Discovering Engineering Perfection: The Daewoo Lanos SE
The light, capable and indestructible car lumped in with the lemons
If you’re a savvy and perceptive consumer with a reasonable budget, you can get yourself a quality car. If you’re an idiot or you’ve only got $800 to spend, you’re probably condemned to the crap boxes. Cars which are going above and beyond just by engaging the flywheel every morning. But every now and then, lurking amongst the lemons, is an engineering masterpiece waiting to be discovered. You’d never find it by using good sense or spending good money, only by blunder or hardship. And that is how my friend and I found the Daewoo Lanos.
When I was a teenager, it was all about the Japanese imports. My mates and I all had Skylines, Silvias, Supras, AE86’s and rotaries. All fantastic, purpose-built cars. Back then we used to drive them hard. We had our go-to business parks and industrial estates, and we drifted all night until we crashed, our tyres were down to the wires or the police showed up. Nothing ever phased us, and somehow hooning was going to last forever.
This was, especially on a shelf-stackers wage, a hugely expensive pastime. Even though spare parts were cheap and readily available from a wrecker in Western Sydney, driving down to buy tie rods every Sunday did drain the bank. And despite ‘mates rates’ tow truck fees, 100 bucks a tow still became a pretty hefty weekly expense. Over the years state hoon laws bumped up fines into the several thousand-dollar range. Ultimately, we were all forced into poverty, and eventually out of the import market and into the crap box car market.
Not too long after I was forced to sell my R33 to pay fines (and eliminate temptation during my lengthy license suspension), my best mate wrote off his immaculate R34. Thanks to third party insurance, he was left with nothing but a mangled, valueless lump of metal. While none of this was funny, especially not to our parents, we laughed about the potential cars we’d end up in on our new budget. “Man, there’s a good Ford Laser down the road from me. 800 bucks and 2 months rego!” And so, after a couple of weeks of shelf stacking, he sent me a message saying he’d found a sick one. Our drifting days had been cut short, but we could still drive around late at night causing havoc.
The next night he picked me up in what was simply the worst example of a car I had ever seen in my life. It was a miserable green late 90’s Daewoo Lanos SE. A dopey, pathetic little thing, standing there on its absurdly skinny tires like an olive on a toothpick. It took me 45 minutes to get in because the closer I got the less I could control my hysterical laughter. If you’ve ever seen the ‘try not to laugh challenge’ videos on Youtube, a still image of the Lanos presents a greater challenge than any of them. My mate’s new car also came at a hilarious price, a mere AUD $900 with nearly 6 months rego.
Psychologically prepared for innumerable breakdowns, we began thrashing the Korean beast across greater Sydney. We took this little car, with no recorded service history and not a single straight panel, on some remarkable journeys. Up and down the motorway we catapulted, always snapping gears and always in search of the Daewoo’s top speed. From Canberra to Newcastle and everywhere in between the Lanos was happy to take us. Despite our expectations, it never once broke down.
When it got so late that anything worth visiting was shut, we would either put the car up to some unreasonable task, or think of reckless and irresponsible sports we could use it for. Often we would take the Lanos along one of the many unsealed roads in our states National Parks, seeing how long it would prevail where only a Landcruiser or Land Rover should be. The most idiotic of our car spots was called ‘bin smacking’. As the name suggests, this involved kamikaze missions to smack into rubbish bins and send them flying over the roof. A truly moronic thing to do, but I can’t deny the tears of laughter that came from it.
It was through the thousands of highway miles, the bush bashing and the bin smacking that my mate and I began to realise we had stumbled upon a truly great car. His banged up, flimsy looking 90’s model Lanos was actually masterful piece of design, and as sturdy and reliable as a sheep dog. It was the apex of automotive engineering masquerading as a crap box. What kind of machine, apart from maybe a Toyota Hilux, can be driven in and through anything, without ever being serviced or maintained, and continue to serve you with unwavering loyalty?
In fact, you needn’t spend big on a Hilux if you want a capable off-road car, because Daewoo had made the Lanos hatchback with the tough Australian terrain in mind. No, seriously, it was tested in the Alice Springs outback during the development phase. The Lan’, as we began to affectionately call it, could traverse gutters, embankments, paddocks, tough dirt roads and flooded causeways without a fuss. The lack of a 4-wheel drive system was inconsequential, when the two front wheels need only be perched up on something for the whole car to then scurry over it.
City driving in the Lan’ was also a piece of cake. The nimble setup allowed us to avoid colliding with erratic taxi drivers and zip up laneways for the odd shortcut. More importantly, we realised that Daewoo had made the Lan’ narrower than our bulimic school friend for a very specific reason. It was an engineering solution to the problem of boom-gated multi storey parking lots. In the Lan’, the gap between the side barrier and the end of the gate bar was simply a thoroughfare through which we could pass, free of charge. Daewoo had also designed an obstacle defence system whereby the car would ricochet off a potholes and speedbumps like a super ball. This was the effect of putting Holden Astra suspension on a car no heavier than a toaster. It was so damn light that hitting a wall or a curb was a benign as scuffing your shoe.
While the car only had a 63kw, it made up for the small power figure with its ability to be redlined for hours on end, 365 days a year without a fuss. The 4 cylinder, 1.5L overhead cam engine felt almost custom built for two young idiots hitting 5 million RPM between every gear change. The combination of a hardy cast iron block and modern aluminium cylinder head had paid off. As far as we knew it never needed oil, and our best guess at range was 250ml per 100km. Just as impressive as the engine was the gearbox, which was made from metals derived from asteroid mining and robust enough to withstand a re-entry into the atmosphere. With a box so strong you really needn’t use the clutch, just decide on a gear and slam it in.
When you consider all these mechanical feats, and it’s German-esque reliability and practicality, you wouldn’t be wrong for thinking Porsche had a hand in the production of the Lanos. In fact, Porsche did have a hand in producing the Lanos, via former engineer and ‘father of the 993’ Ulrich Bez. Bez is a doctor of engineering and worked extensively in research and development at Porsche, and obviously channelled all that experience into the development of the Daewoo Lanos. You might even consider the Lan’ the poor-man’s Carrera RS. Or maybe the poor man’s Cayenne.
Unfortunately, like many things misunderstood, being seen in a Daewoo did come at a social cost for my mate and I. Despite the Porsche influenced mechanical prowess and masculine toughness of the car, we were laughed at by attractive women, and mocked by our former hooning associates who hadn’t yet succumbed to drift-induced poverty. But frankly, who cares? What does social alienation matter when you are experiencing engineering perfection. Our scornful peers had no idea that what we were passing them in was the outcome of a watershed moment in mechanical engineering history.
I’ll admit, getting into a Lanos after spending our driving lives in heavily modified imports was embarrassing at first. The car looks more helpless than a newborn wildebeest on the savannah, it nearly rolls around every corner, the battery it 3 times the size of the engine block, and you would come off second best if you hit a Kangaroo. But the lack of presence on the road made it a ‘sleeper’. And nearly rolling isn’t rolling, it’s pure fun. The battery size added stability and made up for the dodgy wiring, which is intelligent. And safety doesn’t matter in true supercars, so why should it matter for this incredible vehicle? On every front the Lanos staves off critique.
What this car manifests is beautiful engineering in it’s simple approach. It’s a shell with a manual transmission, a little no-nonsense motor, an indestructible body and unbreakable spirit. That’s what engineering perfection is in my eyes – beauty in simplicity. It’s remarkable to think this beautifully engineered car is easily attainable, for just 900 bucks. So, if you find yourself down in the dumps and with a budget only fit for the lemon market, do not despair. You might be a couple of weeks away from owning a true masterpiece, just like the mighty Daewoo Lanos.