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4T : Boutique Brands

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5 September 2012


The industry of boutique sports car makers isn’t exactly one known for longevity. Such cars are often automotive eccentricities made for the super rich. Often they’re wildly designed or brutally fast… sometimes they’re both and surprisingly sometimes they’re neither. As enthusiasts we’re  fascinated by them, and particularly those using Audi components. But, that doesn’t change the fact that the boutique car business is one that is highly susceptible to market fluctuations. Enter one long and drawn out recession followed by the current European financial crisis.

Over the years we’ve covered many Audi-powered boutique brands on this website. The field has been rich with companies looking to build exotics using engines from Ingolstadt. Unfortunately, some of the biggest players in this field – brands like Spyker, Gumpert, Artega and Melkus are experiencing financial crisis or at the very least turmoil. Here’s a rundown.


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Spyker
The Spyker brand has a history that dates back to the 1800s, but today it’s mostly known for its modern products since its 1999 rebirth. From the moment the Dutch Spyker brand was re-emerged it has always shot big. Fielding a factory GT2 team at Le Mans against mainstays such as Porsche and Ferrari seemed like a stretch for a boutique brand, that is until they went and bought an F1 team… then dumped that and bought Saab from a then-ailing General Motors. Everyone wanted  this manufacturer of rolling artwork made of finely turned alloy and powered by the Audi 4.2 V8 to succeed in its move to save Saab, but the effort seemed destined to fail and that it eventually did.

August has seen a lot going on for Spyker and we’re not sure it’s all good. First and foremost, they’ve served  GM with papers for a gargantuan $3 billion lawasuit. Spyker claims GM took unlawful actions to avoid competition with Saab Automobile in the Chinese market when Spyker moved to pair up with Chinese manufacturer Youngman in order to get desperately needed cash. It seemed clear at the time that GM offloaded Saab that the General had no interest in GM technologies and platforms used in the 9-5x and 9-4x to end up in the hands of the Russians or the Chinese, but the specifics are unknown and likely this will all be determined in court.

Spyker has also announced that it plans to pair with Youngman to build new cars on a platform set dubbed “Phoenix” that had begun development post GM specifically for Saab. At the same time, Spyker is going through a restructuring in the wake of the implosion of the Saab business.

Youngman plans to build cars on the Phoenix architecture as does Spyker. Whether Spyker will continue to continue use of Audi engines for these new products remains unclear. We’ll continue to cover Spyker on Fourtitude so long as that brand continues to share some DNA with Audi. In the event Audi components are  no longer used, this website will cease coverage.

We Say: Spyker should stick to what they do best – build high fashion and highly exotic sportscars. Stick with that business model and develop one or two core new offerings like the C8 on which they can build their business. A smaller displacement 2.0 TFSI or 2.5 TFSI “little brother” to the C8 would be much more attractive to our readers than the exotic SUV D8 Peking to Paris that the brand still seeks to build. That exotic SUV market is about to get crowded with in-bound product from Lamborghini and Bentley that will be competing heavily for a slice of the same pie.


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Gumpert
Admittedly the Gumpert Apollo is not very pretty, and the interiors often embroidered with large garish griffons seems more of the 1980s David Hasselhoff hair metal loving German culture than it does something that would share DNA with the polished Audi brand. Still, the Gumpert does share Audi DNA in so many cool ways.

You might not know it but the Apollo was a project first hatched by MTM’s Roland Mayer. The Gumpert name, while not the most endearing or sexy for an exotic car, comes from Roland Gumpert – one of the former chiefs of Audi Sport and, as such, a predecessor to Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich. The car itself has a carbon fiber tub and is powered by a twin turbocharged Audi V8 that makes it go like little else allowable on a public road. Technically the car is a wonder, and the Apollo’s hard-edged design received a stylish re-think when the company unveiled a second model christened Tornante and styled by Italian carrozzeria Touring Superleggera.

Regardless of its performance, its technical chops or its more recent voluptuous Italian design, Gumpert business has been less than brisk. The company had hoped to make inroads into China and that new business would help move the company forward, but the Chinese expansion has not grown as expected and as such the brand has officially filed for provisional insolvency. This move doesn’t spell the end for Gumpert as the firm also says it is seeking investors and also looking to “reactivate” the European market, but it still is a considerable bump in the road at the very least.

We Say: This one is tough. Gumpert needs to pull in more brand heritage and the Touring Superleggera isn’t quite enough. We love this car’s architecture and spec though. Too bad Roland Gumpert can’t pull some strings at his former employer to somehow license the use of the four rings to make a hard-edged road car with some ties to the racers at Le Mans. Give this car some ties to the R8R or the R18 and we suspect they’d sell a few more. While we’re imagining alternatives, how about a version with the same potent 3.0 Bi-TDI found in the R18. Even if the car wore no rings or Audi design the similarity to the Le Mans-winning R18 would be pretty damn obvious.


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Artega
Artega has always been an intriguing proposition to those of us at this website. With styling by Henrik Fisker, the cars always bore a strong resemblance to most modern Aston Martins – no surprise since time at Aston was a big part of Fisker’s career.  Unlike an Aston, the Fisker is German-built, mid-engined and about the footprint of a TT. Ergonomics are quite good for a boutique producer, which is to say the car seems quite livable. Power comes from a mid-mounted VR6 paired with DSG – essentially the same setup once seen in the A3 and TT, but mounted amidships.

The 3.2 wouldn’t have been our first choice, but this suggests other potent engines like Audi’s 2.5 TFSI, 2.0 TFSI or even a higher tuned 2.0 TDI would all make for very interesting cars and the so-called “R4″ or “R5″ that everyone wishes Audi would build.

Intriguing or no, Artega sales didn’t light the world on fire and the company was sold off back in 2010 to Mexican-based Tesalia Capital – one of Mexico’s biggest investment firms run by Linda Alvarado, also an heir to a Mexican beer company Grupo Mondelo that prodcues Corona amongst other brews. A second sale to an Asian investor earlier this year fell through and as of July an announcement on the company website confirmed it too was bankrupt.

We Say: This is a very hard segment. For the same money, there are some incredibly sorted cars in series productoin with better performance and richly steeped pedigree (we’re looking at you Ferrari and Porsche). A car fielded at the Nurburgring and an electric version also seen in Geneva both seem a bit wonky. We say go for higher performance with a 2.5 TFSI version and sell it as the alternative to the R5 Audi should build or perhaps a TDI or TDI hybrid using Volkswagen Group drivetrain components.


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Melkus
Like Spyker, the Melkus marque was a brand that experienced a rebirth. The first Melkus had been manufactured from 1969-1980. Six years ago Sepp Melkus, the grandson of the man who started the company, relaunched the brand with the intention to build up to 25 units per year. This new car is a curvaceous design with somewhat outlandish gullwing doors and based on the Lotus Elise chassis. Power comes from either a 270-horsepower turbocharged 1.8-liter 4-cylinder from Toyota or an Audi 2.0 TFSI with up to 325 hp thanks to tuning from Alabama-based Audi tuning firm APR.

In late August Melkus also filed for bankruptcy due to lack of demand. The brand is currently in receivership and seeking investors.

We Say: Yes, the Melkus looked kind of cool but the market of people who remember it and have enough love for it that they are willing to plunk down six figures for a car that is essentially a re-bodied Lotus with less heritage… well, that market’s not that big. If Melkus goes belly up, we think they could start a new business selling engine swaps to Lotus owners using the parts and tooling they developed to install the Audi 2.0 TFSI in their own cars. The idea of a 2.0 TFSI (especially a Stage 3 APR Tuned version) swapped into an Elise or an Exige is most intriguing. Even better, these Loti have been around for a while and are becoming cheap enough that enthusiasts would not fear placing them under the knife. Even if the Melkus brand survives, we think they should look into this idea because gull wing doors aren’t for everyone. Contrarily, a Lotus Exige 2.0 TFSI Stage 3…. that’s something we can get our heads around.


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