The cars that saved their companies are the true heroes of our hobby, that often don’t get celebrated. The mightiest fall the hardest and indeed, many marque’s that are to all appearances immovable titans today, have been through times of near-terminal ill-fortune. It’s those do or die moments that have given birth to some of the all-time great cars. We count down eleven of the best...
The cars that saved the company
Perhaps the first car that saved the brand in the high-industrial post-war era is none other than the BMW 700. BMW? In trouble? Never. Well, in the late 1950s BMW was stuck with a model range that buyers couldn’t relate to and consequently, life-threateningly uninspiring sales figures. The 700, with its revolutionary (for BMW) monocoque structure, did the business, as a coupe, cabriolet and a saloon. By the end of its run in 1965, near-on 200,000 had been sold and BMW had the foundations upon which to build what would become one of the great motoring brands.
Land Rover Discovery
The Discovery is perhaps in many ways the great grandfather of the crossover. In 1989, Land Rover needed to diversify its line-up beyond cars for the Landed. The Discovery married the plush (ish) Range Rover underpinning with a utilitarian but not quite agricultural body and seven seats at a more accessible price.
It was the Land Rover for the people, laying the groundwork for the Freelander which further explored that market. Of course, from the Freelander and cars like it, many marques realised a high driving position and chubbier styling could prove a boon for ‘regular’ cars and so the crossover was born. That’s right green-laners, the cars you hate came from the cars you love. We’ll take your angry comments down below…
The Ford Mondeo was a massive risk for Ford on release in 1993. It traded the ageing but beloved rear-driven platform for an innovative front-drive layout with transverse engines. It took a massive investment, both in terms of the development of the car and its production.
As we all know, it was an egalitarian smash hit, proving to be a car to transcend class divides with its sheer brilliance. World-class driving dynamics, clever engineering and modern curvaceous styling appealed to all. It dragged Ford out of the 1980s doldrums and firmly into its fast track to the 21st Century.
Aston Martin DB7 and DB9
Aston Martin is one of those companies where you could make the case for many of its cars being its saviour. Owing, of course, to the amount of times it’s been in trouble. The latest candidate is the DBX but we’d like to talk about the DB7 and latterly to a lesser degree, the DB9.
Ian Callum’s masterclass in automotive beauty debuted in 1993 with looks six generations on from the fusty old DB6. This low-slung exotic coupe is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful cars ever made. It proved a comparative sales hit at the time and shored up Aston’s prospects in the eyes of parent company Ford. The DB9 effectively did the exact same thing ten years on, setting the precedent for a modernised, contemporary Aston.
Lotus is another one that’s consistently flirted with disaster. In the 1990s, the Esprit was ageing and expensive, and the brilliant but misunderstood Elan was underperforming. The marque needed a stroke of genius… and that’s exactly what it got.
The Elise was a comparatively cheap-to-build, highly advanced, super lightweight sportscar that reminded the world what Lotus was all about and what it could do. The bonded extruded aluminium chassis was a revelation, allowing, along with the lightweight fibreglass bodywork, a scarcely-believable curb weight of 755kg. Perhaps the biggest testament to the importance of the Elise is the fact that only now in 2021, after 25 years, is the largely unchanged model going out of production.
Bentley Continental GT
If ever a marque needed to move with the times, it was Bentley in the early 2000s. Under the Volkswagen Group, hand-made artisan luxury cars selling in the hundreds just wasn’t going to cut it. The Continental GT on arrival in 2003, could have come from a completely different company.
On a new collaborative platform that was better-built, easier and quicker to build, more modern and more appealing to general buyers, the Conti GT was an absolute sales phenomenon. In 2003, just over 100 of the old Continental were made. In 2004, Conti GT production numbered almost 7,000. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the Conti platform forms the basis of the rest of the Bentley range to this day, barring the stately (now discontinued) Mulsanne and Bentayga SUV. Anyone that says it isn’t a proper Bentley probably hasn’t driven one...
Porsche Boxster and Cayenne
Remember when Porsche nearly bought Volkswagen in 2008? That’s a whole saga but the point we’re here to make is that there wouldn’t even be Porsche, let alone Porsche at a level of strength to be poised to buy VW, without the Boxster and subsequently the Cayenne. In the early 1990s Porsche was flopping, building burly sports executive cars for Audi and Mercedes just to keep the lights on. It needed to diversify.
The Boxster, a genius mid-engined sportscar, offered the Porsche experience at a lower price point. A success though it was, the Boxster wasn’t a permanent lifesaver. The profits would need to be spent wisely on the introduction of an even more controversial and more profitable model. They were and so, the Cayenne was born. Within a decade, the Cayenne put Porsche into the position of absolute supremacy that we know it enjoys today. Moan all you want, purists but without the Cayenne, a 9,000rpm-revving 911 GT3 would be little more than a pipe dream.
In the mid-2000s, Fiat was in a spot of bother. Culturally, it was a bit lost, with each car that came out looking more anonymous than the last. Financially, it needed the opposite. Something that would have buyers bursting into dealers on impulse. The new-generation 500 was exactly that. Designer Frank Stephenson pulled on every retro-loving heartstring for this cutesy, stylish small car. Being based on the rather humdrum but competent Panda, the 500 wasn’t just a pretty face, either. It was a genuinely good small car with looks to melt the coldest most cynical heart.
The 500 did exactly what Fiat wanted and more. Within three weeks of its launch, a year’s production had sold out. Six years on from its reveal, the 500 blasted through the 1 million sales figure and by 2015, it reached 1.5 million. Even as it aged, the popularity of the ‘new’ 500 only grew, with some of its best periods for sales coming later in its life. Now for 2021, the 500 has been comprehensively reinvented again, this time as an electric car. Being such a pillar of popularity and profit for Fiat, Stellantis will be hoping it goes as well as its predecessor.
Much like Fiat and the 500, the Camaro was Chevrolet’s retro-futuristic saving grace post-financial crisis. With very little in the way of distinctive or eye-catching product in 2006, it’s no wonder the Camaro Concept was greenlit for production mere moments after its reveal. It was a little slow to happen, arriving in 2009 but once it did, the fifth-generation Camaro was every bit the everyman’s dream car that the original was. As the Zeta platform on which it rode was developed by GM’s Australian outfit Holden, it also drove as good as it looked. When it came time to paying back that government bailout money, the Camaro with its 80,000 per-year American sales figures, was there to very much foot the bill. It’s sad, looking back, given the Camaro is in the complete opposite place today, facing extinction given poor sales, but the legacy of the fifth-gen will be remembered.
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