In 1985 a company started up that would transform the kit car scene and play a major role in really getting the modern industry moving. It was Den Tanner’s Pilgrim Cars.
It wasn’t the industry’s first major success story as that accolade belongs to Dutton but Pilgrim’s first model, the Bulldog, offered supremely competitive pricing allied to outstanding quality, especially in the GRP department. The combination took the model from Mk1 to Mk5 swapping the original Marina donor for the Cortina along the way and notching up over 2,000 sales in the process. That alone was a huge success but the company’s crowning glory was yet to come.
In 1990, Den launched the Pilgrim Sumo. It was a bit of lateral thinking in deciding to manufacture the most popular of replicas on the cheapest and most widely available of donor bases as well as a move that attracted a good deal of comment expressing doubt over the potential for success of a kit that lacked everything that made its inspiration an all time classic, save for the shape. Everybody now knows that the doubters were 100% wrong as the Sumo went on to sell more kits than all the other Cobra replica manufacturers put together. That’s well over 3,000 kits.
In addition, where Dutton’s range of models failed to move and develop with the times, swiftly fading from the scene as better designed, engineered and better quality cars came along, the Sumo was constantly developed and improved to keep pace with the market. As always, kit car builders wanted to install the biggest and most powerful engines possible, starting first with the Ford V6 and subsequently the Rover V8 and, in order to make the car as competent as possible, Pilgrim set about developing the chassis to handle the increased power. The original tubular ladder frame gradually became a semi-monocoque with sheet steel floors, bulkheads and tunnel while dynamic improvements were enhanced with the switch from Cortina to Sierra donor components bringing a new double wishbone front end and independent rear suspension with it. Chassis development culminated in a successful TUV Hydropulse test in which the rolling chassis with weights added to simulate the fitting of a Chevy 350 V8, was subjected to a simulated 100,000 kms test to assess chassis strength, stiffness and integrity. It passed first time.
While the core model maintained its successful momentum, other developments were less successful. The Jaguar XJ6 based version sold in steady numbers but upped the cost of completion to a level on a par with its mainstream competitors in which company it had less of an advantage. It also went in the opposite direction offering a standard Pinto 1,600 or 2-litre car at an absolute bargain price in return for a greater input from the builder who had to not only rub down the flash lines but also trim the body panels. Builders also upholstered the seats but the Whitesnake version of the Sumo wasn’t a great success as builders seemed happy with the staple Sierra based car able to accept a wide variety of engines.
And though the cost of completion rose steadily alongside the advances in quality and dynamic ability, the Sumo always maintained its price attraction. Although it had long abandoned the bargain basement, pipsqueak performance, make-do approach of the original Cortina based car, swapping its early attributes for chassis sophistication, V8 power and top class finish in keeping with the increased demands and ever greater expectations of its customers, it has kept its crown as the industry’s best blend of cost and performance in a Cobra replica.
In 2002, Pilgrim was sold to Tony Holmes in the aftermath of Den Tanner’s long running dispute with Peter Filby. I don’t intend to go into the reasons for that; suffice to say there was no reason to expect Pilgrim’s progress to falter under the new management. It was a healthy company and, seemingly, its future was assured. Pilgrim continued to manufacture its Cobra replicas in kit and factory finished form whilst dabbling in Porsche Speedster replicas and then getting involved in the Minotaur project and it would seem that developing this car has been a step too far. Pilgrim Cars went bust this month (October 2008).
Naturally, when any company goes down it’s a sad event, especially when it’s a company with a popular and good quality product. In addition to the customers who lose money in respect of goods paid for but not delivered, there are also the many past customers who lose the source of spare parts, chiefly chassis parts and body panels. There’s also an uphill battle for any new company trying to revive it against customers’ collective loss of confidence. But when the assets of the defunct company are bought by its founder, things look very different and that’s what has happened here. Den Tanner has bought back the company he founded and naturally intends to return it to sound commercial health. That he has chosen to do so as the economy faces the most serious recession for many years is an accident of timing beyond his control and though it adds considerably to the task ahead of him, it’s not a prospect that phases him and if anybody can do it, Den Tanner can.
Of course everybody knows that Den is also the owner of Kit Car magazine and in the past there have been accusations that the dual roles of manufacturer and publisher represented a conflict of interests. Certainly there is the potential for that to be so as we saw in Peter Filby’s unashamed promotion of non-existent kits in which he had a financial interest during the final years of his tenure at Which Kit? However, Kit Car now has effective and credible competition in the form of Complete Kit Car and Total Kit Car magazines and any overstepping of the mark will be noted and commented upon.
That said, if Den can take a busted company and return it to successfully doing what it does for the benefit and enjoyment of its customers and if he can start a new show and build it up to benefit the exhibitors as he has recently demonstrated the potential to do at Stafford, then rather than a conflict of interests, I think it benefits the industry as a whole. Naturally, he doesn’t do it for nothing. Indeed, he can’t otherwise it would all go bust again but no matter what people think of Den, whether they’re with him or against him and there are numerous opinions in both camps, success with Pilgrim will ultimately benefit everybody.
(source: Pilgrim. The text in this article are by Ian Hyne. They formed part of his Hynesight page at the beginning of the December 2008 edition of Kit Car Magazine.)
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