Three False Starts and Counting - 2004 Joss JT1/JP1/Vanguard
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was no shortage of startup supercar manufacturers. Pagani, Koenigsegg, Noble and Ascari are some of the more widely recognised examples. One you might not be familiar with is Joss.
Joss Developments was a company with the rather bold ambition of becoming the first fully-fledged supercar manufacturer from Australia. Prior to the Joss, the closest thing Australia had to a production supercar was the Giocattolo Group B, a mid-engined widebody Alfa Romeo Sprint with an Alfa V6 that later made way for an HSV V8.
Joss Developments was founded by industrial designer Matthew Thomas. After graduating, he moved the UK to work for Futura Design, a prototyping company that held contracts with Bentley, Jaguar, BMW and Rolls Royce. After leaving Futura he spent some time at Stewart Grand Prix (now Red Bull Racing), working on F1 aerodynamic design. He returned to Australia in 1997 to work for Ford as a clay modeller. At the same time, he rented a small factory in Warragul in south-east Victoria and began working on the Joss.
Thomas got the name from a book he was reading about the Australian mid-19th-century gold rush. “I didn’t want an animal name. Joss was short, punchy, and obviously a tough bugger. It just seemed to fit”, he explained in 2004.
Unlike Giocattolo, Joss was not using a donor car. The Joss project was extremely ambitious, much more than Giocattolo, and UK counterparts Noble and Ariel. Joss wanted to go head to head with Ferrari. Thomas was aiming to have the Joss in production in mid-2005 with a target starting price of $450,000. “That’s about what you’d pay for a Ferrari, but this will be a better car”, Thomas boasted. In 2004. In 2004, the cheapest Ferrari in Australia was the 360 Modena. It had a starting price of $369,500. A Lamborghini Gallardo would set you back $424,935. At $450,000, the Joss had to be good. Thomas claimed that at that price they only needed to build five a year to be profitable, but they would build up to 25 a year if there was demand for them. Any more than 25 per year and Joss would no longer qualify for low volume manufacturer exemptions and would need to undergo crash and emissions testing at their own expense. At the time, about 120 new mid-engined supercars were sold in Australia each year, and the market was growing at around 16 percent per year.
Thomas had been studying the Ferrari Enzo and McLaren F1, and planned for the Joss to use a similar carbon fibre monocoque. His initial prototype didn’t run this construction. Instead it utilised a steel space frame from an unnamed successful Le Mans contender, with a fibreglass body. At 940kg, the prototype weighed in 90kg heavier than the production car’s target weight. Weight reduction was a key objective. As Thomas explained, “kilowatts are one thing, but less weight means less inertia, less wear and tear on the brakes, more performance in every sense”. This made the Joss only 100kg heavier than a Lotus Elise, but it had a 350kW 6.8L V8 mated to a five speed Porsche G50 manual transaxle. Joss planned to use an aluminium V8 in the production car, but the prototype made do with a cast iron unit. A siz speed Getrag manual was also slated for the production model. The supplier of the engine was never revealed. Joss only ever stated that it was European.
Thomas unveiled his car at the 2004 Melbourne Motor Show as the Joss JT1. Performance claims of 0-100 km/h in 3.7 seconds and 0-400 metres in 11.7 seconds. To put that into perspective, a Ferrari Enzo does 0-100 in 3.68 and an 11.54 second standing quarter. “We’re not trying to beat the Enzo or the McLaren F1 by just a tenth of a second or something. We’re going out there to annihilate them,” Thomas said confidently at the 2004 launch.
Thomas had sunk some $300,000 of his own money and needed investors to provide a further $4-10 million to get the carbon fibre JT1 into production. Sadly, no investors showed any interest. there weren't any orders or even expressions of interest from potential customers either. As a result, the Joss, and Australia's supercar dreams, disappeared for a few years.
Thomas and his supercar re-emerged in 2011 as the JP1. The 2011 prototype looked virtually the same as the 2004 model but had a number of changes under the skin. It featured a more powerful 410kW V8 and an Albins six-speed manual replacing the antique Porsche gearbox.
As a marketing exercise, Thomas had the JP1 included in various racing games. It featured in Project Gotham Racing 3 and 4, and Forza 3, 4 and Horizon. But possessing excellent performance in virtual form didn’t translate into progress towards an actual production car.
Two more years past and in 2013 there was still no production car but the name had changed again to Vanguard. Thomas claimed that Joss had secured tens of millions of dollars in backing from the Brisbane-based Hatzimihail Group. Alex Hatzimihail became CEO of Joss Developments and received a 60 percent stake in the company in exchange for his investment. Thomas remained chief technical officer and retained a 40 percent share. With Hatzimihail’s investment, a revised model was developed in 2014. The 6.8L cast iron pushrod V8 had made way for an alloy 5.0L V8 producing 430kW and 560Nm of torque. The claimed 0-100km/h time had dropped to 2.8 seconds, and the top speed was now 340km/h. The price had risen accordingly to $600,000.
“We believe we have developed a genuine high-end supercar which will hold its own, and even outperform, million-dollar-plus models from McLaren, Pagani, Ferrari, Porsche and Koenigsegg,” Thomas said in 2014. A Kickstarter campaign was launched to raise $480,000 to build a racing version of the JT1 to enter the Targa Tasmania tarmac rally. Other goals listed in the Kickstarter campaign included $740,000 for a KERS system, and $920,000 to take the Joss to a major international motor show such as Detroit or Geneva. A trip to the Nurburgring was also planned, with the Porsche 918 Spyder’s 6m 55sec lap time being the benchmark.
The Targa Tasmania car was to be followed by five track specials’ with performance “akin to Le Mans or GT race cars”. Beyond the five track cars, Thomas planned to develop a road-going Vanguard with UK small manufacturer compliance. This would have allowed Joss to sell cars in the UK and parts of Europe, and expand beyond the restrictive 25 cars per year limit in Australia. But first, they had to get past the prototype stage.
Thomas only managed $29,000 of his $480,000 target amount. In October 2015 Hatzimihail pulled out and it was all over.
The biggest problem for the JT1 was the lofty expectations the company's founder. Noble and Elfin set out to build simple lightweight track cars, essentially a more extreme version of the cars Lotus and Caterham build. The original aim for Joss was to build a Ferrari Enzo beating supercar for F430 money. A decade later the benchmark had become the Porsche 918. For a shed-built car that was unachievable.
Short of the also stillborn Ethan Automotive, Joss supercar, under its various names, was the most ambitious automotive startup ever undertaken in Australia. While it would have been great to see it succeed, as time wore on, the Joss seemed more and more likely to fail. But then again, given its history, we probably haven't heard the last of it yet.