-class headline worthy across the globe. It was so bad that Mercedes had to halt production to re-evaluate the baby Limo. Due to the lack of time, the Germans made a couple of simple changes. Firstly, Mercedes fitted an intrusive electronic stability control system and secondly, they decided to remove all of the suspension. The fix worked, but by doing so it also killed the already lackluster performance of the car and completely ruined the ride. Novel design features like the dual floor crash protection did nothing to redeem this car, which as a used buy is a real ticking time bomb, with a fault and recall list as long as both your arms and legs (assuming you still have them after attempting a roundabout in the A). The first A-class is possibly Mercedes’ darkest hour since the days of being Hitler and Tito’s chosen chauffeured wheels. Still, it sold in considerable numbers! It’s funny the power a badge can have on some people.

4.Ford LuxuryKa (geddit?)

Yes, It’s probably a bit unfair to drag Ford’s attempt to push the humble Ka upmarket into this list, but it makes a good lesson from history of how not to do it with their new Vignale Fiesta.

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The Ford Ka was the most basic use of the ageing but capable Fiesta platform. It was peppy, cheap and kind of cute, which made it supremely popular.  Ford were onto a winner with the Ka, but they could not afford to be complacent with their new baby; the KA was going to need a long production run to really earn good money for the company and the super mini sector was brutal in the late nineties. Ford learnt from the French that the key to keeping long lived economy cars interesting is natty special editions, and one of the strangest was the luxury.

The recipe was solid; the cars featured leather seats, air conditioning and the useful heated windscreen that the bigger Fords were getting. All good so far then?  Well, no. Unfortunately the leather wouldn’t be out of place on a toilet seat in a care home, the engine was still the asthmatic endura-e (an engine that endured all the way from the Anglia) and the arches were still made out of Weetabix just like the standard KA. Solid the luxury was not, but it’s hard to mock a car with such a cheeky grin and one that, in this company, was at least cheap.

3.Wood and Pickett Minis (the car that taste forgot): 

In the swinging sixties, perhaps no car was as much loved in Britain as the mighty Mini. It was revolutionary, fun to drive and best of all it was classless, but that didn’t stop a few coachbuilders trying to make a posh pocket rocket. One company in particular that became synonymous with tarted up Minis was Wood and Pickett. W&P were a small operation in Park Royal London which was formed by two former employees of Hooper, who were more used to working on rollers than Austins or Morris’.


The earlier cars, all things considered, were not bad at all. They had subtle styling updates and a few nods to the finer things in motoring life, but with the Seventies all taste was sadly thrown straight out of the window.


Some old fashioned British parts-bin raiding soon spoiled the Mini’s cute good looks. It seemed W&P were more bothered with excess than design, making them a precursor to Project Kahn of today. The Mercedes lights aren’t great, but the worst offence Wood and Picket ever committed was adding the rear of a hearse to Issigonis’ classic design.

Just look at that crummy post box of a window and the stupid ram bar, yuck! I’m surprised W&P were never tried for treason, but at least again the interiors were the saving grace completing the British Luxo-Mini formula. I’d write more about about the Margrave, but I fear my blood will boil.

2.Mitsuoka Viewt (Novelty):

Ah, Mitsuoka. Now there’s a weird company, even for Japan!

Mitsuoka started making their “own” vehicles in Toyama all the way back in 1982, when they unveiled the curious little Bubu car range which had the noble ambition of helping disabled people get about more easily in Japan. he car came in many forms and layouts to try and cater to as many needs as possible.

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Like most post Mini Microcars, the Bubu never really caught on, so Mitsuoka were stuck as to what to do next. They decided to jump ship and start making replica cars based on the good old Volkswagen Beetle in the same vein as many European kit car manufacturers of the time. The customary Porsche 356 was of course there but, bizarrely, Mitsuoka decided to also build a Mercedes SSK replica, keeping the completely wrong rear engine rear drive layout from the much smaller donor.

ssk_ph02This car (or more fittingly, idea) surprisingly was Mitsuoka’s saving grace. People in Japan were not so serious after all, they liked fun and a bit of a joke; so Mitsuoka found a niche in fun and tacky. So where does this leave small cars?
Well, in 1993 Mitsuoka released their Magnum Opus of fun and tacky, the Viewt. Harking back to the glory days of the British coach builders, Mitsuoka took a standard but a little dull K11 Micra and gave it a complete makeover. Like the Beetlebum SSK, Mitsuoka built a replica, and of course the K11 Micra lends itself so perfectly to the original Mini even down to the engine capacity of 1275cc. So, you can see where this is going… Yup, it was fate that the new Mitsuoka was going to have to be a Jaguar Mk2.

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The Viewt was another silly car that caught the attention of the Japanese car buyer. It was individual to say the least and went on to sell in considerable numbers. This car made Mitsuoka the tenth largest automobile manufacturer in Japan, which was no mean feat in the 90’s when Japan were leading the world in innovation and production. So, the Viewt is a good small luxury car then?
Well, no. It’s always going to be a novelty, the exterior is where all the work went and in the complete reversal of the tried-and-tested Vanden Plas formula, the interior is where this car is let down.
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We have the leather and the wood effect trim, but all in all it was still a Micra. To be fair on the car, though,  it was all meant to be a funny joke from the beginning, unlike the Allegro which just grew into a tragic one.  If you want a proper luxury Micra, then you need to go to Nissan themselves…

1.The Nissan Figaro (Retro Revolutionary):

I think it’s only now that people realize how important Nissan’s Pike factory cars were, as the Pao and Be-1 are both now 30 years old! Back then, everyone (and especially Japan) was looking to the future with styling. They needn’t have bothered, as by the time the Millennium hit, the car buying public were more focused on the past. The new Mini began to sell like hot cakes. The new Beetle not so much, but it was always there with its silly flower vase.

All this retro renaissance was predated by a whole decade with the K10 based Pao, Figaro, Be-1 and S-cargo. The Pao, S-cargo and Be-1 are very very cool and interesting, but they could sadly never make this list as this list is all about Grace with lack of space.

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Way ahead of the curve

So let’s focus on the Halo car, the wonderful Figaro. The styling, as said earlier, is just spot on; it’s not beautiful per se but it looks interesting and special. In fact, the looks are so popular, that despite never being officially imported into the UK, Figgy’s are still a common sight in the trendier parts of towns all across Blighty. Indeed, the cars are so popular over here that small companies still exist solely to import them (not bad for a car that was only built for 6 months in 1991). People get married in Figaros (!) and even Eric Clapton is believed to have had one. To say the Figaro was a success in making Nissan appear more upmarket is a massive understatement.

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How do you go from this to this?

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Don’t worry, this car is no Viewt, its “beauty” is more than skin deep! Thankfully, the interior is just as special and interesting. Just look below and try to remind yourself that that is an early nineties Japanese city car interior! It’s frankly unbelievable.

figaro (1) It’s one of the only cars in this company that has not machine-gunned the wood and chrome everywhere; you can tell a designer that knew a thing or two about interiors sat down and took their time. Adding in the brilliant retro retractable roof, it’s no surprise that this car has such a crazy following today. For me, this is the best Luxury small car ever built; it’s not fast or particularly great to drive, but for a sense of occasion this is as close as you’re ever going to get to a Roller or a Bentley for the dimensions. Forget future classic, this car has earned its space already.

The Figaro, then, is the proof that it is possible to shrink down a Luxury car. And if Nissan can do it, there is no reason Ford cannot pull of the same trick with the Fiesta. Truth be told, I do not think they will: I fear Vignale is just the new Ghia badge for them, it generated some buzz for the Mondeo but that swiftly fizzled out.

Who knows? I guess time will tell. For my money, if they want to make the Fiesta more upmarket I think Ford should instead re-purpose the Vignale badge to put in some Italian flair and zest by redesigning the best Fiesta they ever made. The Puma.

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After all, much of Vignale made some of the finest baby coupes in Italy.

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