A friend of mine once said “the report of my death was an exaggeration”.
OK, the sharp-eyed out there will know it was Mark Twain but then again, as a child growing up in the fifties and sixties, Mark Twain was a natural friend to all curious readers.
I digress, slightly.
The good old diesel engine has been with us since Twain’s heyday, the 1890s or so, and the first actual diesel car is supposed to be the Mercedes-Benz 260 D and the Hanomag Rekord saloon car. Both were shown at the Berlin Motor Show in February 1936.
We have come a long way since then – the last eighty-one years have seen huge changes. According to the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA), in 1990 the European share of diesel passenger cars registrations was 13.8% and reached a high of 55.7% in 2011 before settling to its current 49.5% for 2016. In an Irish context, the figure for diesel is 70% for 2016, down 1% from 2015.
Of much more importance to you and me, is that the quality of diesel engines in cars has improved by leaps and bounds. My first diesel-powered car was a 1990 Renault Savanna 7 seater. It produced all of 65 PS (48 kW or 64 bhp) with its 1870 cc and claimed a top speed of 160 km/h (99 mph) which was a nonsense with two adults, four kids, one large Labrador, and assorted luggage aboard.
Then the economic necessity of four – sometimes five or six – children for holidays dictated that we buy a caravan. Well, that was fun, especially going up even a modest hill with large caravan attached and only 64 bhp available. Embarrassing is the word that comes to mind. I used to give it some welly when approaching a hill – build up the speed on the approach – but that was before stabilisers for caravans were common; the caravan would start swaying and wobbling and it was a race to see whether we’d make it half way up the hill before the speed dropped or the caravan would jack-knife. Ah, the simplicity of motoring before health and safety kicked in.
However, it did return a average of 43 mpg when the previous 1.7 petrol version could barely manage 35 mpg, so while it was a bit slow, it was more affordable to drive.
Things improved with our next diesel car, a 1996 Ford Galaxy Ghia. It was a 1,896cc with 90 bhp but the main difference from the Renault Savanna was the addition of a turbo – boy did it make a difference to drawing that caravan. It had six ‘captain’s chairs’ in leather with arm rests and fold-out trays, full air conditioning, tinted windows, electric sun roof, in-your-face alloys, individual reading lights and a five-speed gearbox. Each of the children thought they were in heaven – no more fighting over who’d sit where – and it was worth the money for the peace it brought.
The next diesel was more of the same; only this time it was Seat’s turn with the Alhambra.
Ford, Seat and VW all made their identical Galaxy/Alhambra/Sharan in the same factory in Portugal, sharing engines, body shells and other components, a joint venture which started in 1995 and ended in 1998.
The big let-down for the children with the 2001 Alhambra was they lost the individual chairs and the sun roof but the big plus for dad was the 110 bhp that the 1.9 diesel pushed out. Again, the improvements were well appreciated by the general public with approximately 140,000 built each year for the European market. It was streets ahead of the diesel cars of the late eighties. We went on to other diesel cars in the succeeding years: another Alhambra, a Citroen Grand Picasso, a Fiat Panda (more on that again), BMW 520 and a Fiesta 1.6 Titanium.
I couldn’t let this column finish without mentioning the one car that almost single-handedly persuaded the public that diesel wasn’t just for old Mercedes taxis and buses – the 1976 1.5 naturally aspirated diesel Golf. It went on to define the family saloon in the seventies and early eighties. Of course now, we have Golf GTD versions with 181 bhp and the quad-turbo BMW M550d produces a staggering 394 bhp. Either one would make short work of towing a caravan, but you couldn’t do that to such a gorgeous car, now could you?
There is a lot of talk about the death of the diesel but recent figures from the UK tell us a lot about the reality of diesel sales there: The Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders (SMMT) said diesel and petrol cars continued to be by far the most popular fuel types for consumers with market share in record sales for 2016 at 47.7% for diesels and 49.0% for petrol. Overall sales are expected to be down by about 5.5% but here’s the interesting point: diesel sales will drop about 8% in a falling market of about 6.8% for private diesel registrations for all of 2017. As Mike Hawes, chief executive of SMMT, said this month: “It is important to remember that there are no plans to charge drivers using the latest Euro 6 models and no proposed bans for conventional petrol and diesel vehicles for some 23 years.”
I’ll talk more about alternate fuel in my next column when I look at the ins and outs of running a full EV (electric vehicle) or a hybrid.
Meanwhile, tell us about your diesel tales: your first diesel, your favourite diesel and why you’ll hang on to your diesel.