Who owns the brand name ‘Austin Healey’? Now there’s a parlour game you could play over many a festive season. I only asked this question because brand names – even dead ones – can be highly valued within a business, prize assets to be traded and passed round sub-divisions, holding companies, move across borders and have multiple homes in various solicitor’s drawers. You’re sitting there one day thinking Ransom’s Humidors is owned by Castro Cigar Importers Inc and then get the rude shock that the name actually belongs to Gerald Greedie in Kidderminster. So it can be enlightening to know who owns what.
Take ATCO for instance, makers of some of the finest mowers ever known. A quintessentially British product – owned by an outfit called GGP based in Milan. I didn’t expect to see that, although it was comforting to see the name hadn’t been bought by some garlic munchers. George Bishop once said everything the French think they lead the world at – food, plonk, clothes, cars – the Italians are far better, and he never spoke a truer word.
Back to the search, this time for some automotive names. To play this game all you have to do is go to the Patents Office search engine, type in the name, select Class 12 (which broadly covers automotive manufacturers) and then take a look through the results. You’ll find info on who owns what of course, but also see applications by other people looking to take a brand name for themselves.
For example, Hillman appears to be owned by Hillman Motors in Stockport, but some chap in Glasgow also tried to register the name a few years back, and another fellow in North London used to have the name for a while too. Reliant are owned by parts firm in Cannock who have fended off some Americans trying to use the name for brake components. Humber are still owned by Pug (I suppose the French had to have something). Panther’s name is owned by the late Rob Jankel’s wife. A business in Coventry tried to register the name Standard Swallow but it got opposed by British Motor Heritage. And so it goes on.
You can also indulge in a spot of light pedantry, if that floats your Riva. Sunbeam are registered with a fellow in Poole. Ah, but that’s for motorcycles; for electric cars the name belongs to a firm in Edinburgh. But wait, for bicycles it belongs to Raleigh. Oh, and for petrol-powered motors the name remains under Peugeot. I bet you can already see how this could make the long winter nights fly by. Go on, impress your mates with this quite incredible knowledge. Or the cat.
So, who owns Austin Healey? Well it
seems to be owned by SAIC of China. Which, after all that fun* was a bit of a let-down.
The late (and he often was) Sir John Harvey-Jones would remark that business and romance simply don’t mix. You may go into business with a vision, a dream, but you do it for cold, hard cash. Lofty altruistic reasons are irrelevant; a business sits on rock-solid footings, not floating wimsy.
And yet we Brits are Gold medal Olympians at wanting to make cars or motorbikes for ‘romantic’ reasons. Nothing gets a stout man of spanners more misty eyed than the idea of triumphantly wheeling from his shed something that looks like Sophia Loren and goes like Bree Olsen. And if it bears the name of a glorious name from the past, legendary for winning races or making outrageously sexy motors, even better. Get them feeling a bit tight in their undercrackers.
Well, that’s how the thinking goes. Sadly for such folk their hearts, red-hot from the heady sight of their dreams now brought to life, rarely get sufficiently cold to deal with the hard, harsh facts about trying to launch a new sports car or reawaken a faded icon. That’s not to say it cannot happen of course, but for every Victor Gauntlett, Peter Wheeler or John Bloor you get a skip full of William Rileys, David McDonalds and Al Mellings. It’s the modern day equivalent of sailors hearing mermaids and hurling their ships on the rocks before sinking in the abyss, still smiling at the beautiful noise in their heads. Madness.
The mention of Peter Wheeler brings us to another chapter of the hopelessly romantic basket case that is TVR. Ah yes, the company who’s first car got pranged before it even had a body. That should have told Wilkinson to pack it in before things got out of hand. But no, he carried on and by luck far more than judgement (and plenty of casualties on the way) Blackpool eventually claimed to have produced two car manufacturers. One of them however saw sense to get the fuck out, move to Coventry, drop the Nazi doppelganger name and as a result are still going today. The other? Oh dear….
In fairness, putting aside the laughable Tasmin 200 (a car they once denied to me even existed) there have been some memorable models to come from Hoo Hill and Bristol Avenue. The second iteration of the lovely-if-silly Griffith and the lovely-and-rather-excellent Cerbera sit atop them, even it could never be guaranteed they would work. In fact, you could use three words to accurately describe TVR: lairy, unreliable, and barely solvent. After investing considerable time and energy even Wheeler had to bail.
Along came Nikolay Smolenski, a Russian barely shaving more than once a week who sent off a BACS transfer and got some glass fibre moulds, two unreliable engines (with another hidden under a sack) and a big, big dream. It’s that dream thing again, isn’t it, gets them every time. You can only wonder what his mother must have said when he got home.
Anyway, the schoolkid made a right horlicks of things and TVR died. But then someone popped up and bought the name. Yes, someone actually paid money for a dead car firm. Mind you, when you consider that about 4,729 people have owned Jensen in the past twenty years it only shows that this ‘I can run a car business’ dream is a pretty widespread mental condition. However, this ‘new’ TVR wheeze doesn’t seem at first to be a complete joke. For a start the business put some focus on creating a parts network for the old TVR range, which should bring in loads of cash as they all go wrong every single day. And for their relaunch model they have called in a couple of well-known names to sort out two major areas, with Gordon Murray’s iStream concept repurposed for the chassis (although some of the claims about iStream sounds like a bit of a sea-shanty) and Cosworth signed up to deliver a modified Ford unit in the nose. So, there is a good chance this new model will be a bit of a snotter.
But two commonsense ideas don’t guarantee success, and the entire venture is really being let down by the traditional weak spot of the British Dead Car Marque Owner. Yep, it’s the really shitty marketing and communications. And with TVR it’s really, really shit.
Does this really matter? Well, coming up with a well-engineered car that is a real alternative to the competition is only half the battle. To actually sell them means you have to come up with a plan to attract the people who can actually afford to buy the product. And to do that, especially if you are looking to get them to spend over £50k on a toy sitting in a garage – the natural habitat for any TVR as it will likely be broken – you really do need to have a bloody good plan. A plan that captures the spirit of the new business, ignites the imagination of potential buyers, dealers suppliers and the public. A plan that makes people talk about TVR, gets them thirsty for more and generates excitement.
What have they come up with? A shit website a cack-handed attempt at social media and some horrendously bad press releases.
With the typical man in a shed caper you would expect this sort of shambolic behaviour. But TVR is alleged to be owned by a consortium headed by some chap called Les Edgar, who at least ran a business. Admittedly it was in computer gaming but even so, surely he should know the importance of having a strong team that can come up with a strategy to secure the long term future of the company?
Edgar and his associates will be more than aware that launching a new car from scratch is a big investment. That means they need to invest in marketing to get the best possible return; a long waiting list for their cars. Sadly, they can’t be arsed. A cheap, nasty website designed by a 12 year old containing some utter drivel posing as content doesn’t cut it when you are tempting someone away from buying a Porsche or Jaguar. It all points to Edgar and co looking at marketing as a cost and therefore spending as little as possible. A dreadful, amateur mistake made by people who really should know better. Scarcely believable.
But then again, it is. Because like all the other well-meaning but shockingly executed reboots of dead car names, the people involved have been so wrapped up in their dreams they end up doing the commercial stuff – which is obviously beneath them, or plain dreary – whilst sat having a dump. For a business supposedly backed by a number of well heeled people and headed by someone who apparently ran a company before, you would think they should have spotted this problem early on and built a team to handle the marketing. But no, it’s been evidently left till last – and by the time they realise what a bunch of halfwitted clowns they have made themselves look, their chances of any success will have become an awful lot tougher.
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