In the last weeks I’ve published posts about Porsches, Aston Martins and Alpines. All fantastic cars, but also cars that you – more or less frequently – see on the streets. There is nothing wrong with that, and you could argue that a car that is never seen is probably not worth seeing. Yet, precisely that is the point for some of us. Having a car that is unique. That makes people point fingers, ask what it is, even give a thumbs up (when did that happen to a 911 driver the last time?). And contrary to what you may think, there are indeed cars that for various reasons never reached high production numbers but are still very much worth considering!
If you’re part of the club of those loving the unknown, here are three great but rare sports cars that definitely deserve a place in the dream garage, and perhaps even the real garage one day. We’ll go from my own assessment of most known to least known and at the end, some general thoughts on small scale productions and their often visionary founders.
The story of the German manufacturer of BMW-powered roadsters and coupés starts in 1988 when brothers Martin and Friedrich (forming the MF in the model names) went from producing hardtops to cars. They had a vision of building a beautiful and luxurious but mechanically rather traditional roadster, and so they did. The Wiesmann design is timeless and features a (very!) leather-rich, beautifully crafted interior. Attention was also given to keeping the weight low, with Wiesmanns weighing in at between 1100-1300 kg. Last but not least, getting access to BMW engines meant that the cars were equipped with some of the best 6, 8 and 10-cylinder engines in the world!
The first Wiesmann to see the light of day was the MF3, powered by the brilliant 343 hp strong, straight-six from the BMW M3 (E46). The design later models remained more or less the same and it’s difficult to say anything negative about it!
The MF4 coupé presented in 2003 was Wiesmann’s first coupé, now powered by BMW V8’s. The MF4 roadster followed in 2009 before the last model MF5 saw the light, also available as coupé and roadster. The MF5 featured the BMW 10-cylinder from the late 00’s M5 and M6, developing first 507hp and later in the twin-turbo version 555hp. The MF5 was sold in parallel to the MF4.
My only experience with Wiesmann goes back a few years when I was passenger in an MF3. It was a true, hardcore roadster experience with a brilliant engine roar, but also lots of other mechanical sounds. There were no squeaks or rattles though, even though the car was a few years old, and the owner also said he had practically had no issues at all with the car that he had owned since new.
Wiesmann increasingly ran into financial difficulties in the 10’s and went bankrupt in 2014 after a failed rescue attempt. About 1600 cars had been produced when the lights went out, and finding one today is actually easier than you could expect. At the time of writing there are about 80 cars available in Germany, by far the largest market. Prices depend on version and engine but are generally between EUR 120.000-EUR 250.000, meaning quite close to their price as new. With a weight of 1100-1200 kg, my choice would be the MF3 with the 343hp six-cylinder from the E46. Power is plentiful, the engine is lighter and you’ll be towards the lower end of the price range.
Usually, car brands are born out of more or less eccentric engineers or designers with rather empty pockets, who manage to convince someone with somewhat deeper pockets to finance the initial stage. Not so Artega which was born as a project of the very established German car supply firm paragon AG, at the time an established supplier of auto electronics to all major German car brands. Feeling he knew a thing or two about the car industry in which he had worked for 25 years, and that he could do things better, paragon CEO Klaus D Frers set out on the project that was to become Artega GT, a light, mid-engined sports car built on Volkswagen technology, initially intended only as a showcase for the company but later making it into production.
The Artega was designed by Henrik Fisker, known from beauties such as the BMW Z8, the Aston Martin DB9 an obviously his own Fisker Karma. The whole development process was advised by a number of German car gurus and car professors, the likes of whom you only find in the land of free speed. The car was finally presented at the Geneva Car Salon in 2007 and received wide praise from the motoring press, being referred to by some as “the Porsche killer”. An innovative construction with an aluminium space frame and other light-weight materials helped keeping the weight down to 1285 kg, an easy match for the 300 hp VW V6 engine and the DSG gearbox.
Various tests of the Artega speak of a very accomplished sports car that was for example still quicker around Hockenheim than a Porsche Cayman in 2013, four years after its market introduction. it is however a small (4m long) and low (1.12 m high) car, so large drivers may have problems finding a good position. Obviously also, the selling point of being a technology showcase ten years ago feels a bit different a decade later.
153 Artegas were produced between 2009 and 2012 when the company went bankrupt. Reasons are a bit unclear but if you are to believe CEO Frers, the Mexican financiers he had manged to pull in didn’t understand the car business, an almost-made deal with a Chinese group never came through, and there were disagreements within the company where some wanted to make Artega a European Tesla and switch to electrical power.
Given the low production number, it’s surprising how relatively easy it is to find one that will be yours for around EUR 50.000-70.000 – not bad for a very capable sports car relying on both the knowledge of VW and a leading automotive supplier, and that you are guaranteed never to see in the supermarket parking lot!
The Venturi story starts in 1983 when engineer Claude Poiraud and designer Gérard Godfroy come up with the somewhat crazy idea of launching their own sports car brand. Having found some money, they manage to present a full-scale, mid-engined mock-up at the car salon in Paris in 1984. In the following years, production starts under the company name MVS (Manufacture de Voiture de Sport) which literally translates to Sports Car Manufacturer…
A few hundred cars are produced between 1987-1990, mostly equipped with the PRV V6 engine from Renault. The cars are very much hand-made with a luxurious interior according to the taste of the time. The handling and driving experience are said to be brilliant, weight distribution with the engine in the middle is next to perfect, and the body, very much reminiscent of the Ferrari F355, is maybe a bit anonymous but has aged quite well until today, although the 80’s lines are clear for all to see.
Sales never take off though, with no more than 200-300 cars produced until 1990 when new ownership and capital lead to the Venturi Atlantique, the most accomplished car that will be built in various models until the company’s bankruptcy in 2000. The shape is still that of the original Venturi, but in the 400 hp Atlantique 400 GT race version, this was actually the world’s first car with carbon brakes, on par with Ferrari and other sports cars in terms of power, and generally highly praised by motor journalists as one of the best drives on the market in the 90’s. It’s also the most powerful sports car built in France to this day!
When Venturi threw in the towel in 2000 it had sold less than 700 cars in the 13 years of production. And unlike the other cars presented here, finding a Venturi of any type today is hard work – a quick check before writing this post indicates there’s less than 10 available in Europe (including a bit surprisingly 3-4 in the UK). Based on this very small sample, prices at around EUR 40.000-50.000 seem quite reasonable for car that not only is a great drive but that also will make you truly unique on the road, knowing you’re driving a bit of automotive history from La Grande Nation!
Is buying a car produced in such small numbers as the three described here synonymous with economic ruin? Not necessarily. These three examples all rely on technique from large manufacturers (in order BMW, VW and Renault), so mechanically they don’t present too much of an issue. The bodywork is obviously a different story – here it may well be impossible to find old parts, meaning repairing collision damage could been having to produce new parts…
The examples also illustrate that as could be expected, financing is the hardest nut to crack for the visionary creators. Wiesmann, Artega and Venturi all struggled with somewhat unclear financing from parties not always aligned or serious, and when these then run out of cash or bow out, bankruptcy comes quickly. The main problem is obviously that going to see your bank and asking for a loan to start a new car company has never been easy – neither in the 80’s, nor today.
What these cars also illustrate is the at the same time creative and traditional thinking of their founders. Traditional in their conception of a true sports car as light-weight and rear-wheel drive, focusing on driving pleasure, creative in their usage of modern materials to get there. It’s indeed a shame that with the possible exception of Lotus and Alpine, all large manufacturers today seem to move in a different direction.
Finally if all goes well, all three brands presented here may re-appear in the coming years. The rights to Venturi have been bought by a Monegasque millionaire who wants to produce an electric super car. Artega presented the Scalo at the IAA in 2015, basically an electric version of the GT but only build on order, so not really a mass production item. Finally Wiesmann are planning a comeback still this year with Project Gecko, a rather traditional roadster said to resemble the MF5 and equipped with a BMW 4.4 litre V8. Nothing wrong with that either. Sounds good to me!