Think of the British motor industry and you’re likely to conjure up images of large factories churning out streams of cars in all shapes and sizes. The sprawling empire of BMC, Ford’s huge plants at Dagenham and Halewood, and Vauxhall dominating Luton and Ellesmere Port. Volume was king, the industry had a guaranteed market at home and thrived on exporting around the Commonwealth. But there is more to the story than that.
Napoleon may have disparagingly referred to the British as a nation of shopkeepers, but he was wrong. We are a nation of engineers and creators, home to the cradle of the industrial revolution and the builders of the modern world. Before you write in and complain about such flag-waving jingoism, I will concede that latterly the British economy has drifted dangerously towards old Bonaparte’s assessment, but there remains a solid base of automotive talent on this small island. There is a reason that most Formula One teams are based in the UK and why automotive centres of excellence such as MIRA and Millbrook are research and proving grounds of choice. But, it isn’t what it used to be.
Once upon a time, there was a plethora of low volume manufacturers, turning out specialist bodies and chassis in kit form designed to mate with humble running gear, or even fully assembled vehicles for those lacking the time or talent to build their own budget sports car. Elva’s purposeful Courier made good use of 1500cc MGA or Riley power, as did the pretty Rochdale Olympic (as owned by our very own International Editor, Anders). The likes of the Tornado Talisman, Unipower GT and Clan Crusader all utilised lightweight construction to overcome a lack of cubic capacity, whereas the fully assembled 5.4-litre Gordon Keeble GK1 had no such concerns. Variety and innovation was everywhere, but sadly few of these stalwarts of the 1950s and ‘60s were still in business by the ‘70s and ‘80s. Changes in kit car taxation brought much harder times for low volume manufacturers, and the rise of the hot hatch made high performance more easily accessible. Whilst the ‘70s and ‘80s did witness a number of notable new entrants such as Robin Hood, Marlin and Sylva, their products were too specialised to be considered as daily drivers for all but the most hardy enthusiasts. Quantum had a good crack at producing a sporting car suitable for everyday use in all climates, but the real lost opportunity was Midas whose promise was cut short when the factory burnt down. However, amongst all the usual tales of mismanagement, liquidation and receiverships, there have been some success stories. Lotus are still with us but have arguably diverged from Chapman’s original vision of innovation taken directly from the race track. Caterham have built a business on repeating the same trick since 1973 and Morgan have done the same for much longer. But there is one other niche manufacturer who has incredibly managed to survive the turbulent industry and build an impressive portfolio of models along the way. 2018 marks sixty years of Ginetta Cars.
The Ginetta story begins in the early 1950s near Woodbridge in Suffolk, a place that even today feels quite a long way from anywhere. The four Walklett brothers were honing their engineering skills running the family agricultural and construction business, but outside of trading hours their real interest was to be found on four wheels. The ‘50s were a golden era for home built specials, and Ivor Walklett stripped back a pre-war Wolseley Hornet to create his own. Sporting a hand formed aluminium body and tweaked chassis, the car soon saw action in a number of local motor club events, and whilst technical details are scarce, it is known that it soon met an undignified end against a tree stump within the grounds of the family home when enthusiasm overcame ability. The car was a write off but the project had given Ivor confidence, and with an eye on business it was clear there was a market eager for cheap performance based around simple mechanicals. With the first car retrospectively christened the G1, ambition was aroused and the fledgling Ginetta Cars was founded in 1958. Very much a sideline in early days, the brothers took on roles that would eventually be formalised in the following years once the company became truly established. Bob was the business brain and would serve as Managing Director, Ivor was technical lead designing the chassis, whilst Trevers’ talent lay in styling. Douglas was a mechanical and electrical engineer, and would ultimately become works manager. However, in the very early days the priority was more fundamental; in order to establish a car company, you first need a car.
It was determined that the first production model would be designed to be assembled by the home mechanic with only basic tools and facilities. Such vehicles were exempt from Purchase Tax if assembled without professional help, so there was a significant financial incentive to build your own. Ginetta’s answer was the G2 which was firmly influenced by the recently launched Lotus 7. The G2 had a tubular steel spaceframe chassis with the bulkhead, transmission tunnel and floors providing additional rigidity. Lightweight aluminium panels cloaked the spaceframe and formed the classic long-bonnet-short-cockpit look. With bugeye headlamps, curved mudguards and a wheel at each corner the influence of the Lotus was plain to see, and likewise the G2 was also designed to utilise the Ford Popular E93A engine in 8hp or 10hp outputs. The first production Ginetta hit the market with a price of £156 for the chassis and bodywork, minus any running gear which the buyers needed to source themselves. If shopping at the breakers yard it was feasible to source everything required for a modest outlay and following favourable coverage in the specialist press, interest in the car steadily grew. Over the next two years, approximately 100 G2 chassis were sold and soon half of the brothers’ business was concerned with motor manufacturing.
By 1960 the kit car market was booming and manufacturers of varying quality were selling to home builders of varying competence. The G2 had served to establish the company, but the car was undeniably basic and that limited the pool of potential customers. Competitor manufacturers were offering weatherproof cars with full bodywork, but forming aluminium into more complex shapes introduced extra cost, so a new approach would be required to style the next car. The 1960 G3 again used a tubular spaceframe chassis but this time the fibreglass body was the centre of attention. Taking influences from the Austin-Healey 100 and AC Ace, the new car was contemporary and was that rare creation; a kit car that could bear close inspection. The fibreglass was smooth and well finished with attention paid to detailing the lips and edges. The shell came complete with locks and hinges, and the whole front section flipped forwards in one piece to allow easy access to the engine bay. There was a hardtop for use in winter and the interior was, by the standards of the day, fully trimmed. This first foray into the world of fibreglass transformed the aesthetic appeal of Ginetta, but more importantly paved the way one year later for their first real multi-purpose sports racer; the highly effective G4.
The G4 is when the fun really started. Launched at the 1961 Racing Car Show, it was immediately awarded the accolade of “best looking car of the show”, but the beauty was more than skin deep. The tried and tested spaceframe approach to chassis construction really delivered this time, with bespoke double wishbone coil sprung suspension up front, and a Ford Anglia derived live axle with coil springs and dampers taking care of the tail. Originally planned for Coventry Climax power, lack of engine availability meant the familiar Ford 997cc unit was settled upon with the more powerful Ford Classic derived 1340cc available at extra cost. The sectional body was designed for easy repair, a key concern for those using their cars in the cut and thrust of competition. Although a multipurpose car, it was a racer at heart as evidenced by the primitive roof, lack of an external fuel filler cap and the removable boot floor to allow access to the rear axle and battery. Originally priced at £697, the price soon fell to £499 for an even more stripped down package, being supplied unpainted ready to receive the customer’s own racing colours. For the club driver, this was a very attractive proposition and developments were quickly driven by the demands of motorsport. A sleeker tail and optional hardtop heralded the G4 Series II in 1963, and under the skin there were also notable mechanical improvements. Changes to the front suspension geometry sharpened the handling and a switch to a lighter BMC derived rear axle broadened the choice of final drive ratios, whilst front disc brakes were made available to cope with increasingly high power outputs. The racing community really took notice once 100 examples of the 997cc variant had been completed and the car met the eligibility for International Racing homologation. The national racing scene was free from the restrictions of homologation, so Chris Meek built a 1650cc Ford engine complete with Cosworth camshaft and dropped it into his G4 with spectacular effect. He broke the lap record at Snetterton for cars up to 2,500cc with an average speed of 91.86 mph, despite being a full 850cc below maximum class capacity. Meek’s dominance of race meetings in 1964 was noticed and this paved the way for him to become Ginetta’s own works driver.
The G4 was such a success that by 1962 the Walkletts had decided to concentrate solely on car manufacture and thus relocated to larger premises in Witham, Essex. By 1965 the firm were able to expand their range with the G10, a comparatively large GT with a 270 bhp 4.7-litre Ford V8 providing 150 mph performance. With a fibreglass body but using MGB doors, windscreen and hood, the convertible bore a strong resemblance to the MG although the performance was in a completely different league. Romping home to victory on its track debut with Chris Meek at the wheel, the car vanquished the E-types and the announcement of a fixed head coupe made clear Ginetta’s intention to build serious GT cars capable of taking on the very best. However, it wasn’t to be. The G10 hadn’t been homologated for GT Racing, and when American orders were subsequently cancelled production stopped after just six cars. On the home market the V8 carried a price tag of over £2,700 which was frankly far too high (almost the average house price), so a rethink was required. Given the MGB styling influences the potential source for new running gear was obvious, so the G10 was reborn as the G11 courtesy of the MG’s 1800cc B-series engine and gearbox, all at less than half the price of the V8. Unfortunately, the project stalled once again as BMC failed to commit to supplying sufficient quantities of doors, thereby forcing Ginetta to shelve what could have become a profitable model.
Although the G4 was still providing a reliable revenue stream, the untimely demise of the G11 meant a new road car was still required. The contemporary mid-engined G12 competition car was turning heads on track but was far too specialised to convert into a compromised road car, so Ginetta started with a clean sheet of paper. This time they opted to hang the motor in the tail. Taking the 55bhp Coventry Climax from the Sunbeam Stiletto and mounting it out back promised good traction and allowed more freedom to create a distinctive and well-proportioned body with a low-slung nose. Debuting in 1968 the resulting G15 and was an immediate hit retailing at under £850 in kit form, and demand soon caused a capacity problem at the factory. The G4 was discontinued in 1969 but even then, they were struggling to cope at Witham, so with confidence in a steady order book the company made plans to relocate once again and in 1972 moved to a purpose-built factory in nearby Sudbury. The new production facilities also enabled the belated launch of the larger G21 coupé, which used the Rootes Group 1725cc Rapier engine and could credibly claim to be a four seater. The G21 was only available in fully completed type-approved form with no kit option available, making a clear statement as to the company’s future ambitions. However, on 1st April 1973 disaster struck for the G15 when Purchase Tax was replaced by Value Added Tax, and kit car sales came within scope. The sale price of a G15 exploded and, coupled with an industry wide slow down caused by the oil crisis, it was retired in 1974.
The economy was in trouble and by 1975 inflation had escalated to over 25% which dramatically increased raw material and component prices. Ginetta fell back on the fully assembled G21 which was not impacted by the VAT changes, but the new factory at Sudbury became unsustainable and the difficult decision was taken to return to Witham and absorb the losses that entailed. New car sales collapsed and Ginetta was in survival mode, concentrating on service and restoration work. The G21 lived until 1978 but the fact that only 150 cars were sold compared to 800 G15s tells its own tale. The story could easily have ended there but as the economy slowly returned to an even keel, ambitions turned to new models. In 1980 two prototypes were announced; the 4-cylinder G23 coupé and the Ford V6 powered G24 convertible. Whilst the faithful welcomed the new proposals there was one significant problem; Ginetta couldn’t afford to tool up and build them. The solution to the problem would come from their back catalogue.
The G4 was a model that had always evolved. The chassis, originally made up of more than 300 sections of tube, had been simplified during the 1960s and a stressed transmission tunnel incorporated to retain strength and reduce production time. The quasi-legal low mounted headlamps were soon replaced by pop-up lights, and small mechanical changes were made the keep the car current, legal and cost effective. So it was that the G4 Series IV that appeared in 1981 was a further development still, continuing to evolve from the basic principles. The Series IV provided a limited source of revenue for another three years before returning to hibernation, but importantly re-established Ginetta as a car maker. During this period, the Walkletts also created an offshoot brand called GRS to tap the fledgling sports utility vehicle market, as represented by the French Matra Rancho. The GRS Tora took the running gear from a Hillman Hunter, along with the Hillman’s wiring loom, fuel tank, windscreen, front doors and more, meaning that only one donor vehicle was required to assemble your own Tora at home. Resembling a child’s drawing of a Range Rover and possessing no off-road ability, it failed to set the market alight and remains something of a curiosity along the lines of the Dutton Sierra and Rickman Ranger.
As time passed, the G23 and G24 proposals didn’t progress to production, nor did a promising mid-engined prototype called G25. The car that finally made it to market in 1985 was the G26, a full four-seater which used Ford Cortina donor mechanicals. Bearing a passing resemblance to a Lotus Excel the car was distinctly more show than go, and enquiries soon focussed on whether it could accept more powerful engines than the usual Cortina Pinto 4-pots. However, Ginetta determined that some re-engineering would be required to cope with the extra demands on braking and handling, and a taller bonnet profile was needed to house the 2.8 litre Cologne V6. The new model was named G28 and along with the revised front end also gained a stubby tail. The new bodywork sections opened up a range of pick and mix options for the customer; a G26 sloping tail with a tall G28 front end became a G30, and a G28 booted rear mated to a low G26 nose became a G31. Some combinations looked better than others but you couldn’t complain about the amount of choice.
In the midst of all this activity Ginetta still found time to launch the G27, in effect a heavily re-engineered G4 with independent rear suspension and a Jaguar back axle. At least one left the factory with a Mazda rotary installed, but the default choice was the 4-cylinder Ford Pinto. Ginetta still lacked a practical small car, so when Toyota’s MR2 was announced, the aborted G25 concept was revisited. First shown as a prototype in late 1986, an unusually long development programme followed to ensure the G32 would gain full type approval. This allowed it to be sold in turnkey form rather than as a kit of parts, thereby opening up Ginetta ownership to a much wider market .The 110bhp 1600cc injected engine from the Escort XR3i promised 0-60mph in under 8.5 seconds, and more potent still was the 1900cc turbo option which could tackle the sprint in 7.3 seconds and storm on to 130 mph. Buoyed by the promise of the new car and out-growing Witham again, the Walkletts took the bold decision to invest in a new factory and a site was found 170 miles away in Scunthorpe. A lot rested on the G32 being as good as it looked.
Not a decision to be taken lightly, the move to Scunthorpe in late 1988 showed confidence, and the first production G32s would be produced at the new Lincolnshire base. The firm was settling into a new future and although Doug, Trevers and Bob were all around state retirement age, they had no immediate intentions of stepping back. However, this was soon to change following an enquiry from Sheffield businessman Martin Phaff who had bought a G15 and visited the factory for tuning advice. Little did either party suspect, but this would soon turn into an offer to buy the business and after careful consideration the brothers accepted. Youngest brother Ivor was only in his mid-50s so he opted to retain a stake and stay on as Technical Director, whilst Trevers consulted on the handover for a period of 6 months providing valuable continuity. One of the first stated aims was to develop a halo model to take the firm into TVR territory, but before that there was the task of delivering the very first G32, which Phaff conducted as a ceremonial handover in typically ebullient manner. The highly anticipated range topping Ginetta G33 subsequently appeared with some fanfare at the September 1990 motor show. Based on the existing G27, the body and chassis were widened and stretched to shoehorn the 3.9-litre Rover V8 into place. With a kerb weight of only 850kgs, supercar-level performance was spectacularly delivered. Fully adjustable rose jointed suspension ensured the handling was fit for the 205bhp punch and Sierra Cosworth brakes reigned it all down again. The reward was a front cover feature in the June 1991 issue of Autocar & Motor Magazine which prompted more orders and in turn created a waiting list. The future had started to look bright again, but the 1990s would prove to be turbulent times.
Ginetta is thankfully still with us today, but we’re reaching the outer limits of ViaRETRO as the firm progressed into the 1990s. However, we’re not going to leave the story just yet, as coming very soon we have the insider’s view from an exclusive interview with a senior Ginetta insider. If you’ve ever wondered just what it takes to run your own car company, stay tuned to ViaRETRO and you’ll find out.
ViaRETRO thanks David Doolan of the Ginetta Owners Club for his generous assistance with many of the photographs in this article, including the main article picture of the early Ginetta G2 flanked by a modern G58 and G60.