Due to the immense cost of developing a car, it’s not too often a manufacture is willing to take a risk, and for good reason (just look at the Renault Wind) the stakes are extremely high- a reputation takes years to make but seconds to destroy. Usually when a risk is taken it’s out of a necessity, whether it is to boost the image of the company or to move into new markets to ramp up production. For whatever reason these five cars I believe are very important to history, they all moved these companies on new paths and in all five cases breathed new life into the automotive industry as a whole, either by themselves and or by the paths they eventually led.
1998 Ford Focus
In 2015 it’s easy to take the (now third generation) Ford Focus for granted, you see them everywhere and probably at some point in time have driven one, but back in 1998 it was by far the most important launch and not only for Ford either. At the time Ford had a reputation for making quite conservative cars which dynamically often fell short. The cars weren’t necessarily bad in the 90’s, there was some interesting launches like the Puma. However, cars like the Escort and dated Fiesta really let the side down reminding people of the Orion and Sierra-era Ford needed to distance itself from. All of this, of course, all changed in 1998 at the Geneva motor show. This change of attitude was symbolized by retiring the old fashioned Escort moniker after 34 years of service in favor of the fresh new focused name (see what I did there?). From now on, dynamics and style were high on the priorities for Ford cars and they haven’t looked back since. Arguably this all began with the Mondeo and the move from the asthmatic cvh engines to the zesty Zetec’s, but the first car to really give Ford a new life as a company that made standard cars that you wanted to drive was the Focus, it was the first full package. Focus all started with Welsh engineering genius Richard Parry-Jones, he gave the new ford edge styling started by the Ka and Puma much needed substance by insisting the Focus would have technology such as independent dual wishbone rear suspension. Items like this were deemed unnecessarily complex and costly for cars in the compact sector.
With Parry at the helm of a supremely talented team of designers and engineers, Ford created a car that was not only interesting to drive but also unbelievably well packaged. Compare the Focus to similarly aged Astra’s and there’s absolutely no competition on quality, compare the Focus to a supposedly upmarket mk4 Golf and the difference is even more astounding. The car really shook up the compact market and no one has been able to overtake the Focus since, a far cry from the dull as dishwasher Escort it replaced. Seeing Ford’s position in the European market today it’s hard to imagine a world before the Focus, a game changer of epic proportions.
1990 TVR Griffith
The Trevor has been around since 1948 , as long as Land Rover and while the cars have always had a bit of a following in the UK at least. It was the 90’s that really represented the golden era for the Blackpool bruiser, one where the car was firmly on the walls of many a schoolboy and I have no shame in saying that TVR is my favorite car company of all time (child of the Playstation generation). This all began with Sheffield born Peter Wheeler (an all time hero of mine), who claimed to have been through all the British sports cars and when he happened to need a new clutch for his Taimar he went into the factory and left as the new owner. Having a background in specialist composites he was the perfect man to take the helm of the fiberglass concern, the kit car and lame wedge days were well and truly over. The mad cap road rockets were just around the corner.
Cool projects came around before the Griffith, cars like the Kevlar SEAC and White Elephant concept came around and one year prior the Tuscan racer that provided much of the Griffith DNA breathed new life into the continuously struggling marque. The masterstroke came after and, if you were lucky enough to be at the NEC Motor Show of October 1990, no doubt you will have seen a proud wheeler standing with his cigarettes by one of the coolest cars to ever grace the road. Oddly for a company now known for such lairy styling, the Griffith is so refreshingly clean and smooth with just the right amount of lines and the interior is unbelievably cool, not just a machine gun parts bin bodge (they are there, but compared to other independents of the time and now it’s perfect). TVR were no longer just a rival to companies such as Marcos and Caterham, but now to much more prestigious equipment, and apparently sales were happening every 8 minutes at the show- no small feat for such a small company. The Griffith never aged in it’s already impressive eleven and a half year life and could have remained on sale for way longer, but this wasn’t just a car it was the start of a wild fire for TVR that led to the Chimaera, Cerbera, then the Tuscan, Tamora, T350, Typhoon (though never came to fruition) and finally the utterly berserk axwound Sagaris. TVRs were now cars for the dreamers, usually ones too young to know any better. It’s hard to find a driving game even now (many years since the Bristol Avenue factory doors shut for the last time) that doesn’t have at least a couple of cars, or the Speed Twelve at the very least! Even if you’re not keen on them you cant argue that for 15 years they punched well above their weight. Coming back to the video games element, TVR is apparently back with a Game producer at the helm, surely a match made in heaven for the mad cap company. I hope so at least.
2001 Porsche Cayenne
Probably the most out there transformation, nobody saw the Cayenne coming, but for either positive or negative reasons probably the most important car launch of recent times. Porsche had started their movement towards more mainstream car manufacture with the droptop baby Boxster in 1996, but many thought they had completely lost their marbles when they announced they were entering the off-roader market. Many joked that Land Rover were working on a skunkworks 2+2 convertible and many saw this as a dilution too far of the brand who already had a fairly shaky 90’s. But looking back now the skepticism was not valid, not by a long shot. Finding a big sports car company now without an SUV in the range, or on the horizon, is an extremely difficult task and it all began with this incredibly ugly heffalump from the early noughties.
Like both the TVR and the Focus, the car was born from one man willing to shake the foundations of the company, in this case it was Porsche’s new no nonsense CEO Wendelin Wiedeking who made it clear that if Porsche was going to survive beyond the new millennium it couldn’t remain in such a small and notoriously flaky part of the market. The SUV market was growing rapidly in the nineties and was a staple of the large american markets diet, knowing partner VW already had the Touareg in the works, the risks could be lowered in shared development costs. However, this was not a standard parts bin binge, Porsche took the driving seat in the development of both cars and made a new glass planed factory ready for the new endevour. The brand recognition the car required was there in spades as it just looked like a 911 on stilts, but the ugly looks made the car extremely macho which was important to US buyers and the brunt of the development went into the interior and drive where it belonged. This was a 4×4 which could be grabbed by the scruff of the neck without fear of roly-polying you down the nearby mountainside. You don’t have to take it from me that this car was a rousing success, you can see for yourself how it has “inspired” the rest of the market. Plus, without the Cayenne, would we have ever got the equally ugly Panamera? I don’t think we would, which would have been a shame because it’s my favorite of the modern Porsche bunch (well, ignoring the Cayman). I’m just hoping they finally utilize the platform to its full potential and finally release a modern day 928 (please please please, Porsche!).
1985 Subaru XT
Think of Subaru today and you probably and you think of Colin McRae or the “Scooby brigade”, the name is synonymous with cheap performance thanks to cars like the WRX Impreza, but step back into the 70’s and 80’s and it was a completely different story. In the UK they gained a following with farmers who would pick up a Brat from the same supplier that gave their tractor, rugged simplicity and all wheel drive made them dependable and also just a little bit boring. The XT was a major departure from the Brat and Leone the company could have been known for at the time, especially when put into perspective in its home market. The engine was the first Subaru power plant big enough in Japan to incur luxury taxes, the now familiar Turbo made an appearance here, however with a more paltry than usual 136hp. Nevertheless it was a start.
The car’s followup the SVX moved the stakes further, with Guigario no less taking on from the in house design but hardly sanitizing it. This time with a quadcam 3.6 naturally aspirated boxer engine, the car makes a very interesting classic proposition today. Not really a sports car, more of a GT to cruise around in and bathe in the confused faces of the people you pass by- this aspirational attitude probably explains the many attempts to move the legacy upmarket in later years. The cars were definitely an engineering exercise that left Subaru hungry for more, the more complex DNA remained in the cars through the nineties leading to the Rally stars and performance variants that really put the company on the map.
2000 Morgan Aero 8
Morgan is one of the longest lasting wholly British motoring companies, and until recently a Morgan has always been at the helm of the company. This has been much of the Morgan’s appeal, traditionality and classic styling have always been in the company’s blood, with much of the models still on sale today stylistically looking extremely similar to the originals (in both 3 and 4 wheeled form!). Despite knowing their strengths, (just look at the waiting lists) in 1964 Morgan tried a fresh design to modernize the looks of the cars, the car was the 4 plus 4. A fresh take on the formula, using the standard chassis but now clothed in the GRP which was popular at the time, the Morgan was well up to date and looked gorgeous with a great Aston Martin-esque feel to the front and a very Lotus elite side profile. Sadly the car was a resounding failure, selling a measly 28 which even for such a small concern was abysmal. It’s safe to say the blokes from Malvern learned their lesson and it would be a whole 36 years until Morgan was willing to take another risk, but boy was it a big one.
The Aero 8 debuted in Geneva, and had possibly the most bizarre styling ever seen on a car. Jumping on the retro trend popular around the millennium, Morgan went fully overboard and from dead on the car was looking back in a bozz-eyed manor. The jokes about the gormless Morgan were free flowing on the blogs and in the media. So much like the Cayenne and earlier plus 4 plus many thought it was a doomed project. Stylistically the car is and always be controversial (probably why Morgan removed the bug eyes later on in production) but as we know beauty is more than skin deep and underneath this was a very special machine. Taking a more modern approach the chassis was computer designed to be super stiff and the whole car was made from Aluminium (no wood rot in this car!). The engine came straight from the BMW 5-series making this car much more upmarket than the Ford/Rover/Triumph cars that came before it. Due to BMW making some cracking performance engines, and also thanks to the incredibly lightweight bodywork, performance was now firmly in super-car bating territory. This car changed Morgan’s market from blokes in tweed to the world of celebrity, even skateboarding extraordinaire Tony Hawk took one on the Gumball Rally and the car easily held its own against the plethora of Lamborghini’s and Ferrari’s on the extremely popular rally.
So there we have it: 5 cars that changed our motoring landscape, try and imagine the manufacturers now without them!