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Ginetta at Sixty – ViaRETRO Meets Martin Phaff

As part our celebration of 60 years of Ginetta, we talk to a company insider. Martin Phaff owned and ran Ginetta from 1989 to 2005, being involved with the company for nearly 20 years. Martin had built up a successful plastics firm, but having sold up in the late ‘80s he wanted something new to get his teeth into. ViaRETRO meets Martin in an exclusive interview as he takes up the story in his own self-deprecating and entertaining manner.

VR: Where did the Ginetta story begin for you?

“I’d bought a Ginetta G15 and I wanted to make it go quicker, like most people I thought I had to have more power, so I went to the factory and that’s when I started talking to the Walkletts. They’d moved to Scunthorpe on the turn of ’88 into ’89 and they were aged 73, 67, 64 and 53 going into a five-year expansion plan, and I just wondered what they were doing that for, at an age when three of them should be retiring. We got to talking about future plans; well, pan forward five months and I’m sat on the beach in Forte del Marmi when I ring the office to be told we’ve got it, the Walkletts had accepted our offer.”

VR: Having bought a functioning car company, how do you decide what to do on day one?

“I didn’t just go in and think this will be fun. I thought let’s treat it like white goods on castors but with bigger wheels, and make it commercial, and I did it with Coopers Lybrand. I had two guys from Coopers, one of which was Mike Modiri who was my accountant from when I had the plastics business and he came in as Finance Director. The cars were entirely built at Scunthorpe, a bar of steel would come in and a sheet of fibreglass, so the first thing we had to do was get that organised into departments and get a proper production line running. In hindsight, we should have outsourced more but we worked from there. We went to the Manchester Motorshow at G-Mex in May 1990 with the G32 and sat and listened to people come onto the stand and say, “lovely car but we’re getting a Toyota MR2 because they’re cheaper and we know they work”, so we knew we had to do something. We were in the restaurant in Manchester, Gary and Peter off the production line and Mark Walklett, and we were musing to ourselves what we were going to do to get the business moving forward, and it was probably Mark who came up with the idea to put a V8 in the G27. I said alright, how do we do that? And we literally did it on the tablecloth in the restaurant. We grew the car, stretched it and widened it, put flares on it, little Batman things behind the seats and the whole thing was done that night over a bottle or two of wine in an Italian restaurant! That was how the G33 came about. It only took about four and a half months to get the first car up and running and by doing it so quickly there were one or two compromises, for example it didn’t handle as well as it could but we improved that later; Andy Dawson put some work into development and changing the pickup points. We took it to the next Motorshow and the car went down a storm. The first one we produced was in yellow and it was a great colour to do, everyone thought it was wonderful.”

The V8-powered Ginetta G33 in striking yellow (picture courtesy D. Doolan).

VR: It was on the front cover of Autocar & Motor in May 1990, what effect did that have?

“It had a huge effect, we got lots of orders in and we had a waiting list. We were happy with that. When I bought the company, there were over 100 orders for the G32, but on small deposits and a lot of them decided against it by the time the car was actually produced as it had gone up in price. The G33 overshadowed the G32, but we had to produce something.”

VR: You were building some good cars and gaining publicity, did you look to the export market too?

In February 1990, I flew to Japan as there had been some interest from there in buying cars. I thought we’d better find someone who could look after them and arranged to meet with four or five potential importers. In Japan they come to your hotel first thing; they have breakfast with you, you go through reams of stuff all day long, they deposit you back at your hotel at 11 o’clock at night when you’re absolutely exhausted and the next lot turn up at 6am again for breakfast! I was absolutely knackered and they were taking me to all these fancy restaurants eating stupendous food, God knows how much it was costing them. I had the shock of life when I first landed there, I went for a chicken sandwich and it cost me £25! Anyway, Mr Maeda came along on the last day and said, “you look tired, you must be fed up with Japanese food by now, shall we just go for a pizza?” I thought, you super guy, you’ve got the business! He was a complete Lotus freak and to him Ginetta was next to Lotus, not the poor man’s choice but another lightweight British sports car, and that’s exactly what they wanted.”

VR: So everything was looking bright, but in 1992 it all went wrong, what happened?

“When we bought Ginetta we did the deal for £2m, but that included the building valued at £1.2m, so we’d bought the business for £800k net. We borrowed £1.2m against the building but by 1992 it was only worth about £750k just because commercial property values fell apart. We had to do something and needed more shareholding, so I got on a plane back out to Japan. They didn’t want to invest so far away from home but they did contract to buy twenty G4s and six G12s which was a big order, and also bought the rights for the two cars. Everyone was happy again, we sold the land adjoining the factory and got our borrowing down. I put some more money in and Yorkshire Venture Capital did the same. We were advised by the banks to move our borrowing into Yen as we had a big Yen income stream so it absolutely made sense. In September ‘92 there were ructions in the press about what was going to happen with the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and I rang the bank up to discuss what the Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont might do. They said, relax, all he will do is put interest rates up and he did for a while, but then came Black Wednesday. He withdrew the pound from the ERM and we were stuffed. We were the wrong way by £200k. I had various phone calls with the Swedish importer as he thought they could come in and bridge the gap but it didn’t happen, it was too much. We all met the following Tuesday and called in the receivers. Cork Gully were the receivers and I knew them quite well as they were part of Coopers Lybrand. We had discussions to buy the company in the November but that fell through. Cork Gully and my solicitors sat next to each other watching Sheffield Wednesday play Man United at Hillsborough on Boxing Day and hatched a plan. They came back to me and said it’s yours, but we want the money in 10 days. Phone calls were made to dealers and friends who pledged what they could and we went to Leuven to see our Belgian distributor Benny Smets who had mustered Lucien from Paris, Bart from Nijmegen and Ingmar from Stockholm. I actually thought the Walkletts would buy it back, but we paid the money and we got it.”

…but red works just as well on the G33 (picture courtesy D. Doolan).

VR: After all that, how did you get back on your feet?

“We’d lost a lot of our workforce and we’d lost our factory. We took a nucleus of people and decided what we wanted to do. Ginetta was what we wanted to save, it was special. I didn’t want to be the man who saw the end of Ginetta. I was reminded by Yorkshire Venture Capital at one stage that there had been something like 600 car manufacturers in Britain and at the time there were only about 2 that hadn’t gone into receivership; and since then both have! We still thought we had the Japanese order for the G4s and G12s, but they wanted the cars now and we couldn’t produce them. As we’d sold the rights to Maeda already he went to Ivor Walklett to have them produced and that’s how the Walklett’s new company DARE came about. Most of their customers in Japan immediately took the DARE badge off and stuck a Ginetta badge on instead! I rented a place in Rotherham which was an old steel rolling mill. It was about 20 feet wide by 200 feet long so you didn’t have to work hard to find the shape of a production line. When we bought Ginetta in ’89 we didn’t want to make kits, we wanted to do turn-key cars. We’d even won an award, Autocar Specialist Manufacturer of the Year ahead of Bentley, but now we had to bring back kits. We did the G27 as a kit, but we didn’t do the G33 as it was an iconic car in its own right, and it never deserved to be a kit. We did parts for the older vehicles and still had all the moulds. I’d go to all of the kit car shows and we’d sell one or two cars but it was tough. Then the Swedish shareholder came to me with an idea. Tom Walkinshaw was producing a Volvo in Uddevalla, the Uddevalla experiment where each car was individually made by about 12 people, but they wanted to get out. The regional development people were willing to put money into it so we went and looked at the plant. We rounded the G33 off a bit and put a Volvo engine in it to make the G34 and we made about 10 of them, pretty much all of which went to Sweden but the project at Uddevalla never happened.”

The Swedish connection…

VR: With the G34 project not going anywhere, where did you look to next?

We took the G34 to the 1995 Motorshow in London and it created interest but no orders, and that’s when I met with Brian Horner of Ascari, formerly of TVR. He suggested I get a race series going. The next week Marcus Pye put a piece in Autosport saying Ginetta were going to run a race series using the G27 and the car was in development. We booked testing at Mallory in January and had quite a few drivers come up. Straight after lunch a guy called Stuart Miller, probably about 21 years old at the time, took the car out. On his first lap, he came round Devil’s Elbow and went smack into the pit wall and wrote the car off! I had to say sorry but we hadn’t got another one for all you other drivers! People gathered round and looked at the car, and saw how well it had stood up. That’s when the orders came in. I said that if we couldn’t get 16 cars on the grid people could have their money back, and we got to 13 but just couldn’t get to 16, but Benny Smets always got me out of a hole and he bought three. We didn’t have drivers for them all so that’s how the guest car came about. We mainly had journalists, but we also had Andy Wallace who won Le Mans and it was really the guest car that made the series. We started in ‘96 and our grids were good but it started tailing off in ‘99. I was keen to keep making racing cars because the problem with a turn-key car is you need to offer a warranty, but with race cars you roll the shutter up and just say it’s yours, it’s going to be crashed next week! You learn to concentrate on where the profit is. We decided on a new car with the mantra of less is more, it would have no doors, no boot and be on a race car chassis. We went totally against tradition and went back in numbers, calling it the G20 as it was a smaller car than the 27. G20 was a number that was never used, it was going to be their Formula One car; the Walkletts were nothing if not ambitious. The G20 worked and we also sold quite a lot of them as kits, it was a great concept and the company started to make profit which was quite unheard of. So the happy days of racing and G20s went on.

G20 mayhem!

VR: When did Lawrence Tomlinson first get involved?

Lawrence wanted to go and race TVRs and needed his licence, but he was advised not go into Tuscans with a novice cross on the back, so in about 2003 he came and rented a car from us. At the end of 2004 we decided to run a Junior series as I thought that motor racing shouldn’t be expensive. At that time a sponsor of mine wanted to do a race where the car needed a roof, well we wanted the sponsorship money so we made a splash mould for a roof and hey-presto we had a coupé. We used the windscreen from the G27 which actually was the old G12 screen, everything gets recycled at Ginetta. I thought we could use this for a Junior series and it was the best thing we’d ever done. John Surtees was a big fan because he thought you shouldn’t need lots of money to go racing, he just thought that was morally wrong and I agreed with him. Our cars cost £10k and we had this great championship. At the end of that year we had a successful G20 series and the Junior series up and running and we were also selling kits. We were running out of this tiny factory in Sheffield and we didn’t make anything, it was all outsourced. If you go to anywhere to do with motorsport to get fibreglass done it’ll cost you a fortune, but we used this little place I’d found in Rotherham who made stuff for Disneyland, they were proper moulders and less than half the price. We had various people putting the cars together and in some cases even had the teams doing it given a kit of parts with sealed engines and boxes. We had good sponsorship and a good spares business. In 2003, 2004 and 2005 we never made a turn-key car, but we made money in each of those years. It was then that Lawrence came along in the September and asked what I was doing with the business. My five-year plan saw someone else running Ginetta so in December 2005 we sold it. Initially I stayed on but I left at the end of 2008.”

Henry Surtees leading at Croft in the G20 Coupé.

VR: But that wasn’t quite the end of your association with Ginetta?

Not quite. In January 2009 I’d taken my wife Hilary down to watch the Historic Monte, and when I turned my phone back on at Dover the first call was from the BARC saying they had a problem. Ginetta had pulled the G20 series but they’d got all the dates out and needed something to fill it. A day or so later I said we’d run a championship for British Sportscars and expected we’d get the odd TVR in etc. However, we ran the first race and there were 16 Ginettas on the grid and no other cars! A week later I was summoned to BARC and asked what I was doing running a series against Ginetta, so we made a deal to run the series as Club Ginetta for the rest of the year. I was always very much into the hospitality side and Ginetta was always an open house when I had it. All the marshals would come to our tent and I loved that. At the last race of the season at Snetterton I was quite emotional. We’d bought a massive great brie, some bread, grapes and bottles of wine and we handed it all out, and it was nearly exactly twenty years since I had sat on the beach and bought the business.

VR: What are your abiding memories of Ginetta? Would you do it all again?

I bought Ginetta to take it from a cottage industry to mainstream. If only I’d stuck with cottage industry from day one it would have saved an awful lot of heartache! It’s been a huge part of my life and I loved it. I realise I’m just an apostrophe in the whole thing between the Walkletts and Lawrence, but I loved being that apostrophe.


7 Responses

  1. Anders Bilidt

    I’m sure most of us have dreamt about running our own specialist sportscar company. Martin Phaff didn’t settle with dreaming – what a legend!
    Excellent and hugely interesting interview Dave – thx.

  2. yrhmblhst

    Interesting; we never really ‘got ‘ Ginettas over here, tho I have seen a few, neat little cars. Have a particular soft spot for british ‘cottage industry’ cars, having owned a Lotus and a TVR.
    [that G32 is rather spiffy looking isnt it?]

  3. Tony Wawryk

    Nice interview, Dave. Really like the G34 (especially in my favourite colour!),that should have been a success – still looks great today.

  4. Joe Perry

    I was talking with friends about our almost getting a G.20 Series in the USA. I had been talking to some of the fellows that were prepared to sell the G.20 in the USA. The biggest problem with the G.20 was that they had done a redesign to use the Mazda 4 cylinder. Great running gear but I think they should have stuck with Ford. I had mentioned the G.20 and the British Series to one of the guys at NASA Pro Racing and his eyes lit up. He needed more info, so I phoned Martin and told him about NASA. I really didn’t want to be involved. Martin contacted the fellow that was the US Importer and the importer contacted NASA. Several months late I ran across the guy I knew (OK, I don’t remember names well) and he said they just couldn’t deal with the importer.
    I don’t know what happened and it’s probably better that way. I was forming a Web Site the North American Ginetta Owners Register (NAGOR) to work with GOC.
    Mow I’m readying my G.4 to turn over to the new owners, Jonah & Thaddeus Boduch, great grandson’s. They are also great.

  5. Anders Bilidt

    @joe-perry, thx for sharing some of your Ginetta experiences. It sounds like you might have many more… ;-)

    A shame that the G20 series never reached US shores. Imagine what that could have led to. Hmmm… seems even more a shame that you are now selling your G4. If I could only get my hands on one, I’m pretty sure it would end up being a keeper!


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