Car Brand Relaunches That Actually Worked
Car making, unlike say sausage making, seems to be particularly attractive to people who have lots of money. Usually men. In fact, for a while in the 80s and 90s, it seemed like anyone with a spare few million pounds was queuing up to relaunch a long redundant car brand or inject new vigour into an ailing one.
Recently at Great Driving Days we looked at the car brand relaunches that went horrible wrong. You can read about them here. But these grand plans don't always fall to earth in a burning cloud of debris. Sometimes they work.
Here are our favourite car brand rejuvenations.
By the late 1970s Jaguar's name was mud. Its cars were unpopular or aging and its reputation was not so much tarnished as non-existent. Jaguars looked lovely - well, the XJ did - and had a louche old-world vibe, but if you actually wanted a car for the fundamental business of getting from A to B every day, then you'd rather have a Mercedes or BMW. Being a high flying plutocrat who can afford a Jaguar is one thing, being stranded beside the road is quite another.
This was a catastrophic fall from grace for a company that just 10 years earlier had the world at its feet. In the late 1960s Jaguar had just launched the XJ, a saloon that was as good as anything from any manufacturer in any country (arguably better), and the iconic E Type was still swinging its way around the stylish corners of not just London but most of the world's other capitals too.
When Sir John Egan took over the reigns of Jaguar in 1980 he inherited a firm that was very close to extinction. The XJS was simply not selling, the XJ was long in the tooth and its replacement was being endlessly delayed by British Leyland machinations. He did a very clever thing. He took what Jaguar already had, the XJS and XJ, and made them an awful lot better. He improved quality and he revised both models to give dealers something new to sell. And he sold it all under a banner of heritage, which neatly disguised the fact that these were aging cars.
Making Jaguars more reliable and drizzling them in wood and cows didn't cost much - the revamp of the XJ by Pininfarina came in at just £20 million - and it worked. Sales of the XJS picked up dramatically, as did the XJ.
Eventually new models came along, including cabriolet and convertible versions of the XJS and the brand new XJ40. By the late 1980s Ford was snooping around, and eventually bought Jaguar for £1 billion. Just 10 years earlier the firm had been perilously close to the edge. It was a recovery Lazarus would have remarked upon.
TVR has come back from the dead more times than that chap in the bible, quite often not as successfully. For this list we're looking at the 1980 rebirth when Peter Wheeler took over the Blackpool minnow.
Wheeler bought TVR in 1980, just after the launch of the wedgey Tasmin. His skill was to carve out a place in the market that was uniquely TVR. Where previous models had been a bit wishy washy, Wheeler developed cars that put hairs on chests. These were distinctive, warbly V8 sports cars. They lacked all the driver aids and sophistication of, say, a Porsche, and instead required concentration and effort to drive well. For a certain type of driver, mostly young men with a useful sense of invincibility, that was very appealing.
Wheeler's formula gave TVR back its mojo and the firm began a purple patch in the early 90s with the Griffiths and Chimaera. These were useable, fairly mainstream cars but with a definite touch of TVR madness in their styling and interiors.
Then followed even more outre cars like the Tuscan and Cerbera, models that were even more distinctive. They also replaced the venerable Rover V8 used in previous cars in favour of an in-house straight six. And that's where things started to go wrong. Because it turns out that building your own engines when you don't have much experience of building your own engines isn't a short cut to reliability.
For 20 years under Wheeler TVR proved that a small car company from Blackpool could sell clever and distinctive sports cars to rival anything from Germany.
In the 1980s Skoda was the butt of not just the biggest, but in fact all the jokes about cheap Eastern Bloc cars. And there were a lot of jokes about Eastern Bloc cars. For those who wanted a new car but couldn't actually afford one, Skoda and Lada could give you that new car smell for the price of a tatty old Montego. Skoda's Estelle, which looked quite a lot like a Saab 99, suffered our opprobrium because it was built in the wrong place, it's engine was also incorrectly located and it was - most damningly in the era of rampant consumerism - cheap.
Anyone betting on Skoda becoming, 35 years on, one of Europe's most desirable car brands would therefore have been laughed out of the pub. And yet, of course, that's exactly what happened.
It is tempting to ascribe that success entirely to Volkswagen, which bought Skoda in 1990. But the seeds were sown in 1987 with the launch of the Favorit, Skoda's very good stab at the small hatchback market. Because Volkswagen didn't buy a basketcase - Skoda had a very good reputation for design and technical innovation. Although we laughed at the Estelle, it was fundamentally a well engineered car and only rear-engined because Russia didn't want it to compete directly with less well engineered home grown product. The Favorit proved that, shorn of political fiddling, Skoda could make a damn good car.
None of which really mattered of course, because the Skoda name precluded most people buying the Favorit. So VW did a very clever thing. First it worked quickly to improve Skoda quality control, to ensure the product was as good as it could be. This resulted in the Felicia of 1994, which was effectively a revised Favorit. Then it set its marketing team to work.
The bods in the sharp suits put together a marketing campaign that acknowledged the historic jokes but implied the joke was really on anyone making the jokes. Through humorous adverts and straplines like 'It's a Skoda. Honest' VW showed that it was in on the joke whilst also suggesting that anyone who bought a Skoda knew something that anyone who hadn't bought one didn't know - namely that it was really good.
It worked. Helped no doubt by a growing range of cars, like the Octavia and Superb, that were, well, superb, Skoda has gone from strength to strength. Today's Skodas may be less distinctive than the Estelle, but they sell far better.
Before China, there was Abingdon, the original home of MG. As a backwater in the sprawling British Leyland empire, 100 miles from the centre of things in the Midlands, MG was overlooked, cast aside and generally forgotten. This despite its MGB and Midget continuing to attract customers throughout the 1970s, long after they had any right to. When BL began work on a sports car to replace its motley gaggle of models, it was Triumph that led the way, because the Triumph people in Coventry were unavoidably at the heart of things.
Back then nobody would have bet serious money on MG surviving the death of the MGB. So it is surprising and very gratifying that MG is the sole survivor from the BL debacle. That is largely due to its rejuvenation in the mid 90s. Perhaps in part because the TR7 had so sullied the Triumph brand or because BMW didn't want competition from its erstwhile British rival, MG came to carry the banner for Rover's return to the sports car market. The MGF was - and is - brilliant, a clever recycling of bits and pieces taken from old Rovers that became Britain's best selling sports car.
The Phoenix consortium did few things right but one of them was tacking the MG brand to its existing model range. This eked out extra life for the aging Rover models whilst providing new reasons to visit crumbling Rover showrooms. MG emerged from the disaster as the brand least sullied by the experience, enabling the astonishing rebirth that we're currently witnessing.
For the last 30 or even 40 years Alfa Romeo has felt like a car maker on life support, occasionally juddered into life with a shot of Fiat financial adrenalin. So it might be surprising to see it on this list.
Yet for a brief moment in the late 90s Alfa Romeo was riding high. There were new models, like the 916 GTV and Spider. The 156 showed that it was possible to bring a new and distinctive saloon car to market that could genuinely compete with the all-conquering BMW 3 Series. Even the 147 was pretty good. And the 166, whilst not exactly a sales sensation, showed that Alfa could still build a genuinely decent executive saloon.
The revived Alfa range showed that it was entirely possible to create a range of cars that were distinctively Alfa Romeo yet shared oily bits - and not so oily bits - with more humble Fiats in order to make them economically viable.
From the late 90s to early 00s Alfa was rejuvenated. It even managed to replace those original cars with new models like the Mito and 159 that were arguably even better than what went before.
But there was no escaping the elephant in the room. However good the cars were, you still bought an Alfa despite the fact that it was still quite likely to break down. And be expensive to fix when it did.
The current range of Alfas is arguably the firm's best in a generation. Sales are miniscule but lets hope Fiat finally develops a long term strategy for its largely unexploited jewel.
For a very long time from approximately 2000 to 2015 Citroen tried to play it straight, albeit in a very Citroen type way. This was in obvious response to the fact that not playing it straight, while quite exciting, hadn't worked. Clever cars like the GS, CX and BX and the Xantia and XM impressed the converted but repelled the uninitiated with their unusualness and perceived complexity.
For those 15 years Citroen did humdrum, like the Xsara, pseudo-German like the C5, A Bit Whacky, like the Picasso, or Very Whacky, like the C6. It became quite hard to tell exactly what buying a Citroen meant, except that mostly it meant not very reliable and also cheap to buy second hand. This was a very long way from the innovative, single-minded purpose of cars like the DS and 2CV.
In about 2015 someone at Citroen clearly decided to get what remained of the firm's act firmly and decisively together. New cars started to carry a consistency of style and purpose, a distinctly Citroen approach to design and innovation that began to make the cars truly stand out. There were clever new cars like the C4 Cactus and the new Ami. The more conventional cars, like the C5, were still more conventional - because that's what their buyers wanted - but they began to be a more common threat between them and the whackier models. The firm developed the DS sub-brand to launch more extreme Citroen versions. While a clever idea, its execution has left a bit to be desired.
Today buying a Citroen doesn't label you a cheese eating surrender monkey or likely to be driving in sandals. The brand is newly relevant and offers a distinctive and viable alternative to more mainstream rivals like Ford. It's almost becoming a premium option.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days. 01527 893733