HMC MKIV: An Icon Reborn
How a tiny Gloucestershire firm took on the big boys. And nearly won.
As the 20th century drew to a close the motoring world was overcome with a strange sort of nostalgia. Perhaps it was the uncertainty of the Y2K bug or the Biblical prophesies of impending doom, but one by one the big car makers started looking backwards for inspiration.
At the front of the retro pack were Rover with the 75, Jaguar with the S-Type, X-Type and, well, very model it offered, whilst nibbling at their heels came Audi with the NSU TT-inspired, er TT, and VW with the bug-eyed Beetle. There was also the MG RV8, a blinged-up MGB for the modern era. Some of these 'historically inspired' designs worked better than others.
The fixation on heritage seems to have been a by-product of the emphasis on 'brand' that overtook car makers during the late 90s. Up until the 1980s brand was a combination of product attributes and business culture. By the 90s marketeers began to realise that the business of living and breathing the brand was actually a whole lot of hassle and it was far easier to sell the brand without sticking to its values. And so it was that Mercedes stopped over-engineering its products and, in fact, stopped engineering them very well at all. Which didn't stop anyone buying a Mercedes.
But buyers still needed something to cling onto. If they would still buy a Mercedes because it was a Mercedes rather than a car that adhered to Mercedes values, then they at least wanted to buy a Mercedes that looked like a Mercedes. Hence car makers looked backwards to plough the rich seem of heritage that made Jaguars look like Jaguars, Rovers like Rovers and so on.
The obsession with heritage didn't just engross executives in Wolfsburg, Detroit and Longbridge. It sucked in smaller entrepreneurs too who saw the opportunity to revive once-loved, long-lost marques on the back of this wave of nostalgia. And so Jensen was revived - at least for a short while - and also Marcos and AC. Also for a short while.
Into this alluring mix of old and new came Holmes Motor Company of Stroud. This tiny outfit had begun making a name for itself building bespoke, low volume sports cars with retro looks and modern mechanicals. Somewhat inevitably they chanced on the idea of reviving the Austin-Healey 3000 of the 1960s.
Rejuvenating the Austin Healey was not a new idea. The kit car world had already taken the car to its heart, with several firms offering Healey-esque and not so Healey-esque kits. Like this one.
The Holmes Motor Company approach was different though. Their car would be a clean sheet design with a bespoke rather than a proprietary chassis. And it would look a lot like a genuine Healey, but with modern tweaks.
The specification for the new car was clever. Clothing the unique spaceframe chassis was a pretty glassfibre body made to a very high standard. This was adorned with chrome in all the right places. The cabin was tastefully trimmed in wood and leather and although the driving position was reassuringly Healey-esque, the driver got electric windows and even heated seats. Under the bonnet was the 3.9 litre V8 from a Land Rover, nicely linking the car back to its British Leyland roots.
Making modern sports cars appear to be classic cars is a familiar path littered with many tragedies, most of the bearing the Panther logo. But somehow this tiny Stroud company managed to create a car that looked, from steering wheel to front wheels, just right.
To demonstrate their intent, Holmes approached the Healey family to licence the Healey trademark. This would be a genuine Healey for the new era. The Healey family agreed and all was set for a rapturous launch.
Except for one thing. The Healey family didn't actually own the Healey name. That belonged to the Swiss owners of Jensen-Healey, the cobbled together marque that sold the unloved car of the same name in the 1970s. And so the new car quickly became the HMC MKiV, the model name deliberately designed to link this car to the 'Mk3' and beyond of the 1960s.
Nobody actually cared that the new car didn't have a Healey badge. Because the press and car buying public loved it. The new car slipped easily into the retro vibe, clearly referencing history without relying on it as its sole sales pitch. Because it drove really, really well. The steering was well balanced, the handling precise and the ride firm but forgiving. This was a car you could really enjoy at the weekend without worrying whether it was going to break down or whether your spine would arrive intact. And, because it wasn't made of metal, it could stay out in the rain. Unlike an original Healey.
Holmes Motor Company had a hit on its hands. Pre-orders rolled in, particularly from the UK and retro-obsessed Japan. And unlike rival offerings, particularly from TVR, the firm built the cars well - buyers really did get the car they expected when they expected it. All was going well.
Too well. 167 cars in and things started to go awry. The HMC was a well-engineered bespoke car but beneath that beautiful body all the parts were off the shelf. And that shelf started to get a little short of stock. In short, the firm began struggling to fulfil orders because the availability of engines and gearboxes in particular started to dry up. They had chanced on a great engine just as Rover decided it didn't want to make that engine any more.
This problem also affected TVR at the same time. The Blackpool firm responded by buying an engine builder and introducing its own range of engines, to pretty disastrous effect. HMC didn't have the funds to do that or, in reality, the money to re-engineer the car to fit a different engine.
In 1999, just short of 200 cars HMC pulled the plug. Today the HMC is a strange footnote in motoring history, a car caught somewhere between a modern and a classic. Those in the know recognise how good they are, the many who aren't just see what appears to be a kit car. That it isn't badged a Healey doesn't help. The fascination with all things retro has gone too, which means the HMC, like the MG RV8, feel out of step with motoring trends.
None of which should deter you from driving a HMC if you get the opportunity. They are simply great cars. Like the lazy, burbling V8 under the bonnet, this is a car to relax and enjoy rather than battle along B-roads like you would in a TVR. It does handle and grip well, but not at the expense of a smooth ride that lets you enjoy the drive when you want. And there are even heated seats, did I mention those?
At Great Driving Days we've had a HMC on our fleet for several years. So we're familiar with the 'is it..?' and 'HMC what...?' that accompanies most people's first sight of one. After explaining that no, it's not a kit car, no it's not an original Healey and yes, that's glassfibre, we get the chance to introduce customers to a car they usually pronounce one of their favourites on our fleet.
The HMC is available to hire by the hour, day, weekend or week from just £89. Or drive it as part of our unique multi-car road trip experiences. Find out more at www.greatdrivingdays.co.uk or call 01527 893733.