Industry insight: Sportscar sales

Sport for all?

Tramp around today’s motor shows; look in many car dealerships, watch the advertisements. The conclusion can be drawn that motor sports and sportier products are the magic sales ingredient. Mr manufacturer climbs aboard the bandwagon, hoping he has taken a solid step toward selling at profitable prices. But when bandwagons are overloaded they can lurch away from the original pavements of gold . . .

High speed motoring comes in so many varieties in 1987 that I decided to use the following categories and examples to guide my research: traditional sports (Morgan, Caterham, Porsche’s 911); grand tourer (Porsche 928, Jaguar XJ-S); sporting coupes (all current Lotuses, Porsche 944/924S, VW Scirocco; Honda CRX); sporting 3-box saloons (typified by BMW’s 3-series) and the apparently ever-growing hatchback GTi/turbo/16 valve encampment associated inevitably with Volkswagen’s Golf GTi.

Porsche symbolises international sports motoring. At first glance the progress of Dr lng hcF Porsche AG is simply ever upward. By July 31, 1986 it had reached a new production high of 53,625, some 8458 personnel were employed (nearly a third at Weissach working on all manner of projects) and British sales were a record 3705 by the close of the year.

However, as 1986 turned into 1987 it became increasingly apparent to all West German and Japanese manufacturers that their international currency strength was going to bring them severe price increments. No longer would the American market absorb ever larger numbers of cars.

The Japanese have made such great strides in the appeal of their products that Porsche had another problem. Instead of a 1980 ramshackle sports opposition from all over Europe (Jaguar, Alfa, Lotus, Lancia, AlpineRenault) there was a mid-eighties revolution in the Japanese sports approach.

Any enthusiast who had motorcycled on Honda, Yamaha or Suzuki products knew the Japanese ability to produce a plethora of appealing machinery (particularly engines of exotic specification) with bewildering and speedy model changes. Until the Nissan 240Z arrived in America to sell in serious numbers from 1970 onward, none of the Europeans had believed the Japanese could produce acceptable sports cars as well. In 1973 Nissan sold slightly fewer 240Zs to the Americans (over 52,000) than total Porsche 1986 production.

Mazda’s RX-7 followed that success for Sporting Japan Inc, but aimed the rotary straight at Porsche, culminating in today’s twin rotor fuel injection and turbo models which have prices only just beneath Porsche territory. Higher prices are no longer a German perogative: £15,250 is now the starting point for a British RX-7, and both Toyota’s Supra and Nissan’s 300ZX cost more than £16,000.

Summarising what is happening to Porsche in Britain is the acquisition in March of all stock in the British importing organisation by the Porsche factory. How does the future look in a Britain where the exchange rate has slumped from its 4DM per £ of the recent times to 2.8? Not as grim you would think, bearing in mind that the rate was 11.7 DM to the pound in the fifties. . .

We had the assistance of Peter Bulbeck to explain the current sales pattern, one reported in the Financial Times on February 28 as “down by nearly 40% this year compared with the same period of 1986.”

Bulbeck, Porsche tractor enthusiast with an 18-year record of solid financial direction at Porsche GB, became managing director on April 1, following John Aldington’s retirement.

Bulbeck says: “It is the cheaper end of the market that reacts to price increases, and that means the four-cylinder cars. However the 924S has made an increasing number of friends, as people have realised what a big difference the 944 engine makes. But we are selling an increasing percentage of six-and eight-cylinder cars (911/928) where the purchase is right in the aeroplane/boat category. Yet Zuffenhausen can only make 102 cars a day — currently 78 of 911s and 24 928s. That’s it, to meet world demand.”

Whilst Porsche prices start beyond £18,000, Lotus is not far behind with the Excel on £17,590. I would describe UK sales as disappointing. Lotus were down to 73 in the first two months of the year, compared with 94 in 1986; and down from 554 to 447 in the whole of 1986 versus 1985.

However, 30 minutes on the Geneva show stand with Lotus Cars MD Michael Kimberley is enough to make you forget any doubts and start searching your wallet for the means to buy a Lotus — any Lotus — and help Hethel build their “new Elan.”

Yet that project’s history traces back through three distinct phases: M90 in Colin Chapman’s day (“We’ve been working on it since 1980” says Kimberley reflectively); the X100 revamp in the David Wickens British Car Auctions era; and the current M100 trim which is scheduled to be built in Britain.

Michael Kimberley waves his arms and beams in pleasure as he outlines his concept of the sporting car’s future from Britain.

“We’ve got the prototypes running and I can tell you it is a simply astonishing car. In just the same way as the Elan was small and agile this is a car which loves corners. The bodywork construction is unique, there is more space than you’d ever expect in such a small 2+2 and it will have a front engine, although I can’t tell you which unit we’ll use.

“I can say we’ve looked at over half a dozen engines and tried three . . . GM would not prevent me buying from Toyota, and their 16-valve 4AG unit is a magnificent little flyer. But you will have to wait until August 1989 to see our ‘new Elan’, and a bit longer for the supercar successor to the Etna project.”

More tasty titbits were preferred, particularly regarding said supercar’s active 4WD and suspension, plus 4-wheel steering (the latter a feature Honda will offer Japanese buyers in April).

The traditional outfits such as Morgan and Caterham are making as many cars as their craftsmen-shortage and cramped facilities will allow. Morgan makes most, but Charles Morgan is only talking in terms of a “ten per cent production increase in 1986, compared to 1985, when he made 410 cars.”

Morgan is very conscious of changes which could be made, particularly on the aerodynamics of the traditional Morgan, but equally he shares the opinion of Graham Nearn at Caterham Cars that their cars must retain their shapes, or lose custom.

Caterham has developed its Lotus Seven descendants considerably in respect of items like de Dion rear suspension, and most aspects of that tube chassis have been investigated in respect of increased strength and optional cockpit length.

Thus far we are only talking about small numbers, but if Brian Angliss at Autokraft/AC cars does get Ford of America to take that sleek AC Ace prototype he has exhibited several times, maybe Britain could start making outright sports machinery in serious numbers once more.

Unfair to Jaguar? No, I think Coventry personnel recognise they are making civilised machinery in record numbers, but are not (yet) trading in cars which capitalise on their European Touring Car Championship with TWR, or their recent sportscar racing record with the XJR-6 series.

Whilst we wait for something more concrete than rumours of sportier XJ-S and the “F-type”, the XJ-S move into four valves per cylinder in the 3.6 has assisted a 1986 sales high of 8820; some 17% up on 1985.

Although the more expensive sporting coupes from Porsche seem assured of a chance to weaken our wallets, the same cannot be said of the mass production sports coupe.

We have just lost the Capri and the Alfa Romeo GTV. Names like Lancia’s Beta Coupe, Renault’s Fuego and Vauxhall’s Firma/Magnum series might make us forget the category, if it were not obvious that Volkswagen is still seriously developing a replacement Scirroco.

Looking internationally, the volume sports coupe seems more assured. Toyota’s Celica in front-drive form continues a line of over three million bodged predecessors, the Mustang name has appeared on over five million, and the sixties begetter of the “Pony Car” genre is apparently still in impressive heart.

Honda has carved itself an American niche with the front drive CRX coupe, but over here an initial order of some 350 CRX-1.5s was followed by a 1986 total of some 500 because of import limitations.

Now it seems that Honda and CRX will follow the trail-blazing Toyota mid-engine MR2 — a model I have not attempted to categorise, believing it established a new level of affordable two-seater sports car.

The Fiat X1/9 is still priced attractively for Britain, but its pushrod engine and lack of conscientious development do not allow Bertone’s extension of Fiat’s seventies debutante an honest chance of competing with the open-air Toyota T-roof or coupe MR2.

To me it is ominous that Lotus, even with GM backing, has decided it can take on the MR2, which sold 4833 in Britain in 1985-87. For the new Lotus, Mike Kimberley is talking of prices equivalent in today’s values to £11,000-£12,000 or US $25,000.

Over in BMW-land the outward picture is of rippling V12 muscles mated to manual transmission it has been a few years since Jaguar mated V12 and manual gearbox) for the “end of 1987” British 750i.

In Britain that archetypal expression of motorised ambition, the 3-series, has been selling with enormous strength. The sportiest 3-series in 1985 was the 323i progressing to 325i, which reached 4005 copies. In 1986 the more powerful 325i alone increased sales by a profitable quarter, some 5038.

At the 528i level, sales dropped from 1823 to 1619, but they did have the M535 introduced in that period, to account for the missing sales with another 300 units. Only when you get to the M635 price stratosphere does a real 1985-1986 BMW sales loss occur, from 208 to 110 coupes. A BMW loyalist might point to the existence of 66 much cheaper BMW M5s carrying the same 24-valve technology as a contributory factor.

Just as at Porsche and Mercedes, BMW employees in the UK anticipate a 1987 sales volume similar to the records of 1986, rather than dramatic gains or losses. We shall see.

Two examples may be of interest in the high-performance hatchback sales area, in which the objective is to place your GTi variant expensively at the head of the range, hoping for about 10% of all sales.

Introducing the Peugeot 309 GTi, the company revealed total sales of potential rivals (such as Escort/Golf, XR3/GTi) between 1981 and 1986. In West Germany the 1986 ten-month figure was equivalent to the, previous yearly highs of 1983-84 (over 59,000, whilst Italy had seen an explosion from 13,766 in 1981 to 67,037 in 1986. In Britain such expansion was equally marked, boosted from 1981’s tally of 18,304 to 1985’s 73,775.

Austin Rover sales experience backs up the 10% average expectation for these performance badges. In 1986 the MG Metro recorded 11.4% of all Metro sales (10,516 in total) which 1958 were turbocharged. For the Maestro and Montego MG variants, the percentages were also clustered around 10%.

Thus the future of sports motoring on public roads looks exciting. The speed of the participants is generally being matched by the pace of development in chassis cornering capabilities over varying surfaces, which is just as well — Lotus is looking for 190mph in the 1990s. JW