... in suspicious circumstances

Under normal circumstances, most models have a reasonable lifespan, but when things go wrong some are killed off before their time. Giles Chapman remembers the cars that died…

When you bear in mind the enormous and vastly varied efforts and teamwork that go into creating any motor car, it seems barely conceivable such an enterprise could begin at all if there were even the slightest whiff of failure.

Hope, of course, springs eternal, but who in their right mind would embark on the construction of something with so many functions and facets as a car let alone something which then has to be perfectly replicated and sold to third parties unless they were absolutely convinced about it?

Well, there are cases of people just having to build a car because its a burning passion to do so and, in effect, truly a labour of love. This desire is often easily satisfied by the purchase of a kit car, which can then be bolted together in the homely confines of the garage and reflects, to a lesser or greater degree, the skills and attention to detail of the builder. I have a funny feeling the number of kit cars sold does not equal the number that actually hit the road…

But then there’s the man who wants to build something for himself from scratch and nothing, but nothing, except his ideas will suffice. Commander Ken Wallis is one of these men. The renowned builder of autogyros once handmade an Austin Seven special because he couldn’t find anything low and long enough for his taste. His version had two chassis overlapping each other. Later, in the 1950s, he created a Rolls 20/25-based giant which incorporated many wartime aircraft parts.

Another such fellow was a man I met called Lyndon Yorke, pilot and aerial photographer. He created a vintage Citroen-based tourer with a wicker body which he wove in front of the TV over some months. It looked impressive, but it was purely for his own satisfaction.

No, the acorn of most cars is planted in the clearing between scratching a living and wanton greed. What has felled many of them in the past has been uncompetitiveness. They were either too dear, too slow, too thirsty, too ugly, too cramped or too flimsy. Or too cheap; for some people claim the elegant Chrysler-powered Gordon Keeble failed because its bargain-basement price put people off. Got to be nonsense, that, hasn’t it? At the risk of sounding a clever-dick, and excepting the pioneering efforts of the earliest car designers, many of these failings could have been predicted.

But what of the cars which perished through no fault of their own the machines which were potentially fit for their purposes but helpless in the face of a crisis?

Motor industry takeovers have done more harm to interesting cars than enthusiasts care to remember. Jaguar’s absorption of Daimler killed off its SP250; Rootes drowned the “real” Talbots, Sunbeams including a fascinating V8 model and Singers when it acquired these makes; Bristol survived, but Armstrong Siddeley died when two plane makers merged. Some would also say that the character was pummelled out of whole marques when they changed hands: Fiat ruined Lancia, Citroen destroyed Panhard, while BMW quashed Glas.

But these corporate neuterings are often the result of having to scale back grandiose plans or high ideals which well have which might well have put the lid on the car anyway.

Take the case of Scotland’s Argyll. In the early 1900s it was Britain’s biggest car maker, producing 15 cars a week. But this success beguiled Argyll’s chief, Alex Govan, into floating the business as Argyll Motors Ltd, with a capital of £500,000, of which £220,000 was spent on a palatial factory at Alexandria, beside Loch Lomond. Its red sandstone office building was topped by a towering central dome and flanking pinnacles covered in gold leaf. The 2000 employees had the use of 600 marble washbasins. This magnificent building had capacity for 2500 cars a year, but it never even reached that leisurely target; staff spent too much time hand-finishing components. Or washing their hands. Argyll went bellyup, taking its perfectly fine cars with it.

Other far-too-hopeful plans included the 1966 abortive steel-bodied TVR Tina – high costs of tooling; the 1973 AC ME3000 – it took eight years to get into production and even then had a terrible gearbox; and the 1946 Kendall ‘People’s Car’- sponsored by the MP for Grantham, but killed after the huge cost of funding its factory failed to tally with the unfeasibly low £100 projected price. Often, however, it’s just a simple component that can be responsible for the downfall of an otherwise perfectly acceptable car. The impressive Invicta Black Prince of 1947, for instance, boasted an early sort of CVT gearbox called a “Brockhouse HydroKinetic Turbo Transmitter”. It sounded impressive but the thing was a pig to put into reverse and, once there, a swine to get out again.

When three of the four-car Singer team crashed in the same spot on the 1935 Tourist Trophy and the culprit was found to be faulty steering joints on all three cars, the poor publicity was catastrophic. The Austin Allegro was certainly not helped in its early years by reports of rear windows that exploded under heavy braking.

And when the aerodynamic bodies of special HRGs began to crack up they were bolted straight on to a very old-fashioned bendy chassis – most were replaced by vintage-style two-seaters.

Once, Triumph was going to make a bullet-shaped two-seater roadster with an electrically opening hood, windows and bonnet. When an engine fire shorted the car, and everything under its sleek nose was fried, the complex car was hastily abandoned. Its later Stag, with a tendency for the V8 engine to leap into flames too, never quite shook off its unreliability mantle.

The demise of Jensen has often been put at the door of the poor reliability of the shabbily developed 2-litre Lotus engine the company used in the Jensen-Healey sportscar. But that’s not what Jensen owner Kjell Qvale found. It was more down to a tense showdown with unions who, in his opinion, were hell-bent on striking for the most trivial of reasons.

Politics has had a murky hand in quite a few premature car deaths. In the case of the De Lorean, though, the reasons were altogether different. In many ways and despite sometimes patchy work by staff unused to car manufacture – the car showed much promise. It was only John De Lorean’s shady dealing – cocaine and all – that snuffed it out, so to speak.

But we could definitely include the Frisky, due to be an Egyptian “car for the masses”, which came to an abrupt halt after President Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal in 1956, And what about the promising Isotta-Fraschini Monterosa, a fabulous rear-engined supersaloon that was stillborn because the Italian government decided its maker should stick to making ship engines?

A government carve-up of the French motor industry, effectively giving each market sector to one maker (Citroen’s 2CV was the economy car, Renault’s 4CV the next rung up, Peugeot’s 203 the Mondeo equivalent, and so on) meant there was no room for promising machines from Mathis and Rosengart and, in the end, Panhard. Draconian tax laws making the purchase of any large car an overexpensive business also suffocated all France’s prestige makes, Bugatti, Delahaye, Dotage, Hotchkiss and Delaunay Belleville among them.

And, of course, motor industry maverick Preston Tucker always alleged that it was collusion between the “big boys” of the American motor industry that conspired to quash the threat posed by his futuristic rear-engined Tucker Torpedo.

Almost the entire gamut of the genre known as bubble-cars was instantly wiped out by the arrival of the Mini in 1959 – although some had already topped themselves. The Leeds-built Rodley and the Fairthorpe Atom both had such diabolical engine cooling that they regularly self-combusted, while the holders of the licence to make the British version of the lsetta made life difficult for themselves by choosing a factory near Brighton that could only be reached by rail.

The ironic thing was that the process had happened almost 40 years earlier, when the Austin Seven, Herbert Austin’s “real car in miniature” had done exactly the same to the squadrons of Heath Robinson-esque “cyclecars”.

Nature has been mostly kind to car companies, but her forces have sometimes wreaked havoc. In the 1920s, Chrysler’s factory on the banks of the Thames at Kew often flooded, leaving workers in rowing boats trying to rescue newly assembled cars. Fire, meanwhile, swept through Jaguar’s Coventry factory in 1957, destroying hundreds of cars and frying so many XKSS parts that it just wasn’t worth going on with the car.

One could, of course, go on and on. What about the Israeli Sabra sports car, actually designed by Reliant around a kit car called an Ashley, which proved just too weak for the country’s rutted roads? And then there was the Chevrolet Corvair, General Motors’ Volkswagen inspired rear-engined ‘compact’, which bore the brunt of safety campaigner Ralph Nader’s tirade against Detroit and subsequently wilted under the pressure.

But not every car caves in after a media thrashing. Skoda is now one of the fastest-growing marques in Europe, whereas its cars were once roundly condemned and the butt of many a cheap joke; Reliant too, pilloried in the late 1970s for its three-wheeler’s road behaviour, is still hanging on in there.

And who recalls the Suzuki SJ and Toyota Space Cruiser? Both were accused of being susceptible to toppling over in different and worrying ways, yet with all the resolve of beleaguered Tory ministers, their makers stuck it out. They subsequently proved the bedrocks of the off-road and people-carrier sectors the key phenomena of the 1990s car market.

Given the sheer scale on which cars are conceived and manufactured, the odd premature fatality is inevitable. But you still can’t help wondering what would have become of some of those hapless projects if only things had been different.

Giles Chapman’s column Cars That Time Forgot appears every week in The Daily Telegraph