As my 1988 Saab 900 shuffles off for its first MOT in two years, precursor to a return to the road, it got me scratching my head. Why did a company, at the top of its game when this car was built, crash and burn just 20 years later?
It’s a familiar tale – once-mighty car companies that slipped inexorably into decline and then off the map. Here are the five I miss the most.
This has to be at the top of my list. For anyone with even a passing interest in Sweden’s second greatest export, you get the impression car making and making profits were never really why Saab was in business. It seemed to be far more about the engineering and innovation. The fact anyone might buy the end result seemed, for the boffins at Trollhattan, to be a pleasant surprise.
So the 95, 99 and 900 were all about clever solutions to problems nobody else really bothered about. Saabs had central ignitions, because they were safer in accidents. They had wrap-around screens because it meant you could see the road better. They did away with door sills to make the cars safer.
But the trouble with innovation is that it doesn’t always sell cars. Some people just want Ladas and Cortinas. Saab tried to resolve this on its own with the 9000, a car that was quite Saaby, but not The Full Quirky. Then General Motors got involved and decided that in the future car buyers would want the idea of cleverness and innovation, but not actually get it. So they gave us Saabs in name only.
And that’s where Saab stumbled. A Saab based on humdrum General Motors running gear was a proposition nobody wanted except the bean counters. Buyers and would-be buyers were left feeling they’d been sold the idea of a Saab, but the reality of a Vauxhall. Which of course is a reality few want to wake up to each morning.
The financial crash of 2008 sealed Saab’s fate. With aging models and no lifeline in sight, the doors closed on one of the most original and distinctive car companies of the last 50 years.
It would be easy to pick any number of British Leyland brands and bemoan their passing. But it is Triumph that feels to be the biggest loss. In the late 60s and early 70s, the company had a range to die for – Stag, TR6, 2500, Dolomite and even the Spitfire. Great cars that looked good and went well.
But, of course, not for much longer. Farcical BL infighting saw every advantage thrown away. The Stag was woefuly unreliable, the TR6 was replaced with the unloved TR7, and the 2500, Dolomite and Spitfire allowed to die.
Triumph really was the sporting, middle-market manufacturer that most car companies now aspire to be. But sadly its last hurrah was the Acclaim, a mediocre car whose success only highlights how crap the rest of British Leyland’s range was at the time. 3. Lancia
Well, strictly speaking Lancia isn’t dead. You can still buy Trident-badged cars in Italy. But it is as close to expired as anything alive can be said to be.
And that really is an astonishing shame. Whether you hanker after a Ferrari-engined Thema or an achingly pretty Aurelia, Lancia has made some cracking cars. I’m lucky enough to own a Lancia Trevi, a car that succinctly sums up the dilemma that is Lancia – it’s entirely flawed and yet, somehow thanks to its whacky dashboard, somehow brilliant.
It’s quite hard to understand why Lancia failed. Because the market is crying out for distinctive and sporting cars, which were Lancia’s forte. But like Saab, the company’s custodians felt the way forward was to sell the idea of a Lancia, without actually selling a Lancia. In the 90s and 00s, a Lancia was merely a Fiat with a fancy interior. All the distinctive cleverness of the Gamma and Beta were gone, replaced by homogeneity and branding. 4. Rover
The demise of Rover, the car marque, rather than The Rover, the vestigial remains of British Leyland, is well recorded. And it does encapsulate all that is wrong with branding, where a name is nailed to a car rather than built into its DNA.
Back in the 60s owning a Rover meant something. A Rover was well-built, solid and statesmanlike. Buyers didn’t really need to be told this – they could see it with their own eyes whenever the doctor paid a home visit. For a couple of years I owned a 1985 Rover Vitesse (in fact the one in this photo). It was neither well built or solid. Or, to be honest, statesmanlike, but that’s probably a good thing – then and now.
British Leyland pioneered the idea that a brand was really just a badge. The Rover SD1 wasn’t really a Rover in the sense of a car designed and engineered by Rover – it was a British Leyland car that was called a Rover, albeit with a fair amount of Rover personnel involved.
Fast forward through the Rover 800, Rover 100 and Rover 400 to the woeful CityRover and you see the culmination of a line of thinking that started with the SD1. Instead of a company with a particular culture and tradition designing and building cars, you have a set of people designing a car and then deciding how to market it. And deciding that in some cases the Rover name is right, in other cases the Austin name is better. Or MG. The Rover 200, 400, 600, 800, 100 and CityRover were only given Rover names because this was deemed the most palatable brand for the target customers.
When you try to sell customers a brand that only reflects an idea rather than the reality, you start on a slippery slope. Every new product you launch is infused with the water-down sense of the name. And so it was with Rover. By the time the last CityRover was pushed reluctantly into MG Rover showrooms, the name Rover had all the positive associations of a weekend in Rhyll. And that’s a very long way from those P5Bs of the 1960s.
In the late 60s, anyone who was anyone wanted a Jensen Interceptor rather than an Aston Martin DB6. To have an Aston was to say you were on the way, to buy a Jensen told everyone you’d already arrived.
Which is odd really, because nobody would think that now. In the mid to late 60s Jensen had the world at its feet – a beautiful car, with great potential for sales in America, and celebrity clientele. It went wrong not because of the fuel crisis as many think – if you could afford a Jensen you didn’t give a stuff about the 8mpg – but because Jensen decided to launch a sports car, the Jensen-Healey.
The great thing about Jensen was its plucky ability to wrong-foot much bigger and more established car makers. That’s what made the Interceptor so great – nobody else had done it. Sadly the Jensen-Healey was less successful – a poorly-styled, woefully unreliable volume sports car from a company that struggled to make low-volume cars very well. It was doomed to failure.
And that’s a real shame because it means that if you want an expensive GT car today you’re only option really is the Bentley Continental. All other options are more sporting focussed. Perhaps that’s because nobody wants big, comfy trans-continental cars. But had Jensen survived perhaps we’d be just a little bit more inclined to feel the urge to don a big fur coat, slip round to the passenger side to let ‘the little lady’ in, before jumping behind the wheel, burying the pedal to the Wilton and heading for Monte Carlo.
It’s a woefully un-PC image but isn’t there just a little part of all of us that needs a 7.2 litre V8 engine in our lives?
www.greatdrivingdays.co.uk 01527 893733 Graham Eason