The road to ruin?: It was a bad week for British sports cars, with one company on the rocks and another laying off workers. But is this gloomy picture fair, asks David Bowen

WHEN IT was announced last week that Jensen, the sports car maker, was on the point of liquidation, even car buffs were surprised. Surely Jensen, along with most of the British sports car industry, had gone bust years ago?

Within days, potential saviours appeared, but the mystery lingered. How had such a famous name survived unnoticed?

The British sports car industry once bestrode the world, with its roaring, wind-in-the-hair image. AC Cobras, E-Type Jags and MGs ruled, and were sent in their thousands around the world. But that was 20 and more years ago. Now MGs and ACs are out of production, and Jaguar is in trouble. Jensen did indeed go into receivership in 1976. It was rescued and production restarted on a tiny scale. Planned output this year was 12 cars; in the event, one order has been received in the past six months.

Although it is unlikely that the British sports car industry will fade away completely, the days of mass production seem over. The death of the splendid but unprofitable Lotus Elan shows how difficult it is to compete with the Japanese. The Mazda MX-5, modelled on the MG Midget, sells 40,000 a year. Toyota, Honda and Nissan all make sports cars, slickly mixing speed with electric everything.

But there is a market for something a little special on a small scale. And this is where the British are unbeatable. Excluding kit car makers, 14 companies either make sports cars or plan to start or restart production soon. They come in all shapes, sizes and prices. But the pounds 15,000 Caterham Seven does have something in common with the pounds 530,000 McLaren F1. Both are designed for fun rather than practicality, and prove that the urge to travel fast for no particular reason remains as strong as ever.

However, of the famous names in trouble, four sports marques have been bought by large companies and all have found the going tough. Ford bought Aston Martin, Jaguar and AC, and General Motors took over Lotus, because they were looking for 'brands' to add lustre to their own line-up. But they also brought more than their share of troubles.

Ford had a run-in with its AC partner, Brian Angliss, who has now bought out its share, and plans to launch a new and different Ace next year. Aston Martin, chronically unprofitable, went through a series of owners, each of whom lost patience with the craft version of militant unionism that afflicted the factory. In the past year, the workforce has been slashed by a third: 65 more jobs were cut on Friday.

Although Jaguar makes more true sports cars - XJSs - than anyone else in Britain, it is still not big or efficient enough to support its costs. It can make money only when times are exceptional, as in the mid-Eighties. Meanwhile, it can comfort itself that it cannot fail to make money on its newly launched sublime and ridiculous XJ220, which can travel at almost 220mph, is too wide for London's width-restricted roads, and costs pounds 350,000 plus tax. The good news is that all 300 have been pre-sold.

The Lotus Elan was, says Gavin Green, editor of Car magazine, 'a cock-up - it was not costed correctly and they accepted building it at a loss.' It had to be re-engineered to meet US safety regulations, and was launched on the wealthy Japanese market two years after its UK introduction. 'In a pure engineering sense it was a great car,' Mr Green says. 'But, typically for a UK company, it got the basic engineering right, then failed completely on production engineering and marketing.'

Bentley and Bristol have also had a tough time. It may seem odd to call a Bentley a sports car, but a trip in a Turbo R (faster to 60mph than many supercars) would convince anyone. Rolls- Royce decided in the early Eighties that Bentley should be 'repositioned' to play on its past sporting glory. The company has now launched the pounds 165,000 Continental R, the first Bentley since the Fifties to have its own body shape. All Rolls-Royce sales plummeted during the recession, and the company is under pressure, but the relaunch of the Bentey has been a great success.

Bristol's chairman and owner, Anthony Crook, admits that his company made a loss last year, and is furious with the Government for failing to stimulate the car market. Otherwise he is cagey about this most discreet of car companies. Current production is off-limits, though he says Bristol has made 8,003 cars in 46 years.

The companies that are doing well, and form the backbone of the traditional British industry, operate at a less costly level.

Best known is Morgan, which makes cars straight out of the Thirties (which is when they were designed). Some versions are very fast - others are just exhilarating and amusing. They are unlikely to be troubled by the Japanese. It is hard to imagine a Mazda with a wooden frame or a bonnet held down with leather straps.

Car-watchers are more excited by another of the hairy brigade. 'The TVR Griffith,' says Gavin Green, 'is one of the best roadsters ever built by a British company.' A 155mph car for less than pounds 25,000, it was launched in January and is already taking sales from Ferrari. Peter Wheeler, who owns the Blackpool-based company, says his firm is a 'a total contradiction to the trend'. TVR is run by people who are, first and foremost, engineers not interested in becoming tycoons, and who, in a positive sense, are amateurs.

Part of the Griffith's appeal is its looks. Yet it was designed, Mr Wheeler says, 'by taking a block of foam and cutting off the bits we didn't like'. Because he does not invest in expensive equipment (the Griffith cost pounds 500,000 to put into production, against pounds 700m for Ford's new Escort), TVR remains flexible.

Caterham has been hit by the recession, though UK sales, down by 200 last year, were offset by exports up 100 (the Japanese bought 150 Caterhams last year), and the situation is hardly grave. For adrenalin-pumping terror, a ride in a Seven takes some beating.

Like the Caterham, the Wiltshire-built Marcos is, for legal reasons, technically a kit car, though the assembly needed is minimal. Having gone bust in the early Seventies, Marcos was relaunched in 1981, making the same cheap but fast models as in the Sixties. 'We're very busy,' says Marcos's Chris Marsh. 'We are making 100 cars a years now and will expand to 250.'

Scunthorpe-based Ginetta, which started with small-engined cars in the Sixties, has won good press reviews and sales with its 3.9-litre G33. Reliant has done less well. The company has changed ownership and its small roadster, the Scimitar Sabre, has just been relaunched, but its looks remain a drawback.

In the next year, at least three new British cars will be launched. The AC Ace will be in the TVR mould, but the McLaren F1 will make even the XJ220 seem cheap and cheerful. Using its racing expertise, McLaren decided to build 'what may be the last very fast, very expensive supercar'. Only 300 will be built.

Finally, and potentially most excitingly, a real MG sports car is to appear for the first time in 13 years. The MGR V8 will look very like the MGB and share some of its elderly technology. Rover has decided that MG is too good a name just to attach to souped-up saloons. Whether enough people are prepared to pay pounds 25,000 for a nostalgia trip is questionable. But in a couple of years a totally new MG should appear. If the group is feeling brave enough to take on the Japanese, here at last may be a roadster that sells in numbers.

(Photograph / graphic omitted)