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Company game changers

Company game changers Published: 3rd Apr 2019 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

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A car can make or break its maker as this classic collection surely proves…

Ever since the first car was built more than 130 years ago, thousands of companies have sprung up to make their mark on the automotive landscape; it’s reckoned that something approaching 10,000 car makers have been registered at one time or another. Many of those came and went without anybody noticing, but along the way some really big concerns have been broken by making the wrong decision.

The reasons behind all these failures are many and varied. Sometimes fledgling car companies are massively over-optimistic about how many cars they can sell, while others die because of development budgets spiralling out of control. Then there are those that launch a car before it’s properly developed, while on other occasions it might be suppliers letting the side down. But the saddest deaths are those when companies are innovative and struggle to persuade buyers that just because the technology is new, it doesn’t mean the car is unreliable. Car buyers are a fickle bunch; one minute they demand individuality while the next they want to be the same as everybody else, nestling in the comfort zone that is conformity.

Most of these five cars share one thing – they were of a quality that wasn’t commensurate with their price and they gained the maker a poor reputation. Sometimes the problems were put right by the time production ended, but the cars were stigmatised – and by then it was too late. There’s a car from each of the last five decades of the 20th century, starting with the Jowett Javelin of the 1950s and progressing all the way to the Renault Avantime of the 1990s; a car which was canned in summer 2003. If you’re wondering why the Renault is here when the company is still in business, read on and all will be revealed…

1950s: Jowett Javelin

Perhaps if the brief for the Javelin hadn’t been quite so ambitious, Jowett may have survived. When Gerald Palmer was asked to design an all-new saloon for the Yorkshire car maker, he was told that it had to be as comfortable as an American car, while also being able to carry up to six occupants and their luggage. The weight of the vehicle had to be kept as low as possible but fuel consumption had to be minimised while performance had to be acceptable. And in case this was too easy, the whole lot had to cost less than £500, so people could actually afford to buy the thing. That might sound like a tall order, yet not only did Palmer accept the brief, but he came up with a car which was pretty special in its day.

Palmer designed a strong semi-monocoque that was wrapped in an aerodynamic set of clothes, housing a 1486cc four-cylinder boxer engine. The Javelin debuted in 1946 but it would be several years before any cars would be available to UK buyers. Some competition success bolstered the Javelin’s reputation, but it wasn’t enough. Faults in the manufacturing process of the 1486cc flat-four led to huge warranty claims – failed bearings and head gasket problems leading to overheating were commonplace.

Things were compounded by the decision in 1951 to terminate the contract with gearbox supplier Henry Meadows; the company’s gearboxes had proved reliable, but Jowett reckoned it could save money by producing them in-house. This decision was to prove disastrous, because the Jowett-built transmissions were hideously unreliable, and once again the company was forking out huge sums to cover the consequent warranty claims.

By this stage sales had slowed because of the negative publicity, and to make things worse further weaknesses had come to light in the boxer engine. Crankshafts were proving to be weak and while a solution was worked upon, Jowett asked its bodyshell supplier, Briggs, to reduce output. Because of the reduction in sales fewer cars were needed, but Briggs wasn’t prepared to supply fewer bodies – that would have messed up its own production schedules. It got to the point where there were bodyshells stacked up on the local football pitch because Jowett couldn’t build them up, or sell them, at the rate that Briggs was supplying them – such a situation was clearly going to have serious cashflow implications.

By 1954 Jowett had called in the receivers. If only the company had stuck with the commercial vehicles which had underpinned its finances during most of its lifetime, things could have been different.

1960s: Hillman IMP

The Imp could have been a real winner for the Rootes Group. Indeed, it should have been a winner. With a free-revving all-alloy overhead cam engine and independent suspension all round to give great agility, it could have done really well – if it hadn’t been for the Mini and its own reputation for fragility. By the time the Imp arrived in 1963 the BMC marvel had become a common sight with four years’ worth of sales notched up. It had also ushered in a new era in space efficiency and usability along with economy and manoeuvrability. The Imp would have to be pretty good if it wanted to compete.

Sadly for Rootes the Imp was far from good. Using a Government grant a new factory had been constructed at Linwood in Scotland, where there was massive unemployment. A new workforce was trained up, but the cars produced were never going to win any prizes for build quality, and there were frequent strikes because of abysmal working relations. The first cars were equipped with a troublesome pneumatic throttle along with an automatic clutch and Teflon kingpin bushes that didn’t work. But those were just the start of the problems, because the water pumps were insufferably fragile and the rest of the cooling system was marginal because of poor airflow.

All these reliability issues soon gained the Imp a reputation it could have done without, but there were other reasons for its lack of success. Its rear-engined configuration was viewed with suspicion by a buying public used to seeing the motive power at the opposite end of the car.

They also liked to have several engine sizes to choose from – the Imp came in 875cc flavour only. And to top it all, the all-alloy engine was frequently misunderstood by the mechanics who worked on it. Overtightening led to all sorts of problems, which may not have been the Imp’s fault, but it was just another nail in the car’s coffin.

For Hillman the rot had set in when the Imp was being developed. Creating an all-new car was beyond the company’s resources, so the Rootes Group sought outside help, and got it from the Chrysler Corporation. Initially Chrysler just bought a stake in the group in 1964, but by 1967 it was the sole owner. The problems surrounding the Imp didn’t inspire Chrysler to invest very heavily in its baby car, and although the Imp wasn’t the last Hillman (that was the Avenger), it was the car which tipped Hillman – and the Rootes Group – onto that slippery slope to oblivion.

1970s: Jensen-Healey

It’s a bit unfair to blame the Jensen-Healey for the demise of Jensen, when the Interceptor was also produced by the company and there was a fuel crisis. But the Interceptor sold poorly because few could afford to run it – the Jensen-Healey was shunned because it had got the company a reputation it didn’t need.

The two names Jensen and Healey had a certain amount of cachet, but when added together it confused potential buyers. Those slab-sided looks didn’t do the car any favours either, but it wasn’t these characteristics that would doom the project and the company. The credit for that went to bodywork that rotted away without any provocation, and leaky engines that cost a fortune in warranty claims to sort out.

When the board of Jensen, Donald and Geoffrey Healey and US-based British sports car importer Kjell Qvale got together, they proposed to build a car that would be the successor to the defunct big Healey. The Jensen-Healey name would be adopted thanks to the involvement of Donald and Geoffrey and it was projected that most of the cars built would be sold in the US, although there would also be a right-hand drive version for the UK market.

The fate of the project was sealed when a deal was signed with Colin Chapman to fit his new twin-cam 907 engine to the car. The problem was that the powerplant would be fitted to the Jensen before it was fitted to any Lotus. Predictably, the unit proved to be massively unreliable and Jensen ended up having to finish off the development of it – after it had been fitted to customers’ cars. The problems stemmed largely from the fact that the engine couldn’t be sealed properly – it leaked oil from just about every orifice. It was such a shame, because the Jensen-Healey brought with it the first British mass-produced 16-valve engine. But that’s the problem when you innovate…

Although the press had been largely enthusiastic about the car when it first appeared, the tide soon turned when it became obvious that the only guaranteed thing about the Jensen-Healey was its lack of reliability. The arrival of a Mk2 version in August 1973 ironed out some of the problems, but there were still many and by now Donald Healey had bailed out, dismayed at all the maladies.

When the people in charge of the company start to walk away, you just know things are going badly wrong, and by May 1976 it was all over. Well, until a failed attempt at reviving the company in the early 1990s and another that stalled around a decade later.

1980s: Panther solo 2

The bigger the company, the easier it is to absorb production costs for cars that don’t do too well. If you spend over £10 million developing a car and sell just a dozen, it’s a pretty expensive mistake to make. But when you’re a company the size of Panther, it’s devastating.

Things could have been so different if it hadn’t been for the launch of the Toyota MR2. Panther was aiming to introduce a 1.6-litre affordable sports car using Ford’s XR3i engine. Slung out the back, the 105bhp powerplant would drive the rear wheels only and the whole shooting match would be priced at £10-14,000 – forecasts were for up to 2000 cars each year to roll out of the Byfleet factory. But it wasn’t to be – as soon as Toyota reinvented the cheap sportster, the Solo project was stopped dead in its tracks. The MR2 was built to typical Japanese standards and was a hoot to drive, all while selling at just over £9000 – competing would be madness. So the project was moved upmarket and that meant starting all over again, making the gestation period a long, drawn out affair. And as the car got more complicated, the technical hurdles got bigger and they got increasingly pricey to overcome. By the time the Solo 2 was launched at the end of the 1980s the price had gone up to £40,000 and power had gone up to 204bhp, courtesy of a Ford/Cosworth turbocharged 2.0-litre engine harnessed by Ford four-wheel drive. By this stage, not only had the cost of developing the Solo 2 spiralled out of control but Panther was also spending £85,000 building each car. Then selling them for less than half that…

As soon as you get into the Solo 2 you can see why the project went belly up – the fit and finish of the interior is poor, just like some of the exterior. With Ford bits all over the place it’s little better than a kit car in many respects, and although there are 204 Cosworth horses behind you, the car’s weight hides the fact very well. Although it’s not lethargic, there’s no rush as the turbo cuts in, and when you think that for around £25,000 you could have bought a Lotus Esprit or Jaguar XJ-S, and for £45,000 a Ferrari 328GTB, it was no surprise that most folks shunned the Solo as good as it drove according to Car magazine in 1989 matching a Lotus Espirt for handling.

By the time the Solo was launched, 80 per cent of Panther had been bought by Korean company Ssangyong. Although it went ahead and launched the Solo in 1989, it had bigger fish to fry. Then when it was discovered that each Solo cost around twice as much to build than it was selling for, the car’s fate was sealed.

1990s: Renault avantime

Utterly pointless but somehow unfeasibly cool, the Avantime deserved to survive, if only to make this over-sanitised world a slightly more interesting place. First shown as a concept at the 1999 Geneva motor show, it was then announced that the car would be in Renault showrooms, although nobody was really sure it would happen because it was just too radical.

Everybody tried to pigeonhole it, but couldn’t – after all, what type of vehicle is it? But six months after that Swiss début the production Avantime had been unveiled, looking no different from the concept.

You’re probably wondering why the Avantime is here at all – after all, Renault survives. But the Avantime wasn’t built by Renault – it was Matra which put it together, and it was also Matra which ended up being closed down when the niche into which the car was launched was found to be even smaller than Renault had at first predicted.

Matra was also the company which had to sort out all the quality issues with the first cars, which is why it was to be another year before any cars were sold – something that did little to instil confidence in potential buyers. The double-hinged doors and twin sunroofs had to be re-engineered, but time was running out and Renault was pressing for the car to reach showrooms. Matra started building them, but even Renault wasn’t happy with the quality.

There would be a choice of petrol engines – a turbocharged 2.0-litre ‘four’ or 3.0-litre V6 along with a turbodiesel at some point. It was hoped that over six years a healthy 80,000 would find buyers, but fewer than 6000 were built – production was down to 15 cars a week when break-even point for Matra was four times that.

By the time the plug was pulled on the Avantime in 2003, few people had ever even seen one out of captivity. Official sales figures of right-hand drive cars was put at 350, but the real figure is probably closer to half that – including all the demonstrators. Louis Schweitzer, head of Renault, claimed he had no regrets when the project was canned. He even said the Espace was just the sort of thing that Renault should be building – but in smaller numbers and to higher standards.

…and the cars that were saviours

Aston martin DB7

Aston Martin had always made very costly cars, very labour-intensively and in tiny numbers. As a result it had lurched from one crisis to another, but what it really needed to do was introduce a more affordable car that was far less costly to build. Under Ford’s ownership Aston did exactly that, with the DB7 going on to easily become Aston’s best-selling model ever – and despite it now being its most affordable car it’s still very much worthy of the brand.

BMW neu klasse

While BMW started out building a licensed Austin Seven called the Dixi, in the post-war years it became reliant on large, luxurious and costly cars that were very labour-intensive to make. The economies of scale weren’t there and while BMW did license the Isetta to increase volume, the margins on such a tiny car weren’t great. The answer was to launch a new family car in the early 1960s, which was premium but relatively affordable.

Peugeot 205

PSA (Peugeot-Citroën) bought Chrysler Europe in 1978 for just one dollar, but this acquisition would prove to be a millstone round the French company’s neck, such was the magnitude of Chrysler’s debts. What Peugeot needed was a sure-fire winner and that’s exactly what appeared in 1982 – the 205 which spawned one of the greatest hot hatches ever made. Indeed, so great was the 205 GTi that in the years since it was axed, Peugeot has struggled to come up with a hot hatch that can equal it.

Porsche 944 and boxster

In the early 1980s Porsche was struggling and in real danger of going under, but it came up with a brilliant idea – to develop the 924 into a much more capable sporting car that was more worthy of the Porsche badge. The move was perfect and the 944 would save the company from oblivion. However, by the early 1990s Porsche was struggling once more, with sales down to just 14,000 cars by 1993. The brand moved downmarket with a car that was better than its rivals; the Boxster was such a hit that Porsche couldn’t make them fast enough.

What’s the winner?

The first to go is the Avantime as the quality isn’t up to scratch and the packaging (effectively a four-seater MPV!) is really poor, although it’s definitely already a classic. Next off the list is the Solo. Its rarity and outrageous looks should have ensured it’s worthy of consideration, but it’s too compromised and the quality is just so disappointing.

The Jensen-Healey is the only open car here but it’s a car that’s hard to warm to even though it’s not bad to drive, although things aren’t helped by a lack of low-down torque. Either way, the Jensen- Healey is beaten into third place by the Javelin which oozes character and charm, but it’s too ponderous and uncomfortable.

That leaves the Imp in the number one slot, because as soon as you encounter one close up you can’t help but love it. A precise gearchange, revvy engine, kart-like responses and great visibility mean you can position it perfectly and have a blast every time you take it out. Tuning is easy and you can also throw in a healthy dose of practicality – the Hillman Imp really did deserve a better fate, along with all of the other cars here.



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