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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
|All photos by Chris Pollitt (Not2Grand)|
I didn’t set out to own a Lancia Trevi. And perhaps not many people do. Certainly few did when it was new in the 1980s. The Trevi is a specialist backwater of Lancia’s already specialist corner of the British classic car world. It sold in such small numbers in the UK that few recall its existence and those that do simply smile and remember ‘that dashboard.’
And what a dashboard. But first, there’s the story of how the Trevi was born.
In the early 1980s Lancia, under Fiat tutelage, was scratching around for ways to boost sales of its aging range. With no money to do much, the decision was made to offer a more conventional three box version of the Beta saloon. The resulting Trevi was a particularly sober-suited compact saloon, aimed squarely at buyers of top end Cortinas and Cavaliers. This made quite a lot of sense because some potential British buyers had been put off by the Beta’s unconventional – for the late 70s - hatchback-style design. This, after all, was a time when the hatchback was a new and avatgarde idea.
Sobering up the Beta meant that traditional family saloon buyers got a conventional-looking saloon with lots of equipment and the relative sophistication of the Beta’s decent-handling chassis and willing 2 litre engine.
Except, of course, they didn’t sit back and they didn’t stop there. They went mad. They asked industrial designer Mario Bellini to create the interior. Whatever Mario’s brief was, it presumably included the words ‘go kerayzee’ because that is exactly what he did. He hid the interior door handles, he put all the electric window switches beside the handbrake and then, presumably after a particularly hearty meal involving Emental cheese, he created That Dashboard.
When the Trevi was launched Lancia blithered on about industrial design, function over form and other clever stuff that meant tap all to the middle managers it was hoping to persuade out of their Cortinas. All they saw was a remarkable slab of black plastic with a seemingly random arrangement of holes of different sizes liberally strewn right across the front of the car. And then they asked where the door handles were, because they couldn’t escape fast enough.
It’s difficult now to understand exactly what the Lancia bigwigs were thinking when they signed off the Trevi’s interior. Perhaps, having bowed to their new Fiat paymasters to dial up the conventional, they knocked back a few Morettis and decided to rebel when it came to the interior.
Today we marvel at this dashboard’s design, which nearly forty years on remains bold and controversial. We value its audacity and eccentricity. But back in the 80s there was none of that nostalgia and emotion – reviewers and buyers just saw a dashboard that challenged their very notion of what the inside of a car should look like. They couldn’t see the point of it and they didn’t like it.
It’s hard now, decades later, to convoy just how gasp-inducing the Trevi’s dashboard was to early 80s car buyers. Today we’re used to car designers going mad, creating challenging designs like the Nissan Juke. In the noughties Citroen and Toyota created cars like the Picasso and Yaris with central dials. Nobody really batted an eyelid.
Reviewers were also unimpressed by some of the Trevi’s other qualities. Where they overlooked the stodgy staidness of the Cortina, they took issue with the Trevi’s poor packaging, short gearing and asthmatic engine. Its styling, which seemed to just take a chunk out of the Beta’s svelte lines, also came in for criticism.
So not many were sold. And now it’s hard to imagine who would have bought one. The Trevi was expensive, quirky – despite that sober suit – and built by a firm with a dismal reputation for rust and quality control.
And then, there it was – a 1982 2 litre in light blue. On Ebay. In Hull. And it stayed there for weeks, regularly winking at me through my EBay notifications, the price wavering down to somewhere near attractive. In the way of such things, I messaged the seller, not imagining it would go any further. But something about the car’s rarity and my nostalgic memories of That Dashboard captured my attention.
There are only a handful of Trevis left in the UK and yet its very rarity wasn’t enough to shift it. The seller had been struggling to sell it for months. It probably didn’t help that it there was no MOT and it was crumbly around the edges. Perhaps the car is such a footnote in motoring history that few were sufficiently bothered about the three box Lancia with the silly dashboard.
I run a classic car hire and restoration business and, back home, the Trevi was parked up in my unit. It stayed there, unmoving, for 12 months. Occasionally I would tweet about it, my followers urging me to get it back on the road and reminiscing about that mad dashboard. I began to realise that for those in the know, the Trevi is something of a design icon. Part of this is perhaps tied up with Lancia’s currently straightened circumstances, the Trevi being a symbol of what this once-remarkable marque was capable of. In that sense it represents one of the last expressions of Lancia’s creativity and individuality.
Then, in June 2019, I was spurred into action. We needed the Trevi to make up the numbers for a corporate event. So I put it through a MOT to find out what was wrong with it. It turns out, not much. The emissions were all over the place so the carbs were sent off to be rebuilt. The brakes and exhaust were shot so they were replaced, with help from Beta Bitz. All the work was done by my workshop, the team bemused by this odd and unloved motoring orphan.
Such is the way of things that once back on the road I wasn’t the first person to drive my Trevi. That honour belonged to a group of wealth managers from London. They had no idea what it was and were born too soon to recognise the dashboard. But they loved it.
Since then I’ve driven it, but not as much as I’d like. While the interior’s quirkiness remains, for me, the Trevi’s big draw, I’m really surprised at how nicely it drives. I also own an Alfasud and it feels like that car’s big brother. The same view over a flat bonnet, the same low dashboard, the same ape-like driving position. The steering is sharp like the Sud, the engine responsive in a similar way. But boy does the Trevi roll, it’s positively Citroen-esque. Coupled with seats that lack any form of lateral support, the Trevi is an absolute hoot through the bends, a case of hanging on with your foot planted to maintain momentum.
The car elicits a curious response from visitors to my unit and also when its out and about. The less initiated just see a boxy, fairly anonymous saloon that might be a Cortina if you squint. Amongst the classics that we hire out they seem to be wondering why it’s there. The members of a much smaller group stop in their tracks. They tend to do a double take. They point and then they inevitably look inside, to check that yes, indeed, it is there.
And this, ultimately, is the Trevi’s appeal. A car of two halves – conventional with an unconventional heart. But also a car that is so much more than its reputation. It’s a hoot to drive.
I may have stumbled into Trevi ownership but I’m glad I did. There’s something precious about owning a bit of motoring history, one of just a small handful of Trevis left on British roads. And a car that attracts knowing nods from people who care about cars. There are better cars out there, there are more exciting cars, but none share the Trevi’s nature – to turn left when all about are going right.
The Trevi is a gentle reminder of what Lancia once was. A clever, sophisticated, engineering-led company that designed cars with passion. In today’s anonymous, anodyne motoring world of me-too, platform-sharing SUVs these feel like vital, valuable attributes. We can only hope.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days. www.greatdrivingdays.co.uk
The Trevi was restored by Classic Fixers. Find out more at www.fixclassiccars.co.uk or call 10527 893733
All photos courtesy of Chris Pollitt at the excellent Not2Grand website.
Here's the story of how Classic Fixers in Redditch breathed new life into Alfa Romeo's hot hatch.
Mention Alfa Romeo's Alfasud and the first thing anyone says is 'rust.' These great little cars wowed 70s buyers with their superlative handling and fizzy flat four Boxer engines. And, in a way, their propensity to rust was also impressive - owners tell tales of brand new cars rolling out of showrooms with rust scabs and holes.
The Alfasud's problems stem from the factory that built it in Naples. This brand new facility, and Alfa's new car, were brought together by the Italian government to bring employment to the south. Consequently the new employees were more used to picking tomatoes than building cars. The rest, or rather the rust, is history.
Fortunately, by the time factory was building the last Alfasuds they'd got quite good at it and so these cars tend to suffer less from tinworm. This has made our latest project a whole lot easier.
This Alfasud is a 1982 Series 3 Ti Green Cloverleaf - or Quadrifoglio if you prefer (we do). The car has only covered 40,000 miles from new and was very solid. But, along with most red cars of the era, the paint had faded and become patchy. There were also a couple of areas of localised panel damage that needed to be sorted out. Values of these cars have, along with other hot hatches, skyrocketed in recent years, helped in the Alfasud's case by sheer scarcity. There are less than 100 Alfasuds left in to the UK and only half of those are roadworthy.
The project was to return the car to its near showroom condition - not quite concours, because the car was to be useable, but close enough.
We began by removing all the trim, including the bumpers, handles, spoilers, lights and window glass. We also removed the interior. This gave us a clear picture of the car's condition and the job ahead. Although the body was very solid, with only minor rot areas around the rear screen and base of one wheelarch, the car did show signs of previous accident damage. One side of the car was several shades of red and the door and rear panel were noticeably bowed. These would need correction during the respray.
With the car stripped down we began flatting the paint back and addressing the defects caused by the accident damage.
To respray the car we removed all the panels and painted the body and panels separately. This obviously enables us to pay closer attention to the individual parts of the car and, like Heineken, reach the parts not often reached.
Mop & Polish
This is the stage where the quality of the paint job proves itself. We spent approximately two days mopping and polishing the car, attending to every panel very carefully to get the paint finish exactly as we wanted it.
Like most cars of the 1980s, the Alfasud had a lot of black plastic trim. These items tend to discolour over time. Various companies offer so-called remedies for this, from respraying to renovation. We chose to do the job in-house, removing dirt, grime and layers of polish and paint to clean each one back to its original finish. They were then renovated using a new product that recovers the original black finish. Whereas painting can lose the original dimpled finish of such panels, this process retained this element of the finish.
We also spent over a day getting the pinstripes and black lower panel right on each side of the car. To do this we used photos of identical Alfasuds to ensure the height and pinstripe size were absolutely right. This is a really fiddly job, as you can probably imagine. The black-painted rain gutters were also resprayed and refitted.
We still have a few small jobs left to do on the car, but we displayed it at our monthly Classics & Coffee meet. The feedback was extremely positive, with several visitors asking us to quote for resprays on their own cars.
The cost of this project was £2,000 including VAT. Every project differs but hopefully these photos and description give you an idea of what can be achieved for that investment.
Car: Alfa Romeo Alfasud
Requirement: Respray to correct poor paint & previous accident damage
Action: Full respray, attend to very localised rust, refurbish all plastic trim and refit
Cost: £2,000 including VAT
Classic Fixers specialises in classic cars. Unlike some garages they cover bodywork as well as mechanical work. To find out more call 01527 893733, visit www.fixclassiccars.co.uk. or email email@example.com.
Few cars are more 'classic' than the venerable MGB. It's to classic what gin is to tonic, the kind of car you can guarantee to find wherever two or more old car fans gather.
But its ubiquity is also its Achilles Heel. We're so used to seeing MGBs that it's easy to forget why they're so popular. And, to be honest, driving a standard B can instill the same sense of wonder.
Lovely as the MGB is to look at and practical and simple as it is to live with, there is something fundamentally underwhelming about its driveability. The 1800cc engine, which the B shared with a plethora of far more humble British Leyland and BMC offspring, is not exactly the last word in sporting power and sophistication. None of which detracts from the B's charm and relaxed demeanour. But for those searching for a little more from their soft tops, the answer has traditionally lain elsewhere.
Great Escape Cars has added a MGB roadster to its fleet and it comes with a twist. When you approach the car, the clue is subtle - just a small V8 badge on the grille.
That subtlety ends when you start it up. It's been retro-fitted with Rover's brilliant 3.5 litre V8. And we've driven it.
Due to the arcane intricacies of British Leyland politics, MG only ever fitted the Rover V8 to the MGB GT, creating a budget E Type that sounded good and drove well. The reason, apparently, was to avoid the MGB competing with the Triumph Stag and, later, the still-born TR8. Of course, it wouldn't have done either - instead a V8 MGB roadster would have added new life to a creaking old design at a time when Abingdon needed all the extra volume it could get.
Driving the new addition shows just how blinkered this decision was. Dropping the lightweight V8 into the MGB transfers the car from a car with sporting pretensions, into a proper, snorting sports car. Where the Stag has GT pretensions and the TR8 aimed for the future, the V8 B is just a great traditional sports car.
I've never really been a big fan of the MGB roadster. I like the BGT but the convertible has always felt too much of a compromise - a sports car that isn't sporting.
But this car challenges that immediately. Turn the key and the V8 really does burst into life. Instead of the low rumble you get from a V8 Rover SD1, here it's more like the sudden arrival of a plague of dogs. It barks and spits, but in a nice way that suggests teeth but without actually revealing them.
More Power, More Smiles
The rasping V8 Rover has always been one of the nicest sounding V8s around, and with this car's modified exhaust the car has a real sense of purpose that the normal B can't compete with.
On the road the initial impression is of standard B behaviour - the slightly wooden steering and knobbly ride persist, but as in the standard car, it's reassuring rather than offputting. This isn't a car that is going to catch you out or demand too much of your attention, traits that help explain why the MGB remains so popular.
The extra power isn't as immediately obvious as the engine's tractability. The standard 1800 engine needs to be worked to gain progress, something that its labouring at high revs tends to discourage. The V8 is entirely different - smooth, free-revving and, put simply, everything that the standard motor isn't. Even with 170 bhp the V8 B isn't particularly quick - although it sounds scintillatingly fast - but the way it delivers that power is so much more enjoyable. You won't get into much trouble with it but the simple act of accelerating and changing gear is transformed into something genuinely enjoyable.
You still have to plan ahead with a B though - the steering is direct but lacks feel and the handling is pretty rudimentary, but you don't drive a B for TVR-like responses. Instead, with more power you can at least start to enjoy what it does deliver - it's solid and predictable through the turns, and sometimes that's just fine.
I've experienced the 5 speed Rover gearbox before and remember a notchy, vague change that prevented quick shifts. The same box in this MGB feels different - there's more precision, a shorter throw and the five speed works well with the highly tractable Rover engine.
The changes under the skin thankfully don't detract from the familiar virtues of the MGB - it's practical, with big doors, spacious (this car has comfy MX5 seats that suit it) and with that lovely crackle finish dashboard so familiar to MG enthusiasts. You also get the usual easy-to-operate hood and a fair size boot - although the spare wheel does take up most of it.
Classic British sports cars of the 1960s were never the last word in handling finesse. An E Type was never a match for a 911 and the Austin Healey could be an effort on B roads. But they did go well in a straight line. Dropping a V8 into the MGB puts comfortably into that group. It sounds great, it looks great and it goes fast enough to get the pulse racing.
The MGB should have had the V8 in both models when it was new. That it didn't is one of British motoring's biggest failures because the engine transforms the car. The Great Escape Cars' MGB V8 is now available to hire by the day or on one of the company's popular driving experiences - 60 minute Classic Tasters (from £39) or full and half day road trips (from £149). Find out more at www.greatescapecars.co.uk or call 01527 893733.
Classic Car Stuff
There are many better and safer ways to buy and sell a classic car, but eBay remains the number one destination for those looking to offload or acquire a classic. The site's simplicity and ubiquity probably explain why - it's just so browsable.
Unfortunately eBay is plagued with scam adverts for classic cars. Before writing this article we checked the classic car search listing and discovered over 600 fake adverts listed in just one hour. That's a shocking statistic - and one eBay seems unwilling to do much about. Along with others in the classic car sector, we've tried to get the site to address the problem - it's ignored us.
So, if eBay won't act, how do you make sure you don't fall victim to one of these scams? We've put together some simple tips to help spot a fake ad and avoid parting with your money. It's not exhaustive - because the scammers are always finding new ways to scam us - but it's a start.
Individually these clues don't mean you're looking at a scam advert - but they make it more likely and, in combination, very likely. The familiar rule applies - don't take a risk.
How the Scam Works
Scam sellers 'scalp' genuine adverts to create their fake advert - they use the photos and sometimes the description from a genuine advert to list the scam advert. They also adopt fake IDs, usually by accessing a genuine account, so that they look like genuine sellers.
Most of these adverts work by encouraging the buyer to deal direct with the scammer, rather than via eBay. Once you're hooked in they'll request a deposit to 'hold' the car pending viewing. In the worst cases they'll ask for payment before delivering or collecting the car.
Beware the Title
The scammer is usually working in volume - this is not a sophisticated rip off. So they tend to list cars simply based on what they are - as here, a 1974 Jaguar XJ6. Most genuine sellers tend to elaborate when they create their headline and subhead, perhaps mention the full MOT, excellent condition and so on.
The absence of any creativity in the headline and absence of a sub heading are good indicators of a scam.
Too Good To Be True
Ebay has been around long enough that there are no longer bargains to be had - we're all looking at the same cars and they tend to sell for the prices they're worth. So if you see a car that looks cheap, there's a reason.
Most of the scams run with a £1 starting price or a surprisingly low Buy It Now price. Those points in themselves do not mean you're looking at a scam advert, but they should sound alarm bells. Most people who own classic cars have a very good idea of what they're worth - and that is often more than they're likely to get, not less. So if someone is selling a car for less than you expect, beware.
Check the Location
Scammers work in volume and this means they can often forget the detail. So their ads will state that the car is based in 'UK' or 'London', general locations that prevent identification and reflect the quick way that these ads are posted. Also look for spelling mistakes in locations.
In the past it was easy to spot scam adverts because the sellers had zero feedback. Now they use stolen or fake IDs to trick us.
A seemingly legitimate ID is not, of course, evidence of a scam. But if everything else about the advert screams scam, don't let the ID fool you into thinking otherwise.
Check the Seller's Other Ads
Most scam sellers will fake an ID, so it will look like they have bought and sold on eBay many times. As the fake ID is the hard part to create they tend to post lots of adverts at the same time to that account. Click on the 'Sellers Other Items' tab and you'll probably see lots of other cars listed in a similar way.
Read The Listing Carefully
Scam sellers use the description in two ways - they either cut and paste the original text or include brief wording that focusses on email contact.
Either way, the description will state that the buyer has to contact the seller via email. This is your trigger - any seller that is trying to deal outside eBay is a high risk and very likely to be a scammer.
A genuine buyer will take time to accurately describe their car and will only sell the car via eBay (which in theory protects buyer and seller).
The description may not ask you to buy via email. Instead it may ask you to email 'for more photos' or information. This is the bait - the scammer wants you to get in touch, so that they can reel you in.
It's extremely unfortunate that eBay can't be bothered to police these adverts properly. While it is true that most of them never reach the end of their listing because someone reports it first, that doesn't stop them being listed and being visible and operational for several days.
eBay is a useful way to find the classic car you want. But there are also many other safer ways to do this too - including Car & Classic, Collecting Cars and many of the other specialist classic car listings sites.
We'll be monitoring this issue and continuing to press eBay to do something about it. In the meantime we've teamed up with Great Escape Cars to create a Twitter account to highlight the scams we find. You can find it at @scamscar.
If you spot any scam adverts, please let us know through Twitter or in the comments. This is an important issue for us.
Great Escape Cars
The world has changed dramatically in 25 years. Smart phones and the internet have revolutionised how we live and interact. There's a reality show star in the White House. We're no longer part of Europe, the big ole landmass we helpfully liberated all those years ago.
And a Ghia badge on a car means absolutely tap all.
It wasn't always thus. Back in the 70s and 80s the good folk of Britain - and, quite possibly, further afield - exhibited their status and one-upmanship not by buying taller cars with ludicrous names and nomenclatures, but by buying the same car as everyone else but better. And everyone else - specifically him and her next door - knew it was better because of The Badge. And there was, quite simply, no better badge than Ford's Ghia.
Nailing the crest of the once-illustrious Ghia design house to Fiestas, Cortinas, Sierras, Escorts and Granadas was, quite frankly, a masterstroke. As an example of automotive marketing it may never have been bettered.
But it wasn't actually an entirely new idea. In the late 60s Ford created a model trim heirarchy that deliberately played to our social anxieties. This initial foray into twisting our psyches used simple letters - L, GL, GXL and E, apparently for Executive. It was designed to flog cars to fleet buyers, the different trims signifying how far up the greasy pole you'd managed to squirm. Once established, the idea also worked for private buyers.
And boy how we bought into the symbolism.
By the mid 70s other car makers had followed suit, which meant that Ford's trim labelling was starting to look a bit mundane. And that's where the firm played its trump card. Ford had bought the Ghia business so that it could get at the firm's design know-how. At the time wasn't particularly bothered about the brand name.
That all changed when the marketing bods got involved. Most Ford Cortina buyers may never have heard of one of Italy's best car design companies, but they could instantly see that its logo crest looked quite nice and the name sounded a bit posh. Particularly when nailed to the wing of a Cortina with velour seats, alloy wheels, chrome trim highlighting and padded inserts in the headrests.
And so the Ghia-isation of Britain began. Ford's trim specifications were so cleverly developed that Ghia remained the ultimate, just-about-achievable aim of every suburban regional sales manager from Andover to Accrington. The Cortina made way for the Sierra which made way for the Mondeo and throughout all that change Ghia remained the pinnacle of real-world success.
I grew up in suburban Surrey of the 1970s and 80s and, even as a teenager, I knew exactly how the world worked. I could define and judge everyone in our long street based on the cars they drove, despite never having met them. The immaculate Escort 1.3L belonged to a retired couple who appreciated simplicity. The Granada GL was driven by the regional manager of a local carpet firm. And, awful as this is now, mostly I was right. Ford had tapped into our social DNA.
I look back on this now with a mix of horror and admiration. It's a shocking indictment of the place I grew up in that we judged and boxed people so willingly. And yet, there's also something comforting about it - there was a place for everyone and everyone knew their place.
My positon at the company was lowly but on my first day I was given a Sierra GL. Clearly it was the last car left in the compound - its asthmatic 70 bhp 1.6 had to be hauled kicking and screaming up any semi-steep ascent like a dog being dragged for a bath. But it was a GL, with velour seats and a rev counter. And that meant my wheels upset quite a few of the area sales managers.
That jealousy and bating was, it quickly became clear, an essential part of the working environment. Ford may have created it but the company clearly relished it. For most a hike from LX to GLX meant far, far more than a pay rise because it was something everyone could see. And, for my bosses, cost virtually nothing.
Eventually, after a few years, I achieved the Holy Grail, a Tourmallard Green Ford Mondeo Ghia. I loved it. I cherished it. I admired its full suite of electric windows, it's electric sunroof and its thick velour seats. The faux timber dashboard was a thing of unmitigated beauty. The airconditioning a new-world pleasure I could barely believe possible. The rechargeable torch, the little lights in the door handles, the footwell lights and the headlamp washers, all minute symbols of everything I'd striven for and achieved.
And then, just as I was electrically adjusting the height on my Mondeo's seat for the first time, Ford screwed it all up.
By the mid 90s the Germans were muscling in on the fleet market. Where Ford had GLX and Ghia, BMW and Audi had, well, BMW and Audi, brands so premium that sales managers didn't care about trim levels. They just wanted one.
The premium brands worked for companies too because they didn't depreciate like Fords - so they were generally as cheap or cheaper to lease. Almost overnight Ford's mighty World of Trim was felled to the ground.
None of this worked because Ford was Ford and not BMW or Audi. But it hasn't stopped the company ploughing on with the idea, recently launching the Vignale models, uber-posh versions that revisit the chrome laden theme of those 70s Ghias. Vignale, of course, is another Italian design house bought by Ford.
I'm not sure how I feel about all this really. There was something awful yet reassurring about the badge snobbery of the 70s and 80s that we've lost in the blandness of modern motoring.
I bought the car for £50 and, after putting it through a MOT, have been running around in it enjoying its V6 loveliness and cossetting velour interior.
It's a low owner car that's scruffy but solid. My workshop www.fixclassiccars.co.uk got it back on the road and I've been enjoying it ever since.
It really is a lovely thing - comfortable, quick, superb chassis and well specified of course. And you'll be able to see it on 20th July as I'm taking it to the Festival of the Unexceptional. Hopefully I'll see you there - come and say high and feel free to pigeon hole me on the social tree.
Great Escape Cars
Great Escape Cars has added several cars to its daily hire fleet to create the UK's largest classic Jaguar rental range. You can now drive Jaguars from 1950s XKs to 1990s XKRs from the firm's Midlands base.
The new cars include two Jaguar Mk2s and a XKR convertible. They're joined by a 2004 Porsche 996 40 Jahr, just to show that even in Brexit times the old entent between Germany and Britain is dead.
From this weekend you can drive Great Escape Cars' Porsche 911 40 Jahr, Jaguar XKR convertible and a choice of two Jaguar Mk2s on our popular midweek and weekend daily hire packages.
The new cars are available to drive from the firm's Midlands base on the edge of the Cotswolds and come with generous mileage allowance, insurance and breakdown cover. Every hire day is also a full 24 hrs - not just AM to PM.
There is a choice of two Jaguar Mk2 saloons - a 1965 3.4 (grey car) and 1965 3.8 (green car). The cars both have manual gearboxes while the green car has power steering. Find out more
The Jaguar XKR introduced a new level of performance to the marque - with a 400 bhp V8 supercharged engine, this coupe combines the spirit of the E Type with modern-day performance and luxury. It's the perfect way to cruise the Cotswolds in style.
Porsche 911 (996) 40 Jahr
The Porsche 911 is a long-lived sports car because it is so enjoyable and rewarding. The 996 turned the original air-cooled car into one you could enjoy without having to fight it. This is a car that's relaxing and comfortable to drive but with all the typical Porsche 911 features you want - great steering feedback, superb performance and scintillating handling. Find out more
Great Escape Cars has the UK's largest fleet of classic cars to hire by the hour or day or as part of one of our popular road trips. Prices start at just £39.
There can't be many business sectors that thrive by missing deadlines, failing to work to agreed quotes and not getting things right first time. And yet, those are exactly my experiences with classic car garages.
I learnt the hard way just how the classic car workshop sector operates when I set up Great Escape Cars in 2006. My skill set definitely doesn't include car repairs, so I knew I needed a network of local specialists to help me keep the cars running. That should have been easy because I was setting my business up in the heart of the Midlands, which, thanks to a once-thriving car industry, has a plethora of small specialist classic car workshops.
It wasn't. Despite paying over £100,000 a year to a small coterie of local garages, the service and treatment I received was uniformly appalling.
Of course, not all classic car workshops work this way. Many share my philosophy, which I'll go into more detail about later. My point is that too many exhibit these problems.
The main problems I experienced were:
Failure to work to agreed timescales
Getting hire cars fixed quickly and to an agreed deadline is fundamental to my customer service. Weddings and birthdays won't wait. Any delays can mean refunds, which get expensive. I was clear that this was my key performance measure. Time and time again it was missed, largely because the workshop simply didn't care.
This problem seemed to be largely of the garage's own making. With little management of work flow and resource utilisation they found it difficult to manage their time. This, coupled with a tendency to slot in other work around more complicated jobs, meant that a job scheduled for Friday slipped, resulting in a lost hire.
However, I accept that part of the problem is down to the supply chain, whereby parts are promised to arrive and don't or are out of stock. But, for the customer, such hiccups would be manageable if the garage communicated - too often they occur, push back the deadline and nobody bothers to tell the customer.
I accept that my requirements were unusual - most classic cars aren't daily drivers so working to a fixed deadline is not critical. But any business that has agreed terms with a client, should work to them. If they can't they should be clear about this at the start of the project.
Since every garage I used worked the same way, I ended up working around the problem by extending any deadline I was given by days or even weeks. This meant I had to cancel hires where otherwise it wouldn't be necessary - but it avoided unpleasant last minute surprises. But, really, shouldn't the deadline you've agreed be the one you both work to?
Quoted price is not the final price
There aren't many products or services on the market where you don't know how much they'll actually cost until you're committed to buy them. But that, too often, is exactly how classic car repairs work. I lost count of the times I was told 'we sell time' to explain an otherwise inexplicable increase in cost, when what I wanted to hear was 'we've fixed it for the price we agreed.'
Like heart surgery, car repairs can be tricky to diagnose until the problem is clear. And that often means hours of work to get there. I understand that entirely. But here's the big but: that's not a new problem. Which means there is a way to deal with it.
Where it is impossible to quote on work the garage could have offered a range of costs, from best to worst case. Or a cost to diagnose and a cost to cure. Instead I was offered an estimate and no updates. Once the work is done it's difficult to argue, so there was no incentive for the garage to improve communication by providing updates or a revised price.
Not that I didn't try to communicate. But more often than not nobody was available or I was fobbed off with platitudes.
Right first time is an option, not a goal
Heart surgeons, as a rule, tend to diagnose and then cure. Failures are kept to a minimum as providing a cure is an intrinsic part of the job. Not so with classic car repairs. Time and time again I would get a car back, only for it to fail on hire and return for the same problem to be fixed again.
In most businesses if what you promise to do doesn't work, the customer doesn't pay to fix the failure. But that isn't how it works with classic cars. Or so it seems. The new failure, despite being related to the old failure, is treated as a new project because the car is old, the part has failed and that definitely cannot be the garage's fault.
Too often the burden of proof lies with the customer. And that isn't right - sure, there are variables at work that can influence why something failed. But that risk shouldn't always be the customer's to bare.
Lack of Advice & Guidance
When you take your car to a specialist to repair, by definition it's because you can't do it. More often than was comfortable I felt I was spun a yarn to justify delays, price hikes or other problems.
It should not be like that. We use specialists to provide the skills we don't have. I have a working knowledge of how old cars work, but I can't fix them. I rely on specialists to guide me to make informed decisions and to provide their services at fair rates. I need to be told clearly what the problem is, what the options are for fixing it and what the risks and benefits associated with those options are.
That is how classic car workshops should work. But too many don't.
No Customer Perspective
What this all boils down to is a lack of customer perspective, an ability to see the relationship from the other side of the table. Too many workshops I dealt with were guided by what they do rather than who they do it for and this creates a very blinkered perspective. It means that toxic working practices that fuel missed deadlines and creeping costs don't get challenged.
This issue was most obvious to me in a very practical way, one that doubtless affects all classic car owners who use garages. Namely, dropping off and collecting the cars. Despite paying thousands of pounds each month to the garages I used, they had no facilities to help me get immobile cars to them or for me to make the opposite journey once I'd dropped a car off or picked it up. When you're running a small business this is a surprisingly big problem. Before investing in trucks and trailers I did a lot of walking. And wasted a lot of time.
I got into business to run classic driving experience. I didn't want to run a workshop because it felt like a distraction. But after working my way around many local garages I realised this issue was fundamentally undermining my business. I was dependent on people I couldn't rely on to deliver fundamental parts of my business - reliable cars available on the dates customers had booked.
So I faced an unavoidable decision - either solve the challenge of dealing with garages or get out of business. One option, of course, was to spanner up myself and get dirty. Most of my competitors tend to be run by people who can also repair cars. I felt this would limit my ability to grow by diverting me into day-to-day activities.
I bit the bullet and set up a classic car workshop in 2010. For most of the intervening time until 2019 it has maintained our hire fleet of 20 vehicles. But increasingly classic car owners asked us to work on their cars. So we did.
And I realised, belatedly, that the problems I had experienced were not unique. Other classic car owners felt the same. They came to us because they could see we had priorities they shared.
This opportunity has become so clear that we've created a new business called Classic Fixers. It's our workshop, the same one that keeps our classic cars mobile, but now open to anyone. It's guided by the principles that got me into running a workshop in the first place - a need for reliable-first-time cars, honest turnaround times and clear, up-front pricing.
We still use specialists to provide the services we can't provide, such as axle and gearbox rebuilds. And we do still experience many of the same problems. But the difference is the intermediary - us. We can manage those problems and keep the customer in the loop. It's not that problems won't occur, it's that we sort them out and communicate our solution when they do.
You can discover more about what we do at www.fixclassiccars.co.uk where we've filmed and blogged about our customer projects.
Great Escape Cars