The specialists : Rapport Forté

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

You’d be hard-pressed to tell that the stunning Rapport Forté was based on the Jaguar XJ…


Folding Jag

Long before the likes of the Mercedes-Benz SLK and Peugeot 206CC had even been imagined, Chris Humberstone had developed this, the first sports car with a fully retractable hard top. Humberstone stated that, ‘once it was refined it worked very well and gave a real feeling of saloon car integrity.’ A sophisicated electro-hydraulic system was employed to stow the aluminium and steel roof within the boot space and, as if that wasn’t enough, the roof panel also featured its own electrically-operated ‘moonroof’.

The car also featured a sumptuous interior, upholstered in Connolly hide complemented by lambswool rugs. The standard specification included air conditioning, electric windows, central locking, automatic transmission, cruise control and a stereo hi-fi system. The electrically-operated aerofoil mounted over the headlamps – a typical Rapport touch – was designed to provide the benefit of a sleek bonnet line without incurring the airflow problems associated with traditional retractable headlamps when raised.

The story of the Forté began with the Californian dealer who wanted to sell an up-market British convertible at a time when there were no alternatives to choose from: Aston Martin were in financial difficulties, Jaguar’s XJS was only available as a tin-top and the Rolls-Royce Corniche was not sporting enough. Chris Humberstone recalled that, ‘…the Jaguar was regarded as the most attractive basis for such a car, particularly when the fuel injected 4.2-litre engine arrived. That generated new interest in the marque. We wanted a full four seater, so we selected the regular XJ12 saloon as the standard base (rather than the XJS), with 3.4 and 4.2-litre engines optional. We offered turbocharging and, of course, with either of the “sixes” the regular five speed manual could be specified.’

Originally, the plan had been to take brand new cars from Jaguar in New Jersey and convert them into Forté specification, using Rapport parts shipped over from the UK.  However, all this became academic when Rapport went to the wall.


PMG Rapport Forté estate

The stunning Forté may have been launched with masses of optimism, and appeared to have all the ingredients for success, but did not come anywhere near to achieving it. Back in July 1980, it was first shown at the British Grand Prix in Brands Hatch with Mark Thatcher at the wheel for a demonstration lap… fourteen pre-paid orders followed in the following fortnight and Rapport seemed set fair to make a real go of the venture.

Chris Humberstone recalls that, ‘management problems within Rapport’ destroyed the project – and, despite everything, within weeks, the company had fallen into receivership. Only a handful of Fortés were ever built, but the car never died: it simply went into abeyance.

The cars that had been completed, along with three partially completed prototypes, were purchased by the Patrick Motors Group of Birmingham. PMG’s owner, Alexander Patrick was a dyed-in-the-wool enthusiast – and, as grandson of the company’s founder, continued PMG’s association with the more exotic end of the car market. PMG started life in the 1930s as coachbuilders but, within a few years, was selling other people’s products. By the 1970s, these included the products of Lynx and Panther. The group had also sold several Rapport Range Rovers when Rapport International went bust – and, realising that they would never receive these cars, they moved in…

Initially, what PMG purchased looked little more than a complex heap of bits but, ever positive, Alexander Patrick sought to make something out of what he had amassed. At that time Patrick was having an Avon-Stevens XJ estate car specially built by Ladbroke Avon and casually remarked to Graham Hudson that he had acquired the remains of the Forté project, but no facilities to complete it. Soon, an agreement was reached between Hudson and Patrick that Ladbroke Avon’s Special Projects Department would build up one vehicle… as an estate car. By the spring of 1983, the car was complete.

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

19 Comments

  1. “Long before the likes of the Mercedes-Benz SLK and Peugeot 206CC had even been imagined, Chris Humberstone had developed this, the first sports car with a fully retractable hard top.”

    Didn’t the american’s have retractable hard tops in the 50’s?

    • Yes, they did – and it’s the American folding hard tops that were Chris’s inspiration for the Rapport Forte; the American examples were typical, soft, lazy sedans and cruisers – the Forte really was the first sports car with such a roof. I was working for him at the time and wasn’t at all convinced his folding hardtop would work. I was wrong. I did the initial calculations for the hydraulic power required and we settled on a pretty powerful motor and set of rams to make the whole thing work. I also developed the original Forte logo, which I was rather proud of. Not sure if it survived the subsequent developments with Rapport…

  2. i was also thinking that stepped roof line only adds to the impression it’s two cars welded together.
    I suppose it’s a bit like that Yacht in one of the bond films where the first half can go off on it’s own, except i doubt this car has that excuse.

  3. Ford had the first retractable hardtop in the 1950s. It was the full-size 1957 Ford Skyliner land yacht. My dad worked on the project, which was originally planned for a convertible version for the Lincoln Mark II before that car was cancelled. The big difference between the Skyliner and other retractable hardtops is that the Ford’s top did not fold, except for the front 1/8 near the header. The trunk (boot) lid opened at its forward edge, and swallowed the top whole. As this was in the day before electronic controls, the process was handled by hydraulics and limiter switches. It wasn’t easy to get these things to work perfectly, making it a bit of a quality headache for Ford. A rectangular tub sat on the floor of the trunk (boot). This was the available luggage space when the top was stowed.

    • One of the things that induced Chris to employ me was my final year car design project at the then-Lanchester Polytechnic (now Coventry University). I designed a quite modern-looking two-seat sports car based on the Panther Lima chassis. It had a folding hard top, but instead of the top folding backwards into the boot, with all the complications that involved, I designed it with a pop-out roof panel, and the two C-posts would fold inwards on hinges that were offset so the posts wouldn’t interfere with each other. Once folded flat, the roof panel would sit tidily on top. A bit clunky, but fewer moving parts and the benefit of simplicity. I argued with Chris to use this design on the Forte, but he went ahead with the design we know and love, and I have to say he was right.

  4. I think Peugeot beat Ford with retractable hardtops – I’m fairly sure they had one in the 1930s, and a vague memory prompts a quick Google…

    Peugeot 401 Eclipse – 1934-35.

  5. The notes about Peugeot are quite correct, and this car was utterly hideous. Stunning ? Yes, but not, I think, in the way Keith means !

  6. That headlight arrangement is certainly unique, I doubt it would pass modern pedestrian safety rules though 🙂

  7. I think the coupe looks really good with a pretty well integrated top (better than a 206CC or Lexus SC430). The estate just doesn’t work, and manages to look quite small, which is a strange achievement for something based on an XJ.

    The headlamps are nifty, much better than the quasi pop-ups on the Isuzu Piazza, although nowhere near as good as the rotating covers on the XJ220.

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