On selling sports-cars
THE war is on, and the production of new motor-cars has ceased entirely, so this is just the time to devote a little thought to the none too simple subject of selling sports-cars. Lots of important people who were in the Motor Industry—the third largest pre-war industry in this country— before the war, will return to it when peace breaks out. So, however busy they are just now and no matter how occupied with other things they expect to be for quite a while yet, they will be wise to devote some of their spare time considering what sort of cars they will manufacture when this wretched war is won. If fate, circumstance, or the Powers that Be elected that you should be a manufacturer of automobiles you would have a very wide scope as to the sort of product you would turn out and the market you would seek to serve. You could control from your private yacht (aircraft-millionaires have them and so why shouldn't automobile manufacturers?) a huge factory equipped with wonderful and very costly machine tools and miraculous equipment, at which thousands of operatives work all round the clock producing tens of thousands of almost-exactly similar glass-windowed boxes to provide good, reliable transport for John Citizen and his lady, towards the middle of the highway, all over the world. Incidentally, if you make a reasonably good glass-box your factory operatives will fill your factory car-park with hordes of old models of the breed. Instead of a factory boasting busy lines of conveyors, you may prefer to make quality cars for gentlemen in old school ties, in any size works, from the sort where cars are assembled in rows by masses of busy work-folk, to the models sort where only half a dozen or so cars stand around in varying degrees of nakedness, moving towards completion. Or, again, you may make specialised sports-cars (I shall be expected to say for young bloods and their girlfriends in slacks) almost with your own fair hands. The latter market is naturally the one of most interest to us and invariably the most difficult to capture successfully—which universal expression in this case conjures up delightful visions of Cecil Kimber and "Aldy" snooping round with big fishing nets in pursuit of orders. The division of the different markets really isn't so easy as all this, because they can still be subdivided. The M.G. Car Company Ltd. of Abingdon-on-Thames is a concern devoted solely to the manufacture of sports-cars—incidentally it is the largest sports-car manufacturing works in this country—yet it supplies to a different market from that which the little works assembling hand-made sports-cars of specialised design seeks to reach. This is particularly true since the introduction of the 1½ and 2-litre and 2.6-litre cars, yet Mr. Cecil Kimber has to do with a market different again from that administered to by firms producing high-quality cars of individual character which yet are not entirely sports-cars, of which Alvis, Rover, Riley and Armstrong-Siddeley are such good examples. Even the big mass-producers of glasshouses cannot afford to cater for one market only, and you find Morris offering up to 25 h.p. and Austin including a range of near-luxury cars—and Ford the great V8, all of which cost a deal more to run than an "Eight." On the same basis you have big amalgamations like Humber-Hillman-Commer and the Nuffield Group and the S.S.-Standard combine that embrace cars of cheap mass-production type and more expensive quality cars almost in the sports-car category, under one and the same control—indeed, the entirely sports-car M.G. Car Company Ltd. aforementioned is under Nuffield control along with the quality Wolseleys and many-sized Morrises, so you can see how complex any attempt at classification of markets is. Remembering that each company strives to sell its products not only at home but in competition with other car-producing countries in all parts of the world, there should be special jobs going for "market-accessors to the Motor Industry," after the war. Having written "after the war" here let me say that all the foregoing and some of what follows only make sense if read in the past tense, but I imagine most readers of MOTOR SPORT have picked up the paper in order to relax from duty with H.M. Forces or other callings of national importance and so will want to temporarily forget the war and will consequently prefer the use of the present tense . . . .
Confine yourself entirely to the sports-car market and you still find that it can be catered for, fostered and otherwise humoured, in quite a variety of ways. Cecil Kimber started off by building himself a trials car out of current Morris bits at his Oxford garage some fifteen years ago and taking the bold step of offering replicas to the sporting youth and beauty of Britain—no doubt, he saw in the undergraduates and undergraduettes of his native city a potential market for a smart, quick car which could be repaired, if it needed repairing, simply and inexpensively from Morris spares stores. When Morris introduced the little o.h.c "Minor" utility car, someone cleverly saw the possibility of fitting it out with a different radiator and a light, pointed-tail body, and of making the whole outfit cling properly to the road, and so the first M-type M.G. Midget was born; forerunner of the most successful and universally popular small sports-car yet produced. To meet the year-to-year desire for a progressive performance increase, necessary to compete against rival marques, some of which originated from the start as specially designed sports-cars, the new cylinder head with inlet ports on one side and exhaust ports on the other, was introduced for the J2 series and a centre crankshaft bearing and more horses for the P-type and a bigger engine for the PB. That range of M.G. Midgets introduced more persons to sporting motoring, including competition work, and appealed to a bigger market of sports-car users than almost any other car. It was not until years after the advent of the first M-type M.G. that M.G. cars were again based on Morris and Wolseley productions, which happened when the PB was superseded by the push-rod T-type. The range now includes the luxurious and dignified 1½-litre and 2-litre and 2.6-litre closed and open models, but because Cecil Kimber has sold real sports-cars for so long, the M.G. still appeals primarily to the lads and lasses who are sports-car users and to their parents, who are naturally sports-car minded. And because of that, "Kim" has to know the sports-car market and has to incorporate in his cars those performance and handling refinements demanded by sports-car folk, to a greater extent than is essential in cars which are high-quality cars of brisk performance but without such direct sports-car associations. The M.G. Car Company Ltd. is the biggest factory in this country devoted to the manufacture of sports-cars, so Cecil Kimber, backed by Lord Nuffield, has obviously made a success of selling sports-cars. No doubt a very large part of the success of the well-planned factory has been due to the adoption of a quite extensive racing programme, which, eventually abandoned, was in operation at the time when the Midgets and Magnas and Magnettes were achieving their most substantial sales successes. The performance of the M.G. Midget team in the "Double Twelve" races and the sending of the Magnettes of Lord Howe, Sir Henry Birkin and Count Lurani to the Mille Miglia, stand out as proud landmarks in British racing history. Although very few people could hope to buy the specialised racing versions of the M.G., their exploits on road and track did materially increase M.G. prestige all over the world. Although M.G.s found they could not continue with a racing programme, quite recently they were in the news, for Major A. T. G. Gardner is remembered not nearly so much on account of his return to uniform, or his recent marriage, as because he was the first man to exceed 200 m.p.h. in both the 1,100 c.c. and 1,500 c.c. classes, with an M.G. motor-car —following up earlier historic M.G. records established by Capt. George Eyston and the "Magic Midget" and the "Magic Magnette." Another reason for M.G. success is the extreme courtesy and efficiency that prevails in the correspondence department at Abingdon. M.G.s always went to a great deal of trouble to reply fully to all the queries they received, whether from owners or non-owners, and without thought of whether or not a reply would culminate in a sale. They still look after this side of things very well, in spite of the upheaval that war-production must inevitably cause, and I am certain it is well worth all the clerical and editorial and typing effort involved. Young enthusiasts like to learn a lot about their cars and in that way long allegiance to the favoured marque is secured. It is because the M.G. has always been a good car, and one able to do its stuff, and because it has been demonstrated to the world that that is so, and because Abingdon meets enthusiasm with enthusiasm, that Cecil Kimber sells so many sports-cars and is managing director of a factory which is quite big enough to suggest utility car production. That is one way of tackling the sports-car market.
Quite another line is taken by the Aldington Brothers. They saw the G.N. grow up from a spidery cyclecar into a four-cylinder sports-car and culminate in the Frazer-Nash. H. J. Aldington raced an early aluminium-bodied Frazer-Nash at Southport fully fifteen years ago, as we emphasised pictorially in this paper at the time. He and Bill Aldington decided that here was a car for real dyed-in-the-wool enthusiasts and that they would make a real business of selling them. And they built up a really astonishing link with their clients. The Frazer-Nash was never a cheap car, and to the bitter end it has retained the famous chain-and-dog transmission—it also went like a scalded cat and held the road like a leech. That chain transmission was laughed at a great deal, but the Aldingtons never ceased to believe that its low weight, rapid change, and easily variable ratios were what a lot of critical sportsmen wanted. They even argued that it was a costly thing to produce, in fact, as expensive as a Wilson pre-selector gearbox. Anyhow, the Frazer-Nash got over amongst the more wealthy enthusiast who could really drive. Proprietary engines—Anzani, Meadows, and Blackburn—were used, developed at the works as required, and they also produced their own single o.h.c. four-cylinder engine for the twin-supercharged "Shelsley " model, the fastest Frazer-Nash of the lot and, I should say, about the fastest production 1½-litre car of all time. As I have remarked, the link between the works and the owners was something terrific. Frazer-Nash owners became known as the "Chain Gang" and H. J. Aldington was respectfully known as the High Priest. By running cars in events like the Alpine Trial on the same basis as, and along with, private owners, the Aldingtons managed to command an immense respect from their clients. I have known a Nash owner become really concerned when he was demonstrating his car to me on Brooklands and the top gear chain broke. It was an entirely unofficial demonstration, but he was most concerned about "What will Aldy say?" and he went off at once, on the lower ratios, to Isleworth to confess his sins—hence the idea of Aldington being the Priest of the whole show. It was the Aldingtons' proud claim that as each Frazer-Nash was hand-built, you could have any modification and arrangement of layout and equipment you liked to specify, if you waited and paid for it. Nevertheless, a new model always seemed to be issuing from the Falcon works. Tom Moore and W. S. Braidwood, who were then running MOTOR SPORT, were so keen on the Frazer-Nash that they each had one out on test in turn, so that at the time, about ten years ago, we were in danger of being dubbed "The Chain Gang Gazette." So the Aldingtons sold very specialised and not at all cheap sports-cars and made a success of it. The Frazer-Nash only waned because they encountered the German B.M.W. while on the Alpine Trials and, with a business acumen one does not usually find in the sportsman, they arranged to import B.M.W.s to this country. This was a car which advertised itself, and the performance of "H. J.'s" Type 55, which I drove in a Night Trial not long after it came over, was just as outstanding then as is that of the Type 328 B.M.W. to-day. That the source of supply of this wonderful car is the country with which we are at war is very bad luck on the Aldingtons' part, Although they are, I believe, quite busy on the service side and were selling 328s at more than list price after the war had started. "H. J.," Don and Bill Aldington owe their success in the sports-car market as much to their own personalities as to that of their cars. But it may be pointed out that they always had the good sense to make extensive use of the Motor Press to advertise their cars; and they believed in using all the space they bought, which does not mean filling it up with pictures of young women more appropriate to a beach-fashions supplement than to the business section of a motoring journal. They ran happy Continental tours and they formed the Frazer-Nash and Frazer-Nash-B.M.W. Car Club. In fairness it must be said that business had no place in the running of this excellent institution, which shared with the Vintage S.C.C. that ambitious Stanley Cup club meeting at the Crystal Palace circuit. Incidentally, Bill Aldington is, I believe, no mean pilot and was responsible for the B.F.W. "Taifun" aeroplane which was another German product the Brothers put on the British market.
Geoffrey Taylor is another who came upon a design which he thought ought to appeal to sportsmen and proceeded to sell it. In this case he built the original car himself and ran it in competitions by way of convincing himself that it was good enough to go on the market. He formerly ran a Riley Nine, and a close friend of mine is certain the Alta is based on the Riley, but Geoffrey Taylor is equally emphatic that it is not, so I remain neutral as to its origin. But while it ranks as a very specialised production sold in very small numbers, Taylor has made a business proposition of it, and that is a thing very few persons have pulled off with cars of this class. The Squire (which was an ultra-fast 1½-litre by reason of using a Marshall-Roots blown twin o.h.c. Anzani engine), the Moveo (which was a specialised 3-litre) and the Reynard (which was a sort of chivvied-about Frazer-Nash without chains) come to mind as cars optimistically marketed within the last five years or so to sell amongst enthusiastic idealists, which quickly faded away, either because they were too ideal or because they were never properly launched—we all know of countless others. But the Alta is a success, and so Taylor deserves especial credit, although, as a purely personal observation, I would sometimes find it easier to accord him this credit if his immense enthusiasm did not lead him to pass so quickly from his present achievements to rather fantastic plans for the future. But certainly the Alta deserves to live long and prosperously. Additionally, Taylor has made a business of manufacturing real racing cars, which no one, bar E.R.A., had previously managed to do in this country, although A.C. tried as long ago as 1924. Atalanta worked on the same plan of small output of decidedly individual motors, and was making a useful niche for itself, albeit it did seem at times as if all the cars in the works were the personal property of Miss Wilby—which does not by any means imply that there were only a few of them! Incidentally, she enlivens a certain ambulance station in London with one nowadays. Then Godfrey, in partnership with Curtis, Robins, and Halford, waved the wand at Tolworth three years ago just as he did at Hendon before the other war, and the H.R.G., really fast and having a stark, vintage appeal, was an instant success, though its enemies like to point out that the engine used (until they went over to three-bearing 1½-litre Singer units) first happened in the Dark Ages, that the front suspension is Nash or G.N., and that the transmission is proprietary. In spite of which you always saw a nice lot of H.R.G.s in the works, which cannot be said of many other really small-output concerns, and they ambitiously experimented with the Cross rotary-valve engine while sensibly keeping the production jobs quite conventional.
Yet another line of approach to an entry into the sports-car market is that of deliberately designing a sporting car, knowing that the wherewithal exists to get it established on the market. In this case the project can only fail if the design is a wash-out, whereas many sound cars planned for production on a humble scale have faded out because their backing was more humble still. The immortal 3-litre Bentley was planned carefully by W. 0. when he came out of the Service after the last war; a real engineer with lots of aero-engine experience at his finger-tips. The first experimental car was laid out in about 1919, yet at the Show of 1920 I believe only the drawings were shown. But when it was finally in full production it remained the best-seller in its class for seven years, and was the direct means of producing the 4½-litre and the Big Sixes which succeeded it. To-day those who respect W. O.'s Bentley respect it as much as ever. The great Vauxhall Company, which was amongst the soundest of British car manufacturing concerns when we went to war with Germany in 1914, did not exactly plan the "30/98" to capture a given market, but when the first one happened at the request of Higginson, Laurence Pomeroy, who conceived it—the monocled Laurence Pomeroy who makes "The Motor" such a weekly tonic to-day is, of course, his son—realised that the "little extra which others hadn't got" was saleable, and the E. and O.E. models had a combined commercially-successful career extending over a full nine years or more. Lagonda did the same thing when, tiring of making quality small cars with the chassis and body as one, they produced the twin o.h.c. 2-litre, which soon appeared with a blower. It was especially amenable to forced-induction because its creator had taken a leaf out of the commercial vehicle book and used a comic position for the o.h. camshafts, which resulted in rather twisty induction passages—nowadays, of course, in the blinding light of better understanding we decide that good porting is essential to successful supercharging. Possibly deciding that this 2-litre was rather too full of tricks for the ordinary user, Lagondas then produced the "16/60" six-cylinder and this developed into the famous 4½-litre car which has become very refined and is now sprung independently at the front end. The engines used are, I believe, Meadows, that in the "16/60" being the same unit as was used for the excellent, if little known, 3-litre Crossley. There is a lot of nonsense about trying to disguise the fact that a proprietary engine is used, even when it is a sound job, although I am not especially accusing Lagondas of shyness in this matter. But there has been one quite successful Anglo-American car which very obviously used the entirely excellent Ford V8 motor in its earlier form, yet the makers not only got quite cross with us for referring to their product as a "naturalised Yank," but would not let even the big weekly motoring journals say what motor they used, although under-bonnet photographs made it abundantly clear. So that criticism shall not fall on the wrong shoulders, let me say that Sydney Allard has never hidden the fact that Ford and Lincoln motors are used in those great goers, the Allard-Specials. More recently, Lagonda Ltd. had the bright idea of offering a real luxury car of sporting conception; the outcome was the great V12. This fine car did not have such a very long period in which to establish itself before war broke out, but it showed its worth at Le Mans, and by lapping Brooklands at 130 m.p.h., and during some very high-speed journeys undertaken by Laurence Pomeroy Junr. and Gordon Wilkins along roads over which our R.A.F. bombers now fly nightly. It is still selling to appreciative Americans, and after the war should achieve a sales success in this country in keeping with its position as one of the greatest cars of our time—that is, if anyone has any money left. We see this plan of designing a car specially for the sportsman and of laying out a works in which to assemble it very clearly in the case of the Aston-Martin. Lionel Martin thought up a British 1½-litre to whack the Brescia Bugatti and starting in 1921 Bamford and Martin built them very carefully and beautifully in small quantities. When the s. v. Aston faded out a new firm came to the pleasant Hanworth Air Park and produced a car, designed by Bertelli who had just left Enfield-Alldays. Thus reasonably big production commenced of a very sound British small sports-car, on which is based the current 2-litre Aston-Martin. Bertelli was never a very demonstrative person, but the worth of the Aston-Martin was well established at Le Mans and in the T.T., and Astons never had anything to hide. When they did well in sports-car races they very sensibly said that if the competing cars were not quite the same as the catalogue models, at all events you could buy a replica if you wished and could satisfy yourself that the increase in performance had not had an adverse effect on reliability, tractability and general convenience of operation. That is so much more sensible than pretending that the successful competition car is entirely standard, when in fact everyone knows that the production model will not approach within 10 m.p.h. of it, or of modifying a car within the rules of the race in such a way that it becomes an impractical proposition for everyday fast motoring, When no one will crave a replica nor wish the modifications to gradually find their way into subsequent production models.
This plan of designing a sports-car to appeal to the enthusiast and offering it for sale unsupported by other, more sober models, is a very different thing from introducing a sports model into a range of ordinary models comprising the bulk of the factory output, as S.S. did, for example, albeit we have got some of our greatest sports-cars in that way. When the late S. F. Edge presided over the A.C. Company—which he did when he wasn't writing letters to the motoring Press—the A.C. was essentially a refined, beautifully made, small six-cylinder touring car, of which sports editions were also built. It was not until new managers took over at Thames Ditton that the A.C. became an entirely sporting car, albeit offered in drop-head coupe and closed form as well as in open guise. Even now, three different degrees of urge are available from this long-established 2-litre engine. In rather the same way, I like to think that dear old H. F. S. Morgan planned a purely economy car with his Morgan tri-car and that it was only because any cyclecar must have sporting characteristics that it developed into a sports-car and was raced in the French Cyclecar Grand Prix by W. M. Thomas—"H. F. S." must have grown to like the sort of clients he largely catered for, because the modern Morgan 4/4 is essentially a sports-car. And there is the case of the S.S., which began when Mr. Lyons found that there was a market for shapely and well-made sidecars and equally shapely and well-made bodies for cars like Austin Sevens and Wolseley Hornets and Standards--isn't the airship-tailed Swallow body about the only two-seater you still see on elderly Austin Sevens; all the others having fallen to pieces? The first long-bonneted S.S.1 coupe wasn't at all a lovely job, but it started Lyons thinking, and to-day the SS. 100 is about as rapid as anything on the road and certainly the most inexpensive car of which that can be said —in the new-car market, of course. And I am told that they are made of materials which wear very well.
So we have all these different ways of approaching this business of selling sports-cars----some folk, of course, do not even bother about making cars before selling them, as I realised the other day when Rowland Smith sent me their war-time catalogue of used cars, numbering quite a lot of sports-cars amongst them. I sometimes think gentlemen like Mr. R. S. are right, for the sports-car market is no mean gamble. In effect, what you are trying to do is to make a commercial success of a vehicle which falls somewhere between the prohibitively expensive, temperamental, built-just-to-last-the-race racing-car on the one hand, and the reliable, woolly glass-house, whose owner is quite happy controlling his conveyance with 5 to 1 steering at 32 m.p.h. on the crown of the road on the other. Exactly where your production falls depends on your idea of what constitutes a reasonable gamble— it may be close to the racing-car, like the cars which poor Mr. Squires, who was recently killed in a raid, tried to sell, or it may be closer to the family barouche, like the fine cars Mr. Kimber sells, one of which I noticed only a short while ago, in a field, awaiting an owner who was at work in a war-canteen. Either way, you are entering on a gamble. Just as Jerry is, going over me now, with the London Ack Ack just up the road. You are selling performance to good folk who are skilled drivers, who are often hard up, yet who are seeking good cars, invariably, as qualified engineers, knowing exactly what they seek. They interpret "performance" as good road-holding, accurate steering, fair suspension, lots of cruising speed, a high maximum, loads of acceleration, powerful, safe braking and general characteristics in keeping. They wanted all that in the nineteen-twenties and row they want silence, smoothness, really fine lines, high-grade bodywork, 100 per cent. dependability and ease of maintenance as well, not forgetting all those dinky fittings the sable-cloaked blonde looks for and showrooms like those that Car Mart and University Motors run— to show that there is really nothing vulgar about selling automobiles. You will have to sink quite a lot of your capital in experimenting along these lines and probably a lot more in racing or running in trials to get your theories established, before you can offer your car to a public with precious little money to spare. Which will not prevent them from condemning the whole bag of nails if a rival's car goes 0-70 a few split seconds before yours, or gets a few m.p.h. more in the gears before the rattles begin.
So I feel that selling sports-cars is a game for toughs, unless, like Mr. Kimber and Mr. Lyons and Mr. Bentley, your ideas are so sound that big money decides to back you. Which is why I have so much respect, and you should have, too, for the persons who in the last twenty years of peace have put sporting cars on the market—and got away with it. They have usually succeeded by introducing a car that has been just not too ordinary and yet just not too sensational, that has been controlled in a strictly commercial manner, and which has had some definite characteristics of its own to offer, over and above sheer performance. Couple this line of attack with courtesy to the client, and success is at least in sight. Incidentally, some utility car manufacturers can teach the sports-car people a whole lot about courtesy to their clients, notably Jowett Cars Ltd., who achieved their greatest success with a car that peaked at a mere 2,500 r.p.m.—and still inspired its followers. That so many sports-cars have fallen by the wayside is all the greater tribute to those who, each in their own way, have sold sports-cars successfully. The last twenty years of peace have seen British sports-cars able to hold their own with the products of every other country in the world. In this sphere of activity, Bentley, Pomeroy, Coatalen, Johns, Kimber, Weller, Bertelli, Frazer-Nash, Martin, Roesch, Tresillian and the rest, served the British Motor Industry well. Their successors will do equally well during the next period of peace, of that I am certain.