11 Cars That Killed The Company
Success depends on big ideas. Unfortunately, exactly the same applies to failure. What splits the two, more often than not, is luck. But, for these 11 cars, luck didn't play much part: they all killed their companies through a combination of bad ideas, shoddy execution and a fruitless search for customers.
The Jensen-Healey had all the ingredients for success. It was designed to fill a gap in the market recently vacated by the popular Austin Healey 3000. It was backed by Kjell Qvale, who owned a swathe of dealerships in the USA. It had no obvious direct competition. It brought together two great sporting names and it had a Lotus engine under the bonnet.
And yet it failed so dismally that it dragged Jensen Motors down with it. For that we have to thank Lotus, which donated its new twin cam engine to the project. While that looked great in the sales brochures, in reality it was virtually untested and proved to be catastrophically unreliable. Then there was how the Healey was built - namely, not very well - and how it looked, which was a curious mixture of bland and ugly.
Warranty claims mounted up and eventually pushed Jensen, never a paragon of cash generation, into receivership. Which is a real shame because the Mk2 Jensen-Healey cured most of the early problems and the short lived Jensen GT showed much potential.
NSU launched the revolutionary Ro80 in 1967. In 1968 the car deservedly won Car of The Year. In 1969 the struggling firm was sold to VW.
The Ro80 happened. The car was clever and advanced. It had front wheel drive, semi-automatic gearbox, disc brakes all round, power steering and fully independent suspension. And of course there was that beautiful aerodynamic styling.
The problems lay elsewhere, specifically under that low bonnet. The revolutionary Wankel rotary engine was smooth and, for its size, powerful too, but it was also extremely unreliable. Engines wore out quickly. NSU, already a motoring minnow, struggled to meet mounting warranty claims and had to sell out to VW.
The NSU remained in production until 1977, with significant improvements to reliability, but its reputation had been sealed. It remained expensive to make and expensive to buy. Less than 40,000 were sold in 10 years and the brand quietly disappeared.
Perhaps Panther would have eventually collapsed without the Panther Solo, perhaps not. The firm, founded in 1972 to sell 'evocations' of 1930s sports cars, had never been on a firm footing and had already collapsed in 1980 before the Solo was even conceived.
Panther was bought out of receivership by South Korean businessman Young Chull Kim. He had a vision to develop Panther beyond its range of Morgan-esque retro cars by launching a modern, compact sports car.
The original Panther Solo 1 was a pretty, lightweight mid-engined sports car that seemed to be a genuinely decent stab at market success. Unfortunately the arrival of the brilliant Toyota MR2 undermined this idea by doing the same thing but at a much lower price.
Panther went back to the drawing board and decided to push the Solo upmarket into supercar territory. It got bigger, heavier, more powerful and uglier. The plot had not so much been lost as entirely forgotten about.
Only a handful of Solos left the factory - between 12 and 25 depending on who you believe - and Panther quietly disappeared shortly afterwards. Which is a real shame as its retro models like the Lima and Kallista were actually quite good.
Gordon Keeble GK1
It looked amazing. It was designed by Giorgetto Guigiaro. It had a 5.4 litre V8 Corvette engine. It had twin fuel tanks.
Before DeLorean, the Gordon Keeble may have been the greatest British car that never really made it, a cleverly conceived GT car that carried all the ingredients of success. And it should have succeeded. Unlike the DeLorean it was good but not too clever for its own good.
The Gordon Keeble failed due to that most familiar of British motoring problems: a lack of money. The firm couldn't afford to ramp up production sufficiently to enable it to sell the cars at a reasonable price, which meant the GK1 was expensive. Parts supply, particularly with engines, also proved hit and miss. Just 100 cars were built before production finally ground to a halt.
Sometimes it feels as if car companies actively chase failure. Naming your new sports car after the 20th century's most hated military force doesn't feel like a short cut to success. Neither does building it alongside the much-mocked Reliant Rialto.
Reliant envisaged the SS1 as a worthy successor to the MGB. It would be a simple, small and inexpensive British convertible. They turned to Michelotti to design it, the man who penned many of the British sports cars of the 1960s.
Surely the ingredients for runaway success were firmly in place. But no.
The SS1 didn't look right. The basic shape was fine, but the detailing was all over the place, a curious mix of swathes and cutaways and shut lines. It also didn't take anyone with any knowledge of car production to see that it wasn't very well built either. Beyond the gaping panel gaps the interior was a torrid mix of grey plastics loosely nailed together.
This shouldn't really have mattered as Reliant only needed to sell 2,000 a year to turn a profit, a paltry figure compared to the half a million MGBs produced between 1962 and 1980.
Despite introducing more powerful versions, fiddling with the looks and renaming it the Sabre, significantly less than 2,000 SS1s were built over the car's entire 10 year production run. Reliant soldiered on until 2001 so while the SS1 didn't actually kill the firm, it definitely inflicted a significant flesh wound.
The DeLorean DMC-12 sums up the dilemma facing any fledgling car company. In order to to sell cars, your new car needs stand out. To stand out it needs to be innovative and distinctive.
But innovative and distinctive are another way of saying risky. And the DMC-12 was risky. Its construction was cutting edge. So was the engineering layout. And then there were those doors. These things grabbed attention and sold cars. They proved less advantageous when it came to warranty claims.
The DMC-12 was successful. DeLorean sold a lot of cars in a short space of time. The cost of rectifying faults before handing cars to customers, and rectifying them afterwards too, killed the firm. We tend to see all of these things are the consequence of John Z's hubris. But given the considerable risks associated with launching a car like the DMC-12, perhaps we should instead applaud the fact that it happened at all.
The Jowett, like the DMC-12, proves the folly of being clever but without the deep pockets required to back it up. The Javelin was one of the first new post-war cars and it marked a decisive shift away from Jowett's dowdy, workmanlike pre-war models. The stylish aerodynamic bodywork was very advanced for its time, as was the curved windscreen and faired-in headlamps.
There were other innovations too, like independent front suspension, hydraulic brakes and a horizontally opposed engine mounted very low. The Javelin was therefore good to drive and spacious too.
Unfortunately it was a bit too clever and a bit too advanced for Britain's antiquated production lines. Javelins gained a reputation for unreliability and Jowett lacked the finances to fix things. Production ended after 6 years and just 23,000 cars. Jowett went bust shortly after in 1954.
Perhaps its unfair to pin the blame for MG Rover's demise on the humble CityRover. After all, that claim could also be levelled at the equally ill-advanced XPower coupe. Both cars certainly reflected bad decision making by the firm in its dying days.
But it is the CityRover we blame for the firm's demise, not the XPower, because it promised so much. Had the firm got it right they would have had a solid volume seller that could have finally started the claw back to success.
That didn't happen. Actually, lets be clearer: that definitely didn't happen. Instead of being a cheap city car to give Rover dealers something exciting and new to sell, the CityRover was too expensive and really not very good. It was a lightly Rover-ised version of the Tata Indica Indian city car, a car that was perfectly adequate for India's less competitive car market, but utterly unsuited for Europe's more demanding motorists. It was a car clearly built down to a price, making Rover's decision to sell it at a premium price distinctly hard to fathom.
The CityRover was launched in 2003 and died in 2005 along with the rest of MG Rover. Sales numbers are unclear but certainly in the 'not very good' category.
Edsel isn't strictly the story of a car that killed a company, more a range of cars that killed themselves. Conceived in 1955 as a way to expand Ford's market share and compete with General Motors - which marketed itself to different consumer segments under different brand names - Edsel was launched in 1958 with what might tentatively be called quite a lot of 'hutzpah.'
Two years later it was all over. Ford had burned through $250 million (equivalent to nearly $2.2 billion today) and succeeded only in making itself the butt of jokes.
The Edsel fiasco has become a textbook example of what happens when clever business people make bad decisions. The blame is commonly laid at the door of the terrible car designs, in particular the ugly grille that was almost gynaecological. But the bigger issue was really 'why?'
Ford already had three brands - Ford, Mercury and Lincoln - that covered most if not all of the market. It was hard to see what the point of Edsel was.
Edsel hasn't stopped clever car people doing stupid things, like launching new car brands, as the former employees of firms like Infinity and Daewoo will no doubt confirm.
Like the CityRover many years later, in truth the SP250 Daimler wasn't solely responsible for the demise of Daimler. And the firm did soldier on for many years under Jaguar control, albeit not as an independent concern and no new models were launched.
The guppy-mouthed SP250 was symptomatic of Daimler's 1950s slide towards the abyss. There were the gargantuan 'Docker Daimler' show cars, which were sufficiently gaudy and over the top to force the Royal Family to switch allegiance to Rolls Royce. Then there were the production cars, which were variously staid and outdated - like the Majestic Major - or outre and extrovert, like the SP250.
The SP250 was intended to reposition Daimler for a younger, faster crowd and give the firm a share of the lucrative USA post-war market. At its heart was the brilliant small block Turner V8 engine, a light, powerful 2.5 litre motor that was genuinely impressive. Less impressive, in fact almost the opposite of impressive, was the bodywork styled to contain it. Put simply, the SP250 was pug ugly, a curious mishmash of styles from its antiquated Americana fins to its gaping grille that suggested it had been designed in the dark. By several different people at different times and not together.
Daimler also chose to build the SP250 out of fibreglass, a technology that at the time was in its infancy. So the car was very light but also had an alarming tendency to flex in corners, such that the doors tended to pop open.
Not surprisingly by the late 1950s Daimler was in trouble and in 1960 was sold to its arch rival Jaguar. Although the excellent Turner engine found its way into the much-overlooked Daimler 250 - a Daimlerised Mk2 saloon - Jaguar didn't develop any new Daimler models and instead consigned it to a badge-engineered future as a sort of posher Jaguar.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days. 01527 893733