As we get news of another relaunch, we ask who buys sportcars any more?
Although TVR ceased production of cars nine years ago, under then owner Nikolay Smolensky, it never really died, it just seemed to be asleep. Someone, somewhere was always hinting at its imminent awakening. This year’s announcement, with Gordon Murray and Cosworth involved, seems the most credible and substantial to date. But, however good the product, if most of its targeted customers live in Europe, as with previous TVRs, will it succeed, or has the world changed too much whilst it slept?
Similarly Lotus. Back in the 1960s and 70s, Lotus had a profile well above its actual clout. Colin Chapman’s ingenuity and bravado kept what was a small company in the public eye and, ever since then, it has been trying to recapture those golden days. In that time it has produced one highly successful car, the Elise, a niche vehicle that caters solely to committed and enthusiastic drivers. Beyond that it has floundered with both grandiose flights of fancy and more modest efforts, mostly variants on the Elise. The excellent, more practical, Lotus Evora is an outstanding example of a type of car that no-one seems to want any more, the sportscar that you buy purely on its merits.
The affordable sportscar that stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of popularity is the Mazda MX5. At the end of 2010, the UK had accounted for 5% of the 900,000 MX5 sales since its launch but, now in its fourth incarnation, annual worldwide sales over the past 5 years are less than 25% of typical figures back in the 90s. Has the MX5 lost its attraction, or has the lure of the sportscar lost its romance for everyday folk?
What were people’s reasons for buying a sportscar? In more innocent times the sportscar, and essentially the open topped roadster, suggested a certain freedom. There’s also the visceral reason, the idea of controlling a fast and dangerous machine, pushing yourself and it to the limit but, let’s face it, if that was the main reason for buying a sportscar the client base would have died out, literally, decades ago. I don’t pretend that people are smarter now, but I think that we are aware that our ‘freedom’ is reasonably prescribed. Once, speeding in a sportscar on a clear road on a sunny day might result in a stern telling off from a policeman, followed by a friendly ‘shame to damage a nice car’. Now, your image is delivered to the Gatso’s lens and an inflexible electronic system has dealt with you before you have even reached home.
Of course, since the 90s, the upper-end sportscar market has flourished. Porsche, Aston Martin, Ferrari and Maserati have had record sales figures and, in a world where an all-new brand of family car would be unlikely to get a foothold, companies like Koenigsegg and McLaren have succeeded. But, without denigrating the technical expertise that has gone into these cars, it has to be said that purchase of these devices is usually more complex that an innocent desire to have a bit of fun. Some of these vehicles are practical enough transport as two seaters, and you could certainly turn up at a business meeting in a standard 911 with a reasonable chance of convincing that it was everyday transportation, and not being suspected of bringing it primarily to show off. But what about the rest on offer?
Most people don’t live in a bubble of hubris and here I’m really talking about the idea of relatively affordable sportscars. Despite the problems of recent years, quite a lot of people still manage to scrape together the money to indulge themselves one way or the other, but few of them actually seem to decide “I want a sportscar”. They buy or do other things with their money instead. Many younger people, especially city dwellers, don’t even want a car, let alone an impractical one. And many of those who once would have bought a sporstcar, not because it was low and sporty, but because it was ‘different’, are now catered for by a whole load of different ‘lifestyle’ vehicles from the Nissan Juke to the BMW X6.
There is something frivolous about the sportscar and, although so much of what occurs in the affluent areas of the World today would have been frivolous beyond anyone’s dreams 50 years ago, it comes coated with a veneer of purpose. “It is about you, and the need to maximise your personal leisure potential in your asset-rich, time-poor world where the only obstruction to achieving this is …. your imagination!” People take their leisure far too seriously to be seen trawling round in the modern day equivalent of an MG Midget.
As long as legislation permits, there will always be some who will take their fun where they can find it. For the while, you can still search out a few of miles of Welsh valley road and risk your, and a few sheep’s, life and limb. Some countries have larger unpoliced areas. Or you can opt for the somewhat organised artificiality of a track day. But on most European roads it is becoming harder and harder to justify ownership of a relatively uncivilised and uncomfortable device on the off-chance of the odd ten minutes of fun.
So, as with any enterprise that doesn’t substantially threaten other people’s lives or well- being (assuming Gordon Murray stays onboard and tames that chassis) I’ll wish TVR’s new venture well. But my feeling is that, whereas on my first view of a Griffith nearly 25 years ago I could see the attraction, today the out-and-out sportscar has become an anachronism, made acceptable only if it has the social cachet of a high-end badge .