Full of Northern promise

A few years ago Ginetta was doggedly clinging on to survival; now this Yorkshire-based marque is producing cars capable of upsetting much grander rivals
By Richard Heseltine

Call it cynicism, call it what you like, but we weren’t convinced. Not really. Backtrack four years and Ginetta was busy doing what it did best: dodging coffins. This idiosyncratic marque clearly had an appreciative audience for its various one-make series, but what of the future? Countless stories emerged in the motoring weeklies about grand schemes for GT racers, even rally cars, but one visit to the old factory in Sheffield was enough to cast doubt. Where was the staff? The design team? The bloke who empties the bins? Anyone? Anyone?

Being charitable, half of the stories you hear in motor racing aren’t true. The trick is figuring out which half. When news leaked in December 2005 that Ginetta had been sold, few noticed. Or indeed cared. When the new keepers announced plans for further series, including one that required a new model to be built in volume within a ridiculously short timeframe, we scoffed. Oh how we scoffed. Then the first race was held with packed grids. Further announcements were made, and each target was met without hoopla. So you have to ask, what went right?

Standing inside a cavernous factory in his native Leeds, Ginetta’s MD Richard Dean is barely audible over the sound of the Hong Kong-bound racer being fired up behind him. A successful competitor himself – from karting star to single-seater and sports car veteran – he allows himself an eye-rolling smile as the six-cylinder barrage subsides. “It all started when we became agents for Panoz. [Company chairman] Lawrence Tomlinson was working to a business plan and, after we won our class in the Le Mans 24 Hours back in 2006, there was a flood of interest. Quite a few deposits, too,” he recalls. “We then put in the orders to the factory but I think we only actually delivered two cars. The idea of campaigning a car which we could then market was sound, but only if we could deliver on what we’d promised. We were the ones caught in the middle between the potential customers and the manufacturer, copping all the flak.

“In a way that was the catalyst for what we’re doing now. Lawrence had been thinking about becoming a manufacturer for a while; he looked at TVR among others. I can still remember him phoning me after he’d done the deal. ‘I’ve bought Ginetta’, he said. I replied ‘Why do you want a Ginetta?’ There was a pause, and then he replied, ‘No, you don’t understand, I’ve bought the business…’”

With a background in construction and care home-related industries, Tomlinson is first and foremost a businessman. Ginetta has to be profitable; it’s not just a hobby. It forms part of his LNT Group portfolio. “There are seven separate operations here and it’s ever-expanding,” says Dean. “When we first arrived, it was just me and a girl from the race team.

We dumped down a Portakabin and a generator, then put in some mezzanine floors and some lighting. I think the year before we took it over, Ginetta had built five cars. Then we got an order for 20 from Sweden so we simply had to expand and set up a proper production line.

“If you don’t deliver on time, it’ll come back to haunt you,” he continues. “If you’re consistently late, you won’t get the chance to promise anything ever again. The cars we were selling, the designs we inherited, featured components that weren’t being manufactured any more: the G20 had a Sierra 4x4 diff and a steering rack from a Triumph Spitfire. The wiring loom was a Ford item, a mass of wires for stuff like central locking and so on. Things the G20 didn’t need. We’ve gone through the whole car and now everything is purpose-built. It has to be sustainable.”

Variations of the G20 one-make ideal, from the Juniors aimed at 14-16-year-olds through to the larger-engined open-top versions in the senior classes, have proved hugely popular with club racers and aspiring professionals alike. The recipe is being replicated all over Europe, a batch of left-hookers being readied for Spain at the time of Motor Sport’s visit.

“We can build them quickly because the process has evolved,” says Dean. “There’s no searching for bits or waiting on suppliers. We do it methodically with a build trolley and a customer sheet behind each car. Everything is pre-assembled; each bit is pre-marked with a unique part number, manufacture date and so on. All the components have a mark on them so that way we can police everything. There won’t be any disputes over legality and we can track stuff if there is an issue over the way a part has been manufactured.

“The stores have to be efficient and organised. With cars costing less than £15,000, we can’t just ring a bell, sit back and congratulate ourselves after we’ve sold one. We only make money on the margins; car sales, championship entries, sponsorship, parts and all the services we sell. Large numbers, small margins is what we’re about. We have to be streamlined. Having parts marked unique to Ginetta is quite an assurance for competitors, too. We fix the regulations for three years so we can keep down costs and, if someone is finishing last, it’s not because of us! As long as we don’t appear to reap profits from a captive market – which would inevitably come back to bite us – then everyone should be happy.”

Seemingly unwilling to sit back and enjoy what they’ve achieved, the new regime at Ginetta followed through with the first design of its own in 2007. The 300bhp G50 coupé sticks to the one-make principle but, predictably, it’s led the firm down several new avenues.

“The idea behind it came to us at the Autosport International show in January of that year. We got to chatting about the old TVR Tuscan series. There was clearly a gap to plug and a championship for meaty, front-engined, rear-wheel-drive sports cars seemed a natural fit. While we were at the show, we sounded out suppliers to see who would come with us. In April ’07 we hired a designer [affable Brazilian Marcus Lameirao] and had the prototype up and running by September. We raced it in France that same month and announced the G50 Cup for 2008. We’d taken orders for 26 cars by Christmas. There were a few issues, more than a few delays, and that immovable first race date just sort of loomed. The November window passed by, then we were into December. By January ’08 we still hadn’t delivered a car and ended up building them all in 11 weeks. Again the factory evolved to fit what we were doing. Last year, we made 58 G50s in total, and I think we’re up to chassis 80 now.”

Predictably, some customers looked to compete elsewhere, the G50 dominating the GT4 class of last season’s British GT Championship. Equally inevitable was the response from more exalted manufacturers. “It was, er, amusing but a bit stressful at times,” says Dean, his smile now teetering on a grimace. “We hadn’t planned on stepping out of the various one-make series. That’s our core business; that’s what we do. We organise championships, sell sponsorship, do hospitality, look after the customers and so on. I was a bit nervous about going down this route as I know that it’s easy to get carried away. When I was doing Formula Ford there was Van Dieman versus Swift versus Mygale and whoever. You think you’ve got a great car, then suddenly you’re being beaten and have to develop something new. It gets very, very expensive. I love the comfort zone of making cars for one-make series. Everything’s fixed for three years, we’re not going to sell you one upgrade package after another. Spend £15,000 on a G20 and three years down the line it’s still worth £11,000.

“When we got into GT4, we knew the car would be quick – the G50 won every round – but we didn’t expect quite so many problems over eligibility. I’d sit in on meetings and suggest they put some more weight on the cars, as that’s what equivalency rules are about after all. We don’t mind if you slow us down as we need someone to race against. Let’s make all the cars equal on pace. I think what really pissed off our rivals was their inability to match us on price – do you go for a G50 at £45,000 or a comparable Aston Martin for £120,000? And then there’s the parts prices: a front bumper from us costs £250 rather than four figures.”

It all comes back to value for money. “We want our cars to be competitive, and they clearly are, but we know we win every time on support, back-up and parts prices,” adds Dean. “We love being in this environment as we’re not looking at selling four cars, we’re looking at selling 50. On the G50, one design of upright fits all four corners. Do 50 cars and that’s 200 uprights, so the buying power is that much greater. We buy a stock engine from Ford and off the shelf we’ve already got 300bhp. We know it’s guaranteed not to go out of production for another seven or so years, so there’s continuity. You don’t have to tune it, and it’s powering a 950kg racer rather than a two-tonne people carrier, so it’s not overstressed. And it retails for £5200. One of our customers did a full season of GT4 and the Britcar 24 Hours at Silverstone without an engine rebuild. That’s where we really score.”

After a few, cough, interesting discussions over whether or not the G50 would be allowed to compete in this year’s British GT series – the model has Single Vehicle Approval, road cars exist to meet homologation and it’s been successfully crash-tested – it would appear that at least six will be on the grid as of the first round in March. But Dean is already looking elsewhere. "The G50 is perfect for us as it’s a modular build. There are a lot of series out there and if the regs allow a gearbox cooler, a wing and so on then we can adapt to the customer’s needs.”

Which leads us to the latest variation on the theme, a sort of G50 plus a bit. Since acquiring a stake in Zytek Engineering last June, Ginetta has applied its distinctive orange badge to its collaborator’s already successful sports-prototype. It’s also taken full advantage of the firm’s proven V8 engine and electronics experience. “It’s effectively a GT3 car,” claims Dean, “but I’m wary of calling it that as right now it’s ineligible for FIA GTs. It has the same engine that powered the A1GP cars for three seasons, and we’re using a Hewland DTM transaxle. This is the next step, and we’ve already sold one car, but it’s very early days. We see it as a natural fit for Britcar, the Spanish GT championship or even the new Invitational class for British GTs. We’ll see. The technology buy-in has enabled it to be born out of the G50. We needed a partner, so the arrangement works really well.”

All of which is fab, groovy even, but where to from here? With bottom line-minded racers already covered, GT entrants sated and now a branding deal with sports-prototypes, what’s left to be achieved? A move into single-seaters isn’t out of the question – the marque’s back catalogue includes F4, F3 and Formula Ford chassis, after all – but only if the timing is right. “Whatever we do, we must be able to deliver the Ginetta philosophy: look at the prices and keep an eye on the margins,” says Dean.

Eking out a living making racing cars isn’t easy. That’s why there are so few rival marques left. In this particular instance, inspiration as well as perspiration seems to be paying off. With Ginetta recently announcing that it’s backing a karting championship, it’s entirely feasible that a driver could move through the ranks all the way up to sports-prototypes without ever opting for another brand. Yet what intrigues us is not so much what has been achieved in just four years, but what we can expect in the next decade.