Wednesday 22 November 2017

Matra Rancho (1977)

Matra Rancho
Launched 1977

The Matra Rancho. If you’ve never seen one before, just one look will tell you that this is a tough offroad vehicle that can go absolutely anywhere. And that one look would lead you to absolutely the wrong conclusions.

Despite its rugged looks, the Rancho was basically just a two wheel drive pickup truck with a fibreglass body on the back. With no more off-road capabilities than any other standard late 1970s car, the Rancho promised something that it didn’t deliver. But what it did eventually deliver was no less important.

A brief history lesson – Matra was an industrial combine with a profitable line in armaments that almost accidentally became a car manufacturer by taking over sports car builder Automobiles René Bonnet. Matra’s main interest may well have been the use of fibreglass in the company’s Djet two-seaters, but this blossomed into motorsport (winning both the Formula One Drivers’ and Constructor’s championship in 1969), the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1972, 1973 and 1974 plus a host of other racing trophies. The road car division continued to make sports cars including the novel Matra Bagheera and Murena which featured a single row of three seats.

Matra Rancho showing split tailgate
Matra ended up in partnership with the Chrysler-owned Simca company to sell the Bagheera and Murena. Matras expertise in prototyping and fibreglass led to a new project that was quite a radical departure – the Matra Rancho. The Rancho was designed by Matra’s chief designer Antonis Volanis, as were the Bagheera and Murena.

The inspiration for the Rancho was the Range Rover, launched in 1970. Even then the Range Rover was an expensive and thirsty beast, and Matra thought that they could deliver a lot of the same things (looks and lots of space) for a lot less money. The compact Simca 1100 hatchback was the basis for this, although strictly speaking Matra standard with a pickup variant.

Onto the back of the chassis, Matra attached a large cab made primarily from fibreglass with lots of glass. It had a split tailgate (like the Range Rover) and lots of black plastic to make it look rugged. In optional seven seat form the Rancho was arguably the first MPV, and this hybrid of normal car and off-roader could be argued to be the first Crossover too.

The 80 horsepower engine didn’t have anything like the punch of the Range Rover’s 130 HP v8, but where the Range Rover weighed over two tons the Rancho came in at just 1130 kilos. With an array of spotlights on the front, an integrated roof rack above the driver’s seat and a practical interior which was quite nice by 1970s standards, the Rancho did have a lot going for it.

Talbot Matra Rancho press photo
It had its flaws. The two-wheel drive system was exactly the same as you’d find on a normal Simca 1100 hatchback, and ground clearance was a lot more limited than it looked. But perhaps the worst problem was rust – pretty much everything rusted except for the fibreglass (a problem that also drove the Bagheera to near extinction).

Over 56,000 Ranchos were built, first as the Matra-Simca Rancho and then the Talbot Matra Rancho when Chrysler sold its European operations to PSA (Peugeot Citroën). Although thousands were exported to the UK, as of 2017 there are only three left on the road. You would be hard pressed to find one for sale anywhere in the world, but they do occasionally come up for a few thousand euros each.

Many of the ideas of the Rancho were incorporated into Matra’s next production car – the Espace. Although the Espace was originally designed for PSA, it ended up as a Renault and because the world’s first purpose-built MPV (unlike the van-derived Rancho). The Espace was a huge success for Matra, but eventually Renault took the production in house. This move stripped Matra of a successful product, and with a final swansong of the Avantime they ceased car production in 2003.

These days compact crossovers with rugged looks, lots of space but limited off-road capabilities are very common, but you are more likely to see the Matra name on one of the electric bikes they currently manufacture... or perhaps the wrong end of a guided missile. Like many automotive innovators, Matra missed out on the market it helped to create.

Image credits:

Sunday 19 November 2017

Apple Newton MessagePad 2100 (1997)

Apple Newton MessagePad 2100
Launched November 1997

More than a decade before the launch of the iPad and iPhone, Apple had another range of handheld computing devices called the Newton series. Launched originally in 1993 to a press fanfare but mixed reviews, the Newton range was improved over its lifespan up to the final device in the range – the Apple Newton MessagePad 2100.

Not too dissimilar in footprint to an iPad Mini, but much thicker and heavier, the MessagePad 2100 sported a 6.1” monochrome LCD display with a 480 x 320 pixel resolution and a stylus. Inside is a 162 MHz ARM processor with 4MB of RAM and 4 MB of flash storage. Connectivity was through infra-red or an Apple LocalTalk connection with two PCMCIA expansion slots that could be used for things like modems or network cards. Software available included a word processor, e-book reader, web browser and email client.

It sounds like a modern tablet, but really it wasn’t anything close. There was no kind of cellular or mobile data (GPRS and EVDO would come a couple of years later, as would generally available WiFi) so connecting to the internet would typically involve a cable and the horrors of a dial-up modem. To a large extent the MessagePad was just an electronic personal organizer rather than the sort of device we’d see today.

The MessagePad struggled against the market-leading Palm Pilot and early shortcomings had tarnished its reputation in the public eye. Despite a great deal of goodwill from Apple fans of the late 1990s, the Newton range wasn’t the success that Apple were looking for. The entire platform was axed by Apple’s new CEO, a certain Steve Jobs.

Fans of the Newton platform argue that it was killed off just as it was getting into its stride, and that Jobs may have been partly motivated by revenge against the people who ousted him in 1985 from the company he founded.

It took another decade or so to get to the technology level that allowed the iPhone and iPad, and although the Newton range was certainly influential it was a dead-end platform, as was the rival Palm Pilot. But not all PDAs of this era went the same way, and Psion’s Series 5 (also launched in 1997) helped to give birth to the Symbian OS that eventually became the dominant smartphone platform... for a while

MessagePads of most varieties are still popular collectors’ items, with prices for the 2100 varying between about €50 to €400 or more, depending on condition and accessories.

Image credits:

Sunday 12 November 2017

Amazon Kindle (2007)

Launched November 2007

Ten years ago this month, Amazon started a surprise revolution with the launch of the original Amazon Kindle e-book reader. Launched at a time when single-purpose devices were beginning to converge into smartphones, the Kindle created a niche for that type of product that it still dominates today.

These days we are used to having our cameras, handheld games consoles, music players, GPS navigation, web browsers, email clients and telephones all in one smartphone. And while you certainly can read e-books on your mobile device, dedicated readers such as the Kindle still sell very well.

Probably the most significant element that the Kindle brought was the large 6” electronic ink display. Lightweight and with a very low power drain, the display operated best in bright light where other devices would struggle. A Kindle would run for weeks on a single charge, and the 250MB storage of the original was good for a couple of hundred books.

It wasn’t the first consumer product with an electronic ink display (that was the 2006 Motorola FONE F3), and it wasn’t the first e-reader such a display either (that was the Sony PRS-500 also from 2006) but Amazon’s unique selling proposition was that they could sell you the book from their own catalogue and it would be delivered instantly to your Kindle without any waiting around.

When launched, the Kindle sold out almost instantly and it took another five months for stock to become generally available. This initial success seemed a bit of a surprise, given that the original Kindle cost a staggering $400 and there were only a limited number of titles available. Oh yes... the original Kindle was also a bit weird looking too.

The original Kindle was only available in the US, but the second generation device launched in the US in February 2009 started shipping in worldwide markets in October of that year. The third generation devices hit the market in 2010 by which time Amazon had a major hit on its hands. These later models tend to be available in both WiFi and 3G variants.

Subsequent models lost the keyboard, came with better displays of varying sizes and capabilities but the basic principle has remained the same. In 2011 a range of more conventional Android-based tablets were launched called the Amazon Kindle Fire (later shorted to just Amazon Fire) – these were a significant success for Amazon, but an attempt to make a smartphone to follow this up flopped.

In the US one of the quirky first generation devices will cost you about $40 used, a new basic Kindle costs around $80 (£60 / €70) with the popular Paperwhite model coming in at $120 (£110 / €130). And although not every digital e-book is cheaper than its paper rivals, book lovers have certainly found that they don’t have to worry about the never-ending battle for shelf space, which is a little victory in itself.

Image credits:

Tuesday 7 November 2017

Android (2007)

Announced 2007

January 2007 saw the launch of that smartphone from Apple, but while that was helping to usher in a new epoch of smartphone the competition wasn’t exactly sitting around doing nothing. Partly in response to Apple, and partly seeing an opportunity to grab a slice of the smartphone ecosystem itself, Google and its partners announced the Open Handset Alliance and the Android operating system in November 2007.

Although Android is a Unix-like operating system just like Apple’s iOS, it is designed to be more open and less tightly controlled. Any manufacturer with a compatible device can be loaded with a free open-source version of Android, with additional features that can be licensed from Google. Applications can be downloaded from Google Play or indeed any other application store, and applications are permitted on Android that simply are not allowed by Apple (for example, programming languages).

Philosophically, Android had a similar approach to Symbian (led by Nokia), which could also run on a variety of different devices with no restrictions on the types of applications available. In the end, Android proved that it could do it better, and since Nokia didn’t pursue Android at the time it ended up being side-lined.

T-Mobile G1 (2008)
Today, Android has a market share of around 85% for new handset sales, with Apple accounting for almost all the rest. This has come at the cost of fragmentation though, and while Apple have made only about 40 different iOS devices over ten years, Samsung on its own has made nearly 400 different devices which are all different (and often have limited support). On top of that, different manufacturers like to put different add-ons on top which can make it confusing to move from phone to phone.

It took a long time for the Open Handset Alliance to bear fruit, with the first Android device being the T-Mobile G1 (also known as the HTC Dream) in September 2008. The first Samsung Galaxy handset was launched nearly a year and a half later.

Despite millions of handsets being sold, the website of the Open Handset Alliance has not been updated since 2011. Android however has gone from strength to strength despite its problems. Ten years ago Symbian was the biggest selling OS… will Android still be the biggest in another ten years time?

Image credits: T-Mobile and Open Handset Alliance

Thursday 2 November 2017

Jaffa Cakes (1927)

Cake.. or biscuit?
Introduced 1927

Ninety years ago, McVities introduced a triumph of miniaturisation – a biscuit-sized cake they named the Jaffa Cake. A tiny sponge cake coated with chocolate with a layer of orange jam, the Jaffa Cake because a British teatime icon.

The name wasn’t trademarked, which led to other manufacturers coming up with “Jaffa Cakes” of various qualities being sold by other companies worldwide, but in the UK at least the name is still very strongly associated with McVities. And there are all sorts of variants with different fillings and chocolate, but the traditional version uses dark chocolate.

The Jaffa Cake itself was at the heart of a legal battle between the UK’s Customs and Excise department and United Biscuits, who own McVities. The Revenue contended that the Jaffa Cake was actually a biscuit (primarily due to its size and the fact it is sold on the biscuit aisle of shops), UB said that it was a cake due to its texture and the fact that when stale it goes hard, and a biscuit does the opposite. In the end it retained its status as a cake, even though a wholly unscientific recent poll indicates that many people think it is a biscuit.

There is quite a market around Jaffa Cake collectables such as mugs and toys, but if you want a packet of McVities Jaffa Cakes to eat then they are about £1 for a pack of 10.