IN THE EPONYMOUS title track of their first album, the 1970s blues rock band Bad Company sang about being ‘Bad company, and I can’t deny, bad company ’til the day I die…’ Well, the current discourse on sensible sports cars like the Toyota 86 has made me mad. What’s happened to the ‘bad’ hatchbacks of the 1990s and 2000s: the BMW M Coupe and the mid-engined Renault Clio V6 for example? Both cars required drivers with XXL cojones, and didn’t feature nanny electronics to keep them on the straight and narrow. Even the likes of the Megane Coupe Trophy, the current king of the hot hatches (they call it a coupe, but it really is a three-door two-box) has got a bunch of stuff to help you out of a mess, unlike its distant relative, the Clio V6. Yep, back then it was all about how sensitive the nerve endings in the ball of you right foot were, and how precisely you could articulate your ankle joint, thereby finding that sweet spot where lateral and longitudinal grip are perfectly matched. That, dear friends, is what enables class drivers to steer/slide rear-drive cars around a corner in a perfect arc.To jog your memories, we coaxed one of each of the aforementioned BMW and Renault out of the Gauteng woodwork and headed off on a nostalgia trip, with no particular destination in mind. Actually, our destination was Electron, where the pedestrians are deaf and/or blind (it seems) and the stray dogs very, very mangy. Nevertheless, the roads of this light industrial suburb are wide and largely traffic-free at 6.30am on a weekday morning – perfect for car-to-car photography. More to the point, this is near where Jimmy Brink’s Clio lives, along with his Renault-biased fleet of collectibles.
Consider this: the M Coupe boasted a 228kW M3 drivetrain in a car with rudimentary rear suspension, and the Clio had a 188 kW mid-mounted V6 in a car with the same wheelbase as a golf-kart. Now you start to understand why they went backwards through hedges more regularly than eager young things go through Russell Brand’s bedroom door. Neither knew of traction control, never mind full-house stability control. In fact, when Renault introduced the second-generation Clio V6, there were two press casualties in double-quick time, a silver one being rolled to destruction and the other being this actual Azure Blue example, which had its right rear corner modified. Fortunately the damage was cosmetic only, and you’d never know it had been involved in a fracas with some Armco. It is pristine, and I mean, pristine. It is a 2005 model that has done 33500km.
Brink is its second owner, the V6 joining his eclectic collection of 20-something Renaults back in 2008. Like the rest of them, it gets driven on a six-weekly rotation, alongside such other interesting Frenchies as various R8 Gordinis, Dauphines, an R5 Turbo, and a Sport Spider. He also has a silver Phase 1 V6, which boasts the less powerful two-valve engine, and a reputation for being completely unforgiving. Brink says about 15 Phase 1 cars (built in Sweden) and 23 Phase 2 (made in Dieppe, France) were brought into SA.
Robin Sadler is the one and only owner of the original and clean Estoril Blue M Coupe, a car he purchased in September 1999 for R339000 – R30000 above list price and a premium he was willing to pay for the privilege of being one of the first to own the distinctively-styled two-seater. In nearly 14 years he has racked up just 44000 km, and being somewhat obsessive has maintained it fastidiously (though it gets used regularly) and kept detailed records of servicing. There haven’t actually been any unscheduled repairs, and he enthuses about how little it costs to maintain. Like most oldies, values fluctuate (maybe more so in this instance and for many it isn’t a thing of beauty), and today Robin reckons you can pick up a ropey one for about R200000.
But expect to pay a lot more for perfection (only 1000 right-hookers were made worldwide, of which 80 came to SA), and they can be expensive to restore if they haven’t been looked after. The free-revving S50 double-Vanos engine – lifted straight from the E36 M3 – is pretty high-tech, even by today’s standards. Later Coupes were fitted with the S54 engine from the E46 M, which did have a bit of a reputation for bottom-end failures, and only 40-odd came here, all sold fitted with various Schnitzer bits. Inside, the two-tone (blue/black) leather seats and facia are classic late 20th century Beemer, as is the bank of additional gauges in the hang-down centre section. You could be sitting in a Z3, the humble four-cylinder roadster that supplied the chassis but grew a roof and considerably more rigidity in the transition to the M Coupe. Also, ‘M’ logos abound, something which no Z3 with a hint of self-respect would wear.
There are more reminders of a bygone age: a cassette deck (remember those?) and a CD changer, which is hidden from view. The cosy cockpit is dominated by a rev counter redlined at 7500 and a speedo marked to 280kph, though what gets your attention initially – and contributes to a vaguely claustrophobic feel for taller folk – is the combination of the shallow windscreen and an oversized rear-view mirror. It is something that press reports of the day commented on, along with the tendency towards power oversteer, though having said that it did need some provocation to break free the 245/40 Dunlops and get the tail wagging. Once out, it was one of those wonderful cars for balancing opposite lock with the throttle!
Off the line it was pretty easy to leave a pair – thanks to a slippy diff – of long black lines, but get the launch just right and it took off like Bolt out the starting blocks. Drive magazine reported in its November 1999 issue that the M Coupe was good for a standing kilometre in 25,5secs and a 0-100kph dash in 5,5secs; in January 2000 CAR managed the same time for the sprint and 24,7secs for the kilometre. With a terminal speed of around 219kph and a 7400rpm bellow from under the bonnet, pilots would be about to reach for the lever and shift from fourth into top as they exited the kilo…
The Renault, on the other hand, has six gears and the V6 engine is just behind the passenger. It also has a compression ratio beyond 11:1 and variable valve timing, but with less capacity than the Beemer, output peaks are 30kW and 40Nm down on the M Coupe. The body is way wider thanks to the engine air intakes aft of the doors, but here’s the most interesting part – the wheelbase is longer than the Beemer’s by some 80mm. Nevertheless, rapid changes in yaw clearly came with the mid-engined layout, a fact to which a couple of scribes can attest.
Compared with the sombre BMW the Renault’s cabin is positively cheery: the 8000rpm tacho and 260kph speedo have aluminium bezels and there are splashes of metallic blue across the facia and on the vertical spoke of the steering wheel. The gear knob is a ball of aluminium (it’s cold in the morning!) and pedals are polished alloy with rubber buttons. Alcantara trims the doors and seats and the overall feel is welcoming and purposeful, albeit in a slightly boy-racer kind of way.
Both are extremely satisfying to drive, rich in feedback from the firmly sprung chassis and with steering and brakes that are all about an ideal hydraulic balance achieved between feel and effort. Gearshifts are short in throw and cross-gate movement … these cars feel like they’ve been honed, rather than merely sharpened. Finally, the Renault roars, the Beemer barks, but they’re both suitably over-endowed in the aural department. The jury is still very much out as to whether the noise from Renault’s stubby twin pipes (poking aggressively through the rear valance) trumps the straight-six howl that emanates from the quartet of pipes poking out from under the M Coupe’s bumper.
What the jury has delivered its verdict on, is that both represent incredibly brave and daring takes on what were ultimately a pair of very ordinary cars – the Z3 being something of a hairdresser’s convertible and the Clio nothing other than a B-segment supermini. So while the notion of a skunk-works still exists today – where automotive engineers beaver away on radical and often unauthorised projects after hours – the results in the past were far more radical and not just a set of trick dampers, a special diff, output increased by ratcheting up the turbo boost and then tweaking the threshold of the ESP. The proof is on these pages.