RIP Wiesmann. The Germans sports car maker declared bankruptcy last week, and that’s sad. But lots of sports car makers go under eventually, with or without the arse falling out of the economy. That’s what makes Wiesmann’s death something out of the ordinary. It’s a surprise.
Think about it: Wiesmann has been in business making sports cars since 1993, and the modern range of MFs (still such a cool name for a car) since 2006. It’s not exactly last-year’s have-a-go hero. Wiesmann used BMW M Division engines. Wiesmann made distinctive, unique-looking cars. Wiesmann cars were well set up, well made, and well-reviewed, universally.
And yet, no-one was really buying them. The idea of a retro-styled coupe, hand-built in Germany and teamed with BMW straight-sixes, V8s and V10s with rear-drive and track-honed dynamics sounds like the ultimate car recipe, but they’ve gone under. Made me think ‘huh, what exactly do you have to do to survive in the sports car game these days’. And so, here are the Ten Commandments for Sports Car Makers. Let us pray…
1. Doing the trackday thing? Stay small
Britain’s only remaining independent sports car makers are the tiny players like Ariel, BAC, Morgan, and Radical. The link for three is that they’re essentially track day cars, for a track-day obsessed British customer. Ariel only started out with six blokes on site, and if you ring the company today, you’ll get through to Simon Saunders – the genius who actually invented the Atom. It’s a prime example of staying small, flexible, and pulling through the hard times.
2. Own your niche
If you’re building sports cars, it’s no good coming along and say ‘this is as good as a Cayman’, because you can be damned sure it probably isn’t. Ideally, you need to have a bit of a niche, a party piece no-one else can touch. Morgan pulls this off brilliantly: wooden chassis, 1920s styling, and a three-wheeler model sold out until 2014. Or try Koenigsegg: yes, its cars are carbonfibre million-quid missiles, but that never stopped Bugatti going bust in the 1990s. Koenigsegg is now the Anti-Bugatti: same power as a Veyron, but half the driven wheels, half the weight, and ten times the fear factor. Trillionairres lusting after their twentieth cars want something different, something left-field, and that’s why Koenigsegg’s fabulously engineered road missiles are here to stay.
3. Madness and goodwill aren’t enough
Everyone loved TVR. And the critical part of that sentence is the ‘-ed’. The noise, styling, no-nonsese attitude and sheer British cheek of the entire operation was legendary, but it’s not a viable business model. Sooner or later, you’ve got to put down the chameleon-painted fibreglass and nail a car together properly.
4. Diversify into ugly cars
Porsche sells more Cayenne models than Boxsters and Caymans put together. The Panamera outsells the 911. It was the Boxster that saved Porsche back in the 1990s, but it’s its two front-engined, four-door models that have now made it the most profitable car company in the world – which allows Porsche to make stuff like the Cayman R and GT2 RS. Look at the two all-new Porsche models on the way next. An entry-level sports car, or mid-engined supercar? Nope. The Macan mini-SUV and Pajun sports saloon are up next. Like it or not, Porsche is Doing It Right.
5. Have a back-up secret weapon
If Lotus depended on building cars to stay afloat, it’s currently about as buoyant as the RMS Titanic. Lotus Cars sells around six cars a month in the UK right now. Lotus Engineering, on the other hand, is right on the money. Everyone knows Lotus knows how to set up a chassis – including other car makers. That’s why they pay Lotus Engineering to do their dynamics dirty work for them. You might only hear about it on Protons, but be in no doubt; everything from Land Rovers to Teslas have been honed by the boys from Norfolk. And they help build what might be the world’s fastest car, too…
6. Make your brand super cool
Aston Martin has gone bankrupt more times than Kerry Katona, but the power of the brand is so strong, it’s pretty impossible to see it ever going under for good now. Consistently voted world’s coolest brand ahead of Apple, Jack Daniel’s and Armani, no investment group (or car maker) could resist the allure of Bond. Aston never initially wanted to be associated with 007, and refused to loan DB5s to the Goldfinger team. Fifty years later, 007 is the reason Aston Martin will never die another day.
7. Keep it simple, stupid
Subaru hasn’t made a car to capture the imagination since the halcyon days of WRC Imprezas, while Toyota has an even more sorry story of killing off any model with a hint of sex appeal. Yet when the two brands got their heads together and came up with a low-weight, low-power, low-grip coupe, the resulting GT86/BRZ has been well-reviewed, and sold out since launch. Easy, when you think about it, isn’t it? More of the same please.
8. Remember it’s why we love you
No-one goes to bed wishing they had a Honda Jazz, or a Jaguar X-type. But they do lust after F-types, E-types, Integras and S2000s. Cars like that are as critical to building brand value as endless reliability and reassuring safety. Jaguar has now seen the light, and is posting its best financial results ever. Job done.
9. Exploit your market
Pagani used to charge around £200,000 for a Zonda. By the time it died, Cinques and Tricolores were selling for five times that. A new Huyra is around a cool million quid. Crucially, Horacia Pagani saw the gap in the market for a bespoke, boutique supercar maker combining Ferrari levels of performance with Spyker lunacy and craftsmanship, jumping into the madness gap left by Lamborghini when the Raging Bull joined forces with Audi. Now Pagani has established itself as a ‘million quid and up’ supercar maker and it’s sitting pretty there – the definitive example of knowing your market and orientating the product to squeeze maximum money from it.
10. Be Ferrari
Through recessions and booms, through world championships and driver fatalities, when building ugly dogs and game-changing hypercars, Ferrari has endured. It’s the jewel in the crown of the Italian car industry – and perhaps the world car industry, full stop. And despite the naff merchandise and increasingly chavvy customers, the Prancing Horse still has a gravitas, an aura, that very few people could resist, if offered, and almost any car manufacturer craves. It’s the world’s most famous car maker, and, in these Ten Commandments, Ferrari is god.