Argyll GT

In honour of Robert Burns Day, today's Scottish holiday to honour poet and writer Robert Burns, casual limerick user Brendan McAleer asked to write about the Argyll GT. I said, "Are you sure?"

His new site is brendanmcaleer.ca, and you should go there, or his Twitter, and thank him for explaining the Argyll far better than I could have. –Michael


As the Bard of Ayrshire himself once famously observed, “The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley.” On today, Robbie Burns' Day, hoist a dram and a toast of Alba gu brath to Scotland's supercar, the Argyll GT.

No wee sleekit, cowrin' timorous beastie this, it's a box-frame bruiser with a curb weight approaching two tons. Actually, in a review I was able to find in the Glasgow Herald, the Argyll's avoir dupois is charmingly listed at 38cwt—when's the last time you saw hundredweight in a brochure?

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. First, Argyll: a successful Glaswegian automobile company that built gadabouts for the lairds of the glens, starting as early as 1899. In a tumultuous and interesting history, it rose to become the best-known and largest Scottish marque, had a few ups and downs including conversion of the factory into a torpedo-manufacturing plant, and built its last cars in around 1928 or so.

Bob Henderson, the man who would resurrect the brand in the mid-seventies, had his own curious backstory. An engineer for Short Aviation, he taught himself the basics of turbocharging and carburettion, and eventually licensed a version of the Florida-based Fish Carburettor company's products, which he minaturized for small-displacement engine use. The Minnow-Fish carburettor may be a familiar name to those who tinker with air-cooled Volkswagens and Saabs and the like.

Henderson was also a pioneer of turbocharging, in a time when Saab and BMW's early turbo machinery was some ways off. The prototype cars, built around 1976, were constructed with an extensive box frame, into which a turbocharged Rover-sourced V8 engine was inserted, displacing 3.5L and making something like 250hp. Accurate facts and figures about the Argyll tend to be murkier than Loch Ness, thanks to Henderson's reticence to release anything to the press, then or now. Each car built was individually fitted to the customer's tastes, and their privacy was apparently part of the purchasing process.

However, we do know that the early production units hit the road in November of 1983, with a public launch presided over by the Duke of Argyll on his ancestral manse of Invernary Castle, and plenty of bagpipers skirling away. Piper doon! We hae a piper doon! It's all righ' – he's just pissed.

Festivities aside, the actual production Number 1 car was fitted with a transversely-mounted V6 and gearbox out of a Renault 30—somewhat appropriate, given the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France. The interior was upholstered with fine Scottish leather by a coachworks in Warwick, and the long, fibreglass body promised neck-snapping attention, if not neck-snapping performance. Driving notes praise the deep rumbling engine note and ease of ingress and egress, and don't seem particularly fashed about the oil surge warning coming on every time a corner was taken at-speed.

The weight may have blunted the performance, but the Argyll had 2+2 usability to counter its wedge-shaped body, and the double-wishbone suspension at all four corners would have helped with the handling. Like the DeLorean DMC-12, most production cars appear to have ended up with the PRV V6, while a small run towards the end got a batch of Buick V6s that were intended for Indy-car racing. 

The sales brochure was reported to have larger V8 options, fitted with a ZF transaxle that necessitated removal of the back seats. Reading through a few comments from owners and former employees, it looks like approximately a half-dozen Argyll GTs were built, all for a price a third greater than a contemporary Lotus Esprit Turbo.

If you ask me the looks are, like haggis, a bit of an acquired taste. Also, a shed-built turbocharged special with French running gear is probably not the most reliable machine in the world. It disnae matter whether ye tak the high road or the low road: ye'll probably end up walking.

But for all that, the Argyll GT certainly counts as daring design, and one of the most unusual inventions to come out of the Hebrides. Savour the oddness like the cockle-warming heat of a single-malt, and then give thanks that you didn't ever own one.