Fleet sales matter hugely, accounting for around half of all new car sales in the UK. It’s a fiercely contested market now; back in the Eighties it was an all-out war.
Mid-size family cars – ‘repmobiles’ as they became known – were the battleground. The major manufacturers expended a huge amount of money and effort tailoring their cars to meet the needs of the travelling salesmen who drove them and the fleet managers who actually bought them.
So vital were fleet sales that a repmobile lived or died by its ability to attract bulk orders. Failure to do so could drag a manufacturer under. Retail sales to private customers were almost just an added bonus.
There were a lot of repmobiles to choose from during the Eighties. Only Motors takes a look back at the best.
Austin Rover Montego
We start with a car that was actually a failure in the fleet sales market. There was massive pressure on Austin Rover Group to produce a replacement for the dismal Morris Ital that could go toe-to-toe with the best-selling repmobiles from Ford and Vauxhall.
Launched in 1984, the Montego had all the right ingredients. It looked modern and stylish, the interior was spacious and there was a huge range to choose from. About the only thing that was missing, was a hatchback – the related, though smaller, Maestro filled that role.
But, as was so often the case at ARG, there wasn’t enough money to develop the Montego properly. So the engines weren’t very good, the handling wasn’t up to scratch and the build quality and reliability were awful.
It simply wasn’t good enough and fleet managers spent their budgets elsewhere, so sales consistently missed targets. The Montego did improve massively over its lifespan but the damage had been done. Even so, nearly a million buyers took the plunge. It was eventually killed in 1995, long past its sell-by date. Ironically, it had been kept going by demand from fleets.
As fleet sales became increasingly important in the Sixties the Ford Cortina hit the bullseye, giving reps and the money men exactly what they wanted. It became the archetype and through five generations it became one of the best-selling cars in the UK, ever. The replacement had to be right. And the Sierra was.
It wasn’t a seamless transition, though. After the square-rigged ‘Tina, the Sierra’s radical ‘jellymould’ styling proved controversial. Early sales were slow as a result, not helped by the fact that Ford had been significantly over-producing the Cortina and still had huge stocks to sell off at knock-down prices. The last few sold weren’t sold until ’85.
Despite the bang up-to-date exterior and interior, the Sierra wasn’t especially sophisticated. At a time when everyone was switching to front-wheel-drive, the Sierra was resolutely rear-drive. Indeed, the chassis and running gear wasn’t too far removed from the old Corty, and the engines where carried over wholesale.
Sales eventually picked up and the Sierra was soon flying out of the showrooms, becoming one of the biggest-selling cars of the decade. It was eventually replaced in ’93 by the exceptional Mondeo.
Peugeot had long been a left-field choice in the UK, but it started to go mainstream in the Eighties. First, there was the brilliant 205 supermini and the excellent 309 hatchback. In 1987 they were followed by the 405.
Styled by Pininfarina, it looked fantastic and had class-leading handling. It was spacious, comfortable and extremely tough too, electrical gremlins aside. It was absolutely perfect for hammering up and down motorways all day, then. But it was French, which probably put some fleet buyers off.
The 405 did have one big factor in its favour, though. Attention was turning towards diesels as fuel economy became a bigger concern, and Peugeot built the best. By the standards of the day, even the non-turbo diesels were exceptionally powerful, economical and refined. Mega-mileage users lapped them up.
The 405 moved aside for the all-new 406 in 1995. It speaks volumes about the rightness of the old car that the new was, in effect, exactly the same.
I might be slightly biased on this one as my grandad had one. The 21 replaced the ancient Renault 18 in 1986. Much like the Peugeot, it was the government-owned marque’s first mainstream contender in the mid-size sector.
It was a bit of a left-field choice in the company car park since Renaults weren’t exactly renowned for being reliable. But it was stylish, the seats were plush, the ride refined and the hatchback was enormous. The diesels were pretty good, as well.
The main factor against it was the 1.7-litre base engine – for some reason, fleet managers liked round numbers and preferred a 1.6 or 1.8. High-spec 2.0-litre versions were fine executive saloons, though.
Incidentally, my grandad had a top-spec 5-door 2.0 GTX – I still remember that 25 years later. I have a sneaking suspicion the five-door is now extinct in the UK.
Most contenders in the repmobile wars were mere bit-part players. The main protagonists were Ford and Vauxhall. The Mk.2 Cavalier was the Griffin’s big gun, built throughout most of the Eighties.
When it was launched in 1981, the Cavalier was right up to date. It was front-wheel-drive, fuel economy and performance led the class and there was a hatchback option – a real innovation when saloons still ruled.
It was a huge success, out-selling the Sierra whilst buyers got used to that car’s styling. It wasn’t all good, though. Build quality was a bit iffy and they started rusting after only a few years.
The Cavalier was replaced in 1988 by the Mk.3, which picked up exactly where the old car left off. My grandad had two, both 1.8 CDi’s, one a Y-reg, the other on an E plate. How do I remember these things?
Images courtesy of Favcars.com; Honestjohn.co.uk
By Graham King