I Am The Resurrection: The Misses
Humankind is, of course, a wonderful thing. Even when failure seems to be virtually guaranteed, we still try to defy the odds. It's what gets people climbing mountains, dads hitting the dance floor at weddings and people - lets be honest, mostly men - launching car companies.
The current travails of TVR, which is desperately trying to launch its new car, have put the spotlight on man's often doomed dalliances with car making. The template for these efforts follows a similar pattern. A group of enthusiastic businessmen decide that making another car is exactly what the world needs right now and the best way to do this is by resurrecting a defunct marque. They reason that old marques carry a residual affection amongst the car-buying public, so there's a ready audience of buyers. And it keeps investors happy too. After all, surely it's a doddle to give back to the people a car maker they hold in fond affection?
Turns out, no. Well, mostly. Over the next three articles we'll chronicle our favourite hits, misses and maybes from the world of car brand rejuvenation.
Back in the 1960s it was said that buying a Jensen meant you'd arrived, owning an Aston Martin merely meant you were on your way. With the iconic Interceptor the tiny West Brom firm hit the jackpot - a stylish, distinctive and rare GT car that was bought by the great and good. And Cliff Richard. Jensen churned out over 6,000 Interceptors in 10 years, a record run for a company more used to hand building a couple of hundred cars a year.
It couldn't last and of course it didn't. The final Jensen rolled out of the factory proper in 1976, a victim of oil crises and an inability to fund an Interceptor replacement. Crippling warranty costs on the Jensen-Healey sports car didn't help much either.
There have been several attempts to rejuvenate the Jensen brand but only one actually resulted in a new car.
In 1998, with help from Liverpool City Council and the Department of Trade & Industry, a group of plucky investors gave the world the Jensen SV-8. In the realms of new car makers, it wasn't a bad effort: instead of slavishly giving the world a new Interceptor, which they might have struggled to pitch against Aston and Bentley, the new company opted for a small, luxury two seater powered by a Mustang V8. At the time the world was going retro-crazy, so there was a ready audience of a rejuvenating Jensen.
It was also advanced: aluminium alloy panels, and the sort of steel monocoque chassis you'd expect from a volume car maker. It was neatly styled and to please the purists there was a nod to the original CV-8 in the front end styling. Here was a car that could hit the ground running with a well known name but wasn't entirely dependent on nostalgia to get sales. Orders piled in and there were plans to build 300 a year. Which seemed cautious and realistic.
None of that happened. Four years after the project was announced the business went bump with just 20 cars built. Despite the clever design and the sophisticated production process, quality control problems piled up. Nothing unusual for a new car but the company just didn't have the funds to sort them out.
All of which is a real shame because the SV-8 was a decent punt at rejuvenating Jensen. And it was a half-decent car, if beset by a mountain of teething problems. But it is a cautionary tale for anyone planning to launch a new car business - it will always cost more than you expect.
The late 90s attempt to relaunch the Lea-Francis name is pretty much an object lesson in how not to kick start an old car company. Back then, with the Millennium looming and a general acknowledgement that the world just might end quite soon, nostalgia ruled. It seemed that every old defunct car brand was being dug up and relaunched by a group of plucky investors with pockets more copious than common sense.
Reviving Lea-Francis can't have been at the top of many people's agenda. The firm built its last serious car in 1953, since when its reputation had been sullied somewhat by the woeful 'Ace of Spades' monstrosity of the 1980s. Luckily only a handful of those made it out the factory doors.
At least the 1998 prototype - called the 30/230 - looked ok. Designed by Jim Randle, ex of Jaguar, it sort of looked like a Jaguar but with echoes of BMW's contemporary Z3. Ok,. lets be honest: it wasn't Randle's finest hour.
Even if the car had looked good, it's hard to imagine who would actually buy it. Lea-Francis wasn't exactly a marque on the tip of many tongues and everyone else was doing the retro thing, so there was precious little space in the market for another contender. Luckily the project got no further than the prototype, so fingers remained singed rather than fully burned.
In the annals of old car brand rejuvenation the story of Railton has to be one of the most ambitious. This was not simply a case of cobbling together a car to cash in on brand loyalty: it was a bold and distinctive bid to take on one of the world's best known marques: Aston Martin.
Using a Jaguar XJS as the starting point.
In the late 80s a conglomerate of eager businessmen - including my former landlord - commissioned William Towns to design two similar cars. Towns came up with the F29 Claremont, shown above, and the sportier F29 Fairline (below). To reach their target market of very affluent buyers, the Railtons weren't simply reclothed XJS' - every panel was hand fashioned by the same people who built the Jaguar XJ220. Powered by the Jaguar's classic V12 it looked the part and went like it too.
Inside the story was a little less prosaic. Railton simply took the interior of the XJS and bolted on a new dash top. Even the steering wheel was retained.
Only one example of each car was ever made. In familiar fashion, the money ran out. Which doesn't feel like much of a surprise, given that established luxury GT players like Aston and Bristol have always struggled.
But as a vanity project it deserves respect. It was also William Towns' last design, and apparently one of his favourites. The Claremont is still knocking around somewhere but the Fairline is rumoured to be in a scrapyard just outside Redditch.
The Healey rejuvenation story doesn't quite fit the mould for failed relaunches. Not least because it wasn't actually a Healey relaunch.
That is down to the fact that in the late 90s, when the Healey family got together with the Holmes Motor Company in Stroud, it no longer had the rights to its own name. That belonged to a Swiss company that owned the Jensen and Jensen-Healey brands.
The relaunch also wasn't really a failure. And that's because those behind it were clever. The Holmes business had experience developing 'evocations', factory-built updates of classic designs with modern running gear. So it knew how to productionise a low volume sports car.
The resulting HMC MkIV was no kit car, but instead a neatly designed sports car that sat on a clever spaceframe chassis. It was well engineered so it handled well and was reliable, thanks in part to the proven Land Rover V8 at its heart.
The car launched amidst worldwide fervour for all things retro. The order book was quickly oversubscribed. It sold particularly well in Japan. Buyers didn't experience any of the problems normally associated with new, low-volume sports cars because Holmes knew how to build such cars well. And did.
But after two years and less than 200 cars, production stopped.
So what went wrong?
The HMC was killed by parts supply. Land Rover stopped supplying its venerable V8 and HMC lacked the funds to engineer a replacement. Not that a ready replacement was even available. So that was that.
In the late 90s - again - Mercedes was busy extending and stretching its brand to sell more cars, mostly smaller cars, to more people.
Alongside this push downwards, Mercedes realised there was an opportunity to push upwards too, into the space normally occupied by brands like Rolls Royce. So it dusted off the creaky old Maybach brand - erstwhile producer of very expensive cars - and gave the world the Maybach 57 and 62 stretch limos. Starting price: £300,000.
The 57 and 62 were therefore very, very posh. So posh in fact, that I can't actually name the standard features because such things exist beyond my realm of possibility. Probably there were cut glass decanters involved. And mink. Certainly they were meant for people who had to be driven, rather than those who actually had to do the inconvenient job of driving. Like Simon Cowell.
Mercedes expected to sell 2,000 Maybachs a year. At the time Rolls Royce was selling 3,000 cars a year, without the benefit yet of BMW's selling might. But the Maybachs looked exactly like Mercedes, so it was hard to see why they cost four times as much as the top of the range S-Class.
Less than 3,000 Maybachs dribbled out of the factory in 10 years, Rolls Royce, meanwhile, dug into BMW's coffers and went from strength to strength. The stand alone Maybach brand was binned in 2012.
But Mercedes isn't giving up: recently it began 'AMGing' the Maybach brand. This involves nailing the marque to uber-posh versions of its standard models. In other words, a slightly posher version of what Ford did with the Ghia brand.
It's not hard to see why Maybach failed: Mercedes was trying to sell a car that looked like a Mercedes, engineered by Mercedes and built by Mercedes but apparently wasn't a Mercedes. For an astronomical amount of money. I'm glad it failed because the whole shebang smacks of hubris and over-confidence by apparently clever people.
Thanks for reading this far. We'll be following this article up with ones on the Nearly Misses and Successes of car brand rejuvenation soon. We'll post them here.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days. 01527 893733