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The 10 best car facelifts | Axon’s Automotive Anorak

20th October 2022
Gary Axon

Recently I was stuck in a major weekend traffic jam of epic pre-pandemic proportions on the northbound stretch of the M25, just like the good old/bad old days. Although frustrating, it was a strangely nostalgic moment. Although I could have really done without the delay, the infernal queue was made far more bearable by the car ambling along beside me at a snails pace; a very tidy late Series 2, post-2004 facelift model, 2009 Fiat Multipla. Always a controversial car with marmite styling, the original Series I Multipla of 1998 has universally considered to be a very individual car with a genuinely clever, well considered and spacious interior, but saddled with love or hate styling.

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The Multipla crawling along beside me on the grid-locked M25 was the later facelifted model, redesigned to take a lot of the quirky appearance and character away from the 1998 original, in an effort to broaden the appeal of the charismatic Fiat and make it more mainstream. Although now missing some of the personality of the original that made the first Fiat Multipla so special (or shocking, depending on your viewpoint). The less-brave facelifted Series 2 still retained a certain appeal (if you like that sort of thing), and could be deemed a great success by Fiat’s in-house design team, to give the model its second wind and extend production to an uncommonly long 11-year (by modern standards) production run. Going nowhere fast, stuck on the M25, I had plenty of time to scrutinize and admire the clever redesign of facelifted Series 2 Multipla, the car and its smiling occupants, helping to take my mind off the annoyance and inconvenience of the traffic jam and keep my spirits up.

Although the majority of the jury has long been out on the success or otherwise of the Series 2 Multipla’s facelift, its refresh got me thinking about other cars that look decidedly better in their refreshed facelift form, than in their original guise, such as the more dynamic sloppy front end of the Rover 100 when Rover updated the Austin Metro. There have been quite a few facelift disasters too (roll forward the horror of final Ford Scorpio!), but I will come back to these on at a later date. For the moment though, very un-subjectively, here are ten cars in my personal view that became far more appealing in their revamped facelifted form than in their original guise.

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1969 Triumph 2000 Mark 2

Triumph’s first (and last) executive saloon model, like the majority of the marque’s production models (Herald, Spitfire, TR5, Dolomite, Stag, etc.) the 2000 was designed by the talented Giovanni Michelotti of Turin. Launched to strong acclaim in 1963, the first-generation Triumph 2000 was a handsome and modern six-light saloon, but appearing slightly too long and narrow, yet very British with some added Italian flair. 

Looking very contemporary with a flat bonnet and shallow metal inset between the paired headlamps, there was little to fault the initial 2000 in profile form, but the quad-headlamp front end styling was a tad bulbous and unresolved. This really became more apparent when Michelotti-reworked of the model for the Mark 2 version of 1969. This featured a much broader grille, to make the 2000 appear wider, plus a neater revised tail end, with larger tail lamps and new wheel trims, all reflecting Triumph’s new ‘family look’, as seen on the later Stag hero model.

Michelotti’s refresh of the Triumph Spitfire from the 1970 MK IV onwards and GT6 models, both with a 2000/Stag-style of square cut rear end, were also marked improvements to is initial creations.

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1967 Lancia Flavia Berlina

When the Lancia Flavia saloon was first introduced in late 1960, technical advancements took precedence over style (unusual for an Italian car), with the model technically setting a new standard for its vehicle sector, with front-wheel-drive, an all-alloy 1.5-litre box engine, Dunlop disc brakes on all four wheels and a sophisticated suspension setup. The Flavia Berlina’s ‘thrust forward’ design was awkwardly un-balanced, though, rather as if it had been shunted up the rear end. The leaning forward stance and very messy tail treatment all detracted from its excellent dynamic qualities.

A pleasant but half-hearted Pininfarina-designed Coupe, a heavy-set Cabriolet by Vignale, plus a very odd (but distinctive) GT by Zagato with wrap-over rear side windows soon joined the Flavia Berlina to make a complete model range. The Pininfarina Coupe was thankfully reworked in 1969 to create the more elegant and timeless Flavia 2000 Coupe. Meantime Lancia itself set about resolving the Flavia Berlina’s tricky styling in 1967 with a much more balanced redesign to create the squarer Series II model, introducing a tidier back end, plus a sharper front with a more harmonious front grille incorporated into the overall design.

The Series 1’s unappealing interior was also heavily revamped, with a 1.8-litre injected engine fitted. This much classier Series II was replaced again in 1971 with a flabbier Series III Berlina, now just called 2000, with the Flavia name being dropped.   

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1969 BMW E9 2800 CS

Replacing the pillar-less Bertone-built 1961 BMW 3200 CS coupe (the Bertone-designed CS being the very first BMW to feature the famous ‘Hofmeister kink’ styling cue, which would become one of the company's trademark design elements for many decades), the new 1965 Neuer Klasse 2000 C/CS coupe took its inspiration from the Giugiaro-penned 3200 CS, but now being built by Karmann of Osnabruck.

The new 2000 CS Coupe’s styling, whilst not unpleasant, was roughly based around BMW’s vital Michelotti-designed Neuer Klasse saloons (the CS’s mechanical base), with a svelte side profile, but with an unsettled front end. This featured dominant long ‘oriental’ style glass panel headlights, which flanked the familiar double-kidney BMW corporate grille, set off by a bright chrome bonnet strip running the full circumference of the car, as per the Neuer Klasse saloon. The 2000 CS shared its predecessors low belt line, tall greenhouse and thin pillars, this becoming a template for BMW's later coupes.

Never a universally-acclaimed design, the 1965 CS Coupe gave way to the much cleaner E8 2800 CS (and later 3.0) facelifted models in 1969, the new six-cylinder E9 CSs returning to BMW’s more familiar face with twin round headlamps and smaller and tidier grille. The side body panels and rear styling of the out-going 2000 CS were retained, largely untouched for the E9, but that model’s new more traditional face was enough to make an average-looking coupe into a highly desirable range topping BMW, that is now considered to be a sought classic, especially in 3.0 CSL form.   

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1987 Ford Sierra

Nicknamed the ‘jellymould’ within a few weeks of its late 1982 launch, the Ford Sierra was a major shock for Ford’s very traditional Cortina buyers with a modern progressive rounded design, not that the Sierra bristled with any new materials or technology. Rather, it was a modern refinement of established principles, but Ford’s brave decision to introduce such a daring, imposing and efficient shape in favour of a more traditional one was a very brave step at the time. The sheer rounded sleekness of the Sierra frightens off some of these stuck-in-the-mud buyers (who went running off to buy new Vauxhall Cavaliers instead), but for Ford the model was a matter of making the break, or letting someone else do it before them.

In its early form, the Sierra saw a reduction in complexity (there are 75 fewer parts in the Sierra’s body than in its Cortina predecessor, but in some trim levels (especially the base entry model, with cheap-looking grey bumpers and unpainted nose) the Sierra’s modern design could be quite startling. The later afterthought addition of cheap-looking black plastic surrounds hastily fixed to the small sixth light rear windows too (as a result of reports of early models being proving to be very prone to becoming unstable in cross winds) didn’t help the Ford’s case.

Five years after launch just as the world was finally getting used to the Sierra’s ‘out there’ design, Ford released a revised Series 2 version (alongside a more conventional three-box Sapphire saloon variant as well), with seater styling, colour-keyed bumpers, a ‘proper’ stand-alone grille, improved wheels trims/alloys, and generally tidier front (with the indicators repositioned within the bumper), plus larger side windows, giving the model a less claustrophobic look). Sporty performance models, such as the now legendary RS Cosworth, etc., helped to improve the Sierra’s desirability considerably too.  

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1969 Citroën Ami 6/8 Berline

In the finest Citroën traditions, the original Ami 6 saloon (Berline) of 1961 could charitably be described as ugly/beautiful. A distinctive looking four door saloon, with a reverse-rake rear window (a la the 1959 Ford Anglia 105E), mated to (pioneering) oval headlamps and designed indents on the ill-fitting bodywork, the Ami 6 became an instant best-selling in France, but remained too much of a curiosity in other leading world new car markets.

In 1969, Citroën remedied this by giving the Ami 6 a major facelift to create the Ami 8 in saloon Berline form. Its weird three-box Z-profile was replaced with a more mainstream fastback shape and neater front end, this quickly winning more friends globally. The Ami remained a popular ran practice workhorse, right up to its 1978 demise, with the Ami name recently revised for Citroën’s funny little two-seater electric city car.

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1954 Singer SM1500/Hunter

Immediately post-war, Singer was struggling to survive as an independent car maker. In 1948 it introduced its new planned saviour – the mid-size SM1500 family saloon. Predictably though, the SM1500 was simply too bland to save revive Singer’s fortunes, as the model failed to inspire customers and sell in the desired quantities, mainly due to the SM1500’s modern but dull and unadventurous slab-sided styling.

Sooner than planned, Singer gave the model a much-needed facelift with a re-worked chrome grille and raised headlights, to make it resemble an American Kaiser-Frazer Manhattan, considered to be a state-of-the-art vehicle design at the time. Singer’s changes were poorly executed though, the revised styling still failing to increase customer demand. Desperate to make the model more appealing to save the company, Singer changed the SM1500 once again in 1953. It was renamed the Hunter to try and disguise its dull origins, modifying the design with a more traditional Singer ‘heritage’ upright radiator grille, a horse’s head bonnet mascot and more chrome accents, to try and justify the updated model’s higher price.

Although aesthetically more pleasing, the ‘new’ Hunter model didn’t really fool anyone, with less than 4,775 examples sold before failing Singer was taken over and saved by the large Rootes Group, the custodians of the Hillman, Humber, Sunbeam, etc., marques. Rootes went on to replace the unpopular SM1500/Hunter with the Gazelle; a badge-engineered Hillman Minx!

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1989 Alfa Romeo Alfa 33 Series 2

After the style, character and exceptional standard-setting driving dynamics of the outstanding Alfasud of 1971 expectations for that model’s successor were understandably high. So when Alfa Romeo first revealed its new Alfa 33 replacement in 1983, the motoring world’s reaction was somewhat muted, with the in-house Ermanno Cressoni-styled wedged five-door-only hatchback being something of a disappointment. This was a largely due to the cheap-looking fittings, such as grey plastic bumpers and featureless full plastic wheel covers.

Although a very tough act to follow, the new Alfa reflected little of the style and pizazz of its charismatic predecessor, despite the new 33 carrying over the Alfasud’s acclaimed Boxer engine and sharp chassis basically unchanged. Initial poor sales reflected the 33’s underwhelming reception, causing the Centro Stile Alfa Romeo study to give the model its first facelift far sooner than planned in 1986, less than three-years after the launch of the original. Although a welcome improvement to the 1983 original, the 1986 facelift still didn’t satisfactorily address many of the Alfa 33’s early failings. So a major restyle followed again in 1989, this second series was much more successful in imitating the style of the more acclaimed contemporary Alfa Romeo models, such as the 75 and supreme 164.

The second series 33 retained the Series 1’s original wedged profile, but now with a sharper and more purposeful look with revised frontal lighting and sloping grille, plus a totally reworked rear end with thinner tail lights (to reflect the range-topping 164) and a revised, reshaped tailgate. This final revamp of the Alfa 33 saw the model’s fortunes improve, and took the model through to the remainder of its final five years of production.

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1967 Simca Coupe 1100 S

Mechanically based around the boxy rear-engined Simca 1000 saloon of 1962, that same year French volume car maker Simca commissioned Bertone of Turin to design and build a sweet little Coupe version, to capitalise on the expanding female and second car markets. The resultant Simca 1000 Coupe was a pert but quite feminine-looking little car, very much of its time with its headlamps thrust forward and a straight-through wing line, culminating in a squared-off rear end, capped off by delicate wrap around bumpers and simple chromed hubcaps.

Due to its soft appearance, however, the Simca ’s appeal to the male market was a limiting factor, which Simca and Bertone addressed in 1967 with a successful facelift of the model to make it look both tougher and more sporting, to coincide with the introduction of a more potent 1100 engine. This pleasing redesign was necessitated by having to re-position the radiator to the front of the car with the large motor, resulting in a larger from overhang and improved weight distribution. The addition of a grille (matt black) to give the model a ‘face,’ despite remaining rear-engined. The more purposeful facelift saw the new Simca 1100 S Coupe gain Lamborghini Miura black plastic front air vents (also built at Bertone, alongside the Simca), sportier wheels and additional rear lights to provide the car with a better stance and more purposeful look, to match its improved performance and make a silk purse out of a bit of a sow’s ear.

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1968 Lotus Europa S2

Colin Chapman’s first road-going production mid-engined sports car, initially named the Lotus Europe ‘Type 46’, stuck rigidly to Chapman’s innovative less-is-more lightweight engineering principals, but initially at the expense of style initially. Initially Ford approached Colin Chapman for possible collaboration on a Le Mans car (which became the GT40), with ex-Ford Lotus designer Ron Hickman sketching a mid-engined car that looked very similar to the eventual Type 46 Europa.

Though the Ford deal did not happen – that project taken forward by Eric Broadley at Lola – the Europe was a no compromise race-bred car, featuring Chapman’s famous lightness and stiffness. This did not make for a very practical road car, however, with the initial bonded body/chassis unit making it difficult to repair, with the fixed side windows and seat positions not practical for everyday use. The Europe’s mixed design struggled to disguise its central motor location with its low, boat-like styling, allied to a few too many compromises to save weight, such as the none-opening side windows, plus very poor rear/side visibility, due to the early Series 1 models’ high waisted car end, accommodating a cooking Renault 16 1.5-litre engine.

Sold mostly in Continental European markets, negative customer feedback on the early Type 46 Europe sold lead Lotus vastly improve the car ahead of its UK market debut. With the high tail being lowered to enhance rear 3/4 visibility, plus aesthetics, along with the later Lotus Twin-Cam-power for the revamped S2 models, which even featured opening side windows, as well as a tidier reworked tail treatment to make for a much more accomplished and harmonious design.

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1990 Reliant Scimitar SS1/ SST

When Tamworth-based specialist car maker Reliant aimed to plug a gap in the early 1980s small sportscar market, as recently vacated by popular and affordable British sportscars such as the MGB, Triumph Spitfire and TR7, it approached leading Italian vehicle design Giovanni Michelotti to style a new British two-seater roadster to do the job. The end result was the Reliant Scimitar SS1 of 1984, a clever, affordable and dynamically engaging modern sportscar, let down on one vital area: it’s unresolved styling. Possibly the victim of losing something it translation form Michelotti’s design proposals (sadly he passed away shortly afterwards), the Scimitar SS1 had challenging styling, with strange swage lines and creases running along the Reliant’s flanks. Odd Porsche 928-esque flip-up headlights made the roadster resemble a dead fish.

Despite its on-paper promise, the new Scimitar failed to tempt buyers away from their new-fangled sporting hot hatches, with the model’s questionable looks not helping. Some years after launch, Reliant asked top British car designer William Towns to a try and restyle the unhappy-looking SS1. This he did at first with SS2 concept car, a more attractive rebody of the SS1’s plastic coachwork, but as Towns admitted at the time, stymied by the base car’s unusually large and upright windscreen. Towns later incorporated some of his SS2 thinking into his 1990 SST (the T standing for Towns) production model, this revamped version bing more than a mere facelift, with the new body also given a very different construction.

The SS1's body panels were mounted on a steel framework, itself mounted to the chassis, while the SST's body was of a ‘semi-monocoque’ design fixed directly to the chassis. The SST’s bodywork consisted of two large pieces (front and rear), thus it did not suffer the unsightly panel gaps that were so characteristic of the original 1984 Scimitar SS1. Sales improved slightly, thanks to the Reliant’s more resolved design, but unfortunately it was too little, too late. The subsequent introduction of the mighty Mazda MX-5 had out paid to any commercial success the reworked SST and later 1992-95 Sabre SST could have enjoyed.

  • Axon's Automotive Anorak

  • Fiat

  • Multipla

  • Triumph

  • Lancia

  • Flavia

  • BMW

  • Ford

  • Sierra

  • Citroen

  • Ami

  • Singer

  • Alfa Romeo

  • Alfa 33

  • Simca

  • Lotus

  • Europa

  • Reliant

  • Scimitar

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