Six degrees of separation can be applied to most things in life if you really put your mind to it, especially when it comes to cars. Statistically, there’s a strong chance that one automobile will share a connection with another through a common link, be it tenuous or otherwise.
Axon’s Automotive Anorak: Seven classic cars that prove tartan seats are cool
A connection between a Daihatsu and a Dodge, for example? Well, they both sold performance models branded as De Tomaso (okay, I said the connection could be tenuous!). Alright, an easier one. A common link with Ferrari and Fiat? Again, easy. The late 1960s Fiat Dino Coupe and Spider shared the (Ferrari) Dino’s compact V6 engine, never mind that the Fiat (now FCA) Group owned Ferrari for most of its existence.
So, let’s try another one. A connection between the Pagani Zonda and Volkswagen Up? Hmm, this one is trickier. I can actually think of a very obscure link – via shared-body VW and Mercedes-Benz panel vans; the LT and Sprinter respectively developed as a joint-venture between the two German vehicle giants – the Mercedes element being that it handmakes Pagani’s V12 engines through its AMG high-performance division. Well, I did say that the link was obscure…
One really tenuous connection that links the aforementioned Pagani and Volkswagen though is their choice of seat trim! No, you didn’t misread that. Having recently travelled in both a Pagani Zonda Barchetta (one of three made and the world’s most expensive new car at $15 million, until very recently usurped by the new, one-off Bugatti La Voiture Noire at $18.7 million) and a VW Up! GTI, it struck me that both cars conceptually share very similar upholstery, albeit of rather differing quality and style.
So, the Zonda and Up! connection is tartan seat trim, a style of vehicle upholstery that was all the rage in the mid-1970s, but quietly died out as tastes changed, or so I had thought.
The Up! was good fun to drive, and conceptually my kind of car, but the low-rent feel of the GTI’s grey and red plaid upholstery was almost as off-putting as the arrogant and disinterested Volkswagen salesman at a local dealership who did nothing to reinforce my concern about driving a car with a VW badge stuck on it.
The Zonda Barchetta’s handcrafted plaid interior was carefully chosen as a homage to Horacio Pagani’s fellow Argentinian-born friend and mentor Juan Manuel Fangio, the five-time Formula 1 World Champion. The dominant Mercedes-Benz W196 Grand Prix car he drove usually being trimmed in a subtle grey tartan with red and black flecks, as replicated in the three-off Zonda. Mercedes-Benz also used this seat cloth trim in its contemporary 300 SL Gullwing coupe too.
In the case of the Volkswagen, the Up! GTI’s plaid trim takes its inspiration from VW’s original GTI; the now-legendary Golf GTI hot hatch of the mid-1970s.
The ‘coincidence’ of being in two brand new cars with tartan trim within a couple of days that got me thinking about other memorable plaid upholstered cars from the mid-1970s, when tartan cloth was all the rage. Around that time, the tartan-clad Scottish boy band, the Bay City Rollers, were at their peak in the music charts, and the ‘Tartan Army’ tribe of Scottish football fans had recently begun to form. So, here is my selection of seven top tartan trims from an earlier motoring era.
1975 Hillman Imp Caledonia
It seems only fitting that a car famously made in Scotland should be upholstered in tartan-inspired trim. This was certainly the case for aptly-named Hillman Imp Caledonia, a special edition run-out model, released towards the end of the fated Imp’s 13-year production run in late 1975. Bizarrely, prior to this, no other Imp model’s upholstery ever hinted at the car’s Scottish roots.
1975 Vauxhall Chevette
Ahead of revealing its own hatchback version of General Motors’ global T-Car platform (Chevrolet Chevette, Opel Kadett, Isuzu Gemini, etc.) at the 1975 Geneva Motor Show, Vauxhall dipped a toe into the wonderous world of tartan interior trim in late 1974 with its short-lived ‘Droopsnoot’ Firenza HC Sports Hatch, the innards of which were a sea of red and black tartan. Vauxhall kept the faith for its new Chevette, with the L model’s red tartan cloth inserts in red plastic seats really standing out against its drab beige and brown vinyl-clad rivals. The more luxurious Chevette GLS derivative, launched later in 1976, extended the tartan theme to the inner door panels and broader cloth seat coverings as well. Later and lesser Chevette models acquired the plaid seat trim too, as did the rally homologation HS2300, plus very late 1970s Viva HC models.
1976 Volkswagen Golf GTI
As briefly touched-on, VW trimmed its original Golf GTI in distinctive seat trim, with more heavily bolstered sports seats, to differentiate its new ‘hot hatch’ model from lesser derivatives. Along with its amusing golf-ball-shaped gear knob, plus some red plastic trim around the instrument cluster, the interior of the Golf GTI could be selected with grey stripy seats, or the more popular and now cult-like ‘blocky’ tartan cloth, which has become a VW staple of all subsequent GTI models, including today’s Golf GTi, plus the Up!
1976 Lotus Esprit S1
Few cars better reflect that mid-1970s ‘wedge’ era than Colin Chapman’s Giugiario-designed successor to the earlier mid-engine Europa, the Lotus Esprit. One of the stand-out features of this capable two-seater was its lairy interior, its red tartan seat inserts with contrasting green surrounds being an assault on the eyes. Decades later, Lotus revived its bygone plaid interior trim for certain Elise and Exige models, with yellow, pale blue and green shades proving to be particularly popular. None has bettered the red and green tartan cloth of the original 1975 Esprit S1, however, as lucky visitors to the Earls Court Motor Show at the imminent Goodwood Revival will be able to see for themselves.
1977 Triumph TR7
An even more extreme mid-70s wedge than the Lotus Esprit, the revised 1977 Model Year Triumph TR7 dropped its bland dark grey cloth and PVC interior trim for far more lively and ‘of-the-moment’ tartan seat and door panel trims, with a choice of red, green (and later burnt orange) plaid being offered to sporting TR types.
1978 Mazda RX-7
When the original (and in my view best) RX-7 made its British debut at the very first NEC Birmingham-based Motor Show, Mazda’s new rotary 2+2 coupe was one of the undoubted stars of this ‘new era’ car show. Displayed by Mazda on a turntable in metallic green with pale tan plaid trim, my father (a previous Wankel-engined Mazda customer) was instantly seduced, placing an order for a brand-new RX-7 there and then, in the identical colour and specification. When his eagerly anticipated RX-7 arrived in early 1979, the third delivered in the UK, I recall that tan tartan interior very well. Prone to showing any mark, but also looking very cool, or so thought my class mates when Dad occasionally dropped me off at school in the sporty Mazda. The tartan trim was soon dropped on later RX-7 models, being replaced by cheap looking (and feeling) brushed velour!
Late 1970s Porsche Range
By the late 1970s, Porsche was en vogue with its own take on a selection of migraine-inducing interior trim choses, including its well-known black and white phsycadelic square patterns for dearer 911 and 928 models, plus a wide range of tartan cloth, available for all Stuttgart sporting models, from the 924 upwards. Tartan has since made an occasional return in certain low-volume special edition Porsche models, including a notable yellow plaid in the 964-era 911.
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