For British motorists in the late 1970s, the miracle was that the climate for motoring changed so fast. Even though there had been two vicious energy crises and a long period of horrifyingly high inflation, fine cars were still being made, space was still available to drive them, and new styles were still being developed. It was amazing. Only ten years after the first energy crisis had made most people fear for their future mobility, all the fun in motoring had returned. Maybe there were not as many sports cars as before, but high-performance saloons and hatchbacks seemed to be everywhere.
By the late 1980s, and following a lengthy worldwide economic boom, Britain produced a series of magnificent supercars. Some, like the first Ford Sierra RS Cosworth, seemed easily affordable, while others, like the Jaguar XJ220, were merely there to be admired by many, but owned by very few. That didn’t matter. By the 1980s and 1990s what truly mattered was that the definition of a ‘classic’ car altered. It was clear that there would be ‘classics’, ‘modern classics’ and ‘sleepers’. Even better, cars came on to the market and were immediately hailed as ‘instant classics’ – the Bentley Mulsanne Turbo and the Ford Escort RS Cosworth being typical.
Car makers struggled to survive during the 1970s, and no important new marques were established. Some, like Lotus and TVR, made bigger, glossier and more costly models, but others, like AC, Jensen and even Triumph barely remained in business.
By the end of the decade British Leyland (which included Jaguar, MG, and Rover) had gone bankrupt and then been nationalized, but otherwise, the ‘big four’ looked stable, though more change was yet to come. Ford had established market leadership in the 1970s, BL (which soon became Austin-Rover) tucked in behind them, with Vauxhall and Peugeot-Talbot (who acquired the ex-Rootes, ex-Chrysler business in 1978) bringing up the rear. Without exception, they forged stronger links with overseas combines – Ford’s move into Ford-of-Europe being first, and BL’s tie-up with Honda last – which meant that individual British characteristics were bound to fade away with time.
Individual companies, which survived in remarkable numbers, sometimes absolutely on their own, tried to retain their integrity. Aston Martin went through a series of rich, paternalistic, owners before finally selling out to Ford in 1987, while Jaguar broke loose of British Leyland in 1984 (the government privatized that side of the business) but was then absorbed by Ford in 1989. Lotus survived until 1982, when the founder Colin Chapman died, and when Toyota took a stake, though it wasn’t until 1986 that General Motors took control. For a short time, too, Lotus had technical links with DeLorean, of Northern Ireland, though that enterprise collapsed in 1982, its proprietor accused of financial skullduggery. In and around all this, TVR survived and prospered by operating with only two benevolent owners in the technical backwater of seaside Blackpool.
Most car makers exercised caution. The sleek Jaguar E-type had given way to the craggy XJ-S. MG Midgets and MGBs were built for years after their appeal had faded, for British Leyland never planned any successors, and the rival TR7s were not good enough to supplant them. Ford Escort RS models gradually faded away. Other classics – Range Rover and Morgan among them – continued, apparently ad infinitum, their sponsors lacking the drive or the inclination to produce anything new. Then, in the 1980s, inflation was slashed and industrial optimism returned. Except for Jaguar, Britain’s motor industry found that it could survive without the North American market and that it could continue to design and build great cars that the rest of the world wanted to buy.
Jaguar’s case history tells us so much about the period. By the mid-1970s their business was in disarray, the
E-type dead, and their products criticized for poor build quality. The big cats roared back in the 1980s: the XJ-S matured with honor, special Jaguars won the Le Mans 24 Hour race (and later, the World Sports Car Championship), and from 1989 they received the benevolent and long-term backing of Ford. The XJ6 saloon was rejuvenated as the V8-engined XK8, and a new smaller car (the S-type) was added in 1999. In almost every case, the 1980s and 1990s Jaguars were ‘instant classics’, as we will surely discover in the 2000s and beyond.
Lotus, too, had a hard time, but survived, albeit under their third (or was it their fourth?) owner since Colin Chapman’s death. Poorly-built Esprits of the 1970s became re-styled and more powerful Esprit V8s for the 1990s. A bravely-engineered front-wheel-drive Elan project only failed because it was too costly, and in more recent times a super-light, super-sporting Elise two-seater sold in higher numbers than almost any previous Lotus. Pedigree and soul, it seems, will usually prevail.
The big advances in styling, engineering and sheer motoring excitement came from the independent makers. If they could not buy sheet steel, they made do with aluminum, with steel tubes, and with fiberglass. Smaller companies were early innovators; they were the first to exploit aerospace construction such as multi-tube space frames and disc brakes and were always ready to pioneer strange aerodynamic shapes or materials to make their point. An AC, an Allard, a Bristol, or even a Bond three-wheeler might not appeal to everyone – but they were available and they all had their merits.
Then, in the 1950s, came the boom in British sports cars. MG and Jaguar, both well-established, blossomed with new types, while Austin-Healey, Triumph, and Sunbeam all joined in. Though staid car makers like Alvis, Jowett, and Daimler all tried to surf this tidal wave, they failed, and one of the few new companies to become permanently established was Colin Chapman’s Lotus. North America, in particular, loved Britain’s TR2s, MGAs, Alpines, and Austin-Healey 100s, but that love-affair became even more intense in the 1960s with the arrival of small sports cars like the Triumph Spitfire, the Austin-Healey Sprite, MG Midget and the sensational Jaguar E-type.
This, if only the pundits had known it, was really the start of the now-recognized ‘classic’ era, where individual motor cars of all types became available at amazingly attractive prices. The appeal of sports cars was obvious, but Britain also produced fascinating new models such as the famous front-wheel-drive BMC Mini and technically interesting cars such as the Triumph Herald and the Hillman Imp.
Yet this was not before time, as Europe’s car makers had made a strong recovery from the devastation of war, and had always produced more interesting cars than the British. Say what you like about the looks of the VW Beetle, or of the crudities of the Fiat 600 and Renault Dauphine types, they sold in vast quantities and quite overshadowed many British machines.
In the case of Triumph and the ‘classic’ MG, it did not, but in the case of the revived MG, and Aston Martin, it did. In the 1970s Triumph continued to outsell MG, but both were eventually killed off when BL stopped making sports cars. Then came an astonishing re-birth. Two owners down the line (for BMW took control in 1994), the MG sports car was back, first as the disgracefully paunchy RV8, which was pastiche in every way, but later as the mid-engined MGF.
Here was a classic British car reborn, created by a team who clearly understood what the magic initials ‘MG’ and ‘sports car’ should mean. Like the MGAs and the MGBs of old, the car was built around existing saloon car parts (in this case, Rover 100/200/400 types), but with a unique style, sporty handling, and a great deal of character.
This was the sort of car on which British automobile engineers became an increasing expert in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. They knew how to build character into a new model without letting costs run out of control, they knew that good handling cost no more than bad, and that beautiful lines were just as easy to manufacture as ugly ones. The problem, however, was that they were rarely allowed to prove it.
In some cases, as with the gently-changing family of Rolls-Royce and Bentley, the cost was not such a cramping factor: build-quality and exclusivity were all-important. By that time, it was said, a Rolls-Royce was no longer the ‘Best Car in the World’ (which had once been their proud advertising claim), especially when performance and road-holding were taken into consideration, but it seemed that it was always the best built. No matter how hard their rivals (at home and overseas) tried, it seemed that these cars had the very best quality materials, were the most carefully built, were the most rigorously tested, and offered a unique package of virtues. ‘What would happen if a sub-standard Rolls-Royce left the building ?’ a spokesman was once asked. ‘The security guard would never let it out of the gate’, he replied without hesitation.
Cars produced by small bespoke companies such as Aston Martin could not quite approach Rolls-Royce standards (though their performance was usually much higher). Even in the 1970s and 1980s, when their commercial existence sometimes hung by a thread, Aston Martins were always fast, well presented, impressively and uniquely styled, with very high performance. Things actually improved at Aston Martin after Ford took over, for new models and new methods could be considered for the first time in many years. The new DB7 of 1994 (which had many Jaguar components hidden away) was immediately seen as more ‘classic’, more desirable and of even better value than before. It was this approach to making desirable cars which gave the British motor industry a lead over its rivals.
By the 1990s, however, ‘instant classic’ British cars were being produced for two different reasons – one because they had a single-purpose job to do, the other being that they had to offer the very pinnacle in automotive engineering. Some ‘single-purpose’ cars which, by definition were ‘outstandingly important’, and therefore potentially of classic status, came along to satisfy motorsport regulations. This explains the series of fine limited-production Fords starting with the 200-off RS200 of 1985, and culminating in the four-wheel-drive Escort RS Cosworth of 1992. If a car needed four-wheel-drive, a turbocharged engine, and positive downforce to make it competitive, then it should have it, Ford concluded. If along the way, it became highly desirable, this was a bonus.
Britain’s two fastest-ever cars, the Jaguar XJ220, and the McLaren F1, were built for an entirely different reason. Each, in its own way, was meant to be the ultimate car. The XJ220 was built to meet a small and prestige- conscious market of millionaires, pop stars and playboys who wanted the biggest toys and were ready to pay for them. The McLaren F1 which followed was looking for the same clientele but wanted to offer even more. Technically, both cars were a huge and instant-classic success, but commercially both were failures. They were aimed at a fragile market which could (and did) disappear, but both proved, without question, that British engineers could still provide superlative cars ahead of their competitors.
For the 21st century, the prospects are good, and there could well be more cars like these. In spite of everything, it seems classic British motor cars will continue to appear, to be loved by motoring enthusiasts and to be revered as they grow old. Compared with earlier generations, however, almost all of them will be specialist models, built for a specific purpose. In all honesty, because of the stifling legislative climate, I cannot foresee a new generation of British family car ever attracting as much praise as the sheer breathtaking charm of a BMC Mini.
There will, on the other hand, certainly be great new Millennium cars to take over from the MGF, the McLaren F1 and from sumptuously hand-built cars like the Bentley Mulsanne Turbo. Each will probably fulfill a small, specific, but definite need, and will be distinct and desirable because of that. As one famous motoring personality said in the depths of a 1970s energy crisis: ‘It doesn’t matter what fuel we have to use if the cars are still fun. I don’t care if I have to feed a car Mars Bars to make it run, just as long as it makes me smile….’