For Britain’s motor industry, the Second World War changed everything. When Britain’s car makers returned to their peacetime businesses in 1945, they faced a different reality. The market-place, clientele, social climate and economy had all been transformed.
It was not only the factories which built the cars, but also the nations and the individual customers who bought them which had been badly battered by the fighting; furthermore, prices had more than doubled in six years. In order to raise revenue, the British government (almost bankrupt by the sheer cost of the war) had introduced a purchase tax on what they defined as luxury items – which naturally included cars. Even so, if economic conditions had not then been turned on their heads, British car makers might still have been able to carry on where they left off in 1939.
A Labour government took over for the first time since 1931, a government which indulged in an orgy of nationalisation, raised taxes to pay for this, followed a long-term policy of austerity, and kept rationing of everything from bread to petrol going for years longer than was really justified. There was a shortage of all materials (and national reconstruction had the utmost priority), and it was obviously going to take years to bring truly new post-war cars to the market. To fill the gap, therefore, the motor industry mostly re-started by building mildly up-dated versions of their 1939 models.
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After six years in which private car production had ceased, and in which many older cars had been worn out, abandoned or destroyed, there was a huge demand for new cars all over the world. Almost any car, however old-fashioned, or crudely developed, found sales in the first post-war years.
Until the 1950s, therefore, Britain’s motor industry thrived in this climate. Although a government recommendation for car makers to follow a ‘one-model policy’ never really took off, a new type of flat-rate taxation influenced the architecture of future engines, and an ‘export or die’ philosophy obliged companies to export most of their output (strictly monitored steel supply quotas saw to that). This meant that British customers had to join huge waiting lists, and originally had to sign ‘covenants’ to stop them re-selling recently delivered new cars for profit on to a black market. Cars were only available to priority customers at first (doctors and other ‘essential workers’ among them). For the private individual, new cars ordered in 1946 would often not arrive until the early 1950s, sometimes to an entirely different and later specification.
For the motor industry, this was a financial golden age, and several car makers became complacent about their future. Only one large merger (of Austin with the Nuffield Organisation in 1952, to form BMC) took place, and this was never pursued to its logical conclusion. Aston Martin also merged with Lagonda, but this was at the expensive end of the market, and was less significant.
To satisfy the demand on their own terms, and with new export opportunities, the ‘big five’ car makers churned out more and more conventional machinery. Insatiable demand and great enthusiasm from private owners, however, encouraged the production of new styles and ranges. Thoughtful companies like Rover went into a new market sector with the Land Rover, old-fashioned types such as Jowett (with the Javelin and the Jupiter) sought to change their image, while thrusting businesses like Jaguar set up entirely new ranges (such as the XK120 sports cars and the Mk VII saloons). They were joined by brash new makes such as Allard, Bristol, Healey and Lotus, who used different materials where there was no steel, ingenuity instead of conventional engineering where there was an opportunity, and crossed fingers where there was a lack of finance.
Among the mass-producers, some designers were allowed to look into the future, and it wasn’t long before modern cars (which have subsequently become known as ‘classics’ began to appear. The bulbous Morris Minor of 1948 set new small-car standards, if not of performance, then certainly in chassis behaviour; the Consul/Zephyr series from Ford introduced a whole list of technical novelties, while the Rootes Group (Hillman, Humber and Sunbeam) developed the art of product planning (or squeezing many models out of restricted resources).
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 aluminium, with steel tubes and with fibreglass. 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-recognised ‘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.
Much of the romance of making motor cars was squeezed out of Britain’s industry in the 1960s as a wave of mergers and many transatlantic methods swept through the workshops. Ford and Vauxhall both prospered under American ownership, and were joined by the Rootes Group, who fell to Chrysler.
Standard-Triumph was taken over by Leyland (the truck maker with big ideas) in 1961, who eventually swallowed up Rover and Alvis too. BMC, complacent as ever, thought they were above all this, though they bought up Jaguar just to be sure. Then, in 1968, government pressure saw Leyland merge with BMC-Jaguar, producing the ill-fated British Leyland combine.
Jaguar, Lotus and Aston-Martin-Lagonda were almost the only survivors of the famous old marques. Many fell by the wayside and the roll-call of the vanished makes was heartbreaking: Allard, Alvis, Armstrong-Siddeley, Healey, Invicta, Jowett, Lea-Francis and many others all closed their doors, and worse was to follow. Although the industry closed ranks, concentrating on fewer and fewer groups, British car production continued to rise – from 522,515 units in 1950 to 1,352,728 in 1960, and onwards to 1,640,966 in 1970, but this wasn’t all unblemished good news. In the same period, imports of foreign cars rocketed from 1,375 in 1950 to 157,956 in 1970, and this was only the beginning.
Rationalization, expansion and sheer caution meant that cars like the Ford Cortina, the Morris 1100, the Hillman Minx and the Vauxhall Viva sold in large numbers, and truly interesting and inspiring cars (particularly sports cars) languished in the shadows. Yet it was still Britain’s most individual cars from Lotus, Jensen, Range Rover and Austin-Healey which made all the headlines.
It was at this point that motoring history began to repeat itself. In the 1930s observers had tired of the cars currently on offer, had looked back longingly to the cars of the 1920s and started calling them ‘vintage’. In the early 1970s many enthusiasts harked back to the 1950s and 1960s, sad that such individualism seemed to have gone for ever. In the 1930s, traditionalists had yearned for a ‘vintage’ car, but now, having settled on a new definition, they wanted a ‘classic’. They didn’t really need to know that a dictionary defined classic as being, ‘of acknowledged excellence; outstandingly important; remarkably typical…’ – for they knew that already, and this was the sort of motor car they wanted to remember from the period.
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Doom and gloom
It was almost by accident that the ‘classic car’ movement was founded at the same time as the first energy crisis erupted, and it was almost coincidental that the most enterprising of British (and overseas, for that matter) car makers began to pull in their horns at the same time. Britain’s original Classic Cars magazine was first published in 1973 as inflation soared out of control, as the miners struck, putting the lights out, and as British Leyland became a national joke.
Faced with the threat of petrol rationing, of open-road speed limits almost everywhere (West German autobahns being a notable exception), and of more and more performance- and character-sapping legislation, many motorists feared that all the world’s best cars might already have been built. Companies as big as Ford started cancelling sporty models and withdrawing temporarily from motorsport, and all except the brave started developing bigger and better safety bumpers, ever-more varieties of economical engines, and continued to worry about safety regulations.
Only the most optimistic drivers thought that the most exciting cars were still to come. So, what if our sports cars were rapidly losing their markets in the USA, and so what if we were faced with paying a lot more money for our cars in the 1980s? We could still look back on this Golden Age ….