The byways of motoring are littered with the product of big ideas from clever people that never quite made it. Today I want to celebrate them. I got started on this by thinking about my Jensen – a bold, much-loved car but its maker died in the 1970s.
Gilbern and De Lorean were other glorious failures. Even Reliant. These companies weren’t held back by ideas or the ability to find and exploit a niche – in their way and for their customers each one did exactly what they wanted. Gilbern was a great competitor to Jensen, a stylish glassfibre-bodied car with a thumping V8 engine. De Lorean is everyone’s favourite whipping dog but it was undeniably cutting edge. So what went wrong?
The failure of many of these companies seems to lie in what made them successful. To stand-out and succeed they need to exploit a niche that the major players aren’t bothering with. For a few short years they achieve that successfully, pandering to latent demand from a small group of customers. Then the problems set in. If the niche proves to be a rich and surprisingly populous one the majors begin to pile in and the company struggles to compete due to lack of resources or cashflow problems when they expand.
Alternatively the niche turns out to be just that – a niche. It’s not rich enough to support expansion and reinvestment in product improvements and developments. This is what happened to Jensen, which tried to expand the Interceptor range and launched the under-developed Jensen-Healey.
But De Lorean is a unique case. Here was a man with very big ideas launching an unusual car into the big mainstream sportscar market. It failed for two reasons – firstly, it was under-developed and lacked a strong support network to remedy the resulting customer problems. And secondly De Lorean himself raised expectations so high that his car could never hope to fulfill them. And it didn’t.
I hope that the modern equivalents of Jensen, De Lorean and Gilbern keep trying to launch new cars. Every year we see niche players coming along to fill niche demand. Whether they succeed or fail – and I hope they succeed – their creativity and enthusiasm is a great counter-point to the dull conservative of the mainstream car makers. And the source of some great future classic cars.